Tuesday, August 26, 2008


I spent a large amount of time in my teenage years in the small town two miles from the Farm. I seldom had any money, but I would hang around the dime store or visit the drug store, where I stole pictures of Clark Gable out of the magazines, or just hung around the street corners, talking to kids I knew. Sissy was almost always with me and we walked from one end of town to the other until it was time to walk home.

Mom and Pop seldom went to town. Sometimes Bud or Herman would give her a ride to the grocery store for the staples we always needed and Hubert always loaded up Pop's corn and peddled it to the markets. That was a notable day, Corn Day, when Pop would come home with a roll of money in his pocket!

The town was sitting on a plentiful supply of gravel and the gravel companies worked the land surrounding the town. Gravel trucks were a familiar sight on the highway going through town and almost every car had a cracked windshield from the stones these trucks sent flying through the air as they carried their loads back and forth. We didn't know the farm itself was sitting on a lode of gravel. Had we known, we wouldn't have known what to do with it. The miracle is that Pop's corn grew green and strong in that gravelly, sandy soil. How he coaxed it through that earth has always been a mystery.

Pop may have objected to Mom's need for staples, because he wanted his hard work and the Farm's soil to supply our every need, but he never objected to giving me a dime to go to the matinees at the local theater. It was a small, damp, boxed in building, but it offered a view of the world to me. In that theater, I learned that if Betty Grable sang a song to Dick Haymes, he would croon back at her and they would vow eternal love. Somehow, that wasn't a realistic approach to love and life, but I didn't find that out until later. I remained faithful to my dreams of Clark Gable and kept replenishing my supply of stolen pictures that I pasted on my bedroom wall.

In that movie theater was a lady we all called "Alice, the Flashlight." Alice was a dictator, reigning supreme over the kids at the Saturday performance. If you made a sound or moved around, the beam of that flashlight would engulf you with its powerful light. Then Alice would glare at you and tell you to sit down and watch the show. It was a very well-behaved bunch at any movie Alice presided over and, forty years later, Alice still wielded her flashlight in that darkened room where many adventures had held the kids enthralled.

As I grew up, I had an adventurous streak, so I bought a pack of cigarettes. I chose a restaurant to introduce myself to this mysterious habit and took a seat in a booth. The booths were lined side-by-side in the center of the room. Feeling very sophisticated, I ordered a soft drink and pulled out the cigarettes from my purse. Lighting up, I felt as though I had reached the pinnacle of adulthood, that Clark Gable would certainly consider me a delightful, desirable woman of the world. As I exhaled, I turned my head, and there in the booth across from me was Hubert, watching every move I made. In a few second's time, I went from a woman of the world to an apologetic teen. I stubbed out the cigarette and waited for the lecture I knew was coming, but Hubert only smiled and came to join me in the booth, never saying a word about the fact that I had been smoking.

I spent a great deal of time at the town library, which was housed in a residence that had once belonged to the Axford family. They were so prominent, I never did understand why the town wasn't called Axford instead of Oxford. At the library, it didn't take me long to divest every picture of Gable from the stack of movie magazines. Then, too, I would walk home with a huge load of books. The only book we ever had at the Farm was the Bible, which I tried to read but always bogged down at the Begats. I did try my hand at Shakespeare and even plowed through Dickens. I read Gone With the Wind from cover to cover and knew Clark Gable would play Rhett Butler in the movie before it was even announced. I read biographies and mysteries and every pornographic love story I could find. No one monitored my reading, not the librarian, not Mom or Pop. I was probably one of the few people in Oxford who had read Mein Kampf.

Our neighbors at the Farm were the Stites' family. We became close to them and visited back and forth. One of the Stites' boys was named Howard. Howard had read all of Karl Marx' writings and decided he wanted to be a communist. Later in life, Howard became a great example of capitalistic success, for he owned several pieces of real estate and built a great many houses. He died a very prosperous man, but in his younger years became enraptured with Karl Marx and kept passing petitions proclaiming the need for more Communistic books. I always signed his petitions, sometimes three or four times, despite the fact that I was several years underage.

Later, when Harlan, whom we called Deed, was trying to get a job with the Atomic Energy Commission, our friendship with Howard Stites became a subject of suspicion with the investigating authorities from the government. Deed's patriotism was questioned and his friends were interrogated. Thankfully, they finally decided that Howard was something of a harmless blowhard who just liked to boast about his opinions. Deed got the job and spent many years as an ironworker at Mercury, Nevada, building underground structures that were promptly blown up with nuclear precision. Deed is retired now and, just a few days ago, we got the word that he has lung cancer. So I will be taking off for Nevada soon for what may be my last visit with my brother.

How can a slender, muscular boy with a head of tousled hair, clad in corduroy pants and an old pair of stinking boots, suddenly become an aging man, clinging to life with a determination that makes every breath a struggle? How can Hubert be buried now in a National Veteran's Cemetery? How can Bud be gone after those long, hard years of battling Parkinson's? How can Mom and Pop just be fond memories? Who gave a turtle so many years of life, and left a beloved dog with barely fifteen? Who designed this world so that heartbreak awaits every person on earth, with the loss of loved ones and the fading memories of childhood? We say that God designed it all, but I have never understood the reasons for it.

They are gone now, and the memories are clutched to my heart like precious drops of water, giving sustenance to my body and warmth to my mind. Even the town of Oxford has changed, with subdivisions and many more people. The little library I loved so much is now a sprawling brick building. The movie theater has been renovated to show six or eight films. Alice is no longer beaming her flashlight at the children. I finally have learned that, just because Dick crooned to Betty doesn't mean that life is a fairy tale. It is a cruel world, but a beautiful world, and that rose in your garden will wilt and decay. Another rose will take its place next summer, with equal beauty, equal wonder, and last year's rose will only be a memory. Somewhere, a child is being teased by a host of big brothers and sisters. That child will never know that I lived a similar life so many years ago. That is the thread that makes us all brothers and sisters. Whether black, white, yellow or red, we are all in this predicament together.