Friday, April 17, 2009

No.21: Learning to Read

Children of the 50s and 60s, in Tupelo and elsewhere, learned to read with Dick and Jane. They were the stars of the Scott, Foresman basal readers of that era, with a supporting cast that included their baby sister Sally, their dog Spot, their cat Puff, and Sally’s teddy bear Tim. Mother and Father appeared in cameo roles.

We learned by reading such exciting sentences as: “See Jane. See Jane run.” Or my all time favorite: “Come, Puff, come.” Imagine a child with no front teeth reading that sentence.

I remember classes being divided into reading groups, but I certainly didn’t understand at the time that we were ability grouped. We sat in little chairs in a circle and watched the teacher introduce new words on a large flip-chart and then each of us read aloud. We were hooked on repetition rather than phonics.

When each of the other groups was in the reading circle, the rest of us did “seatwork” from the board, or we could work on our homework if we had finished our seatwork.

I don’t think that’s how reading is taught in the twenty-first century, but it did seem to work for most of us.

No.20: Sivad: Your Monster of Ceremonies

"a-Good Eeevening. I am Sivad, your Monster of Ceremonies"

In the 1960's Sivad began appearing on WHBQ-Memphis as the host of Fantastic Features, a late night (Saturday, I think) showing of old B movies of the "horror" genre. Tupelo adolescents of this era spent a lot of time discussing the most recent Feature, assuring one another that it wasn't all that scary, and laughing about how hokey Sivad was.

For more information about Watson Davis, Memphis theater owner, better known as Sivad, click on the following link:

Monday, April 13, 2009

No.19: Electric Football

Did you ever have one of these? In the low-tech era that was my childhood, when the people who would later invent video games were still children just like I was, every boy had to have one -- an electric football game. The fascination with this quaint marvel was a sort of precursor of the gadget fever that strikes some of us these days. Maybe you saw one of these in an ad and imagined hours of fun coaching your own team, controlling the outcome of a game with the brilliance of your own strategy. And then you owned one. What a colossal disappointment!
Bill Bryson wrote a terrifically funny book about his childhood in the same era: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir. The book captures my sentiments about a lot of things. (I recommend it.) Here's what he had to say about electric football:
"The worst toy of the decade [the 1950s], possibly the worst toy ever took forever to set up each play because the men were so fiddly and kept falling over, and because you argued continuously with your opponent about what formations were legal and who got to position the final hardly mattered how they were set up because electric football players never went in the direction intended. In practice what happened was that half the players instantly fell over and lay twitching violently as if suffering from some extreme gastric disorder, while the others streamed off in as many different directions as there were upright players before eventually clumping together in a corner, where they pushed against the unyielding sides like victims of a nightclub fire at a locked exit. The one exception to this was the running back who just trembled in place for five or six minutes, then slowly turned and went on an unopposed glide toward the wrong end zone until knocked over with a finger on the two-yard line by his distressed manager, occasioning more bickering."

Thursday, April 9, 2009

No.18: Fair Day in Tupelo

Children enjoying a game of chance at the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show.

Every year in mid-September, schools in Tupelo and Lee County dismissed for Fair Day. Children who marched in the fair parade were admitted free of charge to the Mississippi-Alabama Fair and Dairy Show. The Fair was a big event in Tupelo in my childhood and youth. Downtown stores gave away tickets for chances on cars that were given away by a drawing each night of the Fair. (In the weeks leading up to the Fair, and during Fair week, those cars were prominently parked in different locations around the downtown area with signs on top of them advertising the Fair.) One of my sister's friends won a car before she had a driver's license. When she turned 15 she took possession of her big black Buick.

The Fair featured a mid-way full of rides, games of chance, freak shows and other exotic shows. The kids in the newspaper photo above were playing one of those games of chance. (Look carefully, and you may see someone you recognize.) Various charitable and civic organizations operated booths where hamburgers and hot dogs were sold or where you could play bingo for prizes. And of course Fair visitors walked around eating candy apples and cotton candy.

Of less interest to me, but obviously a lot of interest to some, were the livestock shows and other judged events that were exhibited in the permanent Fair structures. These events were sponsored by the RCDC (Rural Community Development Council) that operated in Lee County.

Elvis made a well-documented appearance and performed at the Fair in 1956. To see several photos from this appearance, visit You can find several excerpts of that performance at using the key words "Elvis Fair 1956." Or you can try for one of those videos.

Thinking about the Fair reminded me of Long's Laundry which was located on the corner of Main Street and the little street that led to the entrance to the Fairgrounds. The most memorable part of the laundry was its neon sign that featured a washerwoman in motion, washing clothes on a scrub-board.

Today the old Fairgrounds have been developed by the City of Tupelo as Fairpark District, a growing collection of retail, office and residential space. The new City Hall is located square in the middle of the old mid-way. (Visit for information about the Fairpark District development.

The new City Hall located in the middle of the old Fair's mid-way.

Friday, April 3, 2009

No.17: The Swimming Pool

Until it was replaced by the pool at City Park on Joyner, this was THE pool in Tupelo. It was located on Madison, behind Church Street School and just south of Robins Field. Swimmers entered through a white clapboard bathhouse, guys to the left and girls to the right. Everyone was supposed to shower before leaving the bathhouse, but the water was cold and often avoided. What you couldn't avoid was a trench that was about five feet across that held six inches of dark, nasty, cold water. The only way through the back door that led to the pool was to wade through the trench. I suppose this was a way of making sure that those who only pretended to shower at least got their feet wet. I'm guessing their feet may have been cleaner before wading through the trench.

The pool itself, as pictured in the postcard above, was a large round one with a shallow section on the outer edge that gradually sloped to the deep part toward the center and beyond the chain. In the center of the pool was a diving platform with a low board and a high board. I've been told that the pool didn't have a filtration system, so it was drained once a week for cleaning. You wanted to know the schedule before you went for a dip.

In the late 60's the old pool was filled in and paved over to provide parking for the football stadium. All that's left is a postcard and a memory.

No.16: Test Patterns and Tupelo Television

Do you remember "test patterns"? These days television stations, and particularly cable channels, are 24-hour operations. But when television first arrived in Tupelo in 1957 in the form of WTWV, most stations ended their broadcast day at midnight and didn't resume until something like 7:00 am. If you fell asleep watching The Late Show, you woke up to the test pattern. Young children were known to rise early on Saturday morning and watch the test pattern until the cartoons came on.

My family got our first television set (a cabinet model RCA, I think) about that time, and I became a fan of Captain Kangaroo (and Mr. Greenjeans, Grandfather Clock, Mr. Moose, Bunny Rabbit, etc.) as a kindergartner. As I remember it, network news was only a 15 minute proposition, and local news with Bill Landers filled the remaining 15 minutes. Tupelo's Hilda Hill starred in a cooking show and sometimes interviewed local personalities. WTWV's commercials were mostly close-ups of posters on an easel with voice-overs that were basically radio ads.

Of course, my taste ran toward network programs like The Mickey Mouse Club with Bobby, Cubby and Annette and the rest of the Mousekateers. The show featured song and dance numbers (these I merely endured), old Disney cartoons and serials like Spin and Marty and The Hardy Boys. Later in the 50's an evening program called Walt Disney Presents introduced such unforgettable dramas as Zorro, The Swamp Fox, and The Nine Lives of Elfego Baca. Am I the only one who remembers Elfego Baca?

Some quality programs were produced in the 50's (Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Theater, Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows, etc,) and that era is sometimes referred to as the Golden Age of Television. But I was young and enjoyed junk TV like Westerns (Wagon Train, The Rifleman, Maverick, Gunsmoke) and game shows (Truth or Consequences, Concentration, What's My Line, Beat the Clock).

If you remember all of those shows, you can't be a lot younger than I am.

To read a history of WTWV (now WTVA), click on the following link: