I spent only my first nine years of life in Springfield, except for a few short intervals in Brunswick, Norfolk, and Savannah. Yet I have enough memories of living there to fill a Gone With the Wind size book. I’ve kept that chapter of my life’s book well worn for over seventy years from frequent fondling of it.
My birth certificate says I was born at 7:34 PM, August 3, 1930, at 2114 Dancy Terrace, which is in Springfield. Dancy Terrace has since been renamed Redell St. My brother was not fortunate enough to have been born in so notable an area. He was born in Fairfield eleven months before I arrived. The house in which he was born on Parker Street was torn down years later to make way for Mathews Bridge. At the time of my birth, my father worked at the Ford Assembly plant at Commodore Point.
The first house in which I can remember living was that of my father’s brother, my Uncle Eddie Braddock, during a layoff at the Assembly plant. Uncle Eddie’s house was on the east side of Lambert Street, the second house south from 8th. Uncle Eddie is well remembered by all who knew him for looking out for his kinfolks. He is even better remembered for the extent to which he would go to play practical jokes. I witnessed a lot of them and was frequently their victim. My favorite of his jokes occurred during our stay. If I actually witnessed it, I was too young to remember. But I couldn’t count the times Eddie told it to me in later years. Every evening, my father would take a leisurely bath, lounging in the tub, which stood on little legs a few inches above the floor, while singing at the top of his lungs. Others in the house experiencing the call of nature had to wait until his washing and warbling ran its course. One day Eddie, who installed residential gas lines and meters for the Jacksonville Gas Company, crawled under the house and drilled a hole in the floor under the tub. That night, while my father scrubbed and sang, Eddie stationed Aunt Margie at the breaker box controlling the entire house’s electricity. He then went under the house, slipped a firecracker of no small caliber into the hole with its fuse sticking down through the hole, and lit it. Signaled by the resounding boom, Margie pulled the main breaker switch, throwing the house into immediate and total darkness. Each time Eddie told it, I had to wait at this point in the story until his laughter subsided enough for him to tell the part about Daddy ending up in the middle of Lambert Street stark naked, having left in his wake a broken bathroom door latch and, with the breaker box being in the path he took to safety, Margie lying flat on the floor.
After my father was hired as a baker for Ambrosia Bakery, we moved to a house on 8th Street with a big yard , between Danese and Thelma, three and a half blocks from Eddie’s and just around the corner from Ambrosia. Ambrosia produced bakery sweets such as fig bars and raisin cakes to be sold under the labels of other bakeries.
Several relatives lived in the neighborhood. My father’s first-cousin, Claud Mainor, who was a baker at Ambrosia and was instrumental in getting my father hired, lived on Danese, next door to the bakery, with his wife Anna Mae and daughters Jeanette and Vivian. My father’s mother and my grandmother, Ola Braddock, and her sister, Will Wood, lived next door to Claud. Another sister, Etha Kinsey, a widow, and her children, Bill, Hank, Leona, and Booster, lived across the street at the corner of Danese and 7th. Etha’s oldest child, Mildred Harden and her husband Marvin lived a few blocks away on 9th with their children: M. C., Buddy, and Betty Ruth. Ola’s oldest sister, Ida Parnell, also lived on 9th. The brothers and sisters of Claud Mainor: Tom, Clarence, Mae, Mamie, Charles, Jackie, Betty Jean, and Ray, lived with their father, Matt, on Thelma halfway between 7th and 8th. Their mother, Eldridge Mainor, daughter of Ida, had recently died. The youngest, Ray, is younger than me, so Eldridge was still alive when I was born. However, I know only two things about her. The first is that I heard my Uncle Eddie Braddock say on more than one occasion that if there had ever been a saint on this earth, it had been his first cousin Eldridge Mainor. The second—from my personal observation—is that she imbued her children with a strong sense of responsibility and caring. My brother and I spent many hours of the time we lived with Ola at the Mainor house simply because her children were always pleasant to be around. The older children did a remarkable job of raising the younger ones while their father worked hard to provide the bare necessities for his motherless brood.
When I remember the character of the Mainors and of so many other of my kinfolk, I think perhaps that is why I don’t feel like we were so poor back then even though we would have been classified as being “far below the poverty line” by today’s standards. I gladly confess that remembrances of times at the Mainor house colored my life with a permanent, sweet-tasting dye
Not counting my parents, my brother, and a baby sister who was born in the 8th Street house, I had twenty-five blood relatives living within a mile of each other. In addition, still in Springfield, Ida’s son John K., his wife Irene, and their first four of nine children lived on Phoenix, a short ways off 8th; and Ola’s brother Ed and his wife and six children lived on Hubbard near 10th. In all I had 37 blood relatives living in Springfield. All were the descendants of a Wood family who had migrated from the Atlanta, Georgia area to Florida.
The earliest memories I have are of living on 8th Street. Some of them are my fondest because among them are some of the few I have of my father. The far and away most cherished page of my life’s book, a page well worn from my frequent recalling of it, is my only intimate recollection of my father. It is also my first piece of memory of duration long enough to qualify as more than a fragment. Even after all these years I can close my eyes and with no effort at all see him pushing his wheelbarrow across the yard as my brother and I scampered about picking up bits and pieces of trash to put in it to “help” clean up for a yard party that evening. The party was in celebration of my father landing an opening at the Ford Assembly Plant in Norfolk, Virginia. It was a going away party. Each time the wheelbarrow got full he sat one of us on top of the load and rode us to the edge of the street to dump the trash. In the midst of the cleanup, Uncle Eddie drove up in a new Ford convertible coupe he had just bought and invited us to go for a spin with him. He walked to the rear of the car, grasped a chrome handle in the center of the coupe’s sloped back, and opened out a cushioned seat—a rumble seat—large enough to hold two people. To our delight he hoisted my brother and me into it. I remember seeing my father and Eddie in front of us talking as we drove down 8th to Tallyrand, turned right, went one block to 7th, and turned right again. 7th was little more than two ruts worn deep into soft, dry sand for the entire six blocks of its length. It is effortless for me to feel again the cars jiggling motion as it ran along these ruts and to hear the swishing sounds of weeds growing between them brushing against the car’s underside. 7th Street ended at Lambert. We turned right on it and drove past Eddie’s house on the way back to 8th, where we made one last right turn and headed home.
After a few hours gap in my memory of that day, I recall seeing neighborhood friends and relatives, many of them children, laughing and talking as they milled around the tables of refreshments set up in our yard. A bunch of bananas on a table off to itself enticed me to climb up in a chair and take them. Knowing what I was doing was not right, I crawled up under the back porch so no one would see me and ate every one of them. Sometime later someone heard my moaning. The next I remember is sitting naked on a potty in the kitchen with several concerned faces staring down at me. Irene Parnell knelt in front of me trying to coax me to open my mouth for a spoonful of castor oil, a concoction that even today makes me gag when I think of its taste. Many of the relatives who had been there reminded me of my banana escapade for years. Strangely, the episode did not dim one whit my taste for bananas.
A few weeks after moving to Norfolk, my baby sister died and we moved back to Jacksonville to a house on Danese next door to my Great-Aunt Etha Kinsey. It is the only house we lived in Springfield that still stands. My memories of living there are few. One is of Mama making breakfast out of leftovers from the night before. Preparing leftovers was, by necessity, a culinary art practiced by most households during the depression years. Congealed grits from last night’s supper was popped out of the pot, like Jell-O out of a mold, and sliced and fried. If rice were on the previous night’s menu, several raw eggs were stirred into what was left of it along with a little cream and seasoning and then fried until fluffy. Leftover baked sweet potatoes were peeled, sliced length-wise, sugared lightly, and fried. Biscuits were halved, dipped in egg batter and fried, or just buttered and toasted in a frying pan. There were other leftover treats, but I can’t remember them. We were living in this house when my father died. I was five.
In spite of my last memory of my father occurring in the neighborhood comprised of several blocks sandwiched between 7th and 8th Streets, I have a head full of good memories from that time and place, memories that were the only things of value I had for a long, long time.
After his death, my brother and I lived for awhile with our Grandmother Ola and her sister, Will, in their house directly across Danese from where we lived when my father died. While at their house, my brother and I started learning that hands and feet were for more than fun and games. The weekly ritual of washing clothes became the first chores I can remember being required to help perform. The routine, which was undertaken on Mondays without fail, began with the filling of a large cast iron wash pot, blackened permanently on the outside by many washings with smoke and flames licking up its sides. It sat on iron legs in the middle of Ola and Will’s backyard. As only the affluent possessed garden hoses, my brother and I were assigned the task of carrying water in cooking pots from a spigot at the edge of the porch to the pot until we filled it. Ola or Will then built a fire under the pot from scrap wood that had been collected and saved for this purpose in a dry place under the edge of the porch. Maintaining a sufficient supply of scrap wood to meet each Monday’s needs imposed on every member of most households of that day a tacit obligation to drag home any tree limb, wooden crate, and scrap of lumber they chanced upon in their goings about.
After the water began boiling, a good part of a can of lye and several slivers from a bar of soap, usually brown Octagon—because of the coupon that came on its wrapper—were stirred into the water with a stick. Clothes were sorted into batches by colors and types, and each batch was washed separately. The same stick, which looked like a sawed-off hoe handle—a broom stick would have been too fragile—was also used as an agitator to stir the clothes around and around and up and down in the pot, a strenuous job. Wash days left few women spindly-armed. Will had arms rivaling a blacksmith’s. Extremely dirty clothes and certain parts of others, such as collars of shirts and knees of pants, got additional attention on the metal ridges of a washboard, which was also called a rub-board and scrub-board. At the end of the prescribed wash time, the cloths were transferred item by item into a galvanized wash tub full of water on the back porch where they were sloshed around by hand to get most of the suds out. They were then moved to a second tub of clean water for a final rinsing, being pulled through the hands and closely examined for loose dirt during the transfer. Any piece failing inspection went back to the washboard or wash pot. After each piece was pronounced clean, most of the water was wrung from it by hand. Some families had wringers—two rubber rollers spring-mounted together and operated by a hand crank—through which to squeeze out most of the water.
Clotheslines were the only mode of drying clothes, and they crisscrossed most back yards, no matter where you lived. Lines were usually run between clothes line poles, however it was not unusual for them to be run between trees and sometimes with one end attached to the corner of the house. Some lines were of white rope and others of clothesline wire. More sophisticated people had lines that ran through pulleys, one pulley attached to a back porch post and the other to a distant tree, post, or garage corner. The lady of the house could hang out clothes and bring them in without leaving the porch.
Before hanging clothes, the lines were cleaned by pulling a wet cloth along them. Similar items were pinned together—shirts with shirts, pants with pants, etc. The edges of two items shared a single pin to save on pins. Sheets were folded double and pinned to the line corners up. Some people pinned shirts and dresses by their shoulders while others pinned them by their bottoms. Some hung pants by their cuffs while others hung them by their waists. Socks were hung a pair to a pin.
Most women being short, each line had a prop-pole for pushing the line up high after clothes were pinned to it so they would not drag the ground. Prop poles were made from a skinned tree limb with a fork at the small end or a board with a nail driven in it at an angle near one end for the line to fit into.
The used wash water had to be disposed of after the clothes were hung. Most residents of this area of Jacksonville had migrated from the wilds of North Florida and South Georgia where yards were intentionally kept free of vegetation, except for a vegetable garden in a back corner of the yard. This was a precaution to rob snakes of ground cover through which to slither unseen onto the property. Practice of this custom migrated with them to Jacksonville with unabated fervor. It was not uncommon for Ola to spot a blade of grass or clump of weed and immediately dispatch my brother or me with orders to remove it posthaste. Emptying the pot by ladling its lye-laced water about the yard abetted the discouragement of ground cover.
Once the wash was hung out, the pour soul who had labored so strenuously to get it out became like a mother hen protecting her newly hatched brood from a host of predators. If you happened to look down through the backyards of a neighborhood at the instant the first sprinkle of a rain started, you would see the back door of every house spring open almost simultaneously and women with clothes baskets run out and start frantically gathering in a partially dried wash. As soon as the rain stopped, they would all be back out hanging the wash again. Wind gusts could blow sand and dirt on the clothes or knock the prop pole loose allowing longer items on the line to drag the ground. A sudden change of wind could cause them to be stunk up by smoke from a neighbor’s trash fire. A playful cat could make shreds of a flapping shirtsleeve or billowing sheet. A bird, perching momentarily on the line, could leave an indelible calling card on a favorite dress. However, the most prevalent threat of all, the category in which I fell, was the carefree, inattentive child at play. I’ve felt the switch’s sting more than once for accidentally kicking dirt on half-dry towels or bringing a whole line full of sheets down by not watching where I ran.
I won’t elaborate on the laborious Tuesday task of ironing almost every item that had been washed the day before other than to say wash-and-wear clothes had not been invented and Ola ironed with a solid metal flat iron she heated on a kitchen stove burner.
Danese dead-ended into the sandy ruts of 7th Street and there
were few car owners living on Danese, seeing more than two cars in one day
on it constituted a traffic jam. So, my brother and I were allowed to roam
freely back and forth across the street’s hard-packed dirt surface,
which usually had the appearance of a block-long playground filled with
children. Most were relatives: Great-Aunt Etha Kinsey’s youngest son
Laverne; Claud’s two daughters; the younger Mainor kids from Thelma
Street; Etha’s grandson Buddy Harden. Some few were the neighborhood
kids not related to us.
Laverne, known to all as “Booster”—I never learned how he got the name—was about ten and had blond hair that bordered on being red. He assumed the role of leader—I should say ringleader—of all the younger cousins in the neighborhood and played the role to the hilt. Many of the adventures I remember from my few years in Springfield have him as their central character. In my first recollection of him, he had found a litter of kittens in the woods on the other side of 7th Street and had bought them home in a box. Curiosity being what it is to kids in their formative years, my brother and I had to see what the box contained. I can almost hear Booster now, coaxing us to pick up a kitten, knowing what the reaction would be from kittens that were not accustomed to being handled by humans. I pulled my hands out of the box considerably faster than I had put them in. But not fast enough not to learn how sharp a kitten’s claws are. My brother reached at the same instant I did, and with the same results. To quiet our loud bawling that would surely get him a spanking from Etha, he amply compensated us for our pain by letting us be audience to his making other neighborhood kids his victims.
One of the activities we participated in was bat swatting. After dark, numerous bats flew around the streetlight at the corner of Danese and 7th filling up on bugs that swarmed around the light. We would throw rocks with a strip of cloth tied around them straight up in the air near the light pole. For some reason, bats would follow the fluttering strip almost to the ground. We would swat at them with bamboo poles cut from a large stand of them between the bakery and Claud Mainor’s house, trying to be the one who made the hit.
Mr. Colby, owner of Ambrosia Bakery, lived in the nicest house in the neighborhood on the east side of Danese at the corner of 8th. A wire fence equivalent to today’s chain link fence surrounded his yard. The bakery, a long, low building of cement blocks, stood next door on Danese. It had a loading dock on the opposite end behind a high wire fence and gate. Some evenings, Booster held court under the streetlight at the corner of Danese and 8th, just outside the fence around Mr. Colby’s yard. At ten, Booster had already mastered the fine art of cigarette smoking. Before he began weaving the night’s tale of adventure he would send one of us to the little store on 8th Street at the far end of Mr. Colby’s fence to buy a penny cigarette, which the store sold loose. The store carried several brands unknown today, Twenty Grand, Avalon, Spud, but Booster preferred a brand, whose name I can’t remember, because it was at least twice as long as today’s king-sized ones and would last much longer. Booster showed up one evening with several spike-like nails at least a foot long and said they would be ideal for poking in the ground to find buried treasure. Convincing us that Mr. Colby, being a rich man, had to have money buried in his yard, he led us anxiously over the low fence where we proceeded to vainly jab holes all over Mr. Colby’s beautiful lawn.
Although Pepsi and Coca-Cola were the main sodas back then, Pop Cola proved to be the popular seller in our neighborhood. Taste was not the reason, nor price—all soft drinks cost five cents. Greed drove our preference. Numbers were printed in red under the cork in each cap. A 7 or 11 entitled you to a free Pop Cola. Booster, more than once successfully altered a 1 or a 17 into a 7 or an 11 artistically enough with nail polish to fool a proprietor.
Someone had built a “clubhouse” in the narrow space between the back of Claud’s garage and the fence behind it. The roof was so low we had to crawl into it on hands and knees; however it had a small doorway and window. I remember being in it only once, but once was enough. One night we sat inside with our backs to the door, listening to Booster tell a ghost story called the “The 13th Step”—I think he made it up as he went along—while eerie shadows cast by the kerosene lamp danced all around us. Every few sentences, he would pause, a frightened look suddenly appearing on his face, and he would say in hushed tones, “Did y’all hear that?” “What, Booster? What?” “Footsteps.” “We didn’t hear nothin’.” Wide-eyed, we began looking around uneasily. The look of sheer terror that froze on Booster’s face another sentence later would have alone been sufficient for us to say, “Feet, help the body!” However, when he looked past us through the door and yelled, “He’s at the door!!” the instinct of survival propelled the four of us as one body through the door. My next remembrance is standing on Claud’s front porch, holding on to my brother and him holding on to me.
It’s funny how the learning of a new word can stick in your mind. Claud managed the Glyn Myra Methodist Church baseball team. One day, while standing on his steps, his players standing on the sidewalk looking up at him, he gave them a pep talk about the upcoming season. He added that the team needed uniforms and that all donations would be greatly appreciated. For a long time afterward I went around wondering what “donations” were.
Sometime during 1935 Ola and Will moved to the next to the last house on Buckman, an unpaved, hard-packed street that dead-ended into 7th. It was a move of only three blocks so they were still in close proximity of all the relatives. Eddie lived on Lambert, the street behind them, on the opposite end of the block. Most of my early memories center around these two houses. My brother and I were constantly shuttling back and forth between Eddie’s house and Ola’s, eating and sleeping at whichever one we happened to be whenever the appropriate time for those events came.
I drove by Eddie’s old house in recent years while visiting in Jacksonville, and it appeared so much smaller to my eye than it did 70 years before. Back then, the living room, which ran the full width of the house, seemed almost as large as a basketball court. A large tapestry hanging above an over-stuffed sofa at the living room’s back wall greeted the eyes upon entering the front door. The first radio I remember seeing, a floor model with an arched shaped top, sat by the front window to the right. I remember Jacksonville having only one radio station then, WJAX. Every day, precisely at noon, it broadcast live the blowing of Big Jim, a booming steam whistle located downtown. If you were outside, you could hear it without a radio.
My brother and I were constantly plagued by “risings,” a colloquialism for boils, on various parts of our anatomy. I’m not surprised that we got these infections when I recall some of the places in which we skinny-dipped with our cousins. The minute Aunt Margie spotted one on us, which was usually while checking to make sure we had bathed more than we had played in the tub, she began her never-fail procedure for ridding us of it. She would first monitor it daily until it grew deep red. She would then affix a poultice consisting of fatback—a thick, salty piece of fatty bacon—and some kind of salve to it with strips of cloth. A big whitehead of pus would appear at the peak of the rising in a day or two, signaling Margie to reach for her pincushion. The minute we saw the needle in her hand we began crying and pleading and making excuses to escape the impending pain. Usually, cajoling, then threats, coerced us into submission. Rarely did we gain a reprieve, and then only until Eddie got home from work and locked us in his strong grip. After sterilizing the needle point over a burning match, she pricked the head until pus began oozing forth. Then, placing her thumbs at each side of the rising’s base, she gently mashed until most of the blood and pus came oozing out, leaving the tip of the core exposed. Because of her expertise in extracting the core, Margie stood head and shoulders over all the others who had attempted to treat our risings. Most others kept on mashing, trying to get the core to pop out, which they seldom did. Or they tried to pick it out with the needle. Margie’s method was as fascinating as it was effective. Holding a piece of doubled sewing thread between the thumb and forefinger of each hand, she eased it down until the two strands straddled the core’s tip. Then she spun the thread, catching the core firmly in the grip of the twisted strands. She then simply lifted the thread up, pulling out the core cleanly and painlessly.
I cannot remember owning a pair of shoes until I was in the second grade, which is another story. However, knowing how our Grandma Sessions in Brunswick was, I am certain she made sure we had them during our brief early stays with her. While staying with Eddie and Ola, we went barefooted. In the summer the bottoms of our feet became as hard and tough as shoe leather from treading the hot dirt of the streets in our neighborhood. Because its ruts were of a soft sand in which our feet sunk down into, walking barefooted on 7th Street in the summer was an impossibility. When it was absolutely necessary to traverse 7th, we used two pieces of cardboard as stepping stones, alternately moving each forward as we stepped. Going barefooted, we constantly inflicted our feet with sandspur stickers, glass cuts, and nail punctures. The nails were often rusty. Yet, I did not have a tetanus shot until ten years later. No matter where our misfortunes occurred or what time of day, we somehow or another managed to grit our teeth and continue our pursuits until we had just enough time to get to Eddie’s by the time he got home from work. When he pulled his Jacksonville Gas Company truck into the driveway and saw one of us sitting on his steps holding a foot—now more damaged by our unabated use of it than by the initial injury—moaning and crying and awaiting his sympathy and treatment, he knew to bring the first aid kit out of the truck.
Let me interject here that an aroma somewhere between solder and cooking gas permeated the air within several feet of Eddie when he had on his work clothes. Even today, I’m still conditioned to think of him when I smell an odor anywhere akin to it.
After washing off the wound under the yard spigot, Eddie beat on each side of it with a small lath board to “bleed out the bad blood,” as he would say. Fetching a small cotton encased vial from the first aid kit, he would crush it. I always found it fascinating to watch the cotton covering slowly turn the color of the iodine. He then coated the wound with the iodine, making sure he got plenty down into the hole of the wound. I attribute the high threshold I’ve had to pain most of my life to enduring all the cuts, bruises, and punctures—not to mention the excruciating sting of iodine. To protect the wound, Eddie covered it with a gauze pad and secured it with white surgical tape or tied it on with strips of gauze. Usually, he confined us to the house for the rest of the evening to allow healing to get a good start. Before leaving for work the next morning, he would always admonish us to sit out the day and give the injury a good rest. Talk about falling on death ears—as soon as his truck turned onto 8th Street, we would hobble off down the road in search of adventure to fill the new day. Within the hour the bandage would be gone and the wound would be jammed with dirt.
Some of my first encounters with nature’s small creatures occurred in Eddie’s yard. I used to spend hours watching dirt-daubers, a kind of wasp, dig small, round holes deep into the hard yellow ground to mine dirt for fashioning their pipe shaped nests under the eaves of the house. Every summer evening, a banana spider, one of the most hideous looking creatures young eyes have ever seen, spun an enormous web between the posts at one end of Eddie’s porch. Once completing it, the spider positioned himself on a very pronounced zigzag in the web’s center where he waited to pounce on any winged creature unfortunate enough to stick himself on the spider’s handiwork. Eddie looked upon this mini-monster as a friend of man that had been placed on earth to help keep the local pest population at a low level and would not allow anyone to disturb the web. My inclination was—and still is—there is no such thing as a harmless snake or spider. Even if they are of a variety that can’t hurt you, they can make you hurt yourself. By morning the spider had reeled in every inch of the web and disappeared into some crevice to rest until sundown approached again. Others of the same species built webs out in the yard between trees and bushes and anything else of sufficient height. While playing chase one evening I wheeled around a bush and smack into a web. My nose struck right in the middle of the zigzag. I almost flailed my arms out of their sockets trying to knock the demon away before he bit off my face as I ran screaming to Eddie. He nonchalantly plucked the monster off the top of my head and deposited it on a bush. I didn’t sleep well that night.
Directly across Lambert Street, which was paved with crushed oyster shells, lived E. T. Davis, who was about my brother’s age. We played with him almost every day. Almost every day, one of us ran home crying. On one day, Margie would vow that we could never play with E. T. again. On the next , Mrs. Davis would vow that E. T. could never play with us again. Quite often, other kids in the neighborhood played with us, but I remember the name of only one of them: Billy Wheeler.
I’ve always had a pretty fair throwing arm, for distance, not accuracy. I started developing it in what was known in the neighborhood as “The Brick War”. The War was waged between kids on Lambert Street and the kids on Jones Street, the next street over. It wasn’t an ongoing war, however skirmishes would flare up about once a week. I don’t know how they would start. All of a sudden we would be throwing good-sized chunks of brick all the way across the block at each other. Vacant lots abundant in cactus flanked Eddie’s yard. In the heat of one battle, I forgot this fact and ran into one of the lots to retrieve some of the missiles thrown by the other side to throw back at them and spent the next hour watching Margie pull needle like spines from my feet with tweezers.
A one-armed man lived in the house on the other side of the vacant lot to the right of Eddie’s house. Watching him, I began learning that people who are considered handicapped usually accomplish more than those who aren’t. He would be in his yard every day doing something you would think he couldn’t do. I saw him chop wood with an ax, work on his automobile, build a fence, and paint his house.
My brother started the first grade at Northeast Springfield Elementary School at the corner of 10th and Franklin, ten blocks away from Eddie’s. When he came home the first day, I asked what he liked best about school. He said he liked recess best. When I asked what recess was, he said he wasn’t going to tell me. I followed him all over Eddie’s house and yard begging him to tell me, but he would laugh and say he wasn’t going to tell me. Soon, I could take his taunting refusals no longer. I grabbed him and wrestled him to the ground. We rolled around in the dirt, him on top one minute and me on top the next, until Margie pulled us apart. Tussling had become a part of our daily routine and would continue to be until we were almost grown. He had learned how to get under my skin—it didn’t take much—and he found great pleasure in using the ability to the fullest. He was always saying something like, “You can’t go with us ‘cause you’re too little,” or would step on play roads I had made in the dirt for my scrap-wood cars, or would divide unevenly a candy bar he, being the oldest, had been designated to divide between us.
I had my little repertoire of provocation’s that included threatening to snitch on him to Ola or Eddie for his misdeeds. Some of our readiness to scuffle stemmed from our older cousins often putting boxing gloves on us and making us fight in spite of our mutual aversion to getting punched in the face. I don’t want to convey the idea that we constantly lived at each other’s throats. Except for about an hour a day, we got along fabulously. I couldn’t have picked a better person to be my brother.
Periodically, Eddie took us to Koon’s Barbershop on Phoenix Avenue for haircuts. When I see the price of haircuts today, I marvel that Koon’s charged a quarter and then gave a ticket to get a free Popsicle at Koon’s Grocery next door.
Modesty was an important word in those days. On one haircut trip, while we were sitting on Koon’s steps sucking on our Popsicles, a young woman in shorts came strolling along the sidewalk across the street. An older woman sitting on a porch got up and followed her for half a block while loudly berating her for wearing shorts in public.
Up until this time, the only time I remember being in church was at my sister’s funeral in Norfolk, and I don’t remember seeing a Bible or anyone reading to me from one. Yet I was very much aware that God existed. The reason I knew He existed was because I couldn’t see how all the wonderful, orderly, beneficial things existing in even my small little world could have created themselves, and I still don’t. This feeling was strong enough in me that when I was no more than six and staying at Eddies, some Sunday mornings, on my own, I would get myself ready and walk by myself the block and a half to where the white steepled Glyn Myra Methodist Church faced down Lambert Street where Lambert ends at 9th. I don’t remember anything in particular the preacher said, but I vividly recall sitting near the back, to the left, and I remember the others singing hymns; I did not know any hymns at that time, and I hadn’t yet learned to read.
Little beyond the bare necessities had gone into the building of the house Ola and Aunt Will rented on Buckman Street. Rectangular, its outer walls were gray clapboard with windows and doors trimmed in black. A wall of unpainted tongue and groove boards divided the inside of the house into two approximately 18 by 20 feet rooms. Walls inside the house were not ceiled. Consequently the wall studs, the inside of the clapboard, and the ceiling joists were exposed. In addition to a door between the two rooms, each of the two rooms had a door opening out onto the small porch centered along the front of the house. With its left end to the street, the house faced a house identical to it across a sandy yard.
The room toward the street served as the bedroom. Will’s bed was next to the window overlooking the porch steps. Ola’s was across from it under the window on the opposite wall. A trunk with a thick stack of well-crafted quilts on top of it sat against the wall between the foot of Will’s bed and the door to the porch. A tall, heavy, wooden chifforobe stood against the wall opposite the foot of Ola’s bed. All the clothes my brother and I owned—no more than three pairs of short pants and one shirt apiece—were kept in the bottom of the chifforobe. Neither of has had—or needed—shoes at that time. Ola and Will’s meager collection of clothes hung from a rod in the top of the chifforobe.
When we stayed at Ola’s, house, we slept with her. Her bed was wrought iron and had a thick, almost shapeless, feather mattress resting on flat springs that were common back then. To this day I sleep partially on my stomach on the right side of the bed. I developed this sleeping posture on Ola’s bed. It took me many years to get out of the habit of gripping the side of the mattress with one hand, a habit also acquired while sleeping with Ola. She slept in the middle with my brother on her left and me on her right. Her weight caused the soft mattress to sink way down, leaving us clinging to the sides to keep from rolling down into the deep valley her plump body had created. Some winter nights were unbearably cold at the opposite end of the house from the only source of heat for the two rooms, a fireplace. Wee hours, when the burning wood or coal had dwindled down to embers, were especially cold. On such nights, Ola piled on so many quilts that we could hardly breathe from their weight. On extremely cold nights, I would let go of the mattress’ edge and roll down into the warm valley next to Ola’s body
A cat took up around the house—with constant enticement from my brother and me. We hounded Ola until she let us claim it as our first very own pet. We chose the name “Paw Cat” and, before long, we cajoled Ola into letting it sleep on the foot of the bed. When cold weather set in, we found that Paw Cat became an excellent foot-warmer when allowed under the cover at our feet. Paw Cat’s name and bed privileges changed abruptly one night when we awoke to find our feet surrounded by a litter of newly born kittens. From then on we called her “Maw Cat.”
Winter nights were no where near as cold as summer nights were hot. Air conditioning was an unknown concept to most people, at least out our way. The closest thing to it was leaving windows and doors open to allow some movement of air should a breeze stir in the night. Many houses had screens. Ola’s didn’t. Of course, an open window is an invitation for more that just air to come in. Many nights we had to choose which to let keep us awake, heat or mosquitoes. Mosquitoes would manage to find us no matter how dark the night. Ike and Mike jokes were in vogue then as moron jokes followed by Pollock jokes would become in later years. One such joke had Ike and Mike lying in bed while being eaten up by mosquitoes. Ike says to Mike, “Let’s turn off the light and hide under the cover so they can’t find us!” A little later, Mike says to Ike. “Peek out and see if they’re gone.” Ike peeks out and sees a swarm of lightening bugs. “It’s no use, Mike, they’ve got lanterns and are hunting us.”
Flies also came in the open windows and doors. They apparently cannot see in the dark because they never molested us during the night. They waited until daylight to begin their torment. I would be into my deepest sleep when I gradually become aware of a tickling on my nose. By subconscious reflex I would brush it off. Then I would feel it on my cheek. Then my leg . . . and so on until sheer aggravation forced my eyes open, and I would see the pesky little varmint a few inches away, on my arm. I would repeatedly slap at him in vain as he flitted from one area of exposed skin to another. In desperation, I would pull the sheet on which I was lying—two sheets on a bed was a luxury I didn’t experience until much later in life—over my head and doze off until the heat of being covered awakened me.
Some mornings when tickling brought me out of a sound sleep, I would wake to find the pesky little varmint to be my brother dragging a broom straw across my face and grinning widely at little brother’s gyrations. Our day would be off to a roaring start.
Some nights, when the pillow got hot and sweaty next to my face, I would turn it over every few minutes to get the other side, which by then would be cooler and drier, to my face.
We went to bed most nights before Ola and Will. Utter exhaustion from all the activities my brother and I engaged in during the day would have me asleep almost from the moment I felt the soft feathers embracing me. If I stayed awake for any length of time lying in the near darkness, my hyperactive imagination would fashion some sound or sight into a threat to my physical or emotional well being. The steam locomotive whistles off in the distance were a common sound at night. Each combination of their toots had specific meanings to trainmen. One particular combination heard almost every night was mournful beyond description. I wish I knew how to use letters of the alphabet to reproduce it on paper. There’s an old train song that describes it as a “lonesome whistle.” Just hearing it could make you feel like you were all alone in the world. Each time I heard it, I thought about my late father and baby sister and how much I missed being part of a real family. I cried myself to sleep on those nights.
On winter nights, flickering flames in the fireplace in the other room projected the shadows of Ola and Will, who were still up and hovering near the fireplace, through the opening above the wall separating the two rooms and transformed them into grotesque monsters peering down at me from the rafters. I was not alone in my nights of despair and fear. My brother and I fell asleep many nights holding on to each other.
My wonder at the immensity of the universe—a wonder that proved to be the first steps toward the faith I now hold—had its beginning in Ola’s bed. On clear nights I could look up through the curtainless window and see the stars. As I stared up at the night sky, I would often wonder what was beyond the stars at the end of the universe. Would whatever marked its end be like a wall, or the edge of a cliff, or what? After much thought, I would conclude that whatever was at its end, there had to be something beyond it—everything had something beyond it. But if it had something beyond the end of it, then the universe didn’t really end, or did it? My little mind would soon become so knotted up and tired that I would fall asleep before reasoning it all out. I have repeated this exercise in awe countless nights on my own bed—as recent as last night—and it still boggles my mind.
One summer night, we received the scare of our lives. A sudden rap at one of the bedroom windows not long after we all were almost asleep was frightening enough, but when we looked toward the window, we saw a hideous apparition staring in, bringing simultaneous screams of terror from Will and Ola. The apparition spoke. “Have y’all seen Charles?” Charlie Mainor was out later than he was supposed to be. His father, Matt, out looking for him, had shined his flashlight on his face to identify himself. If you’ve ever seen someone hold a flashlight below his chin and shine it straight upward across his face, you can understand why we thought we had seen an apparition.
Charlie was the Huckleberry Finn of his time and place. A book could be written of his exploits just in the short period I spent in his company as a young kid. At home, under watchful eyes of his older siblings, you could almost see his halo, like with the rest of our gang when we were in the presence of those to whom we were accountable. The few exploits of his I’ve chosen to recite at various places on this web site are not in chronological order. I can’t remember their order. My brother and I spent the first Christmas I can recall at Ola’s. Charles came by that evening and helped shoot firecrackers Uncle Eddie had bought. Ola and Will detested fireworks and were ensconced in their rockers warming themselves in front of the fireplace. Charlie climbed up on the roof and dropped firecrackers down the chimney. He made it a night to remember.
I almost helped bring in the first New Year’s I can remember a few evenings later. I say “almost” because I didn’t quite make it. When I first started hearing talk about New Year’s, I asked Ola what it was. She told me that at midnight on New Years Eve, everything changed. I asked, “Everything?” She nodded. So, on New Year’s Eve, as soon as it got dark, I went outside and sat on the steps and intently watched the sky, waiting to see the moon and stars change. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in Ola’s bed New Year’s morning and was amazed to see that everything looked as it had every other morning.
We helped every few weeks carry mattresses from both beds outside and drape them over the clothesline for sunning. In the meantime, Ola would ignite the end of a piece of rolled up newspaper and run it under every inch of the bed springs to eradicate any bedbugs that may have taken up residence on them. I seldom hear mention of bedbugs anymore, but back then they and cooties—another name for lice—frequented even the best of homes. All the kids sang a song about them:
up this morning and looked upon the wall—
We sometimes added this chorus:
Oh, it ain’t gonna rain no more,
I can shake only one more recollection of Ola’s bed from this old memory, and it is something that happened under it, not in it. Cousin Bill Kinsey, now working at the cigar factory where his two older sisters Mildred and Leona worked, came by one Saturday to visit. Sitting on the porch, he pulled out a cigar, lit it, and told my brother he would give him a nickel—which was a fair amount of money then—to smoke it. My brother puffed away on it like a grown man, without any ill effects. At my insistence, I received the same offer. I took a long drag. Between the smoke I had sucked in and couldn’t get back out fast enough and the juice that ran down into my stomach, I suddenly became a sick little boy. I crawled through the open door into the bedroom and under Ola’s bed where I threw up all under it. I made such a wide-spread mess that they had to pull me through it to get me out. I think Ola would have been furious at her favorite nephew anyway for enticing us to smoke and for making me sick. But his laughter while stooping down to watch me turn several shades of green under the bed got him banished from the house until his mother, Etha, sent him back to apologize.
The other room served as a kitchen, dining room, parlor, and den. It had a small fireplace midway along its end wall that kept the house reasonably comfortable most winter nights. On extremely cold nights, cold enough to freeze water in the commode of the little bathroom added almost as an afterthought to the back end of the house, its heat radiated scarcely beyond the perimeter of the hearth. On these nights, just before going to bed, Ola and Will would back up to the fireplace, lift up the backs of their long gowns, and fill them with warm air to take to bed with them.
My brother and I were charged with keeping the fireplace supplied with coal from a large bin outside the back door. We were supposed to split kindling for starting fires, but my brother always managed to avoid the chore, leaving me holding the ax. Even at five years of age I wielded a mean ax splitting a piece of “fat lightering” into kindling. Fat lightering was an easy-to-ignite piece of pine from the part of the tree that was rich in turpentine. Kindling was usually placed in the fireplace on top of balled up newspaper. Lumps of coal were placed on top of the kindling. The fire was started by striking a match to the paper. The burning paper would ignite the kindling and the kindling would ignite the coal. When kindling not so rich in turpentine was used, kerosene had to be poured on it to coax its ignition.
Electric cords made of pairs of twisted rubber coated wires covered with green fabric hung from the middle rafters of the two rooms. Light sockets with turn type switches were on the ends of the cords. Only when company stayed beyond daylight or a needle was dropped on the floor were the low-watt bulbs in the sockets turned on. Ola and Will elected to use kerosene lamps for lighting. I don’t know what prompted this election. I didn’t wonder about it then. Perhaps experience had taught them that kerosene light was cheaper than electric lighting. It certainly wasn’t more convenient. I know what I am talking about when I say this because lamp maintenance was another chore relegated to my brother and me. It was a threefold task. First of all, the lamps had to be kept filled. We did this in the yard so that we would not get kerosene on the floor while pouring it through a funnel into the lamp base from a heavy, cumbersome kerosene can. We always managed to get some on the lamp bases and had to wipe them dry with an old rag kept on hand for that purpose. Secondly, the tall lampshades of delicately thin glass routinely became smoked up on the inside and had to be handled with utmost care while washing them with soapy water and rinsing and drying them. I broke a few in the line of duty, not from carelessness, but from trying to be too careful. Lastly, the wicks, which gradually hardened on their burning end, making them difficult to light, had to be trimmed periodically with a pair of scissors.
Most cooking stoves I remember were fired by either wood or kerosene. Ola’s used kerosene. Keeping its one-gallon tank filled was another of our chores. After filling it in the yard we replaced it in its holder on the end of the stove by flipping it upside down in such a way that the pin in its cap interfaced into a hole in the holder so that fuel would flow out.
A tall metal kitchen cabinet stood between the stove and the sink. Most houses I saw back then had such cabinets. Custom made wooden kitchen cabinets common in houses of today were not yet in vogue, at least not with poor folks. Ola’s cabinet had drawers for silverware and shelves for china and pots and pans. It also had a flour bin with a sifter on the bottom of it. The sifter consisted of a screen and wire. The wire was rotated across the screen by a crank handle to break up lumps in the flour. The sifter hung a few inches above a white enameled metal work area used for preparing foods for cooking. Ola had worn the white of this area pretty thin rolling dough on it. A superb cook, she delighted in fixing goodies for my brother and me.
Eddie bought Ola’s groceries each week when he bought his own at Daylight Grocery on Phoenix Avenue. Sometime, we got to go with him and ride in the back of the gas company pickup truck. Instead of bags, the groceries were placed in cardboard boxes in which merchandize had been received. He paid for the groceries out of his meager salary. Most people’s salaries were meager back then, so he bought only items of genuine necessity. Nothing for making goodies. However, the WPA—Work Progress Administration, a government program designed to help the country to recover from the depression—provided goodie-making material. The program provided a box of selected groceries once a month to families in need—which seemed like every family out our way. A truck dropped them off at Mann’s Grocery, up the block at the corner of 8th and Buckman, on a set day of the month. My brother and I were dispatched to fetch ours. Among other items, the box usually contained a slab of white-side bacon, a bag of graham flour, several cans of condensed milk, a bag of Irish potatoes, and a bag of dried apples. Before the day expired, Ola had transformed the rind of the bacon into cracklings in a pan of hot cracklin’-bread; the dried apples and graham flour into apple turnovers; the condensed milk—mixed with water and vanilla extract and shaken in a jar of ice—into vanilla milk shakes, or a reasonable similarity; and the potatoes, sliced razor thin and round, soaked in cold water, and dropped into a skillet of hot grease, into French fries, the likes of which I have seen duplicated since by only one other person. That one night of the month, we slept with pooched out stomachs and smiles on our faces.
Ola sometimes baked doughnuts or parched peanuts for my brother and I to sell to workers at the few businesses in our neighborhood. This was the first job my brother and I had involving remuneration, and we always sold them all.
Next to the cabinet, a one spigot—which was the same type spigot used in the yard—sink with a wooden drain board sat under the wall’s one window. As hot water had to be manufactured in a dishpan over a stove burner, it was limited to dish washing and winter bath taking.
They had no bathtub. My brother and I bathed in a large wash tub set on newspapers in front of the fireplace. A dishpan of hot water would be poured into it. By the time cold water was added to finish filling the tub, the water would be barely lukewarm. One tub full had to suffice for both our baths. We took turns being first. In the winter, the second guy would keep yelling for the first guy to hurry before the water got cold. Sometimes, the first guy would purposely dawdle to antagonize the other. I had a knack of getting grimier than my brother got each day. On days I bathed first, he would have been cleaner had he not taken a bath.
A small wooden icebox stood next to the sink. Eddie brought a block of ice by every few days. It would seldom last until the next time, especially in the summer, between the heat and our chipping away at it to make “milk shakes” and “cherry wine” made from wild cherries from the tree in the back yard. What little supply of meat that happened to be in the icebox when the ice expired had to be cooked to keep it from spoiling. Consequently, there were evenings when we had meals of nothing but meat and some on which we had no meat from having eaten it all on earlier evenings. The icebox had a drip hole in its bottom as an outlet for the water melting off the ice. The hole was centered over a funnel stuck in a hole drilled in the floor so that the water would go under the house.
An old pedal Singer sewing machine stood under the window at the center of the front wall. Ola and Will were gifted seamstresses. When our meager wardrobes got low—down to one pair of short pants each instead of three, she would rip out one of her old dresses and convert it into the needed apparel. We were allowed to try our hands at the machine. I had difficulty reaching the pedal, but I still managed to learn how to sew two pieces of cloth together with acceptable stitches. Because of Ola’s poor eyesight, threading needles was another regular chore my brother and I had.
A solid oak buffet adorned with spindles and a mirror occupied most of the wall space between the sewing machine and the rear door. The buffet and the large table and its chairs in the center of the room comprised an expensive dining room suit Grandfather Owen Braddock, who Ola always referred to as “Mr. Braddock,” had bought when my father was a boy. Ola cherished it and polished it every few days. In addition to the drawer containing the few reminders of my father, two other drawers were the repository of all that remained of Ola’s happy years before her “Mr. Braddock” died at the age of forty-four.
The house contained two other pieces of furniture. Ola and Will each had what was called “granddaddy rocking chairs”. The chairs had high backs, wide, ornate arms, and extremely long rockers. It took some mean rocking to turn one over, and I did some mean rocking in them a few times. They also had wide seats—a good thing because Ola and Will were broad across the beam. The chairs migrated from hearthside to the porch when winter ended. If the wind blew rain up into the porch, they would be temporarily retracted, one just inside the kitchen/dining room door and the other into the bedroom door. So, inclement weather never interfered with their rocking. They did most of their talking while rocking, and their talking sometimes degenerated into heated arguments. Some of the names I heard them call one another kept the wax burnt out of my ears. I haven’t heard some of the invectives they used since.
Both women dipped snuff, as did all their siblings. My brother and I were sent a couple of times a week up to Mann’s store with the mission to bring back a five-cent tin or two of snuff. Brands I can remember them using were Scotch Sweet, Tube Rose, Buttercup, and their favorite, Railroad Mills. Even after all these years, my mind’s eye can still see them pour a lid full, and then pull out their lower lip with one hand while depositing the lid full between their lower lip and their teeth. I guess, if you had an addiction to tobacco, snuff was a better choice than cigarettes. For one thing, a tin of snuff cost five cent while a pack of cigarettes cost twenty. Whatever the pleasure a smoker finds in a cigarette is over after a few minutes of puffs, while whatever the pleasure a dipper finds in sucking a lip full of snuff through the teeth lasts for hours. Snuff doesn’t have the second-hand smoke problem of cigarettes that is such a big issue in modern times; however, it has the second hand spit problem, a problem I was victim of more than once. When Ola and Will were in the house, they had spit cans in which to spit “used” snuff, which was no problem to me. When they sat in their rocking chairs on the porch, they spit off the edge of the porch, which sometimes was a problem to me. Ola’s house had no underpinning. The soft, dry, sand under it was much like sand found in dunes at the beach, but finer and of a darker color. Under her house was one of my favorite places to play on rainy or excessively hot days or when no other adventures were afoot. Not being able to rise beyond hands and knees limited playing under the house to two activities. One was making roads and “driving” cars made from scrap wooden blocks over them. I even built railroad tracks by tacking dried coffee bean stalks as rails on pieces of one by four boards. I made railroad cars by tacking snuff can lids as wheels on small pieces of boards. Adding a block of wood and a snuff can on its side to the top of the block made a locomotive. On more than one occasion, absorbed in make-believe, I ventured from under the edge of the porch just as Ola or Will spit out a mouthful of snuff juice and got splattered.
Another under-the-house activity I enjoyed was catching doodlebugs. Doodlebug is another name for ant lion, although my dictionary says it's the larva of the ant lion. A doodlebug lives in a cone-shaped hole—I should say under the hole—in the soft sand just underneath the point of the cone. When an unsuspecting ant comes sauntering along the edge of the cone and looses his traction on dry, unstable grains of sand and tumbles down into the bottom of the hole, the doodlebug springs out and grabs him. Catching doodlebugs requires two items. The first is a small stick—usually a twig—to stir around in the holes as you repeatedly say, “Doodle bug, doodle bug, your house is on fire. Come out,” to entice the doodlebug to come up to investigate. The second is a glass jar containing sand in which to put captured doodlebugs. A glass jar is preferred so that you can watch them move around in the sand—the only benefit derived from catching them.
A tall wild cherry tree grew in the back, left corner of Ola’s yard. We climbed it only when its small berry-like fruit began turning from red to purple. Then, we spent the better part of a day wending our way through the slender but tough limbs radiating as thick as porcupine quills from the trunk, filling round oatmeal boxes hanging from our shoulders by twine—as Ola called string—with plump wild cherries. We emptied our day’s take of berries into a large canning jar, mashed them to a pulp, and added water and sugar and ice to make a cherry-ade like drink. We then downed our several hours’ effort in a few quick gulps. And though we would never admit it, the stuff didn’t taste that great. Cousin Charlie Mainor helped in one harvest and suggested we make wine from the cherries we collected. This sounded to us like a feat only grownups could accomplish. Not so, Charlie assured us. All we had to do after mixing sugar and water was to screw the lid on real tight and bury the jar until the wine was “done.” We buried it under the edge of the back end of the house where no wine poacher would stumble upon it. After an hour of playing in the woods across the tracks, my brother asked if it were done yet. With a serious expression on his face, Charlie reminded us that it took a long time for wine to get “done.” Another hour later we got the same answer to the same question. When the question was asked again sometime later, we earnestly studied Charlie’s face as he pondered our question with the air of a Gallo. His affirmative pronouncement sent us racing back to the burial site. After clawing the jar from its crypt, we each took a long swig, draining the final drop of “fully aged wine.” We all swore among ourselves and to other of our young friends that it had tasted like real wine—although none of had seen or tasted real wine—and had made us stagger around.
Blackberries were another wild fruit we harvested. In early spring their runners could be seen starting to creep out from under other growth. Within the week, their briery tentacles engulfed every vacant lot and untended field in the neighborhood. Each time we saw a patch we hadn’t seen before, we included its location in our goings about each day so we could monitor the progress of its fruit. Blackberries begin small and green every few inches along the vines, and sometimes in small clusters. They soon start turning red, a few at a time. Then, before they all became red, some of the red ones begin turning black. For awhile, berries of all three colors—green, red, and black— adorn the vines. When I say their ultimate color is black, I mean black, like ink-black. Plump and luscious, they range in size from the joint of a man’s little finger to that of the end joint of his thumb. At first sign of black ones in the patches, every kid in the neighborhood old enough to walk would be out picking, trying to get as many as he could before other kids or birds got them. More and more ripened every day until practically every one in every patch on every vine was shiny black. As they ripened, the number of pickers and the intensity with which we picked increased proportionately. I can remember seeing as many as 25 kids in one patch, their feet moving swiftly but with caution among the brier laden vines that were waist-deep in places while their fingers plucked berries at machine-like precision and speed.
Blackberry picking was not a childhood diversionary activity. It was a joint venture of mothers—grandmother in our case—and children. We were sent out with containers and an admonition to watch out for snakes, which were known to be also fond of blackberries. However, in spite of all Ola’s warnings, I can’t recall seeing the first snake lurking under the vines. We all went willingly, not viewing our part in the venture as a chore. We knew the fruits of our labor would be translated into a delectable dessert called blackberry cobbler, which we would share in the enjoyment of for the next several days. All our pickings, however, didn’t make it to the baking pan. We all raked a percentage off the top, 50% the first day—one in the container, one in the mouth—the mouth being the receptacle in which most of the juicier ones went. The rake-off dropped to one out of three the second day, then rapidly dwindled to one out of ten by the time the vines were all picked out. Even with our rake-off, it is no exaggeration to say my brother and I would bring home two dishpans full a day. As a byproduct of my blackberry picking adventures, I became quite adept at using a needle and tweezers to pick briers from my flesh without wincing.
Sour-grass is another wild-growing taste treat of early spring. It can be found in patches in vacant lots and fields and along roadsides. A useless weed to all who aren’t indoctrinated in the joy of sour-grass chewing, its stalk, of a diameter between a drinking straw and a pencil, grows to knee high. Its celery-like texture chews best and its juice is tastier soon after the stalk turns red. Unlike blackberries, one does not normally go looking for sour-grass. Nor does one pick it in abundance. The usual routine is to be walking along alone or with a group of other guys and casually reach down and break off a stalk to chew as you go along your way. If the patch is the first you’ve encountered since last spring, you may stop and chew awhile until your long dormant sour-grass taste bud is fully resurrected. Chewing sour-grass is much like chewing sugar cane, but on a smaller scale. After chewing all its juice out, you spit out the pulp. Not sweet like sugar cane, its sour, tangy taste, however, is delectable to the tongue. Once you’re addicted to its taste, you don’t outgrow it. Even at my present age, I feel the urge, when I see a patch alongside the road, to stop the car and grab a stalk or two, providing certain people aren’t around to admonish me about what birds or passing dogs may have done to it
The ground dropped off about two feet on the other side of 7th Street. A railroad track ran parallel to the street not far beyond the drop-off. The land beyond the track was fairly clear of vegetation for about a hundred yards before gradually turning into a mass of small trees and undergrowth covering an area at least fifty square blocks in size. The track ended at a fuel storage plant on Tallyrand. Locomotives taking tank cars to the plant backed them down the track. The dinging of the engine’s bell, the sound of its hissing steam, and sometimes a toot of its whistle alerted all the neighborhood kids that a train was coming, and we’d all hurry down to the track and stand beside it yelling, “Throw me a piece of chalk!” over and over as the locomotive passed. Without fail, one of the trainmen would throw right into the middle of us one of the big pieces of chalk used to mark on the boxcars. A mad scramble for this prize for which we really had no use would ensue.
We never considered the railroad tracks along 7th to be a dangerous place to play. Trains came down it only once or twice a week and never at a high speed. We all had sense enough to know to stand several feet back from the track when one passed. Most of us found watching steam locomotives a fascination. This fascination may be in my genes as my father’s father and brother, both of whom died before I was born, worked for Atlantic Coastline Railroad. A steam locomotive made all sorts of noises; the clang, clang, clang of its bell; the grinding, squeaking sounds its wheels made on the tracks, the hiss of steam escaping from valves; and its huffing and puffing as it labored to gain momentum after hooking onto a heavy string of cars. Smoke rings as round and as precise as barrel hoops would sometimes shoot skyward from the engine's stack in accompaniment with each huff and puff.
I guess our biggest activity at the tracks was rail walking—walking along on top of the metal rail. We walked them so much that we usually could walk as far as we wanted without falling off. I once walked a track from 8th Street all the way to King Edward cigar factory, a distance of a good half-mile. Another fun thing was laying pennies on one of the rails when a train was coming to see how flat the big wheels of the locomotive would mash them, which was pretty flat.
The wisdom we showed in giving moving trains a wide berth, we lacked in our reckless abandon in playing in and on boxcars and tank-cars left standing along the tracks from time to time. Each boxcar had a ladder at each end. We thought nothing of climbing up on top of boxcars and running along the narrow wooden walkways stretching the length of their tops and jumping the gap between one car and the next. One of my earliest stunning hurts came when I lay across the brake wheel at the top end of a boxcar and began spinning myself around on it and spun myself right off. I hit the ground between the tracks smack on top of my head. It took a few minutes to fully regain my senses.
Another set of tracks ran through the woods a couple a hundred yards beyond the 7th Street tracks. Sometimes, our playing in the woods took us to these tracks, especially if boxcars were standing on them. Boxcar wheels have square boxes called “journal boxes” close to where the wheels fit onto their axles. Journal boxes have spring-loaded, hinged doors to allow inserting masses of oily threads for lubricating the wheels. One cold day several of us cousins, including Buddy Harden, a couple of the Mainors, my brother and me, and Booster Kinsey, were playing in one of the boxcars that had a lot of packing straw lying around in it. Booster decided we should make a fire to warm ourselves. An old five-gallon lard can was pressed into service as a stove. At Boosters direction, we emptied all the boxcar’s journal boxes of their oily threads to use as fuel. All we needed was a match. No problem. Booster, while no more than twelve, was a closet smoker and always had at least one cigarette and a kitchen match or two concealed on his person. We soon had a rip-roaring fire going while we sat in a circle around the “stove” and listened to Booster and the older Mainors spin yarns. Surprisingly, in all the times I sat and listened to the older boys tell stories and talk about experiences, I don’t remember any of it being behind-the-barn type talk. Somehow, the “stove” was accidentally kicked over and the burning threads spilled into the loose straw. The last I can remember is seeing a mass of flailing arms trying to beat it out. Being the youngest and smallest, I was always the first one in the crowd to panic. I hit the ground outside the boxcar door running and did not stop until I stood in Buckman St. in front of Ola’s house watching flames leaping skyward above the treetops that blocked view of the boxcar itself. The sound of sirens coming from the distant side of the woods soon filled the air and, as I watched, the flames gradually were brought under control by water from the trucks’ fire hoses. One of the unanswered questions from my childhood that still hounds me is how the fire trucks got through all those thick woods
Boxcars on that track were a gathering place for men to play a gambling game called “bolita.” I seldom saw the men, but expended bolita tickets littered the tracks. Because of the fire and the bolita playing, railroad detectives became a more frequent sight in the area. One hot day, while four of us: Buddy Harden, Charlie Mainor, my brother and me, were skinny-dipping in a creek the 7th Street tracks crossed, we looked up to see two railroad detectives glaring down at us from the trestle. I can remember as if it were yesterday, seeing Charlie Mainor’s skinny, naked behind in front of me, his pants in his hands, streaking down the tracks well ahead of the rest of us.
The tracks ran the other way within four blocks of Main Street before curving off to the right to merge with the numerous tracks that crossed 8th and ran by the King Edward Cigar factory. As its name indicates, Main Street is—or was back then—Jacksonville’s main thoroughfare. US 17, the primary north/south highway along the East Coast of that day, ran through the middle of Jacksonville from the Trout River to the Main Street Bridge crossing the St. Johns River. Main Street’s main significance to me and my young contemporaries was the Capitol Theater located on the east side of Main, one building between it and 8th. Walking to it was a 16 block trip along 8th It was not unusual for some of the older cousins to hang on to the back of the last car of a slow moving train pulling cars from the Tallyrand plant until the train reached the curve, a ride of twelve of the sixteen blocks. I was a wee bit too small and scary to try that.
Any time we were able to scrounge up a dime each, the price of admission to the Saturday matinee at the Capitol Theater, five of us—Booster Kinsey, Charlie Mainor, Buddy Harden, my brother, and I—went. We walked, or skated, all the way there, except when some of them rode the back of a boxcar of the 7th Street express. A several storied building with side porches almost abutting the theater building stood between the theater and the corner. At the times we were not able to scrounge up fare for all of us, one of us would buy a ticket and go immediately to the second-floor men’s restroom, climb the skylight’s ladder, and unlatch the skylight. By then the rest of us were waiting at the skylight, having come up to the theater’s roof by way of the porch even with it.
Saturday matinee always featured a cowboy picture. Buck Jones, Bob Steele, Johnny Mack Brown, and Tom Mix were big western heroes back then. None of them ever failed to have a scene in which they pursued a runaway train, stagecoach, or truck and leapt from their horse onto it. They would then engage the villain in a fight all over the top of the wildly careening vehicle, their punches sounding like a baseball hitting a coconut. The villain would almost do them in several times by nearly pushing them off and under the wheels of the vehicle before the hero finally prevailed. Two chapter pictures—one of them was usually “Drums of Fu Manchu”—and three or four cartoons were also part of the deal. After sitting through all this, everyone exited through back doors leading into the alley behind the theater. On the way out, each received free, a soft drink and some kind of goodie: Moon Pie, jelly roll, raisin cake, or candy bar. Not a bad haul for two cents a person.
In 1936, I started the first grade at Northeast Springfield elementary school. My class was in the same room in which my brother had attended the first grade. My only remembrance of the first grade is that I somehow got my head caught in the desk, and the teacher had to extricate it. My brother reminded me of this scholarly accomplishment several times during the next few years.
Now that we were “older” our “playground” expanded to include the St. Johns River. The St. John’s, originating from lakes west of Melbourne, is one of the only two rivers in America that flow northward. We found adventure in the river from several points off Tallyrand near 8th. One was the potato dock. I assume they called it the potato dock because potatoes were loaded onto ships there, although I never saw a ship at the dock. I learned my first rudiments of swimming here by being thrown off the dock at the age of six by my older cousins while my brother cheered them on.
Another dock we swam off was at Wilson and Toomer Fertilizer Company on Tallyrand at the foot of 8th. The dock consisted of two long piers running parallel outward from the shore with a cross-pier connecting their ends. Some of the cousins “found” a raft at a work site down river and confiscated it for our use. It was made of a wooden platform attached to an oil drum at each end. Either side of the raft was up. We spent many hours playing on it in the safety of the shallow water between the cross-pier and the shore. One day, I made the mistake of putting my short pants—my only stitch of apparel—on the raft instead of the dock. The raft turned over numerous times during our hour or so of playing “king of the hill,” a game of seeing who could stay on the raft longest without being pushed off while pushing everyone else off. Being the smallest, I never came close to being the “king.” But I did manage to lose my pants during one of the many rolls of the raft. The pants weren’t thought of until we were ready to leave, so we had no idea where to look in the large area between the piers. After repeated dives failed to find them, someone found and old burlap fertilizer sack to wrap around me. Walking up 8th to Buckman and then down Buckman wrapped in a burlap sack was my first embarrassing experience that I can remember.
We swam some days at a beach-like clearing halfway between the potato dock and Wilson and Toomer. A small piling stood a short ways off the beach. Water at the piling was but waist deep to me when the tide was out. When it was in, water around it was well over my head. Some times, when I felt daring I would half swim and half dog paddle out to it, rest a minute, and then swim back. Environmental protection not being a concern back then, most cities with rivers emptied all their sewage into them through large metal sewer pipes. Such a sewage pipe jutted out into the water from one side of the clearing. We used the end of the pipe as a diving board and thought nothing of landing smack in the middle of all the items of raw sewage as vile as can be imagined which had discharged from it. Perhaps I’ve been pretty healthy all my life because of my body building up a strong immunity against the high-powered germs that infested the water around the end of the sewage pipe.
My brother and I weren’t always able to sneak off and join the cousin gang in whatever the day’s escapade would be. So we were surprised to learn when we arrived at the Wilson and Toomer dock one day that we now had a two-ship navy, and Buddy Harden had a knot on his head. While going along the river’s edge on the raft the previous day, they happened upon a dinghy under the edge of a high dock with its mooring rope disappearing up over the edge of the dock. Seeing no one around but not knowing if someone might be on the dock, they maneuvered the raft along under the edge of the dock until they got to the dinghy. With the edge of the raft protruding slightly from under the dock, Buddy slowly and quietly pulled on the dinghy’s rope. Suddenly, an anchor came over the dock’s edge and down onto Buddy’s head.
The purloined boat quickly became the vehicle of two of my best remembered childhood experiences, one comical, the other near tragic: Booster, imagining himself a junior Christopher Columbus, decided we would row the boat all the way across the St. John’s and “claim” Arlington, the area on the opposite shore, as our possession. With a full crew—Booster, Charlie, Buddy, my brother, and me—we set out. According to my computer map, the river is nearly a mile across at that point, a formidable distance for five young boys using old boards as oars to row while staying on course against the current of the St. John’s. After reaching more than halfway, the “admiral” decided we had better turn around. Not to be denied a conquest, he commanded that we take possession of a passing channel marker almost in our return path. I can hear his voice booming even now as it did then when we pulled up to the marker’s ladder, “You Braddock boys climb up and claim it in the name of the king!” Flattered that we were chosen for such an honor, we shinnied up the ladder like two monkeys going up a coconut tree. We reached the marker’s platform at least ten feet above the water and loudly claimed it for the king. Looking down for the admiral’s approval, we saw the boat pulling away from the ladder. “We’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow!” the “admiral” shouted. “But, I’ve got to go home and chop wood!” my brother immediately cried out. Laughing as they watched our squalling and carrying on, they rowed off a short distance. When they had gotten their fill of pleasure from scaring the living daylights out of us—and a little bit of other things with it—they returned and picked us up. The incident wasn’t funny to me that day, but I’ve laughed every time I’ve recalled what my brother had the nerve to say about chopping wood. I was the one who always ended up wielding the axe because he made himself scarce when wood chopping time rolled around.
For one who has survived as long as I have, I have had few brushes with death. One reason is that I have always appreciated this life I was given and, believing that God rewards caution, I have made a concentrated effort to avoid life-threatening situations. My first such brush, the second closest I’ve ever had—the first was being blown up on a shrimp boat at the age of nineteen—came as a result of while trying to avoid one peril I ended up in another. With Booster again in command a few days after our “Columbus” adventure, we embarked from the potato dock. We were rowing up-river when a large cargo ship passed within no more than a hundred feet. As the stern came abreast and we could see the vessel’s large propeller churning away, Booster nonchalantly commented, “They tell me those big propellers can suck a small boat into them and grind it into smithereens.” I looked at the monstrous propeller, which seemed to my panic-stricken eyes to be close enough to reach out and touch. I looked at the shore. A split-second determination told me I had a better chance of survival going for the shore. At least, death in drowning would be far less painful than being ground to pieces. Without a word, I dived over the side and started swimming, or my version of swimming, in which the arms did all the work. I can’t sit here and tell you the distance to shore. All I remember is it seemed like forever before I made it to where I was near the piling standing twenty or thirty feet off the aforementioned beach from which we sometimes swam. Totally exhausted and sure I had reached shallow water, I put my feet down to stand up. Gasping for air from my long swim, I unexpectedly went down and down, sucking in water, as I went. In my panic, I still had the, presence of mind to close my mouth and start flailing away with my arms. Thankfully, I popped to the surface within a few strokes of the piling. I wrapped myself tightly around it and held on with all my energy until the tide receded far enough that I could wade to shore. I had terrifying nightmares of the ordeal for months afterward.
The land beyond the 7th Street tracks, which consisted of a scrubby woods, overrun in the spring and summer with coffee-bean stalks and dog fennels taller than my head. was our second most popular arena of play. Trails through which we roamed laced the woods from Lambert Street all the way down to Danese.
Another expanse of woods in which we played lay next door to and behind the Harden’s house on 9th Street and was called Happy Hunting Grounds by all the kids. As said before, we almost never traveled in the same circles as M. C. as he was older and much bigger and had become known as “Hardrock” Harden because of his football exploits at Andrew Jackson High. However, one exploit involving him when I was about seven left a lasting impression on my brother and me. Late one afternoon, he invited us to join in on a “snipe hunt” on which, according to him, he and some of the older boys were going. Honored by the invitation, we followed them through the think jungle of Happy Hunting Ground to a small clearing in the very middle. He handed us a burlap bag and told us he and the others were going out and run the snipes into the clearing and for us to hold the bag open to catch them as they ran in. He and his assistant snipe hunters fanned out in several directions into the thicket. In a little while we heard them yelling and beating the bushes. Anxiously, we held the bag open, wondering how in the world the snipes would know to run into it. Soon, darkness came, and the yelling and beating sounds gradually faded into the distance and ceased altogether. Still, we continued in readiness. After a long while, we decided M. C. and the others weren’t coming back. We looked at each other and seeing the fear in each other’s eyes, without saying a word, we took off running. Within two minutes we were standing on the Harden’s porch with a new, straight-as-an-arrow, path blazed behind us from the center of Happy Hunting Ground to the Harden’s yard. Once you’ve been left holding the bag on a snipe hunt, you are qualified for the rest of your life to teach others the fine art of snipe hunting, which I have done on many occasions.
When we weren’t at our favorite playgrounds, the river and the woods, we managed to find other endeavors on which to expend our abundant energy. Some days we hung around the service station at the corner of 8th and Tallyrand. Like all stations of that era its gas pumps had large glass tanks atop them that had rulers with gallon increments marked on them. A driver would tell the station attendant the amount of gas he wanted to buy. Using a long, vertical handle protruding up the side of the pump, the attendant would pump the specified amount of fuel into the glass tank. He would then stick the nozzle of the pump hose into the car’s gas tank. By force of gravity, the gas ran from the glass tank into the car’s tank—at about 30¢ a gallon.
The station was not a busy place. In spite of being at the intersection of two major thoroughfares, cars were few and far between on the two streets. So, a checker tournament was always in progress among whoever happened to be hanging around. Even little kids like us got to play. The game board consisted of a piece of cardboard with squares drawn on it with a crayon. We used bottle caps for men—right side up for red, upside down for black. Sometimes the tournament would be give-away-checkers in which the object was to be the first to lose all your men by devising moves that would force your opponent to jump them. Although I never won a tournament, I was a fair player at that young age. But my playing did not grow as I did, so I am no better a player today as I was then. My brother was a whiz.
A couple of other games we played while sitting around were jackknife baseball and mumbly-peg. To play jackknife baseball, we used a two-bladed pocketknife with its large blade opened all the way and its small blade opened half way so that it pointed at a right angle to the large blade and handle. We played the game on a back door step or a wooden bench. Two guys played at a time, each as team. A “batter” would grip the knife by the back-end of its handle and swing the knife down with just enough force to stick the small blade into the wood far enough that the knife didn’t fall over. He would then place his finger under the back-end of the handle and, with a quick motion, flip the knife up and forward. How the knife landed determined how the “batter” did. If it landed upright with the small blade stuck in the wood and the back-end of the handle touching the wood, it was a single. If it landed upright with both blades touching the wood, it was a double. If it landed upright with only the large blade stuck in the wood, it was a triple. If it landed upright with only the small blade stuck in the wood, it was a homerun. If the knife did not land upright, it was an out. A single advanced all men on base one base. A double advanced them two. After three outs, the other player’s “batters” came to bat. The game ended at the proscribed number of “innings,” which were predicated on how many other guys were waiting to play—the more guys, the fewer the innings. The winner would take on the next guy, and so on, until everyone had played. The winner of the last game was the tournament champion. His only award was to be able to brag the rest of the day that he was champion.
Playing “baseball” with two bared knife blades had a certain element of danger. It was not uncommon for a player or two to have rags wrapped around minor nicks and cuts on their hands and fingers, and some times knees, when a little too much gusto went into flipping the knife. However, it was a sissy game compared to the knife or ice pick handling of “mumbly-peg,” a game that was sometimes called “root-the-peg.” By either name, I wouldn’t recommend that anyone play it. Yet in all the times I played it I never received a scratch. The object of the game was to be the first player to complete a long series of flipping the instrument—knife, or ice pick—from various parts of the anatomy, successfully sticking it in the ground at an upright angle of at least two fingers or better. You started with the toes on one foot, then the top of the foot, then up to the knee on that leg, then off the hip, then to each finger of the hand on one arm, then the elbow, and then the shoulder. The flip was made from each of these spots by placing the point on the appropriate spot and a finger on the top of the handle and flipping it downward trying to stick it in the ground.
The next three moves were made differently. The point of the instrument was held between the finger and thumb upside-down against the chin, then the nose, and the handle was swung back and forth until the handle reached high enough that you could let the point go and the instrument would go point downward and stick in the ground—if you did it just right.
The move required for the midway point of the game, the top of the head, was dangerously different. The instrument was laid flat on the top of the head with the point to the back. The hand was then laid across the blade, with the thumb on the point and the little finger barely touching the butt of the handle. With the head leaned forward and the hand pressing down extremely hard, the hand was moved quickly forward, sliding the blade across the top of the head until the point came almost to the forehead. Then the thumb side of the palm was turned quickly downward with force enough to send the point straight enough and with enough velocity to stick in the ground. It was not unusual to see narrow slice-marks down foreheads from mis-executions of this move—but not mine. After this move was successfully completed, you continued down the other side of the body, starting with the shoulder and ending at the toes. The first one to successfully reach the last toe and stick the instrument in the ground was the winner. The winner’s reward was to have the honor of driving a matchstick into the dirt with the handle of the instrument with as many licks as the number of moves by which the loser lost. Then, everyone got to watch the loser root the “peg” out of the ground with his teeth.
In the evenings, when it grew too dark to play in the river or on the other side of the railroad tracks, we played games in the street under a streetlight. One of the games that contributed to our growing up tough was Red Rover. Almost every kid in the neighborhood—cousins and otherwise—took part. After sides were chosen, the two sides lined up in the street, about 20 yards apart, facing each other. The team, elected to be first, would yell, “Red rover, red rover, send so-and-so right over!” substituting the name of a member of the other team for “so-and-so.” The yelling team would then join hands and hold on tightly while the called person would come running with all his or her might trying to break through the other team’s arms. The runner would usually pick out what he thought would be the weakest link in the chain of kids stretched across the street. If he broke through, he got to pick one of the two through whom he broke to take back with him to become a member of his team. If he didn’t break through, he became a member of the team that had called him. The game ended when one team had only one man remaining. As I was one of the younger and smaller ones playing, I spent much of the game flying backwards through the air.
As physical as Red Rover was, it was a mere warm-up to Pop-the-Whip. To play Pop-the-Whip, everyone joined hands to form a line. The bigger kids always managed to be at the front end of the line while little kids, like me, ended up on the back-end. The kids on the front end would begin running, leading all the other kids along behind them. When they reached top speed, they would suddenly change directions, slinging those behind them around them, much like a wheel going around an axle. The older kids at the front of the line were in the middle of the wheel and were hardly moving while we who were near the back end were like the outer part of a wheel, traveling much, much faster. When the effect of the sudden turn reached the back end of the line, it was like a whip being cracked. I speak from personal experience, for many times, when I was on the end, I was yanked completely off my feet and sometimes turned upside down in mid-air when the effect of the sudden turn reached me.
Because of the high speed that could be attained when the whip was popped, a dangerous variation of Pop-the-Whip was played on roller-skates. Playing it with wheeled feet was the closest ever come to putting a man in orbit before the advent of the American space program.
A more civilized team game was Bum, Bum, Bum, which we played only when we were required to let the girls join in our playing. It was a sissified version of Red Rover. Two sides were chosen and faced each other from about 20 yards apart. One team would huddle and decide what activity they would act out for the other team to guess. Once they decided, they would go to the other team, calling out “Bum, bum, bum; here we come!” as they went. As soon as they finished saying this, which would be when they reached the other team, the other team would respond with, “Where’re you from?” The first team would respond, “Pretty girls’ country!” The other team would then shout, “What’s your trade?” which would bring the response, “Sweet lemonade!” The other team would then say, “Get to work or get away!” The first team would then give the acronym for their activity and begin to pantomime it. One of the favorites that invariably was used at least once every time I played the game was “PPPP,” for “patching papa’s purple pants,” which was accompanied with a pantomime by every player on the team of holding a needle and thread and sewing with it. If the other team could not guess the activity in three tries, the first team got to pick one of their players to take back with them. If they did guess it, they chased the first team back to its line. Anyone they caught of the first team before they crossed the line became a member of their team. It may sound like a blah game, however it was exciting to us little kids; and you didn’t get bounced on your head like in the other two games.
Three similar games we usually played at night, and all over the neighborhood, were Cops and Robbers, Hare and the Hound, and Kick the Can. In all three, sides were chosen. The members of one side ran and hid all over the neighborhood while the other side stayed at home-base and counted to 100, ending it with the cry, “Coming, ready or not!” before going in pursuit of members of the other side. All members of the pursuing side had to do was catch and hold a member of the pursued long enough to say, “One, two, three, caught, caught, caught!” He then led the “prisoner” to their jail, which was usually a large circle drawn on the ground. Some of the pursuing side were left to guard the “jail” to keep uncaught members of the pursued side from running in and freeing those in “jail” by touching them before being caught. In kick the can, a tin can was set upright in the middle of the circle. To free prisoners, a member of the pursued side had to run in without being caught and kick the can out of the circle. The pursuing team could not go after the escaping prisoners until they had retrieved the can and placed it upright back in the circle.
We also played some of the aforementioned games in the daytime. Some other games could be played only in the day time. One of them was marbles, a quieter, less strenuous game played by boys. Because I could never get the taw—a larger marble that was used to shoot at the other marbles—to fit right between my thumb and index finger to shoot it properly, I never became too interested in the game. However, my brother could shoot his taw right every time and usually carried around a pocketful of marbles he had won from neighborhood kids. Dirt was the best playing surface, so games were usually played in someone’s yard or along the edge of a dirt street. I remember two versions of the game. In one each player put an agreed upon number of marbles in a large circle. Players alternated turns shooting at the marbles and got to keep ones they knocked from the circle with their taw. If they shot and knocked one out, they got to shoot again until they missed. The other version was played the same way except the marbles to be shot at were placed in a hole scooped out of the ground in the shape of a bowl. A game my brother indulged in a lot using marbles that wasn’t an official marbles game was Throw-for-the-Line. Two lines were drawn in the dirt several feet a part. Players stood behind one line and threw to the other line. The player whose marble stopped closest to the line got all the other marbles thrown. My brother was so good at it that by the time he got to the seventh grade he was playing the game with pennies and nickels instead of marbles.
More about the taw, which was called the “bummie.” Apparently, there was little limitation on its size because some kids used steel balls—called “steelies”—from pinball machines. A lot of marbles ended up cracked or broken when steelies were used.
Half-rubber, played with half a sponge rubber ball and a broomstick—or a reasonable facsimile, such as hoe or rake handle—as a bat was a popular game played by older kids in Jacksonville. The game is something like baseball, except only two players are on each team, a picture and a catcher. The picture throws, usually in a side-armed motion, to sail the ball, flat side down. If the batter swings and misses and the catcher catches the ball, the batter is out. If he swings and misses but the catcher fails to catch the ball, it is not an out. There are no strikes and balls. There are three outs for each team’s at bat. If the catcher catches a foul tip with a “man on base,” it is a double out. If the pitcher catches a hit ball before it touches the ground, it is an out. If the ball is hit to the pitcher on the ground and he stops it before it goes past him, it counts as nothing. If the ball is hit past the pitcher on the ground, it is a single and puts an imaginary runner on first base. Any runners already on base advance one base. An agreed upon distance, usually marked by something, such as a tree or a pole, etc., is usually the home-run line. A ball hit past it in the air is a home run. One hit past it on the ground is a triple. A ball hit past the pitcher in the air that lands short of the home-run line is a double. Runners already on base get to advance two bases on a double. The game has the same bases as a diamond—first, second, third, home—but they are imaginary. When we moved to Brunswick, we found the half-rubber being played there. The same in Savannah and in Charleston. When I grew older, while living in Charleston, I became an excellent half-rubber player and played in a tournament in my forties.
When we could get enough together, we played pickup games of baseball and football and a version of baseball called stingeree. Stingeree was played with a rubber ball. In addition to putting a man out in same ways as in baseball, a base runner could be put out between bases by throwing the ball at him and hitting him, and no one ever threw the ball easy at a runner, hence the “sting” part of the games name.
While us boys played our rough and tumble games, girls played jack stones, hopscotch, and jump rope, games boys considered to sissified to get close enough to see how they were played.
Most male kids in our neighborhood in Springfield wanted, and usually got, two presents for Christmas: a Daisy BB gun and a pair of Union Hardware #5 roller-skates. The skates came with a “skate key” for adjusting the skates’ shoe clamps to fit the edges of our shoe soles and to adjust the skates to our foot length. While skating, we wore the key around our necks on a string. There was no way to keep the skates on without wearing shoes; consequently, skating was the only good excuse we could find for wearing shoes.
We skated everywhere that had pavement between where we were and where we wanted to go. In addition to using them as a mode of transportation, we wore skates to play games such as Pop-the-Whip—which was described above—and the shin-scarring game of hockey using a tin can as a puck and broom sticks as hockey sticks.
The skates’ straps were usually broken by spring from being pulled tight a zillion times, and the metal wheels were wearing thin. For most of us, presents received for Christmas were the only ones we could except until the next Christmas, so we had to make do with what we had. Thankfully, before we came along, someone had already figured out how to get more mileage from a pair of almost worn-out skates—make a scooter out of them. Scooter making was a relatively simple task. After removing the straps and clamps, the front and back parts of each skate were separated by removing the screw holding them together. We nailed the back part of the skate to one end of a two-by-four board about two feet in length and the front part to the other end of the board. An upright was then nailed to the front end of the board, and a cross piece, sometime a section of broomstick, was added to the top of the upright for handles.
Generally, the upright was one of two styles, depending on how classy one wanted to make his scooter and the availability of the right materials. The least classy upright of all was another piece of two-by-four or board of similar dimension. Using a wooden box or crate as an upright added an element of class to a scooter, the degree of class depending on the quality of the box or crate and the workmanship. The least classy uprights were cold drink crates. The classiest were solid wooden boxes of the size most cardboard boxes are of today. Covering the two by four board on which you placed your foot when scootering with tacked-down bottle caps, topside up, further classied up the scooter. Use of caps from different soda pop bottles allowed varying designs. Designs sometimes were made on the fronts and sides of the uprights from bottle caps and reflectors. Coon tails hung from the ends of the handles added a rare touch of class.
Were not my children grown and past the age of wanting a BB gun, as I adamantly refused their pleadings for BB guns when they were young, I would not be relating the following experiences I had with one, which were the reasons for my refusing to give them BB guns. Between the ages of six and nine, my brother and I had BB guns. We used them mostly for shooting at targets such as tin cans and bottles. Sometimes, we tramped through the woods on the other side of the tracks along 7th Street imagining we were on a safari. Our targets were items of trash we happened upon that we quickly fantasized into lions and tigers. However, one day, my brother or one of my cousins suddenly saw a small bird on a limb and yelled, “There’s a chippy! Get ‘em!” Instantly, I fired in reaction—almost from the hip—then watched with an elation that soured into dismay as my eyes followed the poor creature’s lifeless drop to the ground, a scene that haunted my nights for many weeks to come.
Quite often we would be in the company of Buddy Harden, Charles Mainor, and Booster Kinsey, all of us toting BB guns. And quite often our targets—at Booster’s direction—would be streetlights. Few streetlights within the several blocks of our neighborhood escaped the bead of our sights. We not only shot them until they became dark, which was almost always on the first shot, we continued firing until every shred of the bulb’s glass lay on the pavement below. On one occasion, we climbed up the back of a billboard on Tallyrand and shot out a nearby streetlight. Before we could get down, the Power Company came and replaced it. As their truck disappeared around a corner, we shot it out again.
The most dangerous thing my brother and I did with BB guns was to shoot at each other in fits of anger. Fortunately, we always aimed low. Nonetheless, the sting of the BB on bare legs smarted immensely. I still have a small dimple in my kneecap from a shot fired from too close a range. I’ve known more than one person wearing a glass eye because of BB guns.
Ola was a trusting soul when it came to my brother and me. Each time we came home from frolicking in the river, from shooting out streetlights, from stealing our way into the movies, from having brick wars with the kids on the other block, from hitching rides on trains, from playing on the elevator of a boarded up building on 8th street, she would say, “Where have you been?” we would say to the Mainor’s or the Harden’s, or the Kinsey’s. “You behaved yourself?” “Yes ma’am.” She then would start making some doughnuts or some other goodie for her little angels.
Glyn Myra Methodist Church had a baseball team—hardball, not softball. Cousin Claud Mainor managed it. Almost all players on it were related by blood or marriage. Those I can remember are Tom and Clarence Mainor, Bill, Hank, and Booster Kinsey, J. D. McKenzie, who was married to Leona Kinsey, and J. D.’s brother, Dwight. Buddy Harden, Charlie Mainor, my brother, and I were batboys.
I have but one memory worth repeating from our tenure as bat boys: The team practiced at what is now John Love Park, a few blocks off 8th and near Glyn Myra Church. Back then, the park had no name—not that I remember—and consisted of nothing more than an unkempt baseball field with sagging wire fences down each side. All roads leading to the park were dirt with vegetation growing up to, and sometimes over-spilling, their edges. One spring day, as we four batboys turned off 8th Street onto Jones, heading for practice, cases of empty beer bottles stacked behind Rosenberg’s (or Rosenblum’s) beer joint caught Charlie Mainor’s alert eye and set in motion my favored exploit involving him. Seeing the empty cases inspired a sudden brainstorm in his mind. Soon, the four of us were helping him drain what few drops remained in each of the bottles into one bottle until we filled it. He found a fairly new bottle cap on the ground and popped it on the bottle. When we arrived at practice Charlie announced that we had found an unopened bottle of beer behind Rosenberg’s (or Rosenblum’s). We were immediately swarmed by most of the players, each anxiously waiting his turn to take a swig. After they had drained the bottle dry, Charlie—for reasons I’ll never understand—gleefully spilled the beans about where we had gotten the bottle’s contents. He had just as well busted open a hornet’s nest. Had they not all immediately begin retching, giving us time to make our escape, I believe they would have done us bodily harm. We never got to be batboys again because we were afraid to show up.
Jacksonville has one of the finest zoos in the Southeast and was an interesting place to visit even when I was a kid. Thanks to Charlie Mainor I vividly remember my first visit there. We didn’t start out for the zoo that day, but we ended up there. Booster never suggested what we were to do on a given day. He told us. He told us that morning to get our fishing poles, we were going fishing from the Trout River railroad trestle. By the time we started out, only Booster and Charlie had been able to round up fishing poles. Our trek to the trestle took us along the St. Johns on Tallyrand, then Wigmore, then Buffalo to the Panama Park area, where the Trout branched off the St. Johns and the trestle started. As best as I can remember, the lines on their poles were too short to reach the water from the trestle, so we walked on across to the zoo. I was glad because Booster had already told us that if a train happened to cross the trestle while we were on it we would have to jump off into the river as there wasn’t room enough for us and the train. While the rest of us looked around at the animals, Charlie still had fishing on his mind. A duck pond of about 30 feet in diameter sat in the middle of the zoo. Several ducks shared the pond with a variety of fish. Suddenly, a terrible quacking, squawking noise filled the air. The commotion grabbed the attention of every visitor at the zoo. All eyes turned to see Charlie holding a duck around the neck while trying to extricate his fishing line from the duck’s bill.
Some Saturdays, we walked the railroad track from 8th to King Edward Cigar Factory. Back then, there were numerous sets of tracks crossing 8th and passing the cigar factory. One day, on one of these tracks, I saw an engine that wasn’t huffing and puffing like all the other locomotives I had seen in my short life time. And no smoke billowed skyward from it. It didn’t even have a smoke stack. That was the first time I ever saw a diesel locomotive.
King Edward, which at that time was the largest cigar factory in the world, was located on 16th Street near Walnut. Each Saturday, kids were allowed in the box making room to pick up tacks and pieces of scrap wood—cigar boxes were wooden in those days—off the floor. We made all kinds of toys from these scraps.
We always capped off our cigar factory visits by stopping afterward at a nearby Merita Bakery outlet where we bought a good sized grocery bag crammed with cinnamon rolls and all kinds of other bakery delights for a mere quarter. Another nickel each got us cold bottles of Pepsi to wash down our lunch.
Speaking of Pepsi, it was not uncommon to hear the horn of a Pepsi truck in Jacksonville play the notes of the first line of “Pepsi Cola Hits the Spot.” The horn of a Jacksonville laundry truck played the notes of “This is the Way We Wash Our Clothes.”
Just before the start of school in 1938, I was sent to my other grandmother’s in Brunswick and completed the third grade while with her. As soon as school ended I sat, like a bird being let out of cage, on a Greyhound heading south down US17 to Jacksonville and all my Springfield relatives. My brother had spent the school year there. He was really happy to see his little brother and his little brother was happy to see him. We didn’t have one fight all that day. Then, we were back to normal. After a few months, the joys of sharing adventures in Springfield with our cousins came to an abrupt end. In the summer of 1939, we were sent to an orphanage in Loretto, several miles below Jacksonville. It was actually a man’s farm and citrus grove and was more like a foster home. There were eight other boys there. We performed all the farm labor. Other than Uncle Eddie and family, we had only two visitors in our year and a half at the farm, and what a pleasant surprise and shocker their impromptu visit was. Buddy Harden and Charlie Mainor showed up one Saturday afternoon on a bicycle. They had pedaled and towed each other 16 miles, one way, from Springfield to the farm. We were ecstatic with joy.
A year and a half later, my mother and step-father decided it was time for them to take the responsibility of raising us, so we came to Charleston to live with them, where I have been ever since.
As soon as school was out after our first year in Charleston, my brother and I hounded our mother until she permitted us to visit Eddie in Jacksonville. Eddie met us at the Greyhound bus station in downtown Jacksonville. By this time he had moved from Springfield to the northern outskirts of Jacksonville on Lem Turner Road, practically in the country.
Buddy Harden and Charlie Mainor rode their bikes out to Eddie’s some days, and the four of us went swimming in the Ribault, a narrow river less than half a mile from Eddie’s that was shallow enough to walk across. We rented horses from the riding stable directly across from Eddie’s on one occasion and rode them to the river where they added a new dimension to frolicking in the old swimming hole.
As much time as we spent playing in the neighborhood around Eddie’s, we spent more four and half miles away in Springfield in Buddy Harden’s neighborhood. Since we last lived in Jacksonville, the Hardens had moved to 19th Street, a half block from Kooker Playground. We thought nothing of hoofing it there in the morning, and then hoofing it back in the evening, if Buddy and Charlie didn’t to tow us back. The trek took us by an icehouse next to a high sand hill with a steep cliff. As we rode by the hill one day, we decided to go up the sloping back of the sand hill and take turns riding the two bikes down the hill’s sandy steep front. The first three, hollering “WHEEE!” all the way, went flying down the sharp incline so fast the sprockets were almost smoking. Then came my turn. With my legs straddling the bike’s frame and my feet flat on the ground, I stood poised with the leading edge of the front wheel protruding close to the edge of the cliff as I carefully mapped out the path that would take me down with the least danger. As I raised my foot to plant it on the pedal to push my rear end up onto the seat, the front wheel jiggled, dislodging the sand under it. Down the hill the bike and I went. With nothing stationary under my feet to push up on, my crotch beat against the bicycle frame’s top bar all the way down. It’s not hard to remember the sensations of such and experience, even over 60 years later.
Buddy’s neighborhood was a fun place to spend a day. Lots of kids lived in it. Kooker Playground was half a block from his house. A small pear orchard stood in a yard with a climbable fence across from his house. And both his parents worked, leaving no one to prevent us from doing some of the things we did—not that we did anything bad, just sometimes rowdy or dangerous, and maybe a little mischievous at times, like stealing pears from the trees across the street, knowing it would make the owner furious if he caught us at it.
We spent much of the time at Kooker Playground engaged in all-day cork-ball sessions, the only variation between it and half-rubber, a game described earlier, being that a large taped up cork was used instead of half a sponge rubber ball. Once we hoofed it from Buddy’s all the way to Springfield Pool in the middle of downtown to go swimming. Another time, several of us from Kooker rode the city bus all the way out to Lackawanna Pool to swim. Afterward, we were asked if we wanted to participate in a track meet the playground was holding. Giving them my name and that I was from Kooker Playground, I entered the obstacle course race. The crowd I came with was waiting on me as soon as I finished the race and were yelling that we had to hurry and catch the bus to get back. I was told the next day that my name was in the paper as winner of the obstacle course for my age group. That was the first time I can remember my name being in the paper. And I didn’t get my blue ribbon.
The playground was always filled with neighborhood kids of all ages involved in all kinds of activities. A lot of them were girls, some my age and some older. I saw my first and only girls' fight at Kooker one day, and it was a doozie. Two girls, one a tall, pretty girl named Virginia , had words over some game they were playing. Words escalated into insults, insults into slaps, slaps into vicious hair pulling, and hair pulling into rolling around in the dirt, while we onlookers egged them on.
I was reaching the puppy love stage of life and was beginning to think that just maybe the opposite sex wasn’t put on earth simply to be nuisances after all. I was too shy and lacking in self-confidence to make a play for a girl; however, if they smiled and spoke kindly to me, they got my attention. In the few summer weeks we were in Jacksonville, three smiled and spoke kindly to me.
The first was Helen Green, a blonde who lived on a corner across from Kooker Playground. Once I was convinced she like me, if I saw her sitting on her porch, I would leave the playground through the gate which led by her house on the way to Buddy’s. If she smiled as I passed, I would take it as an invitation and would stop and sit on the porch with her. Every time I did, her older brother came out and made it clear through his attitude that he didn’t like my hanging around his sister. Not one wanting to argue with big brothers, I was soon attracted away by the smiles and soft words of another blonde, Jean Tarleton. She lived a block down 19th from Buddy, going away from the playground. We sat in her front porch swing several days in a row. I got my first romantic kiss in that swing. Over the years, my mind has elevated the peck I actually got into a kiss. Just when I thought we had a torrid romance going, she said for me not to come by the next day. Broken-hearted, I pressed her for a reason. She gave me a good one—one of her other boy friends was coming by.
I very quickly found myself interested in Jackie Kelly, who lived across the street from Buddy. No sooner than Jackie and I had reached the point where we were holding hands, it came time to leave for Charleston.
By the time another summer vacation rolled around, the outbreak of World War II had dashed hopes and plans of many people. The hopes and plans of my brother and me of returning to the joys of Springfield for another few weeks was among them. By the time we made it back to Jacksonville, my brother had joined the Navy, made two trips to North Africa on a destroyer escort, and had been kicked out of the Navy for being under age. By then, little of what we remembered remained of Springfield. The streets and houses and landmarks all looked about the same. But the people—and people are what make Springfield a special place—dear to my heart were no longer there. Some had moved to other areas of Jacksonville. Buddy Harden, who spent his working life as a member of the Jacksonville Fire Department, was among them. So was Booster. Some who left in military service had settled elsewhere. Charlie Mainor, who won the Silver Star for bravery in Korea, was among them. But Springfield of my childhood is still very much alive among the best of a lifetime of memories.
J. G. Braddock Sr. mailto: firstname.lastname@example.org