Monday, June 30, 2014

Forbidden Paradise

I mentioned the Sewer Creek Woods in my last post, so I thought I'd better write about it. I don't know why it had that name. There was a small creek that ran through it, and it didn't look as bad as I have pictured it. It was clear and their were craw dads living in it. We were not supposed to go to the woods, and were especially warned about stepping into the creek.
Our street, Sells Avenue, ended at Hopkins Street, and Hopkins Street ended at the railroad cutting, which had created wonderful red clay cliffs. You could make your way down a path through the cliffs, cross the tracks and take another path through the opposite cliffs and there you were, with Sewer Creek Woods right in front of you. The woods were mostly scrub pine, bushes and a few real trees. The red clay ground, before you entered the woods, which were set in soft sand, would dry up in the summer, making interesting patterns of cracked pieces of clay. I liked to pry these pieces out of the ground to see what I could make with them, but they just crumbled when they were handled.
In the woods, we just explored the terrain, finding interesting stones, some with crystal embedded in them, bits  of colored glass from who knows where, and mica, which you could peel apart.
My older brother collected chameleons, which he kept in wooden and screen cages. We would catch flies to feed them and got quite good at snagging them live in mid-air.
My older brother and sister had an ongoing, evenly matched feud most of their childhood, both of them smart and clever. He had taken over a large closet in the central hall. Our father had given him an old desk. Billy had wired the closet to install a lamp and had "found" an old telephone which he had tied into  the house phone system. My sister and I were forbidden to enter, naturally, so we kept snooping every chance we got, trying not to leave evidence. But he knew.
One day we found a map, carefully coded. It looked like a treasure map, with arrows. It didn't take Mary Lucille long to break the code. Decoded, it contained the Sewer  Creek Woods! Once there, the map told us, you needed to locate a certain tree, take a specific number of paces in the direction the arrows pointed to, then turn another way, and take another number of paces there, etc., etc., and you would find The Treasure, which was marked on the map with a big "X." The anticlimactic result is that we flew to the woods, found a lot of trees, paced in all directions and found nothing. Our brother looked smug that evening, but I don't think we ever talked about it. We knew he'd planted the map for us to find, but we'd had a good time anyway.
We have a wonderful few acres of woods across the street It was full of children all year long, finding their own treasures and exploring nature, sneaking smokes, and who knows what else.  Every kid should have a place like that, with or without a "sewer" creek.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Things We Did

 Either the world was a safer place in the 30s or our parents were just plain careless. We had an enormous amount of freedom as children. When we weren't on Sunday drives, we walked everywhere by ourselves, once we were school,age. I remember walking by myself to kindergarten, once my mother had walked me  me there a few times. It was not just a couple of blocks, but it never occurred to me that I wasn't safe. I had to cut through a golf course, where I once helpfully picked up a ball and handed it to the golfer who had just putted it. He thanked me and didn't kill me.
The walk to our elementary school was  quite a few blocks and involved a few busy streets and there were no crossing guards. We were very bright children, and knew enough to look both ways. However, I did once misjudge an approaching street car, dropped my books as I skittered  across
and lost a corner of my 4 th grade geography book as the trolley screeched to a halt. Not sure why I did that because I was on the right side of the street at the time. This happened in front of The Wren's Nest, the home of  Joel Chandler Harris, the journalist who recorded African folk tales and saved them for posterity in the person of Uncle Remus, who is not politically correct today. The house was then and is now a museum. Our little nearby branch of the Carnegie  Library was also called The Wren's Nest in honor of Harris. We also walked to the library, which was near our school.
We were always looking for interesting ways to walk to and from school, since there were a lot of different ways to get there, all of which took about the same amount of time. Our school, St. Anthony's was on a major street, Gordon Street. It had been used by the Yankees as they marched in to burn Atlanta 70 some years earlier. When my parents first married, they lived in a boarding house on Gordon Street, owned by two old ladies. They told my Yankee mother how terrified they had been at the sight of those soldiers, pointing out to her the route they had taken right in front of their home. But  I digress. One of my very favorite routes was an alley behind some of the big houses along Gordon Street. Along these alleys were cabins, which were inhabited by people who worked in the big houses. The alley was unpaved. The dirt yards were fenced and contained chickens and small  vegetable gardens. In the winter there was smoke curling up from pipe chimneys, with  great smells of burning wood, and a faint scent of kerosene.  I loved those aromas  and tried to imagine what these little houses looked like inside. I never saw any people around outside, because they would have been working. I found the whole thing mysterious and can still see it in my mind.
In the summer we swam at Mosley Park. It was free before noon, so that's when we went. We always got typhoid shots from my father's cousin' s  husband, who was a pediatrician and apparently didn't trust Atlanta's public pools. Our route to the pool was as varied as our route to school. My sister and I would start out while it was still cool. We discovered Chicamauga Street, an unsaved lane of very soft, dusty, pale, whitish sand that felt so good on our bare feet. There were weathered, dilapidated houses on either side, with no visible inhabitants.  When I think of two little blond girls walking through this deserted area, I have to think of the possibilities that could have happened. If course, one of the things is that we never told our parents about these excursions, because we never felt there was any danger. We were forbidden to play in the sewer Creek woods (don't ask) so, of course, that's where we went...adventure was our aim.
I think how the world is such a dangerous place for children today - or does it just seem that way, with constant news available with the press of a button, bearing fearful stories of abductions and assaults. Were we just lucky? Or did those prayers to our guardian angels actually work?

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Sunday Drives (cont'd.)

There were other pleasures and sights on those week-end drives into the countryside around Atlanta in the 3os. At that time, before food regulations made  "amateur" food vendors unable to peddle their wares on the roadside, inexpensive treats were available to a car full of  overheated family members.
By far the favorite, to me, was iced sugar cane. Along with cotton, Georgia farmers grew sugar cane and peanuts. The sugar cane stalk was cut into 6 or 7 inch long pieces, and kept in ice chests. When you bought a piece, the vender would peel back the tough outer layer, revealing the sweet white pith to suck on. To me it was as good as ice cream
Farmers would sell raw peanuts, the soft green shells hanging from bushy green stems,. My father was the ultimate peanut lover, and figured he could roast these peanuts as well as Planters, which he bought in  two pond bags. However, as I remember, the home roasting experiment did not turn out to match the flavor of the commercial product. The green shells turned the right color, the peanuts turned brown, but they still tasted "raw."He never tried it again. (When he died many years later at the age of  91, my older brother and sister and I took part of his ashes down to Montgomery, Alabama, to the family plot. My sister first went to a peanut store and bought a small bag, of in the shell peanuts,  which we sprinkled on the plot along with the ashes. As we left, a few Alabama squirrels  were having a little celebratory party.)
Another common roadside treat was watermelon, sold by the slice,kept nice a cold in a big wooden  box full of chipped ice. It was always the perfect treat, given that there was in those days no such thing as automobile air-conditioning, other than opening the windows to the hot Georgia summer air.
In the heat, in a car full of sweaty kids, there was often  behavior that evoked the  perennial Dad threat from the driver: "If you don't stop that fussing, I'm going to stop the car and put you all out! "  It never happened, but we could never be sure he wouldn't do it.
A more sobering sight, not involving food treats, was the sight of chain gangs. Never on Sunday, though, Georgia being full of Baptists who took  the Sabbath very  seriously, as in no dancing, and no playing card games. Apparently the chain gang guards were home and not dancing or playing "Go Fish ,"  as the prisoners were hanging out in their luxurious  wooden  bunkhouses behind the barbed wire fences. When they were working along the road, it generally involved shovels and pick axes and guards keeping their eagle eyes on the prisoners. I don't remember if the prisoners were integrated racially, because that would n't have registered with me. I suspect not, because I do remember some which were all African Americans, then called "Negroes."Who knows what their crimes were? During the Depression one could get thrown into jail for stealing a loaf of bread.  One could be thrown in jail for being Black.
It  was like "Les Miserables" in the 20th century. It was a common sight along  the red clay back roads of Georgia.  And bing Black was a perilous condition, rich or poor. The sight of these men, of whatever race, was saddening, and for once, we in the back seat were quiet.
By the way, the Klan, in all their white sheeted glory, marched in the annual Decoration Day (the South's version oh Memorial Day) parade. Since they hated Catholics, too, having burned a cross on the grounds of Christ the King Cathedral, they were roundly booed  by us as they shuffled by. I remember one woman shouting, "Shame on you!" She was white, thus safe from being taken away to a chain gang.
This was the South in the 30s, with pleasant country drives, and unpleasant realities.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Sunday Drive

Back in the 1930s, gas was cheap, which enable families the inexpensive pleasure of the Sunday drive, an entertaining excursion into the unknown. In those days of un-air conditioned cars, this could be a sweaty experience in a Georgia summer, but my father persevered, perhaps out of his own sense of unrealized  adventure. Every Sunday morning,the Atlanta journal would publish an itinerary for a short trip to an interesting destination not too far from the city. We didn't always use this for a guide, but it appealed to my father  once in a while. The most memorable ride, to me, was to what I remember as Muscle Shoals, but not the one in Alabama. I was never sure what a "shoal" was, but it sounded interesting.
The back roads of Georgia were red clay, often slick and slippery. All of Georgia seemed to be red. The Chatahoochee River was red. The woods where we played was surrounded with red clay cliffs. The lake where my neighbors had a cabin was yellow with banks of ocher clay.  (I never saw blue water until we crossed the Ohio River  on our way to our new home in Ohio. We marveled at the sight as we crossed the bridge to Cincinnati.)
It must have been spring, and there must have been a recent heavy rain on the trip to Muscle Shoals, because the roads were heavily rutted and slick. Our 5 year old 1931 DeSoto slid about, in and out of ruts which started getting deeper  and sloppier. Finally, the wheels started spinning, could get, as my father used to say "no purchase" ( which in his Alabama accent came out as "pou chase") and we were STUCK IN A RUT!- condition which, for some reason, terrified me. Maybe I had heard tales of people getting stuck in rites and never getting out, spending the remainder of their pathetic lives rut-captured. My older brother and sister did not seem to share this terror, being much cooler children than I was. I think my father was probably embarrassed, having failed to negotiate the bad road as he imagined a ship captain would have negotiated a stormy sea. And he would further humiliate himself by having to ask for help.
There's something about rural areas that has always amazed me, at least in the old days. If your car staggered into a deserted village with one gas pump outside a falling apart grocery store, and no one on the street but a stray dog, as soon as you stopped, four or five guys in overalls would appear, open the hood and start discussing possible diagnoses, methods of repair and fall to work soon and send you on your way. (Of course, nowadays you've got your serial killers and "Deliverance"  psychopaths, so it's probably better to just stay in the car and die of natural causes.) Anyway, some of those overalled types came to our rescue at Muscle Shoals, or wherever we were when the clay mire trapped us. We headed back to the city with its  paved roads and never attempted that particular adventure again.
I must mention one favorite Sunday drive that never disappointed. Paces Ferry Road was where the very wealthy Atlantans had built their mansions. Bobby Jones, the Tiger Woods of his day, had  a beautiful estate which was on our way to the star attraction of the area, the Candler palace, home of the folks who brought you Coca Cola. A pair of immense wrought iron gates opened to a sweeping drive at the end of which was a veritable  castle. What was so unique about this gawk festival is that as cars slowly reached the vista beyond the gates, each would pause for a few seconds to allow the passengers time to take it all in, then move on to let the next carful take its
turn. No one ever honked. One more recent Sunday, when I turned on the TV to watch "The Good Wife," it was delayed because of some football game, and a program called "The Great Race" was still on. A bunch of fit, but sweaty people were apparently ending the race in Atlanta, right at the Candler castle! It looked small.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Blue Sky in Holmes County

Last week-end we took a drive down to Holmes County. John wanted to show me a little town ,tucked into the hills, which had been founded by French pioneers in the early 1800s. It's a tiny place, a village really, but with three churches. The one he wanted me to see is a stone Catholic Church built by French missionaries. It's a small, beautiful  building, set on an immaculate grassy knoll. The churchyard gravestones are engraved with a number of French names.
There are quite a few houses in this village and two other gleaming white wooden churches. There is no commercial center in this place, and it has  a Brigadoonish air about it. The town is called Glenmont, and it is very much off the beaten path. It became notorious during the Civil War, when, after the passage of the Conscription Act, enacted because not enough men were volunteering for the Army, 400 men from the area refused to participate. Federal troops rallied to force the draft, and there was a skirmish near Glenmont, resulting in the arrest of three of the refuseniks, descendants of the early French settlers. The site of the tussle is called Fort Fizzle, which describes the futile rebellious fray. Only one man was jailed, but he was pardoned by President Lincoln. So this is Glenmont's claim to fame. I can't imagine that there were ever 400 men in this hilly area 150 years ago.

Another small town we stopped in was Killbuck, which is surrounded by the Killbuck Marsh. I used to drive by this town off Rte. 62, south of Millersburg, the county seat of Holmes County. While this county is home to one of the largest  Amish populations in the U.S. of A., there are not so many in this area. Kill buck got its name from some legend about someone killing a large buck in the swamp (marsh) back in the early days. That's really clever, no? It's not so isolated as Glenmont, and even has a formerly empty building fitted out as an auditorium for local entertainment, including a screen to show movies via a DVD  player once a month.
The only thing open when we were there was the Killbuck museum, so we decided to check it out. It's in a storefront, a large space that could have bee a hardware store. It had a very large collection of miscellaneous artifacts, consisting of a lot of rocks and an enormous collection of stuffed birds, hundreds and hundreds of species of same: hawks, eagles, herons, owls of every kind, tiny birds, medium birds. All of these birds were incredibly old and covered with sooty dust. The volunteer at the front desk told us they had been donated by a kindly benefactor, (who was probably relieved to find some place to dump them.)  Some little girl visitors admitted to being spooked by the many dozens of owls, staring out of their glass cases with their huge owly eyes. It was a very large museum for such a small town, and I was impressed, but wished someone could clean all those dirty stuffed birds. I expect they would probably disintegrate if touched.

We had dinner at the restored Millersburg Hotel, which seemed to be the place for families to bring geezers for their birthdays, since we could overhear a number of creaky voices askingp the waitresses to "guess how old I am" followed by the waitresses being very tactful and tip conscious in their responses.

It was a nice excursion and the skies were absolutely gorgeous above the hills and valleys of one of Ohio's most lovely areas. It was the kind of day I dream about in February, and is payback for going through the kind of winter we had this year.