I think my childhood pretty much ended in 1963. I was eight years old, and we were living in Redlands, California, which, at the time, was a beautiful little southern California city–an oasis next to a hot, dry, not-so-beautiful desert.
I went to sleep one night a normal kid with normal things on my mind (school, friends, ice cream, new shoes), and I woke up the next morning with an ambulance outside my house, and white-shirted ambulance drivers carrying my daddy out on a stretcher.
I was scared, but not really surprised by the events of that morning. I’d had a nightmare that night that someone was holding my daddy down and pouring concrete down his throat. In the dream, he was struggling, but could make no sounds. It was scary and I remember waking up, realizing it was only a dream, then going back to sleep. The events of that morning, though frightening, seemed to fit with the dream I’d had. I wasn’t surprised at all when they hauled Daddy off to the hospital.
I realized just how bad things were when I had to stay with the next-door-neighbor lady. She bought me a Shirley Temple grooming set, complete with brush, comb, and a little bottle (I’m guessing it was for that goopy waving gel we used to use). I knew things were really WRONG when I got that present. After all, a kid doesn’t get a Shirley Temple grooming set unless something really bad has happened.
After a few days of Mom being gone to the hospital, my brother and sister broke the news to me that Daddy had had a stroke. Stroke was a new word for me. I remember saying it aloud, letting the word roll off my tongue; even trying it in a sentence. I tried to tell my good friend Carmen my dad had had a stroke. She looked at me, her face all scrunched, and asked, “A stroke? What’s that?” We both just sat there, because I had no idea myself.
Several days passed before Daddy was released from the hospital. He couldn’t walk (the whole left side of his body was weak and nearly useless) and he couldn’t speak. It became apparent to my mom right away that we’d have to go home to Arkansas where we could get some help from family. You see, my mom had very little education, and since Daddy was no longer able to work, she knew it would be next to impossible for her to make a living for a family of five.
Weeks passed, and Daddy slowly began to make progress. He learned to stand, sit, and even walk a bit, though it was clear walking was going to be a challenge. Also quite a challenge was his speech. His speech, along with familiar gestures, helped us to understand him. He clearly was determined to get back to Arkansas and family.
We boarded a train that June evening headed for Beebe, Arkansas. My sister had gotten a job there in Redlands, so we left without her. My heart was in my throat waving goodbye to her, and I can only guess how my mother felt. I remember her walking down the aisle of the train as we pulled out of the station, watching Bonnie frantically waiving to us, until the distance separating us made it impossible to see her. A silent tear trickled down her cheek, but she said nothing. She finally took her seat, wiped her face, and sighed.
We arrived in Beebe three days later, hungry, dirty, and road-weary. My first thought when I saw the little town shimmering in the summer heat was “this can’t be it!” On the street beside the depot, there was a Trailways bus station, The Palace Theater, a grocery store with a sign out front that read, “Weatherford’s Grocery,” and a place called “Popcorn Pete’s,” which seemed to be some sort of clothing store. Next to Pete’s was a run-down building with a sign that announced “Pool Hall.” My first impression was not a good one, and things got gloomier as the day progressed! I really thought I’d come to the end of the world!
My uncle (Mom’s brother-in-law) picked us up in an old Ford. The small talk on the way to his house included something about the president, and how he was a “Cath-o-lick.” He also asked questions about “Californy.” “Did you see any movie stars out there?” he asked. Mom, who had worked at a bar and grill, answered that yes, she had, and gave the short list: Mickey Rooney, Little Oscar, the Marlboro Man. Uncle just smiled and nodded, rightly impressed.
When we arrived at Aunt and Uncle’s I realized with a start that these people were actually much worse off than we had been in California! A single bulb dangled from the ceiling, and an old worn-out car seat served as a sofa! The house smelled of old bacon grease, but was otherwise fairly tidy.
That night, a huge thunderstorm blew in. I had never experienced a thunderstorm before, and it was a doozy! Lightning, hail, and huge explosions of thunder shook the little house. Though early June, it was already hot and unthinkably humid, and in those days, a fan was our only comfort. Along with all the other difficulties, a swarm of angry mosquitoes had made their way into the house, and were enjoying a midnight snack courtesy of one eight-year-old–me! To say the least, it was not a good night.
The next morning I was shocked to learn that there was no bathroom here at Aunt and Uncle’s house! Auntie pointed me to a trail that led off into the high weeds.
After that chore was accomplished, it was time for breakfast. Auntie went out to the back yard, chased down a chicken, and wrung that hen’s poor neck as I watched, stunned. She then busied herself by plucking and cutting the chicken. Next thing I knew, she had that unfortunate bird in a deep iron frying pan, sizzling in the fat. I had never had fried chicken for breakfast, and I’ll have to admit, I have never had fresher chicken before or since!
–to be continued!