September, 2002 Wingspread
THE GOOD OLD DAYS
By Billie Marie Zal
Kids don't know how to have fun today. I know this sounds "old fashioned," but I got out all of my old "memories" in high school today and life was fun, never a dull moment for those of us of the Senior Class of 1940 in a town called "Smackover, Arkansas."
My Daddy had brought us to Smackover during the great "oil boom" in the Twenties.
Having lived in downtown Muskogee, Oklahoma, the sight of that muddy "Main Street," and "Roust-abouts" covered with oil overwhelmed my child/mind and I felt lonely for "city life."
When we drove on out to the "Sims Oil Refinery Camp," our house-to-be was even worse than I'd expected. There were four homes in a row---three houses, plus a big "log cabin " on the end of the row. Several of the oil field workers boarded there, and of course all the nicest houses were already taken. I took one look at that three room house(with a bath squeezed in) and began to cry. Of course it didn't do any good, Mama wouldn't put up with our "foolishness," and the tears stopped.
Daddy wasn't a bit worried, I could tell. He would make it up to us; he could make something out of nothing and a peace enveloped me. We were "Home.".
We finally got settled in, and when I entered first grade my life took on a glorious new meaning. I had taught myself to read, by figuring out the sign on the refinery gate which said, "KEEP OUT." My zeal for learning began right there, and I was ready to enter into that wonderful world of knowledge. I loved it.
My early school years were fun. We were all rather poor, although we didn't know it. One boy in first grade, "Jack," was the son of an extremely wealthy "oil man," but he probably didn't realize it. He never enjoyed "recess," and stood around sucking his thumb. One of the girls was very poor and hungry so I shared my lunch with her each day. Mama found out and made two lunches, and then told me to bring her home, and she would clean her up.
Mama got hold of her and scrubbed her beautiful hair and she came out shining. She had failed first grade twice, so my sister's dresses fit her, and Mama gave her one for her very own. The next day at school, the kids didn't even recognize her. Those were the early memories which set me upon a path of seeing the needs of those around me and then doing something about it. I can thank my Mama for that.
School years passed by quickly. I can still smell the scent of chalk, hear the recess bell ringing, and remember the passage of childhood into young adulthood with joy. But High School was the thrill off my life. Most of the kids had begun first grade with me, but once in awhile some new kid would move to our town; if it was a boy, we would flirt with him outrageously until he decided who would be "his girl." It was such innocent fun. A different age. A different world, really. We were decent, clean youngsters having decent, clean fun.
Once in awhile we were exposed to tragedy. When I was in tenth grade, one of my friends got pregnant. We never spoke of sex or such things; in fact, we didn't even want to. But one of my best friends, "Hulon," came to me in tears. He told me that he was the father of her unborn baby, and he had begged her to marry him but she said she was too young. When our town doctor (a godly, good man) refused to perform an abortion, she somehow found a way to have it done and she died.
We were heart broken. Reality about life had finally found its way into our midst; and we were frightened.
I remember the day of her funeral. She was such a lovely little thing, all golden skin, and soft, brown "natural" curls. Her mother held the service in their home, a barren, sad place void of any pretty curtains or furniture. As we tip toed past her casket, my eyes filled with tears. Why would she have done such a thing? There was no sense to it. And my friend who had confided in me was inconsolable. But life went on.
Our generation had no hang ups. I only knew two girls who hid and smoked in the girls' rest room; we never heard of "drugs or dope," and as far as I know we had no friends who used alcohol. There was discipline; teachers were not forbidden to mete it out, and when the football team members tried to show off and disrupt our principal's rule of order, they got whacked with a huge belt hung conveniently in his office. Nobody wanted to face that ordeal and there were no "delinquents" anywhere. We were secure; we had to obey and we loved the safety of "rules of behavior."
The depression had left most of our town's citizens broke, but it was an exciting time of "progressive dinner parties" where one of our Mothers would arrange for all of us to have a dinner party with different "courses" at different homes. It was always "formal." I don't know why but we felt so grand, our long "evening gowns" rustling about our ankles and a boy friend dressed in his best. Sometimes we would "go walking" after the party and if the course was the last one of the evening and we happened to be out at somebody's home who lived on an "oil lease" road we would ruin the bottom of our gowns with that reddish dust and sand. But we didn't care. Fun was fun, and our Mothers always made our gowns look like new.
My love for extravagance began to find its way into my personality when I spent a night at the biggest home in town. It was gorgeous, two stories (plus an attic) and extremely expensive. All of us marveled at the cost: TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. Once I was invited to a "bunking party" at this home and I explored it from bottom to the top. I loved the winding stair case and the library, with its walls lined with wonderful books. The kitchen would have looked right even in today's homes; "Mrs. D.," as we called the lady who owned the home, had a gorgeous stainless steel stove and she made the best peanut brittle I ever tasted. I can still see her, pouring it out on that stainless steel sheet; we could hardly wait until it cooled and was ready to devour.
But my Senior Year was the "Glory Year." Our teachers sort of loosened up on the rules, probably because we had all been good students and they knew we needed a break for the finality of "graduation."
I had such fun; I played Trombone in our high school band; I also played the "Marimba," and I sang with the girls' trio and with our glee club. We all won high honors at the various state wide contests which we attended, usually in Hot Springs or Little Rock.
We were permitted to skip classes if we had done our home work, and that gave us time to roam around and savor every moment of our last year of school.
But to me, the most important thing to happen was the beginning of new classes which had been introduced into our high school curriculum. Journalism was my favorite class and the lady who taught us was an angel. I always knew she loved us, and she had a way of showing us how to be direct as a reporter---WITHOUT being discourteous. I remember once when I was "riled up" about the student who was responsible to bring down the flag each evening but instead had "forgotten," and on that very night we had a big storm. The sight of it the next morning, hanging wet and lifeless on the pole, infuriated me. I wrote a scalding column on this incident, but Mrs. Bowen took me aside and showed me how to say the same thing without being mean and spiteful. I knew then, that the ability to write was a tremendous responsibility and I vowed to become a journalist who would write with prudence and wisdom.
Our Journalism Class joined "Quill and Scroll Society" and we each received a beautiful little golden pin. Perhaps even then, I instinctively knew that one day I would truly become a writer.
Toward the latter end of my senior year, we were invited to attend the State Journalism Meet (of High School students) to be held at Little Rock. We had never been to a "big city" anywhere else, and Little Rock was---to us---a "big city."
We had lunch at the Meet, but later on that afternoon, all of us were dismissed and we had nothing to do and nowhere to go. And---we had no money for treats.
There were three of us, as I recall, who decided to spend the afternoon hours (before Elaine's boy friend arrived to drive us back home) sight seeing. We'd caught a glimpse of our beautiful gold dome on the State Capitol Building, and although it was a long distance away we agreed to begin walking to the Capitol Building.
Kids today will laugh at our idea of sight seeing. We had no transportation, no "tour guides," nothing. But it was exciting, that long walk. We walked past a Bakery where the still popular "Wonder Bread" was baked. By now we were hungry but didn't admit it, even to each other. As we entered the bakery, everyone was so kind to us. We were shown all of the steps which include the baking of the bread to the wrapping of the loaves by what we thought was an extremely "complex machine." The fun part of our visit to the bakery was the gift they gave to each of us as we left tiny souvenirs of real Wonder Bread, just out of the oven!! I must admit that by the time our sight seeing was completed I had eaten my bread. With the prospect of any kind of food out of the question, that bread tasted delicious and lasted me till I got home late that night.
Bernice suggested that we stop at a funeral home. I personally didn't want to---they made me feel sad. But I agreed to go inside with them. The Manager must have been bored, he seemed delighted to talk with us, and show us his place of business. We visited their chapel, the family waiting rooms, and a display of caskets. My day was ruined!!!! Some mournful organ music was playing continually and when one of the girls asked me to play a few hymns, I was glad to do it. I played happy hymns, like "Onward Christian Soldiers," and "When the Roll is Called up Yonder." When we were leaving, Elaine begged the funeral director to let us see the embalming room but thankfully, he said "No." I was glad to get out of there.
As we got nearer to the Capitol Building, we stopped at a fruit stand and admired the fresh fruit. We must have looked longingly at what we could not buy and the owner smiled and gave each of us a huge orange! At the time they were what I called "the big ones that cost fifty cents a dozen!"
We finally arrived at the steps of our State's Capitol Building! It was so beautiful, and the idea came to me to ‘"go visit the Governor." After all, a journalist usually interviews important people! We really didn't expect the Governor would see us, but it was worth the try.
When we got inside, we were shown the Governor's Secretary's office. He was a kind, gentle man, a former State Senator whose name was Judge Barney, and now was Governor Bailey's personal secretary. What a sight we must have been---three nervous, giggling teen age girls wanting to interview the Governor! But luck was on our side and after speaking with us and making us feel welcome, he escorted us right into Governor Bailey's beautiful office!
We were so excited, I can't remember all that was said; but when we prepared to leave our Governor asked if he could have one of his revenue men drive us around town in a limousine. Kids today get all excited about Rock Stars, but there is no excitement greater than the trip around Little Rock in the Governor's limousine!!! He drove us everywhere, even let us tour the State Hospital where I could mentally pray for the people who seemed so lost and lonely there. He also showed us around "Fair Park." And then he drove us back to the hotel where our convention had been held and made a big thing out of opening the limousine door for us.
We were so proud; we had been "escorted around town in the Governor's Limousine" and it really didn't matter anymore that we were tired and broke and would have nothing to eat until we got back to Smackover, some one hundred miles South of Little Rock. People stood back and stared at us and we really "put it on." I was a real journalist. I had interviewed the Governor of Arkansas. Some day I would write a book and ride in limousines!!
It didn't happen, of course. I graduated with highest honors and went on to College at Louisiana Tech, at Ruston, La., and life was good. My parents couldn't send me any money but I had a scholarship and I sang with the College "Big Band" and earned my way.
It was here, at College, that I learned that life is not all good. One of the girls in my dorm was caught having sex with one of their "star" football players. She was expelled and all of us girls had to sit in our dorm living room and listen while our "Dorm Mother" told exactly what had happened and why she was expelling our friend. None of us looked up; my heart was broken for her, but rules were rules. Her Mom, a blistering red head from New Orleans, came to get her and I heard swear words I'd never heard before as she took her little girl HOME.
It was an embarrassing incident; but somehow, we felt safe after it happened. Limits had been set for our behavior and we knew where we could and could not go. Limits are necessary for our society to survive; but I see very few limits today, and it breaks my heart.
I was blessed during that first year at Tech. None of the girls on my floor were ever invited to a dance in the auditorium so they loaned me their formals. I wore a different one each Saturday night, and no one knew I had only one. One of the girls wrote me notes and when I got in from the dance, these little notes cheered me. She would say, "I sat in the shower room window and heard you sing. You sounded so beautiful." She was an artist and her name was Claire, and I will always remember her painting of a "tooth ache." She had made circles of black paint, round and round, and in the middle was a huge black blob. I could almost feel the tooth ache. The other girls laughed at her, but she had talent and I loved her spirit.
I often wished I had money for treats, but I would never have let my parents know how I felt. I knew that if my Daddy had money, I would never want for a thing. So I consoled them when they wrote and said they had nothing to send to me. The food was good, and I loved the attic dorm and what else could I need? At nine pm, every night, we had what was called "Y Room" and everyone could go down for cokes, candy, etc. My best friend, Nina, (also from Smackover---we'd been inseparable friends all through high school)_ always shared her treat money with me. And I vowed during those days that I would always share whatever I had with others who had nothing.
It was during this Freshman year that we began to hear the rumblings of a world war. Tragedies such as a war had never touched our lives, and we were frightened. The "Draft" of our boys had begun and often I would hear a friend crying. Her boy friend was drafted and had to leave College. Soon we would all be involved in an awful war. Would we be ready to endure it, and be of value to our country?
Of course we would. We were tough, accustomed to disappointments, a lack of money and the things which we crave, as humans, to boost our ego.
And we were of much value. In fact, we are called "that splendid generation" by one of our TV news commentators.
What, then was so splendid about us? Was it our wealth? No---most of us were poor. Was it our education? No---few of my friends could afford college. Was it our strength? Perhaps. We possessed a strength of character, of compassion, of winning the game against all odds. Perhaps only those who are tempered in the climate of adversity know what it means to overcome, and to hold up the standards that were dragged to the ground in subsequent generations.
And so, when our country called us to sacrifice and endure, we grew up too quickly and experienced the bitter taste of a battle far, far away.
We were a generation of decency. We did not murder our babies within the womb, nor believe we had the "right to choose." We were not thieves; I don't recall anyone in our student body who got into "trouble" with the Law. We were not proud; never having more than enough money tends to keep one's pride subdued. It was an honor to live without having anything we wanted within our immediate grasp.
We were loyal to our government; no one thought of avoiding the draft, or escaping a war which would determine the future for our country.
And our morality puts to shame the immorality of the present generation. A young lady was just that : a LADY, and you never saw her strutting sensuously about, her belly button in full view and "next to nothing" covering her top. No, we did not have a "dress code." Our parents determined what we would wear and God help us if we "talked back " to them, or challenged their rules! Our parents were never our "buddies." They were parents, and didn't care if we liked them or not; we respected them.
We were compassionate. When the horrible World War II finally ended, we sought to help the people of Japan who were members of our Church denomination in Tokyo. We knew that they had lost so much, and our future was secure. Once I was asked by my Church if I could send any warm clothing to the Christians in Tokyo. I had a lovely winter jacket which was brand new and as I packed it to mail to Japan, I tucked my name and address into a pocket.
In time an air mail letter arrived from a lady in Japan who would become a life long friend. When her little girl was infected with tuberculosis, I asked my druggist if he would let me "charge" vitamins so I could send them via air mail to my friend in Tokyo. Her little girl thrived and is a lovely lady today with her own family.
Our generation did not know how to hate. We were loved by a God who asks us to forgive and the thought of hating never found its way into our hearts.
And so, we thank God as our lives advance toward the wonderful Day when we shall be with Him---that we showed the world that "no matter what,." our lives must stand for something good and grand.
I cherish the memory of "the good ole days......." The football games, the trips to Little Rock and Hot Springs, the "togetherness" of a group of kids who had been together all the years of their school lives, and were ready to go out and make some kind of sense in this world.
And we did. And you can, too. All it takes is courage and a determination to live life in loving obedience to our Father in Heaven, who---after all----has led us to overcome. We owe Him.
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