Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Growing Up Southern: July 24, 2017

Playgrounds? We didn’t need no stickin’ playgrounds. Not when we had my daddy’s barn to play in and on. It could keep you busy for a day, easy.

It was a combination thing. It served as a chicken roost and a cow pen and a place to store hay. The ridgeline was just high enough to play “dare you to jump.” Later, when I was grown, it usually housed a cow and calf, and served as a “repair shop” for my brother and his gang. Cartographers would have labeled it a “multi-purpose structure.”

One spot on the roof was ideal for hiding with a slingshot and firing away at unsuspecting birds. Once, I even got close enough to make one change his flight pattern, but mostly we were harmless.

There was a pig pen attached to it and sometimes baby pigs to play with, assuming their momma wasn’t around. We had a young colt born there, once. I can still remember Daddy waking me up one fall morning to “come see what came last night.” All I could see were legs, legs that looked six-feet long, attached to a tiny body. Her mom let us pet her, pleased with the attention and proud of her accomplishment.

It sure was a simpler life then. We would have marveled at all the wasted space of a soccer field, or the trappings of a “ready-roll” sports complex. When we wanted our own baseball field, we cut some small sweetgum trees and made a backstop with some burlap bags daddy gave us. It worked pretty well, at times.

Of course, we never had enough players for teams, so used a system called “workup.” As long as you made hits, you could stay with the batters. Make an out, and you had to start in the outfield and work your way up to batting again as the other kids made outs. There were no winners and losers, just players trying to advance in life as well as they could.

I suppose pals made as a child are pals forever. Mine were, but they are all gone. Some moved to distant places, sometimes where their race received better treatment than in the American South. I missed them but was happy for them. Some went into the military, returning not as boys, but as men, men who no longer played games. Some have died, one after a tragic life of car wrecks, pain killers and alcohol. I heard he had died one morning a few years ago, but it was too late to make the funeral. I’m not sure I would have gone anyway.

Most likely, I’d have preferred to remember him, not in a coffin, but perched on my daddy’s barn watching Jim Fletcher annoy some baby pigs.

Fun was where you found it back then.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Growing Up Southern: Pride

They used to hit our grocery store as a crowd, twice a day in season. First it was cotton choppers, later cotton pickers.

These were pre-mechanization days. Both operations were done by hand, by workers hired by the day. It would be hard for us to understand the level of the day-to-day existence led by these folks. I got a sense of it an early age, though.

There were men who owned flat-bed trucks outfitted with sideboards and tarpaulin covers and benches, much like a homemade version of a military deuce-and-a-half. They would pick up hands and transport them to a farmer’s field for some agreed-upon price. Those they picked up ranged in age from early teenagers to the ambulatory elderly.

On the way, they would stop at our store, shortly after daylight to purchase something for “dinner” and, shortly after dark, something for supper and breakfast, if they could afford both. When the crowd hit, the whole family turned out. Daddy would be behind the meat counter slicing bologna or whatever. Mother was the cashier. My sister had a spot in canned goods and produce. I had a Hershey’s chocolate box containing change to accommodate the sale of candy.

My mother always bragged that I could count change before I could read.

I didn’t get much business in the morning. If it had been a good day chopping or picking, though, I sometimes did a brisk business in the afternoon.

The thing I remember though, and I’ll never forget it for some reason, was an item I sold that wasn’t candy at all, and I only sold it on Saturdays.

It was tiny bottle of a cheap liquid labelled “Ben Hur Perfume.”

I valued my job, although it cut into sleep or play time. I felt that, even in dealing with the poorest of the poor—those the Galilean called “the least of those among us”— I was able, on occasion, to bring some small amount of joy in the form of a sweet reward for hard work, or a brief moment of pride and dignity to an otherwise unrelenting life.

A customer?

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Some called it “World War Two.” Some, “The Second World War.” Even after Korea and Vietnam, many just called it “The War.” At least the old timers did.

When I was a kid, the veterans of that war were still young, many of them younger than I was when I went to war. We, as kids, had no idea what they had been through. We just heard others talk about someone being “a veteran” as if it sufficed to say that set them apart from the rest of society.

Sometimes they were off-screen. You might hear, “Mizzes Browning had two boys, but that oldest boy of hers got killed in the war.” I also had classmates who lived in a blended family with a stepfather because their own father hadn’t returned from the ordeal.

For others, you wouldn’t have ever guessed that their daddy was a veteran had not a certificate hanging on the wall proudly announced the fact. It wasn’t always pleasant. One young friend's family lived in a rent-house owned by my daddy, not a very high-class place at all. Despite the proof of his service to our country displayed in their living room, the man had few admirable qualities, being prone to drink, and in constant search of a job.

The last time I saw the man, he had been driving a soft drink truck and had apparently made a stop at a sleazy bar on the East side of town and had stayed for a “pick-me-up,” or two. He had driven his delivery truck into a ditch and was proudly hoisting a beer as we drove by. Another playmate’s father suffered a similar fate. After he was found dead in a ditch, my friend only had a plastic model of a B-17 Bomber, the kind his daddy had served on, to remember him by.

They didn’t talk much about the war’s impact on the young men returning from it back in those days. After all, most of them came home, readjusted, and got on with their lives. Why worry about the ones who didn't adjust?

They grew older, those young men. Some didn’t talk much about the war. Others couldn’t talk enough about it. It just depended on the individual. Regimental units held reunions until the men who lived through Pearl Harbor, Normandy, the bombing of Germany, or bloody Tarawa grew too old to travel. The last one I knew personally died this year. It's hard to believe.

They call them “The Greatest Generation” now. They did, in fact sacrifice their future for their children’s future. I’m afraid that, in many ways, we have sacrificed the future of coming generations for our comfort and benefits.

No matter how we may feel about the men we saw grow from proud young victors to feeble survivors, they changed the world for the better. Not many generations can claim that honor.

Note: Facebook friend Annie Marks responded to a challenge to share stories of growing up in the South yesterday. See her memory in the post below. Have your own memory? Send it to me.

Growing up Southern

Shared by Annie Marks:

When I was six some entrepreneurial types bought a peach orchard in Dekalb County Georgia. They knocked down a few trees paved a road, and built six spec houses. My parents bought one. Next door on one side lived Sparky the literal red headed boy next door who would dance with me on Saturday and steal my crayons and break them on Sunday. On the other side lived Linda who was considerably younger than me and followed me everywhere. I loved her and made sure she was included in everything.

You could learn a lot about life living in an orchard. The beauty of the blossoms in springtime was breathtaking. Sitting in a tree one day I saw a twig moving on its own! Turns out it was a very cool bug known for good reason as a "walking stick". Summertime brought the thudding sound of peaches hitting the ground for what seemed to my young mind to be miles. I have never tasted the likes of the homemade peach ice cream (personally hand cranked by Linda and yours truly) or the peach pie that was enjoyed on the picnic tables in the backyards of Gresham Road. But as all life lessons must include, to this beauty there was a dark side. If you have spent any time near an orchard you already know what it is. BEES! In the trees, in the utility shed, lighting on your peach pie, on the ground . You know we went barefoot, right? Aaahhh!! Annie Marks

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Growing Up Southern: July 22, 2017

It was simpler being a kid back when I was one. Your choices were clear. You were a Roy Rogers man or a Gene Autry man. Me, I always chose Roy. Don’t ask me why. They both dressed a little over the top, and had a habit of breaking into song when they should have been beating the living tar out of a bad guy or two. They were our heroes nontheless.

Toys were simpler too. You just found a sweet gum sapling about five or six feet long and a piece of leather for the reins and off you went. A good sturdy stick-horse would carry you through many an adventure and gallop you away from any danger. They weren’t as smart as Trigger or Champion, but then we weren’t either.

Of course, you needed a good hideout in the woods to rest during heroic episodes. They were ideal for hiding such precious loot as partial bags of Bull Durham tobacco, Bugler rolling paper, matches, and pilfered bullets in the off-chance that one of us ever got a twenty-two. Franklin R. Alread, who was the oldest of our gang, snuck a magazine full of pictures of naked women into our hideout once, but we “eeewed” him away with it.

We really didn’t care too much for the smoking either. We talked about it more than we engaged in it. Besides, only the bad guys smoked, as a rule. You never saw Gene or Roy doing it.

I’ll tell you one thing we didn’t like for sure. Robert Hester’s brother, Bobby Joe, found a half-full bottle of whiskey on the side of the road once, and I don’t care how much they seemed to enjoy it in the picture shows, we took one sip and threw that bottle of stuff into Bayou Bartholomew. I imagine it is still there.

Of course, girls weren’t allowed in the hideouts. My sister used to sneak up and try to catch us in some mischief, but we could usually hear her coming. We looked and looked for a snake to throw at her when she tried it again, but the little critters must have heard about our plans and, as they say, “lit out for the territories.”

After a hard day of such cowboy heroics, we would head back to our homes, victors all. We would count the number of women we had saved, the number outlaws we had chased from the county, and the bands of Indian renegades we had defeated. We weren’t altogether sure why we wanted to save the women, but if Gene and Roy did it, that was good enough for us. Besides, tomorrow we were going to be pirates and they didn’t give a hoot in hell about nothing. You never saw one of them singing to no woman.

Life blessed us free and easy, in those days. Had someone told us about the future, I’m sure our spokesperson, Benjamin “Boogey” Shannon would have said something along the lines of, “You mean they make those poor little kids sit around and stare at little black things in their hand all day? Where the hell is the fun in that?”

(Have a memory from growing up in the rural South you’d like to share? Send it to me. I’ll bet we would all like to hear it).

Well … there was this
one girl we might have
let into our hideout. But
she was special. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sailing To Oblivium: July 21, 2017

There is another memory of growing up in a small country grocery store that I wouldn’t believe had I not seen it. Those were different times, you know, very different times.

Most of the business that supported the store came in the morning, at noon, (“dinner time”) and late afternoon as people got off work. Since families had only one car, if any at all, there was not much traffic at mid-afternoon. After crops were “laid by,” there was even less.

During weather such as we are having lately, the only relief from heat in the store was a large pole fan aimed directly at the counter. It provided a minimum of comfort for both customers and the proprietor, my daddy.

Now here is where it gets a little unbelievable. As I have said before, my parents arose each morning at 5:00 a.m. in order to catch the early traffic. One can imagine how someone may have felt by mid-afternoon. Needless to say, small stores like that didn’t turn enough in sales to allow hiring help. You owned it—you ran it—and you just grabbed a little rest when you could.

I have seen my daddy, back in the old, old days, curl up on the counter of the store, under the fan, and nap briefly at that slow time of day. If a customer did come in, it would wake him and he would be right back on the job. Even had he not awakened, the customer would have probably just put an empty bottle in a rack, grabbed a “cocola,” and left a nickel on the counter.

Those times are long gone, in many respects. For one thing, the traffic never ceases these days on that once quiet highway, a graveled one in my early youth. Now, four lanes of asphalt accommodate a steady stream of drivers going somewhere, to do something, for some reason. They drive at speeds my mother would have described as “sacking air,” so one would imagine their purpose is an important one, but of that I am not certain.

Back toward town a short distance is a Walmart store, located on a site, incidentally, that once housed a stock car track. Any number of supporting businesses are located there now as well. Suffice it to say that a motorist headed South would have no use for a country grocery store these days.

And even if one did exist, the noise of modern life would probably keep the storekeeper from grabbing a nap.

Just remembering …

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Sailing To Oblivium July 20, 2017

It was just a little country grocery store but, in some ways, a microcosm of a part of America—more Cannery Row than Peyton Place or Revolutionary Road.

It sat beside a state highway that connected the City of Pine Bluff to lower Arkansas (L.A.) and had maybe a tenth of the traffic that uses that road today. It had enough traffic to support the store, though, and the store made enough money to support a family: ours.

The building could be seen from a mile away, as a motorist crossed Bayou Bartholomew, the longest bayou in the world, to be immortalized later by guitar wizard Steve Davison.

A strange cast of characters met there each morning, along with the sporadic customers. My father would open before daylight to catch those going to work. He closed late in the afternoon, often putting in 14-hour days during the long days of cotton chopping and picking. We all helped, at various times.

The regular crew would gather around a pot-bellied stove at the rear of the store somewhere around mid-morning, after the traffic slowed. Sol, a master “body man” would quit sanding a car next door and wander over for a bottle of “Sweet Lucy,” i.e. Garrett snuff. Then came Sam the Bread Man. He would fill the rack and settle in for a break. Sam had been a teacher once. He couldn’t feed his family on the wages of a teacher, but he could still quote long sections of William Cullen Bryant’s Thanatopsis. He would if you asked him to.

Various salesmen and retirees made up the rest of the crowd, along with a few souls that were chronically allergic to work. Those included a man named Elmer, who had tried every known type of employment a rural life could offer, even preaching. When asked why he quit that job, he said, “Well, to tell the truth, I liked it. Didn’t have to work too hard. Got to visit all the women whenever I wanted. Felt good about spreading the Gospel. But, to tell the truth, the son of a bitches just wouldn’t pay me.”

That was a sample of the type humor that could break up the place.

My daddy ruled the store. My mother ruled my daddy. So, the crowd behaved, mostly. Since our house connected onto the store, only a screen door stood between our kitchen and the back of the store. Often, my mother would stop her ironing and cock an ear when the voices up front lowered to a low murmur. “They’re telling jokes,” she would say. Usually, she would allow them one or two, but would then start stirring around, making noises to signal that things were getting out of hand, and the boys might better behave.

They would, for they all feared her above anything.

During deer season, they had a special tradition. Daddy would put a big pot of seasoned water on the wood stove and everyone would bring something to put in it. There was little planning involved, so the results varied, but they always declared their deer-meat stew the best ever made, as long as my mother would furnish the corn bread. I can still smell those days if I try.

The store is gone now, “supermarketed” out long ago. None of the crowd is still alive, just a memory of Sol taking his first dip of the day, Sam quoting poetry, or maybe the way a certain man talked when describing a legendary coon dog. There is nothing left at that spot but those memories. Even the old building fell when they widened the highway.

I like to think though, when winter comes and men head for the “deer woods,” that there is some little white building somewhere, maybe high in the Arkansas Ozark mountains, where a bunch of men are seated around a wood stove on empty nail kegs, cooking a stew and telling jokes in a low voice so no one can hear. America would be better off for it.

The old place with Sol's body shop next door.