Sunday, May 31, 2009

No.31: Elementary School Recess

“Not-it...Not-it... Not-it...”
Almost before we got out of the door at recess, we sang out the ritual start of our games of chase. It may have been “tag” to most of the rest of the world, but to us it was “chase.”
“I called not-it.”
“No, you didn’t.”
And on and on it went until someone accepted the fact that he was indeed “it.”
”Only one person ‘on base’ at a time” and other rules were subject to modification in mid-game, depending on who could gather the most support and who could yell the loudest. A game of chase could last an entire recess, even if it weren’t for the inevitable arguing that might suspend the game at any point.
Chase was the most common game we played at recess, but sometimes we played a game we called "rough house," and rough it was. In this every-man-for-himself version of football, scraped knees and tears were the norm. The game began with someone punting a football into a crowd of everyone else. The person who came down with the ball took off running in the direction of the designated goal line while everyone else tried to tackle him. After he was brought down, he turned with his back to the masses and threw the ball over his head and the chaos continued. Small, quick guys might stay upright for a while by bobbing and weaving through the throng. Or sometimes a really big guy would move the ball forward with smaller guys dangling from his shoulders, waist and legs. Nobody made textbook tackles in this form of disorganized mayhem. Instead, the common practice was to stick out a foot and trip the unwary runner as he went by the tripper. I’m not sure how we avoided serious injury in such a game.
When we came in from recess, our classrooms were not air conditioned, so the teacher would urge us to be still and put our heads down on our desks while she read a story to us, shouting above the noise of several ineffective box fans that merely stirred the hot air. I still remember how sweaty arms stuck to a desktop when we were finally told we could raise our heads.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

No.30: The Dreaded Needle

Polio had been around a long time before we were born. A serious outbreak occurred in 1950, however, followed by an even more serious outbreak in 1952. For years the March of Dimes had funded research for a vaccine that would eradicate this plague of childhood. Finally in 1955, Jonas Salk announced a vaccine that he believed would do just that, and children all over the country began to be vaccinated against polio. Seven years later, Albert Sabin introduced an even more effective oral polio vaccine, and we all lined up to receive the vaccine-coated sugar cube that would eventually bring an end to polio.

I suppose one of the most common fears and dreads of childhood was the shot needle. It seems that almost every time you turned around, sometimes literally, someone wanted to give you a shot – in the arm or, even worse, in the hip. There were shots that felt like you had been kicked by a mule, and there were others that made you feel like you couldn’t lift your arm the next day. I remember the Health Department nurse came to the school from time to time to give shots to kids who had not already had theirs. The nurse had a deep voice and a hairy upper lip, and she was all business. We stood in a long line, waiting our turn and watching as she took boys and girls behind the screen to give them a shot. I remember hoping she would believe me when I told her that I got my shots at the doctor’s office.

The most unusual inoculation was the smallpox vaccination. They told you not to worry because it would feel like a chicken pecking your arm. I was skeptical because I’d never had a chicken peck my arm, and I wasn’t sure how that would feel. Indeed, it was not as painful as other shots. On the other hand, if it “took” as they said, an ugly scab developed on your arm and lingered for days. Everyone’s fear was that they would somehow knock the scab off. I remember seeing a friend come to school with his vaccination covered by the bottom part of a Dixie Cup taped to his arm with adhesive tape. When our scabs finally fell off on their own, we were left with permanent scars that marked us as safe from smallpox.

For a PBS American Experience documentary on what the world was like when polio was a major concern, visit the following:

No.29: Penmanship

Learning to write has never been easy. It all began for my generation with having the right supplies. Little fingers have to learn to manipulate a pencil, a skill that is apparently unnatural. First graders were supposed to overcome this unnaturalness with oversized pencils the size of a grown man’s index finger. The other necessary supply item was lined tablet paper. In the first grade, our tablet paper was short and wide, with solid lines about an inch apart and a dotted line in the middle. This tablet paper had a rag content that was roughly the equivalent of a cheap coloring book. The lead in those big pencils was so soft it quickly wore down to a rounded nub that made accuracy even more difficult – not to mention leaving an ugly smear when we dragged our sweaty little hands across the page. Thank goodness I wasn’t left-handed.

They say practice makes perfect, so we practiced our letters over and over, first tracing over the dotted outlines of letters in worksheets, then progressing to filling lines of our tablets with “Aa” then “Bb” and so on. With great effort we reproduced the letters as they appeared on the cards displayed above the blackboard. And when at last we began to conquer the art of writing, we were allowed to use regular pencils and the lines on the tablet paper were closer together. Somewhere along the way, we took up the art of cursive writing with its loops and swirls, all done at just the right angle.

To whatever degree we may have mastered penmanship in the lower grades, it went to pot in high school and college when note-taking put a premium on speed. Nowadays, computer use has completely destroyed the art of penmanship.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

No.28: The Ice House

The ice house isn't much to look at now, but then it never did look as special as it was.

Today we buy our ice in plastic bags at convenience stores all over town. Back in the day, Tupelo residents visited the ice house on the south end of Broadway and bought ice in double-walled brown paper bags. The ice house crew used huge tongs to drop blocks of ice into the crusher. The crushed ice emptied through a spout into the bags. I remember the special joy of visiting the ice house with my dad and riding home sitting on the 50 pound bag. We bought ice to make hand-cranked freezer ice cream. Of course, the ice cream was the real treat.

No.27: Top Dawg Radio

When I found this April 1965 hit chart on EBay the other day, it led to some serious eye strain and some research to figure out the Top 10 on this random date. First of all, notice the DJs pictured on the left. I can make out Charlie Brewer, Wayne Coleman, and Dave Hall. Maybe someone else will recognize some of the others. Nevertheless, let's countdown the hits:

Coming in at No. 10, Gary Lewis and the Playboys with Count Me In.

Our No. 9 hit of the week is The Race Is On by Jack Jones.

This week's No. 8 hit, Herman's Hermits singing Silhouettes.

You're listening to WTUP, Top Dawg Radio 1490 in Tupelo. Stay tuned as we count down the hits ...

Put those hands together and join us for No. 7, The Clapping Song by Shirley Ellis.

Still hanging in there at No. 6, The Supremes sing Stop In the Name of Love.

We'll be back with the top five songs in the land after these words from our sponsor ...

On the rise at No. 5, Marvin Gaye sings I'll Be Doggone.

Now The Kinks sing the No. 4 song in the land, Tired of Waiting for You.

This week's No. 3 hit, I'm Telling You Now by Freddie and the Dreamers.

The lovely Petula Clark sings this week's No. 2 hit, I Know A Place.

And now, the No. 1 song in the land: Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders doing The Game of Love.

Looking back on what were the top songs for a random week in 1965 is instructive. You won't remember some or most of these songs. And you won't understand how several of them could have ever been top songs. But for one ordinary week in our ordinary lives, they were the best. Our memories play tricks on us. We remember the highlights of our lives, and the ordinary weeks are just a blur.

Friday, May 15, 2009

No.26: Haircuts, Shoe Shines, and 6 Cent Cokes

This picture reminds me of the Coke machine at the barber shop where I went for hair cuts as a child. The Broadway Barbershop had a machine like this one that dispensed 6 ½ ounce bottles of Coke for 6 cents. Deposit a nickel and a penny, turn the crank, and a classic green, contoured glass bottle tumbled noisily down the innards of the machine to the little knee-level door below. The purchaser removed the cork-lined bottle cap with the machine’s built-in opener, releasing a little puff of gas and the familiar pop/sigh sound, accompanied by the clink of the bottle cap hitting the inside the collection box.
My barbershop was located below street level on Broadway, just south of Main Street and under what was then Pryor’s. Otis Roberts and three other barbers in white coats greeted patrons as they came through the door. If a minister came into the shop, the first barber who recognized him as a man of the cloth would sing out, “Hey, Preacher.” Years later I came to understand that this was the universal signal to barbers and patrons alike to be careful what they said. As a young child, however, I was oblivious to this subtlety and to the kind of conversation that made it necessary.
While we waited our turn in the barber chair, we could flip through the worn-out pages of an ancient Field and Stream magazine or watch the shoeshine man work his magic on the shoes of a customer seated high in his chair. The shoeshine man applied the polish and rubbed it in with his bare hands, and I marveled as I watched him brush shoes, first with one hand, and then toss the brush expertly into his other hand and continue on the other side. Then he would do the part I liked best – the final buffing and popping with a shoeshine rag. I never could make a rag pop the way the shoeshine man did. I can still remember the faint smell of shoe polish mingled with the more predominant odors of lanolin and talcum powder in that barbershop.
“Next,” the barber would say. Sometimes the insurance salesman from the office next door would pass his turn to the next person, saying, “I’m not in a hurry.” Indeed he must not have been because he always seemed to be there when I went for a haircut.
When I was a young child, the barber always put a board across the arms of the chair to elevate me to the proper cutting level. I suppose the day he didn’t have to use the board was the second proudest day of my barbershop life. The proudest day was when, for the first time, he lathered up the back of my neck and shaved it with a straight razor.

Below street-level on Broadway, where the barbershop was located.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

No.25: Vinewood 2

These days many people are foregoing land-line telephones in their homes in favor of cell phones. Think about how far we've come. Before there were answerring machines, before there were portable phones, before push-button phones, before phones even came in colors, all phones were black and had to be dialed. You didn't buy them, you rented them from the telephone company -- Southern Bell. If you had a second phone in your home, an extension, you paid double. And telephone prefixes had names. All Tupelo numbers began with Vinewood 2.

No.24: Cecil Waters' Service Station on Gloster

In the days before skyrocketing oil prices made consumers decide to pump their own gasoline, gas stations were known as service stations. You could pull into a service station, roll your window down, and ask the owner or his teenage surrogate to "Fill 'er up." While he was filling your tank, he would clean your windshield, offer to check under your hood, and check the pressure in your tires. When he brought you your credit card receipt to sign, he might also bring you some green stamps.
Cecil Waters owned just such a service station on Gloster, across from Milam. Junior High students liked to hang out there after school, waiting for their rides. I don't see how Cecil was able to conduct much real business between 3:00 and 3:30 during the school year, but he certainly sold a lot of Cokes and candy.
The picture above is not Cecil Waters' station, but it reminds me of it. The picture came from a road map of the type that service stations once gave away. Imagine that.
Now we pump our own gas at convenience stores and, if we swipe our credit card at the pump, we can complete the entire transaction without any human contact.
(Jim Bain has a drug store on the site where Cecil Waters' station once was.)

Saturday, May 9, 2009

No.23: Collecting Baseball Cards

1960 Topps Baseball Cards

Baseball cards are a big business today for serious (way too serious) adult collectors. In my childhood, however, they were a wonderful diversion for little boys. They provided hours of fun debating whether a Mays was better than a Mantle or how to pronounce Yastrzemski. And we learned useful bargaining skills trading “doubles” or “unknowns.” These trading sessions could be a brutal case of caveat emptor, and experienced traders often took advantage of younger or less knowledgeable collectors.

The cards were sold five to a pack along with a stick of the most wretched bubble gum you ever put in your mouth. This so-called gum was powdery and brittle and had a distinctive smell. In your mouth it disintegrated into little pebbles that took a lot of serious chewing to develop into something you could blow a bubble with. And it left a really vile after-taste. Of course the gum was just a necessary by-product of the real transaction, and we usually threw it away before we left the store.

I’m sure you could buy baseball cards all over Tupelo, but my favorite shopping venues were Wren’s on Clayton, Booker’s on Joyner or, if you dared, Dale Walton’s on Jackson. If the store had a new shipment, you might get four or five cards you didn’t have. Otherwise you might end up with a whole pack of doubles or even triples. The best use for triples was to attach them to your bicycle wheel with a clothes pin so they sputtered against the spokes when you rode down the street, converting your bike into an imaginary motorcycle.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

No.22: Fallout Shelters and Modern Math

We were children of the Cold War.

One of the memorable impacts of historical events on our generation was the appearance around Tupelo of “fallout shelters” during the early 60s in response to a wide-spread concern about the build-up of Soviet nuclear capacity. I remember seeing signs like this one at Milam where the school’s basement became a Civil Defense fallout shelter. Somehow the tension of the Cuban Missile Crisis managed to penetrate the innocence of our childhood.

In 1957 the Soviets successfully launched their Sputnik, throwing our national leadership into a tailspin about the state of math and science education in this country. By the time we were in the seventh grade, Tupelo schools caught up with “modern math” and those horrible yellow paperback math books introduced more abstract math concepts to kids who were still learning the basics. All of a sudden we were talking about sets and subsets and alternatives to our base 10 system. And then there was the threat of the metric system overtaking our understanding of weights and measures.

It’s amazing we survived all of that spookiness with any sense of humor at all.