Saturday, April 27, 2013

the odours of kinfolk

how many of my other memories of the house on oak and life there, both while i was an occupant and after my parents moved to a 3-room rental on monroe, are photographic, I don't know. it served as a sort of family center for my grandfather's family, the johnsons, even though they lived in paragould, so the album had lots of photos of johnson uncles and aunts and cousins, held in place by gummed corner frames. but my memories of the smells are my own, suggested by but not contained in, the photographs. oddly enough there are no olfactory memories of my parents. but the preceeding generation was redolent.

my uncle ott--otto--comes first, because he smoked cigars. he was the youngest of the johnson brothers, although minnie--minerva--was younger. ott always wore pin-striped suits with a handkerchief in the breast pocket, and he drove buicks, which not surprisingly also smelled of cigars. he had a wife, orphie--orphelia--but they were estranged.  they never divorced, i think because they didn't trust each other enough, so they shared ownership of a dry cleaners, ott having an apartment upstairs and orphie having the house. ott also had a cabin on portia--pronounced porshy--bay and a mistress, cordie--cordelia--who was a 'beautician' and smelled like permanents. everything about ott was slightly shakespearean in a falstaff sort of way, although I think he drank budweiser.

by contrast fred, the oldest surviving johnson brother, uncle ed having died before my birth, was chaste-smelling in an old spice sort of way and drove dodges. his wife sally--selma, and often called that--owned a business machine company and had no children and didn't seem to like children. there are no pictures of me being held by fred. I may be imagining the old spice, it being the default odor of that generation.

minnie always smelled slightly sour. she was married to an undertaker, mr. emersin, who was very thin and highly cologned, but minnie always smelled slightly as if she had just cime from a hot kitchen, which often she had done. she was a serious cook. her son billie, also a cook, in the army, always smelled like starch. years later my mother would tell me that billie's clothes (he was a love child, as it were, born when minnie was a teenager bereaved by the death of her mother and comforted by someone whose name she took to her grave) had always been provided by the unkles, and starched at ott's cleaners.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

gimme shelter

between 1940 and 1950 jonesboro grew by 39%, from 11,729 to 16,310 inhabitants. it is probably most accurate to say that growth occured in 1946; I was one of many new folks, and there wasn't much room for us. my parents and my mother's parents were among those returning to jonesboro after the war, and they all moved into a one bedroom house whose 900 square feet of living space included a front porch on the north, which was an outdoor living room in warm weather, and a screened in back porch which was the exit to the world of the back yard, where my first birthday party saw me wearing my grandfather's hat and a diaper--it's hot in jonesboro in august--and my cake resting on a leather hassock. I'm guessing there was icecream from lundy johnson's store up the street at the culberhouse corner. my memories of that event come from phoographs my mother kept in a big ivory artificial leather photo album with soft black, addable pages and a pirate and his treasure embossed on the cover.

beyond the small backyard, which was bounded on the east by an overgrown privet and on the west by a tool shed standing mostly from habit, lay the garden. the garden was not unusual in the jonesboro of the '40's. it was my grandmother's own moveable realm which she reproduced wherever she lived. there were tomatos staked to oak poles by old stockings, great gothic cathedrals of okra, lettuce and corn and peas and cucumbers and squas and I know not what else.  i  doubt there were melons: everyone knew the only melons worth eating came from lake city.

there were also chickens, who ate bugs in the garden and provided eggs for breakfast and meat for feasts. my grandmother never cooked a chicken she didn't know personally.  in cold weather the chickens lived in the basement with the wringer washing machine and a lone, bare light bulb for heat. they and the soap gave the basement a remarkable smell.

all the windows of the house had screens with black painted frames, roll-down blinds, plastic in the bathroom, and curtains made by my grandmother on her treadle singer from lace bought by the yard at woolworth's.

where we all slept in that little beach head in the city ready for tomorrow in the land of opportunity, I don't know. the bed on which I was photographed often as a plump baby was covered with a white chenille spread. there were many quilts made by generations of woods (my grandmother's family), all with a unique smell singular to cotton boiled clean.

my mother and father soon found a little house of their own, but my grandparents lived at 723 west oak until I was four. I spent many happy days and nights there. friday nights belonged to my grandfather. he sat in his red leather wing chair and smoked lucky strikes and listened to the friday night fights, sponsored by the gillette razor company. saturday nights were my grandmother's,  when she listened to the grand ole opry and the barn dance. the philco radio soon had a companion, a crosley television, the first I ever saw. my grandfather's friday night fights were now visible, in a slightly fuzzy way, as were groucho marx and milton berle. it was a while before daytime programming let my grandmother watch ma perkins and helen trent as she sewed and ironed.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

essentials of life

er quickly outfitted me with the essentials of life: a speedo-like swimsuit and an encyclopedia the within a week of my birth, and a tricycle as soon as my feet could reach the peddles. my father was an avid swimmer. everyone in his family read. wheels were part of being american in the post-war country that would redesign itself with the internet highway system. (of course the u.s. marriage to the automobile had been consumated before the war. one of the most remarkable things about steinbeck's the grapes of wrath is that the jobes, unlike most refugees at all times in all places, drove to the refugee camp.)

i have no actual memory of wearing my first swimsuit, but i have seen photos. to thisay i don't understand why anyone would choose to swim with ten pounds of soggy cloth encumbering one'd kick. the speedos i have now are nearly fifteen years d and about ready for replacement. they do double duty as underwear. i'm always ready for a swim.

the encyclopedia, a set of american educator covered in blue leatherette with gold embossing, was indeed central to my early education. i suspect i read the whole thing. the maps i tore out to use as charts in the war-surplus jeep that  my first submarine. the books themselves would be eclipsed and replaced by funk and wagnells and brittanica, and eventually by wikipedia and google, but the love of books and the expectation that curiosity be satisfied has remained.

of the tricycle i have very vivid memories, perhaps my earliest. the late forties were still a time when childhood was considered safe, and i was allowed to wander on three or two or four wheels or by foot as far as i wished. occasionally that was farther than convenient. i remember one tricycle trip that ended with my straddling the frame very uncomfortably and waddling home with my britches full. (and occasionally i would in the sixties get my mother's car mired in mud.)

of these essentials my father thought should be provided, the most harrowing and exciting experiences probably center around wheels. but none of theme involved any cle with more innate classiness than that red american flyer.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

brave new world

my father was discharged. he and my mother returned to jonesboro, arkansas, their home town, which was about to adapt as its motto ' the city ready for tomorrow'. after the war just about everyone was ready for tomorrow, the surprise of course would be that tomorrow was beyond what anyone could imagine.

my mother's parents also returned to jonesboro. they had moved to jacksonville, just north of little rock, for the war effort. my grandfather made detonators for bombs. my mother gave tours to visiting brass, and worked in the bookkeeping  department. my grandmother gardened in the pre-fabricated suburb that housed the detonator plant workers. back in jonesboro, my grandfather sold dodges and my grandmother continued her gardening behind the house they rented on oak avenue, and raised chickens. my parents lived with them, housing being in very short supply after the war. my father began a degree in business from arkansas state university as my mother grew great with child. jonesboro was beginning the population boom that would envelope many american cities as mechanization took command of the farms and people began to look for the new era in which progress would be the most important product.

one of the newcomers to jonesboro and the staff of st. bernard's hospital was a recent m.d. from north dakota, walter shepherd. my mother was one of dr. shepherd's first patients, somewhat to the horror of some of my father's family. dr.shepherd was a roman catholic. he would become a friend and physician to most of the family, even though many of them never forgave him his papism. indeed his religion would have an important impact on my nuclear family later. but in 1946 everyone was happy that shep was successful in a knock-'em-out-and-drag-em-out delivery of a ten-pound boy--me. i weighed nearly 10% as much as my mother, and didn't seem too anxious to enter the world. but, stainless steel forceps convinced me.
i was brought home to be the first grandchild on either side of the family, and was expected to enjoy the fruits of the many sacrifices of the war years.

and, i had been expected to be a son, named dale richard in memory of 'a handsome young marine' who had been a close friend of my parents before he became one of the millions of casualties of the war. it would be many years before my mother told me anything else about richard dale, whose war memorial i was. he was not only dsome, and a marine, but he was a homosexual. it was a brave new world into which i was born, but not brave enough to talk about sex.

Sunday, January 20, 2013


my mother did not like to travel, but wartime is odd. my father joined the navy by lying about his age. at first he was stationed in lubbock, texas, to train for the naval air corps. but for reasons never quite satisfactorily explained to me-- he went awol to marry, or married men were disqualified were two reasons told to me over the years. i also wonder whether he might have been a little careless with the navy' s aircraft. he was reassigned to communications, and my mother visited him in mississippi, at millsaps college, and in north carolina, at chapel hill. his mother went with her, and embarassed her by trying to pick up younger men, as my mother told the story to me.

these trips were surpassed. the u.s. dropped the bomb on the japs,* the war ended, and my father was soon headed to san diego. he had been on a small boat packed full of electronics that were important to the invasion of japan that never happened. i know very little else of his wartime activities. there are a few photos of him sitting around in dorms in his underwear. he told me one story about stealing a sword in hawaii. but my mother was happy to tell of her train trip to san diego, and their first dance together after the war, at the officers' s club, and the big blue boarding house where she waited with other navy wives for the ships to come in.

i was conceived in a corner room of that boarding house. once i drove as far as san clemente, thinking i might visit the place of my beginning, but i stopped at a trader joe' s instead and bought food for a sunset picnic on the beach.

fifty years after the big event, i bought an ibm thinkbook, trying to get mother interested in something, hoping that virtual travel at least might amuse her without frightening her. what would she like to see? the san diego officers' club. it had just been restored. yes, she said, that' s what it looks like. it was her only google search.

*be warned. i will use the vocabulary of the time i' m describing, despite the fact thatthat now of course we are all damn near perfect, having no racism or sexism or agism or any other unkind or judgmental traits.

Saturday, January 19, 2013


i have lived in one of the most amazing periods of human history yet, the period of the great american empire that followed world war two. i was one of the earliest baby- boomers. like too many people of my generation, perhaps, i took to blogging as a way of sharing ideas and opinions, most of them, in my case, probably useless bullshit. but i like writing, so i've decided to start a new blog that' s mostly a memoir. and, i' ll try to be honest and share the memories that seem important to me, rather than the ideas that i have trued to convince myself were important. it won' t make the big screen, but i' m already enjoying the freedom of my little screen.