January 23, 2014

It is common for aging men, worn by the long years of drink and skirt-chasing and strenuous dissolution in the fleshpots of Asia, or any available fleshpots, to remember their youth in roseate hues that never were. But, dammit, we really did go barefoot. And had BB guns. And the dog could go anywhere it damned well pleased and come back when it chose.

Athens, Alabama in 1957 was a small Southern town like countless others in Dixie, with a statue of a Confederate soldier on the town square and little evidence of government of any kind, which was well since it didn”€™t need any. While the South had not fared well in its ardent resistance to Federal regulation a century earlier, still there was little meddling by Washington in my years there. The South’s martial displeasure with Federal intrusion was remembered, though: When I moved down from Virginia, I was to other kids “€œthe damyank on the corner”€ until I learned to wrap words in a comfortable padding of syllables, as God commanded.

On the square. While Southerners are the most patriotic and martial of Americans, they have the least use for Washington. In which I heartily concur.

Although my father was a mathematician at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville and perhaps entitled to social pretensions, he didn”€™t have any. Consequently I lived as a half-wild disciple of Tom Sawyer. So did most of the town’s boys. Come summer, we at first tentatively abandoned shoes. No one thought this odd, because it wasn”€™t. Soon our soles toughened to leather and we walked everywhere, even on gravel, without ill effect.

“€œI lived as a half-wild disciple of Tom Sawyer.”€

And nobody cared. Oh sweet age of nobody cared. Child Protective Services didn”€™t show up, officious passive-aggressive snots, to carry my parents away. Today they would, droning censoriously of hygiene and worms and crippling cuts from broken glass and parental irresponsibility.

Many of my friends lost feet to these perils. To this day you can see them rolling about in wheelchairs in their dozens.

Foot-nekkid and fancy free, we went to the Limestone Drug Store on the town square, piled our ball gloves and BB guns inside the door, and read comic books for hours. The owner, a frizzly redheaded man in his seventies whom we knew only as Coochie, liked little boys. Today this would be thought evidence of pedophilia and he would be required to undergo therapy and wear an ankle bracelet. Actually, Coochie just liked kids. And since it was his store, nobody at corporate got his panties in a knot because the comic books were read into virtual dust without ever being bought. The Federal government had not yet regulated small-town soda fountains to protect us.

Still there, fifty-seven years later. Much changed inside but the current owners, whoever they are, had the decency to preserve the original soda fountain.

The devastating plagues that swept the South in those years, mysteriously unrecorded, were doubtless the result of bare feet in Limestone Drug.

BB guns, I said. We all had them. Most were the Red Ryder model, costing I think $4.95 in as-yet uninflated currency. Mine was the Daisy Eagle, a more glorious version with a plastic telescopic sight. Every corner store sold big packs of BBs. We went everywhere with these lethal arms, often with a ball glove hung off the barrel for convenient carrying.

Today children of six years are led from classrooms in handcuffs for merely drawing a rifle (curious in the world’s most militarily aggressive country). I suppose we would have been executed for actually having one. But, as I say, the saving benefits of Federal counsel had not yet reached Athens.

What did we do with these weapons? First, we didn”€™t shoot each other, or anyone else. We weren”€™t stupid. Stupidity properly comes with adolescence, and then is directed into drink and insane driving, as it should be.


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