Saturday, December 29, 2012

Bactine, Bosco and Red Ball Jets, part one

This is an abbreviated portion of a chapter from a book I'm writing. As slowly as I write I figured I might as well put this much in blog form. Maybe it will encourage me to get on with it.

Surviving Childhood


One of the things we aging boomers love to talk about is how much safer the world used to be when we were kids.

I guess it was in some respects.  Mostly, though, I wonder how we survived.

As kids in the 1950s and 60s we were allowed to roam our entire neighborhood from sunup to sundown free from fear of death or kidnapping.  Nobody was ever snatched off the street. 

We didn’t have drive-by shootings.  Heck, we didn’t have drive-thru hamburger joints.  Back then if you wanted to buy a burger or shoot somebody you had to park the car and get out first.

It was a simpler, more forgiving time.  But it was also a daily horror show we never even noticed.

Cars didn’t have seat belts until the mid-sixties and by then they seemed silly to those of us who grew up literally bouncing between the back and front seats as our parents sped along two-lane highways.  They didn’t mind in the least as long as we didn’t start fighting.

We had house fans with no protective covers to keep little fingers out of the whirling steel blades.  If you had invented the electric fan doesn’t a protective cage over the front just seem like a natural piece of the big picture?  How did they not think of that?

I never heard of a single injury.

The heat in our homes came up from the floor through metal grates that got hot enough to sear a waffle pattern into tender toddler butts and feet.

Everybody smoked cigarettes, cigars and pipes everywhere.  I mean everywhere: on buses and trains; in grocery stores, movie theaters, restaurants, churches and in every room of every home in America.  That’s where this attachment to “fresh air” started, you know.  Think about it.  No matter where you live these days, big city or wide-open spaces, the air is no fresher outside than it is inside.  But you still say, “I need some fresh air,” and then you step out of a filtered, air-conditioned room into downtown San Bernardino. When we stepped outside in the fifties it was like being in the Alps. Nobody complained about smoke. It was just a natural part of life.

Dogs ran free when we were kids.

You’d let the dog out and he was gone to who-knows-where until he eventually came back to the porch and waited happily to be readmitted to the house.  That might be the next day or the day after that.  If he bit somebody while he was out you never heard about it. They didn't sue, they just swore. If he tangled with another dog you’d see him trot back into the house at dinner time, tongue and tail wagging joyously, with one bloody ear and a mangled eyeball.  You didn’t take him to the vet unless he’d been hit by a car and even then if he could hobble out of the street on three of his four legs Skippy was good to go.

We had deadly toys.
 
We would have wars using air-powered BB-rifles that allowed us to fire tiny steel balls with enough velocity to embed them under the skin of another kid, a dog or a cat.  It stung but we loved it.  This is where we first heard the sentence, “You could put an eye out with that!”  But nobody I knew ever lost an eye to a BB-gun assault.

If there weren’t enough BB-guns to go around, we’d just throw rocks. Seriously, rock fights. And worse.
We had toy bows and arrows.  Oh sure, the arrows had rubber cups on the end.  You just took those off, threw ‘em away and whittled the wooden shaft into a pencil-sharp point.
We had firecrackers.  We made bottle rockets out of wooden match heads cautiously jammed tightly together into glass aspirin bottles.  When they weren’t made carefully they became instant bombs, igniting in hand and shooting shards of red-hot glass dozens of feet in all directions.

I’m not making this up.

One idiot kid I remember used to lie down on the ground and have the rest of us drop a huge rock — say, the size and weight of a bowling ball — right over his face. He’d always roll out of the way before the rock hit the ground.  He never failed.

We climbed trees, great cottonwoods in my grandparents’ front yard, scampering twenty feet above the ground.  Once I fell, skinning my bare back as I slid down the trunk of that great tree, landing hard on its exposed roots.  Grandma sprayed Bactine on my injuries and gave me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on white Wonder bread.  I watched Popeye on TV and felt a lot better.

We jumped off the roof of my grandparents’ house with totally ineffective home-made parachutes fashioned from a bed sheet with ropes tied to the corners.One of my goofy cousins used to climb onto the sloped roof of their two-story house and bounce up there on his pogo stick.

We made go-carts out of two-by-fours and orange crates with tin coffee can lids for headlights and roller skates for wheels. A steep hill provided propulsion, a rope tied to each side of the front axel made for a delicate steering mechanism that was just as likely to dump you into the middle of oncoming traffic as it was to steer you out of danger. There was no braking system. For that you merely had to wait until the thing slowed of its own diminishing inertia or crashed into a parked car.

When I was a kid we had plenty of playgrounds in our neighborhoods and schoolyards were never enclosed by locked fences and gates. Still, we often just played baseball or football in the street. A parked car was first base or end zone marker. Second base was a smashed tin can; a water spigot was third. We played with broken wooden bats that had been glued, nailed and taped back into service. The baseball had ripped seams and a cover peeling off. Once the tear got so big the ball made a fluttering sound when thrown we’d peel it off completely and wrap the remaining ball of yarn into a solid mass of black electrician’s tape that needed to be repaired or replaced after bouncing along the pavement a few times. Any baseball becomes hard to see after sunset, especially one made of black tape but we played long after daylight had faded to deep purple and the cars rounding the corner into left field had their headlights on. 

As I think back on those days fifty-plus years ago I can’t remember any boys who didn’t have patched jeans and scabs on their knees and elbows. Many of the girls, too. Blood was simply a part of everyday life through no small fault of our own. We all fell off our bikes into asphalt and parked cars because were just clutzy kids. Occasionally one of the real numbskulls in the neighborhood would  intentionally ride his bike off the roof of a house or try to leap a row of thorn-laden rose bushes on a bike with the help of a pathetically engineered plywood ramp. These stunts nearly always ended in bloody failure but they didn’t stop us from trying again.

Nobody died. We seldom cried. And now we worry about our own kids and theirs.

They missed so much.

© Copyright 2010, Dave Williams. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Back to the future

Amy Chodroff and I had a radio conversation this past week (KLIF, Dallas, TX) with a man who proposes we all learn to disconnect from our social gadgets just one day a week. Think about that: no Facebook, no Twitter, no My Space, no Google Plus, no Instagram, no Pinterest, no e-mail, no texting, no nothing:

Just you and the people you can see in real time and space.

I remember decades ago, before Cyber World Genesis, when people were making similar suggestions about technologies and social habits that would seem quaint to us now. "Turn off the TV one night a week", they said. "Get reacquainted with your family. Talk about your day. Play a board game. Make popcorn."

It really does sound nice, doesn't it? It assumes Mom, Dad and the kids are going to have a joyous, mirth filled evening of love and bonding.

From my own childhood in the sixties I can remember the social psychologists urging families to always eat dinner together at the table. It suggested we strive for TV family perfection. Dad would be there smiling in his sweater and tie, Mom would be fresh as a daisy after a day spent driving a vacuum and an iron and then wrangling dinner in the kitchen. We could have funny conversations like the Cleaver family.

It all sounds wonderful but what I remember from my real life family dinners is complaints about the food, being scolded for the griping, Dad grousing about some idiot at work and dear Mom trying to hold it all together. Not always, of course, but often enough that I learned early that nostalgia isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Like it or not, family and social dynamics change with culture which is largely driven by technology.

Nobody sends handwritten letters anymore. Gone are the summer nights on a blanket in the front yard together watching the stars come out. Rocking chairs on the front porch over a pitcher of lemonade and shared tales of greater glories past are the stuff of fanciful memory and our social fabric.

It's good to remember the past but a terrible mistake to try to live there.

I think I may give this disconnecting idea a shot, occasionally. But I'm not going to stress about it.


Saturday, October 27, 2012

Out of the mouths of babes


And Jesus said to them, Yes; have you never read, Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings you have perfected praise? -- Matthew 21:16 (American King James Bible) 

Two weeks ago tonight Carolann and I drove to Tracy's and Martha's house in McKinney to join their semi-weekly Bible study group. This will come as a surprise to our family and friends in California because we're not church-goers but we're not heathens, either. We're quiet believers.

And frankly, more to the point, we're new to Texas and have no social life. We need to meet people.

So, there we were, eight or ten of us having snacked and socialized, now seated together in our friends' living room engrossed in the book of Daniel and sharing The Word.

Tracy's and Martha's eight-year-old daughter Sadie was upstairs in her room, unseen and forgotten.

The Good Book is passed to our new friend, Mike.

A dog barks in the backyard. Sadie yells at the dog through her upstairs window, telling him to be quiet.

Mike reads.

MIKE: "Ezekiel describes his vision of God...

The dog begins baying.

MIKE:  "A voice came from above..."

SADIE: (upstairs, to the dog) "SHUT UP YOU RETARD!!!"

We'll try to pick it up at that point tonight. I'm praying that Sadie is there.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Abbott, Texas

Yesterday I took my first official Texas roadtrip, not counting the one that got me here in the first place. I drove a hundred miles from our new home just north of Dallas to visit a friend in Waco and I left early enough to stop and see a place I've wanted to see for years: Abbott, Texas. It's a town of 356 people and just one sad little remnant of an old general store as its only operating business establishment. In that, Abbott is like a million other far-flung places in this huge and proud state with one distinction:

Abbott is the birthplace and childhood home of music icon, Willie Nelson..

The most striking thing about Willie's hometown is that unlike similarly distinguished small towns it doesn't display one single word about its famous son. There are no statues or museums or souvenir stores and not a single sign proudly proclaiming, "Birthplace of Willie Nelson!" Not a word. You either know it or you don't. I suppose the quiet, hard-working Texans who live there prefer not to have their few streets choked with tourists taking pictures of their kids playing at community center picnics without asking permission. In that respect Abbott maintains its charm and dignity. It certainly looks the same now as it did more than seventy years ago when Willie and his piano playing sister Bobbie were born there.

The Depression-era Abbott Methodist Church, where Willie and Bobbie sang hyms when they were both just knee-high to a June bug, sits directly across the street from the Abbott Baptist Church. These are by far the best-kept buildings in town. They are postcard-perfect visions of Americana brought to life: old, yet gleaming white buildings with gloriously pious steeples and neatly trimmed lawns.

I took my pictures surreptitiously, not wanting to draw attention. My self-consciousness was unnecessary. I never saw a person on the street nor outside of the scattered handful of homes in the neighborhood.

It was Saturday and 109 degrees. Cicadas sang love songs.

I went inside the Abbott Cash Grocery Market to buy a cold soda pop and just to be able to say I had been there. The store was sad. Most of the shelves were empty. What few items it did carry were all packaged goods crammed together: toilet paper and dishwashing detergent right next to the canned okra and lima beans. No meat or produce. They did carry soft drinks and snacks and a few staples such as sugar and flour that a local woman fixing Sunday dinner might need in a rush. No doubt folks there drive to Waco supermarkets and Walmart for real groceries.

Inside the store I was again struck by the lack of Willie business. Yes, the word, "Willie's" hangs discreetly above the awning outside but if you didn't know differently you'd assume it was the owner's name, not THE Willie. His voice wasn't floating out of any overhead speakers. Nothing was. There were no lifesize cardboard cutouts where I might have the lone clerk snap a cute picture of me smiling alongside the Redheaded Stranger. They did have a short shelf stacked with Willie Nelson t-shirts and video tapes but again, no explanation as to why.

I'm ashamed to admit that I wanted a shirt or a ballcap from this secretly famous old store but was too embarrassed to reveal myself as the tourist I was to give that nice lady some money, which she surely needed. Today I'm sorry about that.

But as Willie sings it in one of his best, lesser-known songs:

"Regret is just a memory written on my brow, and there's nothing I can do about it now."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Just a handful of memories

Our heat wave seems to have broken. It's below 80 this morning for the first time in over a week. Clouds are gathering for a welcome summer storm.

I think the reason we're so darned interested in the weather has less to do with our plans and personal comfort than it does our inability to notice the passing of time. If the weather never changed we would seem to be living the same day over and over, though we age rapidly.

When I was young I thought it funny, and to be honest more than just slightly annoying, that the older people in my life told the same stories time and again. My dad did that. His dad, too. And it seemed to me the older people got the more often they retold a dwindling number of their personal adventures. Now I find myself doing it and often apologizing to my kids as a disclaimer. "I may  have already told you this," I'll say, but then I'll go ahead and tell it again anyway.

The truth is, as wonderful as a long life can be we are pathetically short on memories.We remember the highlights of our lives as if they were moments that stand out from old movies. The rest of it seems to be bits and pieces of black and white images, remembered without context or emotional texture. This is why we take so darned many pictures, I guess, to try to hold onto special moments and even the ones we know will be deemed insignificant or forgotten altogether a short time from now.

We mark the passing of our lives by changes in the weather and by how fast the kids grow up.

People come and go.

Sixty, seventy, eighty years. Life sounds long but lives fast. And if we've done it right we are vastly wiser and happier for all the great lessons we've absorbed, the good with the bad; the monumental and the insignificant. They add up to an existence we can rest assured was meaningful. The world would be a bit less joyful if you or I had never passed this way.

Oddly, though, as miraculous as we are we wind up retelling stories.

We only have a handful of memories.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.

Late spring sits on North Texas warm, wet and heavy. Sometimes the sky is postcard blue, other times dull and benign.

Sometimes it's black as dread and just as still.

Sometimes multi-streaked lightning bolts rifle baseball-size hailstones at us. Birds are struck dead in flight by wondrous ice ball cannonade crashing through windshields and 90 degree heat.

Sometimes funnel clouds move around like giant old men shuffling aimlessly through corn fields oblivious to the commotion they cause.

All these times will occur in a single day. Excitement is quite literally in the air.

We check the weather radar before going to bed and then sleep warily, warning gadgets next to our heads.

A few hours later it begins again. Peacefully. Quiet with promise, and just a tiny smirk.

© 2012 DL WILLIAMS. All rights reserved.

The Texas Way

I’ve lived in Texas for almost three months now and it’s true what they say, Texans are friendly.

Total strangers strike up conversations with Carolann and me everywhere we go. This is a sharp contrast to living in California where strangers don’t generally speak to each other except rarely and briefly to request and impart some specific information such as directions to a particular street. These exchanges are always short and businesslike. They rarely blossom into conversation.

Texans don’t need any such pretense to launch into idle and often very personal chit-chat. You can be standing in a line at the supermarket and suddenly find yourself swapping family secrets with three or four people, all of you strangers to each other. By the time you leave the checkstand you’ve exchanged names and maybe pie recipes.

Texans also have a great and dry sense of humor, intentional or not.

I had only been here a couple of weeks when I went for a haircut and mentioned all of this to the very young woman cutting my hair.

“I really like Texas and the people I’ve met here,” I told her.

As she snipped around the edges of my head she gave me the following words of greenhorn wisdom in a Texas accent so thick and sweet you could have poured it on a waffle:

“People say Texans are friendly,” she began, “and it’s true, we are friendly.”

“But,” she continued with no hint of humor, ”we expect y’all to take care of your own bidness. Texans will give you the shirt off their backs or a meal and bed at the drop of a hat but if ya’ll step into the street without lookin’ we will run you over!”


© D.L. Williams 2012

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Notes from the Lone Star State

When I left California a couple of weeks ago I promised my son that I'd get a picture of me wearing my grody, old, sweat-stained cowboy hat standing next to the road sign reading, "Welcome to Texas!" All state lines have them. Everything being bigger in Texas, I figured there'd be a rest stop, a picnic area, hell, maybe even a carnival with bands playing. Surely there would be a horde of travelers waiting in line to have their photos snapped alongside what must be a Texas-sized "Howdy!" sign the size of an aircraft carrier.

Nope.

I flew past this little piece of Americana on I-40 at 75 mph. No place to stop and no way to slow down. It was only thanks to my excited anticipation that I had my camera phone poised in hand to catch this little pissant of a welcome sign as it flew past my bug-spattered windshield.

But Texans are like that. A little wary of newcomers.

"Welcome...drive friendly, the Texas way."

The smiles are warm and genuine. But rest assured, they are paying attention to your conduct and behavior.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Where Thisaway meets Thataway

(This is a reprint from another blog I used to write called ThatawayRoad.)

The other day I Googled my own blog searching for inspiration. Danged if I didn't find it!

Smack dab in the middle of Arkansas there is a tiny town called Yellville, where you'll find the intersection of Thataway Rd. and Thisaway Rd., just about a quarter mile from Whichaway Rd. Wouldn't you love to hear somebody out there giving directions to a lost RV family? Shades of Abbott and Costello.

Thataway and Thisaway isn't the only funny intersection you may come to. In an Arizona retirement community residents undoubtedly get a thousand laughs a day from living, as they do, at the corner of Stroke and Acoma Streets.

If you're bored and depressed in Albany, Georgia, you can always go hang out at the corner of Lonesome and Hardup.

Presidents are apparently tempting fodder for local street namers. Folks in Houston, Texas, are keeping true to their largely conservative perspective and their well-deserved reputation for being facetious by naming converging streets Clinton and Fidelity. In Ann Arbor, Michigan, people engaged in brief political commentary by creating the intersection of Nixon and Bluett.

You have to love Americans. We don't get as much credit as we deserve for having a national sense of humor. Just look at some of the street names scattered across our fruited plain:

There are several streets in the U.S. called Psycho Path.

In Story, Arkansas, the only way to get your truck camper to Constipation Ridge is to drive up Farfrompoopen Road.

And, while we're on that unfortunate topic...


Folks in Central Pennsylvania can direct you to Cowshit Lane if you will kindly refrain from stealing the street sign. It seems to happen a lot. In fact, that's why the merchants of Amador City, California, years ago began selling copies of their iconic Pig Turd Alley sign, hoping that it would stop thefts of the actual sign. That must have worked. I bought one.

Some street namers seem to be completely baffled and give up...

Lambs Terrace, NJ
...while others just seem to lack interest.

Vallejo, CA








There are some streets you should steer clear of...


And the famous road less traveled.



Wherever your adventures take you, keep smiling. We live in a very funny country.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Obsolete

I'm sixty years old. It didn't seem like a big deal back in August when it happened. Forty was a big deal but not sixty.

A couple of days ago I was talking about aging with Gloria, my son's mother-in-law and one of the wisest people I know. Specifically, I mentioned that as much as I've learned about the craft of radio performance over forty-three years of it, none of the younger people I work with seem to be interested in picking my brain. If I offer a small nugget of hard-won wisdom it seems to fall with a clunk on deaf ears. I believe I've occasionally seen a furtive wink, a roll of an eye. I'm pretty sure of it.

Gloria nodded sagely. She understood.

It's a shame, I continued, that as we age we learn so much but eventually we die and all that knowledge of fact, of wisdom and experience is lost without ever having been shared and appreciated. Worst of all is the lack of respect that piles on top of the years. Instead of being honored, I lamented, old people in our culture are the butt of jokes.

If brevity is the soul of wit, Gloria is a prophet.

"You're obsolete," she said offhandedly. "We all are, people our age."

She said it as if she had just noticed that my shoe was untied and thought I should know.

I've been unemployed since October and this is the third time in three years I've been between jobs. Radio is an aging technology, an industry being dismantled. We're sputtering to an end together.

I've had a wonderful career and no regrets. If it's over that's fine because I still have plenty of life left in me with wonderful friends like Gloria.

I'll age gracefully. I'll be obsolete, except to my family. That's all that matters.

Sometimes, though, sixty is starting to feel like kind of a big deal.
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