Sweet Summer Memories
Almost sixty years later I can still picture Toby. Every summer the Thompson’s had their chow dog, Toby, shaved to help him endure the smothering summertime heat in Alabama. All the kids in the neighborhood called him a lion, due to his reddish coat, neck ring of thick fur and the puffy plume at the end of his tail. Although we never discussed the fact, we each felt a bit embarrassed for the dog because when he was shaved he looked so…exposed… especially from the rear view. Our childish snickers said it all and we referred to him, while shaking our heads, as “Poor Toby”. However, his strange appearance never seemed to bother our four legged friend and Toby happily remained our constant, beloved companion and partner in crime on those smoldering southern days of heat and adventure.
I suppose that in today’s lingo our little rambunctious band of warriors might be considered a gang, when in reality we were just a bunch of kids in the forties enjoying our summer of childhood to the fullest extent. We each knew the unspoken geographical neighborhood boundaries our parents had set and were completely satisfied with any and all entertainment we could discover or create within that four block area. Our own little corner of the world!
The well used, once grassy lot next to the Thompson house had long ago become our kickball field. In time, it had worn down to the pure Alabama clay base, the same red coloring as Charlie Thompson’s hair… and Toby’s. By the end of summer all our clothing had taken on a reddish hue, having endured numerous skids and falls on the barren ball field.
Experience had taught us that when Dot Webb was up to kick we better all back up into the far corners of the lot…she had a mean left foot and knew how to use it. Hilda, on the other hand, was just too petite and ladylike to seldom kick the rubber ball beyond the pitcher and when she did, she never ran fast enough to make it to first base. Barbara, our most athletic pal, delighted in making her ball soar high over our heads and the street beyond, all the way into the Edge’s front yard.
It’s a wonder any of us survived some of our daily shenanigans, for we were a fierce and fearless bunch of rascals. One day we gleefully jumped on the back bumper of the gas truck as the driver was delivering gas to Harvey’s residence, right next door to the Thompson house. When the delivery was made and the fellow quickly drove off, unaware that we were hanging onto his truck, we all went flying backwards and landed on the ground. I vividly recall that very first frightening experience of having my breath knocked out! Looking back, it terrifies me to think that the driver could just as easily have backed up and run over his whole group of foolish hitchhikers.
Saturday was our favorite gathering time, since that was the day the cattle barn owners had their weekly auction. With an abundance of milling county farmers and cattlemen there to attend the auction we could sneak into the stables to play hide and seek amongst the bales of hay that were stacked to the rafters. No one noticed, nor was interested in a pack of climbing, hooting kids as the auction progressed and the snorting, stomping bulls, cows, horses or goats raced down the loading shoots and entered the large center ring for inspection and bidding.
A few of the old cattle traders made a habit of taking a nip or two during the auction and sometimes hid their whiskey bottles in the stables under a pile of hay. Oft’ times, we would hide behind the hay bales and watch, while one of the traders quietly slipped away from the sale to retrieve his bottle and take a swig, before carefully returning it to the hiding place and himself to his seat on the bleachers. More than once we noted that the gait of these gentlemen changed dramatically as the frequency of their little trips increased in number.
On occasion, when there were rumors of a particularly mean bull about to enter the ring, or an especially beautiful horse was up for bid, we would sneak under the wooden bleachers and peek through the legs of the farmers to catch a first hand look at the animal. One had to be especially careful at this point. Nearly every fellow attending the auction either dipped snuff or chewed tobacco and the dirt floor under the bleachers was the perfect target for them to deposit their nasty, liquid stream of spit. It didn’t take us long to learn that getting splattered by a blob of the warm, vile brew was the chance we had to take when choosing to put our self in such a precarious environment.
My best buddy, J.W., stills tells the tale of the argument and ensuing fist fight the two of us got into in one of the stables, which ended when I socked him in the nose and he ran home crying, his hands and face dripping with blood. It takes a pretty well adjusted fellow to admit that his nose has been broken by a girl!
All of us felt sorry for our friend, Bobby, who lived in the pretty, Victorian, two story house just up the street from the sale barn. He was an only child to older parents who were a bit less lenient than the rest of our parents. Dirt was a “no, no” in his household. Now what kid can have fun and not get dirty? In time, Bobby learned what activities he could join in and which he needed to just observe in order to stay in the good graces of his mother, yet still have a bit of fun. Much of his summer was spent alone, while reading in the swing on his large front porch and attempting to tune out the gales of our joyous, childish play just down the street.
Barbara lived with her single mom in a brick duplex across the street from the sale barn. Her mother was a robust, harsh lady and a heavy smoker. None of us liked to go inside the smoke filled home, but one afternoon Barbara finally enticed us inside to view her new litter of beautiful, blonde, Cocker Spaniel puppies. With quiet curiosity we all peeked behind the front door and were thrilled to view a clothes basket filled to the brim with chubby, hungry, grunting pups, snuggled placidly with their mama while enjoying their dinner. Suddenly, Mrs.Willis, engulfed in a cloud of smoke and her ever present Camel cigarette in hand, came barreling out of the kitchen and screamed for all us to go away! Stumbling and tripping over each other we made a hasty retreat out the back door.
Every neighborhood has a resident of intrigue and mystery. Such was the case of the reclusive Mrs. Lillian Brown. Alone, none of us dared approach the quaint, unkempt clapboard house, well concealed behind the dense tangle of trees and bushes, but as a group we felt safety in numbers and would sometimes gain the courage to creep up and have a peek inside the well secluded dwelling. Holding our breath and fiercely clinging to each other for security, we would cautiously ease our way to a side window and steal a quick glance inside. On most occasions we spied Mrs. Brown sedately rocking beside the fireplace and reading her Bible, while her skinny, yellow Tabby contentedly snoozed in her lap. A far cry from the person and scene we had imagined and expected.
Miss Gertie Foote, a well known spinster in the neighborhood, worked in the grocery section of Stiefelmeyer’s Department Store downtown. She was a very tidy and prim little lady who drove her immaculately maintained black Chevy to work each day. One afternoon, about dusk, as she returned home from her job, we decided to hide behind a large oak tree in Hilda’s front yard and throw corncobs and pine cones at her car. Miss Foote, apparently oblivious to the foray of objects striking her windshield, drove right through the barrage with her head held erect, looking straight forward. None of us slept well for a few nights, fearing that our parents would somehow find out about our attack on Miss Foote and that a swift, harsh punishment would be our reward for such foolhardy antics.
The Milligan family owned and ran a small café next to Mrs. Brown’s cottage. I never understood why it was named “The Red Wing Café”. The four Milligan family members lived in the small apartment connected to the back of the café. Ken, the teenage son was quite a handsome fellow and the local girls flocked to the café to play the jukebox, eat a burger and flirt with him. A narrow alleyway passed between the café and the Dr. Pepper Warehouse and became a busy walkway for those who attended the Saturday cattle auction. None of us were allowed to enter the café, but often hovered in the bushes outside to watch the customers coming and going. As the heavy screen door swung open and shut we could get a brief glimpse of the activity inside and hear the raucous laughter, mingled with the loud music of the jukebox. Our imaginations would run wild considering just what was going on inside that forbidden establishment. Once, we even spied Ken and one of the girls hugging and kissing in the alleyway…such scandalous activity to our innocent eyes!
As fall approached our joyous days of mischief came to a close in the neighborhood and the excitement of a new school year became our focus, but those sweet summer memories shall nestle in our hearts for a lifetime and become even more precious with each passing year.