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Stretchers and Lies

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were both good at telling fibs, or "stretchers," as Huck called them, but they didn't hold a candle to Leona Tourney and her ma who lived in Mark Twain's hometown of Hannibal, Missouri.

Leona's ma had kept her older sister, Pearl, home from school one September to help can the fall crop of fruits and vegetables. When the truant officer showed up at the front door, Ma hid Pearl in the closet, put on a clean dress, and invited the officer in for a piece of pie. Pearl, Ma explained, had contracted an absolutely disgusting disease. She went into detail about the hives, the boils, the diarrhea and the hair-loss. The officer asked when the poor child might be back in school. Ma looked out the window at the ripening corn crop. "A week or so should do it," Ma said.

Little Leona was impressed. She had never heard her mother tell a lie before—and such a wonderful, grand lie, too. The following year, Leona got a chance to practice what she had learned in this impromptu home-schooling lesson. Leona was now in school herself; it was a warm spring day. The teacher caught Leona gazing out the window instead of doing her assignment and sentenced her to stay after school for a week. "There must be a reason for your inattentiveness," the teacher said.

Leona remembered her mother's lesson. "My baby sister is real bad sick," cried Leona, " and maybe gonna die soon..." She went into detail about the hives, the boils, the diarrhea." My Ma needs me at home to help take care of her."

It worked. Leona was released from school entirely for the rest of the spring. That is, it worked until the town doctor showed up to help the sick child. Leona's teacher had sent him, and even paid for his visit, moved as she had been by Leona's account. "A remarkable recovery," said the doctor, his eye on Leona.

Ma was not happy, but Pa, he was in seventh heaven down at the general store. To have a wife who could tell such magnificent stretchers, and then a daughter, too—why it made him almost as much a folk hero as Tom and Huck.

Leona's home schooling turned out to be a success, but the grading was ambiguous. She got a whipping from Ma. Pa gave her a big hug.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.