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America in Better Days Past

October 24, 2013

liars-bench

My Friend Barbara

 

heebnerhouse

Shwenkfelder Library Collection

ALAN writes:

There was no television, no rock music, and no culture of youth worship in America when my friend Barbara was born in a small town in southwestern Indiana in 1935.  The town was surrounded by farms.  Barbara used to visit her grandparents in a white frame house with a large porch on one of those farms. There was a well for water and a drinking cup.  She would help her grandmother gather eggs in the chicken house.  Her grandmother wore a long-sleeved dress, a bonnet with a big brim, and shoes with two-inch heels.  Barbara remembers playing dominoes.  The grown-ups would play card games like Euchre. Around the player piano, the family would sing along to songs like “My Darling Clementine” and “She’ll be Coming ‘Round the Mountain.”

Barbara lived as a girl and young lady in the small town of Odon, Indiana, where the main street was called Main Street.   There were no stoplights.   It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone, doors were left unlocked, and doctors made house calls.  Amish buggies were a common sight.  There was a bank, a department store, a poultry house, a dress shop, grocery stores, a furniture store, a clothing company, and lumber companies.  Barbara’s father was a barber and her mother was a beautician.

“Odon is a thriving little town situated in the center of a splendid agricultural country….”, Goodspeed’s History of Daviess County, Indiana reported in 1886.  “The people of Odon are religiously inclined, go to church regularly, and are very much opposed to saloons…”   The same was true half a century later:  Barbara remembers three churches and just one tavern in Odon in the 1940s.

On some nights in her childhood Barbara remembers hearing dance music on radio from the Trianon Ballroom in Chicago.

Barbara walked to and from school.  She did not care for history or mathematics, but she enjoyed learning geography and taking part in spelling bees.  She and her childhood friends improvised games and found delight in nature.  She had a lemonade stand, played with her kitten “Fuzzy,” and was the pitcher on a softball team.  They often rode their bicycles to Walnut Hill Cemetery, just north of town.  It was the family custom to visit the gravesites on Decoration Day and preserve the memory of those who have died.

The Rexall drug store on Main Street occupies a place in Barbara’s memory with its Captain Marvel comic books, soda fountain, booths, and candy selections like red-hots, gumballs, and orange slices.  Another childhood pleasure that Barbara remembers was a cold bottle of Nehi orange soda on a summer day.

Outside the drug store was the “Liar’s Bench” where men would sit and smoke cigarettes, exchange tall tales, and tease the girls who walked by.  “From earliest times, men in American small towns and rural communities have gathered at crossroads, stores, and taverns to swap yarns and tell tales,” the WPA booklet Hoosier Tall Stories reported in 1937.  “So common is this yarn-swapping among Hoosiers that a time-honored institution exists from which the yarns are started on their rounds.  This institution is called variously the ‘Lazy’ or ‘Liar’s Bench’, the ‘Community Bench’, and the ‘Cracker Barrel’…”   (See this plaque on a Liar’s Bench in another southern Indiana town. And here is a photo of men sitting on a Liar’s Bench in Waveland, Indiana, in the early 1940s.)

Barbara’s father loved horses and presented horse shows in a neighboring town.  His friends and family enjoyed many hearty laughs when one of those horse shows was described in a newspaper as a “hore show.”

On weekends, Barbara and her parents would ride in her father’s 1941 Chevy to a movie theater in a nearby town.  She enjoyed the movies of Shirley Temple and Tarzan, Westerns, and musicals featuring the Wilde Twins, Lee and Lyn.  Popcorn was available for a dime.  In the days afterwards, Barbara and her friends would improvise games in which they would become Tarzan or Jane.  Their imaginations never suffered.  There was no television with an endless parade of pictures and packaged entertainment to neutralize their imagination.

As a young lady, Barbara took part in fashion shows at the “Old Settlers” festival in the city park.  It was an annual event that featured bingo games, music, rides for children, and socializing.  (It is still held every August.)

Many people go through life with a certain incapacity to appreciate its beauty and variety.  Barbara is the opposite:  She absorbs and appreciates its beauty and wonders more deeply than most people, ranging from the first time she heard the hoot of an owl, to the variety of fruits and vegetables grown in and around Odon, to the type and colors of flowers in neighbors’ gardens, to the simple pleasure of riding a bicycle built for two on Mackinac Island.

Barbara has been a homemaker and housewife, a mother, a beautician, and a saleslady in women’s apparel and kitchen décor.  She and her first husband drove west to California along the old, two-lane Route 66.  She has lived in places as far apart as Ohio, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Kansas City, and Coronado Island, California.  She has outlived two husbands.

It was entirely by chance that Barbara and I met.  A small-town girl and a big-city boy found themselves in agreement one evening when they met in a hallway and expressed the judgment that people are moving way too fast in modern life. Joining the rat race was an idea that never appealed to her or to me.  Since then we have spent many hours talking long into the night, reminiscing about her childhood in that small town, the happy times and the sad times, her extended family and friends, and her adventures in life and love.  We talked of all that and of her love of food and cooking, of grits and red eye gravy, of her travels through many small towns, of mountain roads in Colorado, earthquakes in Indiana, and snowstorms in D.C., and of the beauty of the night sky, the planet Venus at dusk, and the pointer stars in Ursa Major forming a path to the North Star (Polaris) and the brilliant orange-red giant star Arcturus.

When our conversation is interrupted by the noise of people speeding along the road in their trendy automobiles or motorcycles, I say to Barbara, “They’re in a big hurry.”  And with the wisdom of someone who has seen and heard it all, she adds, “…and going nowhere”.  She knows it and I know it, but it will take them years to figure that out.

Barbara grew up in a place and time when children could still have a decent childhood.  She was surrounded by friends, family, and extended family. Such people now fill her memories. They measured their lives by the old-fashioned standards of responsibility, hard work, self-reliance, honor, decency, and neighborliness, not by how fast they could move, how many toys they could cram into their lives, or by imagining that the perennial moral problems in life are going to be solved by improved technology.

“Multi-tasking” is a trendy idea by which modern Americans imagine they are superior to previous generations.  Barbara thinks “multi-tasking” is nonsense, which of course it is.

Barbara’s life spans two very different eras in American culture, from years when Americans were disciplined, confident, proud, and had a wealth of common sense – to today, when they are undisciplined, ill-mannered, adolescent-witted, and do not have the sense God gave to horses.  In the absence of material excess, Americans once had substantial moral sense.  In the midst of material excess, they now have minimal or no moral sense.

Every life represents a story.  Painting pictures with words and memories is a talent that is fast disappearing in a nation whose people are now drunk on speed, manufactured entertainment, and technological gadgets.  In the years when Barbara was growing up, philosopher Richard Weaver saw that coming and wrote about it in his essays and books like Ideas Have Consequences.  Conversation is one casualty of those things.  But Barbara has that talent.  She loves conversation and has a remarkable memory, so remarkable that I told her she could have been a spy.  She graduated from high school at a time when teaching was both competent and effective.

The spoken word was dominant in Americans’ lives in the pre-television years when Barbara was growing up:  In conversation at home, around the table, in visits with extended family, in school, and on radio programs.  That is one reason why she and others of her generation speak sensibly and clearly.  It is one reason why their conversation is not littered with the ear-grating nonsense of “like, awesome…like, cool…like, you know” now spoken by all young people and many of their elders who should know better but don’t.

Through her words and memories, Barbara paints delightful pictures of life in a small town at a sensible pace and on a sensible scale, with the usual pleasures and problems.  They remind me of two songs:  The song-and-dance number “Kokomo, Indiana” performed by Betty Grable and Dan Dailey in the 1947 motion picture “Mother Wore Tights,” and the hauntingly-lovely version of “Back Home Again in Indiana” sung by Martha Mears while Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck are dancing in the 1940 motion picture “Remember The Night.”

Mother Nature has not been kind to Barbara in recent years, inflicting upon her a series of burdens ranging from allergies to inner ear problems to multiple surgeries to cancer, and now a minor stroke. She is waging the toughest battle of her life.  But she does not permit herself to get discouraged.  She is determined to conquer those things.  She has a reservoir of toughness.  At age two, she showed enough spirit to earn the nickname “Toughie.”  She would take on the Marines if she thought they were in the wrong.  But she is also sentimental and fond of songs like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Although she is not a reader or writer, Barbara has written down some of her memories on random scraps of paper.  She has the right idea.  She knows the importance of passing on the character, stories, and traditions of her family and extended family and remembering those who have died but live still in memory.  My impression is that her generation may be among the last to understand those things.  How many Americans today understand it?  Can people have any such understanding when they are engaged in the mindless pursuit of speed and commotion?  Richard Weaver wrote in the 1940s about the decline of respect for the past, tradition, and age.   His words were valid then and are still valid.   But the situation today is much worse:  Americans are awash in a mass culture as gaudy, shallow, and ephemeral as any group of carnival sideshows.  Was there ever a time when Americans were more drunk on speed, novelty, and sensation or showed greater contempt for the experience and wisdom of their old folks?  These, I suggest, are unmistakable signs of deep moral and cultural rot.

I compose these words on a park bench in mid-day, surrounded by trees, grass, flowers, a blue sky, puffy white clouds, a few bees, and a pleasant early-autumn breeze.  It is a good place to sit and remember.  The park is across from a house that my aunt and uncle called home fifty years ago.   They are long gone, as are many people in Barbara’s extended family, and others now live far away.  The Past is a country Barbara and I enjoy visiting as often as we desire.  It is a most agreeable place to spend “these precious days” with a dear friend.

From Thinking Housewife: http://www.thinkinghousewife.com/wp/2013/10/my-friend-barbara/#more-61436

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