baby boomer

Greetings from Afar

November, 2011

Home is Where the Heart Is

Allow me to introduce myself. I am a “baby boomer” – a “child of the fifties”. I am part of that generation whose fathers came home from winning a great war, and then had us. Officially, we are those who were born between the years 1946 and 1959 although there are a few of us on either side of those years. We grew up during the stability and prosperity of the “Eisenhower Years” then looked forward with hope and anticipation to the promised glories of John F. Kennedy’s “Camelot.” I am part of that generation that came to my maturity in a time before our dreams were shattered by the twin debacles of the War in Vietnam and Watergate. I was blessed to grow up in the country, in a small East Texas town called Center and to have spent the vast majority of my life through young adulthood in the heart of the ‘pineywoods’ of East Texas and North Central Louisiana. To what is probably the vast majority of the readers I have become what my parents and grandparents once were to me — a member of the “older generation”.

There was a time – a now long ago and mostly forgotten time – when things were different than they are today. It was a simpler time, a safer and less complex time. It wasn’t as technologically advanced as our present day world, but – it was a good time. It was the time of the “baby boomers” – the time of the great boom of expansion in all areas that followed the great tragedy that had been the Second World War. It was the world of Andy Griffith and Donna Reed – It was a great time to be a kid, and a pair of little kids on a roll could really have a blast. It was a time to be remembered, and now, some fifty years gone, a time to be cherished. My girlfriend and I (yes, I had one. I was almost 9 and she had just turned 6). My dad was Southeast Regional Manager for Ford Motor Company and traveled all the time, and her dad was a career Marine… who traveled all the time. Between them and our grandparents, we got a pretty good tour of the rural south of the time – almost always together — and numerous other places. But, we always loved and always returned to our tiny little hometown in East Texas.

They say that you start remembering things when you reach a ‘certain age’ that you’d forgotten long ago. I suppose that’s true. For the most part you remember the good things. Sometimes there are a few tragedies thrown in for good measure. Almost always, they are things that no longer exist in any other place than in your memory. I suppose that’s a sign of getting older. They (whoever ‘they’ are) say that too. I don’t know. Some things are just worth remembering. Some of those things are hard to explain to those who don’t remember them. Life in a small country town in the 1950s and very early 1960s is one of those things.

How do you explain an alien world to those who have never seen it? How do you explain a way of life that is completely foreign to those listening or reading? How do you explain a way of life that once existed but no longer does — and fades farther into the remote past with each passing day? How do you explain experiences, hopes and dreams that, at the time, everyone thought not only ‘could’ come to pass but — ‘would’ eventually come to pass? How do you explain a world so recent as to be within the span of a single lifetime and yet so distant as to have become a fading myth to even the following generation? Do you start it off like a fairly tale with ‘once upon a time’? How do you tell even your own children what it was like to grow up in the same little country town that they grew up in thirty years before the youngest of them was born and almost sixty years ago?

Can we take our cue from that lilting, forlorn and yet hopeful song from the musical ‘Cats’? Can we echo Andrew Lloyd Rice and Tim Webber in their hope that the ‘memories’ will ‘live again’? How can those memories ever live again when the only possible people for who they ‘can’ live are those who share them… and any to whom they try to relate them to are so removed from the time that it’s impossible for them to relate to even the smallest part of them?

It really was a different world then. I have often wondered what happened to that world. I know they say that things are “better” now, but I wonder. It was a great time to be a kid, it really was. I wish that my kids had grown up in a time like the one that I grew up in — and that theirs could.

I know, there was no air conditioning in homes or cars, no color television — no television at all for most. There were no special effects in movies to speak of, television was new (we were the first generation to grow up with it). There were cars with standard transmissions (most of them still) and no air conditioning (most of them unless you had one about like my dads or Price Daniels’ or Uncle Earl Long’s and most folks couldn’t afford that. But there were other things.

Of course, we had all of the “childhood” diseases. We had chicken pox, mumps and measles. I had all three and they didn’t kill me. We also had isolated cases of scarlet fever and rheumatic fever still. It was my generation that was the last to see a major polio epidemic hit. I have several friends who had it. One’s still paralyzed from the waist down today. Two have gone on. One of them passed away when she was only six or seven years old. The other spent twenty-odd years of her life in an iron lung. There are already people – and have been for some time — who have never seen or heard of that kind of living death. No, it wasn’t a perfect time by any means.

Rock and Roll was brand new for us and so was FM radio. Cassettes, videotapes, CDs, DVDs, iPods and MP-3s were thirty years in our future at least and none of us even dreamed there’d ever be anything like that. We’d never even seen an ‘eight track’ tape player. Remember them? We were already in our teens when ‘Star Trek’ showed us the ‘communicator’ and even then we never dreamed we’d carry something very similar – the cell phone – in our pockets only thirty or so years later.

We lay on the living room floor and watched flickering images in grainy black and white on a screen not much bigger than a cigarette pack as Bobby Vinton, Elvis and the Shirelles… Sandra Dee and others performed. We watched ‘Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo – and we laughed at ‘Uncle Miltie’.  We sang along with the Mouskateers and added our own names to the end of the ‘roll call’ of the singing, dancing kids who were so much like us — or so much the way we saw ourselves.

We’d walk or ride our bikes downtown to the theatre, pay our half-dollar (admission for two) and watch terrible ‘B’ grade science fiction movies showing as a Saturday Matinee. Sometimes it was a double feature. There was always a newsreel, cartoon and previews of coming attractions. How do you explain to kids today about a movie theatre showing all that for a quarter — and for years throwing in a ‘short feature’ like Buck Rogers, Captain Video and his Video Ranger, Flash Gordon or a ‘two reel’ comedy like Our Gang or the Three Stooges? How do you explain that a large ‘Cherry Coke’ was a quarter (with two straws of course) or that a large bag of popcorn (likewise enough for two) was a quarter?  We’d leave for the movie with a dollar between us and have fifteen cents left over after the show. It cost less than a dollar for two kids to have a whole Saturday afternoon of fun in a tiny little East Texas country town.

After the movie – almost always science fiction on Saturdays — until the ‘beach party’ craze hit a few years later (and we saw all of those movies too) we’d leave the theatre dreaming of one day traveling in space. That theatre and a now long-gone roller rink were the highlights of Saturday entertainment for kids of my generation. They were places that kids could go safely, enjoy themselves and their parents never had to worry about what they saw or were exposed to.

We saw a truly good science fiction movie a few years later and actually dreamed of living in space by the year 2001. It didn’t happen of course. The year 2001 became a year of tragedy. For me, one of those tragedies was extremely personal.  But, long before that, ‘other things’ became more important. There was Vietnam, Watergate and Iran-Contra – a dozen other ‘events’ that managed to mask over the vanishing of an era and possibly cause that disappearance in part. Our world was never the same again. But — we saw the first satellites, a little dog whose name was ‘Liaka’ and chimps named ‘Ham’ and “Able”. We stood on the front porch under the stars and watched a tiny specks float by overhead that contained first Gagarin and then Glenn. We saw ‘all’ of the first men and women in space. We saw man walk on the moon for God’s sake.

We had no metal detectors or guards in schools, no drugs and no violence to speak of. You could go to bed at night with your doors unlocked and your windows open. You could stop on the side of the road and eat at a roadside park, use the toilet or take a nap. Nobody would bother you.  There were no “drive by” shootings. We all walked or rode our bikes to school. We kids rode our bikes or walked just about everywhere and as long as we got home around dark nobody got worried. Even then they didn’t worry about crime, just about accidents and such. We didn’t have fancy electronic toys and games.

There wasn’t a lot of crime, even nationwide. People like Charles Starkweather and Eddie Gein were anomalies – horror stories from far away that were whispered about but thankfully didn’t happen every day and never happened in the place where you lived. We never dreamed there’d be anyone like Manson, Bundy, Gacey or Dahmer. Not quite the same today I’m afraid. It started changing at some point in the mid sixties. Our first real exposure to anything like that in Texas was the infamous ‘bell tower shooter’ but even then it was something truly unbelievable and something ‘far away’ to most of us. Austin was a ‘big city’ after all – nothing like that could happen in our little town. It never did and even though the crime rate now – especially violent crime — would have nauseated any of us fifty years ago or so, it still hasn’t. But — how do you explain to today’s generation, and those to come — growing up in a town that had one Chief of Police and four patrolmen for a population of four thousand? Between the years that I was born and the graduated from high school – that’s 18 years — our county had six murders. Not one of those was premeditated.

There was no vandalism — unless you count ‘class of ’70 graffiti painted on the side of the town water tank or a few fire lookout towers as vandalism. A major theft made ‘big’ news in the weekly paper — maybe once or twice a year. It was the same with any violent crime of any kind. Our jail had a capacity for 20 inmates and usually contained two or three at any given time, for very short times. There was no ‘gang’ or drug culture. The most serious ‘offense’ any teenager was ever charged with was stealing an occasional watermelon from some farmer’s field or crossing the river into Louisiana and bringing a few cans of beer into our ‘dry’ county.  No one ever went to jail for it. The constable would just make who ever he caught pour it out one can at a time, let them go, and then call their parents. Once or twice a year the highway patrol would catch a few drag racers on some deserted road or out on the old (deserted) airport runway. They did the same thing. No one went to jail. They got sent home and later someone called their parents — end result being ‘grounded’ for a few days or a week. I’ll be entering my seventh decade of life soon — with a little luck. Isn’t it amazing just how much difference just short years — or is it a few all-too-short decades can make?

During hunting season all of the boys old enough to have a license had a shotgun hanging in the back window of their pick-ups — even when they were parked at school. So did all of the teachers who hunted. As soon as class was over they’d all head for the woods. There was never any thought of crime. Little kids played with toy soldiers and toy guns at recess in elementary school. I don’t recall it causing any sporadic violence of any kind and all that I know of — all 500 who attended my school from grade 1 to 12 — grew up to be responsible adults.

On weekends when our girlfriends were somehow occupied we boys would load up our camping and fishing gear and head off to one of the local lakes for an overnight campout. Lots of people kept flat-bottomed boats at these lakes and they were never locked up. All of the owners knew all of us kids and knew that if we used one of their boats on one of our weekend excursions they’d find it in the same shape, or better, than they’d left it in. We never took any food with us other than cooking oil and maybe a five-pound sack of potatoes. We intended to catch our supper and usually did. Such irresponsible parenting as our folks demonstrated in things like this would cause a huge hue and cry today but as far as I recall, no one ever drowned or managed to get any serious injury — except maybe a case of poison ivy if you weren’t watching what you were doing at times.

Naturally we all had to be home early on Sunday morning. We all went to church back then. There were only seven denominations and about ten in Center Texas at the time — Methodist, Baptist, Catholic,

Episcopal, Nazarene, Christian (Disciples of Christ) and Church of Christ. All of us went to one or the other and most of us visited between them when something ‘special’ was going on. That was just our culture. It was how we expected things to be and how we expected them always to be. There was no  ‘moral majority’ then and no ‘Christian Right’. It didn’t matter which church you went to. We all knew what was ‘moral’ and what was ‘right’ or it certainly seems like far more did then than do now. There weren’t any ‘mega-churches’ then. They were all tiny by today’s standards and every preacher or priest in town knew everyone they passed on the street whether they went to ‘their’ church or not. Two of those preachers and one priest married over half of the kids that I attended school with, including me. That doesn’t happen too often today, does it?

Some of my happiest childhood memories were trips that Sherry and I took with my father and with hers. We’d both been all over the Far East by the time we were ten years old with her folks, and we both knew just about every actor, actress and politician who lived in the South and Southeastern United States, or worked in them by traveling with my folks.

There was no “terrorism” then and the “twin towers” hadn’t even been built yet. There were no ‘threat levels’. At the airport you just showed your ticket and a passport if you needed one and got on the plane. There were no HLS or TSA goons standing around. There were no ‘full body scans’ even for little kids. If there was ever any trouble at the airport, even at a big one like LaGuardia or LAX –which there never was — they just called the regular cops.

Flying in ‘Old Connie’ — a propeller driven Lockheed ‘Super Constellation’ — was an exciting adventure. There was a galley with ‘real food’. If you were flying overnight they had “sleeper” compartments like on a train. We watched ‘first run’ movies twice a day — long trips even by airplane usually took more than one day back then. The Airlines always had a ‘stew’ to keep an eye on underage kids traveling without parents — from the age of about five to fifteen. The seats were big and roomy.  ‘Old Connie’ only carried 64 passengers. There was a single wide isle and as long as you didn’t bother anyone no one cared if a couple of kids got up and moved around some as long as the ‘seat belt’ sign was turned off. Since back then you never changed planes, they only refueled the one you were on, serviced it and changed crews if the flight crew’s hours were maxed out, there was no chance of getting lost — or ‘snatched’ — in a strange airport. Our folks didn’t think anything of buying us tickets and putting us on the plane. Why should they?

Remember trains that carried people? On trains you had comfortable seats, ‘Pullman’ sleeper cars, a dining car, a ‘club’ car and lots of room to move around. No one would dare bother a couple of little kids traveling alone on a train either. The Railways had stews all kept an eye on kids too. It was part of their job. It was just like riding ‘Old Connie’. You never changed trains so there was no chance of getting lost or ‘snatched’. Kids weren’t allowed off the train until their final destination, and even then a stew was with them until their parents or guardians listed on their tickets claimed them.

We made our own fun. We hunted and fished and swam. We swam in creeks, lakes, canals and ponds. If it was really hot we’d just strip off and jump in. Nobody thought anything about it. We certainly didn’t. All of it was outdoors in a place where pollution and deliberate waste hadn’t yet been seen. There weren’t any shopping malls or ‘super-stores’ then but on Saturday kids would walk around the town square — where all of our shopping was located — and dream about some ‘new’ or really ‘cool’ thing that they wanted. Maybe we’d go to one of the two local drug stores and sit at the table they provided and read comic books. They let us do that whether we intended to buy the comic or not. Can’t do that any more either I’m afraid.

I’ve often thought that my idea of ‘heaven’ if there is such a place, would either be one of those prolonged road trips through the south and southeast that we made as kids or to be sitting with Sherry just one more time in the lobby of the old Fairmont Hotel in New Orleans watching my dad, a professional wrestler named ‘Sputnik’ Monroe and a man named Foster Sharrod sitting there seeing just how drunk they could get and playing cards with Uncle Earl Long and Judge Leander Perez while my Dad tried to convince Uncle Earl that the State of Louisiana really ‘did’ need to buy a new one-off Lincoln for the Governor, and that he personally needed to buy one for Miss Blaze. No, it may not be ‘heaven’ but it’s about as close as I’d ever want to get. I would like to be an adult thought and remember “now” when I’m there as much as I remember “then” today. I’d have a certain ‘perspective’, no, make that ‘attitude’.

Oh, I know, all of them were so crooked they had to screw them into the ground when they died, but at least they were open and up front about it and they did some good as well. They didn’t try to hide what they were behind a mask of pomposity and arrogance or religious mumbo-jumbo. When they stole, and they did, they didn’t try to take it all. They at least left something for everyone else.

I remember one speech in which Uncle Earl told a group of people in Alexandria Louisiana, where he’d gotten a particularly cold reception that they could vote against him if they wanted to “but God help you if I get elected anyway”. They did. He kept his promise. It was four years before there was any significant highway or bridge repair in Rapides Parish. We won’t even begin a discussion of Judge Perez.

Uncle Earl died on election night in 1960. He had a major heart attack not five minutes after hearing that JFK had won, but hadn’t heard the news about the latest ‘upset landslide’ that he’d just won in his own race for the US Senate. We were over in Biloxi that next morning with my dad and I remember seeing Senator Bilbo (remember him?) make the announcement of Uncle Earl’s death on one of the local TV stations. I remember I cried and Daddy took Sherry and me with him to the funeral. We sat two seats down from Miss Blaze.

They say that there were a lot of ‘Civil Rights’ problems and issues around the time that I grew up but honestly in a little-bitty East Texas town deep in the ‘piney woods’ we just didn’t notice any. There were as many blacks as whites in our county — practically no other people of any kind — and we all got along fine. We kids played together and no one paid any attention to it. We went to different schools until I was 11 years old or so but they were so close together no one noticed. There were four schools located on two campuses. All of us kids together totaled just over 500. When ‘desegregation’ came, we just shuffled kids around between schools that were all within a few blocks of each other and created a ‘junior high school’ that we’d never had before. Up until then elementary school lasted from grades 1 to 8. There wasn’t any such thing as ‘junior high’. Since all of the schools were built about the same time there really wasn’t any difference in them as far as the facilities went. There was just a different view from the window to break up the usual cases of boredom.

We had no fights other than the usual playground and parking lot scuffles over girlfriends and boyfriends. We had the usual ‘after the game’ fights with our football rivals from time to time. None of them were particularly violent or malicious. There were certainly never any weapons of any kind produced unless you call some little kid squaring off with a much bigger one with a roll of dimes in his fist a ‘weapon’. That might have happened once or twice. No one ever wound up in jail or the hospital.

We all knew where the local ‘lover’s lanes were located and as soon as we boys had cars — that term is applied fairly loosely to some of our vehicles — we managed to find them all a time or two every week. Going ‘parking’ was another standard ‘pastime’. It just didn’t mean quite the same thing that it means now, or meant even a few years later. We were all part of the ‘Eisenhower Years’… we grew up with Annette and Frankie and Sandra Dee. We held hands and kissed and we had fun. Did some of us end up marrying those girls we went ‘parking’ with. Of course we did. I’d say more than half of us did. But — not because we ‘had to’. I’m sure a few did ‘have to’ — positive of it in fact. Don’t kid yourself. Kids know. But, with the society we grew up in and as close as we all were, they would most likely have gotten married eventually anyway. As far as I know, our generation, at least in my little hometown, has one of the lowest divorce rates around. You see, back then things like love, and truth and real devotion meant something, at least to the vast majority of us.

What happened to parades on Veterans’ Day and the 4th of July? What happened to ‘County Fairs’? What happened to sock-hops in the school gym on Friday nights? Where did they go? How could such important things vanish so slowly as to not be noticed until after they were gone — and then only by those who remember them at all? How do you tell even your own children about a time when you personally remember people who couldn’t drive at all or those who simply preferred to still ride a horse or in a buggy? How do you explain to even your own children that you remember some – a few of those long-gone parades in which men who had fought in the US war with Spain actually marched? Most kids today don’t even know that there was such a war or that it was in what we (my generation) called ‘the last century’. Now, my generation and the little town that I grew up in and love still so much are part of ‘the last century’. It’s a strange thing to consider but it’s true. There is now an entire generation of children – born after the turn of the century — who do not and cannot remember a year that did not begin with the number ‘2’. Some of those are my own grandchildren. In thirty years or so when their parents are the age that I am now, how many of my faded memories will their own faded memories contain to pass along? Who will the strangely dressed people and what will the odd-looking old buildings in the old and faded photographs be to them? Let’s see. Thirty years from now. That will be almost 100 years since the earliest of those photos were taken. I wonder if any of them will still think that they live in a ‘quaint’ little country town. I hope so, but I doubt that it would fit my own definition of that term.

What happened to the local teenage ‘hang-outs’ like Center’s ‘Rider’s Roost’ (named after our football team the ‘Roughriders’) or the Youth Center (where we’d have a dance every Saturday night and some local live group once each month? Where are they? When were the ‘Dairy Queen’ and ‘Handy Andy’s’ replaced by McDonalds and Burger King? When was Mr. Brice’s market on the town square replaced by the ‘Walmart Superstore’? What happened to the Soda fountain at Roger’s Drug and that nice Miss Jackie Phillips who once took such great care in serving us kids the best ice cream sodas and sundaes ever made? Gone now. All gone.

No, it wasn’t a perfect world back then — not by any means. But, yes, I miss those times — and those people. I miss my hometown. There’s still a town called Center Texas. I suppose there always will be, but where is the town that I call ‘home’? They say it’s experiencing a real ‘boom’ now. I don’t know. It’s been almost 15 years since the last time I went ‘home’ and it was almost unrecognizable to me then. I can’t even imagine what a ‘boom’ would be like.

I was recently told about, and shown some beautiful photos of the restoration of our County Courthouse and the few scattered county buildings around it to their original appearance. Those few buildings in Shelby County are the last examples of ‘Irish Castle’ architecture in the State of Texas – all of them built by J.J.E. Gibson in 1885. They’re beautiful and deserved the care and attention that they were given. But — no one ever goes downtown anymore. There’s no shopping downtown anymore. Even the county and city offices have moved out of downtown. Were it not for the recently renovated movie theatre and one remaining bank no one would have any reason to go to our town square any more at all. So dies a little country town. The town lives, but those things that made it unique — and the best of all possible worlds for a kid of the fifties to grow up in — are gone. Of all the buildings surrounding our courthouse square only three outside the courthouse complex retain their original façade or even the façade that they had when I was growing up in the fifties. Two of those, like the courthouse, have been restored. The third is an empty shell but still recognizable to those who remember when it was the best-stocked hardware store in two counties.

They say that you can ‘take the boy out of the country but you can’t take the country out of the boy’. That’s true. They also say that ‘home is where the heart is’, but that’s not quite correct. Your home is always in your heart — but it’s also in you mind and in your memories. People often ask me why I so rarely go ‘home’. My answer is hard for some of them to understand but to me it’s so crystal clear that it defies further explanation. I tell them all the same thing. I ‘do’ go home. I go home for at least a few minutes almost every day. All I have to do to go home is close my eyes and remember a time and place — and people — who now live only in the recesses of my mind and the very deepest recesses of my heart.

© 2011 by Dr. J. Lee Choron. All rights reserved unless granted specifically by the author in writing.