Returning from Tennessee to Georgia on a bright summer's day, I pulled into an antiquarian store/collectible store/vintage car dealership I'd been meaning to check out named "Grumpy's", just off the I-75 at the TN/GA border.
Therein, I did my usual amusement of walking through scores of the remains of various lives, each small item encrusted with the patina of age. Tools told a story by their wear patterns, upholstery contained details of various owners, based on wear, tear, fading, and the occasional stain. Pipe stems contained the delicate indentations where teeth had once held them, some items kept pristine, treasured - and others rusted, worn, utilitarian. Scythes, sling blades, saws, books.
And suddenly, a small paddle.
It was most definitely designed for corporal punishment, based on three small holes drilled at the end furthest from the handle. This meant that it wasn't meant to shape a car with lead, or perform some purpose in an agricultural or baking pattern. It was about a foot long from the handle, dark brown in color, and had those holes, which I knew from various readings meant it was designed to be swung quickly, with the holes reducing drag from movement through the air, making it a more effective device for the purpose used. Apparently with a sufficient blow the recipient's buttock would contain an indentation of the hole pattern.
I looked at the handle for Greek letters, presuming that given it was preserved, and obviously a handcrafted item designed for this purpose that it was part of some kind of fraternity initiation trip. Fraternities are big in the Deep South, with participants proudly sporting the letters of their organization on their cars, rings, or even as tattoos.
What I found instead, very, very faintly, was about three to four dozen sets of small, spindly handwriting on each side, almost illegible and faded.
They were children's signatures.
Based on the signature quality, I realized the miniature paddle bat or cricket bat I was holding would have certainly taken care of both buttocks at once, being seven inches in breadth and more than a foot long.
Hard to make out, but there was a Jennifer, a Jimm (presumed Jimmy), a Todd. Most I couldn't make out, because of the tiny, neat script having faded so much. The signatures were unique, and given the different handwritings the handiwork of the children themselves. There were no marks on the paddle to suggest that a ballpoint pen was used, these were written with pre-ballpoint pens - and sure enough, a tag on the handle pointed out that for $11 and tax, I could be the proud possessor of a school paddle from the 1950s.
Paddling is still practiced in some parts of the country, including the Deep South, though the practice is dying out. Given my age and where I had lived, I have no experience at all with what many jokingly refer to as "non-consensual spanking". Throughout the course of my entire life, the concept of hitting a child in a punitive manner was considered barbaric, wrong, and harmful. And yet I was holding in my hand a heavy implement that had been used decades before I was born to ritually punish children in such a way. It was like going to the London Dungeon and marvelling that at one point the judicial system thought it perfectly acceptable to gouge out eyes, and to be at the exhibit holding an implement to do exactly that.
Underneath the shadow of musty and aging Confederate flags, and other remnants of a culture rapidly dying out, I tried to make out as many signatures as possible. None seemed to have repeated, and the names stopped two thirds down the back side, the last entry having obviously been added in marker by a very young child given his awkward handwriting and the misspelling of his first name.
I know from studies in operant conditioning that in order to be effective a negative stimulus has to accompany the experience to be discouraged simultaneously. Obviously impossible in practice so in order to try to maintain the relationship, cause and effect, the school - like many other places - had ritualized the punishment experience to counter the time in between the infraction and the penalty. I imagined year after year of children, told to visit a certain room with the foreknowledge of what would happen. Probably the worst the first time, given the fear of the unknown. I had certainly envisaged some kind of stern glare, a dreadful wait in some kind of side chamber, perhaps amplified and worsened by hearing the muffled cry of someone else being punished before you in the room in question. But it seemed to me to be taking it to another level to have the child sign the implement that was about to be used on his or her bare buttocks.
The signatures were not rushed, not hurried. They were neat and orderly and took up the presumed alloted space. Would this have been prior to use, where the child would sit there waiting for the ink to dry, staring at the signature knowing the moment it would no longer stain, it would be time to bend over? Or was the signature put there afterwards, as a receipt for the punishment just received? There was nothing in the writing that communicated fear, or pain, or panic.
All I had to look at was row after row of illegible lines, each a name, each a story, each a series of blows with a substantial instrument in an administrative room.
I had no idea what to do with it. It was a historical curiosity, certainly, and part of me wondered if some kind of pervert would find it, and maybe I should buy it and dispose of it first? In my day spanking is something scriptwriters make a girl mention in order to suggest she's sexually wild, and 50 Shades of Grey is a best-seller. But (and not from personal experience) most who ARE into that sort of thing say the one thing they hate the most is when their partner forgoes stinging whips or leather floggers, and picks up a paddle. It's not easy to sexualize, given how much it apparently hurts.
I put back the object, laid it gently down. Amongst the agricultural implements superceded by technology, the Confederate memorabilia celebrating a war that had been lost, beer signs for brands long dead, and car parts that would never see use on a vehicle again. I left the ghosts where they were, and walked out into the blinding Georgia sun.
Addendum: TheDeadGuy writes: In certain schools, according to the story I was told, children signed
the paddle as some sign of giving consent. Again, I just remember
hearing this, no idea where.
Addendum 2: locke baron claims to have heard of the signing the paddle practice, and it was done before the spanking began.