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 with 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 a briefcase. I’m not sure if 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.