Six-to-Twelve-Years–Old

Daddy got a government job at Red River Arsenal. For the first time in his life he had a viable career. Red River was an ammunitions storage facility with tank repair facilities. I have no idea what he actually did there, not what mother purported which was allegedly top-secret. We were assigned a house in the housing facility in Hooks which is not far from Texarkana. Hooks is what Texans call a red, white and blue city – red necks, white T-shirts and blue northerners. When the Polar Express collides with northeast Texas, it leaves a trail of icy devastation across the flatlands and valleys.

Memories from Hooks still bubble up for me. I remember Billy getting in trouble for playing football, shirtless. She was 12-years-old, but not yet developed. She felt compelled to look and act like one of the boys. She was always tall and lanky with limp, stringy hair. Mother always referred to her hair as “cat smellers.” She made guns from scraps of wood and a clothes pin attached as the firing pin. She cut rubber inner-tubes into strips. Next, across the wooden barrel, she would stretch the rubber strips which were locked on by the clothes pin. You can be positive, we were her favorite targets.

Margaret brought Vana, her first child, home for a visit. Holding Vana up so we could see her, Ron and I would gawk from the doorway because Margaret considered us germ magnets. I found Margaret’s tulle formal from high school and made a bridal gown for my doll. When I showed her my beautiful doll dress, she exploded. I couldn’t quite grasp the enormity of her fury. I figured if the dress had been so important, she wouldn’t have left it behind. I was a rather bottom line child which set me up for my ever-present “get over yourself” attitude. It has actually served me pretty well, so I should thank Margaret.

We drove to Texarkana to attend church. I think Mother had the hots for the preacher more than religion. After what seemed interminable sermons, I was always desperate to potty. After the service when the preacher came by, Mother would preen and sashay. I would stand on one foot wiggling and willing myself to not wet my panties. I had very little patience with my Southern belle mother’s need to constantly flirt.

For a church pageant, a couple who had been missionaries in China dressed me in a soft, yellow, silk kimono. It was my first real taste of luxury. I absolutely despised Vacation Bible school. Maybe because I was so petite, they treated me like a three-year-old. I hated marching around in little chain-gang groups. Daily, they served orange Kool-Aid with stale, dry cookies, both of which I abhorred.

I started grade school, and I recall getting new dresses, all of which needed to be hemmed. I also remember wearing the same dresses in the 4th grade with the hem obviously re-let out. Since we moved frequently, and I would go to a different school maybe no one would know the difference. I was so tiny, I could wear the same clothes for four years.

I had a defining moment in Hooks. I was in the 1st grade and there was a school pageant. Each class had a princess and a prince, and we lined up from 1st through the 6th grades. Much to my amazement, I was the 1st grade princess. In a long, ruffled, organdy dress on the arm of my escort, we led the royalty up to the stage. How that happened and how I got the dress is long gone. The highlight of the evening was a raffle, which I won. Unfortunately for me, the prize was a pair of rabbits. I had to cry to get Mother to let me take the rabbits home. The rabbits did not last long because whoever kidnaps rabbits from six-year-olds got to our house quickly. What my folks gave with one hand, they took away with the other. I remember the organdy dress. I remember the rabbit’s disappearance more.

Lee’s wife, Jean, was from Texarkana. She had two Pomeranian dogs which she was insane about. Lee was in his early 20s and cocky as all get out. He would take Ron and me to their apartment on Saturday. He made a big deal out of being a big brother. Actually, I am sure it was to irritate Jean. She didn’t care for kids and wouldn’t let us touch anything.

During this time, Lee bought a new, baby-blue Ford sedan. He drove over a gravel road with me standing in the back floorboard. Looking over his shoulder, I watched as the speedometer inched up until we were flying over a 100 miles an hour. When we got home, I was happy about being the fastest kid in the world. Mother was not happy.

I knew that President Truman had ordered the atomic bomb to be dropped on Japan when I was an infant. I vaguely knew the details of the actual event, and I was aware that thousands of people had perished. Conceivably, millions were suffering the aftermath of radiation sickness as it was referred to in 1950. I could not begin to put this troubling information in perspective. My innate curiosity couldn’t grapple with an event of such enormity.

Looking at a globe and running my finger around the top quadrant as I spun it, I would look for Japan. It was an island next to two of the world’s largest countries, China and Russia. How could such a tiny country cause so much havoc that our President would drop the “biggest bomb in the history of mankind” on it? Did the Japanese have any warning? If it was such a ferocious bomb, how did the plane carrying that amazing cargo manage to get away safely? If the bombs had leveled the cities, where were the hospitals for all these people? At-six-years-old being aware and understanding were contrary concepts.

My teacher announced that the federal government had mandated all schools were to conduct bomb drills. Being familiar with fire drills, I was anticipating getting to go outside to the playground. She explained that when the siren sounded, we would be required to sit underneath our desks. We were to pull our legs up, wrap our arms around our legs and put our heads down.

Disappointed that we wouldn’t be going out, I did as instructed when the siren’s blast began. I slid down the smooth seat and eased onto the floor. I wrapped my tiny arms around my bony knees and waited. Surprisingly calm, I heard another child weeping, and I began to look around at my classmates. Some had their eyes tightly shut, others had eyes that were wide-with-fear, and one little boy was sitting at attention with a stoic expression.

With extreme clarity, it occurred to me that if a bomb should fall on us like the one that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it would be pointless to sit under a desk. Why would anyone bomb a Texas elementary school when Washington, D.C. would be a more likely target? Who in the government was under the impression that sitting underneath a desk was an effective deterrent to an atomic bomb? For certain, I had far more questions than I had fear. I may have been an old-six-year old.

In 1954, we moved to Pine Bluff Arsenal, Arkansas. I have many memories of playing outside until after dark, climbing trees, roaming in the woods and fine tuning my attitude. Ron was forced to play house with me for endless hours. We lived in post housing, adjacent to the arsenal, which was a closed to the public facility. The arsenal produced a wide array of munitions and chemical/biological defense systems. On the arsenal proper, there was the upper rank military houses, the officer’s club with a swimming pool, a golf course and a movie. The Army sent a bus to the housing area for movie pick-up, and we went to the movies for 25 cents. On the post there were massive, concrete, ammunitions dumps which were covered in tons of dirt with grass growing over them. During tornado alerts, we would stay in an empty one. The bunkers were dark, damp and dank, but everybody brought food and blankets to sit on. We played cards and visited with the other families. It didn’t take long for a “sing” to start.

Daddy was sent to trade schools by the Army. The summer he went to school in New York, Mother went with him. The highlight of the trip for her was shopping at Saks Fifth Avenue. She bought a demitasse cup set with saucers shaped like leaves, which I have. I doubt if they were ever used or brought out of the china cabinet. She purchased a silver-on-glass tea service which Ron has now. We were still afloat on a ship name Grand Illusions, because we were now accumulating materials things used by society. We were going to be prepared when our time to be rich and famous sailed by. I was fully aware that Aunt Sadie’s last salvo had sunk the original ship which never got to float, even if the rest of my family still aspired to the myth of our ship coming in.

Mother parlayed her musical ability into being the music teacher at the elementary school. Since she couldn’t read music, I am not sure how she pulled that off. Being into big productions with grade school children, she insisted I take tap dancing. I had two left feet. For one program, we picked hundreds of flowers and stapled them on the backdrop of the stage. By the time the program started, the roses were dismal, droopy and forlorn. She wrote a blues song, I’ve Got the Helicopter Blues. I am sorry that I don’t remember the words, I think having the blues for helicopters was a first.

I distinctly recall being in a Christmas program. My “get over yourself” personality surfaced during my solo. For all the musical ability in my family, I can not carry a tune. The humorist, Fred Allen, once said, “The first time I sang in the church choir; two hundred people changed their religion.”

I can see myself on the stage wearing an iridescent taffeta, navy jumper with an organza blouse which was a hand-me-down. Mother had chopped my hair off like an extra from Annie. Looking out into the audience and seeing Major Lane I thought, “I wonder if he knows I can not carry a goddamn tune?” That was my last musical performance. I remember the song. It was Winter Wonderland, and I still can’t sing it. From that minute on Mother quit pushing me to be the star, and that lot fell to Billy.

I wasn’t saddled with attending church during this period as Mother was now a music teacher. She didn’t have to rely on being in the choir. They bought a used piano, and now she could teach piano lessons. She required me to learn to play the piano, and I did learn the AGBDF (all good birds do fly) theory of music. I really don’t recall the lessons, I recall practicing. While she cooked, I practiced in the next room. When I made a mistake, she would fly into the living room ranting and raving about my inability to play as taught. I didn’t last long as a piano student, she dumped me. I did have a wonderful discovery, there was music other than hymns and country-western as it was called in those days. I discovered Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven. Classical music has been my preference since then.

Lee and Jean divorced. He left Texarkana and his first son, Michael behind. He brought his dog, Toni, home to us. She was a pedigreed, black Cocker Spaniel. Since she was Lee’s, we were allowed to have a dog in the house. She was beyond spoiled, and even Daddy would buy her a serving of ice cream in a Dixie cup. Toni got to be rather hefty. When we would pack for a trip, she would put her rump against the door hoping we couldn’t get out.

Toni came into heat. We were told not to let the dog out, but no one bothered to explain why to me. Unfortunately, on a Sunday morning, I was up, and the dog wanted to go outside. Naturally, I opened the door. In a short time, Mother drug me out to the back porch where I was required to watch the damage I had done. Toni’s suitor had wasted no time in mounting her.

On trips Daddy made sure we saw every historical attraction. He never passed a historical marker on any highway without stopping to see it. At every historical marker in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Mississippi, we stopped to pay homage. We drove to Nashville to see Margaret, Van and Vana. The trip’s highlight for me was getting to go to the Parthenon replica in Nashville.

In the 1950s, most automobiles didn’t have air conditioners so the Ol’ Man always traveled at night. Early one morning in eastern Tennessee, we were traveling up a narrow, mountain highway. Everyone was asleep. Awake, I was looking over Daddy’s shoulder. Considering he had to be tired, I was worried. The rising, morning sun was shining directly into his eyes. The mountain jutted up through the haze covering the valley below. The haze clung to the highway. I looked out, and in a clearing I saw the drop from the mountain. There were no guard rails. I was terrified! When the family awakened, Daddy had parked at one of the panoramic vistas. We were surrounded by the glory of the Smoky Mountains. Looking through the telescopes, we swore we could see seven states from there.

We toured Mammoth Caves in Kentucky and crossed over into Indiana, one time just for the hell of it. The Ol’ Man had gypsy in his soul. Years later while living in Germany, I would see the gypsy caravans and automatically thought of him.

I loved traveling in the South in the spring. Mimosa trees grew heavily along the highways. There were massive wild azaleas and wild honeysuckle. Their sweet, heady aroma would waft into the car windows as we drove down the highway. When the dogwoods were in bloom, Mother would tell us the legend of the dogwood tree. Legend has it that at the time of the crucifixion, the dogwood was distressed to be the timber for the crucifixion cross. Since then the dogwood has been a small tree with petals showing a crown of thorns.

Growing across the South, there is a prolific, ivy-like plant called kudzu. The small white flowers have a subtle, sweet fragrance. The shapes created by kudzu vines growing over trees and bushes were delightful. We would drive by green, fantasy lands where the lush, sculptured intricacies of kudzu vine-covered abandoned barns, cars and fences were enchanting.

We often went to Mississippi for Mother to visit her family. Daddy, Ron and I would do all the tourist things at the beach. Never did he think to go visit with a relative or a former friend. It was almost as if he had never lived his first 38 years on the Gulf Coast. I have a black and white photograph of Ron and me standing on a boat in the Gulfport harbor with the wind plastering my dress to my body.

When we took trips to Mississippi, if at all possible Mother would dump us at Jackie’s house. Jackie was the only daughter of Aunt Lonnie who was an RN. Although Jackie and I were 1st cousins, she was seven or eight years younger than Mother. They lived in Pass Christian, a half block from the beach. Aunt Lonnie owned the house, but she lived upstairs in a small apartment,. She turned the remainder of the house over to Jackie and her husband, Emmet. Four of their six children had been born. The kids wrecked the house, tore the screens off the floor-to-ceiling windows and a continuous fight was always in progress.

When my parents would arrive, Jackie would make drip coffee. The chipped, enamel pot had a mahogany-stained, cloth bag which held the coffee grounds. It looked dirty, and I couldn’t imagine ever wanting coffee at her house. Jackie was short, squat and homely. Her bulldog features were close-set, and she had a pinched expression. Jackie screamed and cursed incessantly. Instantly, she could go into a rage. She was the meanest woman I had ever met. Emmet would take all the kids down to the beach, build a campfire and boil seafood. He did his best to keep us out of her line of fire.

My senses went into overload every time I had to stay behind in Pass Christian. Feeling sorry for me, Aunt Lonnie would take me upstairs to her apartment when she came home from her shift. In the late 1940s, Howard Hughes was a famous airplane designer and a prominent movie producer. For the movie The Outlaw with Jane Russell, Hughes invented a one-of-a-kind bra to up-lift the contour of the bosom. Aunt Lonnie was stout with rather large breasts which were uplifted high by her Hughes-like bra. In her uniform, she looked like a chalky-white ship’s prow. Her unfeminine, stern features belied the softness she always had for me. Thankful to leave the battle royal behind, I was thrilled she wouldn’t allow her grandchildren access to her living quarters.

Some summers, Mother would let me spend time with Aunt Clyde on their farm. Uncle Arthur was considerably older than Clyde, and they didn’t have any children. She weighed around 200 pounds, and Uncle Arthur was as skinny as a bed rail. They looked like Jack Sprat and his wife. Mother’s fastidious attention to her skin care always made me aware of my aunts’ complexion. Aunt Clyde had ruddy, coarse complexion with large pores. She wore frumpy, cotton dresses. Mother would say, “She looks like a toad sack tied in the middle.” True to the stereotype of fat people, Clyde was always jolly.

Clyde was a wonderful cook and made fresh lemon cake with real butter. Mother’s cakes always fell and in all likelihood she never bought real butter. The farm had huge, pecan trees that were so weighed down with nuts, I could hear the limbs cracking during the night. In the morning, she would send me to the hen-house to gather eggs. Every time I went to the farm, they would name a new-born calf after me. I would go with Arthur and his bachelor brother to milk the cows. I wouldn’t drink the fresh milk. They would have to go to town to buy milk for me. Aunt Clyde couldn’t drive and Uncle Arthur, who was almost blind, drove. When we would come up on a stop sign, she would shriek, “Stop sign.” He was all but deaf, too. One year, I wrote Aunt Clyde a letter begging her to let me live with them. I waited for an answer, and years later it occurred to me that Mother had never mailed my desperate letter.

Occasionally, Mother would let us go to Vancleave with her. We would visit with Aunt Clara and Sook. Sook was 19 years older than I, but she became my favorite cousin as an adult. Eventually, someone would suggest we go down to Toby’s house to drink coffee. Toby and Sook were siblings. They lived a mile apart, but it may as well have been an ocean.

Toby was a drunk. He and Nell had six children with the oldest about Ron’s age. Their house was literally a shack. There was a kitchen, living room and one bedroom for eight people. There was no need for doors, the kids climbed in and out of the windows like Jackie’s kids. Once, the adults were discussing a rape trial. A Black man had allegedly raped a white woman. I should have been outside playing with the other children. Hearing the men’s obvious prejudices, I asked Mother what would happen if a white man raped a Black woman. She bent over and whispered in my ear, “Hush, we don’t know who here is in the KKK.”

I adored Aunt Swint! She lived one block from the beach. and she was another wonderful cook. She would tell me to come help her to shell a mess of peas. She would cook the peas with bacon fat. Along with fresh squash and corn bread, we would feast. I once asked, “Aunt Swint, exactly how much is a mess?” Without thinking, she replied, “It is just enough for supper.”

Half of her little and ring fingers were missing. As a kid she had put her hand on a log while Uncle Joe was chopping wood. He told her to move it – she didn’t, and he caught it on the next swing of the axe. She had short-clipped, natural curly hair which she tousled dried with her fingers after shampooing. She was plain-spoken and dressed for comfort. When talking about a dress she would say, she was going to wear the “flower-dy or stripe-dy” one. Her wooden floors were invariably gritty, and I hated going barefoot at her house. Living that near the beach, everything is gritty.

She was matter-of-fact, but always spoke to me as if I were an equal. She never had children. As a young woman, she married a man who moved her to Chicago. When she found out she was pregnant, he forced her to have an abortion. In terrible shape from the botched abortion, she called home. Granddaddy and Aunt Lonnie went to Chicago to rescue her. Straight forward and always kind, Aunt Swint was a rock.

We toured Civil War battlefields and spent a lot of time learning about flanks, war strategies and the aftermath of war. Dad read every sign, brochure and monument. The Vicksburg Civil War Battlefield is located atop the high bluffs adjacent to the Mississippi River. The dense, wooded forests growing near the river supplied the materials needed for construction of fortifications along the siege lines. This major river was crucial for the shipment of war supplies and materials. At the Battle of Vicksburg, when the Confederate States Army fell, the North gained control of the Mississippi River.

During the 4th grade, I had a case of rheumatic fever. Mother and Daddy both worked. I went to school sporadically, but mainly my school work was brought home to me. I was home schooled, but I taught myself. I read everything in the house including Mother’s romance novels. Alone all day without television and responsible for myself, I probably did better than I realized. For a year we went to a neighbor’s house to watch I Love Lucy, until we finally got a set of our own.

I remember my 6th grade graduation. I was the class salutatorian and had to give a speech. Perhaps, my being self- taught wasn’t necessarily bad. I had never even heard the terms, valedictorian nor salutatorian. Having earned an honor came as an absolute shock, I was pretty much just doing my own self sufficient thing.

As I was frequently ill and stayed alone, I read a lot. Unnoticed by the family, I became part of the fixtures. My observation and self-reflection skills became greatly honed during this time. I began to question if there was more to life than what I was seeing. Perhaps they didn’t care what I overheard, but I really absorbed at this stage. I played with Ron, managed to avoid Billy and kept my own deliberations.

On a night trip to Mississippi, I developed an ear ache. I huddled under an old, dusty blanket in the back seat. When we arrived in Van-cleave, Mother went to bed. Aunt Clara, who was a nurse, got up from her bed to take care of me. My ear abscessed and painfully burst while we were on the road. Aunt Clara wrapped me in a homemade quilt, and Uncle Paul sat in front of the fireplace rocking me for hours.

Margaret was home often. Only eight years older than Vana, I was expected to play with her. She fell off a step, chipped her tooth and I was chastised for not watching her. She was cherub cute. There was a television jingle about Ipana toothpaste. I would sing it to her, substituting Vana for Ipana. She sneaked a nickel-bottle of Coke, and she hid behind the door frame to drink it. Thinking she was hidden, I watched the Coke Cola bottle jutting out and slowly being drained. She said her first sentence. She was freshly bathed and shampooed when I asked her what she was doing. She told me, “Brushing me hair.”

Ron and I were almost the same size, and people still thought we were twins. Mother didn’t bother to have separate, birthday parties for us. Our birthdays are three weeks apart, and we had our birthdays together for several years. We had chicken pox, mumps and pink eye together, too.

One evening, Mother insisted that Daddy spank me because I had ignored her command to take a shower. As he removed his belt, he told me, “Go to the bedroom.” Shutting the door, he demanded, “Cry and cry loud.” I was screeching like a night owl. Calmly, he beat the foot board of my bed. Normally, Mother was pleased to knock the daylights out of one us of her own volition.

Billy bullied still, but she was often gone to the movies or in a ball game therefore I had some respite. She was tall, lean and lanky and was called “Tex” as we had moved to Pine Bluff from Texas. She was in the high school play, where the die was cast for her to dog fame. She played a role in which she carried a cooked, pork chop and played the bass fiddle. In the play, she used a bass fiddle which belonged to Daddy. Of course, she demolished it. He was on such a tear, I figured for sure this time he was going to wipe her out.

Daddy played the saw which can be a musical instrument. The saw is bent over the knee, and the straight side is lightly stroked with a violin bow. Depending on how much arc and tension is on the blade, different tones are created through vibration. Obviously, it never caught on. When you don’t have any talent, you need a gimmick. I have often thought that the Ol’ Man played the bass fiddle by virtue of only having to know a couple of chords. It could more or less be slapped in time with the music, and one could hide behind it. He never performed again after Billy demolished the bass fiddle. I often wondered if Billy’s quest for fame was more to show him than it was to be Mother’s surrogate.

Daddy was a huge fan of television westerns and of the broadcast journalist, Edward R. Murrow. Murrow initially came to prominence with a series of radio newsbroadcasts during World War II which were followed by millions of listeners. His radio show was moved to television and named See It Now. Senator Joseph McCarthy claimed to know that communist had infiltrated the United States government at its highest levels. During the McCarthy hearings, Murrow was openly critical of McCarthy. I recall seeing McCarthy rant and rave on televised interviews. Daddy always called him a “son of a bitch” because to his way of thinking anyone who was against Edward R. Murrow had to be the communist. Dad’s frequent rants were my political initiation.

Billy graduated from high school and I graduated from the 6th grade in 1956. At that moment our lives, especially Daddy’s, changed for-ever. Daddy’s security clearance was revoked and after having an actual career for six years, he was out in the cold.

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