How each younger generation views its elders is always an amusing mystery. So I could barely choke back a laugh the other day when my granddaughter, Gwen, age 9, pulled a long face and said she was so sorry that I had been born into a “poor home” and had lived a sad childhood rife with deprivation.
“Wherever did you get that idea?” I asked.
“From dad,” she replied. (That would be my son, Justin.)
Then it hit me: from granddaughter’s futuristic perch my childhood in Wynne, Arkansas had truly been as needy as that of the lowest Russian serf. I and my little friends had inhabited a dreary 1930s world without TV, computers, jet travel, space walks, cell phones, electric can openers, Barbie dolls, and the million other perks kids today clamor for. It mattered not that my family belonged to the top social class in town, the merchants. It didn’t count a fig that I had all the clothes, shoes and food I could handle, that any toy, game or book was mine for the asking, that I was privately tutored in social graces from piano to tap dancing to saxophone, or that travel to other states was on my summer vacation agenda. No, to them I was just fortune’s luckless urchin trapped in a cruel time warp, bereft of penicillin, pocket calculators and tummy tucks.
I assured her that my life had not been “quite as bad as you think.”
Our discussion paused there because I had floated back in time, fixed oddly
enough on my family’s old Chevrolet truck. It was old not because we couldn’t afford a new one, but because that 1939 model had to last us through World War II. During that tumultuous and rationed era you could more easily buy emeralds than new tires and tubes for a decrepit vehicle. Toward the end our Chevy’s tubes had been patched so many times they resembled alien granny quilts and its tires had been recapped thrice. Flats were just a routine happenstance which one fixed without complaining.
Yet I still have a warm spot in my heart for that old heap, even though its rear fenders had been reattached with baling wire and insisted on falling off at embarrassing moments. I learned to drive in it. In those high and far off times you either drove or you didn’t. And if you sat around waiting for someone to teach you, well, you’d better be prepared to pedal a bike right into dotage. I had carefully watched adults as they manipulated wheel, clutch, accelerator, gear and brake, figuring I could do as well as they. And one morning in my twelfth year the chance came — dad left the truck at home and drove mother’s car to work.
Youth unfortunately never seeks the bona fides of each new-found treasure. Everything is taken at face value. I leapt in, fired up the engine and roared off, wonderfully ignorant of the fact my father had earlier discovered his truck had lost its brakes. This fact swelled larger and more menacing as I approached the stop sign at the end of Lemon Street and stepped on the brake pedal. Nothing happened. I zipped through the stop sign and onto Hamilton Avenue, swerving into a panicky right turn to avoid leaving tire tracks and smashed trees in a neighbor’s yard.
It was clearly: “Houston, we’ve got a problem.” Lacking any better strategy I decided to circle the block until an inspiration arrived from heaven or the truck ran out of gasoline, whichever came first. With prescience beyond my years I took my foot off the accelerator and shifted into low gear. The pickup slowed to a putt-putting crawl but refused to stop.
There was little danger I would collide with another vehicle. At that stage of the war gasoline rationing had rendered traffic so scarce that one could sit in the middle of the biggest avenue in town for three quarters of an hour before a car came along to disrupt his thoughts. But a glance at the gas gauge brought a dolorous message that the tank was half full, and the idea of circling my block until nightfall became less appealing each time I went around. Even worse was the possibility of confessing to my father that I had burned up a whole week’s supply of precious rationed fuel.
On the seventh lap inspiration struck. Approaching my house in arthritic slow motion, I turned into our side lawn and putt-putted for the backyard. A bush of imposing height and width had grown there for generations and I rammed that shrub. Half the truck disappeared into its shadowy interior before the engine stalled and died.
I emerged experiencing the same relieved thrill which no doubt animated Charles Lindbergh when he landed in Paris after his historic flight over the Atlantic. But Lucky Lindy’s reception was far more genial than mine. When my father came home he wanted to know what the “dim damny damn” his truck was doing sticking out of a bush in the backyard. Answering took a great deal of creative explanation on my part, stressing my newly acquired but clever driving skills and my heroism in not coming unglued under intense pressure. My trump card was the fact I had expended only the tiniest tad of gasoline and protected the remainder. (Of course I could have stopped the truck at any point by simply turning off the ignition key. But this was far beyond my technical ken, and fortunately nobody mentioned it.)
Presently dad simmered down, admitting it was time that I begin driving. It was then I recalled that he had always been overly emotional about cars, animals and babies.
When my sister was born in 1936 she announced her imminent arrival at five in the morning. Dad was bounced out of bed with mother’s news that she had gone into labor. He rushed down the stairs in a steaming lather to summon the doctor, flinging on clothes as he went. At that time we had two cars, parked nose to tail in our driveway. He hopped into the rear car and in his excitement shifted into forward gear instead of reverse. The cars collided locking their bumpers. That’s how it came to be that our roused neighbors looked out of their windows to see dad jumping up and down on the bumpers in frustration, shouting great curses into the dawn’s early light.
Bewildered, I gazed out my upstairs bedroom. Dr. Wilson’s house was about 50 yards from ours in the same block. And that eminent general practitioner was probably awake, considering all the paternal expletives reverberating through the neighborhood. I kept silent because it didn’t seem politic to volunteer such obvious geographic information at that particular moment. But mercifully dad soon came to the same realization after mother shouted directions to him twice; he trotted up the alley, returning with the town’s best and only medico. My sister, Eleanor, made her appearance later that morning without further disturbance.
Animals were a different proposition. It wasn’t that dad didn’t like them. They just didn’t seem to fit into his universe. Special case in point was the reddish coon hound which appeared in front of our grocery store early one morning in 1943. I had been cleaning up the meat market and that dog looked into my eyes with such doleful need that I tossed him a bone. It was as though I had offered a wedding ring to a desperate spinster. Forevermore we were locked in inter-species matrimony.
The hound took up residence at our front entrance and like Cerberus at the River Styx he began sniffing customers to determine who was worthy of entry. In time he developed an embarrassing tendency to chase some of them away. Since this backward canine proclivity affected the store’s bottom line, dad often swatted the dog and drove it off. But the hound always came back, begging pitiably for just another meat scrap.
These eccentricities might have been borne grudgingly if that animal had not gone totally kazoo and started chasing dad’s truck home at night, baying like a bloodhound after a convict. Often my father’s patience would snap. He would brake the truck, leap into the back end, and chunk any handy missile at the hound. All the while he would yell, “Scream, you SOB, scream!”
After several such distressing trips, reason overtook emotion. Dad gave the hound to a customer, a farmer-hunter whose domain lay many miles from town. Weeks later the fellow showed up again to announce: “Phillip, that’s the finest coon hunting dog I ever laid eyes on. I just wanted to thank you for him.” And this caused father to reflect that perhaps every miserable creature had its useful feature — it just wasn’t his job to find it.
It is impossible for modern kids to understand how we in olden days could personify and sentimentalize our simple technology. After all, how many songs and odes have you seen written about computers and satellite tracking systems? But we were entertained by sad and cheerful tributes to vehicles (the “Low Blacked Car,” “Get Out and Get Under”) and aircraft (“Come Josephine in My Flying Machine”). One of my favorites was a spoof hymn written to the tune of “The Old Rugged Cross” which began: “On a hill far away sat an old Chevrolet/ its crankcase was battered and worn. …” and ended with, “So, I’ll cherish the Old Chevrolet/till my trophies go home to the Lord/I will cling to the Old Chevrolet/ and exchange it some day for a Ford.”
Even telephones got their dollop of artistic appreciation. An organization easy to comprehend, the telephone office was dubbed “central,” and that title was soon applied to all women operators working there. One simply lifted the phone off its hook which automatically rang the main office and was answered by a cheerful “Number, please?” One then replied, “Central, give me 226” (all numbers in my town were only three digits, a merciful aid to memory).
One of the most emotionally wrenching songs of the era was “Hello Central Give Me Heaven for My Mother’s There.” Sung in a girlish treble, if it didn’t bring tears to your eyes you were obviously a communist, a Nazi, a flibbertigibbet, or a crank who should have been smothered at birth.
And this detoured my thoughts back to children and their wealth. How can one measure a kid’s riches? Bubble gum, comic books, new trousers, or three square meals? Today’s progeny certainly would include computer games, DVD movies, and maybe a digital camera.
Looking back over a span of decades I now know our greatest treasure then was freedom, the sort of careless, unconcerned liberty that was so common we never noticed it, the way you never think about air until it goes away. Certainly we had to attend school, but our teachers didn’t belong to unions, and government had yet to get its greedy claws into education or our private lives. The schools didn’t pile hours of homework on us every night. There weren’t a thousand strident voices in the media demanding we be reared to the left or the right. There weren’t regimented sports teams into which our parents could impress us, like British sailors of yore. There were no daily crises in the newspapers with stories that began “Drug use among teenagers. …” And there were no mandatory driving lessons.
After school we were let loose to confect our own sports, to run wild in the woods if we chose, to shoot game, to lie in the grass and talk, or to conquer hills, streams and rivers. Naturally all that freedom was costly. A few of us were injured and others lost their lives. But freedom always exacts a price, a concept the modern world seems to be losing.
“So you really weren’t poor at all?” Gwen asked, breaking into my reverie.
“No, hon,” I replied. “I was a rich, spoiled brat.”