i had written the real “Climbing My Mountain” last night. i decided it was too deep, too dark, too me to put it out there, at least for now and a long time forward. i also noticed i was writing way too much about me, the old man. i get maudlin, sappy, or worse, angry. It ain’t really me. It’s just me groveling around in my dark recesses, especially during what i might consider dark times.
But i can choose. Dark or light. Good vibes or bad. i choose light and good vibes. It’s just sometimes it takes me a while to get there. When younger with the world and success and worry about being secure when i got old pressing on me, dark was often with me, a driver to get moving. But i am at the older stage now, and secure. Maybe not as secure as i would like to be, but old enough to realize i can handle it, regardless of what happens for the rest of this crazy, insane, beautiful (at least, to me) life of mine. So i wrote this for Sam, an adjunct to the autobiography i’m writing only for him, which i am likely to never finish since i started not quite two years ago and thus far have reached the end of grammar school (Bet they don’t call it that now). Sam, this is for you.
This morning, i took a shower after a run and walk, which would have embarrassed me ten years ago. Automatically, i reach for the third hand towel, a rag essentially, to do the deed i detest, the dictate from my bride of thirty-four years: squeegee the shower when you are finished. For forty years, i never squeegeed a shower. Until Maureen and i moved into our first home together. Been squeegeeing ever since.
As i was squeegeeing (that’s one hell of a word isn’t it: “squeegeeing”?), my age sort of hit me in the face again, thinking, of all things, about squeegeeing. i thought about my pre-squeegeeing days, and considered what folks nowadays might think of me now and back then.
My daughters and my son-in-law probably consider me old and eccentric, nice old man but a little screwy and not necessarily someone they should heed. i’m a little batty they might say. Of course, they are correct on that count. My grandson Sam would think i’m prehistoric. If i’m lucky, he might think i came from a magic place far, far away and a long, long time ago.
i came from a place where i was isolated from the world going bad. You said, “Please,” “Thank you,” “i’m sorry.” And you better have meant what you said or retribution would swiftly follow, like in my case a pinch somewhere it hurt.”
My magic place was for children, only we didn’t know it. After all, we were told, “Children should be seen and not heard.” And if we talked loudly or silly in public, we would disappear with a parent into some corner. Rear end whelps were the usual result. Now, the parents say, “Isn’t that cute?”
But we had freedom. So did our parents in many ways. i often wondered what the hell locks were for. We never locked our cars, never. We never locked our homes either, except my father would lock the doors before he went to bed and unlock them when he arose. That’s it.
We played. Boy, did we play. Outside. All the time except for school. In the summer and during Christmas vacation (we actually called it that: “Christmas Vacation.” It sounds sort of right. i mean that’s what we had it for; and i’m pretty damn sure it wasn’t a government holiday; just the schools shut down for a couple of weeks, sort of like they did it because it was the right thing to do; the grownups and their businesses just kept on truckin’ right up through Christmas Eve. In fact, i don’t think there were any Christmas ads or stores stocking Christmas gifts and decorations until after Thanksgiving. We wrote our letters to Santa, and he magically showed up, left our presents requested, ate the cookie and drank the boiled custard we gave him, and somehow got that sleigh filled with more than a semi trailer could hold off the roof courtesy of eight tiny (but very strong) reindeer without us ever seeing him regardless of how hard we tried to stay up and catch him.
Anyway, during those winter two weeks and three months of summer, we woke, ate breakfast as a family, and were outside in about ten minutes. We did have to dress , have our morning constitutionals although we didn’t know what a constitutional was until later, much later, wash our faces, and, of course, brush our teeth. Ten minutes. Tops.
Then, after being admonished in the winter to put on our coats and hats, which we did dutifully, and not go too far (some undefinable limit only a parent would know) in the summer, we were outside to play. Until dinner (in the South, i’m not sure i used the term lunch except for school. After all, i had a lunch box). That was maybe a half-hour ordeal (unless of course dinner was a peanut butter and jelly or banana sandwich: then it wasn’t an ordeal), we were back outside until, yep, you guessed it, supper (“dinner” was midday except for highfaluting folks or Yankees) . In the summer, we were back at it after we washed and dried the dishes. Outside. The hell with the mosquitoes. We were catching those lightning bugs (some misguided souls called them fireflies) and putting them in a mason jar with holes punched in the lid with Mother’s icepick.
Also in the summer, we wore the minimum. Boys: underwear and shorts. Girls: underwear, shorts, and a halter top. That’s it. The hell with bee stings on the feet. In fact, bee stings were damn near an initiation requirement.
We would put blankets in the shade underneath the front yard Chinese maple, our rendezvous place. But we were seldom in the shade. Tan was good. i don’t think i ever saw sunscreen other than an umbrella for old ladies until i was about…oh say, forty. Oh, women had tanning lotion. Baby oil and other concoctions to get a deeper tan. But not for us, even at the swimming pool.
And then we were gone. All over the neighborhood. Almost every home had one to five kids. Those that didn’t were considered weird, a place to avoid. We roamed.
We had a hole in the back fence where we could go play with the kids on Pennsylvania Annex and was later the shortcut for us and almost every kid within five miles. We could run through the sheets and laundry hung out to dry because we didn’t have a dryer.
But we better not get caught. If we did, we would be ordered inside, where Mother would pull down that well-worn paddle originally with a ball and rubber band attached by a staple, and we would get it. That, of course, was for minor infractions. For the big ones, like not coming home for one of those aforementioned meals or being late for bedtime, could be serious. And telling a whopper, or hitting someone who didn’t deserve it, well, that meant the old paddle was used to an extensive extent, and then, even worse, we were told in a menacing tone to wait until Daddy got home. A fate worse than death. And when he got home, he would sit down on a chair and direct me to go find a “good” switch on a bush outside and bring it in. And i would fetch the smallest twig i could find i thought might pass muster, and it wouldn’t. So Daddy would get angry when he had just been only severe, and tell me to get another one, and i learned (after about four or five of these experiences: i was a slow learner) to get a proper “switch.” Because if i didn’t, he would get angrier, and pull off his belt. Regardless, sometime after this hopeless negotiation on my part, i would be brought to bending over his knees after my pants or shorts had been lowered to a most embarrassing position, and my father, in what is a most accurate description of what happened, “wear me out.”
i am still amazed that when they said i was getting this diabolical punishment because they loved me i believed them completely. Still do. i was not so much in belief when they would often note it was going to hurt them more than it hurt me. Now that i’m older, i understand a little bit, but i still ain’t buying it.
And in June, we would catch June bugs. Of course. And we would tie a string around the June bugs leg and let it fly around our heads in never-ending circles. And we never even considered it might be cruel from the June bug’s perspective.
And we ate watermelon long before some agronomist or some such figured out how to make them “seedless.” Man, slobbering through a wedge of watermelon and spitting the seeds out was part of the joy and deliciousness of eating watermelon. Outside only.
But that was topped by homemade peach ice cream. The folks would invite all the kin over and dig the old wooden bucket with a crank handle on top out of some recess in the basement and bring it outside. Then they would put the canister filled with the magic elixir into the bucket filled with ice then surround it with dry ice and then cover all but the crank with blankets and we (one to three of the children, aka me) would crank the crank until we couldn’t crank anymore and one of the menfolk would take over until the ice cream in the canister was…well, ice cream. We would pull out bowls right there in the back yard and some expert would extract the ice cream from the canister into the bowls and the grownups would sit in the lawn chairs and the children would sit on the grass ingesting the best tasting stuff in the world, homemade peach ice cream.Consumed. Right there. On the spot. All of it. Gone. It was a mess to clean up but worth it.
We would walk to school and back by ourselves every day unless it rained or snowed when mother (Daddy was long gone to work before we left for school) would take us in the car. In the afternoons, we usually would congregate into a herd of first to six graders and walk together with young’uns peeling off when we reached their homes on the route.
At school recess (two a day, mid-morning, mid-afternoon to swing on swings and take them to the sky because you were a sissy if you didn’t get them parallel to the ground where they would slack and slam you back as you returned on the never ending arc, or propelling the old metal merry-go-round to what we considered the speed of sound or just under the limit (most of the time) to a speed where we could jump on the bed without holding on to the handle and propelling ourselves out with possible grievous injury to ourselves and all nearby, or playing kickball on the diamond made a diamond by the constant running around the paths to bases formed from articles of clothing or softball at the diamond on the end of the playground which had a tree behind the backstop where someone — i don’t think it was actually him, for it was from relatively new knife cuts and he had died at the Alamo about six score years before i saw and worshipped the carving as a religious icon — had carved a terse, scrawling note: “D. Crockett, kilt a bear under this tree, March 1810.”
Walking home and especially at the above school recess, there was some things going on which today would be cause for twenty years behind bars or exorcism or public degradation, or some media outlet calling you out as despicable. There were fights, at least among the boys, and there was bullying and the bully got his upstart from the kids, like “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt you” or “i’m gonna tell,” which was something akin to a death knell if you were a kid. Snitchers were the lowest form pre-prepubescent munchkins. The remarkable thing was we fixed it ourselves.
In fact, the whole town, this magic place, fixed themselves. Except for Doc Lowe (and others) of course. We would go in to the hospital, a whopping mile and a half all the way across town, and Charles T. Lowe, MD, would check me out, or we would go to his house two blocks away, or he would come over to ours with his little black leather bag and check me out. Nearly always, he would pat me on the head, have me pull down my britches (does anyone call them “britches” anymore? and if so, do they know what it means?) and lean over his knee (fearfully reminiscent those moments where my father would say “this hurts me more than you.”) and stick what i believed to be a footlong needle into my backside and shoot the juice they called penicillin into the most tender muscles of my poor but valiant rear end. i don’t recall any specialists, although they could have been hiding somewhere. All illness and varying damages due to child collisions: one doc. Brought me into this world, saw me through childhood, a most difficult task, taking out my tonsils at six and then ten. Yes, twice. Meant i got ice cream twice. But that either was awful smelling. It was a toss-up.
And i don’t remember counselors. Of any type. They may have been there, and probably were abundant in Nashville, but not in Lebanon, thirty miles and about 123 farms down the road east.
And decisions about school extracurricular activities? There were three sports. Football, basketball, and baseball. That’s it. Except up at Castle Heights where they were way more sophisticated and offered a panoply of athletic pursuits. But by that time, my other religious experience besides church on good Sundays was the other blessed trinity: Football in the fall. Basketball in the winter. Baseball in the spring and summer. Fall, it all began again.
And when it rained, we played with wood scraps, from Uncle Snook’s work as a builder with his brother Ben, on the small screened in back porch or we played canasta until infinity with the old RCA Victrola record player blaring 78 RPM records such as Dennis Day singing for Disney and relating the story of “Johnny Appleseed” or Phil Harris singing “That’s What I Like About the South” over and over and over.
And i would walk down West Main to the library into the old stately house turned book haven and wander through the shelves and pick out books, mostly about American heroes painted with a halo, because none did wrong in these books, and i would read two or three in a week and walk back down West Main and turn them in before they were overdue, of which the date for that terrible deed occurring stamped on the card in the small folder glued to the back of the cover, and if i failed and had to pay a penny for each day i sinned, out would come Mother’s wood paddle off the refrigerator one more time.
Then in 1952 came television when Roberta Padgett invited me across the field after school so we could watch on her brand new twelve-inch screen black and white television, the latest thing. After Kate Smith sang “America, the Beautiful,” we could watch “Howdy Doody” and Ruffin Ready introduced Roy or Gene in their oater of the day. All before i would be sent home for supper.
And low and behold in 1954, an earthquake occurred at 127 Castle Heights Avenue when our father brought home our own television. It sat in a place of glory in the corner of living room next to the interior hall. The focus of the room changed and we would sit or lie on the floor, the latter with our chins resting on our hands while we could watch magic. In addition to the addictions i had acquired at Roberta’s, we would watch Milton Berle in “The Texaco Hour,” “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour,” “Red Skeleton,” and “Martha Raye.” Saturday mornings were child heaven with the “Sealtest Big Top,” the “Andy’s Show” hosted by Andy Devine and his squeaky voice with Froggy and Midnight and Buster Brown and his dog, Tige, who lived in a shoe, both of them, and then “Little Beaver,” “Red Ryder,” and “Sky King,” and “Lassie.” And we were, we undoubtedly knew, in heaven.
And they kept me away all that other bad stuff. Jim Crow, the segregatrion from other people with darker skins besides a babysitter, housekeeper named Vicey Shavers, and the garbage man named Jake Hughes who came every Tuesday and parked his wagon with truck tires for wheels, reeking with smell, and pulled by his old mule, and he would walk to the back of the house and pick up the tin garbage can and tote it to the wagon, and hoist it up and empty the contents into the aromatic wagon bed, and return the can to its rightful place in the backyard far enough away so the aroma before next Tuesday would not waft into the house because we didn’t have air conditioning and the windows were open in the summer. And Jake, wonderful soul that he was, amassed a small fortune i am told. Good for him.
My magic place was isolated. It had a dark side i never really saw, and it was “Brigadoon,” only an ocean and a state and old bunch of world and time removed.
It was magic.
It was home, the likes of which i don’t think we will ever see again.