|Things that make you wide-eyed, give you goose bumps, bring a smile to your face, and put joy in your heart. Remember 'em? I do. And as I reflect back on a lifetime of many such experiences, I've discovered that often the simplest of pleasures have brought me the greatest joy.
Ding, ding, ding went the trolley. The year was 1944. My Dad was in the Army, having been deployed someplace in Europe. I lived with my mother and grandmother in a rented duplex in Candler Park, east of Little Five Points in northeast Atlanta. Mom was employed by the Public Health Service--my grandmother was a film inspector for United Artists. I spent my days at Moreland Elementary School, a facility that in those days doubled as a pre-K nursery.
When the weather was nice, we would walk the short mile-and-a-half distance between our home and the nursery on Moreland Avenue across the street from old Bass High. When it was inclement, we would use public transportation that even in those days was a work-in-progress. Beginning in 1937, the city fathers of Atlanta had begun the process of upgrading "streetcars" that ran on tracks, to "trackless trolleys" that didn't. These new trackless trolleys were best described as electric buses that drew power from a spider-web like maze of overhead lines.
In neighborhoods served by the old streetcar system, their steel tracks still crisscrossed the pavement in deep ruts. And while the womenfolk frequently caught their heels in the tracks, I thought the cars themselves were neat. They could be operated from controls located at both ends of the car. When he reached the end of the line, the motorman would simply change positions and go to the controls that would now be at the front. The wooden seatbacks on the passenger seats were also reversible. When the car changed directions, the motorman would flip them to the opposite position so that a boarding passenger could sit facing the direction of travel.
On our line, the trackless trolleys were beginning to dominate. However, especially during the morning commute, they would occasionally still run an old brown streetcar down the tracks. Whenever I got to ride to nursery school on one of these, it made my day! I squealed and jumped for joy whenever I heard the quintessential clang of the bell as the old rattletrap rounded the corner and approached our stop. It was a simple pleasure that brought pure joy to a three-year old.
Going fishing. Following two-plus years in Uncle Sam's Army, once back home, my Dad focused on rebuilding the father-son relationship that the war had placed on hold. When Dad said, "Son, how'd you like to go fishing next Saturday?" I'd light-up like a Christmas tree in eager anticipation. So during the spring and summer months, whenever he had a free Saturday, he would take me fishing. Not deep sea fishing like the rich kids did; not fishing from a power boat or even from a row boat. Not fly fishing or fishing with the latest gear. This was simply a boy and his dad bottom-fishing with cane poles from a creek bank, or from a rickety wooden dock that stuck-out into a snake-hole of a pond.
We often fished Snapfinger Creek it was closest to our home. Our fishing spot there was on the south side of the old wooden bridge, beside the old mill. But my favorite place to fish was Sherrill's Lake. It was an hour's drive or so down old #78 highway, past the gray granite house with the yard full of purple thrift, to the little gravel road with a sign and an arrow pointing the way. We'd make a right turn on a gravel road, and then I'd hold on tight as we dodged the rain-washed gullies and drove several hundred yards to Mr. Sherrill's house on the left. My dad would pay the $1.50 fee to fish a half-day. Afterwards, we'd jump back in the car and drive another quarter mile down the bumpy road to the path to the lake.
Once there, he'd take my hand and we'd walk together through the weeds, the briars and the honeysuckle, down to the water's edge always carrying our fishing poles and our lunch. When the lake finally came into view eager to wet a hook I'd take off running. Dad would always yell for me to slow down and be more careful. He knew he'd catch the devil at home if I fell in!
Mom would usually pack a lunch for me a bologna or ham sandwich, sometimes with lettuce and tomato, sometimes not. Dad would stop at a country store along the way where he'd purchase fish bait; plus a can of sardines, a package of saltines, a chunk of cheddar cheese and a couple of Cokes. To this day, I wretch at the thought of him eating those smelly little fish and afterwards lighting-up a Chesterfield! In all the times we fished Sherrill's Lake, I can only remember two catches: a small bream that I insisted on taking home for Mom to cook for dinner, and a water moccasin that Mr. Sherrill came and shot with his shotgun. Still, it wasn't about the fish. It was about a joyful, happy time with my Dad at what for us was a very special place.
To Grandma's house. In the fall, we would travel north to east-central Tennessee to see my grandparents. They lived at 570 Freeze Street, at the corner of Maple Avenue. My grandfather was the Superintendent of Building and Grounds for Tennessee Tech; my grandmother stayed home to keep house, tend to the chickens, and raise a small garden.
Dad came from a family of seven brothers and sisters. Each October, they would all gather at the home place for a visit, usually during the week of the Putnam County fair. During this time, breakfast at my grandparents' house was quite an event. A huge meal, often consisting of eggs, pork chops, fried chicken, fried apples, sliced tomatoes, grits, cottage fries and biscuits it was always served at 6:30 am. Although she had a modern electric range, my grandmother still preferred to cook on her old wood-burning stove that she refused to have removed from her kitchen.
Since the oven temperature was impossible to control, sometimes the biscuits had a raw streak; sometimes they were a little too brown perhaps even burnt on the bottom. My grandfather would look at his biscuit, and then look over at my grandmother, whose given name was Prudence. "Prudy," he'd say, "These biscuits should have stayed in the oven a while longer, don't you think?"
Wiping her hands on her apron, my grandmother would answer, "RL" she always called him by his initials "I thought they were too brown yesterday so I decided that today, this was just the way I wanted them." My grandfather would grunt, nod and resume a full-cycle of chewing sans dentures. I never understood why he took them out to eat. No one did. Regardless, seeing his entire face wrinkle and stretch as he chewed was the real "shock and awe" for me and the other grandchildren seated at the table.
After dinner, in the cool of the evening, everyone would take a chair in the front yard, or on one of two porches, and sit a spell. The men folk took delight telling their fishing stories and in frightening the kids and their city-slicker wives with tall tales about life in the Tennessee hills seeing Bigfoot, and buying illegal whisky from the moonshiners.
The biggest thrill in all of this for me was the county fair that each fall occupied a number of acres just down Maple Avenue. The sounds, the smells, and the lights up and down the midway spun a kind of magic for a kid. My cousins and I liked the rides best especially the Ferris Wheel, where getting stuck at the top was always our goal. My grandmother, my Mom and all my aunts would spend their evenings at the fair watching various artisans displaying their talent at the potter's wheel, or at some other craft, tasting and buying homemade cakes, pies, jellies and jams. For my Dad, my uncles and my grandfather, it was a time for horse trading watches, watch bobs, hunting knives, pocket knives, guns, coins, arrowheads, native-American jewelry what have you. They traded all evening long, and once back home, they would spread out their loot and argue over who made the best deal. Time with my grandparents in Tennessee brought me great joy. As an only child, it made me feel part of a bigger, closer-knit family if only for a week.
To the beach! Summertime was coming and our elementary band had been invited to play in Daytona's Band Shell on the "world's most famous beach." This wasn't our first band trip a musical group of some renown, we had been asked to perform before the National Music Educator's Association meeting for two successive years once in Chicago and again in St. Louis. But the Daytona trip was undoubtedly the best.
On a Friday early in June, after Dad got off from work, we drove part-way to Valdosta, Georgia where we spent the first night and where I saw my first palm tree ever. The next morning we were back on the road early. Somewhere near St. Augustine, I got my first peek at the ocean, over and in between the dunes that stretched all along the left side of the road. It was big and blue and absolutely breathtaking! That night, the beachfront highway called A1A was lit-up better than Christmas at Waikiki! It appeared every building was outlined in neon and every palm tree was awash with spotlights shining into their fan-shaped leaves. Id never seen anything so tropical and so beautiful. Even though we couldn't afford to stay at a motel that was right on the beach, for this kid it was four days of pure heaven. Eating out every night, riding the rides on the boardwalk, swimming in the surf and making sand castles on the beach peering through the glass-bottom boats at Ocala's Silver Springs, drinking papaya juice, and catching chameleons at our apartment a few blocks off the main drag on Grandview Avenue...what more could an eleven-year-old want?
For three nights our band performed flawlessly in the Band Shell where we played popular classical selections like Ravel's "Bolero," F. J. Rickett's "Colonel Bogey March," Albert Ketelbey's "In a Persian Market" and the "1812 Overture" by Tchaikovsky. The sax-quartet, of which I was a member, literally blew their socks off with our rendition of Glenn Miller's popular swing tune "In the Mood." In front of God, my parents and everybody there, I was presented that year's Achievement Medal for outstanding musicianship. I'll never forget the excitement of that special trip to Daytona. All that we did and all that we saw are etched in my memory forever.
Chillin' in the Fifties! Long before air conditioning made its way from commercial establishments, upscale retail stores, movies and churches, into the average home and car, surviving summers in the South presented a special challenge. Simply stated, "chilling out" and "being cool" required water or wind or a combination of both. Since water parks and subdivision swim clubs were unheard of, fortunately there were a number of public facilities where kids and adults alike, could cool down and splash away the hot, humid days and nights of a southern summer.
There were public pools operated by city parks department. Also commercial places like Misty Waters, Venetian, Mooney's Lake and Glenwood Springs. My favorite of all was Mooney's Lake. Only here could you climb high up a tower, take-hold of a strap attached to a pulley, and sail down a taught, inclined cable into the water below. What a thrill it was! Best of all, after your first dousing especially after dark the evening breezes against wet skin was always good for a teeth-rattling chill.
When swimming wasn't an option, our family would opt for an evening ride in the car windows down. Of course, most of the air that blew in was warm and sticky, but it felt good nonetheless. Occasionally, however, especially at the bottom of one of Atlanta's many hills, the outside air temperature would drop several degrees. Without fail, my Dad would exclaim, "Feel that? Boy, howdy!" And "Boy, howdy," that cooler air sure felt good. To keep from heating the house, whenever she could, Mom would do her baking early in the day. At night, she'd slice the ham, or chicken, or whatever and serve it at room temperature as part of a cold plate always with sliced tomatoes and other garden veggies. On the weekends, Dad would cookout on his new charcoal grill. I couldn't believe how long it took him to cook the chicken, but it was always worth the wait. When I took my first taste of charcoal broiled chicken, it was a taste thrill that even today is unmatched.
After dinner, whether from the Miss Georgia Ice Cream emporium in Avondale, the one in Little Five Points, or hand-cranked in the freezer on our back stoop, ice cream was always a great summertime treat. Watermelon was my parents' favorite. So much so that beginning in late June, our nightly rides to cool off would often include a trip to the Georgia Farmers' Market where at the beginning of the season, watermelons would bring as much as a buck-fifty, even a buck-seventy-five. If it was a good crop, the prices would steadily decline throughout July and into early August. By then, the prices always dropped down to a buck, and two-for-a-dollar and three-for-a-dollar prices weren't uncommon. One summer, after some bartering, my Dad got seven-for-a-dollar certainly his biggest thrill of the summer!
There was only one solution for sleeping from mid-July through August the ubiquitous window fan. Not a whole house fan or an attic fan, mind you, a window fan. One that installed inside an open casement window and that running at full tilt would draw the hot air from inside the house out into the night, while pulling the cooler night air in through another open window or two. Without fail, sometime after midnight, that stiff breeze blowing across my bed would have me reaching for the covers.
Who can forget their first kiss? Not me. I was fifteen and her name was Alice. Since I was still too young to drive, it was a double-date with an older friend in his 1947 Chevy Coupe. We went to see the hit movie, "Tammy and the Bachelor," starring Debbie Reynolds and Leslie Nielsen at the Fox theatre in downtown Atlanta. Afterwards we stopped for a snack at the Varsity Drive-in. Yep, on the way home, hormones raging, I sneaked a kiss. Not a kiss like the kids do nowadays, I'm sure. But a tingling, quivering, thrilling kiss nonetheless one that I remember to this day. I sometimes wonder whatever became of old Alice.
A real vacation. My wife and I had been married a scant three months when we took our first "real" vacation, from our first "real" jobs. Even then, the Friday afternoon traffic leaving Atlanta was horrendous. All the way through town and south beyond the airport, it was bumper-to-bumper. Then somewhere between Jonesboro and Griffin, a little west of Lovejoy, the little two-lane called highway #19 became an open road. No cell phones, no pagers, no long distance cards...when we saw the sign that said "B-Lloyds Pecan Shoppe Just Ahead" we knew we had snapped the trap and really were "on vacation." Nothing and no one could get us now! It was quite a feeling one that I hadn't experienced in years.
Following five days of serious beach time, on Thursday, May 17, 1962, we awoke early and drove down to Satellite Beach, near Melbourne, in anticipation of NASA's launch of Mercury 18 Astronaut Scott Carpenter aboard Aurora 7. Along with hundreds of other spectators that lined the beach, we turned our binoculars toward the Cape and watched intently as the Atlas-D rocket was made ready for blast-off. On this day, however, it was not to be. Early in the countdown, the launch was postponed to allow some necessary modifications to altitude sensing instruments in the parachute deployment system.
We were disappointed, of course, having gotten up way before breakfast to make the 87-mile drive to Satellite Beach and locate a good viewing position before the 7:30 am scheduled time for launch. However, early in our space program, delays were a fact of life. Another launch attempt on May 19, 1962 was also scrubbed due to irregularities detected in the temperature control device on the Atlas flight control system heater. When on May 24, at 7:46 am Carpenter finally got the green light to began his suborbital flight that lasted 4.9 hours and spanned over 76,000 miles, like many of you, we found ourselves watching the event on television. Still, the space program was made more real for us since we had experienced a piece of it first-hand.
Losing my shirt tail. For an aviation enthusiast, nothing compares with their first solo flight. That tiny two-place Cessna trainer that had struggled mightily to lift my 240-lb. flight instructor and me into the heavens, now leaped off the ground and climbed like a Saturn rocket. The benchmarked numbers of those earlier flights were out the window as the airplane now went faster, climbed higher, and glided longer than ever before. After performing three "touch and goes" without any noticeable damage to the airframe, I taxied to the ramp, grinning from ear-to-ear and promptly lost my shirt tail. That was a thrill that for many years was unsurpassed, even by the 2,000 or so flying hours that were accumulated over the next twenty-five years.
California dreamin'. As neat as the Atlantic Ocean had seemed in 1952, twenty-five years later, the Pacific outdid it. Not only that, it was mid-July and northern California felt like it was air-conditioned! The Golden State was a wonderland of things to see. From the peaks and valleys of Yosemite, to the ragged coastline at Monterey; from the Golden Gate down to the seventeen mile drive to Pebble Beach, California had to have the bluest sky and the bluest water I'd ever seen. Literally driving our car through a redwood tree at a national park near Santa Cruz, I had to pinch myself back to reality.
Blessed with a wonderful dog. Sharing some long days, Rudy and I have become best pals. We're practically inseparable. The administrator at the assisted living community, where my Mom now resides, says in two years, she's never seen me without that little black dog. She's right. That little black dog is my constant companion. He goes with me to the Jiffy Lube, the barbershop, the Post Office, and the bank, where he loves to eat out (dog biscuits from the drive-up teller are far superior to those we have at home). At night, after a busy day taking four steps to my every one, he still claims the middle of the bed.
Rudy's trust and loyalty are unmatched by any of my two-legged friends his love as well is unconditional. He forgives completely and without questioning. Like me, these days he sleeps a little more and plays a little less. But at thirteen, he's still going strong and he's still a major source of fun and entertainment for me. Even as I pen these thoughts, Rudy is dozing at my side, on a huge poly-filled pillow that my wife made for him. If I asked if he wanted to "G-O," he would snap to attention, race me to the backdoor, and stand like a Marine beneath his harness and leash that hang on a nail, outside in the garage.
The list could go on and on. And as I wax philosophical, I realize that the most pleasurable part of each experience has been the anticipation of what is to come. The thrill and excitement of each special event was great, but it didn't compare with the anticipation. It was the watching, waiting, fantasizing, preparing and getting ready that was the most fun. It was having something to look forward to another mountain to climb, another goal or dream to fulfill that kept me going. If we aren't careful, like a runner's high, the pursuit of things new and exciting can become an addiction. In mid-life, I know the more I had, the more I wanted, and yet I soon learned that pleasure from "things" was short-lived. Adding to my frustration was a feeling that I had "been there, done that" and each year it increased in frequency.
On the second and third trips to California, the ocean wasn't quite as blue, the sky not quite as clear as I had remembered it. In fact, after the new wore off, there was a feeling of disappointment in a great many things. After a while, travel in general became a hassle. Instead of being excited over the purchase of new clothes or a new car, now it became very easy to be totally turned-off by the laborious process. Things that once provided a thrill and heart-thumping excitement have become more and more mundane and new ones more elusive. Indeed, for many of us, finding new thrills and the energy to pursue them, gets more and more difficult with time. My father-in-law was a wise and perceptive man. He found pleasure in simple things. At eighty-four, he had accepted the fact that "just rockin' along" was pretty good, and that "taking the path of least resistance" wasn't all that bad either.
The thrill is gone? Not by a long shot. Remember, the most fulfilling things in life come while traveling the road, not from reaching the destination. That road can be the Autobahn of Achievement or the Path of Least Resistance. I don't think it really matters. Even though some days I have to look under every rock and behind every tree to find purpose and fulfillment, find it I must, and find it I do. I also have a new rule that I live by: nothing and no one is allowed to steal my joy. Supportive people are in; poison people are out. Like my father-in-law, I've learned to find happiness in simple things, and I've found that many of those lie close to home. Friends, family, a good wife, a wonderful old dog, baggy clothes with elastic in the waist, an old boat on the lake, food in the freezer, a good computer, and a sleep-by-number bed! Who could ask for more? Yet, who knows, the biggest thrill of my lifetime might be yet to come. I'd best go get ready. Perhaps you should, too.
©Copyright 2004 David Ray Skinner/SouthernReader. All rights reserved.