THE PRE-TEEN YEARS in GREENWOOD, MS
(Pre-quel to THE TEENAGE YEARS)
Okay, first of all, remember that I am now 67 years old, and while the short term memory is almost COMPLETELY fried, I will attempt to reach way back into the mists of time, and see what I can come up with. I believe I may have posted somewhere in an earlier piece that my earliest childhood memory is from about age 5 or 6, running out to meet my Dad when he pulled into the driveway each day about 5:15, coming home from work at Delta Electric. He would pull in, driving some old black sedan (have no idea what make or model, just that it had running boards) and would stop and let me climb up on the driver’s side running board, and then with his left arm out the driver’s window, and wrapped tightly around me, ease up the remaining 50 feet or so to the sidewalk, where he would park it for the evening. Just can’t pull out anything earlier than that, so that’s where we have to start I guess.
I remember we had a pretty good snowfall at the new house on Jefferson Street, when I was 5, about 1950 or ‘51 or so, maybe 3 or 4 inches, and that provided a couple of days of snowman construction and generally freezing my hands off making snowballs. The McCormick girls lived just to the left of us on Jefferson. We were 303 E Jefferson, they were 305, and Cathy, who was 1 year older than me, was my closest playmate and co-conspirator in neighborhood mayhem. We would constantly play Cowboys and Indians, but I always had to be Dale Evans while she got to be Roy Rogers. Age has its privileges, I guess, but it warped me for life, I think. Margaret was several years older, so she was too cool to join in, approaching her teenage years, and Sharon was just a tot, and too small. Our family was always very close to the McCormick’s…. until the day I managed to hit little Sharon in the forehead with a baseball bat, while taking a few practice cuts during a front yard game. Big Frank exploded into a fury and banned me for life from their yard (can’t really blame him, but fortunately Sharon was not seriously injured, and made a rapid recovery, although the neighborly relations were frosty for several years to follow).
I also remember sitting on my front steps one bright sunny afternoon, and I just happened to be looking across the street, when a gigantic meteor slashed across the sky, from left to right, right above the roof of Prentiss Webb’s house, a huge fireball, leaving a blazing trail of fire and smoke, IN BROAD DAYLIGHT! WOW! It burned up in the atmosphere, before it hit the ground (probably thousands of miles away from Greenwood), but that impressed me mightily, and probably got me interested in astronomy at an early age… that, and listening to the sound of my older brother grinding his own telescope mirror in his bedroom, right next to mine one summer, night after night after night, for hours and hours, ’til I thought I would scream. I think it irritated me so much because he wouldn’t let me help, only watch. Any time he left the house he would tell mama, “don’t let Joe meddle in my room and DO NOT let him touch the mirror!
And we all chased the DDT/mosquito truck EVERY night when it came by in the Summer (and it seems like it WAS every night), and somehow lived to tell about it, and even more amazingly, ended up having offspring with the appropriate number of arms, legs, fingers and toes.
Our neighbor to the right, whose name I can’t remember, had a beautiful Irish setter, very friendly, that I managed to spray down with some tank of insecticide I found in their garage one day. Why I did this I have no idea, just though it was like some giant water pistol on steroids I suppose. Didn’t know it would hurt the dog, and thankfully it did not, but I got a good whipping for that one…. with a switch. We had hedges on both sides of your yard, from the street to the alley behind the house, so an endless supply of instruments of punishment were in an inexhaustible supply for any transgressions, and the worst part of it all was having to go and pick my own switch, and having to wait in an ever building crescendo of terror as Mama slowly stripped away the leaves. And once the flogging would begin, I would dance and gyrate, unable to get away from the left hand that seized my left wrist, while her right hand striped my bare calves with the implement of torture. To this day I hate hedges of every description!
I went to Martha Parker’s Kindergarten, but can’t remember actually where it was. Maybe over by the west end of City Park??? I liked it, I remember that. And by age 6 (September of 1951??) I was ready for the first grade, but I think by then the Little Red Schoolhouse had already burned down, and Bankston was not quite finished yet, so we had to do the first half of the first grade in the Legion Hut, maybe even the whole first year of first grade.
But by 2nd grade, Bankston was ready to receive its first charge of elementary kids, and what a wonderful schoolhouse it was. Three long wings of classrooms, spotlessly new and clean, a gym, a cafeteria, an auditorium, and a playground as big as the Sahara Desert but a lot greener, it seemed to us.
I can remember a few of my teachers, but not many… lets’ see: a Mrs. Eggleston, (3rd grade?) Miss Schoonover (4th) and Murdering Murdock (6th) and a practice teacher named Mrs. Eubanks, who lived with Mrs. Ethel Bowman up the street from us. I think maybe Miss Betty Jane Kennedy was another of my teachers, but I just can’t remember any more, sorry.
Bankston was a great school, we all got a pretty fine elementary education, and had a wonderful time, cared for by dedicated teachers and the ROCK herself, Kathleen Bankston, one of the originators of the blue hairdo! She looked pretty mean, but was really a very sweet lady, long as you didn’t mess up too bad, and get sent to her office, which of course I NEVER did.
It was a different time back then, no doubt. We could play outside in the evening ‘til it got pitch black dark. All the neighbors took a personal interest in all of us kids, would look out for us, give us snacks and such, and they all pretty well maintained a “network” that watched over all of us, no matter at whose house we were playing. Portia Peteet was across the back alley, directly behind the McCormick’s’. Perry DeLoach directly behind my house, and I can remember almost every night her mama coming out the back door to call her in for the evening, in a loud, searching voice, starting somewhere around middle C, and at the end jumping up a fifth, something like… “Mae PeeeeerrrrrrrrriEEEEEEEEEE!” In a minute or two here would come Perry scuttling home from somewhere close by. Art and Chris Eidman were a few doors down on E. Adams, and Marcia Kantor across the side street from Portia and Mary Lynn and Rebecca. Louie and Prince Spencer, and their little sister were opposite the Kantor’s on Adams, and down past the Eidman’s were Sandra, Stevie and Bonnie Stigler They had a little brother, maybe his name was Jeff??? . Hite McLean was across from the Stigler’s somewhere. Further up Jefferson were the Colvin girls, Judy and Joan, and the Hony boys, Bill and John, then Annette Anderson, Billy Boy Bowman and all his sisters, Susan, Mary Lynn and Betty Lou, and his older brother Charles Jr. I could go on, as there were dozens of us kids in the neighborhood, and we were allowed to roam pretty much all over North Greenwood, on our bikes, on foot, without the first thought of safety concerns. Even downtown on Saturdays, to go to the Leflore Theater, or the Rebel. The Rebel had the best double feature westerns, with serials featured as well, and cartoon shows in between the movies. Loony Tunes, with Bugs Bunny, Porky, Daffy and all the crew, as well as an occasional Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, my personal favorite. We couldn’t get enough of Roy Rogers and Dale and Trigger and the dog (was it Bullet??), along with Gene Autry, Hopalong Cassidy, The Lone Ranger & Tonto, even Lash LaRue, who once made a live appearance at the Rebel, smelling a bit like bourbon, but he had his whip with him, and put on a reasonable demonstration for the kids. Plus, we had Buster Crabbe, Johnny Weissmuller, Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges and of course the Bowery Boys, and who can forget the Little Rascals. We had the world on a string. Looking back from today’s different world, it seems like a dream, sweet and simple and carefree. Nobody locked their doors when they left the house, or even at night, just no need to do so. We climbed every tree in sight, never broke any bones that I remember. I do remember being run off the road into a deep ditch on my bike by Little Art, although it wasn’t his fault, we just got too close, and I ended up in the ditch with a broken right arm! Of course I got a free trip to Dr. Sandifer’s office, to have a cast put on, and had to listen to him grumble about everything under the sun, as he was a gruff old codger, or at least that was the front he liked to present. I was scared to death of him, but I got some ice cream out of the deal, I think.
Same deal when I had to have my tonsils taken out, around age 8 or 10, I believe ( I think that has fallen out of vogue nowadays in the medical community – maybe still on rare cases of extreme infection, but generally you have to ride it out now. Back then they would chop ‘em out if they even looked pink or puffy). It was my first, only, and hopefully last experience with ether. I can remember the nurse /anesthesiologist approaching with some sort of mask that looked like what fighter pilots wear, with a long black hose running out of the bottom, and after a few whiffs I began to see these big sets of eyes floating in front of my face, staring at me. Several pairs in fact, big cat eyes, little snake eyes, bug eyes, all floating and swirling just above the top of the mask, right in my face. Next thing I knew I was waking up, blinking, wondering why my throat felt like a large Mack truck and driven into my mouth and down my throat, scraping all the flesh from inside me. Hurt like hell, and I had a violent headache from the ether I suppose. After suffering a few hours of this torment I was finally treated to all the ice cream I could eat, and I milked it for all it was worth, several different flavors in fact. A day or two later, after I had returned home and was recovering in my own bed, lightly sleeping late one afternoon, my mother caught my older brother Jimmy creeping stealthily across the floor of my bedroom on his hands and knees, with a fighter pilots mask in one hand, exactly like the one they used in the hospital (who knows where he got it, but he was a resourceful fellow), fully intent I’m sure on scaring the life out of me by clamping it on my face as I slumbered. He was too big to get the switch treatment, but she figured out some other appropriate punishment I’m sure.
Jimmy also had a cat’s brain in formaldehyde, in a jar on a shelf in his room, that I think he swiped from the high school biology lab. I was terrified of that thing too, would wake up at night thinking about a real cat brain, just sitting there, waiting to attack. If being Dale Evans didn’t completely warp me, that cat brain finished the job!
Part of the fun of growing up in Greenwood was discovering new places to hang out, as we became older, and with virtually no restrictions on where we could go, as we became more adept with our bicycles, and our familiarity with the lay of the land. One favorite in particular of mine was the original Crosstown Pharmacy, on the corner of Grand & Claiborne, right beside the downtown Yazoo River bridge, tucked in behind the Shell Gas station. I can still see Mr. Applewhite, the pharmacist, his young new assistant Ben Feigler, and Mrs. Love, a Crosstown fixture. They had a terrific magazine stand in the back (comics, in todays vernacular), and even though they had a sign posted to not read the magazines, they seemed to allow certain ones of us plenty of latitude, and I would spend an hour or two each visit checking out the Superman, Batman and other top rags of the day, while munching on Necco wafers purchased from Mrs. Love, and charged on the family charge account.
Another unique spot that Billy Boy Bowman, Davo Pittman , Kirk Carter and I found to hang out was the wooded area, just E of where Weightman Avenue makes that weird dogleg jog to the right, and runs almost up to the Tallahatchie River. There are all kinds of houses there now, but back in 1956 Weightman was the last road going north up the E side of North Greenwood, and the area to the right was all woods. We called it Skeleton Forest, and it was the perfect hangout, principally because it provided a ready supply of cross vine for 12 and 13 year old adventurers to smoke. Since we couldn’t buy cigarettes yet, it was a semi-reasonable alternative.
As we graduated from Bankston, and moved across the river to Junior High, we thought we were big stuff. We could now go to lunch downtown, if we could do it in an hour and not be late getting back to school. Of course this meant walking, as we were still too young for a driver’s license, but that was no big deal. Some of our favorite places were Gelman’s Café (or was it Cafeteria?), the Post Office Café, Thompson Turner Drug Store, across from the Court House (where they had a real soda fountain serving cherry cokes). Others would head west to Carr’s Grocery at the corner of Dewey St and Johnson St., and even to the Cotton Boll a little further W on Johnson, for the famous foot longs.
Junior High was the time when we guys really began to notice these things called girls, and from that point on, it was as if the Earth’s polarity flipped over, maybe even more than once in the next two years. We didn’t really seem to know what was happening at the time, just that the landscape had changed, and there were new rules to learn. This finally became clear to me about 15 years ago, when Johnny Jennings and I started doing the annual Christmas Debutant party for the pages and their escorts, held each year along with the Gold and White Debutant Ball, at the Greenwood Country Club. We have been doing this now for at least the last 15 or 20 years, and every year we see the same pattern. The pages and their escorts are all 7th or 8th graders, and even thought the faces change each year, the behaviors are identical. The girls are there for one thing, to meet boys! And the boys are there to goof off and play grab ass with each other and pretty much ignore the girls, even though the girls are hoping that someone will want to dance with them. It doesn’t matter what music we play, old rock or brand new rap, it always takes an hour or so before the ice begins to melt, but sooner or later, just like clockwork, some of the sharper guys begin to realize that they are indeed in the middle of a target rich environment, and they take the plunge, and start asking the girls to dance. Pretty soon it’s love at first sight (well, maybe only the puppy love version, but it’s a start down a whole new path). After that, nothing is the same again I guess, and so it was for us in 1957 or ’58, as we hit Junior High.
Add to that the fact that Elvis had just turned the world on its ear, with this rock and roll stuff he was selling, and it was like a rocket ship blasting off, with us hanging on for dear life!
Greenwood was a special place, no doubt, but probably no more special than any other small, Delta town of that era, 1945 to 1960. I think everyone has a special feeling for the place they grew up, came of age, and started to learn about life, the warm, happy feelings and memories, and even some of the bad times that taught us some valuable lessons as well, all of it mixed together. It seems like such a long and distant time ago, probably because it is exactly that, or as George Lucas famously introduced each of his Star Wars movies, “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”..
Thomas Wolfe once reminded us that, “You can’t go home again” in his novel of the same name. Specifically, he said, “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.”
Perhaps he was technically right, but we can still dream, right? It is certainly a different world today, certainly more complex, more dangerous, more stressful, more divisive, and yet we still remember our formative years with a smile. I know I do. I bet most of you do too.
– – Joe Seawright