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Lessons never learned
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Lessons never learned

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Bill Perkins

I don’t know about the rest of you, but sometimes I find myself thinking about the oddest things. The least little thing will send me down a rabbit hole of reflection – or better yet, an unexpected epiphany.

Recently I was working on a crossword puzzle when I encountered a clue for a three-letter entry: “A measure of cannabis.” After wrestling with it for a few minutes, I recalled a pamphlet handed out to kids when I was in the fifth grade to scare us away from drugs. I remembered the explicit warning that if a dope pusher was trying to sell you grass, they’d call it “a lid.” It fit the puzzle, and I moved on.

But I kept thinking about lids. I haven’t been particularly sheltered, but in the half-century since the fifth grade, I don’t recall ever hearing a measure of marijuana referred to as “a lid.” If I did, it was probably on an old episode of Dragnet. How in the Sam Hill did a measure of pot come to be called a “lid?”

The lightbulb came on, and I hooted like a macaque. Pot. Lid. Of course; it must be a sort of secret lingo to befuddle the squares. It worked, I guess, because it befuddled me for five decades, suggesting I must be a polygon after all.

I’ve always been interested in how we learn the things we learn. I had a psychology lab course in college in which we were to explore that sort of thing. Each of us was assigned a rat, and we were to put the animal through experiments during the term and log all the results. We were to replicate a famous operant conditioning experiment by B.F. Skinner by “teaching” the animal to press a lever to receive a pellet of food. We’d log the results and turn in the findings at the end of the term.

“Be careful when handling your rat,” the lab assistant warned. “The pads of your fingers look like a food pellet to a rat.”

The rats were kept in shoebox-sized cages that operated like drawers; you’d pull your drawer out, gingerly pick up your rat and put it in the Skinner box. When your experiment was over, you’d put the rat back in the shoebox cage and return it to the rack, taking care to keep your fingers out of the vermin’s reach.

One day I was returning my rat to the rack when another student asked for a note I had in my shirt pocket. She was a pretty girl, so I was eager to please, and instead of putting my rat away before getting the note, I hooked my thumb over the top of the shoebox cage to free up a hand to pass the note. I felt two little paws grasp the sides of my thumb and looked down into the depths of the shining beady peepers of rattus labbus, just before he sank his long teeth into the fleshy pad of my thumb.

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Obviously, I had learned nothing. But the rat had. He was an omnivore, but as an umpteenth-generation lab animal who’d only had grain-based food, the taste of blood changed the game. My rat never pressed the lever in the Skinner box again, but he kept a keen eye on my digits. And if I look closely, I can still make out the small B-shaped scar on the tip of my thumb.

Skinner had nothing on my great-grandmother; Granny undertook her own operant conditioning experiments each time we’d see her. She would give us a list of Bible verses, and promised to pay us on the next visit for every verse we’d memorized. We would see her fairly regularly; she was living with my grandparents, and had a room off the back hall that had its own entrance. Each visit she would have us back to her parlor to recite what we’d learned, and she’d dole out dollar bills – sometimes a $5 note, which was a fortune to a little kid.

The Old Testament verses seemed cryptic and scary, and Granny was not so bold as to try to interpret the Word of God. My frame of reference was limited, so when I got to the fifth verse of the 23rd Psalm, the only oil I was familiar with was the can of syrupy Quaker State I’d poured on the concrete in the carport and gotten yelled at.

That sort of distraction prevented me from learning much in Granny’s Bible school, but she inadvertently taught me a great deal more by allowing me to investigate a box of Viewmaster reels she kept organized in a two-tone Bakelite filing box.

I was intrigued by her Viewmaster. I had one at home that was a sort of taupe plastic, and I had reels of some of my favorite Disney movies.

Granny’s Viewmaster, on the other hand, was far sturdier. It predated plastic, and was also made of Bakelite, and the optics were glass rather than plastic. Hers was a substantial device. And Granny had dozens and dozens of reels, meticulously stored in their sleeves and filed by subject. Mine could be found wherever I left them last.

Granny would let me look at her Viewmaster if I promised to keep the reels in proper order. And what a treasure trove it was. She traveled the world with her viewer, visiting Yellowstone Park and Old Faithful, the grand cities of Europe, and the exotic destinations of Asia, all in vivid Kodachrome stereovision.

Years ago, tramping through a Cambodian jungle on the way to Angkor Wat, my colleagues and I emerged from the overgrowth to see the soaring stone spires of the sprawling ancient compound, and I was struck with a sense of déjà vu. I suddenly recalled Granny and her Viewmaster, where I’d first set eyes on this ancient jungle metropolis.

I did retain a few of the Bible verses Granny taught me. But her most enduring lesson was in opening the door to other worlds through the lenses of her magic travel machine.

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at

Bill Perkins is editorial page editor of the Dothan Eagle and can be reached at or 334-712-7901. Support the work of Eagle journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at


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