Growing Up in Greenwood, MS
I sometimes hear people talk about their childhood memories, things that happened to them when they were 2 or 3 years old. Not me, I don’t seem to have any of those, at least not many. My earliest memory is my Dad coming home from work in some kind of old car (don’t remember the model – it was just a black car, with running boards), and as he pulled into the driveway, I would run out to meet him. He would stop, let me climb up on the running board, and then ease on up the driveway. It became a daily routine for me, to wait outside around 5:15 PM. I guess that’s why it stuck with me. It must have been about 1951, when I was 6 years old, cause Freddy Carl’s dad built our house on Jefferson St. in 1950. I just can’t pull anything out of the memory banks earlier than that (I must have had a pretty mundane childhood). I do remember my brother out in the yard chipping a golf ball around (also when I was about age 6) and he smacked one that caught me square in the forehead, knocked me out cold, and I came to, just in time to see my Mama switching the crap out of his legs (he was 16 at the time, way too old to switch, but he got it anyway)!
Most of my childhood memories start up around age 7 or 8. I remember watching Queen Elizabeth’s coronation on TV in 1952. The old gal is still hanging on. I guess she doesn’t trust her son Prince Charles to make any big decisions, so she’s probably gonna die on the throne (wearing one of those wild hats she likes).
One of the things that is seared into my memory like a hot branding iron happened in about 1956, when I was 11. My Dad took me to the Kiwanis Club for lunch one Thursday. The Kiwanis Club met at the Hotel Greenwood Leflore, on the Yazoo riverfront. They always had a decent plate lunch, and some sort of program. That day the program was Hite McClean (the one that was a year older than me, not his lawyer Daddy). Hite did an Elvis Presley routine, “You Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog”, I believe, complete with a box guitar and some sort of painted on sideburns, and a pompadour hairdo. Now I had seen Elvis of course, on TV. Maybe he had already been on Ed Sullivan by then, I’m not sure, but he had certainly gotten my attention. But Hite’s performance absolutely changed my life. I was galvanized, eaten up with a fever that burned like a blast furnace inside me. I started in on my Dad that night with a campaign to acquire not just a guitar, but an “ELECTRIC” guitar. It took almost a year of whining and pleading, but finally one Christmas morning I discovered that Santa had left a black Silvertone electric guitar, complete with two pickups and a Bigsby tailpiece, from the North Pole warehouse of Sears Roebuck. Not only that, he also left an amplifier so big I couldn’t even pick it up, I had to get Daddy to move it back to my room.
Well, that guitar and amp was the gasoline that fueled my musical fire for the next 55 or so years, and it still smolders today. But what a journey it sparked. I’ve never been anything more than just an ordinary amateur musician, but I’ve enjoyed it immensely. Hite McLean has no idea to this day that he launched my musical odyssey!
Between the discovery of rock n roll at age 12, and the transition from Miss Kathleen Bankston’s Elementary School to Greenwood Junior High, the “picture show” took up a significant amount of a young man’s 13th and 14th years, since that’s where young ladies might be found on the weekends. Greenwood had two movie theaters, the Rebel, on South Howard St., just past the Episcopal Church, and the art deco Leflore Theater, set at a rakish angle on the corner of Washington and Fulton. Of course, not yet old enough to drive ourselves, we had to suffer the indignation of being dropped off, and then picked up by parents, or older siblings. A small price to pay however, for the opportunity to sit in a darkened venue with a female! The Rebel Theater was older, and in addition to the main feature (or double feature) would also have serials, such as The Adventures of Lash LaRue (“the cowboy king of the bullwhip”). I remember one year Lash Larue made a live appearance at the Rebel, for a Saturday matinee, and I have never been so disappointed in my life. He looked pretty seedy, and seemed to be wearing some sort of bourbon after shave lotion as he signed autographs. I quickly abandoned him for Buster Crabbe as Flash Gordon, and Johnny Weismuller as the fabulous Tarzan, King of the Apes!
The Rebel was finally outdone with the opening of the Leflore Theater. It was the talk of the town, with it’s artsy look, and was easily twice as large as the old Rebel. With a modern concession stand that featured every kind of pogey bait known to man, including giant Dill pickles, it was the pride of the Delta for many years, until local juvenile deliquent Lay Turner decided to hurl a jumbo dill pickle through the screen one afternoon, leaving an unsightly rip nearly dead center where Roy Rogers had just sent some Indian to the happy hunting ground with his twin silver plated six shooters. This of course brought down the wrath of Mr. Harry Marchand, the owner, always dapper in his suit, with the local blue-haired Nazi “George Washington” in tow, with her feared six cell flashlight, searching for the miscreant. We called her George Washington because she looked actually like George Washington on the dollar bill, although she was probably a sweet old lady. Just not when she was on patrol at the theater. Her pet peeve was someone talking in her movie theater, and she would cruise endlessly up and down the aisles trying to catch someone speaking above a whisper, and when she discovered a violator, would bath them in the beam of her torch, accompanied by a withering look that would silence any chatterboxes in attendance. We junior high boys would of course revert to acting like grade school kids, each one trying to impress the other, and whatever females might be present by punching the bottoms out of popcorn boxes, and wearing them as sleeves on our arms, and also blowing on empty Red Hot boxes to produce the most annoying horn-like bleats, whenever George Washington would turn her back. But the young jr. high ladies were not impressed. They were dreaming of tenth or eleventh graders.
I can also remember purchasing my first 45 rpm record at Coleman Craig’s Flower & Gift Shop (records in the back). Of course Malouf’s Music had a much bigger record store over by the train station, but we weren’t allowed to ride our bikes “down there”. The inaugural piece of my record collection came in the form of “Short, Fat Fannie” by Larry Williams (1957). I had gone by to make my purchase on my bike, on the way to the Rebel one Saturday just after lunch time. Mr. Craig put the record in a bag, collected my 50 cents, and sent me on my way to the newly discovered territory of rock n roll. Swinging the bag just under the handlebars as I approached the Rebel, my knee came up and caught the record in a perfect bind against the handlebar, snapping the vinyl disc in half. Some buddies were gathered outside the Rebel, so I couldn’t cry, but I sure wanted to. I immediately rode back to the record shop, where a kind Mr. Craig took pity on me, and gladly gave me another copy free. I still had enough to get in the Rebel (10 cents I think was the admission those days, but it might have been 25 cents for the Saturday Double Feature with cartoons and serials). For years, whenever I would see Mr. Craig in the Episcopal Church, putting out the flowers on the altar, I would remember his generosity.
The next giant step in my life was of course getting a driver’s license (you could still get a license at age 15 back then), and on August 19th 1960, I made Daddy take me to the Highway Patrol station to get it done. I managed to pass, and although he let me drive home, I couldn’t understand why he didn’t just hand over the keys right then. I guess I was expecting the recently purchased 1958 Ford Custom 300 to become mine. Didn’t quite work out that way! Daddy had bought that car (the first NEW car he ever purchased) a year earlier, from Hambrick Motor Company, located where the Viking Cooking School is now situated, at the corner of Front Street and Main Street. Years ago, after Daddy had died, my brother and I were going through boxes and boxes of his stuff (he was a pack rat – had every cancelled check and every receipt for everything he ever bought), and I found the receipt for that car). He paid $1,850.00 for it in 1959. Amazing! It had a manual transmission (a “stick shift”, which naturally I thought was the coolest thing ever). I remember when he brought it home, and me pestering him quite unsuccessfully, to get a set of fender skirts and dual swept-back radio aerials to go on the back deck.
He would let me drive it some, usually on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, and it didn’t take me long to succumb to the temptation to try some “speed shifting”. I believe it was Leland Russell riding shotgun with me the day I stripped out all the gears in the transmission, except for reverse and maybe third. I was able to limp home in third gear, and try to explain to Daddy what had happened. I believe I walked a lot after that, for a pretty fair period of time. It was pretty damn fast too, for a six cylinder. Leland’s dad had a 58 Ford as well, and he never could beat me in our drag races on Money Road. That stick shift was just the ticket for getting off the line! Of course, we weren’t in the same class with local drag kings William Ellis or Matt Dale, but we still could burn that rubber!
I guess I would have been a 15 year old freshman at Greenwood High in 1960, when I got my driver’s license. I remember that my class was the first class to enter the new GHS when it opened, and the first class to complete 4 full years there when we graduated in 1963. It was brand new! You walk through GHS now, and it looks 50 years old – hell it IS 50 years old, I suppose, or will be in 2 more years!
I rode in a car pool I think, my whole freshman year, driven by different moms or dads from friends in our neighborhood. Billy Boy Bowman, Kirk Carter, John Hony, maybe others who were the same age. By the summer before my junior year (1961), my brother Jimmy had come home from the Navy, and married Mimi Garrard. He had an old 1951 Studebaker, and when they got married, his in-laws, David and Ethel Duncan, gave them a new Mercury Comet for a wedding present, for them to take to New York, where they were headed to begin their married life. He gave the Studebaker to me, and a door to a whole new galaxy opened before my eyes! Unfortunately, all that I could see on the other side were demons and wicked temptation!
My 1951 Studebaker Commander 4 dr sedan – “The Blue Bomb”
(note reverse-opening rear doors)
By then the car pool had fallen into our own hands, and Billy Boy, Kirk and I were joined by Judy Colvin, Eileen Pachter and Davo Pittman, and we drove to Greenwood High each morning in one or the other’s car. I think Davo referred to the group as “hard rollers”
Lunchtime was a daily adventure, usually to the Cotton Boll restaurant on Johnson Avenue, about 3 or 4 blocks from the school, for one of their famous foot long hotdogs. Other days we went to the Frost Top, sometimes the bowling alley. On rare days, we would venture over to Park Avenue, but we only had 30 minutes for lunch, so we usually got in trouble for being late when we made that trip.
The Studebaker was a unique beast, with bizarre styling, and a constructional peculiarity that featured rear doors that opened backwards from a normal 4 door sedan. We would use this feature to attempt to scoop up dogs foolish enough to chase us, although I don’t remember that we ever caught one. We certainly scared the crap out of a few, when the back door would fly open and a hand would reach out to snatch them. That usually ended the pursuit of the vehicle.
Having one’s own set of wheels opened up vast opportunities to get in trouble. Principally, hanging out at either Lackey’s, Serio’s, Giardina’s or Carnaggio’s parking lots. Or either riding from one parking lot to the next, over the course of an evening, just to make sure we weren’t missing something. It was not unusual to put 75 or 100 miles a night on a vehicle, “making the circuit” covering 4 or 5 joints, repeated several times a night. Gasoline was not much of a problem, at 25 cents a gallon. As long as someone had enough money for a few cold beers. Cold beer was readily available at all of these establishments (Pabst Blue Ribbon being one of the more preferred brands, prior to the ascendency of Budweiser to the throne), via a system of carhops. I don’t know when the system of checking ID’s came into use, but it certainly had not been thought of in the early 60’s. If you could drive a car, or even ride in a car, you could purchase all the beer you wanted. The carhops would bring beer, and hamburgers out to your car, all you had to do was toot your horn for service (except at Serio’s. They were situated in a mostly residential neighborhood in South Greenwood, at the corner of Mississippi and Alabama Avenues, so they probably got complaints from the neighbors). They had a big sign outside that said “Don’t Blow Horn – Flash Lights for Service, and that would do the trick.
I remember my favorite carhop at Lackey’s was Bobcat. Bobcat was a jovial young black man, and wore a paper cap provided by his employer, upon which he had written his name with a ball point pen, “BOBCAT”. At some later date he appended that with a statement in reference to a girlfriend I suppose, “love one gril”
Lackey’s Café, Park Avenue, Greenwood, MS
(with Carnaggio’s Restaurant in the background, across street)
Spelling was obviously not Bobcat’s forte, but we figured it out that Bobcat was claiming to be monogamous, but I never understood if the claim was for our edification, or to make himself taller in his girl’s eyes. At any rate, he became forever known to us as Bobcat Love One Gril.
There were many carhops over the years, but a few I remember fondly were Joe (sometimes known as “Virgo”), who claimed to be the lead singer of a black R&B group who had a hit record named “Dear One” in the early 60’s. He was a soft-spoken, quiet young man, always friendly, and I think he worked at Serio’s for a while, and then later at Lusco’s, where I’m sure he made more money than shagging beer at Serio’s. Also at Lusco’s was Dan. Dan was a fixture that had been at Lusco’s as long as I could remember, and probably died there as well. Who knows how long he worked there, but he WAS Lusco’s to me.
There were countless others, but they have faded into the mists of time for me. I think they may have been the inspiration for the name of my band I have had for the last 30 years, “The Curb Service Band”. I guess folks younger than age 30 don’t have any idea what “curb service” is (or was), but it was just the way drive-in restaurants worked back then.
I think Lackey’s might have been the most popular of the four or five hangouts we frequented, if only because it was centrally located, and had a big shade tree out front, in the center of the gravel parking lot. Other than that, there wasn’t much difference in any of them, and you could always find two or three carloads of kids on any of them at any given time, and on a Saturday night, around 9 PM, there might be 40 or 50 cars crammed in there, with kids draped everywhere. There were others as well, such as King’s, Tucker’s Truckstop, Short’s, but these were a little more on the “dangerous” side, maybe not your first choice to take a girl friend. Maybe better for later in the evening, when the girls had gone home? Well, you know.
(“Don’t Blow Horn, Flash Lights for Service”)
Lackey’s also had arguably the best hamburger on the face of planet Earth. I thought so, anyway. I asked Mrs. Lackey one time what made them so good (her husband made them) and she said, “He cuts the meat with light bread, honey”. I guess my puzzled look gave me away, for then she added, “You know, it’s like a filler, makes the meat go further”. Made them really greasy too, but so damn good!
I think they had great fries too, not like the thin, hard little sticks you get nowadays from McD’s, but meaty, and crisp, cooked in 100% real lard!
There were other spots around town that bring a fond memory to me as well, places like Mr. Sam Scroggins Store, just west of Mrs. Braden’s house on the corner or the Boulevard and Park Ave., and the Neighborhood Grocery (where the Exxon station is now on Park and Walnut – it faced out towards Walnut Street, just a little hole-in-the-wall market). Then there was Folbe’s Courts Motel, a strange little place with an office on Park Ave, and a string of connected rooms running back away from Park, each one with it’s own little private garage, with a pull down garage door, so you could hide your car. Wonder what sort of things went on there? And not far from Folbe’s was Windham’s, a kind of honky tonk, I guess you would call it. I don’t think I ever went in Windham’s, but some folks did obviously. I remember they had a big glass window, with the words “Vital Juices” neatly lettered across the bottom of the glass. Hmmm?
Downtown there was Gelman’s Cafeteria, where we sometimes went for lunch, and the Post Office Café, part of the old Irving Hotel (now the Alluvian). One of the kids favorites was Thompson-Turner Pharmacy (actually I think it was “Drug Store”), with the only known soda fountain in the Delta, with a lunch counter, stools and maybe a few booths, where you could get a pretty good cherry coke. A favorite with the girls, as I remember.
The favorite with the guys had to be the Rex Billiard Parlor, or “the pool room” as it was called. It was originally located up on Howard Street, about a half block from the river. They had 5 or 6 pool tables, a couple of snooker tables, some domino tables that seemed to be perpetually occupied by guys in coveralls and train engineer hats, who would play for hours and hours, and a row of pinball machines (the old fashioned kind, with the 25 holes for the balls to roll down and fall into). The most popular were the ones with the “OK section”, where if you could get three balls in a row, then the OK section would open up to offer large bonuses for either “two in the green” or three in the green”. I remember a certain Greenwood physician would come in every single day and stick at least $100 in nickels in one of these machines. Occasionally he would win $20 or $50, and on rare occasions maybe $100, but most days he won zip! But he came every day. He just liked to play, didn’t need the money. I can still hear his voice, when he would run out of nickels… “Gimme another roll, Sonny”! Sonny was Sonny Tominello, one of the three Tominello brothers that owned the place. They were the closest thing to real gangsters we had ever seen in Greenwood, Mississippi! I think Sonny was the baby of the bunch, and Frankie and Tony were older twin brothers. I couldn’t tell ‘em apart, just two peas in a pod. They would let us play the pinball machines (as long as the cops weren’t in there), but strangely enough, you couldn’t buy a beer in there unless you were 21. About the only place in town that was like that. You did have to watch your step in there, and the Tominello boys didn’t put up with a lot of foolishness.
I also remember Johnny John’s, the combination gas station/bootleg liquor store, on the curved western approach ramp to the downtown Keesler bridge (the only downtown bridge back then). This was before liquor was “legal”, and lots of local people would call a cab and send them by Johnny John’s to pick up a half pint or a fifth, and have it delivered to the house. The cab drivers had a booming business going, collecting tips from their delivery customers.
During our first year or so of High School, we had the Youth Center, officially named TAC. I was never exactly sure what TAC meant, but I think Teenage Attendance Center may have been the formal name. I know that once we had access to cars, attendance at TAC was fairly far down on our list of things to do in Greenwood.
More enticing were some of the “real” joints, where al sorts of music could be sampled. Like the National Guard Armory, somewhere out behind Williams School and the Odd Fellows Cemetery, where occasional big dances would be held. I will never forget the night Bo Diddley performed there. I think I was 14 or 15, and snuck out there to see the awesome Mr. Estes McDaniel (his real name). My Mother would have killed me, right before my Daddy would have killed me a second time, but a large time was had by all, and I lived to tell about it. There were also the VFW club, out on Hwy 82 towards Carrollton, where the Red Tops used to play (actually a little before my time, but I remember their records). The Elks Club downtown, and of course the Legion Hut, by the North Greenwood Fire Station. I cut my musical teeth in the Legion Hut, playing with two or three high school bands on numerous occasions. I remember we would always rent it from John Lee’s daddy, who was a functionary in the American Legion. Until the night we had “The Blowout” there, and we were told that it would no longer be available for us to rent after that. “The Blowout” was one of our parting gifts to Greenwood, as we were all going off to college in a couple of months, but I am told that we left behind something called “the Parent’s League”. I guess we better save the true story of the Blowout for another blog post.
You know, it was a special time, growing up as a teenager in the late 50’s and early 60’s. We were fortunate that we didn’t have marijuana or crack or cocaine then, to mess up our lives. We did a pretty good job of it with just beer and the occasional drink of whiskey, but all in all we made it through, with God’s help.
I ride around Greenwood today, and realize I don’t know most of the people I see on the streets (because I am an old man now), and the town has changed a great deal, but there are still plenty of places to bring back a special memory of a person or an event that happened, as George Lucas once said, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”!
– – Joe Seawright