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, 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.