11- Just a little more about poverty: From what I can remember

This is my eleventh in the series, recalling events in my life from early childhood to wherever I decide to stop writing. I’ve touched on the fact that I was born into and brought up in poverty. Since reminiscing about ones past, tends to have an almost built-in romantic quality to it, I want to dedicate a few words to the more realistic elements of my less than materially blessed upbringing.

The lack of indoor running water, outdoor toilets, less than adequate home insulation to keep the cold of winter outside, bathing in a number 10 oval tub are just a few of the many inconveniences I recall being par for the course living in rural Cross County, Arkansas. These things might be roughing it to some middle-class, suburbanite today (which is what I am), but back in the 1950s and all the 1960s was how my family and I lived.

When I was a small boy, up until around ten-years-old or so, I never really thought that much about being poor, living without few material possessions. When we moved into the house my mom had relocated close to the gravel road, something happened that opened my eyes to just how poor we were. Although we still didn’t have indoor plumbing, we did have electricity and a television. The quality of the pictures was often snow-storm low definition, but Ed Sullivan, Captain Kangaroo, and a host of good old American shows, which had no cultural significance to me, became a powerful misrepresentative image of what America looked like. Looking at these examples of people dressed to the nines and living in homes that might as well had been the Taj Mahal to me, sounded a troubling alarm, “You are poor!” My mother getting us new clothes for school once a year, made possible by putting them in lay-away just didn’t cut it anymore. The Sears-Roebuck catalog was our Aladdin’s lamp, holding the answer to countless wishes for toys, clothing and a menagerie of things that could certainly rescue me from the wretchedness of poverty. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter how many times we might have rubbed the cover, what we desired didn’t mysteriously appear. Instead, basics like clothing and household necessities were the only things that were delivered by the postman or picked up by my mother at catalog store in town.

There are experiences I had as a country kid that I’ve chosen to not write about. You see, the three school buses that transported kids from around the county to Wynne to attend school delivered victims of taunts to their destination of shame daily. The town kids felt that they were somehow better than us. And they made their best effort to choose the most cutting and demeaning adjectives to describe our existence on earth. In retrospect, they were no better than we were; their lot was influenced by the restrictions of racism and discrimination in the same manner as we country bumpkins. Of course, I now find it hard to see how living in a village of four to five thousand denizens, in a rural state would spare them from being categorized as anything but country? Enough. I said I wouldn’t write about this.

I remember seeing images of white guys on television wearing suits and carrying briefcases. They looked quite dapper, and they lacked the collection of dirt and grime about their being I saw on my uncles after they had been laboring hard on C.T. Gibbs’ farm for wages that only lasted from one pay day to the next. (I do want to make it very clear that my uncles and all the poor Black men who did this sort of labor were hard workers, without formal education, doing what was necessary to provide for their families.) I don’t remember any of them ever being unemployed. I told myself in a voice that still rings loudly, even today, that I wanted to be like one of those white guys, going to work in a suit and carrying briefcase. I’m not sure I’ll write more about that point, but I did end up being the first grandchild of grandpa and Sweet’s to attend college, and yes, I did wear suits and carry briefcases to work. My career took me to the point of retirement from the position of associate vice chancellor/chief human resources officer for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in 2013.

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

10 – A sense of community: From what I can remember

A road similar to our gravel road

Looking back on my life as I grew up during the latter part of the 1950s and early 1960s, I now realize that my world was exceedingly small. I want to take a closer look at the small country community to which I belonged. I’ve mentioned living on my grandpa and Sweet’s farm. I also mentioned that the farm was located down a gravel road off Highway 64. I want to talk a little about the community that lived down this rough and dusty route to nowhere.

Although we were somewhat isolated, there was a sense of community. There were six Black families who lived in the area. Among them were Sweet’s brother Jessie and sister-in-law Hattie. Jessie and Hattie lived on land that was part of the land farmed by grandpa and Sweet. It had been parceled into three separate areas. All the land had been inherited from Sweet’s parents. Sweet was the oldest of the siblings. I remember the Britts, and two other families that made up this small community of folks who did the normal things small communities do: borrow a cup of sugar when necessary, share vegetables grown in their gardens, visit without announcing you were coming…

At some point after my father died, my mother either bought or was given a house that sat at the corner of Highway 64 and the gravel road. I remember her having someone move the house down the gravel road to a spot in front of grandpa and Sweet’s house. She also had electricity connected to the house. This was made easier sense the house was on land just next to the gravel road. The gravel road had electrical service lines that ran its length. At some point, we got a television and a radio. I remember this house had a living room, a kitchen, and an upstairs room which was accessed by a small set of stairs that led up from the kitchen. Grandpa used his carpentry skills to add two bedrooms to one side of the house. This proved to be convenient for all of us. Larry, William, and I shared a room and our sister, Terri, born later shared a room with my mother.

We were still poor; however, I remember folks down this gravel road helped each other. Uncle Jessie had a pickup truck, and several of us would fill the back on Saturday evenings when he would make his weekly trip into town (Wynne). As a kid I remember these trips to town as being exciting. I would be given a few coins to spend on candy. We would hangout around the Western Auto Store, which was a kind of general-purpose hardware store and Steinberg’s, the Jewish-owned dry goods and grocery store.

Life was simple, as I remember it back then, but I do remember some complications that went with being Black. When we went to town, we had to observe the white and Black signs that separated certain services. And even where there were no signs, we had to be aware of certain protocols. For example, I remember Black folks going to the back of a certain restaurant in town to order food. I don’t remember the name of the place. I now wonder why we even ordered food from there, especially since a short walk across the railroad tracks to what was then called colored town would have given us access to Ms. Evalena’s. Ms. Evalena’s was a greasy spoon that made the best juicy hamburgers you could ever want. And you could walk straight through the front door. For some reason, I can still remember the taste of her hamburgers some sixty years later. Hot, spicy, juicy…yummy!

I’m old and blessed…hope you will be too.

Filling up with Bob

Every now and then, I read a blog that moves me emotionally. This is one of those blogs. I hope you enjoy reading this piece from Heidi Viars as much as I did.

Heidi Viars

“One person can’t change the whole world.
But one person can change the whole world of another person.”

I decided to pull into the wholesale gas station. Might as well, even though I only needed half a tank, I was already in town and gas was cheaper here. I leaned against the car and watched the numbers click away behind the Plexiglas. Filling up wouldn’t take long.

When the attendant saw me, he slowly made his way over, nodded and greeted me with a gentle, “Thanks for stopping in.” He wore a yellow vest and a baseball cap. The bill reached over his thin framed glasses. His face was covered with a light blue disposable mask and his hands with latex gloves. From what I could see of his face, I guessed him in his late fifties. I acknowledged him with a “How are you today?” not realizing, the ensuing…

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Music can cast a spell of its own

I had to run out to do an errand this afternoon, after attending online church services. When I got in the car, my radio was set to smooth jazz on satellite radio, as it normally is. I proceeded to my destination, unconsciously being soothed by the likes of Dave Koz, Acoustic Alchemy, Rick Braun, and other contemporary jazz artists. The ride to my destination was relaxing, as I seemingly, without friction, moved down the expressway without the least bit of stress.

After I had picked up the items, I went out to purchase and I was back on the expressway in my cruise mode, Dave Koz interrupted the groove with a talk about the value of music. Well, I guess I shouldn’t say he interrupted since it was his show.  He has this show that comes on SiriusXM Satellite radio each Sunday called The Dave Koz Lounge. Anyway, he made some reference to the times in which we’re living. Of course, he mentioned the coronavirus and the resultant stresses it has caused so many of us to suffer. When he started to talk about how music has a universal appeal and how it can bring relief from many of the things that trouble us, I consciously tuned into what he was saying.

I’ve been a lover of smooth jazz all my adult life. Jazz is a form of music that never grows old. Wes Montgomery’s Bumpin’ on Sunset, which was released in 1965 sounds just as contemporary as Norman Brown’s Up “N” at ‘Em released in 2004. This music genre seems to manipulate the atmospheric pressure around me as it changes, almost unobtrusively, my internal universe.

Music is a powerful force. Whether you’re moved by gospel, rhythm and blues, classical, country and western, whatever trips your trigger. Although I’m predominately a smooth jazz listener, I’ve been known to find myself getting into some of that Nashville stuff, that I call country blues. After all, when a person sings about losing their girl, but they’re okay because they still have the dog and the pickup truck, ain’t that blues?

As I write this, I’m listening to Norman Brown’s Radio station on Pandora. Both my mind and my fingers are engaged. My fingers are literally dancing across the keyboard. Aw, the effects of music. Can you think of a better time when we should all be doing something to take or minds (if for a minute) off what’s going on around us? So, put on your earphones, pop in those ear buds and turn up the volume. Let the right side of your brain explore and create an environment that has the potential for soothing whatever ails you.

I’m old and blessed…I hope you will be too.