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Revisit: The day I lost my marbles . . .

I originally posted this story in July of 2010. I came across it while browsing today and enjoyed it so much that I decided to share it with the multitudes of people that overlooked it. I know they overlooked it because it garnered only one comment and that was from a lovely lady that lives in Montgomery, and she probably felt compelled to comment because she is my niece and I am the only surviving uncle from her mother’s side of the family. Actually, if I were a female I would be the only surviving aunt from her mother’s family—yep, of the original seven children I am the last one standing, and yes, I’m a bit lonely!

This is an intriguing—albeit rather sad—tale of one small boy’s attempt to establish and cement friendship and perhaps help to promote cordiality between races in the deep South at a time long before the marches between Selma and Montgomery, Alabama and long before civil rights legislation was passed by Congress. Well, alright, I confess that I was also trying to add to my collection of marbles and because of my politically incorrect older sister I failed miserably, and instead found my collection reduced by a significant number, including some of my favorite pieces. Bummer!

The day I lost my marbles

Many years ago in Columbus, Mississippi on the corner of Fourth Street South and Ninth Avenue South there was a large colonial style two-story house with stately columns and a balcony, a house converted into apartments during World War II to accommodate the influx of military personnel from Columbus Air Force Base, a pilot training center. I haven’t been in that section of town for many years—it may still be standing, or it may have been razed and a modern brick structure erected on that lot.

I lived there for several months with my mother, my youngest sister Dot—short for Doris—and my stepfather. Jessie, my oldest sister, also lived there in a one-room apartment that shared a bathroom with another tenant. That house holds many memories for me, several of which I have posted on my blog—some of those memories are pleasant and some are not so pleasant. Click here to read about The tomato tempest, a story that includes a visit to Alabama, a sharecropper family, a suicide, an Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, a recalcitrant young girl and a stepfather with a vicious temper.

The house was only two or three blocks from a section of the city that was called by many names, mostly names that are not used in polite society today. In these modern times of political correctness, certain words are voiced only by their first letter and the word word added, as in the N-word or the F-word or the Rword—the R stands for Republican, a word that some are reluctant to use in fear that they will looked upon as such.

I suppose that in today’s parlance, the neighborhood just beyond where I lived as a boy would be referred to as N-town, an area primarily comprised of black families—the term African-American was unknown then, unknown at least in the circles in which I moved. I’ve never understood the rationale for expressing something like that—if it is true that the thought is as bad as the deed, then saying the N-word instead of the actual word in nothing more than an attempt to cover up the real word, and it’s not covered up—try it—just say the N-word to yourself and check the mental image it creates, both in the speaker and the listener. Let’s face it—it’s a cop out—if you’re going to think it, you might as well say it.

I knew only one person that lived in N-town, a black lady that came to the house every weekday to care for my niece, Jessie’s young daughter, then just a toddler. Millie also cleaned, cooked and ironed for Jessie over a period of many years at several different locations in the city. I never knew Millie’s last name—we simply called her Millie, possibly the diminutive form of Millicent. An unmarried lady, she lived with her family just a short walk from our house. I vividly remember numerous Saturday nights when Dot and I walked with Jessie and our mother to Millie’s house. Jessie and our mother, along with Millie and her mother formed a quartet and sang church hymns, A Capella, all the old favorites and they sometimes belted out fast-paced tunes that contrasted sharply with the well-known songs—I suppose they were songs popular at the time—pop tunes, so to speak.

The group stayed in the house in inclement weather and neighbors came and sat and listened, and in fair weather they formed on the front porch and neighbors came and sat and listened. My sister and I stayed outside, both in inclement and fair weather, playing all the games children play in the evening—Kick the Can, Pussy in the Corner, Tag, Hide and Seek and others, and sometimes we sat on the porch and told stories, mostly ghost tales—and I’m here to say that those kids could spin some very scary stories!

Now that I’ve laid the scene, I’ll progress to the when, where, why and how I lost my marbles. I arrived home from school and Millie and my niece, Millie’s charge, were the only ones there. Left to my own devices, I swept an area of the front yard clean, drew a circle and began playing marbles. Soon after I began one of the kids from Millie’s neighborhood came by, watched my shooting for a few minutes and asked if he could play. I said yes, and the battle was joined—we played for keeps, meaning that when a shooter knocked one of the other shooter’s marbles out of the ring, that marble changed ownership—it now belonged to the one that caused it to go outside the ring. At first I seemed to be in control, but as the game progressed I realized that I had agreed to a play-for-keeps game with a kid that was a much better shooter than I.

So did I call off the game? Not on your life! I had a reputation to support and I worked very hard to reclaim some of my marbles that now resided in the black kid’s pockets. I was almost marbleless when Jessie came home from work. She briefly watched us at play and then entered the house, and a short time later Millie came out and headed for home. Then Jessie returned to the front yard—Jessie, my oldest sister and the sister that often gave orders that I was required to obey. She ordered me into the house, and I told my new friend—my adversary—that I had to go in, and he headed for home also, his pockets bulging with marbles that earlier had been in my pockets.

Jessie told me later that it was not seemly for me to be seen playing with a N-word child, that it would look odd to our neighbors. I pointed out to her that I had lost most of my marbles, and that I appeared to be on a winning streak at the time she stopped the game. Her response to that? You shouldn’t have been playing for keeps—that’s gambling, and gambling’s a sin. I didn’t bother to argue that I played with the black kids on Saturday evenings. I knew that the difference was the difference between day and night, between light and dark. I was in full view during daylight hours, subject to the stares of disapproving blacks as well as whites, and in the darkness of the evening I was not subjected to such stares.

That’s it—that’s how I lost my marbles, a loss that I was never to recoup. I never saw that kid again—sometimes I think that he may have been a ringer, a professional sent in from another area to pick up some easy loot in the form of marbles, similar to what Paul Newman did in his movie, The Hustler—bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

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My red-haired blue-eyed neighbor . . .

We moved to the farm in Mississippi at the end of the school year in Tennessee. The home of the nearest neighbor on our left was visible, perhaps a quarter of a mile away on the opposite side of the two-lane graveled road. The nearest neighbor on our right was farther away, perhaps a mile or so away, and there resided a family comprised of the father and the mother and, as they say in the southern hemisphere, a passel of young ‘uns.

There were several boys, stair-steps in age but all younger than I, and one girl, a beautiful red-haired woman-girl somewhere near my age, perhaps a bit older than I but much more attractive, with just one exception. That lovely auburn-haired girl with the azure blue eyes was—I won’t say she was cursed with those eyes, nor will I say she was blessed with them. I will only say that she had what my mother referred to as A&P eyes, namely that one looked toward the Atlantic and the other toward the Pacific.

The video below shows various girls that have deliberately crossed their eyes for the camera. Compared with my beautiful red haired neighbor, they all look normal. Click on the black screen below to watch the video, and be sure to turn up the sound for some catchy music—enjoy!

In this respect the girl was a reflection of her mother, a seldom seen lady with the same flaming red hair and azure blue eyes that never seemed to be focused on the same object, each seemingly independent of the other, apparently looking in opposite directions. I don’t remember whether any of the boys had inherited the eye aberrations, primarily because I paid very little attention to the boys or their eyes—they may in fact have been replicas of their mother, but my thoughts and my eyes were always focused on their sister. I do remember that all the boys had red hair, undoubtedly inherited from their mother.

Their dark-haired father worked somewhere away from home and was seldom seen, even on weekends. I don’t remember that he ever spoke to me—he may have felt that I was just another one of his kids, although my blond, almost white hair should have been a dead giveaway—perhaps he shared the same visual affliction with his wife and children.

I know, I know—I’m being ungracious and I don’t mean to be that way. I’m just telling the story as it was, without any attempt to gild the lily. The daughter was a beautiful creature, blue eyes and creamy skin with a sprinkling of cute freckles, a complexion and a countenance that reflected her age. I was only twelve at the time—okay, twelve and a half, but for some time I had been uncomfortably aware of certain physical differences between boys and girls and between girls and women. Believe me, the girl left no doubt as to her gender. The only doubt raised—so to speak—was of her chronological age.

At any time that I bring up memories of the farm and of the red-haired girl with the striking blue eyes, I immediately recall a line from the Wreck of the Hesperus, a narrative poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, first published in 1842. My first contact with the poem was a hundred years later in 1942 when I was a fourth grader at Miss Mary’s elementary school.

In Wordsworth’s epic poem the captain lashes his daughter to the mast to prevent her from being washed overboard in a violent storm. The ship breaks up on the reefs and the daughter is found dead, still lashed to the mast. The only line I remember coherently from the poem is blue were her eyes, blue as the skies, blue as the blue dress she wore.

Yep, times have changed—I defy anyone to show me a fourth grade teacher today with the temerity to present such obsolete reading material to a class. And I submit that it may be difficult to find a fourth grade teacher that is familiar with the poem. I am privy to much of the material presented in today’s schools through contact with my grandchildren, up to and including the college level, and I feel safe in saying that poetry, particularly poetry from the ages, is outmoded, unfashionable, gone the way of cursive writing in our schools.

Students of today, if required at all to apply pencil or pen to paper, choose to print rather than using cursive writing as taught with the old-time Spencer handbooks. The essay questions used in my school days, beginning in elementary school and continuing through college, have gone the way of the dinosaurs, and it is doubtful whether they can ever be restored. The students don’t like essay questions, and the teachers don’t like to create the questions and grade the answers—too time consuming. Bummer!

I just reviewed the last several paragraphs and I realize that I have digressed from my topic, that of the red-haired girl. I offer my abject apology and I will return to the subject of this posting, to wit:

I was only favored with a few weekends during that summer to visit with the family. We kids played kick-the-can, tag, hide-and-seek, pussy-in-the-corner, hop-scotch and similar games, exercises virtually unknown by today’s youth. I have vivid memories of Saturday when it rained all day, and all of us were banished to the barn hayloft—the house was too small to contain us and our antics. I never knew how long the family had lived there. I only know that they were there in the spring when we moved to the farm, and were gone when school started in the fall, replaced by a black family that raised turkeys, and yes, I have in mind a posting relating to the turkeys—stay tuned.

The red-haired girl and her family were gone by the time school started in the fall, so I never had the opportunity to share a seat on the school bus for our 12-mile daily ride to school. Even had she and her family not moved away, the pleasure would have been brief because around Christmas time my stepfather created a situation that would allow him to get rid of his familial responsibilities The crops were in, nothing had been planted for the next growing season, the flock of chickens had been appropriately thinned and the survivors fattened, one mule sold and the other found dead behind the barn—a death that deserves a separate posting so stay tuned—two Fox Terriers had been dispatched to dog heaven, and our milk cow had been serviced to reproduce herself in early summer, and yes, that also deserves a separate posting—stay tuned!

Click here for the story of the family’s breakup on the farm—it’s a tale well told, one that involves a question, Jergen’s Lotion, a cheek severely slapped, a cheek brutally scratched, a pan of biscuits, a shotgun, a race for the woods and a Model-A Ford roadster—not exactly an epic but a story with lots of earthy pathos and drama.

If there was anything else to tell about my relationship with the cute red-haired cross-eyed girl, something perhaps ranging somewhere between prurient and obscene, I would proudly post it in detail, all in capital letters with lots of exclamation points. I suppose I could fabricate something, but I don’t want to tell a lie—embellish, perhaps, but not an outright lie, not at this late stage in life. I already have a heap to answer for, and I have no wish to add to to that heap.

Nope, nothing happened, not even in the hayloft, and I’ll close with a quote from the words of John Greenleaf Whittier in Maud Muller: For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these—it might have been. And just between you and me and the barn hayloft, had I known then what I know now, it would have been!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 
 

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The day I lost my marbles . . .

Many years ago in Columbus, Mississippi, at the corner of Fourth Street South and Ninth Avenue South there was a large colonial style two-story house with stately columns and a balcony, a house converted into apartments during World War II to accommodate the influx of military personnel from Columbus Air Force Base, a pilot training center. I haven’t been in that section of town for many years—it may still be standing, or it may have been razed and a modern brick structure erected on that lot.

I lived there for several months with my mother, my youngest sister Dot—short for Doris—and my stepfather. Jessie, my oldest sister, also lived there in a one-room apartment that shared a bathroom with another tenant. That house holds many memories for me, several of which I have posted on my blog—some of those memories are pleasant and some are not so pleasant. Click here to read about The tomato tempest, a story that includes a visit to Alabama, a sharecropper family, a suicide, an Army-issue Colt .45 caliber automatic pistol, a recalcitrant young girl and a stepfather with a vicious temper.

The house was only two or three blocks from a section of the city that was called by many names, mostly names that are not used in polite society today. In these modern times of political correctness, certain words are voiced only by their first letter and the word word added, as in the N-word or the F-word or the Rword—the R stands for Republican, a word that some are reluctant to use in fear that they will looked upon as such.

I suppose that in today’s parlance, the neighborhood just beyond where I lived as a boy would be referred to as N-town, an area primarily comprised of black families—the term African-American was unknown then, unknown at least in the circles in which I moved. I’ve never understood the rationale for expressing something like that—if it is true that the thought is as bad as the deed, then saying the N-word instead of the actual word in nothing more than an attempt to cover up the real word, and it’s not covered up—try it—just say the N-word to yourself and check the mental image it creates, both in the speaker and the listener. Let’s face it—it’s a cop out—if you’re going to think it, you might as well say it.

I knew only one person that lived in N-town, a black lady that came to the house every weekday to care for my niece, Jessie’s young daughter, then just a toddler. Millie also cleaned, cooked and ironed for Jessie over a period of many years at several different locations in the city. I never knew Millie’s last name—we simply called her Millie, possibly the diminutive form of Millicent. An unmarried lady, she lived with her family just a short walk from our house. I vividly remember numerous Saturday nights when Dot and I walked with Jessie and our mother to Millie’s house. Jessie and our mother, along with Millie and her mother formed a quartet and sang church hymns, A Capella, all the old favorites and they sometimes belted out fast-paced tunes that contrasted sharply with the well-known songs—I suppose they were songs popular at the time—pop tunes, so to speak.

The group stayed in the house in inclement weather and neighbors came and sat and listened, and in fair weather they formed on the front porch and neighbors came and sat and listened. My sister and I stayed outside, both in inclement and fair weather, playing all the games children play in the evening—Kick the Can, Pussy in the Corner, Tag, Hide and Seek and others, and sometimes we sat on the porch and told stories, mostly ghost tales—and I’m here to say that those kids could spin some very scary stories!

Now that I’ve laid the scene, I’ll progress to the when, where, why and how I lost my marbles. I arrived home from school and Millie and my niece, Millie’s charge, were the only ones there. Left to my own devices, I swept an area of the front yard clean, drew a circle and began playing marbles. Soon after I began one of the kids from Millie’s neighborhood came by, watched my shooting for a few minutes and asked if he could play. I said yes, and the battle was joined—we played for keeps, meaning that when a shooter knocked one of the other shooter’s marble out of the ring, that marble changed ownership—it now belonged to the one that caused it to go outside the ring. At first I seemed to be in control, but as the game progressed I realized that I had agreed to a play-for-keeps game with a kid that was a much better shooter than I.

So did I call off the game? Not on your life! I had a reputation to support and I worked very hard to reclaim some of my marbles that now resided in the black kid’s pockets. I was almost marbleless when Jessie came home from work. She briefly watched us at play and then entered the house, and a short time later Millie came out and headed for home. Then Jessie returned to the front yard—Jessie, my oldest sister and the sister that often gave orders that I was required to obey. She ordered me into the house, and I told my new friend—my adversary—that I had to go in, and he headed for home also, his pockets bulging with marbles that earlier had been in my pockets.

Jessie told me later that it was not seemly for me to be seen playing with a N-word child, that it would look odd to our neighbors. I pointed out to her that I had lost most of my marbles, and that I appeared to be on a winning streak at the time she stopped the game. Her response to that? You shouldn’t have been playing for keeps—that’s gambling, and gambling’s a sin. I didn’t bother to argue that I played with the black kids on Saturday evenings. I knew that the difference was the difference between day and night, between light and dark. I was in full view during daylight hours, subject to the stares of disapproving blacks as well as whites, and in the darkness of the evening I was not subjected to such stares.

That’s it—that’s how I lost my marbles, a loss that I was never to recoup. I never saw that kid again—sometimes I think that he may have been a ringer, a professional sent in from another area to pick up some easy loot in the form of marbles, similar to what Paul Newman did in his movie, The Hustler—bummer!

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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19th Street South & Pussy in the Corner . . .

I lived with my family in the house on Nineteenth Street South in Columbus, Mississippi for an estimated four years with my mother and three sisters, one just eighteen months older than I, one about ten years older and the eldest sister some seventeen years older.

Neither I nor any of the other children on the block were ever allowed in the house next door to our house on the north side, nor was the only child in that family allowed into our house. It never bothered us, and I don’t remember whether my family ever discussed it, but in retrospect it seems a bit strange. This posting may shed some light on the subject.

The family’s name was Berryhill, a family that was comprised of the mother, the father and a young daughter named Sue, a cute girl around my age, with blond pigtails and a really nice wardrobe. Her mother was always dressed in, I suppose, the latest fashions—I remember the women in my family discussing Sue’s mother and how she dressed. I know nothing of the father’s profession, but judging by their clothing and the fact that the mother always left the house in a taxi and returned in a taxi they had money to burn. Very few people on our street owned cars, and a limited number ever used taxi cabs—they walked, whether to the grocery, the picture show, to church, to visit, to the doctor, to the barbershop, etc. The late 1930s and early 1940s were lean years in our nation but especially in Mississippi, a state still reeling from the War Between the States and the resultant reconstruction era.

Sue was allowed to come outside and play games with us, always with the stern admonition to not soil her clothing ensemble. Sometimes she was allowed to stay outside while her mother took a taxi to some unknown point, probably to the local Black-and-White department store on shopping trip for the latest styles in women’s clothing. Speaking of that store, its name and it storefront were black and white, but the store sold clothing and accessories of all colors. I’ve always wondered whether the name was intended to inform the public during those days of segregation in the South that the store welcomed people of both races—perhaps—could be—who knows? I got no help from Google on this one—I found a White House–Black Market store that sold only white and black clothing, but also sold many accessories in color. However, no reference to a Black and White Department Store—it may possibly have been a partnership between Mr. Black and Mr. White—again, who knows?

On one memorable occasion while she was away from home Mrs. Berryhill’s daughter and I and several other kids from homes on our block played games, one of which was called Pussy in the Corner, and that was the one we were playing in her front yard when she returned in a taxi.

Ordinarily we would have delayed our game to watch her dismount from the taxi and stroll up the sidewalk and into her house, slowly and deliberately, looking to the left and to the right with the steps of a runway model as she progressed, dressed in the latest fashions—or so I gleaned by listening to my mother and my older sisters. However on this day our game was at a really exciting point and as she passed us someone shouted Pussy in the corner! and all of us shifted positions as required by the rules of the game, none of which I remember.

Sue’s mother stopped her runway walk abruptly and turned toward us and we froze in our Pussy in the Corner positions. She faced us and said in strong forceful tones, “Children, I feel that it would be much better if you would say Kitty in the corner, so please do.” She then resumed her strut to the front door and into her house.

We tried mightily to do as we were told—for the remainder of the game we laughingly shouted Kitty in the corner when the game demanded it, but our fun was ruined. A short time later the kids dispersed and went in search of pastimes that posed fewer restrictions, games such as Kick the can, Ring around the roses, Pop the whip and Hide and seek, but the thrill was gone—taking out the term pussy took out the fun in the game.

And speaking of thrill—one of the most popular songs of that day was by Fats Domino, a  haunting melody in which the singer would say, I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill, the moon stood still, etc., etc. Without exception, every little boy on my block and probably all the big boys and the men, had at one time or another sang Fat’s song as, I found my thrill on Mrs. Berryhill, etc., etc. Speaking strictly for myself, I had no idea why the corruption of the song was so funny—I just played along with a joke that I didn’t understand.

I’m serious—I was probably the world’s least knowledgeable kid in matters of sex and all its ins and outs—so to speak. The sister seventeen years my senior birthed her first child in the house on Nineteenth Street. I was at home when the baby was born—I remember my sister making lots of noise on the day my niece arrived, but I was out playing when the doctor came to our house. After he left and I returned home, I learned that I now had a niece—I  questioned her source, and I was told that the doctor delivered her. Since I was not present when he arrived, I had no reason to believe otherwise. I didn’t really care where the doctor got the baby—the place from whence she came was of no particular interest to me.

I am totally serious. While living in the house on Nineteenth Street, I spent a long summer with one of my sisters, the second oldest of my three sisters, and when I returned home my mother asked me if my sister was going to have a baby. I told her that I didn’t know, and that if she was going to have a baby she said nothing about it to me.

In retrospect I remember going to a nearby creek several times with my sister and her toddler son to bathe—the toddler skinny-dipped, I wore undershorts and my sister wore a one-piece bathing suit, and I clearly remember that she had gained a tremendous amount of weight, most of which seemed to be centered in her abdomen. The big boys always explained such a condition as the result of the woman swallowing watermelon seeds—I suppose I believed that just as I believed the doctor delivered my first niece—hey, nobody ever told me the difference between delivered and delivered.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!

 
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Posted by on June 26, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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