Clay Plank was a boy cut from a different bolt of cloth. Back in those days when we were in grade school, Clay hated going to school worse than anybody I knew. I think it wasn't so much that he hated going to our backwoods country school (which he certainly did), but he hated getting scrubbed up and neatly dressed. He preferred dirt, no shirt, no shoes, and probably wouldn't have worn pants if he could have gotten away with it. He fancied the lawless, carefree existence his family lived in their ramshackle wooden house out in the middle of Big Gypsy Swamp and he rebelled against every single attempt the teachers ever made to civilize him. The teachers regularly punished him for unbuttoning his shirt (which he did frequently) and taking off his shoes (which he did every recess) and chewing tobacco (which he'd done since he was 8). Clay, with his broad, flat, calloused feet, unkempt hair, brown teeth that rarely saw a toothbrush and rusty, unwashed appearance was not exactly what you'd call a paragon of cleanliness and virtue, and he never studied or did any homework, yet as we progressed from one grade to another, Clay drifted right along with the rest of the class. This was probably more due to the teachers not wanting him for two consecutive years than any attempt by him to learn anything, which he never did if he could help it. He often professed to us that his only goal in life was to quit school and haul pulp-wood for a living.
One warm spring morning during our seventh grade year, we were on morning recess and were gathered in a group in the parking lot in front of the school when Clay was expounding on just such matters.
"My daddy's hauled pup-wood all his life," Clay declared as he turned up a half pint of chocolate milk and chugged it. He wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, crushed the empty milk box and tossed it in a near by trash can. "That's all I'm evah gonna do."
"Durn, Clay, you look like you inhaled that box of milk," said Steve Cosco, the class wise-ass and all around smart mouth. "A person'd think you'd never had a box of chocolate milk before."
"I can turn up a gallon just like that, " Clay snapped his fingers. "I does it at home all the time."
Steve was never one to turn away from any potential controversy. "Betcha can't. Cain't nobody drink any gallon of milk."
Clay smiled, his lips stretching over his gapped brown teeth, and stepped up to Steve, who barely came up to his shoulder. "Can too. You buy 'em and I'll drink em."
Clay had our attention now. We closed in around him and Steve, who faced each other like combatants in the Roman coliseum. "OK Steve, time to put your money where your mouth is", said Gary, a tall lanky boy who was one of my best friends "You heard Clay. You buy em, he'll drink em."
Steve smiled uncertainly, took his glasses off and cleaned them on the tail of his shirt, then perched them back on the end of his pointy nose. "Alright. Tell you what. I'll buy 14 boxes of chocolate milk. You got," and here he looked at his watch, "about 8 or 9 minutes to drink 'em. If you drink em before the recess bell rings, they're on me. If you don't, you pay for the milk and you buy my milk for a week. What d'ya say?"
Clay unbuttoned his shirt, rubbed his flat, hairless belly and looked around at us, grinning. "You bring on the milk, Stevie, and I'll drink em."
We gathered around Clay as Steve headed for the concession room. Fourteen boxes of chocolate milk! We were buzzing with excitement. Could he do it? Could anybody? I looked at Clay, who towered over the rest of us. A tall, stringy country boy like Clay could do stuff a normal person couldn't do. He chewed tobacco and rolled his own Prince Albert smokes. He played hooky as often as he showed up for class. He claimed to have gotten drunk on his uncles moonshine once and "made it" with one of his cousins, a cross-eyed, dwarfish girl named Eula, but this was met with some skepticism. Looking at Eula with her erupting pimples, protruding buck teeth, greasy hair and twittering laugh, I felt there wasn't enough moonshine in the state to get somebody drunk enough for her -- not even somebody as un-discriminating as Clay.
Steve rounded the corner and stepped into our little circle. He held out a paper sack. "Here you go, Clay. Fourteen boxes of chocolate milk." He looked at his watch. "We've got 7 minutes till the bell rings. You've got to drink them by then or you lose the bet."
Gary stepped up and took the sack of milk. "I'll hold the sack, and all Clay has to do is reach in and get the milk. Is that fair enough for everybody?" We all nodded our consent. Gary looked at Clay. "You ready?"
Clay grinned. "Hull yeah, I'm ready."
Quick as a flash, Clay had a box of milk out of the sack, upturned it and was chugging it like a man dying of thirst in the desert. I watched in fascination as his adams apple, grimy with dirt and human grease, bobbed up and down. He finished, dropped it and immediately had another open. Within two minutes empty boxes of milks littered the ground around his big, dusty boots like a bunch of oversized childrens blocks. Clay opened a box, lifted it, tilted his head back, wrapped his thick lips around the spout and drank powerfully, losing only a trickle at the corner of his mouth that ran down his chin and onto his bare chest. It appeared that Steve would lose his bet very soon.
Clay had 10 boxes of milk down, and four to go when he started slowing. With three minutes left, he had two boxes of milk to go, but he had slowed considerably. No longer could he lift it, chug and carelessly drop the empty. He lifted it to his lips, swallowed a few times, and stopped, a far-away look in his eye. We were standing around him, cheering him on.
"Go ahead, Clay!"
"Drink her down, boy!"
"Let's hook him up to a cows tittie. I bet he'd drain 'er dry in 5 minutes flat."
With a minute to go, Clay held the last box in his hand. He was forcing it down now, swallowing a couple of times, then stopping, then swallowing a bit more. With 15 seconds left, he finished the last box and dropped it in the rubble at his feet. We cheered him on lustily: for once in his life, Clay was an object of admiration and respect. He stood among us smiling broadly as we congratulated him. Clay Plank, Unwashed Hero.
Suddenly, Clay rubbed his stomach uneasily. "I gots to get to the bathroom", he said, and headed for the entrance to the school, with us all trailing him excitedly, yapping like a pack of dogs. Right about that time, the worst thing that could have happened to Clay, happened. The end of recess bell rang.
Clay made a dash for the school entrance, with us following hard on his heels. The hallway immediately filled with people hurrying from one classroom to another and he desperately plowed through the kids on his way to the men's room, which unfortunately was located near the end of the school hallway. I looked over at Clay as he struggled through the crowd, and his face was desperate, his eyes fixed in what Vietnam vets called the "thousand yard stare". Clay knew he wasn't going to make it. Kids were elbow to elbow, forward movement was slow, and Clay seemed to realize that he was doomed. As he struggled through the mass of kids, he suddenly stopped, his face stricken, eyes squinched shut. Clay stood there for a moment, towering over the crowd of chattering, pushing, laughing kids, then leaned forward and puked 14 boxes of chocolate milk down Anita Lynn Shakers back.
Legends are born in strange ways sometimes, and the legend of Clayton Plank was born that day. When he yakked 14 boxes of chocolate milk down the back of Anita Lynn Shakers dress, he passed from local country bumpkin to School Legend. Pandemonium erupted, with girls screaming, people pushing and shoving to get out of the way, and poor Anita Lynn Shaker standing forlornly, dressed in her plain yellow dress covered in vomit. Chocolate puke coated the floor and people screamed and fled, careful to avoid both it and Anita. Clay vanished that day, and didn't re-appear in school for a week. By the time he got back, his legend was firmly in place.
Clayton Plank didn't finish that year. In the time he remained in school, he was revered, known even by the stuck-up seniors who rarely acknowledged our seventh grade existence. His departure from the public education system is an interesting article in itself, and perhaps will be dealt with in a future column. He is known even today as the guy who drank 14 boxes of chocolate milk and yakked it down Anita Lynn Shakers back. Poor Anita. She is tied into Clay's legend in a rather unappealing way, but if it's any consolation to her, she is remembered sympathetically whenever the story of Clay's Chocolate Milk Debacle is recounted.