Roy Exum: Mrs. Milligan’s Soapy Rag

Thursday, August 14, 2014 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

It was among the first of my many capers that didn’t exactly follow the plan but, looking back, our raid on the Hidden Valley Camp for Girls was really stupid from the get-go.  It was on one sultry summer night the year before I could get my driver’s license but a notable chum had just gotten his and we had an urgent need for adventure with our hormones jumping like they were at the time

“Chum,” which is what we’ll call him because I still refuse to throw anyone under the bus, had already received a clandestine map of the camp, the location of the cabin where our two girlfriends were sleeping on a bunk bed, and swore he’d received the coast-is-clear signal from his girlfriend. So it was about midnight when we rolled up a country road in Apison, both leaning out the window to see since we didn’t dare use the car’s headlights.

What we didn’t know was that some homely girl in the cabin had caught wind of the break-in and immediately ratted us out. Or that a trigger-happy farmer with a shotgun was in the bushes. Or that some big dogs would wake up. So here we went, hugging the shadows as we crept down the drive, when a big flashlight suddenly sliced the darkness.

Under normal conditions you stealthily dive for cover but the farmer, a nervous type, opened up with both barrels of the shotgun in our immediate direction. I immediately acquired “career speed” but by then the dogs were gaining on “Chum” and he stopped colder than Steve McQueen in the “The Great Escape.”

I immediately realized he had the car keys so – presto – we were soon sitting most chagrined in the Camp Office with Farmer Shotgun and some stern-faced women in curlers.

That night the Camp Director made a real impression on me and, while I’ll never speak ill of the dead, the same Mrs. Martha Milligan will be buried in Maryville, Tenn., later this week after she passed away Monday at the age of 101. Make no mistake, “Tootsie” Milligan was very much a wonderful lady but she knew how to handle boys better than most because she’s been taught by a genuine master.

Her husband was McCallie School’s longtime football coach, and it was wonderful “Sack” who had first introduced me to the game years earlier at McCallie Camp. We had a warm friendship but that night in Apison, Mrs. Milligan wasn’t exactly in the mood to take prisoners. She called our parents, demanding they fetch us immediately.

But when both sets of parents arrived by early morning, Mrs. Milligan whisked them aside and told them she wanted to teach me a lesson. She said I needed to be punished by her hand because I had yelled a cuss word during our aborted escape. Understand, my folks had known the Milligans when my dad once taught at McCallie with Sack so my parents readily agreed to Tootsie’s brand of corporal punishment.

So here the crowd came back into the room where we were being held under gun. Mrs. Milligan told me I had a “filthy mouth” (you can now commonly hear what I said on network TV these days) and lifting me up by my hair, she carried me into the kitchen, turned on the tap over the sink, and began what would be my first water-boarding experience.

Actually, she grabbed a dirty rag, lathered it up real thick with Ivory soap, and began to wash out my mouth. But no, stopping repeatedly for more Ivory, she polished each of my teeth one by one. I had soap coming out of my nose, in my hair, down my neck as she repeatedly and viciously crammed the soapy rag all the way back to my larynx. Then she grabbed my whole head and wormed it under the faucet, holding me for at least a minute under the icy water before finally stopping.

It’s been just a few ticks shy of 50 years since the torture happened but I’ve seen Baptist churches baptize people faster than that night when about 10 people stood silently and took in such a show. About three weeks later I ran into Coach Milligan and he’d been waiting. “Aha, you got caught cussing, you little (expletive deleted)!” he yelped, clapping his hands and dancing a delightful little jig.

“Coach ‘Sack,’ lemme tell you a little secret … if you had more players who knew how to cuss you’d win more games!” I countered as he swept me up in a huge hug and kept laughing until I finally joined him.

I don’t guess I ever saw Mrs. Milligan much in this half century that has followed but, again, she was a wonderful lady when she wasn’t really mad. I hope she rests in peace, too, when they bury her in Maryville this Saturday but, just to set the record straight, I’ll still cuss when somebody shoots at me with a double-barreled shotgun.

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