Category Archives: Memoir

Journey Out to the Fire Tower and Run With the Devil

Back in those storied days of the late seventies, we had an ancient fire tower out in the county, which was the ultimate destination on all those nights of strip-cruising and bowling-alley-sitting. The fire tower really belonged to the county kids, though, and you can imagine their anger and disdain when the feather haired, smart ass suburbanites with their shiny smart ass Camaros and dolled-up smart ass girls (me) rolled up and took over the prime spot for the keg and bonfire. Many a fight resulted, and a lot of other nefarious (we thought) activities took place there too, causing some of the smart asses, both male and female (not me), to burst into tears of shame and remorse at the Smart Ass Youth Rallies sponsored by our Smart Ass Suburbanite Church, which we all attended. These outbursts naturally attracted the attention of the smug, smart ass suburbanite parents, who tried to get the fire tower torn down or locked up. Never happened, though, thank Eddie, cuz it was also the scene of some of the most memorable events and fun times of our smart assed, long lamented youth.

My fire tower career started in ninth grade. You may recall that as a ninth grade band nerd, I first served as a (inappropriate slang)-blocker for the majorette, riding silently in the back seat of the cool senior’s Camaro, upholding my sworn duty of preventing the dude from driving that long road through the piney woods. By January, I had gotten my braces off and was no longer a (inappropriate slang)-blocker, but had been promoted to shotgun. I required no blocker of any kind. I could take care of myself,  thank you very much, and the fire tower, steeped as it was in mystery, drama, and excitement, called to me like a siren.

Only the most foolhardy and risk-seeking actually climbed the rickety tower once we got out there. Mainly, it was just the most testosterone-maddened boys, a couple of the um….best girl-softball-players, and me. The steps were rotting, and the bravest of the dudes went first, testing each step for the rest of us. Sometimes we would have to skip over a step, which being only 5’3″, was absolutely terrifying and stupid of me and I could have fallen to my death at any minute. I have wondered many times what caused me to do such a crazy, risky thing, and I can only come up with one answer – I wanted to impress the boys. That’s right – I risked my life for male attention. Let’s let that sink in for a minute.

******

And after I came to this conclusion, I realized something even worse – those boys didn’t give a damn if I could climb the tower or not. So the bottom line is that I risked my life for nothing. Nice.

*******

Two things happened at the very same time that I started fire towering – in January, 1978, Journey’s Infinity came out, and in February….wait for it…..wait for it….you know it…..Van Halen, Van Halen dropped like an A-bomb on the suburbs. We had a lot of fantastic music then, as you know, and as I’ve talked about ad infinitum, but it’s these two albums that take me back to the tower, and that I imagine playing in the background as I make that dangerous climb over and over in my mind. We were ready to run with the devil, all of us fire towerers, and this song was our fuel.

And of course, this is what you listened to once you ditched your blocker…

Fire tower

Sittin’ up there, so smug, feathers still perfect. What a smart ass. 😉

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Filed under Memoir, Music, Uncategorized

A Summer of Pilgrimage, Part II: The Old Home Place

I’ve talked a lot about my Cajun granny and the swamp, and about my seventeen cousins and our lives up in Jackson, but I’ve been hiding something from you. Something about the Scotch-Irish side of my family – my mother’s side. I know you are shocked and disappointed in me, but you will understand when I say one simple word…

Plantation.

In the years following the war, and you know which one I’m talking about, they tried to keep it going as one large enterprise. I know this sounds like a page out of the “Gone With the Wind” playbook, but go right ahead and picture women, old men, and children in tattered clothes trying to maintain a decaying house, a few livestock, and a garden. So a generation or two later when there were enough men, they divided up the land, gave each male member of the vast, extended family a chunk, and I mean a big chunk, because the original plantation covered a good portion of the county, and the family began breaking apart to run their own farms.

They used the lumber from the “out buildings” to build their own small farm houses. The big old plantation house was still standing when my mother was a child in the thirties, but after the war, and this time I mean WWII, they finally tore it down because it was too old and enormous and run-down and they couldn’t afford the repairs. They say there are pictures of it somewhere, but I’ve never seen them. The cousins and I used to hike back up into the woods for miles, all across Great Uncle Royce’s land, then Great Uncle Herbert’s land, etc., and go play around at the patch of rubble and dirt that everyone called “the old home place”. Then we would go to the creepy old family cemetery and hide behind the gravestones and scare each other.

My mother was the baby of her large family – she’s eighty now, and is the only one left of seven brothers and sisters. Some of the cousins are gone too. We don’t go “down home” that much anymore, now that almost everyone is gone. But for her eightieth birthday this summer, I took her down. Someone else, not even family, owns her Daddy’s little used-plantation-lumber farm house now, so we couldn’t go inside, and you can’t get down to the old home place or the family cemetery without a four wheeler, so all we got to do was drive by places – the farm house, her school, the church, and the general vicinity of the old home place.

Here’s a picture of the farm house where my mother grew up and where I played as a child. House is on the left; smoke house is on the right. There were also fields, gardens, pastures, a hen house, a well, an outhouse, a barn with a hayloft, etc. To the right behind the smoke house, one mule pasture away, is a clear, rocky creek that I used to swim in as a kid.

Farm

If you want to get a pretty clear image of what Mississippi looked like in the old days, you gotta watch “O Brother Where Art Thou?”, because they did a remarkable job of recreating the atmosphere. The clothes, the accents, the music, the food, the extreme, slightly ominous religiosity, the bizarre and deeply entrenched racism, the overall weirdness, and the look of the land itself – all of it is absolutely spot-on. Here’s a fine example…

I might have played this song before, but I’m playing it again because it was my Paw Paw’s favorite song. When the crops would fail, he would take the train out of McComb-city, as he called it, to New Orleans, about an hour away, to work on the docks and live in a Creole boarding house, sending money home each week. He loved trains…

My cousins and I used to spend weeks on the farm in the summer, helping to pick and shell peas and butter beans, canning vegetables and making jam and so on. The little Baptist church would have a week-long revival every summer, with a lot of singing and eating. We sang in “parts” – the men taking one part, the women the other. I would get mad at my cousins when they wouldn’t sing their parts right. I took it seriously, you see, and sang my part with all my might. Here’s one of the songs we sang over and over, “I’ll Have a New Body”, performed here by the great Hank Williams. The cousins and I would practice singing our parts while we were hiking to the old home place…

Mama is the little one.

Mama is the little one.

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Filed under Art and Literature, Blogging, Memoir, Music, Sociology, Uncategorized

Rocker Prof.

As you may know, I taught at a local college for many years. I actually still teach for them, but I do it online from my living room, so it’s different now. I teach from the comfort of my recliner. But in those days, the classroom I used was way across campus from my office, and I was always running late because students were continually stopping me as I made my way to class. Well, I say it’s because of that, but I’m sure my overall ditziness contributed to my tardiness too. But don’t tell anybody that. Anyway, I had to get to class within fifteen minutes of the start of the period, because students were allowed to leave if I didn’t show up within that time. If that happened, I was in big trouble with the Chair, so it was a stressful situation for me.

Picture, if you will, me running across campus, butt swaying dangerously atop my customary spikes, carrying messy stacks of papers and an old beat up leather satchel, students jogging alongside me, frantically asking me questions about their grades or trying to make small talk and be a teacher’s pet. I finally make it to the lecture hall with only seconds to spare, and running down the corridor, in order to prevent students from leaving, I start loudly singing “Here I am, rock you like a hurricane” to the accompaniment of the good-natured moans and groans of students that thought they were about to get a free pass from class that day. I did it every semester, multiple times. Countless times. It was kind of my theme song. Every semester, students would respond with stunned silence the first time it happened, then the next time they would smile a little, then the next time they would laugh, and by the end of the term, they considered me their rockinest BFF, I think. lol.

On my last day of on-campus teaching, as I walked down the corridor toward my classroom, I heard the familiar tune, growing louder and louder the closer I got.  Yes, someone had brought in a boom box, and they played my theme song as a going away gift for me. The sweeties. That rocked me like a hurricane. The memory of it rocks me still.

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Filed under Humor, Humour, Memoir, Music, Teaching

A Summer of Pilgrimage, Part I: The Hodge Podge Shop

My kid started back to school this morning, so I’m in a reflective mood today, thinking back over the summer, which flew by at record speed, I think. It’s been a pretty significant summer, full of positive changes, like the fierce exercise program I talked about here. And, by the way, the fierce exercise is paying off in a big way – I had my yearly physical last week, and the doctor walked in the exam room holding my report with a big smile on his face and said, “this is what health looks like”. Yep, all my numbers have improved greatly, so I highly recommend fierce exercise if you’re of a mind to improve your health. But anyway, enough about me, let’s talk about me.

As a kid and young teen, I spent a lot of time riding around my neighborhood on my bike, especially in the summer. I would spend hours just riding around, going up to the Tote-Sum store for Now or Laters, riding by my crushes’ houses, visiting various dogs that I had made friends with, etc. But around age fourteen or so, my favorite thing to do was to ride up to the junk store.

Hodge Podge

It appears to be called the “Short Stop” now, but back in the seventies, it was called “The Hodge Podge Shop” and it was run by a nice old lady who would give me peppermints and let me rummage all day through the junk, although she knew I wasn’t going to buy anything. The place was musty and dusty and marvelous, chock full of odds and ends that would probably be worth a fortune now – collectibles and memorabilia dating back to the early years of the century, I now realize. There was an old trunk full of letters, cards, postcards, and ancient photos in one corner, and I would sit for hours, sucking on my peppermint, reading the letters, looking at the pictures, and making up stories in my head about the people in them.

But to get to The Hodge Podge Shop, I had to ride my bike a couple miles down a road that cut through the fields – there were no houses around and it wasn’t heavily traveled, so this was a forbidden activity. Naturally, I thought that was a ridiculous rule, so I paid no attention to it, but this meant that I couldn’t tell my mother where I was going on my Hodge Podging days. This is the road…

Road pic

So one day I was riding my bike down the road on the way to the Hodge Podge Shop when a carload of older teenage boys began messing with me. At first, it was done jokingly, nothing too bad or scary, just slowing down and catcalling, no big deal. I just kept my eyes straight ahead and kept on going. They eventually drove off and I thought it was over, but they came back. This time, there was a different vibe about them. I think one of the boys in the back seat was the main instigator and evil influence, because the whole time they were harassing me, while the other boys were cutting up and laughing and making crude comments, he was just repeatedly saying, in a low voice, “get her”.

As things got scarier, I frantically tried to figure out what to do. My first instinct was to jump off of my bike and run off across the fields, and I almost did it, which would have been a serious mistake, I think. Fortunately, something stopped me from doing that and I stayed on my bike and kept my head down, thinking it was best to avoid eye contact, but at one point, I turned my head slightly and looked straight into the eyes of the guy in the front passenger seat. I think he saw the terror and misery in my eyes, and I think I saw that he had a soul.

That’s when the epic battle between good and evil started. The guy with the soul started shouting, “just go; leave her alone”. The car pulled up ahead and I thought they were leaving, but then they stopped. A car door opened in the back. Then a car door opened in the front – on the passenger side. I’m pretty sure my fate hung in the balance. Since they were stopped ahead of me, I turned around and I rode as fast as I could in the other direction without looking back. But behind me I heard an eruption of angry profanity and the sound of someone being thrown hard up against the side of a car.

The fight must have turned out right and good must have prevailed, because no one came after me and I made it back home safely. I couldn’t tell my parents what had happened to me, because I wasn’t supposed to be on that road in the first place, and I never again went down that road or re-visited the Hodge Podge Shop. Until this summer.

Dan Fogelburg. I say that name and I think most people, if they know who he is, instantly have this connotation of cheesy, overly sentimental pop music. If so, that’s probably because they are thinking about his later albums, because he did kind of lose his touch a little, in my opinion, and drifted too far into saccharin sentimentality. But his first two albums, Home Free and Souvenirs,  were deeply emotional masterpieces. Souvenirs had back-up vocals by Don Henley, Graham Nash, Glenn Frey, and Joe Walsh.  Mr. Walsh produced the album as well. The whole album, which is so aptly named for a pilgrimage, is great, and I recommend you listen to it if you’re of a mind to, but this is my favorite song from it, hands down.

Better change before the sun goes down. Better raise your fortresses or tear them down…

 

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Filed under Fitness, Memoir, Music, Women

Krystals, Cigs, and WFAT

I mentioned in an earlier post or maybe in the comments that I spent some time around a radio station in my youth, so now the onus is upon me to explain myself. First of all, to be clear, I did nothing of any value whatsoever while at the radio station. Well, that’s not strictly true. I fulfilled a number of functions, none of which had anything to do with radio broadcasting. My main job was to run out for Krystal burgers (for those of you in White Castle territory, Krystals are the southern equivalent thereof) and cigarettes. And to smuggle in beer in my purse.  Impressed? Of course you are.  Everything to do with radio in those days was glamorous. But this wasn’t a cool radio station – it wasn’t even close to being cool. The cool radio station in town was WZZQ.

wzzq

WZZQ was one of the first of its kind in the country – a free-format, anything-goes, bad ass album rock radio station, and it was where I learned about music. It was the station I listened to on my little Panasonic transistor. It was the station of “Nantucket Sleighride” and “Mississippi Queen”.  If you are interested in radio history, this is a fascinating story, because all this took place in ultra-conservative Jackson, MS. You can read about WZZQ here and here.

But like I said, this wasn’t WZZQ. It was more of a fly by night operation that took place in an old house on the edge of town. Since everyone there was scarfing down fast food, guzzling beer, and smoking like a fiend, let’s just call it WFAT. Or we could go with WYUK. WBIG. WCIG. WSUD. You get the picture. Anyway, I met this guy at W.C. Don’s (Remember? Home of big-arm-dancing and where my friend hit on Michael Stipe?), and he told me he was a deejay at WFAT and could get me an internship (um…unpaid) for the summer. WOW! I was so excited! I wasn’t too impressed with the easy listnin’ music they played, but what the heck, it was RADIO!

So I showed up, all eager, ready to learn the ropes and picturing myself as one of those ultra-cool female deejays with the deep, sultry voices. Not that I have a deep, sultry voice, but I thought maybe I could develop one. Imagine the let down when I was instructed to take the order for the first round of Krystals. And the Benson and Hedges. And the Budweiser and so forth. And when that was done, there was nothing else for me to do, except try to avoid the other female that worked there, because she seemed to hate me with a burning passion.  I guess there was only room for one female deejay per radio station, and she was there before me, so I was an interloper and a potential threat to her radio stardom. Anyway, I’m sure she rejoiced greatly when the summer ended and I was relieved of my duties to return to college. I know I did.

A deejay story by the great Harry Chapin…

And not only did we have a kick-ass radio station, but the founder of MTV, Robert Pittman, was born in Jackson and grew up down the road in Brookhaven, Mississippi. That’s between Jackson and Granny’s swamp. Here’s the first song played on MTV, and a fitting one it was, too.

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And a shout out to Vis – thanks for reading! But the answer is no – I’m not in the study board biz anymore. lololol…

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The Diamond Girls

We have talked before about the Jaycee Hut and the pitiful dances I attended there in junior high and high school. But there was another activity that took place at the Hut, or in the fenced enclosure behind it, that wasn’t pathetic or lame in the least, because the Jaycees had the swimming pool that we all used every summer.

From the time I was old enough to paddle around in the baby pool, I spent every summer there, turning brown as an old boot. I use the expression “brown as an old boot” with pride, because in those far away Farrah-days, tan and blond was de rigueur for beauty. I could never achieve the blond thing, although I tried, as you will see in any picture of me with the tell-tale copper colored coif that is the bane of dark haired girls who try to lighten their locks. But nobody could beat my tanning abilities. We did crazy things to attain those dark tans – laid out on the roof, on top of aluminum foil, coated in baby oil, for instance. Now I look anxiously in the mirror for signs of sun damage and skin cancer, but none yet, thank God. Must be thanks to that good Cajun blood Granny gave me.

But in the early days of Jaycee Hut swimming, I was stuck in the shallow end with my cousins, who apparently were trying to drown me. Well, they were trying to drown everybody. It was like a game. They would dunk you under and hold you there until you started to panic and thrash wildly, then they would stop because that might gain the attention of the aunts. Then they would let you up for a breath of air, and back down you would go.

Pool

“Today’s the day. I just know it. They’re gonna drown me for real.”

So I was pretty happy when I reached the age when I could escape the regular threats to my life and join the teenage girls on the chaise lounges down at the deep end of the pool by the diving boards. That’s where they hung out because that was the greatest vantage point for seeing and being seen by the boys lining up to dive. But I had one problem – my friends, whom you’ve met as the girl posse, refused to make the giant leap from shallow end kid to deep end fox. They were afraid. Lacked confidence and such as that. I mean, I was a little intimidated too, but my desire to join the foxes outweighed my fear, so for a while, we were stuck in limbo, hanging out in that bland, no-man’s land of mid-pool. Away from the little kids, but still not in The Fox Zone.

At regular intervals throughout the day, we would go inside the Hut and get an orange push up or a Popsicle and listen to the juke box. As you may have already surmised from the title, Seals and Crofts’ “Diamond Girl” was in regular rotation. One day, as I sat licking my pushup, listening to the music, observing my shy, chicken-shit friends, I suddenly announced that Seals and Crofts were singing about us and that we were The Diamond Girls. It was our secret club and you had to learn all the words in order to be a member. So we played the song and sang it over and over and learned all the words. Once we became The Diamond Girls, we were invincible. Afraid of those older girls? HA! We were like “precious stones” – they had nothing on us. Scared of those diving boys? NOT! Cause we were “like shining stars” and they “could never find another one like us”.

Diamond girls, you sure did shine…

You already know how this ends, right? The Diamond Girls moved into The Fox Zone and made it our own.  We ruled it. And as a corollary to this story, I got my first kiss that summer, right next to the juke box. He was one of the cutest boys at the pool and his name was Donny.  I’m still carrying a torch. Sigh…

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