A whimsical look at life growing up in the small town of Waldron, Arkansas in the 1960s and 1970s, plus occasional observations from the present. Want to start at the very beginning? Click HERE.

Friday, December 31, 2010

My Weekly Reader and Scholastic Books

A weekly highlight of my elementary school career was the arrival of that week's Weekly Reader.   My Weekly Reader was a little newspaper designed specifically for kids.  It was full of articles about current news events as well as stories about life in other countries and other cultures.  While most of us kids usually found something else to do when the news came on TV, we read with great fascination the stories in our Weekly Reader

Our Weekly Reader time was also a somewhat relaxing time in the classroom.  The teachers usually allowed us to read the paper at our own pace, so the classroom was quiet and peaceful.  Having been a teacher myself, I realize now that this was probably more for their benefit than ours, but nevertheless it was quite pleasant.  I think this probably set the stage for my daily ritual now of reading two newspapers.  Of course, to justify the expenditure of valuable class time, we were always assigned the task of completing the study questions on the last page.
 The study question page consisted of questions to gauge your comprehension of what you had read.  Looking at this sample page makes me realize the actual academic value of the exercise.  The questions required some higher-level thinking, and the vocabulary words were important words that were probably too current to appear in any textbook. 

I also remember that about every six weeks or so, Weekly Reader would send out a reading comprehension test that would be administered to the class.  I never excelled at sports or music or much else, but I was flat good at those reading comprehension tests.  But not quite good enough; my score was always second to that of my classmate Doug Cottrell.  I was never able to beat Doug's score, no matter how hard I tried.  But, like Avis, I tried harder.
 Even more exciting that the Weekly Reader was our occasional book order from Scholastic Books.  The teacher would send off an order about every six weeks.  I would eagerly peruse the flyer advertising the current book selection, making my best effort to keep it reasonable.  The books cost from fifty cents to a dollar, I think, and my dear Mama always allowed me to order a few books.

Sweeter than any flower, I think, is the aroma that wafts up from a brand new Scholastic book that has never been opened before.  I would take those books home and devour them, and even carried one with me back to school to read when I got a chance.  The little books were extremely well-written, and included titles of new books as well as classics from long ago.  Regrettably, I was normally not interested in the great works of fiction from the past, but eagerly purchased the latest from my favorite series like Encyclopedia Brown or Danny Dunn.  The Encyclopedia Brown books featured the exploits of a young genius named Leroy "Encyclopedia" Brown, who was an individual of considerable intellect who used his intelligence to

 figure out obvious clues to solve mysteries. Danny Dunn, likewise, was a bright young lad who had a knack for inventing incredible helpful devices such as homework machines.

I also greatly enjoyed reading about Homer Price.  The Homer Price books were actually written back in the 1940's by Robert McCloskey.  I loved McCloskey's humor and felt a sense of companionship with Homer, who often found himself in rather awkward and challenging situations, like trying to figure out how to turn off a donut machine that had gone rogue.

A particular favorite of mine was a book called Follow My Leader.  It was the story of a young boy who was outside with some of his friends from the neighborhood who had made a homemade firecracker.  The firecracker ended up exploding in the face of the boy in the story, resulting in blindness.  This great little book tells how he got his life back with the help of his guide dog, Leader.

As far as I know, Weekly Reader and Scholastic Books are still around today.  As a matter of fact, when I was elementary principal at Waldron, the teachers wanted to switch from Weekly Reader to Scholastic News.  Because of my strong commitment to Weekly Reader from my childhood, it took a lot of convincing to get me to go along with the idea! 

I hope kids still read books for enjoyment.  I know they have a lot of distractions today, and a lot of fun things to play with, but Mama's and Daddy's who foster a love of reading do a great service for their children.  Everybody should get to experience the pleasure of reading a book that's so good you can't put it down.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Gary and the Art of Chicken Hypnosis

Even though I was a town kid, we always seemed to have some farm animals around when I was growing up.  One time my older brother Phil, who was working at the furniture factory at the time, brought in two little runt piglets.  Somebody at the factory had given them to him; they had been rejected by the mama sow and so were on their own.  They were chubby little cuties, about the size of your hand.  Phil gave one to me and the other to my sister Janet, and we determined to raise them into adulthood.  Well, I guess the odds were stacked against the little pigs, because they only lasted a couple of days.  But they were cute, and they certainly appealed to my family's penchant for unusual animals.

One of my earliest memories relates to some chickens that we kept in the smokehouse.  I was about four or five, I guess, and we had a couple of chickens in coops.  I have no idea where we got them; probably somebody that Daddy had fixed an appliance for gave them to us.  Anyway, these were not pets - they were supper.  I remember sitting on the back steps watching while Mama performed the regretful task of "wringing" the hapless chickens' necks.  To be graphic, for the benefit of the more cityfied reader, this consisted of grasping the chicken's head and twirling the chicken's body in a circular motion, producing a catastrophic separation of head and body.  To add to the trauma of the five-year-old viewer, the chicken, at first seemingly unaware that his head and body were no longer functioning in unison, proceeded to thrash about wildly, apparently seeking some sort of reunification with the missing part.  The participants in this unlikely drama could do nothing but watch sheepishly until the chicken, realizing the futility of its pursuit, decided to hang it up.  Then, it became a matter of plucking the feathers and heating up the frying pan.  But the story is told today of me, sitting there on the back steps, a little tear rolling down my tender cheek, experiencing a brief moment of compassion for the departed fowl.

My brother Gary, the oldest in the family and a genius on many levels, once provided a demonstration of chicken mental capacity that left a profound impact on me, even to this day.  He took one of our chickens, sat it down on a board, and with a piece of chalk, began to slowly draw a line down the length of the board.  The chicken, undoubtedly sensing that something was up, first attempted to ignore the strange proceedings, but ultimately was caught up in the transaction.  The chicken cocked its head, watching as the line slowly grew longer and longer.  In a matter of seconds, the chicken's cocked head remained motionless.  Gary reached over and pushed the chicken's head back a few inches, and it stayed in its new position.  He then gently pushed the chicken's head down closer to the board, and it stayed in the spot he left it.  This went on for several minutes, and we all took turns positioning the chicken's head.  Each time, the hypnotized chicken would remain motionless in the position we left it.  After a bit, the chicken, having enough of this nonsense, began to stir, and quickly resumed its noncompliant attitude.  Years later, I tried this with some of the little chicks that we would get at Easter time.  It still worked, and I even altered the process by swinging a little silver necklace in front of the chick, which worked just as well.

By the way, when it came to fried chicken, Mama was an artist.  She made the best fried chicken ever, and she fried it up in the old iron skillet that had been a wedding present for her and Daddy.  I didn't think anything could top Mama's fried chicken, but she managed to even outdo herself when she ran across a new recipe.  She started rolling the chicken in cracker crumbs and baking it, producing a whole different chicken experience that was nothing less than superb.  I cannot count the number of Sundays when we had Mama's baked chicken, but we never got tired of it. 

I'll take the pully-bone, please.

Click here to see a chicken get hypnotized.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A Few Folks from Church

The congregation of Waldron Assembly of God, circa 1972
My formative years were spent at the Waldron Assembly of God Church.  It was what you might call a conservative church; I was 21 years old before I mustered up enough nerve to step into a movie theater.  At my church, “moving picture shows” in general were frowned upon. 

King of Vacation Bible School, along with
Brenda Owens, Queen, about 1966
 I have many happy memories from church; the Vacation Bible Schools we had every summer, the flannel board Sunday School lessons, the gospel singing groups we had on occasion, to name a few. But it was the people who made up the congregation that made the greatest impression on me. They were for the most part simple country people, people for whom a trip outside of Waldron was a rarity. But they loved their church! Here are just a few who stand out in my memory:

Nelis and Margaurite Brewer

Anyone who knew Nelis knew that he was a working man. He had more energy in his little frame than most men twice his size. Nelis was the Sunday School Superintendent, which meant that he directed the first part of the Sunday Service before we were dismissed to our classes. Nelis always wore a smile, which nicely complimented his plaid slacks and plaid sport coat. Margaurite was my Sunday School teacher when I was in Jr. High; she used to call me The Professor. She also led the singing every service and on Sunday mornings led the Booster Band, in which the children of the church got up in front and sang. The Brewer’s were two of the sweetest people ever to walk the planet. When my sister and I left for college, we had expended pretty much every cent we had to enroll and buy books. On the first Wednesday night service after we left, Nelis got up and took up an offering for us, raising a vitally needed $50. This act of thoughtfulness even today almost brings tears to my eyes.

Luke Langley

Luther “Luke” Langley and his wife Lois were mainstays at the church. Luke was always very caring and considerate with Lois, I recall. I had many extended conversations with Luke after services were over as we stood on the porch outside the church house. Luke was a firm believer in the benefits of garlic to prevent heart trouble. He described to me how he would cut up some garlic on the “gritter”, mix it with a little tomato juice and drink it down.

The church record board, with "Enrollment"
misspelled.  Sister Trix would faithfully post
the numbers every Sunday morning.
Thurman and Trix Davenport

Thurman and Trix were also very sweet people. Trix was the Sunday School Treasurer; every Sunday morning, she would give the Treasurer’s report just before Booster Band, reporting on our attendance and offering. After reporting our current balance, she would always say, “taking out 50 cents for the Boosters, that leaves (whatever amount) in the treasury now.” Trix also helped Margaurite with the drawing of the fish, in which one Booster Band member would go home with 50 cents. Thurman was a quiet and soft-spoken man. He was known as a skilled coon hunter, and always had a story to share.

Brother Lee Humphries

You didn’t hear much out of Brother Humphries. He and his wife (Lillie, I think?) sat on the same row as my Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe, near the back. I got acquainted with Brother Humphries when, as a teenager, I and my friends moved to the very back row. Brother Humphries was always friendly to us and never acted like he was bothered by our being back there. One time, Fred Hunt, who also sat on the back row (in a lawn chair that he kept there for that purpose) came through and, addressing the row of teenagers on the back row, said, “Look at all the juveniles.” Brother Humphries heard this and took offense, confusing the term “juvenile” with the less favorable “juvenile delinquent.” After Fred had passed by, Brother Humphries turned in his seat and, frowning, said, “Do you know what he just called you? Outlaws!”

Opal Yandell

Brother Opal was a larger than life character. Part of each evening service consisted of “testimony service,” in which people stood and shared a short bit of praise and thankfulness. Well, Brother Opal didn’t believe in making his testimony short. He would stand and begin to testify, and as he spoke he would become more and more animated until he finally would be pacing across the front of the church. I once clocked Brother Opal at 45 minutes from beginning to end of his testimony. It wasn’t normally that long, but you could generally count on Brother Opal to ensure that you wouldn’t be getting home on Sunday night in time to watch any of Bonanza.

Brother Hubert Barnett

Brother Barnett was not exclusively a member of our congregation; he visited several churches around town. He once explained during testimony service that he believed in having three doctors, three lawyers, and three preachers. Whatever church he happened to be attending, he normally arrived late and made his presence known with a loud and unexpected “Well….Glory to God” delivered from the back of the church as he walked in. This arrhythmia-inducing outburst was enough to shake the cobwebs from even the most sleep-deprived teenager. Brother Barnett had another disarming propensity; if someone was singing a special, and Brother Barnett liked it, he would walk to the pulpit where the singer was standing and place a dollar bill on the singer’s head. Then, turning, he would unleash another “Well….Glory to God!” as he headed back to his seat.

You know, come to think of it, there were times when even Bonanza paled in comparison to that.

The church as it originally looked, circa 1947.  The little house to the right
was the parsonage.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Out In The Field

Clowning around in The Field.
 I think I’ve mentioned before about our great playground, which we called The Field. The Field was a vacant lot immediately between our house and my Aunt Lola’s house. Lola and her husband Dennis actually owned The Field, but they were happy to let us and the rest of the neighborhood kids play in it any time we wanted. It was about an acre in size, and I remember Dennis used to mow it with a big, walk-behind mowing machine that had a scythe-type blade on the front rather than the traditional rotating blade. That must have been a chore with that much to mow! Later on, Lola bought a riding mower, and we kids used to take turns mowing with it. It was great fun, because you could put it in gear and let off of the brake quickly and pop a wheelie. For some reason, Lola eventually decided she’d just mow it herself.

On the edge of The Field lived my Greatest Childhood Friend Randy Bottoms. We must have been friends since we were babies, because I don’t ever remember a time when we weren’t buddies. We spent countless happy hours playing trucks, riding our bikes, or just lying on our backs and staring up at the clouds. Randy once took possession of an abandoned dog, a friendly jet-black mutt that I suggested should be named Snowball. Appreciating the irony, Randy went with the name, and Snowball became a regular member of our group. Early on, Randy and I recognized the need for some type of signal; a way to let each other know that one of us was outside and available to visit. During our early elementary days, the recognized signal was a Tarzan yell. If I went outside to play, I would face in the direction of Randy’s house and cut loose, unashamedly, with my best Tarzan yell. Invariably, Randy would soon emerge from his house, ready for whatever we had in store. As we got on into the upper elementary years, the Tarzan yell became a bit of overkill. Our signal evolved into an indescribable falsetto mechanism, something like a controlled scream that went kind of like, “Rhee –aaaaa-Rheet!” It was a sound later perfected by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees. By our junior high years, I was still doing the “Rhee –a –Rheet,” but Randy had developed a whistled version of Rhee-a-rheet that was just as effective but not nearly as taxing on the vocal chords.

The Blue Thing
 On another edge of The Field, directly behind our smokehouse, was The Blue Thing. The Blue Thing was actually the work box from an old telephone truck, but to me it was a boat, an airplane, a tank, or whatever else I happened to need it to be. It had a large flat surface on top, with a reel on the side that had been used to lay out telephone cable, but now made a great steering wheel. There were lots of little doors and drawers and levers to pull. All you needed was a little imagination, and I had plenty of that.

Another thing you would find in The Field was The Wheels. The Wheels were just that; a set of iron wheels about 4 feet in diameter connected with an iron axle. What you did with The Wheels was push them. You pushed them and pushed them and hoped nobody would get in your way, because it took a little effort to get them to come to a stop. If you got tired of pushing them, and you had someone else there, you could turn them on their side with one wheel on the ground and the other wheel in the air, and then climb on the wheel that was in the air and get the other person to push you and you had a merry-go-round. And, if you were my older brother Phil, you could pick them up like a set of weights and raise them over your head.

Speaking of Phil, one time he and my brother Gene brought home a bunch of black one-inch sticks from the furniture factory. They were intended for tomato stakes, but they decided to stack them up like Lincoln Logs to build a rectangular structure, about 5ft x 5 ft x 5 ft tall. They put a piece of cardboard on the top, and I decided that it would make a great clubhouse. I immediately appointed myself as president of the unnamed club. The clubhouse had everything; proper ventilation, plenty of space, and it looked real good. Well, I guess it didn’t actually have everything; it didn’t have a door. To resolve this minor problem, we dug a hole on one side, and I and Vice-President Randy gained entry by slithering under the bottom rail. The thrill of the clubhouse quickly wore off.

Daddy made one innovation to The Field for which he became famous among kids from several blocks away. He stretched a strong rope between two electric poles, one end slightly higher than the other, attached a pulley with a little piece of rope to hang on to, and put a ladder leading up to the higher end of the stretched rope. Kids climbed the ladder, took hold of the pulley, and rode the zip line to the other electric pole. A line quickly formed at the base of the ladder with kids I didn’t even know showing up for a ride. I, however, with my fear of heights and lack of self-confidence, couldn’t make myself ride the zip line, although everyone else did, including my sister Janet. After about half a day, a truck from the electric company showed up and the zip line was taken down. But still today, I encounter people who remember Daddy’s zip line.

The Field doesn’t exist today; there’s a house there now and a fence. If you had a field to play in when you were a kid, you’re lucky. There aren’t many places like that today. And if you had a Greatest Childhood Friend, you’re even luckier.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Green Stamps Are Mine

 Back in the pioneer days of the 1960's, many merchants offered S&H Green Stamps as an incentive to draw in customers.  Green stamps were doled out according to the amount of your purchase; the more you bought, the more Green Stamps you got.  Upon arriving back at home, the stamps were generally tossed into a paper sack full of other Green Stamps, until someone took the initiative to start putting them in an official Green Stamp Book.  This usually occurred the day before a trip to Fort Smith, because that's where the Green Stamp Redemption Center (what a happy sounding name!) was located.

My sister Janet and I were active participants in the process.  The stamps had to be licked, then placed in the book to align with the squares that were printed on the page.  After a page or two of licking, you tongue had developed a toxic, yucky aftertaste, so at that point we would usually get a wet wash rag and start using it to activate the glue on the back of the stamps.  This stamp-licking process was usually done somewhat unenthusiastically, since we knew that the stamps were probably going to be redeemed for something like a set of sheets, or maybe curtains, or perhaps an iron.

But, every third rotation, the Green Stamps were mine.  That is, one trip to the Redemption Center was devoted to something for the house, the next trip to the Center would be Janet's turn to get something, and the third trip would be for me to get something.  Which worked out pretty good, since we probably didn't make it to Fort Smith much more than three times a year.  So, on those times when we were dealing with MY Green Stamps, I must admit I was a much more efficient stamp-licker.

Each year, they came out with a new Green Stamp Catalogue.  In it, you would find pictures and descriptions of everything that you could get with Green Stamps.  In the toy section, I found my goal:  a Tonka Road Grader.  I had always had a fascination for road graders, going back to the days when Pine Street was a dirt road and I would watch the county road graders as they worked on our road.  My Greatest Childhood Friend Randy Bottoms had a toy road grader, and I could use it any time I wanted, but I really wanted one of my own.  Four books of Green Stamps was all it would take, and we had it.  I couldn't wait to get to the Redemption Center.

The Green Stamp Redemption Center was located on Phoenix Street in Fort Smith, across from Phoenix Village.  I believe there is a restaurant supply store now in that building, but back then it was an incredibly fascinating place for a kid.  All the items in the catalog were there on display.  It was like a store full of free toys!  I had looked at my road grader many times before, when we were there to pick up sheets or an iron. So, I knew right where it was located.  I hurried over to the toy section, rounded the corner to the Tonka toys, and it wasn't there.  This can't be!  We asked the lady at the counter, and she said they were out of that particular toy.  Some chump had beat me to it!  I was terribly disappointed. 

Resigned to my fate, I began to look through the other Tonka toys for an acceptable substitute.  They did have a bulldozer, which was similar to a road grader.  However, being the savvy toy expert that I was, I knew that toy bulldozers had a common shortcoming - the rubber tracks would consistently come off every time you rolled them.  So, the dozer was out of consideration.  However, they did have a tractor that featured a fully functioning steering wheel.  When you turned the steering wheel, the front wheels moved accordingly.  So, I settled on the Oliver tractor. 

I still have my Oliver tractor.  It is identical to the one in this picture, except mine has the top half of the steering wheel broken off.  I did have a lot of fun with that tractor, but probably not as much fun as I would have had with a road grader.  Several years later, when Clyde Hawkins was county judge, I worked one summer between college semesters for the county road department, driving a service truck behind two road graders.  I got to fuel the graders every morning, clean the glass around the cab, and help the operators when they had to replace flat tires or change the blades.  I even got to ride along with them a couple of times.  So, I guess I got to have the "road grader experience" after all.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

I Wonder What Ever Became Of...

Mad Men's Don Draper said it best:  Life is a carousel.  People get on, people get off.  All of us have people that we knew when we were in elementary school, but they went away and we never heard from them again.  With that in mind, here are a few people that I wonder what ever became of...

Denise Blair.  Denise had a particular distinction:  she was the only kid in our class whose parents were divorced.  We knew that Denise lived with her mother, and we never heard anything about her father.  Denise was a pretty, sweet girl.

Bobby Overby.  Bobby's dad was my dad's boss at the telephone company.  Bobby was a great kid, very outgoing and loved to laugh.

Jackie Ford.  I remember that Jackie was a kid who loved to play army.  Every time I see generals on TV, I always look for Jackie.

Jeff Hottinger.  Jeff was good friends with Jackie Ford, and also liked to play army.  I remember an unfortunate incident involving Jeff, when he swallowed a nickel in the classroom one day.  Evidently, no permanent damage was done, but I remember Jeff crying and saying, "I swallowed my other nickel."

Lisa Bain.  One of our class beauties, Lisa was with us until sometime in high school, I think.  I believe Lisa's dad was a pharmacist, and she had a brother John who was in the class ahead of us.

Rozann Hopwood.  Rozann was Terri Churchill's cousin, and went to school in Waldron for a few years.  Interestingly, I was on vacation with my sister Janet and her husband Harold one time, and in Owen's Restaurant in Arlington, Texas, Janet said to me, "I believe that's Rozann Hopwood over there."  After assuring her that she had to be wrong, Janet went over and, sure enough, it was indeed Rozann Hopwood. 

Steve Shurley.  Steve was with us in the early elementary years.  I seem to recall that his dad may have been the minister at First Baptist in Waldron.  Steve was my friend in first grade, a nice kid who we just didn't have a chance to get to know very well before he moved away.

And, I'm sure there are others, but these are the ones I recall.  I hope they had good lives.  Maybe we can get some of them back for one of our reunions some day.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Batman, Beatles, and Mrs. Nelson

Me in front of The Red Brick Building
I was reminded this week of my fourth grade year at Waldron Elementary.  The reminder was a sad one; I read about the passing of my fourth grade teacher's husband.  I was fortunate enough to be in Mrs. Allena Nelson's class that year, and Mrs. Nelson was one of my all time favorite teachers.

It was the 1965-1966 school year.  The previous year had been a rough one.  My sister and I had struggled with sickness and school anxiety; I had both the mumps and the three-day measles, and I ended up missing about 25 days.  But after meeting Mrs. Nelson, the school anxiety was gone and fourth grade ended up being one of my best years. 

The Red Brick Building, as we called it, housed third and fourth grade classrooms; there were three of each.  Walking in to that old building, you knew you were in a school.  The unmistakable scent of crayons, paste, and 50 years of floor wax on hardwood floors was like a pleasant bouquet.  The classrooms featured those old school desks that were all connected by steel rails on the floor; the seat of the desk in front of you was attached to the front of your desk, and likewise the seat you were sitting on was connected to the front of the desk behind you.  The wooden surface of the desk featured a hole at the upper left-hand corner to accommodate an inkwell.  Never say that the Waldron School District didn't get it's money's worth out of school equipment. 

Recess was fun.  The playground featured a merry-go-round, upon which I and my classmates spent countless hours in total.  We also played games, and the south side of the Red Brick Building was particularly suited for dodge ball.  One day, when we were playing dodge ball, we invited our custodian, Troxie Taylor, to participate.  Troxie was a wonderful, kind, and gentle old man who was loved by all the kids.  It happened that, on that day, I had brought to school a piece of paper with Japanese writing on it that I hand found in a new wallet that my dad had bought.  I was quite proud of it, and was showing it around to everyone.  For some reason, we played dodge ball with joined hands, and when Troxie joined the group, he took hold of my hand in which I was holding my treasure.  After a minute or two of the game, Troxie went back to work, and somehow my precious piece of Japanese writing had managed to transfer from my hand to Troxie's.  I guess he figured that it would be one less piece of paper to have to pick up off the playground later.

In January of 1966, the TV show Batman premiered.  We were all quite taken with the show, and sometimes at recess we would play Batman.  Randy Jones was Batman, and Terry Nichols was his sidekick Robin.  The rest of us were bats.  We would swoop around the playground, arms outstretched, doing whatever we figured bats did to fight crime. 

Once Mrs. Nelson let us do a kind of a talent show.  I don't remember much about it, just that some of us got up and moved our lips to a record.  I do remember that the record was Day Tripper by The Beatles, which had been released in December of our fourth grade year.  I believe that four of us performed, each playing one particular member of The Beatles.  I think I might have been George, and I believe that Randy Jones was Paul.  I made one suggestion that was incorporated into the act.  Completely misunderstanding the title of the song, and not realizing that a "day trip" was a short vacation, I went with the alternate meaning of trip and suggested that, upon completing our performance, Randy should appear to trip as he walked back to this desk.  The rest of the guys though it was an excellent suggestion, and the visual stunt was indeed performed at the end of our song.

We also got to go on a field trip in fourth grade, to our local chicken processing plant.  At that time it was known as Arkansas Valley Industries, or AVI.  We walked the long walk from school to the plant, and then got to see the unfortunate fate that awaited the poultry population of Scott County.  On the way back, we passed the little donut shop that had been built across the street from the plant.  We didn't get to stop and have a donut, unfortunately.  The little building is still there; it is a house now, I believe.

These were the days when we could go across the street at lunch recess to the Green Candy Store.  You can see my previous post, Lunch At The Candy Store, for more on this unique experience.  Let me just say that getting to have a bologna and chili "hot dog" at the candy store was wonderful beyond measure.

Fourth grade was, I think, when I began to be an actual person.  Maybe it's just that the memories before that time are faded, but it seems that during that fourth grade year, I began to interact with other kids more; joking and teasing Terri Churchill and Cathy Newberry, who sat immediately in front of and behind me, and feeling more of a sense of belonging.  Looking back, I have to attribute much of that to Mrs. Nelson, whose kindness and love for her students was so evident.  But that's what good teachers do.

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Trip To Rich Mountain

Me and Uncle Joe at the Lodge.  Addie had Joe hold my
hand so I wouldn't fall off the side of the mountain.

One Sunday afternoon in May of 1965, my Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe Carmack decided to drive to Rich Mountain. They offered to take me and my sister Janet along with them, but for some reason Janet declined.  Not me.  I'd heard about Rich Mountain.  I'd never been there, but I knew they had a little train that you could ride on, so that was enough for me to overcome my fear about being so far away from home.  I was going to Rich Mountain!

Addie and Joe had no children of their own, so Addie was like a second Mama to all the Yates kids.  Addie was one of the sweetest people you would ever meet, but she had one drawback - she was a worrier.  She worried about whether or not we were warm enough, or cool enough, or worried that we might get sick from something we ate.  Right now, she was worried about my eyes.  There we would be, on top of that mountain, that much closer to the sun.  But there would be no retinal damage on young Billy.  Joe, give him your sunglasses.

Uncle Joe and me riding the train.

So, Addie, Joe, and a sufficiently Ray-Banned Billy set out for Rich Mountain.  The drive must have been uneventful, since I don't remember anything about it.  But, as soon as we arrived at the top of the mountain, I spotted the miniature train.  That would be our first order of business.  So, my Uncle Joe and I waited in line for the train load up.  Uncle Joe managed to pry his lanky frame into the seat beside me, and off we went.  I was amazed at how long the train ride was.  We passed through woods that seemed far removed from the rest of the park.  When we'd come up to a road, the little train would let out a whistle just like the big trains did.  Too soon we arrived back at the little train station. 

A rare moment without my sunglasses

Just a short distance from the miniature train was a real, full-sized steam locomotive.  They must have had a time getting that thing on top of Rich Mountain, but it was a major attraction.  I climbed all over it, operating the controls and pretending to blow the whistle.  Aunt Addie made Uncle Joe climb up on there with me, just in case I got hurt.  When I got tired of playing engineer, I walked over to the old military tank that was next to the locomotive.  I climbed on top of it, but didn't go inside; the hatch was welded shut. 

Me and Uncle Joe atop the tank.

After that, we got back in the car and drove up to the lodge.  This was the old lodge, not the one that you see on Rich Mountain now.  It burned down sometime in the 70's, I think.  It was the most elaborate thing I had ever seen.  We didn't go in, we just looked around outside. 

I don't remember anything about the trip home.  But I did enjoy telling Janet about all the things she had missed.  I really felt big; it was the first time I had done anything like that by myself without my twin. 

Addie and Joe are both gone now.  They were very special to me and to the rest of my family. 

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Places of Business in Waldron - 1966

Waldron, like most small towns, has seen a dramatic decline in small, family-owned businesses since their heyday back in the 1960's.  It's no one's fault, really.  We have just become more mobile as a society; we don't think anything of running to Fort Smith to get something.  But, there was a time when most people got what they needed right here in Waldron.  Here are the places of business that advertised in the 1966 Waldron High School yearbook:

Bank of Waldron
Arkansas Valley Industries (AVI, later to become Tyson)
ACEE Milk Company (Fort Smith)
Piggly Wiggly
Waldron Butane & Currier Bros.
Hughes Insurance Agency
Waldron Furniture Manufacturing Corporation
Waldron Lumber Company, Inc. (T.M. Works, Manager)
Rock Cafe
Scott County Hardware (Thurman Jones)
Denton Motor Company (Dodge - Dart - Two Great Cars)
Waldron News
Rice Funeral Home
Ladies and Mens Shop
Atchley's Barber Shop
Syble's Beauty Shop
Crutchfield Restaurant
Ray Harrison, County Treasurer
Parsley's (Everything for Everybody)
Bill's Three Way Cafe (Bill and Norma Cobb)
Blythes Salvage
Oliver Furniture (Everything for the Home)
Clyde Hawkins, County Sheriff
Dewey McGaugh
Glenn Abbott, County Judge
B&B Rexall Drug
Oliver's Jewelry
Harris Motor Company (Ford)
71 Flower and Gift Shop (Polly and R.D. Beard)
Lee's Service Station
Main Street Laundry and Cleaners
Dee's Cut 'N Curl
W.A. McKeown, Mayor
Hazel's Beauty Shop
Judy's Drive In
Spark's & King's Barber Shop
Waldron Cleaners
Fort Smith Gas Corporation
Scott County Lumber Co.
Dairy Kreme (Mr. and Mrs. Winfred Oliver)
Marsh Dry Goods and Shoes
Jack Plemmons' Department Store
Rice Furniture and Appliance
Post Office Personnel
Ivan Plummer Grocery (Free Delivery)
Owens' Drug
Elliott Hardware
Waldron Flower and Gift Shop
Waldron Tractor Company (W.W. Dick Davis)
Interstate Telephone Company
Buddy Gray's Super Market
The Advance Reporter
White Dairy Ice Cream Company (Fort Smith)
Don's Clothing
Coca-Cola Bottling Company (Fort Smith)
Dalmac Mills (Joe Huie, John McGraw)
Theo Money Chevrolet Company
Beckman Dairy (Fort Smith)
Oklahoma Tire and Supply Company (A.C. Crutchfield)
Sims Building Materials
Robert Davis Grocery & Market
Waldron Stave Company (Clyde Sarratt)
Gatlin Farm Agency

Wow!  Three grocery stores, three new car dealerships, two newspapers, and a thriving downtown.  Those were the days.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Pickin' Em Up and Settin' Em Down

Quite often, we got where we needed to go by walking. For a big part of my childhood, my family’s only vehicle was Daddy’s telephone truck, which really was not conducive for a family of seven. Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe gave us rides to church, and sometimes we rode to school with my friend Randy’s dad Hoss Bottoms (actual name Horace, but for some reason we always called him Hoss). But for general purpose traveling, nothing was as convenient as our own feet.

Whether we were walking to school or town, we always started off walking up The Lane. The Lane was the side street next to our house on Pine. Later on, it got the official name of East 7th Street, but to us it was always The Lane. It was just wide enough for one car, so lots of time when you started down it in a vehicle you ended up having to back up to let someone pass. Nothing in the world smelt as sweet as the flowers growing in The Lane when you walked down it on the last day of school.

Walking up The Lane, you passed Edgar and Sophie Floyd’s house, and Henry and Toni Forrest’s house, and somewhere behind Edgar and Sophie was a railroad boxcar that had been turned into a little house. I don’t remember who lived in it, but it always made me think of one of my favorite books, The Boxcar Children. Henry and Toni had a daughter named Minnielle, who, the story goes, once set out on a bus to Hollywood. Minnielle actually was a talented singer who perhaps could have made it, but I think at some point before she reached her destination she turned around and came back home. But I always thought that was a pretty courageous thing to do anyway.

Across the street from Henry lived Malvin Rowlette. Malvin had a tractor that he used for plowing people’s garden spot every spring, which kept him pretty busy, since most people in Waldron had a garden. Malvin had a relative, maybe a cousin or nephew, who would come to see him about once a year. This guy had a truck with a big trailer that contained, of all things, a giant alligator. I guess he traveled around the country exhibiting it, and would come see Malvin whenever he got close to Waldron. Once, he let the neighborhood kids climb up and see it, which really seemed like a treat since we didn’t have to pay anything.

At the end of The Lane, if you were going to Buddy Gray’s Store or The Shed Drive-In, you would cut across the yard of the big house that is now owned by Donald Goodner. I can’t remember the name of the elderly lady who lived there at that time, but the house looked very different than it does now. It was a white frame house then, and we kept a permanent trail cut through the yard. If you were going to school or to town, you turned right on Featherston and walked down the sidewalk in front of the May Hotel. The May Hotel was more of a rooming house than an actual hotel, and was always a little bit spooky to us kids. To add to the spookiness, there was someone who lived there who, whenever school kids walked by, would make a “beep-beep” sound. We would stop and linger against the wrought iron fence, trying to figure out where the sound was coming from. About the time we were ready to give up, we would hear it again. We probably provided a few chuckles for somebody living there.

Across from the May hotel was where Sybil and Earl Cabe lived, and where Sybil’s Beauty Shop was located. My sister and I spent many happy hours there reading Highlights magazine while Mama got her hair fixed. Just past Sybil’s was the Methodist Church. If you were going to town, you crossed Church Street and continued on Featherston, cutting through at George Hawkins’ Garage to get to Main Street. But if you were headed to school, you cut through the Methodist Church yard, walking on another permanent trail we kept worn into the grass. (We did a lot of cutting through; I guess that’s a characteristic of walkers).

After waiting at the stoplight, you walked past the nice houses that lined the western half of Church Street. We always kept an eye out for the horse in the pasture behind the Crutchfield’s house on the corner of Washington and Church. We figured the horse belonged to their daughter Rebecca, who we knew was a popular student in Jr. High. Just a short way ahead was our destination, Waldron Elementary.

We walked more out of necessity than anything else, but life moved at a slower pace back then, it seems. But when you move a little slower, you see more.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

A Walk Down Main Street

In a previous post, I talked about the wonderful Parsley’s Store, Waldron’s five and dime. Let’s take a little stroll along the rest of Main Street, shall we? I don’t remember every store, circa 1965, but certain ones stand out in my memory. I may have some of the locations mixed up, and not all of them may have been in operation at the same time, but I’ll get as close as I can.

Walking on the west side of Main, heading north, a little past Parsley’s, was Plemmons’ Store. Some of you young folks will remember it as Bethel’s, but in my childhood it was Plemmons’. I always thought of it as kind of upscale; we bought some things there but not a lot. It was kind of Waldron’s Dillard’s. But every summer, they had a huge sale, and there was quite often a line on the first day of the sale to get a door prize. I made it in the line one time and got a trash can as a prize. A little past Plemmons’ was a door that led upstairs to Hazel’s Beauty Shop. Mama didn’t treat herself to a beauty shop appointment very often, and normally when she did she went to Sybil Cabe’s Beauty Shop which was actually part of her house on Featherston just a short distance from our house. My sister and I always went with her, and we loved it because Sybil kept Highlights Magazine; a real treat for a kid. Anyway, Hazel’s was upstairs, and since there weren’t many things in Waldron that required stairs, it was an adventure.

Past Plemmons’ was The Ladies and Mens Shop, which I seem to recall, had a lot more ladies clothes than men’s. It also seemed kind of upscale to me. Next to The Ladies and Mens Shop was Otasco, short for Oklahoma Tire and Supply. I believe that Mr. Crutchfield owned Otasco when I was a kid, and then later it was purchased by John Evans. It was a wondrous place. My sister and I once got brand new 26-inch bikes from Otasco. They were beautiful; hers was blue and mine red, complete with headlights and those little platforms above the rear tire for carrying a passenger. I remember we picked them up from some kind of storage area near the telephone office, but I don’t remember where exactly. They were great bikes.

Past Otasco was Marsh Dry Goods. Marsh’s was our clothing store of choice. Walking in to Marsh’s, you were immediately hit with the incredibly wonderful smell of leather and denim. Marsh’s had everything; shoes and boots, men’s clothing, women’s, and kids’. The Yates boys got our Wrangler jeans at Marsh’s. Not only did you get a pair of jeans, but inside the pocket was a half-sized comic book about cowboys and rodeos. I wish I’d kept those!

At the end of Main were the two drug stores, Owens Drug and B&B. Our family always used Owens Drug, and we trusted Renee as much as we did Dr. Wright. Usually we were just there for medicine, but on occasion we got to stop at the counter and get something from the fountain. The only time I remember going to B&B was one time when there was a big encephalitis scare, and the whole town was taking sulpha drugs. Owen’s was out, so we got ours at B&B. Later on, when I was in high school, I got a job at B&B as janitor, delivery boy and occasional soda jerk.

Crossing Main, and now walking on the east side of the highway heading south, we can look back toward the north and see a couple of interesting places. I’m just looking, because I wasn’t really allowed to go there. The first place is the Pool Hall. If we were on that part of the block, we usually just hurried past, although I did occasionally steal a glance just to see what it looked like in there. Mama didn’t intend for any of the Yates boys to grow up and become pool players. A little farther north, in a little storefront that didn’t even have a sign, was an establishment known to all as Frankie’s Clip Joint. It was owned by Frankie Dean. I always heard that Frankie was a former boxer, and that he had photos of famous boxers on the walls of the Clip Joint. I never knew exactly what Frankie sold; I heard he had a little lunch counter in there but never having set foot in the place, I don’t know that for sure. One of my classmates, Terry Nichols, had a paper route and Frankie’s was where he picked up the papers for delivery each morning. One day he came to school with one of those whistle rings, the kind you blow on and get a sound like a siren. He got it at Frankie’s for a dime. Needless to say, we all turned in our orders and, dutifully, Terry came back to school with whistle rings for all of us.

Frankie Dean was truly a Waldron Original. I came across his and his wife’s headstone at Duncan Cemetery one time, and I noticed that the headstone had the simple inscription, “Show People.” I imagined Frankie and his wife as vaudeville comedians, or perhaps working in Hollywood during the Golden Age of movies. I asked my dad about the “Show People” inscription one time, and he kind of burst my bubble. He said he thought they had always worked with the carnival.

Oliver’s Jewelry was another Waldron institution. My most significant memory of there was the watch that Mama gave me on my 11th birthday. My first watch; I was so proud of it. It came from Oliver’s, as did the initial ring that I got the next year. Crutchfield’s Restaurant was next. We didn’t get to eat there often, but when we did it was a real treat. I remember that they kept a little basket near the cash register filled with what appeared to be little pills, and each one had “DOPE” imprinted on it. When you pulled the sections of the capsule apart, you found a little piece of paper with a fact about Waldron or Scott County. You were getting the “dope” on Waldron.

The Ben Franklin Store was next, built on what used to be the Buzzard’s Roost. I loved that store; you can read more about it on my previous “Back to School” post. Somewhere in this area of Main was, briefly, United Dollar Store. That store didn’t last long, but it was a really neat place. I remember buying a bunch of fishing stuff there. Waldron Hardware located in the next block south. It’s another place I didn’t visit often. It was owned by Thurman Jones. The Scott Theater was nearby. Although my dad had worked as a projectionist for the theater back in the 1940’s, the “moving picture shows” were preached against strongly at Waldron Assembly of God, so I was banned from the theater. I once asked my dad what went on there, and he said they showed a movie on a big screen up in front. The only screen I knew anything about was the screen on our screen door, so I could never figure out how anyone could watch a movie on something that had that many holes in it.

Next to the theater was Cagle’s Barber Shop. I was a regular customer of Cagle, after graduating from my dad’s haircuts as a small kid. I always got a crew cut, which was perfect for my active childhood. A crew cut doesn’t take much preparation in the morning. My hair was a little longer when my dad cut it, and I always wanted it parted. I didn’t know the word for part, so I just told Mama that I wanted a road in my hair like Pat Boone. Oh, the power of TV.

Once when I was about 7, Cagle was out of cigarettes, so he sent me over to the Seamon Store to get a pack of Camels. The Seamon store was somewhere in that same block, and it was run by Robert Craig. I was very fearful that someone from church would see me buying a pack of Camels, and assume that I intended them for my own use. “Smoking!” they would think. “What’s next, going to the movies?” But I would not disappoint Cagle, so I gristled up and got those Camels. But I was sure glad to get back to the barber shop and get rid of them!

At the end of the block, across from Parsley’s was Rice Furniture and Appliance. As I’ve posted before, I was less interested in the merchandise inside the store than I was in the empty refrigerator boxes outside. You could have a lot of fun with a good refrigerator box. However, shortly before they moved to the bypass, Mama bought a coppertone colored electric range there, and it still works today.

Mama used to tell me how, on a Saturday, there would be so many people on Main Street that you could barely make your way down the sidewalk.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Snow Cone Story

I am hesitant to tell this story, because I look so good in it and I fear that readers will think that is my intent. It is not. However, as you read the unvarnished facts, you can make that determination for yourself. But I do come out looking really good in this story.

One hot summer afternoon, as I, my Greatest Childhood Friend Randy Bottoms, my sister Janet, and Randy’s sister Swanna were out doing whatever little kids did on hot summer afternoons, we were startled to hear the sound of musical bells ringing in the distance. We had never heard a sound like this before, so we listened in fascination as the sound of the bells grew closer and closer. Suddenly, at the end of Pine Street, a white truck turned the corner and slowly proceeded in our direction. The sound of the bells was coming from speakers on top of the truck! On the side of the truck in large blue letters were the words, “Snow Cones,” accompanied by drawings of the colorful treats. All we could do was watch the truck as it went by; we weren’t ready. We would not make that mistake again.

It took us awhile to figure out the snow cone truck’s schedule. So, we always kept an ear out for the sound of the musical bells, and as soon as we heard it we would rush into the house and get our money, then stand patiently beside the road waiting. The truck was one of those old van-type vehicles, with a window on the side where the snow cones were served. An icy treat costs ten cents; any flavor, including the enormously popular Suicide, which contained a rainbow of color and flavor. The crunchy ice tasted delicious, but the real treat was at the end, when all of the left-over syrup had collected at the bottom of the cone-shaped paper cup. One giant swig of that, and you were set for the afternoon.

Well, it happened one time that the Yates family was a little short on snow cone money. We were, after all, a family of seven. My dad had a good job at the phone company, but there were times just before payday every now and then when things were a little tight, and this happened to be one of those times. After consulting all available sources of revenue, my sister and I were only able to come up with one dime. One dime would buy you one snow cone. As we waited for the truck to come by, my sister and I tried to resolve the dilemma we faced. We could share. No, we couldn’t, because she didn’t want to eat after me and I didn’t want to eat after her. We could dip half into a bowl. No, because which one of us would have to eat out of the bowl? Maybe the guy would make two half snow cones. No, not likely. Our desperation increased as the truck made its slow, musical turn onto Pine Street. Realizing that the point of decision was here, I made the call.

“Janet,” I said, “why don’t you just get the snow cone this time and I’ll wait and get one next time.”

“That, brother,” she said, “is an excellent suggestion.” Well, those might not have been her exact words, but something pretty close.

As the snow cone truck came to a stop, I watched as Janet, my Greatest Childhood Friend Randy, and his sister Swanna lined up for their snow cones. Unable to bear the sorrow, I turned away and began to walk dejectedly back to the house. But after one step, I stopped dead in my tracks. In the dirt, something shiny caught my attention. I reached down into the dust and picked up…a dime! It was lying at my feet, miraculously! I turned back to the truck. “I’ll take a Suicide, please.”

I don’t know where the dime came from. It’s possible that Randy might have placed it there, although I never asked him about it. That’s the kind of thing he would do, though. Or maybe it was there all along. Or maybe God just thought I needed a snow cone that day.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Grocery List

Waldron was home to five different grocery stores back in the 1960's. James Hicks had a small store on Danville Road near Elliott's Hardware, and Plummer's Grocery was located nearby on Featherston Street (back in those days the street sign said "Featherstone"). On Main Street you had Piggly Wiggly and Buddy Gray's, and over on Washington Street was Robert Davis' Grocery. We did some of our grocery shopping at Buddy Gray's, but the majority of our business went to Robert Davis.

Davis Grocery offered something that other stores didn't: home delivery. At that time, Mama didn't drive; in fact, we didn't even own a vehicle. Since Daddy worked for the phone company, he was provided with a telephone truck, which he brought home every night. When we needed to go somewhere, we either loaded into the telephone truck or caught a ride with someone else. So, when we needed groceries, Mama would make a list and call Davis Grocery. A few hours later, M.C. Maxwell would arrive in his little green 1965 Chevy Pick-up with our groceries loaded in the back. However, there was often a complication. Lucky, our family dog, would suddenly go into protection mode and bark furiously at M.C., and if we didn't get out there and corral him, he would probably try to bite. Which was strange, because under normal circumstances Lucky was one of the most congenial and sweet-natured dogs you would ever encounter. So often, grocery delivery day meant that Lucky would spend the afternoon tied up to the clothesline until M.C. had made the delivery.

But M.C. actually managed to solve the Lucky problem for us. One day, when Lucky was barking furiously at him, M.C. pulled out a bone and handed it to Lucky. Lucky immediately quieted down and walked off with his prize. From then on, whenever M.C. delivered groceries, he'd bring a bone for Lucky. Pretty soon Lucky considered M.C. his best friend.

In addition to the normal staples like pinto beans, potatoes, bread, and milk, we sometimes got some items of more interest to a kid like me. Maybe a carton of cokes (6 and a half ounce, of course), some Sunshine Chocolate Cookies (still haven't found any as good), or maybe even a half-gallon of ice cream. Of course, we were a family of seven, so Mama had to cut corners wherever she could, so we often got Ice Milk instead of Ice Cream. There were two brands of Ice Milk; Ward Dairy made one that I think had the unlikely name of Melamine or something like that, and White Dairy made one called Frozen Delight. Even my young palate could tell the difference between Ice Milk and Ice Cream. I can remember how we served up our half gallon of Frozen Delight for a family of seven: You peel away the cardboard packaging so that you have just a block of Frozen Delight, get a butcher knife and proceed to slice it into seven more or less equal slabs. Always enough for everybody!
Me, whipping up a batch of Scotch-a-roos.

If we didn’t have enough for store bought treats, Mama would usually get something to make for us. Maybe graham crackers with chocolate icing spread in the middle. Or our all-time favorite, Scotch-A-Roos. Mama found the recipe for Scotch-A-Roos on the back of a Rice Krispies box one time, and I’ll bet over the years she made a thousand batches. You take a cup of sugar and a cup of Karo syrup, mix it together and put it over medium heat until it just begins to boil. Then you take it away from the stove, stir in a cup of peanut butter and six cups of Rice Krispies. You can also throw in some butterscotch chips if you have them. Get it all mixed together, dump it in a cake pan, and then see if you have enough self-control to wait until it cools enough to cut in into squares. If you can’t wait, you get a spoon and start eating them while they are cooling. They are unbelievably tasty! I still make them now.

Buddy Gray's store was just a few blocks from our house, so when we needed something from there we could always walk or ride our bikes. The actual name of the business was Buddy Gray's Market, which was spelled out in large wooden letters on the front of the store. Over time, some of the letters deteriorated and fell off, so eventually the name of the store appeared to just be UDDY MARKET. But Uddy Market was where you could ride your bike on a blistering summer afternoon and head to the ice cream box, where Popsicles were stored in little cardboard boxes with white strings around them. Each box held a different flavor: Cherry, Grape, Banana, Root Beer, Blueberry, Lime, and even those white ones that we could never quite identify the flavor of (probably lemonade). Buddy had by far the best selection of Popsicles anywhere. They were only a nickel, so you picked your flavor and rode home on your bike, steering with one hand and working on your Popsicle with the other. It was always interesting to walk around Buddy's store; he had a little bit of everything in there. I always liked to look at his fishing tackle department. There was a little shed out back where he sold minnows, and there was a tall wooden tower that always had water cascading down it to supply oxygen to the minnow tank. He also had school supplies, cookware, and most anything else you might need. If you were there late at night, you could see the guys working for him sweeping the concrete floor. They used push brooms, and they sprinkled some kind of purple stuff on the floor that I guess absorbed any liquid that may have spilled during the day.

Grocery day was always a good day.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Carnival Comes To Waldron

When the carnival came to town every fall, it was usually sponsored by the Waldron Volunteer Fire Department. Every volunteer fireman got a packet of tickets to carnival rides that they were responsible for trying to sell, and since Daddy was Fire Chief at that time, he always carried his packet of tickets around with him. I used to eye that packet of tickets with anticipation, because there were enough tickets there to ride the Ferris Wheel, the Merry-Go-Round, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and even the Hammer probably forever if you wanted to. The only problem was, they weren’t really our tickets, and Daddy was careful to make sure that the Waldron Fire Department didn’t lose any money on unaccounted-for tickets. The tickets were in sheets of six, and my sister Janet and I were usually lucky to get to split a sheet of tickets between us. So basically, that was three rides apiece. But that really wasn’t that bad, because after all, I was much too chicken to ride the Hammer, and the Ferris Wheel kind of freaked me out too (scared of heights!), so the Merry-Go-Round and the Tilt-A-Whirl were right about my speed, and maybe that third ticket could get me in to one of the sideshows or maybe a game.

I suppose there was probably a Fair in association with the carnival, but I was oblivious to that fact. I was a town kid, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to raise a calf or lamb or pig, and the only chicken I was interested in was the one that Mama would be cooking on Sunday. So the carnival midway was where I spent my time. There were all kinds of interesting little enterprises set up along the midway. One of the most fascinating to me was the guy who sold you a little ring or bracelet and then engraved your name on it. I found the concept of having your name etched in metal to be quite unique, but the price was out of my range so all I could do was watch. There were all kinds of games to consider playing, and if you happened to pass one by, the helpful attendant would shout at you to encourage you to try your luck. I was usually pretty good at the one where you picked up a little rubber duck and got whatever prize was listed on the bottom. Didn’t have much luck at Ring-Toss, and popping those balloons with a dart was practically impossible for me.

The best part of walking through the midway was smelling the food. The cotton candy booth was a particular favorite. Cotton candy has to be one of the all time great smells. And talk about portion size; you got an unbelievable amount of cotton candy on that little cardboard tube! If you wanted a more nutritious alternative, then you went to the candy apple booth. There, you got a wholesome apple, smothered in a hard shell that tasted like melted red hots. None of that caramel topping for us; these were real HARD-SHELL candy apples. They were delicious. And boy, those carnival hot dogs were good too.

I never could get up enough nerve to ride the Hammer. My brothers always rode it, and some of my more adventuresome friends from school had ridden it and told amazing tales of overcoming the sheer terror as it plummeted to earth. Every year, I resolved that this would be the year that I rode the Hammer, and that resolve lasted right up until I walked on to the midway and saw that monstrous contraption, whereupon my resolve withered away like the last of the cotton candy.

The best part of the carnival was seeing how everyone was having such a good time. It was just a happy place. At least for the visitors; some of the carnival workers did look a little glum though. One time I went to see a sideshow that advertised on giant signs outside the tent that inside, you would encounter a true Wild Man. I gave the man at the booth my last ticket, and went inside the tent along with the rest of the crowd. Inside the tent, safely secured inside a cage that I took to be iron, was indeed a Wild Man. He sat rather forlornly in a chair in the middle of the cage, occasionally emitting an animal-like snarl that was less than enthusiastic. However, should anyone doubt his Wildness, he suddenly picked up a cigarette butt from the floor of the cage and proceeded to eat it. Yes, he was a true Wild Man. I didn’t tell Mama about going to that one.

Years later, the lure of the sideshow overcame me as I was walking around at the Fort Smith Fair. It was those giant signs again, this time beckoning me to come inside the tent to see The Lobster Boy. I couldn’t pass this up, half-man, half-entrĂ©e. So, I paid my money and went inside the tent, whereupon I found myself to be in the rather awkward position of being the only spectator. It was me and the Lobster Boy, all alone. He was actually an older man with that particular birth defect in which the fingers are fused together to form two distinct stubs, which did have a certain claw-like appearance. The Lobster Boy gave a short talk, and then looked at me and said, “Do you have any questions.” I did, indeed, have questions, but the moment just didn’t seem right to ask any of them, so I just mumbled something and beat an awkward retreat. Now, you would think that that’s probably the last I ever heard of The Lobster Boy, but you would be wrong. I actually found a book about him one time, and read his story and it was quite fascinating. Then, incredibly, I was watching the news one night and they had the story of how The Lobster Boy had been brutally murdered by his ex-wife and her son. He evidently had amassed some cash over the years, and became a victim of greed.

The carnival coming to town was a BIG deal back in the 1960’s. It was truly one of the highlights of the year.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Staying Out Late

It was a good day when Bud Rice got in some new refrigerators for his store on Main Street. Because then, when he put the empty boxes outside in the trash, my Greatest Childhood Friend Randy Bottoms and I could ride our bikes down there and each drag a box home. The empty refrigerator box was an important component to one of my favorite childhood rituals, Staying Out Late.

The decision to Stay Out Late was almost always spontaneous, rarely planned. After a summer afternoon of playing outside, somebody would come up with the idea that this would be a really good night to stay out late. After the decision was made, then it actually became necessary to do a little planning. Our group usually consisted of me, Randy, my twin sister Janet, her friend Cindy Douglas, and Randy's sister Swanna. Occasionally J.P. Hicks from down the street would also join us, along with various other neighborhood kids.

One of the first items on the agenda was a trip to Buddy Gray's store to get hot dogs. There was one particular brand of hot dog that we usually settled on because it was invariably the cheapest. I don't remember the brand, but I do recall that the franks were dyed a bright shade of red, much brighter than competing brands, which was also a factor in our selection. Some chips, and if we had enough cash, maybe some candy bars, and we were set. We waited to purchase our drinks closer to our feast, because we wanted them to be cold.

The field beside our house was the location for the festivities. We managed to scrape up enough dry wood for a fire, and after we got the fire started, it was time to cook the hot dogs. One or two of us would then get on our bikes and head to the laundry that was located at the corner of Featherston and Eighth Streets, in order to purchase our drinks. They had a coke machine, so we dutifully gathered up enough empty bottles to put in the rack beside the machine to cover our purchase. We would have never even considered buying a coke without turning in an empty bottle; it was just kind of an unwritten code. If we had no empty bottles, we would go to Buddy Gray's store to get our cokes just so we could pay the nickel deposit.

I always preferred a mixed drink; one-half Mountain Dew and the other half Fanta Orange. This meant that I had to buy two drinks, drink each one down halfway, and then combine the contents into one bottle. Occasionally, the lure of the exotic became too strong, and instead of riding our bikes to the laundry, we would make the dangerous crossing of Church Street and ride to Denver Plummer's Gas Station for our drinks, because Denver had Cream Soda.

We would eat, laugh, ride our bikes around in the dark, and generally just enjoy being kids. We were never too loud, and I don't think the neighbors minded us staying out late. We didn't play any music, just kind of goofed around. Randy, J.P., and I once put a bunch of plums, some Mountain Dew, a little bit of chewing tobacco (it was J.P.), and anything else we could think of into a jar and sealed it up. We stored it in the back of an old truck tool box that came off one of my dad's old telephone trucks. We called it The Concoction. For the next year, it became a regular test of our resolve to open up The Concoction and take a big whiff.

After the fire died down and the girls had gone in, Randy and I would see how late we could stay out in our refrigerator boxes. By this time we had customized them, with windows cut out to allow air flow on a hot summer night. We would get a pillow and a blanket, fully intending to spend the entire night in our boxes. I don't think we ever actually made it the full night. We used to spend hours, it seems, just staring up into the night sky. We were looking for satellites, which, if you looked really closely, looked like stars that were moving slowly across the night sky. There movement was so slow it was almost imperceptible, but good satellite watchers like Randy and I could always spot them.

The next day, the boxes were put to a new use. We cut them open along one corner and laid the cardboard down on the sloping bank in our front yard. We could then take our shoes off, and in our sock feet take a run at the cardboard and slide down the bank. It was tremendous fun, and incredibly, none of us ever broke our arm doing that.

By the time we got to junior high, Staying Out Late had become a thing of the past. But even now sometimes, when I look at the sky on a gentle autumn night, I wish I had a refrigerator box.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Back To School

I was one of those kids that couldn't wait for school to start. Although after a few weeks, I was as bored as everyone else, I always felt a great sense of excitement as August drew near. There's just something about buying new school supplies; even today Office Depot is one of my favorite stores. In the early days, I guess we got our school supplies from Buddy Gray's grocery store. Buddy had an adequate supply of school products, but nothing to get very excited about...after all, his main business was groceries. Occasionally, we would shop at Parsley's for our school supplies. There the selection was a bit more varied.

But Back-to-School shopping really took off when Waldron finally got a Ben Franklin store. The advertising circular would come in the mail in late July or early August. I would linger over the pictures, planning exactly which marvelous products I would use. Three-ring binder, yes-but not the blue canvas kind that Buddy Gray sold; this one had a cool Peter Maxx painting on the front and back cover. A pencil case; a necessity. One year I even bought a fountain pen, perhaps the most impractical writing instrument ever sold to a junior-high student. But I used it and was proud.

At the beginning of my seventh grade year, I realized that I needed something to carry my books around in, since we were entering the world of Junior High, our first time to actually change classes. Ben Franklin advertised a gym bag for five dollars, but being the discerning shopper that I was, I noticed that you actually had your choice of a gym bag or an attache' case, either one for five dollars. Now, I had seen how striking an attache' case looked, because Darren Stevens on Bewitched carried one all the time. That's what I wanted; an attache' case! Just imagine how the girls would be impressed when they saw me carrying my attache' case through the halls of Waldron Junior High!

I hurried down to Ben Franklin and bought my case. It was beautiful. I carefully arranged all my other new school supplies in the case. I wondered if it would fit in my locker, but no worry; I'd be carrying it most of the time anyway. I was set. Come on first day of school.

The night before the first day, I began to have second thoughts. Perhaps the student body of Waldron Junior High wasn't quite ready for a guy with an attache case. Maybe if I lived in a bigger town, like Fort Smith, it might go over, but I had an uneasy feeling about my case. I agonized about it overnight, but when the morning arrived, I made the decision to leave my new attache' case at home.

I don't know why reason somehow prevailed. I'm sure if I had carried my new attache' case to school, I would probably have been straightened out by some fellow who saw the need to put Attache' Boy in his place. Fighting was not my thing; I was only in one fight ever in school and that girl nearly killed me. So, I put all my new school supplies in my locker and locked it securely with the new combination lock that I had purchased at Ben Franklin.

I guess the end of this story is a pretty good example of what I'm all about. I kept my attache' case at home, and used it to store important stuff. And I still have it today, and it is full of important stuff...momentos and memories from my days at Waldron Public School.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Visitor In The Night

It was one of those hot, August nights when all you can do is open a window and do your best to get some sleep. That’s what I was trying to do that night; I even had the curtains pulled back as far as they would go in case some random breeze happened by. Open windows at night were a requirement during the hot summer months; we had no air conditioning and the house was cooled by an evaporative fan, or “water cooler” as we called it.

Sometime in the wee hours of the night I was jarred awake by the ringing of our phone. A phone call at this time of night could only mean bad news, so I listened intently as Mama answered. I could tell she was talking to my grandmother who lived just down the street from us, and sure enough, something was wrong. “Is he trying to get into your house now?” I heard Mama ask, clearly alarmed. Instinctively she flipped on our porch light; Daddy was already hurriedly getting ready to go down there. I listened as the conversation continued. “Don’t let him in, even if he keeps banging on your door. We’ll be there in just a minute.” Mama continued to talk to my grandmother, trying to keep her calm until Daddy could get there. At some point in the conversation, Mama happened to pull the curtains back from the little window on our front door and glance out on the porch. “Oh,” I heard her say, a distinct note of alarm in her voice. “He’s on our porch now.”

Daddy, normally a laid-back and quiet man, threw open the door and stepped on to the porch to confront the stranger. “What do you want?” he demanded. “What are you doing, going around knocking on people’s doors in the middle of the night?”

By this time, I had gotten up and was peering out the door. Before me, I saw a scraggly young man with long hair, calmly sitting on our porch steps. “I’m just trying to find my mother’s house,” he told Daddy. “Does your mother live around here?” Daddy asked. “She lives in Fort Smith,” was the reply. Daddy and the stranger continued to talk, and finally Daddy told him how to get to the highway three blocks away. The stranger left, heading in the direction that Daddy had sent him. Once back in the house, Daddy called the police. “You’ll find him walking along 8th street, heading toward the highway.” After another phone call to make sure my grandmother was ok, we all went back to bed.

But that much excitement in the middle of a hot summer night made sleep an unlikely prospect. I lay in bed, listening to the night sounds, hoping for a soft breeze from the window that my bed was pushed up against. I heard a car drive by very slowly. The police, I figured. The car drove down “the lane,” the little side street that formed one corner of our lot, and turned onto Pine Street, heading toward 8th. “They’ll get him now,” I assured myself. I began to drift off to sleep, the night sounds serenading me.

I heard dogs barking up on the other end of the lane. Thinking that was a bit unusual for that time of night, I listened to see if I could hear anything else. The barking subsided, but was replaced by a steady “click, click” sound that I couldn’t quite make out. As the “click, click” grew louder, I realized that it was the sound of footsteps. Footsteps that were growing louder. Footsteps that meant that, on this hot August night, at what had to be about 2:00 in the morning, someone was walking down the lane. Someone who, perhaps, was angry because they had seen a police car go by. Someone who had the foresight to hide in the bushes. Someone who, maybe, was coming back to settle the score!

“No, get ahold of yourself,” I thought. “He just couldn’t find the highway and is probably lost.” The footsteps were still growing louder, and I was fighting the urge to panic. “Pretty soon, the footsteps are going to start sounding quieter, he’s going to be walking away from the house, and then I can go back to sleep,” I told myself. I listened intently to the sound of the footsteps, still growing louder. And then they stopped.

I listened with all my might. “He’s just cutting through our yard to make the corner to Pine Street. They’ll start up again any second,” I tried to reassure myself. But they didn’t. Just silence. Now, a moment of true fear arrived. Why did they stop? What is he doing? And why in the heck did I have to sleep with my window wide open and the curtains pulled back?

The open window was only inches away from me. I could reach it, take out the stick that was propping it open, and let it down, but to do that I would have to look at it, and I was afraid of what I might see. But I knew I was a sitting duck if I didn’t do something. Petrified with fear, I forced myself to slowly turn my head and look out my window.

Nothing. No deranged hippy, knife in hand, waiting to slash me. Just the darkness. Quickly, I took out the prop and let my window down, and pulled my curtains shut.

To this day, I don’t know why the footsteps stopped like they did. But the next time a hippy comes to my front porch in the middle of the night, I’m closing my windows.