Suddenly it's The Big Country, and I'm Gregory Peck, Eastern navy captain turned rancher, raised to reason. I flail, repeating my claim to my mother, tender-footed and at a loss out here in the Western territories. Only a grown-up can save me. But when they arrive, it's often clear that the parents have no more idea than their offspring how I could possibly be my mother's child. Herding my challenger away, they shush and glance back over their shoulders, as if the question of my origins is somehow shameful.
When I'm lucky, my mother herself appears, cowlicks crackling and baby cheeks aflame as she marches, all five-foot-two of her, up to full-grown men and jeering teenagers. "Do you have something to say to my daughter?" she roars, loud as any natural phenomenon. She stands on tiptoe and jabs a finger in their faces. They could be big as Burl Ives, Gregory Peck's Big Country nemesis, or belligerent as Chuck Conners, his rotten son; she doesn't care.
Kids "too young to know any better" get hugged. "Hey, hey," she says, kneeling on the asphalt, dimpled arms firmly encircling her captive. "What's going on here?"
By now Gregory Peck and Chuck Conners are both wailing, snot streaking our faces. Through my tears I watch her pink cheeks, her mouth working close to the kid's ear. I never hear what she says, other than her pre-release signal "Okay?" more statement than query.
The stranger's son or daughter nods, Toughskins tensed to flee and yet surely relieved too, to have the unexplainable explained by someone so certain of right and wrong.