Saturday, April 26, 2008

Small Towns

I grew up in a suburb of Nashville, Tennessee, but I both entered and exited grade school in small towns in North Carolina and Kentucky, respectively.

I began the first grade (“pre-school” not being an operative concept in the 1950s South), in Summerfield, North Carolina. It’s now a bedroom community for Greensboro, and it’s not really that far, only 10-15 miles, but the roads back then weren’t that good, and Summerfield felt very rural. By “rural” I mean that there was a tobacco farm next door, a mule pen maybe 40 yards from our back porch, and the first money I ever actually earned (as opposed to little “tips” for being cute or helpful) was at a “tobacco stringing party” where the whole neighborhood tied harvested tobacco leaves to sticks, to be hung in the curing sheds.

There was also a General Store across the street, and across an open field and parking lot was a drugstore, complete with soda fountain. I must have charmed the manager of the drugstore, because he made me ice cream cones with chocolate syrup and peanuts and charged me far less than usual because I’d been buying Drumsticks at the General Store. Or maybe he was having some weird kind of competition with the General Store. In any case, I spent large amounts of time in the drugstore, reading comic books and magazines, and the sight of a pre-schooler bookworm was probably just cute as all get-out.

When we first moved to the area, we lived in Greensboro for a while. I’m not absolutely sure if Dad worked in Greensboro or Winston-Salem. If it was the latter, then we moved so he’d be closer to work, but I think he worked in Greensboro. I can only remember going back to Greensboro from Summerfield a couple of times, to see our friends the Appels; the son Steve, had been my “best friend” for maybe all of the three months we lived there. Steve’s sister was mentally handicapped, that may have been the euphemism for “retarded” then, although “retarded” may have been the euphemism. All I can remember about her was that she was sweet and shy, saying very little, and she had a lot of health problems. I know now that it’s very rare for health issues to be confined to the “mental;” there are usually profound developmental malfunctions accompanying most mental handicaps.

I don’t remember much about school in Summerfield; we weren’t there very long. There were two “alpha males” in my class, me and a guy named Terry, and we got along. It was actually a trio that included a girl named Carol (these are very treacherous memories, I acknowledge; I’m not positive that was her name). It being the Baby Boom and all, the school got some “Portables,” pre-fab classrooms, installed a month or two after we started school, and there was a split-grade 1st and 2nd grade class formed, with the brightest of the first graders put into it. I would have gone into it, but it was already known that we were about to move back to Nashville, Dad’s transfer not having worked to anyone’s satisfaction, so our trio got broken up and Carol and Terry left. I had only a few weeks to get used to that, then we moved back to Donelson, and I became “the new kid in school” despite having lived in Donelson for years.

As an aside, having reminded myself of Terry and Carol, I don’t ever recall passing through a “girls are icky” stage. I will acknowledge being terribly annoyed at times by my younger sister, but I’ll stipulate that I was probably even more annoying to her. But one of the pains of my adolescence was watching various girls that I’d substantially liked deliberately dumbing themselves down in accordance with “community standards.” At the time I thought it was because I was in the South; now I acknowledge the more general problem. Still, my experience suggests that it’s worst in the South.

Anyway, Donelson Elementary gave way to a new, much closer school, Hickman Elementary, which I left behind about six weeks into my Sixth Grade year. This move was to Russellville, Kentucky, where Dad had found a job managing a bowling alley (that dates me, I think; they call them “lanes” now). This was definitely one of those “small town gentry” places that John Barnes talks about; the business failed after a year basically because the man who’d purchased it hadn’t kissed the proper feet, and the local Men of Influence wouldn’t sponsor leagues, which are the lifeblood of a bowling establishment.

When my sister and I entered school, my folks were told (condescendingly), that the school was organized on a “three track” system, not really separate classes for “A,” “B,” and “C” students, but, well, that was how it actually was; they just didn’t call it that. And they’d found that transfers from Tennessee schools were “usually a bit behind” where the same grade Kentucky students were. So they placed Marilyn and me in the middle (B) group, and said that if we had any trouble keeping up, they’d move us back to the slower (C) group for a while. Then if we caught up, we could move back to the average group.

A week later, both of us were moved to the advanced classes; I spent the entire year more or less sitting in the back row, reading the World Book Encyclopedia and occasionally giving demonstrations to the class about such things as the destructive distillation of wood or writing short stories and little science fiction plays. My sixth grade teacher, very wisely, God bless her, realized quickly that she had a mutant on her hands and didn’t try to get in my way. As long as I turned in the assignments and didn’t disrupt class (well, the wood distillation was a little disruptive, in the sense that it stank up the place), she didn’t try to rein me in.

The school was also very musical, with the music teacher being a real power in the place, and musical numbers being a common entertainment at school assemblies. I had a good voice, but no musical training beyond church choir (no snide remarks, now), so it was one place that I had the unusual comfort of not being a standout (phys ed was another; I was pretty average except in things that they didn't pay attention to, like swimming). On the other hand, I’d have liked to learn to read music, and they didn’t teach that, for some reason.

I’d already turned into a science geek, making some of my first buddies by telling them about the difference between alpha, beta, and gamma radiation while we were discussing some of the first issues of The Hulk. And there was an older student, I think in high school, who was also a chemistry geek—gads, he actually had access to real nitric acid—and I expect we’d have done some interesting, if dangerous, stuff if the family had stayed in town.

After a year, though, it was back to Donelson, for an entire 7-12 sequence at Donelson High School. High school is itself a simulacrum of a small town, and, as many have noted, everything we do later in life reflects the tribal customs that we all learned in High School. But that another essay or twelve, and if I access this particular file structure much longer, I’m going to get maudlin, if I haven’t already.

5 comments:

black dog barking said...

…but the roads back then weren’t that good, and Summerfield felt very rural.

In central Nebraska in those days the demarcation between town & country was quite simple. Trees meant people. Town mapped as a cartesian NS/EW grid of mostly paved avenue and street outlining city blocks. In the country the roads were gravel and ran along the edges of one mile square agricultural sections, most conveniently subdivided into 160 acre quarter sections. The town streets were tree-lined and shaded from summer sun; many found terminus at the edge of corn fields that threw up eight foot green walls in August and early September. The rest of the world was a long ways away back then.

James Killus said...

It was pretty much the same in Central Illinois back when, though there were often windbreaks of trees at the boundaries of farms, at least until crop prices rose high and some farmers cut down the trees to expand their land just a bit.

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