For a brief period of several months I lived with my family—mother, stepfather and youngest sister—in a one room kitchenette in a small motel on East US Highway 82 in Columbus, Mississippi. This was in the latter years of World War II—although the term motel had been around since 1925, our establishment called itself the Columbus Tourist Court, the word court suggesting a more comfortable kind of accommodation—it was actually a stand-alone cabin in a line of other stand-alone cabins backed by an ages-old cemetery that historically was limited to black burials but was no longer in use.
Just as an aside, our stepfather frequently told people that the owner of the Columbus Tourist Court was a close personal and business friend of many years standing, and that if one mentioned his name—my stepfather’s name—the owner would cut some slack on the price of the accommodations. I tried that some years later and got nothing but a blank stare from the owner—he opined that he was not familiar with the gentleman—so much for slack, right?
The cemetery was in total disrepair, with tombstones missing, broken and fallen, graves sadly sunken and the ground strewn with remnants of urns and flower vases and leaves and rubbish, even a cast-off mattress or two. My sister and I roamed that cemetery picking up bits of colored glass and retrieving unbroken receptacles for flowers, some almost buried in the ground. This was the equivalent of a nature park for us, a place to linger in the evening after school and on weekends. It was also a place that prompted us to make up ghost stories, sometimes so scary that we scared ourselves.
But I digress—this story is not about cemeteries—it’s about the two pets, dogs, that our stepfather promised one day near Christmas as he and our mother headed for town in his four-door black 1939 Plymouth sedan. I mention the auto because it was never, not even once, not even on days of rain or snow or heat or cold, used to transport me and my sister to school. Had our tourist court been on a numbered thoroughfare, it would have been somewhere around Twenty-fifth Street. Our high school was located at Seventh Street and Third Avenue North—city blocks usually run 12 to the mile, so our walk to school covered some 21 blocks, almost two miles, and we walked it barefoot regardless of rain or snow or heat or cold, and it was uphill in both directions. Okay, I’m stretching it a bit, but the fact remains that we walked the distance five days a week while we lived at the Columbus Tourist Court—bummer!
When our mother and our stepfather returned that day shortly before Christmas, our stepfather gave me and my sister separate packages that we hurriedly unwrapped. My sister’s package contained a beautiful Collie, colored identically as Lassie of the movies. My package yielded a gorgeous Pekingese with the cutest face ever seen on a dog.
These were the two dogs he promised us for Christmas, and he had followed through with his promise. However, there was a hitch—my sister’s Collie was mounted on the side of a large tabletop ashtray and my Pekingese was a lead-weighted plaster dog intended to be used as a doorstop. We expected pets, of course, but we were given functional replicas of dogs instead. Mental torture? Child abuse? Of course, but in those days there was no Child Protective Service or any other service to accept complaints, even if we had been endowed with the courage and the willingness to complain.
We were between trips to the atom bomb project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where our stepfather worked. He was laid off for awhile and we had left a government trailer village in Gamble Valley, Tennessee to return to Columbus, and we were now returning to that area to another trailer village called Happy Valley, Tennessee—both locations are subjects for future postings. Stay tuned!
A funny thing happened to us when we were loading the car for the return trip to Tennessee. I had an armful of funny books—they were actually comic books but nobody called them comic books in those days. They were funny books, even the ones picturing the most violent mayhem, and the comic strips in newspapers were also referred to as the funnies.
Our stepfather told me I could not take my funny books because the car was already overloaded. My sister promptly spoke up and told him, in a completely serious tone, that she would carry them in her lap. That was one of the very few times that our little family laughed together—for a brief shining moment we were a happy family, albeit caused by friction. The moment was brief—the stack of comics was consigned to the trash, we climbed into the car and were off on another great adventure.
That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!