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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Some Christmas Memories

An early Christmas before my time.  L to R, that's
my brother Phil, my brother Gary, my brother Gene,
and our cousin Sharon.  Hmm, they told me they
only got apples and oranges...

When I was a little guy, it didn't really feel like Christmas until we got our tree.  Our tree, of course, didn't come from a box in the garage; getting a Christmas tree meant a trip to a wondrous place called Addie and Joe's farm.  My Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe lived about seven miles outside of Waldron, and part of the fun of Christmas was going out to the farm and trudging through the woods with Uncle Joe, in search of that perfect tree.  We would bundle up and put on our boots, and after visiting with Mollie or one of Addie and Joe's other old horses, we would start our trek; past the old barn, through the clearing that led up to the little pond, and then either right or left to scope out the trees that lay at the foot of the big hill that separated Addie and Joe's place from their neighbors.  Running part way through the woods was an old road, long since abandoned and overgrown with trees, but the flat terrain was unmistakable.  I always imagined it was an old stagecoach road.  There was also an old abandoned house place up in the woods.  Nothing remained of the house, not even rocks from the old foundation, but if you went up there in the summertime you would find some pretty flowers growing incongruously in the middle of the trees.  That little housewife that lived there so long ago had no idea that a part of her would live on!

So, we would carefully examine our prospects; the pine trees were pretty, but not as full as the cedars, so we would ultimately settle on the prettiest cedar tree we could find.  And it's true; the tree that seemed the perfect height there in the woods was almost always too tall when we got it home, so a little sawing was required before we could place it in the bucket with some rocks to steady it and some water to try to keep it green as long as we could.  A few chairs were relocated in the living room, and soon our tree was set up in front of the double windows on the north side of the house.

My first Christmas, 1956.  (Mama's holding me,
Daddy's holding Janet)

Then began the process of decorating.  We didn't use twinkle lights, we had a set of old C7's or C9's that had been around forever that we used every year.  Once, someone had given Daddy a set of bubble lights; those lights that had a tube of colored liquid that, when heated by the light bulb, would actually boil a little bit.  We loved those bubble lights, but they didn't survive many years after we got them.  Once the lights were strung and tested, and the bad bulbs replaced, it was time for the other decorations.  One of the first things to go on the tree after the lights was a paper chain that my twin sister Janet and I had made out of construction paper.  To the chagrin of my brothers, we were adamant that our paper chain be a part of the tree each year.  I'll admit that after a few years, a construction paper chain begins to look a little rough, and eventually, Janet and I concurred that it was time to retire it.  But, for the purpose of our story today, we're putting on the paper chain.  Another carryover decoration from year to year was our Santa ornaments.  They weren't really ornaments; every year around Christmas time, the Acee Milk Company would put a sketch of Santa on their milk cartons.  Janet and I had carefully cut out the Santa pictures from empty cartons, and after a few years we had a pretty good collection of milk carton Santa pictures to put on our tree.

We had a few ornaments that went on next, but the final part of the decorating process was the application of icicles.  Icicles were very thin strips of aluminum foil-like material that were to be individually laid on the branches of the tree.  Impatient children, however, tended to put them on in clumps, which meant that instead of looking like icicles, they looked like big clumps of aluminum foil strips.  It was truly a patience-building exercise to properly apply icicles to a Christmas tree.  They came in a little package with a cardboard holder, with the icicles wrapped around the cardboard.  I inadvertently discovered one time that they would cling to the TV screen with static electricity, and when doing so it looked exactly like the TV screen was cracked.  I managed to pull that prank just about every year.  My sister Janet is famous in Yates Family Lore for her mistaken comment, "Aren't we going to put any shingles on the tree?"  From that point on, we always referred to icicles as "shingles."

We also usually dragged out at this time of year a particular toy.  A few years earlier, at Buddy Gray's grocery store, we had bought a soft Santa doll.  In his right hand, Santa held a little bottle of Coca-Cola.  That little Santa doll, along with Coke's great Christmas commercials, have served to forever link Coca-Cola and Christmas in my mind.  That, I guess, is good marketing.

What's a Christmas tree without presents, right?  The process of acquiring presents for the tree quite often began with one of our two or three yearly trips to Fort Smith.  Around Christmas time, we would load up into our 1963 Ford and travel up to a magical, wondrous place called K-mart.  K-mart at that time was located on Towson avenue, and Janet and I would have the opportunity to look over the entire toy section and pick out our own Christmas present.  Added to that, on a good year we had the astronomical top end limit of twenty dollars, so the possibilities were indeed staggering.  I was torn between looking over the toy selection and staring out the front windows of K-mart, because I had never been in a store that sold toys at night.  I would stare out into the darkness and marvel at the exciting life I led.  Eventually, I would settle on something; maybe a wood-burning set, maybe a game, or something else.  Other times, when circumstances dictated it, our present would come from the S&H Green Stamp store, which was equally exciting.

But one of the gifts I remember most didn't come from K-mart or anywhere else in Fort Smith.  It came from Oliver's Jewelery in Waldron.  When I was about ten or eleven, Mama got me an initial ring.  It was silver, and on a black square background had an elaborate "B" in silver.  It was a real ring; it was sized for me and was not adjustable.  I had begun to outgrow toys by that point, and I was so proud of that ring.  I wore it for many years, and there is a pretty good chance that I still have it in a box somewhere.

Another non-toy gift that I remember well was my first pair of bell-bottom pants.  It was during my seventh grade year, and I can still remember them; kind of a yellowish-tan with sort of a purple plaid pattern.  Yes, you're right; on the cutting edge of fashion even at that tender age.  I can remember walking up the stairs in the old junior high building wearing those bell-bottoms, and feeling really good.  It was groovy.

In later years, we incorporated a couple of other Christmas traditions.  One was the traditional Yates Football Game.  Really, it was more like the traditional Yates Going Out In The Field And Throwing A Football Around, but it was fun nonetheless.  We tried to do that, no matter how cold and windy it was.  We don't do that anymore; our hips are all too delicate.

The other Christmas tradition involved me and my brother Phil.  We would take all the empty boxes that were produced by that year's gift giving, and take them outside to a clear patch in the garden.  There, we would carefully arrange the boxes to simulate a small city.  Then, after carefully analyzing factors such as wind speed and direction, we would strategically light one corner of a box on fire.  Soon, the inferno would be sweeping through our "town," with total devastation and destruction assured.  Fun times.

I, probably like you, have many more Christmas memories, too many to share.  But if you have a particular favorite, why don't you leave a comment below and share it with the rest of us.  Or, if you're reading this from my Facebook link, just leave it as a Facebook comment.  This is one time of year when it's particularly fun to look back.  That's where the best Christmases are anyway.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

November 22, 1963

On this day, I'd like to repost this entry from last year...

Mrs. Tharp's second grade students had already finished our lunch that Friday, and we'd had fun at recess. November days were great for recess, pleasantly cool with crisp breezes that produced a torrent of colorful leaves falling down around us.  We'd played the usual games, chasing each other with no particular purpose in mind, or maybe swinging as high as we dared.  But recess was over, and we had settled back into our school work.  Handwriting, it was; we labored to shape the manuscript letters carefully on our paper.  The paper came with little red dotted lines between the blue lines; they were there to show us where the little parts of the letters should reach.  Somehow, we could never get it just exactly right.  You could be making the most perfect loop on a lower-case "b" and all of a sudden there was that little red dotted line, but you were already commited to the particular curve on that "b" and there was no way it was going to end on the red line.  Darn.

Someone came to the door and began to have a whispered conversation with Mrs. Tharp.  We didn't pay much attention at first, but soon we became aware that the conversation was lasting much longer than was normal.  Then, we heard what sounded like muffled crying.  There was a group of teachers out in the hall, all talking in whispers.  Something was definitely up.

The years have washed away her exact words, but Mrs. Tharp came back into the classroom and told us what had happened.  President Kennedy was dead.  Our President, the man we knew from TV, the man who was about the same age as our own parents, had been killed. 

I'm sure Mrs. Tharp never expected to have to deliver an announcement like that.  We didn't know how to process that kind of information.  No one said anything; we just kind of looked around at each other.  Nothing else to do or say.  Quietly, we returned to our handwriting.

When we got home, our parents were watching events as they unfolded on TV.  As Walter Cronkite led us through the terrible events, we began to understand.  The President had gone to Dallas, Texas and while he was being driven through the streets of town, someone had shot him from a building.  They had caught the man, and his name was Lee Harvey Oswald.  Nothing about it made any sense. 

We continued to watch the news through the weekend.  When we got home from church on Sunday at noon, we found out that the story now made even less sense.  As the Dallas police were taking Lee Harvey Oswald to another jail, someone came up to him in the parking garage of the Dallas Police Department and put a gun in his gut and fired.  Now, the man who had killed our President was dead himself.

People say the world changed that day.  We all saw the President's little son, John-John, stepping forward and delivering a salute as his father's flag-draped coffin passed by.  That has become probably the most heart-breaking image in all of America's history.  At the time, there was a guy named Vaughn Meader that used to impersonate President Kennedy, and he was frequently on TV and even had a hit record doing his impersonation.  I remember thinking, "I'll bet that guy feels really bad now, after making fun of President Kennedy like that."  Of course, his impersonation was not mean-spirited, but to a kid it just seemed that way.

A lot has happened, both bad and good, in the world since that day in November of 1963.  It became a landmark in people's lives, and almost anyone can tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing on the afternoon of November 22nd.  A whispered conversation, the sound of someone softly crying, and getting that manuscript "b" just right.  That's where I was.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Thanksgiving Always Came First

My blogger friend, Jim Sullivan (aka Suldog), has written a wonderful article for The Boston Herald, which you can read here.  Jim has also addressed the same topic on his widely read blog, located here.  What Jim is speaking of is the fact that we have placed so much importance on the retail side of Christmas that our society is practically overlooking the uniquely American holiday of Thanksgiving.  And he's right.

I remember once when my brother Phil and his wife Glenda brought over a Christmas present for somebody in the house; I don't remember who.  I was astonished, because it was like on about December 3rd or something, and I'd never encountered a Christmas present that early before.  "Holy Cow!" I thought; "it's awfully early for a Christmas present!"

Most of my memories about Thanksgiving from the early days are centered around school.  We studied about the Pilgrims, and that first brutal winter they experienced.  Our studies were augmented with a generous supply of coloring sheets, the educational value of which might be questioned by some, but not me.  The Indians, I recall, helped the Pilgrims by teaching them how to work the land.  There is one specific story and image that I cannot shake, although I have seen no reference to this anywhere since whichever teacher first planted it in my brain.  It is the image of a kind, smiling Indian, showing a Pilgrim farmer how to dramatically increase his yield of corn by placing a fish next to the seed being planted.  No picnic, certainly, for the fish, but it made sense at the time.  Now, that story sounds like it could be a combination of two entirely different stories that somehow got melded into one, like some sore of parasitic twin, but I have no way of knowing. 

Thanksgiving was one of the only two times that we ever had turkey, the other being Christmas.  To go with the turkey, Mama made a cornbread-type dressing that to this day remains unequaled.  I know that Mama's favorite part of Thanksgiving was the leftover dressing that we had for a day or two later.  After my brothers were all married and had families of their own, we still somehow always managed to get together at Mama and Daddy's house for Thanksgiving.  My Aunt Addie and Uncle Joe were always there too.  Addie usually made one of those cranberry/jello salads, and could always be counted on to have some Little Debbie treats, just in case we ran out of desserts.  Mama and Daddy's little house was packed with people; you could travel from the living room to the kitchen and hear four or five different discussions going on simultaneously.  I know this sounds hokey, but you could actually feel the love that these people had for each other.  There was a palpable sense of joy about the place; laughter radiated from every room.  Mama and Addie loved to tell stories about growing up, and the adventures that the seven Waganer children experienced as they moved from place to place, following the sawmill that their dad set up. 

So you see, we can't overlook something like this.  We can't let it be the day you rest up so that you can get up at 2:00 a.m. and go shopping.  It's more than that.  If you happen to believe, like I do, that there's a God who cares about you, it's a time to let Him know you appreciate that.  It's a time to recognize that maybe not everything you have came from your own efforts; maybe there are such things as "blessings."  So, with that in mind, here are a few of the blessings I'm thankful for:

    L to R:  Me, Laura, Ross, and Marilyn.
  • My wife Marilyn.  Ten years ago, I was alone and unhappy.  If someone had told me that I would marry the most beautiful girl in my graduating class of 1974 at Waldron High School, I would have questioned your reasoning ability.  But, in 2004, at our 30th reunion, Marilyn and I remet, and we were married 3 months later.  Thanks God.  You outdid yourself on that one.
  • My health.  In 2003 I stared down cancer, and for seven days prepared for my death.  But I was given my life back, and a chance to fix what was broken.  A luxury not afforded to most.  I'll tell you that story soon.
  • My two children.  Well, technically, they're my stepchildren, but they're still mine.  Ross is a teacher, soon to complete the requirements for his Master's Degree.  Laura is a doctor, finishing up her final year of residency before starting her own practice.  They are both brilliant, wonderful people, who have warmly accepted me into their lives.  I'm blessed.
  • Little Kate.
  • Kate.  My little granddaughter, Ross and Maegan's child.  Words cannot express my feelings.
  • The Extended Yates Family.  I could go on and on here.  Just let me say that Mama and Daddy, my brothers Gary, Gene, and Phil, my twin sister Janet, and their families mean the world to me.  We had to say goodbye to Mama a few years ago, and Daddy's not in the best of health, but somehow we still manage to get together from time to time and visit.  If there's anything good in me, it came from them.
  • Gus and Gracie.  Yes, I'm thankful for my two dogs, the little rats.
  • My relationship with God.  I grew up in a little church called Waldron Assembly of God.  I was fortunate to have as a pastor for most of those years my uncle, Sam Waganer.  People who know him will agree with this statement:  Sam Waganer was one of the most Godly men to ever walk the planet.  There was nothing phony about Sam; he believed just exactly like he lived; he not only talked the talk but he walked the walk.  I have on occasion in this blog made light of the conservative upbringing I experienced in that church, but in reality it saved me a lot of grief.  I'm thankful for that.
  • Me and the two rats.
  • My country.  I make it a point not to discuss politics, either in this blog or on Facebook.  Fortunately, we live in a country where people don't have to agree, where the discourse often leads to solutions.  I'm thankful for people in leadership positions who are statesmen, not ideologues.  I'm thankful that people have regularly sacrificed their lives to keep us free.
Thanksgiving comes first.

Monday, November 7, 2011

It Just Wouldn't Look Right If Jesus Got Saved

The first time Patsy Ruth Allen came to conduct a Kid's Crusade at Waldron Assembly of God was sometime in the early 1960's.  We were used to Vacation Bible School; we had that every summer.  But this time our pastor (and my uncle) Sam Waganer had decided to try something different.  All of us kids were gathered in the sanctuary when a small bundle of energy appeared before us in the form of Patsy Ruth Allen.  Patsy Ruth was a middle-aged woman who went around conducting Kid's Crusades for churches around the Southwest.  As she spoke to us, she would occasionally ask a question.  When someone in the audience came up with the answer, she would fling a piece of candy toward the correct respondent from the big box of candy that she carried around with her. 

On that first night of Kid's Crusade, she made this statement:  "One of the most important passages in the Bible is Malachi 3:8,9, and 10.  I want to encourage you to memorize that passage.  In fact, on Friday night, anyone who can stand and recite Malachi 3:8,9, and 10 will be allowed to come up here and reach your hand into this candy box and draw out as much candy as you can hold."  To the young, pudgy Billy Yates, this was the equivalent of saying "sic-em."

I worked diligently to memorize the passage.  I would practice it over and over each day.  Finally, I reached the point where I could recite it by memory.  When Friday night arrived, I was ready. 

Patsy Ruth asked who had memorized the scripture, and I and maybe one or two others stood up.  She pointed at me, and I began to recite:  "Will a man rob God?  But ye have robbed me.  But ye say wherein have we robbed thee?  In tithes and offerings.  Ye are cursed with a curse, for ye have robbed me even this whole nation.  Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house, and prove me now herewith, sayeth the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open up the windows of Heaven and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it."  Proudly, I walked to the front of the church, thrust my hand into the box of candy, and withdrew as much as I could hold.  Powerful stuff, that candy.  That passage of scripture has been retained in my memory for about 45 years.

Three or four years later, Patsy Ruth came back to conduct another service at church.  This time, however, it was not to be a Kid's Crusade, but rather a special one-time dramatic presentation.  She met with us on a Saturday to prepare for the presentation the next night.  We would be acting out a scene from the book of Revelation, specifically the Last Judgement, when those who had rejected Christ would face the punishment of the Lake of Fire.  For dramatic purposes, the Lake of Fire was actually a box fan laid down flat, with orange streamers attached to the grill which, when turned on and lit with a red lamp, looked remarkably like an actual Lake of Fire.  I was given the role of Jesus. Satan was to be portrayed by my friend David Yandell.   Satan, in a somewhat more dramatic role than mine, would circulate among the audience, and periodically reach out an seize some hapless individual (actually someone with whom Patsy Ruth had prearranged their participation).  The poor soul would of course resist as much as possible, but their screams would have no effect.  They would be led forcibly up to the front where I, as Jesus, was standing.  I would look at the poor wretch and sadly shake my head no, whereupon the sinner would again be led screaming and resisting over to the Lake of Fire, to be discarded like a used Kleenex. 

It was all surprisingly effective.  On the night of the performance, we had a house full.  We were all in costume, the lights were off in the sanctuary, and the Lake of Fire, with it's oddly lit orange streamers, looked frightening.  You could feel the tension as people were led off screaming to their fate.  Perhaps part of the tension was due to the audience members who, not aware of the prearranged actors scattered among them, feared that they might be called upon to deliver a spontaneous performance.  Anyway, during the altar call, several people came up to get saved. 

This created a rather unusual dilemma for me.  I, too, felt a tug that perhaps I needed to make things right with the Lord.  I had always gone to church, but I had never actually surrendered my heart to Jesus.  Unfortunately, at that moment, I was Jesus.  I was dressed like Jesus, I had just been presented as Jesus, so how would it look, I reasoned, for Jesus to go up and get saved?  Faced with the uncomfortable choice of Eternal Damnation versus Possible Ridicule, I, as the loyal reader of this blog might guess, chose avoidance of ridicule.  I would, I determined, preserve the integrity of my role. 

So, I didn't go up.  Not that night.  But I did, a few years later, on June 22, 1971 to be specific.  And I don't guess we ever had Patsy Ruth Allen back for another Kid's Crusade, or if we did I was already past being a kid.  But I'll never forget her!