Johnnie Wright

 

As we age we might not recall much about our childhoods or if we do, it is of fleeting snippets of memory at best. Then again, there are people and events that stick with you through the years and if you are lucky, the memories bring a ready smile to your face. One such memory of mine was Mr. Johnnie Wright.

johnny wright 75

Hey man, dig that groovy 1970’s tie!

It seemed like Johnnie Wright was always a part of my life; he was the high school math and Spanish teacher at Depew High School when my sisters started there in the mid 1960’s. Johnnie probably had not been on staff very long before that; it just SEEMS like he was.

He taught all four of my sisters, and they all got good grades in his classes. Naturally he assumed I would follow in their brilliant footsteps, but he assumed wrong. He wouldn’t let me escape, er, transfer out of Algebra I Freshman year because “you’re a Watson; you’ll be fine.” I got the first C of my scholastic life in Algebra I. He couldn’t break me out of my numeric doldrums but God love him, he tried.

I also took his Spanish class. All I really retained from the class was the phrase “La luce elettrica” which I supposed meant “turn on the lights” because he always said it when we finished watching the day’s filmstrip that went with our textbook (okay I just looked it up; it means ‘electric light.’ He’s STILL teaching.) I made a TERRIBLE grade, often falling asleep in the darkened room because it was after lunch and the room was warm and it was immersion learning where he ONLY spoke Spanish the entire hour. I NEVER learned Spanish worth a damn and went to Mexico with my college choir two years later thinking “why oh why didn’t I stay awake in Mr. Wright’s class?!” It wasn’t his fault he happened to teach two of my worst subjects. That’s just the way it was.

But he made class time fun despite the subject because he enjoyed what he was doing. If anything, he taught me that no matter what you did, the value lay in the journey if not the end result. He wanted his students to learn, to take a subject seriously but not to take life so seriously. He sometimes burst into snatches of song as he made his way down the hall between classes. He liked life. It showed.

He masterminded a fantastic end-of-year celebration when I was a junior in high school. He and a couple of the other teachers got together and gave out The Sucker Awards at an assembly on the last day of school (and reprised it the next year.) They bought dozens of large grape and cherry suckers from the local grocery store and wrapped each one in aluminum foil. They made up categories and nominees for all sorts of goofy achievements, like “Best Pothole Dodger in Driver’s Ed” or “Best Worst Excuse for Missing Class” or “Back Hall Sweethearts” and handed out the suckers as trophies to the winners. Johnny Wright was the Master of Ceremonies, and he and his fellows providing nearly an hour of standup utilizing well-known school legends/ gossip/ events of the year. Because we were a high school of maybe 160 students at the most, everyone knew everyone else. We all got the jokes that our surprisingly witty and hip “old” teachers made – geez, they must have been what, 30, 40, maybe even 50 years old, man; ancient! But they were FUNNY! Who knew?!

And there was Johnnie Wright in the thick of it all, teasing his students and receiving their appreciation and affection in return. We may not have enjoyed everything about school; the social cliques sucked and it was never easy being one of the ‘different’ ones, we didn’t like the homework or the endless tests or essays, but most of us liked our teachers. Okay, we griped about a few, but Johnnie Wright was one of those teachers we knew, was on our side.

He taught for decades at Depew, faithfully attending basketball and football and baseball games, working the scoreboard or the ticket booth, or acting as a Class Sponsor for different grades over the years. Even after he retired, Johnnie didn’t ‘retire’ – he also ran a tax preparation business. My mother depended on his tax expertise year after year.

 

Johnny Wright (2)

Mr. Class Reunion didn’t have to wear a tie any longer, groovy or not.

Every two years the town of Depew hosts a School Reunion, and all former students are invited to attend. Saturday mornings we have registration and people can tour the building that most of us Old Guard folks never attended (our building was torn down to make way for it.) That evening the official Class Reunion is held at the town’s Event Center, and all the classes try to be represented.

It wasn’t a class reunion, though, without Johnnie Wright’s presence. That crackling, wisecracking tenor voice entered the room before him, that sharp mind remembering the names of nearly every student he ever taught. Once he was there, the party could really begin. I suppose that could be said for any event in town.

The news of his passing today did not surprise me. Johnnie Wright lived a long, fruitful, productive life. In a small town where he was cherished for his witty, generous, friendly nature, Johnnie Wright achieved a Legendary status. He and his wife and their children were the best of small town America. Thanks for the memories, Johnnie. You were and always will be, one terrific fellow.

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Line drying

We used a clothesline when I was a kid. Most folks did. The wind blows for free and most back yards had a set of galvanized T-poles with thick gauged wire strung up on them. Clothes were pinned to these and nature turned damp clothes dry. It was sensible and thrifty.

clothes line poles

EVERYONE had a set of these. If you didn’t, you probably missed out on a lot of life.

When I was a kid Mama had a wringer washer that had perhaps seen better days, but I only recall her having to hand wash a few items that could not bear being wrung out. It was imperative that Papa kept this machine running. Whenever it broke down we had to resort to using a #3 tub and a washboard until it was running again and oh no no, this is number ONE on the list of things that have to happen and that washer is getting repaired ASAP!

The big tub agitated the water and detergent, and after the final rinse cycle was over each article of clothing was squeezed between adjustable rollers.

 

wringer

This, kids, is a wringer washer. Do not put your hands near the rollers, they will squash your fingers FLAT. This is your only warning; you don’t have the luxury to ignore me.

The wrung out clothes were put in bushel baskets (hell, I didn’t know people used anything other than fruit baskets for laundry!) Mama hung out the laundry herself if she had to wash a load on school days, but any other time every one of us kids had to help hang up the clothes to dry. It was a chore that was as inevitable as it was necessary. We didn’t argue, we just did it.

clothes pins

These are clothes pins, in case you are too twee to have ever seen them before.

Wooden clothes pins were held in little open bags with a clothes hanger incorporated to it at the top. This was suspended from the wash line so we could have easy access to the pins while moving the pin bag down the line as we went. There were eight people in our family, so the laundry was large and constant. We didn’t have  a modest little pair of clotheslines like you see in old movies, our crowd required three strands on the T poles, at about 10 yards per strand just for clothes. Linens took up more so Papa rigged up a side line just for that. ‘Way out in the country as we were, we had plenty of space for it.

pin bag

Geez, this looks EXACTLY like the bag we used to have!

 

We talked as we worked, chatting about whatever subject we pleased, and it made the time pass well and didn’t seem quite so much like work. Air-drying always made the cloth smell so GOOD when dry. Detergent companies try to capture that “fresh air” smell  but will never beat the real thing. I mean if the point was to have your clothes smell like they’re been dried in the fresh air, adding a bunch of chemicals is the polar opposite to the point.

Taking a big deep sniff of line-dried clothes was like expanding your lungs with a freedom born of nature. There’s something exhilarating about knowing the same forces that roll clouds across the sky and make wheat fields bob and dance for miles and miles, swept down across the yard to leave a hint of its power between the warp and woof of linens.

Even on cold winter days, the laundry went out as long as there was no precipitation. Naturally on rainy days laundry was not done or was done sparingly, since it had to be hung inside the house to dry. The exhilarating smell was not there, the clothes were just…dry. Or smelled like oak or hickory smoke.

Since our clothes were mostly cotton and permanent press was not as prevalent back then, ironing had to be done once the clothes were dry. Nobody wanted to go out in public all wrinkled. Where’s your pride, man.

gypsy days

Let me tell you something, we never went anywhere dirty or wrinkled. Mama would not have it!

Once we moved into town and Papa was no longer with us to keep the wringer washer working, Mama was able to use the laundromat on Main Street, just a couple of blocks away. This convenience was tempered by other people also needing to use those machines, the cost of machine use itself (whereas it cost us little to nothing before) and the unpleasant presence of local toughs hanging around to break into the cigarette machine on site. They never bothered Mama personally – they were exceedingly polite to her – but she didn’t trust a thief and didn’t like being around them.

Eventually she was able to save to get a washing machine of her own, justifying the one-time cost of the machine vs. laundromat experiences on repeat. We returned to hanging out the laundry in the back yard, since T-poles were as ubiquitous to small-town back yards as porches were to house fronts and the wind was still free.

The day came when Mama finally bought a dryer. Permanent Press clothes came out so nice and smooth they saved time from ironing, and rainy days could be defied with the press of a button. She still preferred line-drying sheets and towels whenever possible to keep them from balling up in the dryer and making the whole load hard to dry. Many times she hung out the whole load because we all liked the smell of clean laundry, and line drying kept the utility bills down.

I say all this to note, I currently use my apartment complex’s laundry facilities and today I had to wash my bedspread, a lightweight thing. So lightweight in fact, it rolled itself into a ball taking some of the clothes with it, and when I untangled the lot, they were as damp as when I put them in to dry. I had no more quarters handy to run another dryer load, so I put the clothes on hangers and hung them from the little mailbox by my front door (my door faces the side of the lot so it’s not as if my laundry was on display to the street!)

It got me reminiscing about “the old days” – I refuse to say “GOOD old days” because they often weren’t –  and how I would like to again live in a home with a pair of galvanized T-poles in the back yard, where the wind is free and clothes smell exhilarating because of it.

 

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Horror stories in 30-second increments

sadI don’t have anything against horror movies and creepy TV shows enough to want them banned. I don’t choose to watch them myself, but if an adult wants to watch, that is their choice. Que sera. But it occurs to me that in the future, I will need to keep my television off when my grandchild comes to visit due to the number of commercials for horror movies/shows there are. No matter how innocuous the show is that you are watching, there’s no guarantee that a commercial won’t scare the total beejeebers out of a child.

Set aside the whole “well you can program things so the commercials are skipped” argument for a moment. That function is a premium cost to your cable service, when you can turn off the damn set for free. I’m talking about commercials and horror shows in general, and the proliferation of them in particular.

 As a pre-schooler I saw “The Littlest Angel” musical on TV and became unnerved by the notion of death, compounded by the fact that no one took the time to explain anything to me (I’ve mentioned this before on this blog, you can look it up.) That completely G-rated show (back in the early 1960’s, black and white TV special) was enough to stunt my trust in the promise of the afterlife, and dented my childhood innocence for decades, because until then I had no experience with death or anything truly unpleasant. Then suddenly I realized my happy little life could end and I had no idea what to expect. It was sad and in a minor key and could happen at any moment, and that’s all I knew about it.

My older sisters loved to watch scary movies and “The Twilight Zone” on television, but I couldn’t bear them. That shit looked real to me. Maybe it was real. I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell. Maybe there really WERE monsters under my bed. I knew some terrible man shot Mr. Kennedy, the President of the United States and the man my father said was a great human being, and THAT was real. Suppose there were monsters inside other people that made them hurt other people? How could a kid tell? I didn’t even know which or how many words were naughty to use and which were acceptable; how was I going to know where monsters were, for Pete’s sake?!

What goes through the mind of today’s child when s/he sees commercials for “Pet Sematary” or “It” or holy crap, ANY horror genre feature? It was different to see Godzilla back in the day of stop-motion animation because it looked like toys I played with. Dracula was scary, but I consoled myself that in the end the good guys would win and all would be well – I guessed and gulped hard and high-tailed it out of the room. But fast-forward to today’s realistic makeup artistry and special effects, and tell me if a glimpse of someone all bloody and acting as if in pain wouldn’t scare the crap out of a pre-schooler. If parents or caregivers aren’t on hand to explain things like what make believe is, it can be a freefall into terror for children.

And let’s think about society as a whole. To paraphrase the commercial of the new Purge series: “People aren’t content with one night of murder. They want to murder all the time.” Television is not just showing a movie about fictional legalized murder, it’s running an entire goddamn SERIES where some characters want to expand the scope of their yearly legal homicide. After years of desensitization (“The Walking Dead”, anyone? Oh, it’s just a zombie – let’s see how gruesome we can make killing one) this is the next logical step in ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ entertainment. There’s also a continued uptick in violent movies – blow up that building, point that gun at the camera, GRRRR ARRRGH MAKE MY DAY! Thanks, Hollywood. We can all take comfort that it might be considered trendy when we piss our pants.

There are those who whine about the lack of manners nowadays or the lack of moral backbone, but oh boy, those selfsame grumblers sure do look forward to seeing how realistically a fake arm can be severed by a shotgun blast! It sure is keen to watch a famous landmark get a slo-mo destructive sequence, or watch a vampire rip out her victim’s throat! It sure gives ya chills when some gruesome doll terrorizes a movie family! Scary stuff is a tease for the adult mind, but what do you say when your three-year-old gets up for a drink of water and comes in to see what the grown-ups are watching? Why is that man bleeding, Mommy? Why is that lady screaming? Could that happen to me?

Sorry to say, that last question is a legitimate concern in real life.

Want to see tragedy and violence and heartbreak? Watch the nightly news. Oh, but that is too real. Instead, let’s make movies that tell FICTIONAL stories just like the lives people are really living, only the actors don’t really die or get mangled. We can pretend. Yeah. It won’t happen to me. It will happen to Sean Bean, over and over and over again.

I’m not blind. You can’t raise children completely bubble-wrapped in Care Bears and nurtured by an endless loop of My Little Pony videos, and they don’t have to be (and shouldn’t be.) Children can handle more challenging subject matter than that; you shouldn’t helicopter-parent them into an unrealistic Neverland of soft furniture and pastel colors, because the real world will bring Neverland to a crashing halt. But age appropriateness is not that damn hard to achieve if you just try to recall what you were comfortable with as a child. I’m not saying this from some perfect pedestal of parental smugness. I learned from my mistakes, too.

My younger son Will loved to watch Who Framed Roger Rabbit, but he always looked away and covered his ears when the Judge screamed and the animated daggers came out of the eyesockets. The rest of the violence was on par with the average Tom and Jerry cartoon and he knew cartoons were just drawings that moved fast, nothing real. The realism of live-action Christopher Lloyd suddenly and literally ‘shooting (animated) daggers’ was scary the first time Will saw the show, so on subsequent viewings he took measures to avoid the ‘scary’ part. He liked the movie and its happy ending, and begged to watch it again and again, but he knew not to watch the scary part. I felt terrible for letting him watch it without realizing some of it would scare him, and I tried to be more cautious from then on. I also was fortunate enough to be on hand to talk to my kids about what we saw. It didn’t scar him for life and he’s now a well-adjusted, optimistic young man.

He could make the choice and knew when the scary part was coming because he became familiar with the movie.  It wasn’t a sudden jarring commercial in the middle of something mild like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Many parents are not able to be on hand every second to filter what their kids see. Some try not to use the television as a babysitter but have to fall back on it. Others don’t seem to realize all the things their children are exposed to (although they get a good idea when their List to Santa reflects the Christmas toy commercials.) Still other parents are shitheels who don’t care at all (and to hell with those parents.)

As I said, if adults want to watch violent films, they will do so and that is no skin off my teeth. But if they are dismayed at the increasing violence in the world, if they are unsettled by the increasing viciousness of society, well hey, that is how desensitization works. The world is becoming more and more coarse, not just because of horror movies and shoot-em-up action movies, but by the glamorization of violence in general. The desire for an adrenaline rush comes at a price.

For my part, I will introduce my grandchildren to the wonderful world of British invasion music and Motown classics. They will learn to paint Happy Little Trees and dance like nobody’s watching, and in time enjoy movies like Little Women, Howl’s Moving Castle and A Wrinkle in Time. Eventually, stronger stuff like the Harry Potter books and the Lord of the Rings trilogy might appeal to them – but at a time of THEIR choosing.

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Came for the class, stayed for the camp

downton
DNA tests revealed that 67% of my ancestral heritage is British, in fact some from the York area. You can imagine how delighted I was, how fascinated I was, in the PBS series Downton Abbey, and how I am anticipating the upcoming Downton Abbey movie.
Oh, the marvelous Edwardian era, with the excruciating upper class manners and the working class down-to-earth sensibilities; the elegant clothes and the convoluted mores; those gorgeous accents and the stunning Highclere Castle! The love triangles, the fully realized characters, the interactions of the talented cast! The sumptuous sets, the eye for detail in every scene!
What’s not for an Anglophile to love!
Shameless Confession time: I channel surfed this morning looking for “Downton Abbey” reruns on PBS and came across the SyFy channel’s offering of the Sharknado binge-a-thon. Having already experienced “Megatron” Saturday morning in all its hokey glory, I had to watch “Sharknado”. And “Sharknado 2: The Second One”. Am currently watching “Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No”. After that there’s “Sharknado 4:The 4th Awakens”, “Sharknado 5: Global Warning”, and “Last Sharknado: About Time”. (No kidding, that is the title.) I just want to thank Ian Ziering for coming up with the all-time goofiest, foofiest batch of mindless entertaining cinematic TimeKill EVER.
Sharknado
 
That’s essentially the timeline of my life: Aim for Downton Abbey, end up with Sharknado movies, where a character can get all his limbs bitten off and STILL manage to be a hero with his chin, and a barmaid can casually pilot a fighter jet via casual lessons rather than military training.
 
Final thought: Last night I saw another camptastic Ian Ziering hoot, “Zombie Tidal Wave” about, yes, zombies arriving in tidal waves. Don’t judge me. Pass the popcorn.
swag
And don’t look at me like that, Lord Grantham. Your daughter Lady Mary is the biggest shark of the Noble Class and you know it.
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Summer

0615191734_HDRFrom time to time I run across the question, “What is your favorite time of year?” and I automatically reply, “Summer.” It’s not just that summer is a comfortable time for me, as I have a hard time dealing with cold weather. It’s not just because when I was a child, summer was an extended respite from school and a teacher I feared and hated (although that is probably what comes in second.)

No, it is a specific time in my life that evokes tender emotions like few other things in life. The very word “Summer” harkens back to days when I was a child, when we lived in the country and the lazy hazy days drifted into each other like floating branches on a lake. Summer evokes those bright days when the trees were heavy with leaves and the thick warm breeze brought a welcome cool relief to the skin. Each summer day lasted four days’ worth of time to a child of seven. May barely had any school-free days left in it, and August bore white-hot temperatures and the looming threat of school, but June and July bore the best of times for me.

In the early morning hours when dew was still fresh on the grass, the house was usually empty when I awoke. The family was often out in the garden, a fenced-off sloping span of soil where Papa and Mama planted what they hoped would be enough to feed their six offspring. My older sisters and brother would be out helping weed or pluck bugs from plants, or water with the improvised watering sprinkler Papa fashioned from a coffee can. If I outgrew my shoes by summer my choices were to go barefoot or wear the hell-spawn rubber devices of torment known as flip-flops. Oh god I hated flip-flops. The skin between my toes never toughened up to bear the abrasion of the little rubber piece that held the sole to the top straps. Going barefoot meant getting my feet damp or stepping on the inevitable goats-head stickers, neither of which was a comfortable option. If I was lucky Mama might get some cheap tennis shoes at the Dollar General, and I wore those things out going hither and yon.

As the youngest (and unplanned bonus child) I served as family mascot, just another mouth to feed and as the recipient of my older sisters’ teasing. They were close enough in age to neither need nor want to play with me very much, and there weren’t enough Barbies, Midges or rag dolls to go around anyway. Mama and Papa were busy with the worry of how to feed and clothe us all, and playing was the last thing on their minds. Sometimes my youngest older sister Buddy would play with me, because I made up stories and characters – something I had done since I was three – and Buddy liked to hear the stories and would ask questions about the adventures. She sometimes joined in with my stories, but her characters were a lot like her – stubborn, kind of bossy and blunt. Most of the time she let me tell the tales. When she joined the other sisters I was alone again, and I learned to cope.

I found my own playmate within myself that I called Michael. Michael was of course my constant companion, my inner conscience who was much braver, bolder and resourceful than I. Whenever I was puzzled by things that made no sense to me, I called on Michael to help figure it out (“why wasn’t I born a boy, why do I have to be a girl?” — “I’m the boy you are inside. You can be both.”) when I was scared (“I can’t go over there, there’s a wasp nest up on the rafter and I’m scared”- – “Just stay calm. I’ll guide you. It will be all right.”) When I had to settle something in my mind, I talked things over with my inner Michael. Michael kept me from getting lonely, and helped keep my temper in check because the last thing a kid needs to do, is piss off his/her older sisters with a cheeky remark. Michael reassured me during the many times I wondered about Death and what happens when people die, and what’s this God thing all about? Michael helped me explore the human condition (“Why are we poor; did we do something wrong or do people just make up stories about rich people so poor people can have something to look forward to?” — “We didn’t do anything wrong. We’re light-blood Indians; that’s just the way it is for us. Rich people are real but some don’t know anything. People born on third base always think they won the game because they’ve never had to bat.”)

The constant whirr of cicadas was the White Noise of my childhood summers, and I immediately associate the sound with the pleasures of warm weather play. The whirr promised a harvest of spent cicada exoskeletons clinging to the rough bark of the surrounding trees. In our Oklahoma countryside cicadas were everywhere. I gathered buckets upon buckets of locust husks so I could make up stories about the Great Locust Army battles: the shed skins of the creatures looked like otherworldly beings that faced off on my dirt yard battlefield. I picked out the largest skins to act as generals, and they clashed in epic battles. Oh the carnage; oh the gallantry of the exoskeleton ranks as they marched forth to victory or defeat!

The hot afternoons meant occasional trips to Sand Creek behind our house. None of us knew how to swim, which was fine because Sand Creek didn’t have enough water to swim in, and the hotter the summer the lesser the amount of water in it. We could wade with the best, though, and we wandered up and down the creek from up where the neighboring farm strung a fence across the creek, to down where the creek ran under the blacktop through a culvert. I was not allowed to go to the creek alone, and my sisters weren’t supposed to take me any further than the fence or blacktop. They explored all over the acreages on their own (never letting Mama or Papa know, of course!) but as long as I was in tow, they obeyed the Rule.

When I think of it now, I’m astonished that we were never bitten by snakes. My sisters were careful to check out the deeper spots in the creek to make sure there were no water moccasins or copperheads or rattlers, but Papa had prepared them for life in the country. Running across a snake would have been more of an adventure to them. (“What will I do if I see a snake, Michael?” — “Run like hell; I’m going to.”)

We had no running water, so the cold fresh well water brought up from eighty feet below ground was a constant task for everyone – everyone but me. I was never allowed to do the things my sisters did, and they occasionally expressed their displeasure that I never had to do chores. I wanted to, but I was a painfully thin child and Mama was afraid I would get tangled up in the well rope, or the heavy tube of water would pull me off my feet and I would plummet head first down the well shaft. My sisters agreed that yes, that sounded like something The Kid would do, so they didn’t complain about my lack of water fetching. I was not asked to do the dishes or sweep the four rooms of the house, either. It was enough of a task for Mama to keep my sisters from fussing with each other every day over who did the dishes the day before; she did not want to include a fifth voice to the chorus of complaints. As a result, I never really learned how to clean a house.

(I still find it highly amusing that my ex-husband thought every female knew how to keep house, as if the ownership of a uterus also granted the natural instinct to sweep, mop, cook and sew. He found the one girl in his life who had no inclination whatsoever to want to learn, either, and in his ignorance and baseless assumption, married me since he thought I would. He grumbled and complained that I was a lousy housewife. “Well, I didn’t marry a house,” I told him. “I married you, and apparently that’s punishment enough for both of us.” Michael and I had successfully melded by then.)

Summer evenings were hot and sticky, where even the refreshing splash in the creek earlier in the day, did not help. My memories of this time of day are filled with the recall of card tables sitting outside on the lawn, where my parents and sister Buddy and maybe visiting aunts or uncles would play card games or dominoes. We might have just had a fine dinner of fried chickens and light-as-air sweet rolls, washed down with Lipton’s tea in colorful aluminum tumblers. Ginny and Lela would get some good melons from our landlord’s garden. He didn’t mind, he invited us to get some. A few watermelons from a 20-acre melon patch did not make even the slightest of dents in his harvest. The family cut open the melons and ate the sweet juicy red flesh, and partook of the nightly Melon Seed-Spitting Contest across the backyard. The domino pieces clicked during the sometimes rowdy games, and sister Annie might get out her guitar and play to the deepening twilight. I sat back in awe as the nightly light show of lightening bugs appeared, their little tail lights winking and blinking to our amusement. We caught them in glass jars with holes poked in the lids, adding water and berries and leaves to feed them. Someone usually let them go free after a while; no one wanted to kill a beautiful lightening bug.

Then as the stars came out, Annie got out her star charts and we all went out into the 40-acre field in front of our house to look at the sky. In those days, moonless nights were pitch black – there was no light pollution from neighboring towns as there is now. The Milky Way Galaxy stretched across our heavens like the marvelous display that it is, and we identified constellations and planets to our hearts’ delight. Whippor-wills emitted their mournful cries, and we hushed our voices so we could hear them. To this day I long to hear the whippoor-will call. They are shy birds and, like the Milky Way, are elusive in the increasingly populated countryside.

Some nights we slept on cots out in the yard, when the house was too hot for the open windows to bring in enough night breeze to make us comfortable. If the mosquitoes were thick my sisters tossed sheets over themselves to ward off the pests, which sort of made the whole night-breeze business rather moot. (“What’s the point in sleeping outside for the breeze if you can’t feel it through the sheet, Michael?” — “I don’t know. Your sisters are inexplicable.”)

Summer was berry-picking; summer was using the fleshy side of our hands to make roadways in the sand so our plastic horse figures would have a place to stand. Summer was biting into sun-warmed red tomatoes fresh from the vine. Summer was running through the 40-acre field on the lookout for the landlord’s cows as they lumbered by. Summer was climbing the stacks of hay bales in the barn. Summer was pouring out the chicken feed in patterns on the ground so the chickens would spell out words as they ate.

Summer was boldly colored flowers at Honor Heights Park in Muskogee. Summer was long hot trips to Muskogee to visit sour-faced aunts who did not like me, or to visit happy laughing aunts who did like me. Summer was visits from Uncle Tommy, our most favorite of all relatives, and going to visit Uncle Orville who had twinkling blue eyes and the kindest smile and laugh in the whole world.

Summer was noodling for catfish in the river under the watchful eye of our Papa. Summer was hanging out clothes to quickly dry in the hot breeze. Summer was catching grasshoppers and playing with Papa’s hunting dogs. Summer was finding abandoned kittens in boxes on the side of the road and nursing them back to health. Summer was effortlessly tanning as brown as a stone, unaware that white people worked hard at achieving this goal.

Summer was going shopping for clothes and shoes in August; summer was knowing as the youngest there would be no clothes handed down to me that ever fit properly, and going to the Dollar General store was an absolute must for us all.  Summer was the yearly shearing of my hair to keep me cool all season, only to have hair that was not quite long enough to pull into a ponytail by fall and thus having a Bushmaster Hairdo upon return to school.

Summer was listening to the Top 40 on the radio and learning all the British Invasion songs by heart. Summer was listening to my sisters harmonize, and then laugh at themselves when they hit all the right notes and sounded good. They had too much modesty to boast on their abilities, but they all had/have fine voices.

Summer was the exhilaration of the sudden fierce winds of a summer storm, the terrifying sickly green tint of a tornado cloud, and the heavenly smell of rain-soaked earth after the storm passed. Yes, yes that’s it.

Summer was heaven on earth.

 

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The Hallucination of Days Gone By

used 2 b my playground (2)If there’s one assumption I dislike, it’s the assumption of many from my Boomer Generation that ours was the best, most wonderful childhood time of all, when we enjoyed so many things that today’s generation does not.

You’ve seen the memes; there’s often a photo of some kid swinging in a swing or walking down the road with a ball glove hanging off the bat the child has leaning against his shoulder or some equally Opie from Mayberry image, accompanied by a long-winded whine about how great childhood was back in the late 50’s through the early 70’s. The text claims a halcyon youth of going outside to play and not coming home until dinner/ Mama called us/ the streetlights came on; of riding bikes all over town or playing with other kids without parents around; of going swimming in the lake or local pond with pals; of drinking water out of the family garden hose; of Mom whuppin’ our tails if we misbehaved; of chanting our belief in Country and the Christian God in the same pledge; of whimsically catching lightning bugs in a jar, of the joy of playground equipment that is now removed as unsafe; of getting up a game of sandlot ball – that sort of thing. The text usually ends with the complaint that kids today spend too much time on cellphones, or are rude and don’t appreciate what they have. (The fact that the people writing these complaints also spend an inordinate amount of time on cellphones, escapes them.)

I’m here to tell you, the good old days weren’t as good as the hype and it’s false to claim they were. They were pretty good, I’ll grant you, but they were ripe with challenges and problems too. There were just as many perverts out there preying on unprotected children as there are now, and lo and behold, a large percentage of these perverts turned out to be family members. This sort of thing wasn’t as widely-realized then as it is now. We’ve developed the culture of neighbors snitching on parents who let their kids out of sight for more ten minutes, because the media and social platforms took the ugly truth from family whispers behind closed doors to public awareness. We’ve gone from the injustice of institutional racial segregation to white people calling 911 to report the offense of people of color – gasp! – for simply existing in the caller’s presence. The perception of “the good old days” is seldom seen that way through the eyes of people of color.

People who grew up getting slivers of wood and subsequent infections from old merry-go-rounds later passed laws to replace the wooden models with metal ones. Little kids used to beg big kids to push the merry-go-round faster, only to be flung off it like water from a centrifuge. Eventually the metal ones were removed because kids were getting second degree burns in the summertime on them. Kids got their fingers pinched in swing set chains, or swung so high that if they weren’t careful they’d pop out of the seat like a champagne cork or tip the whole swingset over – some Boomer kids did it on purpose for the thrill of it. Parents didn’t want their kids to get their arms broken or their heads concussed or their bodies paralyzed, so the equipment was removed or replaced with things that required parental aid. Little kids could swing safely but tweens and teens often have no equipment their size to use. Even when they do have something their size, today’s grow-up-quick society chooses to mock kids who want to play like kids. The Boomers had a sizable childhood but their children are pressured into becoming mini-adults too soon.

Pick-up games of sandlot baseball or half-court basketball were replaced by parents who wanted more structure for their children, “fairness” and to prevent bullying. The parents remember the camaraderie of team play and passing their free time with sports, but they also remember the humiliation of not getting picked for a team, or the pain of getting picked on by the neighborhood tough, and all the fistfights between opposing teams who disputed a play. While these things are looked upon now as “things that toughened us up” the circumstances were changed so life wouldn’t be quite so tough for progeny.

Catching lightning bugs fell out of favor as ecological awareness coaxed parents to decry the cruelty of sealing bugs in jars to die because the Boomer generation didn’t always poke air holes in the lids. Economic development of the Boomer generation made habitats less and less available and it’s hard for the average kid to find bugs in their neighborhoods anymore. Fishing dried up when ponds were filled in so developers could build housing and strip malls and roads. Empty pastures were turned into subdivisions. Kids today can’t play freely because the Boomer generation continued to develop every square foot of open space for commercial use.

Sure, we drank water out of the garden hose when we were kids – but then mold and bacteria made parents realize garden hoses were gross as hell. Rather than make the child walk inside the house to the sink, the kids were encouraged to use bottled water the parents bought. The plastic bottles are a bane to the environment but convenient for families to simply discard used bottles than bother with going inside to drink water from a reusable glass that must be washed. By all means, let’s champion convenience over practicality, and perish forbid responsible housekeeping. But using the sink for drinking water is impractical or even dangerous in several municipalities now – just ask the people of Flint, Michigan. Boomers in office do not see the need for keeping drinking water safe if they prefer to respond to financial graft from corporate entities with irresponsible ecological practices.

Our parents may have ‘given us a whipping’ when we misbehaved and our teachers had a stronger say in classroom discipline, but one person’s idea of just punishment is not everyone’s. There are so many instances of beatings and starving and abuse by “whippings” the argument for corporal punishment is dangerous for children in the crosshairs of an unstable parent or teacher. Teachers were able to give grades according to the quality of the work until the Boomer Generation decided children should not experience negativity and took away teacher authority in the classroom. Boomers opted for teachers to crank out acceptable standardized test scores rather than teach children personal responsibility, how to reason and think independently, and that failing a task is not the end of the world and can even be a motivation for improvement.

Taking God out of the classroom did not ruin school discipline. God is still in the classroom and children have always been free to believe in whatever they choose, whatever denomination or religion or non-religion they wish. If parents can’t be bothered to teach their religious beliefs at home, then there is no reason to expect the school to expend school time to do so. Public schools are not in the indoctrination business precisely because they are public, and the practices of one belief or denomination might be far different from another. Ultimately, parents have to be responsible for their own offspring. Let public schools teach children to read and write and create and academically reason, and leave religion at home or at the worship center of choice.

Do you see the common thread running through all this? The reason we Boomers don’t see the sort of Idyllic Childhoods we had being enjoyed today, is because we Boomers are the ones who changed everything. We decided to take away the playground equipment we had as kids. Our Boomer generation created the Politically Correct society we now have. We replaced free playtime with heavily structured and regulated activities where parents hover anxiously around precious little cherubs in case they get a boo-boo, and then sue the pants off of any and all when a boo-boo happens. WE did this, Boomers. We got into power and made “a better future for our children” so tightly regulated and so heavily guarded and stubbornly enforced, that WE robbed our children and grandchildren of the “fun” we had as children. So don’t give me that whiny long-for-the-good-old-days pout, when it was OUR generation who changed it. You can’t have it both ways.

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A Peaceful Place

The little boy trudged in the neatly-tended grass, trying to keep up with the longer legs of the surrounding adults. The sun was high in the clear blue sky, but no one skipped or played.

It started with a phone call one evening that made his mother cry and his father very sad. He asked what was wrong but all his father said was, “It’s all right, Roman. Go brush your teeth and get ready for bed.” There was no bedtime story, just a kiss on the forehead and a closed door.

Roman went to daycare the next morning as usual. When he came home he watched DVD’s on the bigscreen TV in the family room while Mama and Daddy spoke to visitors. A babysitter came so Mama and Daddy could go out the next night. They were dressed up as if going to a fancy restaurant, but they did not look happy about it. Roman heard “it’s better this way” and “he didn’t have to suffer” from guests but they never explained what or why. It was strange and frightening to Roman.

“Grandpa will explain it, when he comes,” the boy told his toys.

Mama wore black and Daddy wore a suit with a tie. They dressed Roman in the little suit and tie he wore at Easter. “You’re growing up so fast,” Mama said, and a sudden sob escaped her throat.

“Why are we doing this?” Roman asked.

“We’re going to… to church,” she explained.

“Already? Boy, time flies!” Roman heard grown-ups say that. Mama’s lips curled into a smile and her eyes crinkled at the corners the way they did when she was amused, but it did not last.

The living room was full of strangers, people who knew Mama and Daddy but most of whom Roman never met before. One of the guests was a lady Mama worked with at the school down the street. She gathered Roman into a big hug.

“Oh you poor little baby. I know you’re going to miss your Grandpa so much,” she cooed.

“Why? Isn’t Grandpa coming to take me to the Aquarium?” Roman asked.

“Oh my God, that was next week. I totally forgot,” Daddy groaned.

“Why, your Grandpa’s gone to see Jesus, honey,” the lady said. “He called him home.”

“But he’s supposed to come to my home!” Roman protested.

“He’s in a better place.”

Mama hissed fiercely, “We haven’t told him yet! We’ll do it in our own good time!” She knelt down. Roman thought Mama looked pretty in black. The little hat with the funny black netting over her forehead was new, and he gazed at it curiously. “Romie, Grandpa’s… Grandpa can’t come.”

“But why?”

Mama glanced up at Daddy, who shrugged helplessly. “He’s gone to Heaven,” Mama said.

“When is he coming back?”

Mama started crying again, and Daddy helped her to her feet. “It’s time to go.”

Roman went with Mama and Daddy to a long black car. The back door opened and Roman saw a welcome figure.

“Uncle Mark!  Uncle Mark, am I glad to see you!” Like Mama, Uncle Mark had dusty blonde hair and light brown eyes. Roman had black hair and eyes like his father.

“Hey, hot shot. Come sit with me.” Uncle Mark gave Mama a quick hug. “We had a delay at the airport, sis, but I’m finally here.”

“I’m so glad,” Mama sobbed. “I can’t stop crying.”

“Well, you were his favorite,” Uncle Mark said.

Roman promptly snuggled next to Uncle Mark. Daddy asked how the flight had been, how the weather was – things he never bothered to ask about before. Mama straightened Roman’s little tie and smoothed down his hair.

“You’re going to get all wrinkled,” she sighed as the boy squirmed impatiently.

“We’ll be a matched set,” Uncle Mark said as he tucked his own shirttails in a little better. “Mom sends her condolences. Did you get the flowers she sent?”

“Yes. I wish she would have come, just the same.” Mama fished in her purse for another tissue.

“She didn’t think having an ex-wife on hand was appropriate,” Uncle Mark replied.

“Where are we going?” Roman demanded. “Why is Mama crying and why isn’t Grandpa coming? Where is heaven?”

“Oh crap; you told him, didn’t you?” Uncle Mark asked.

“How do you explain something like this to a four-year-old?” Daddy snapped.

“With words. He’s young, not stupid.”

“Well… well yeah.”

Roman sat between Mama and Daddy in the front of a room full of whispering well-dressed people seated in rows of long church benches. Vases of flowers were placed down front, all around a long box with a hinged lid like a treasure box. People greeted Mama and Daddy and Uncle Mark solemnly, and patted Roman on the head before going to sit on the benches. Several people said it was God’s will, which made Uncle Mark snort and purse his lips.

A man stood up and talked about Grandpa and all the wonderful things he had done. It was a long speech mostly about things Roman did not understand, and he grew uneasy. He clamped his hands over his ears and stared at the program Daddy held: In Memoriam, Roman Elliott McMaster.

As soon as the service was over, Uncle Mark scooped Roman up and carried him out to the black car while Mama and Daddy spoke to everyone else.

“Are you okay, buddy?”

“Where is Grandpa?” Roman asked unhappily.

“Grandpa died, Roman. He didn’t want to, but that’s what happened.”

“Why?”

“His heart quit working. Most of the time people are fine but sometimes places in our bodies just don’t work right, especially in older people like Grandpa.”

Roman curled against his uncle, who hugged his shoulders with one arm. “Did it break?”

“Well…no, when people talk about hearts breaking, that just means they are sad. Grandpa’s heart stopped working and it couldn’t be fixed.”

“Why is it Godswill?”

“That’s what some people say it is. But I’ll tell you something, Roman: I don’t like to think of it that way. Grandpa was a good man and I don’t think God would want to take him from us, knowing how much we’d miss him. I think Grandpa just had other stuff to do, stuff that maybe only he could do in a place where we can’t go yet. But we will. We have stuff to do here and then one day, maybe we’ll go do stuff somewhere else.”

“Where Grandpa is?”

“Yeah.”

“But we were going to the Aquarium,” Roman said tearfully.

“I’ll tell you what: if you don’t mind, I’ll go there with you instead. I’ve got some time off and there’s nobody I’d rather spend it with.”

“Okay.” He paused. “Why didn’t Mama tell me anything?”

“Mama just misses him a lot, Roman. He used to check our homework and go to all our activities, and he’d interrogate all her boyfriends until your daddy came along. Then he decided your daddy was okay enough to marry Mama.” Roman giggled at the playful tone. “He was always there for us. Your mama and daddy depended on his good advice.”

“Like what?”

“Oh… like where to take the car to get fixed, and how to rebuild the back deck; stuff like that.”

“Didn’t he do that for you?”

“Yes he did,” Uncle Mark said softly. “He was a wise man.”

“But you’re not crying.”

“I am. You just can’t see it. People cry differently.”

Mama and Daddy finally got into the car. They all went to a field that looked like spooky places at Halloween, only it was daylight and not spooky at all. Uncle Mark took Roman’s hand as they followed Mama and Daddy to a hole in the ground and folding chairs set up under a green canopy.

“Not again,” Roman complained. “People talk forever.” After a quiet word with Mama and Daddy, Uncle Mark led Roman around to look at the flat stones in the ground. Uncle Mark read the words on the stones for him: names, dates and sometimes phrases.

“Isn’t this a pretty place?” Uncle Mark asked after a while. Roman looked around at the rolling landscape, dotted with rows of stones all in order.

“Yeah.”

They paused to enjoy the warm breeze. “Just the sort of place Grandpa liked to go: quiet and peaceful, the grass is always mowed and the leaves are always raked up nice and neat.”

“Yeah,” Roman repeated, pleased to recall Grandpa always took pleasure in keeping his lawn trimmed with a riding mower.

“Some people believe that when we die, we go to a place called Heaven, where everything is pleasant and nothing goes wrong. Maybe that’s so; at least I’d like to think it’s so. Maybe it’s a lot like this place, Roman.”

“You don’t know?”

“People don’t know everything.”

“I guess not.”

Mama called his name. She was nearby and no longer looked so unhappy. She looked peaceful instead. Roman ran to her, and they hugged.

 

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