It is the province of the elderly to lament the good old days when life was sweeter, and it is the province of the young to scoff at such nonsense.
Nevertheless, I recently heard a tune by a band called Southern Culture on the Skids titled "My neighbor burns trash in a barrel out back," and it made me think of my childhood in Anadarko, Oklahoma.
Our family indeed burned trash in a barrel out back, but as far as I know, we never set anyone's house on fire. Of course, some things don't burn--empty cans of Demonte green beans, milk bottles, etc. So my father took the noncombustible stuff to the town dump, which was located on the bank of the majestic Washita River. Hell, everyone did that.
I remember going with my dad on a dump run when I was about four, and he allowed me to play in a gigantic pile of rusty tin cans. I slipped and fell and got a nasty cut on my wrist. Seventy years later, I still see the scar--a reminder of happy times!
When I was a kid, small-town Oklahomans believed in the constitutional right to own guns, but fortunately, most of us were too poor to buy one. We also held a strong belief in our dogs' common-law right to run freely about the neighborhood, pooping where they chose.
Most dogs exercised this right responsibly, but there were a few renegades. My childhood friends will remember Captain, a vicious collie that became a legend in southwestern Oklahoma. Although he looked exactly like the kindly Lassie we saw on television, he was, in fact, a terrorist. He was the anti-Lassie.
Captain struck a primal fear into the hearts of every child in Anadarko. This ruthless sociopath was known to visit Sunset Elementary School for the sole purpose of biting small children during recess. I'm not making that up. Captain knew when the kids let out for morning playtime, and he traveled eight blocks from his abode on Colorado Street to maim schoolkids.
As a paperboy, Captain would occasionally ambush me on my paper route, but I developed a tactic for dealing with him.
I carried a few extra newspapers in my canvas newspaper bag, which I rolled up tightly with rubber bands. When Captain loped out of a ligustrum hedge to bite me, I would tuck my legs up high on my bike and pelt the son of a bitch with old copies of the Anadarko Daily News.
After a couple of encounters, Captain left me alone.
The town fathers (and mothers) were powerless to stop Captain from biting the citizenry. But finally, some high-school kids from the nearby town of Fort Cobb dispensed vigilante justice. They caught the dog, tied him to a chain, and dragged him behind a car through the streets of Anadarko until he died.
It was sort of an Oklahoma version of The Magnificent Seven. The townsfolk were deeply grateful.
My family was poor when I was a child. I know that now because I remember the food we ate. We made grilled cheese sandwiches out of Velveeta, not cheddar, and we often ate Spam for dinner--scored of course so that it looked a bit like a grilled steak. And we put margarine on our baked potatoes, not butter.
Then, there were those lunchmeat sandwiches, which we dressed with Miraclewhip instead of mayonnaise because Miraclewhip was cheaper. Baloney, Oliveloaf, Liverwurst, cold hot dogs pressed between two slices of Wonderbread. If I had a dollar for every lunchmeat sandwich I ate as a kid, I could retire to the Caymans.
When I was about five, I remember coming home from our neighborhood grocery store, which an elderly woman operated in the front room of her house. Maybe I went there to buy a pack of Kool-Aid, which only cost a nickel.
While I was in the store, an older kid told me I was poor, and I went home crying.
But my mother told me that was nonsense. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. We lived on the east side of town, it was true, but at least our renthouse was west of the railroad tracks. The kids who lived on the east side of the tracks--the kids who lived near the stockyards or the peanut mill--now those kids were poor.
Gradually, imperceptibly in my child's eyes, my mother and father clawed their way into the middle class--where, we believed, we had always belonged. After I went away to college, my parents' status elevated to an even higher level. My parents repudiated their blood-oath loyalty to Chevrolet and began driving Buicks. They built a house with two full bathrooms--two!
Do I miss my childhood days in Anadarko? Decidedly, I do not.
But I have a growing respect for all the families who scratched out a living in small towns like Anadarko back in the 1960s. Some were middle class, but most of them were poor--at least by present-day standards. These families shared one bathroom, and dad bought retread tires to keep the family car on the road. Kids picked up soda bottles on the side of the road to claim the 2-cent deposit.
To live like that now would seriously depress me. But, curiously, when I was a child, the way my family lived was enough.
|Anadarko: dogs could roam where they pleased, and nobody was poor!|