1960s · Movies

Matinee Memory, 1966

 

Grandpa and Grandma Keller

My siblings and I grew up at the picture show. Our grandpa J.C. Keller, Sr. had opened Eunice’s first movie theater in 1924 and once owned five theaters in town.  By the time our parents married, Grandpa had died and Grandma owned the Liberty Theater downtown. Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose ran the show for their mother.

Saturdays meant double feature matinees at the Liberty. The Saturday lineup was often westerns or comedies with Little Rascals and Looney Tunes in between. Since all of Grandma’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren got in free, I saw everything that played in town until 1968 when the ratings system (G, M, R, and X) censored my movie freedom. Matinees were my favorite: four hours of sitting in the third row, sharing popcorn and candy with my sisters, and letting the moving pictures and stereo sound take us to exotic places with high adventures.

This Saturday’s lineup was top-notch:  Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, nothing but music and comedy with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello! We pooled our dimes to share popcorn and candy since our parents only gave us each a dime. (We wondered why our parents were so stingy since we didn’t pay to get in the show).  

I sat in the middle and shook popcorn into Gayle and Kelly’s laps; Gayle doled out even amounts of Milk Duds. The thick velvet burgundy curtains opened and the pre-movie show started. The theater of kids got quiet.  

This reverent silence did not last. Today’s Daffy Duck cartoon and Spanky and Alfalfa’s adventure were reruns, so the audience talked and messed around. When tossed popcorn hit my middle sister’s head, Gayle stood up to yell at the silly kids behind us, but she made a quick about-face, sat down, and said, “Big Jim.”  Kelly stopped kicking the empty second row seat letting it push forward and pop back. I removed both feet from the seat’s arm rests in front of me. The three of us sat up straight as Slim Jims as the picture show’s usher and handyman lumbered down the aisle. Big Jim spent most of his work time on his usher’s throne in the lobby where he sat on the chair’s arm rests and had a good view of the screen. At random times he swayed up and down the aisles with a flashlight and threatened moviegoers with “Shhhhh!” or “Get your feet down!” During rowdy matinees he would add, “Don’t make me take off my belt!” to the most disobedient ones. The idea of seeing the entire length of Big Jim’s belt was enough to shush the sassiest rebel-rouser. 

My sisters and I were extra respectful of Big Jim’s power because he was close to the family. When Mom and Dad went out nights, the picture show became a free babysitter. If their grownup fun lasted longer than the movies did, Big Jim waited with the us until Dad drove up. Big Jim might change out movie posters or help Miss Pearl, the ticket seller, or one of the projectionists. If he still had more waiting time, he’d ask us about a movie or tease us about having boyfriends. I tried my best to balance respect and fear when interacting with Big Jim.  His sweaty face had him often repositioning his black-rimmed glasses on his face, and he must have bathed in Aqua Velva. (This overuse of cologne did not serve Big Jim well when he dressed as Santa Claus for Grandma’s family Christmas Eve parties). But we endured Big Jim’s attention and his good-bye hugs when Dad pulled in front of the Liberty to pick us up.  

I remember a Saturday night we girls were hanging out in front of the theater to wait for our folks when Claude Emile appeared and called Frankie and Johnny (one of our favorites)  “a stupid waste.”  

“You’re stupid,” said Gayle and Claude held up his special frog knuckles as a threat.  Kelly stuck out her tongue and skipped close to him and backed away.  

I said, “You don’t like Elvis cause you don’t like music.” His answer was yanking my head back by my ponytail and running inside to bother the projectionist. 

Coullion! Coullion!” said Kelly glad to be rid of the nuisance of a boy like Claude.  

I looked up and down the empty street wishing Mom and Dad would get there soon.  I needed to pee like a race horse, but I didn’t want to brave the show’s spooky basement bathroom located past the lobby’s water fountain and down an old staircase that ended at a musty bathroom that reeked of disinfectant. “Gayle, come with me to the bathroom,” I said.

“No way! It stinks down there!”

“Kelly?” I said.

“No! I call shotgun on the way home,” and she knew she had to be near the curb when Dad drove up to claim that spot.

Big Jim came outside with a box of red plastic letters. The projectionist followed him with a ladder and with Claude Emile in the rear.  

“Is the bathroom still open?”   I asked. 

As the guys started to change the show’s marquee, Big Jim said, “I think so.”  My full bladder forced me to chance it, and I went inside and smiled as I passed Miss Pearl counting the night’s ticket money.

The concession stand was dark except for the light on the popcorn machine. The lobby was dim, and the worn carpeted stairs down to the girls’ bathroom were nothing but darkness. At the top of the stairs I saw a weak beckoning light from the bathroom. I hugged the wall because the stairs were steep and I counted eight steps then six that turned left before I hurried to the first of two stalls. The overpowering sweetness of the round pink disinfectant tablets in the toilets made me hold my breath. I left the stall door open and focused on the sink. My pee came in a forceful stream, and I closed my eyes in relief for the final few seconds. I opened them and sighed just before the lights went out. “Shit! Shit!”  

urinal cake

The basement bathroom was as black as the inside of Dracula’s coffin. I heard the nearby scamper of what I felt sure was a rat as I fumbled for toilet paper to finish my business. I blinked hard in hopes my eyes would catch a spec of light, yet the picture show was devoid of any illumination beyond the lobby. I knew time would help my eyes adjust to the blackness so I waited and listened to my fast breaths and the scratching steps of the rat’s family. After seventeen seconds, I gained the confidence to face the dark. I straightened my useless glasses and used my good right hand to follow the wall until I reached the first set of stairs. I took the first steps slowly even though I imagined a bathroom zombie followed me in the darkness. When I reached the final few steps, a distant red Exit sign’s glow gave me confidence to move faster. From above I caught music from Miss Pearl’s transistor radio, and my head converted the muffled sound to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.

I held my breath and jumped out of the striped plane.  I was free-falling and doing summersaults through a clear sky. Far below a crowd of surfers looked up at me and pointed. I pulled my parachute cord at the best time to land on the beach amid my bikini-clad best friends.  All cheered and clapped as I took off my red helmet and let my poofed-out brunette hair pop into place. Then I shed the jumpsuit and felt right at home in my sexy red one piece bathing suit.  A go-go song played from my boyfriend’s radio, and the crowd of teens shook, shimmied, and jerked to the beat.  A loud engine roar broke up the dance when Eric Von Zipper and his band of black leather hoodlums zoomed up on motorcycles. I grabbed Frankie’s hand and together we walked up to the Ratz gang. From his sidecar Von Zipper opened his mouth to say something ridiculous, but all I heard was –

“Ah ha! Got you!” as the lobby lights came on and Claude Emile pointed and laughed at me walking past Big Jim’s chair.  

“Shut up, you booger breath!” I said.   Then I heard Dad’s car horn outside. I ran out the theater, endured Big Jim’s hug, and joined my sisters in the gray Mercury.

Sisters

And They’re Off

And They’re Off – 1964

“And stay outside until supper!”

Momma was on another cleaning spree and she “had had enough” of us and “all our tracas.” 

Since Chrissy’s five multi-colored kittens were now mobile and entertaining, my sisters and I began our outdoor time with her babies.  As the long black momma cat sprawled underneath the picnic table, her pink teats proclaimed their power to the trees, and I suggested we play Kitten Races.

Kelly and kitten, 1974

Gayle, Kelly, and I gathered the kittens to choose our racers. Chubby, the solid gray one, was the fattest; his round belly stretched out so much his fur had trouble covering it. I considered the grey tabby twins (Stripes and White Paw) – one’s solid white right paw being the only distinguishing feature between them. The fuzzy calico one (Cali) was my favorite, and I picked her up a second before Gayle reached for the same kitten. Finally, there was the runt (Lil Bit) – a smaller version of her midnight black mother. She had the same long, sleek body but looked as if someone had shrunk her.  Kelly always picked Lil Bit. Gayle settled on White Paw, and the racers were ready to compete. Chubby checked out a lizard nearby, deciding if it was edible, and Stripes followed us and our contestants to the starting line: an uneven indentation drawn in the dirt with a stick about nine yards from Momma Chrissy.  

“Let ‘em smell their mommy,” recommended Gayle, so we race cat owners took our squirming contestants to the closed-eyed Chrissy (dreaming of her former life of freedom) and let the racers understand where the finish line lay.  Back at the starting line, kitten claws kicked up anticipatory dirt as we each held a racer’s tail. All mewed and dreamed of mother’s milk. 

Kitten Cupid

I whispered, “OK, Cali, you got this,” right before Gayle announced, “Ready. Set. Go!”  And they were off! Cali grabbed an early lead and seemed sure of her victory. But White Paw was right behind and moving fast to the front. Lil Bit got distracted by a low-flying dragonfly and was back of the pack on the inside. We skipped on the sidelines as encouragement for our runners. And it was Cali barely in the lead at the top of the race until Lil Bit moved up on the outside. Soon the runt overtook Cali with White Paw right behind. With three yards to go it was Lil Bit and White Paw, and they were neck and neck. Then Cali put on steam and all three were bunched together and heading for home. 

“Come on, baby!’ said Kelly as Gayle jumped up and down to show support. 

I clapped my hands to the chant of “Go! Go! Go!”  

In the home stretch it was Lil Bit ahead by a nose with White Paw making a move up and Cali losing ground. It was Lil Bit and White Paw! Lil Bit and White Paw! Kelly squealed and Gayle closed her eyes. And the racers were even until from the left sidelines of the track Stripes decided to join the race! He pushed in next to his twin and ran to beat them all. Now the twins were keeping up with Lil Bit! And you won’t believe this, folks, at the finish line the latecomer Stripes pushed ahead and won it all by a whisker! 

Chrissy went, “Grrrmeow,” as all four racers reached the finish line. The crowd was in shock.

“What the hey!” said Gayle as Kelly clapped in surprise. (I felt relief that neither sister beat me). Even Chubby had found his way to his meal, and Chrissy had slitted eyes as her litter all tasted their kind of victory.

“I still won,” said Gayle.

“No, ya didn’t,” said Kelly.

“Stripes cheated,” said Gayle.

“And she won!” said Kelly.

Gayle pushed her baby sister to make her understand. “You too stupid to know race rules.”

Kelly stomped on Gayle’s foot. “You more stupid ‘cause your cat came in second.”

Gayle kicked Kelly’s knee right where her scab from yesterday’s bike fall was still moist.  So Kelly got a fistful of hair and they were off!

Five oaks in side yard of home

“Awwww, quit it,” I said right before walking away.  Our dog Footsie came over from the garage where he took late afternoon naps and followed me to the side of the house and the climbing tree. Our home had seven giant live oak trees surrounding three of its sides, and the tree next to the garage had the best low branches. Dad had nailed three wooden planks to the trunk to help short kids. I did not feel like climbing. I used the starting line stick to poke around the gravel road that ended near the tree. I gave Footsie a few pets, so he felt hanging with me held promise. I drew spirals in the loose gravel and sang snatches of “The Sweetheart Tree” song.   A crop duster plane whined in the distance, working in the rice fields that bordered our property.  As it moved closer its engine made steady zydeco…zydeco…zydeco sounds.

I looked up to see a hot air balloon floating by. A man all in white hung upside down from a cord. He struggled to get free from a straight jacket. I repositioned my pink driving goggles for a better look when the beep! beep! from a jalopy grabbed my attention as two clowns drove my way down the gravel road. I smoothed my pink frock and ran to my 1908 Model T parked under an oak tree. “That crazy female is no match for Professor Fate!” yelled the jalopy driver who sported a handlebar mustache and a cartoonish top hat. With my dog as my passenger, I tore down the gravel road through rice and soy bean fields.  “Boink! Boink!” came the sound of the pursuing car’s horn.  I shifted my gear to “Fast! Fast!” and was half a mile ahead now. The wind whipped at my tall hat and fantastically long pink scarf that trailed behind me. I smiled and wrinkled my pert nose as I imagined my victory over those boorish chauvinists. I was a woman of the future!  I had a brilliant writing career and more gumption than my smoldering brown eyes and stunning beauty would suggest. Literally the man all in white dropped from out of the sky and landed in the seat next to my dog. He wriggled out of the straight jacket and smirked while he lit a cigarette. 

“Well, well, glad to see you have not lost our lead, Miss Dubois,” he said. 

“OUR lead? Did all that blood rushing to your head make you insane?”   

“Let me set you straight, my dear. You are driving MY car, so technically I am about to win this race.”  

“You are unbelievable!” I said and reached to slap his insolent cheek. But he grabbed a cream pie from under his seat and gave me the old pie-in-the-face treatment. I swerved to avoid hitting a tree and someone grabbed my shoulder.

“Help me! I gotta hide from Gayle before she hits me with a switch!” said a frantic Kelly. I looked at my little sister’s tangled hair and stretched out t-shirt and decided to help. 

“Let’s get up on the roof,” I said. “She won’t think of there.”  

So Kelly followed me to the pump house on the side of the garage and helped me set up the ladder leaning against the house. My youngest sister could reach the top of the pump house and then scramble onto our roof while I distracted Gayle who was running through the garage with a long bendable branch.

Cerebral Palsy · Sisters

Operation

Operation – 1966

I used tiny tweezers to remove the sick man’s spare ribs.  The procedure ran smoothly until Kelly leaned over my shoulder and nudged me. “Brizzit!” sounded and the patient’s red nose lit up.  

“My turn,” said Gayle, so Kelly leaned back and looked down at her folded legs. I had no desire to scold Kelly because tomorrow was my for real operation.

Momma and I would drive to a Baton Rouge hospital where doctors would perform corrective surgery on my skinny left arm. This time they planned to give me supination – the ability to make my wrist muscles move and allow me to turn my left hand over and face palm up. This would be the third operation on my crippled hand.  The first surgery put a straight pin in my left thumb at the second knuckle to give me better fine motor control.  The second took three incisions and gave me the power to bend my wrist up and down.  Before then my stupid left hand stayed bent and locked downwards. 

The doctors predicted the supination surgery had a 64% success rate.  I felt nervous. The worst part of surgery was throwing up after the operations; however, Momma would be there to wipe my mouth and face with a cold rag and hold back my hair while I vomited in a metal container.  The pas bon feeling lasted less than two hours, and then I ate popsicles, opened presents, and read get well cards. My left arm would be in a plaster cast for weeks, but I was used to keeping my left arm in a supporting role.  The big difference with this operation was I would miss a week of school.

Sister B. had embarrassed me in front of my fifth grade class on Friday.  Right before we lined up for mass Sister said, “All of you need to pray for Ginger today.  She is having surgery on Monday to fix her crippled arm. We want God and the Blessed Virgin to watch over her.”  I had stared at carvings on my wooden desk and allowed myself two quick blinks before I realized a third blink would leave wet drops on my desk’s “Scools dum” proclamation.

“You’re lucky to miss so much school,” a friend told me at recess, and a popular girl who rarely noticed me, said,”You scared about them cutting up your arm?”

“I don’t wake up until it’s over,” I said. 

“Does it still hurt?” she said as her index finger touched the wrist scar where you could count the six stitches from my second surgery.

“Nah,” I said and followed my friend towards the playground.

At home in our living room I now watched Gayle remove the Adam’s Apple, funny bone, and wish bone from the electrically-charged Operation patient on the floor between us. 

“My turn!” said Kelly. 

“Wait!” said Gayle as she focused on removing the Broken Heart. 

“No! No!” said Kelly as her sister’s tweezer made the game go “Brizzit!” Kelly readied herself to win the game, so I left my sisters without a word. I went to my room to read away my consternation. 

Pippi Longstocking

When I began reading chapter books at age ten, I looked forward to being alone – on my bed against my flowered bed rest. Books about talking animals, strange gardens, or brave kids took me to cool places like movies did.  I enjoyed conflicts that sent characters in crazy directions before returning them to clever, satisfying resolutions. This afternoon I had Pippi Longstocking to laugh with and admire. However, I read only four pages before Kelly burst into my room with Gayle in hot pursuit. Kelly locked the door just before Gayle pounded the wood with her palms and moved the door knob back and forth. 

“You chicken cheat! Open up!” yelled Gayle.

Kelly stared at me with her dark eyes, gave me a small smile, and then backed against the door like the peyank she was.

“Come on, Ginger! She cheated!” said Gayle through the door as she pounded. 

“Quiet it down! Don’t y’all make me get up!” said Dad from his bedroom across the hall. We knew better than to rouse a napping Dad, so Gayle had two choices: to tattle to Momma or to find other amusement.

After Gayle gave up, Kelly jumped on the bed a few times and claimed the pillow to my right. “Pippi is my favorite,” she said, waiting for me to read aloud. 

“She and Mr. Nilsson headed to the South Seas to find her sea captain father,” I explained. 

“Show me the pictures,” said Kelly who flipped the pages backwards.  I read with different voices and appropriate animation for over two chapters before I felt Kelly’s head fall slack on my shoulder. Kelly settled in and opened her left fist to release a tiny plastic heart.

I touched the scar between my own elbow and wrist. I heard Momma vacuuming the big living room and the back and forth appliance sounds took on a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm.

I adjusted a tan tunic as I followed the odd old man walking quickly through the stone streets of ancient Rome. The large sweaty man wore a tomato-colored toga and talked fast on his way to meet someone important.  His round face smiled like a snake or frowned like an ogre. He stopped by a group of men around a small wooden table and pulled out a container of dice. “Who feels lucky?” he said. I leaned in to watch because I needed as much luck as I could find. Tomato Red shook out two dice that equaled seven and the men watching him groaned; Red shook and released the dice again.  He rolled another seven and got more complaints.  Then a short curly haired man twitching with anxiety came up and glared at Red who grabbed some coins and his dice.  Curly turned and stormed off with Red with me close behind. The men huddled together and exchanged hurried, urgent words. I believed these two knew where I could find mule sweat. I needed this potent ingredient for tomorrow’s ceremony. I would become an elegant princess if I drank the soothsayer’s  prescribed potion.   A short, sad faced man wearing a purple hat and tunic approached me from behind, “Excuse me, but are you my long lost daughter?”  Before I could answer, Red and Curly showed up and led us all to a comedy parade.  Red burst into song and people in the street danced:  “Something appealing/ Something appalling/ Something for everyone – a comedy tonight!” Folks with bongos beat out the rythmn of the song.

opening scene in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum

Pad. Pound. Pad. Pound. “Ginger, come on,” said Gayle in a low voice.  “Let me in. Please, please.”   And she continued the soft door pads.  I left the bed, careful not to wake my youngest sister, and let in the middle sister.  “I got nothin’ to do,” said Gayle. She sat on the edge of the bed and pulled out a deck of cards.  She divided the cards into two stacks. “Wanna play?”  

I sat next to her.  “Just don’t wake Kelly.” 

Gayle made the stacks equal and we began a game of battle. I let the face cards and numbers distract me until I amassed a much larger pile than Gayle’s.  I relaxed inside and believed this lucky streak could follow me all the way to Baton Rouge General Hospital tomorrow.

Birthday party from 1966. Kelly & Gayle in center. I’m behind them.
Movies · Sisters

Front Row Seat

Front Row Seat – 1965

I slid into my front row seat and let the sounds and the seventeen-foot images envelope me.  My sisters had opted to sit fourteen rows behind because Kelly did not “wanna be close to the boogie man.” Gayle volunteered to sit with her, and I knew she shared Kelly’s nervousness.  

Sitting alone was not my first choice, but I could enjoy my Tootsie Roll uninterrupted.  I didn’t allow myself to open my candy before the feature began, so I focused on the ripple effect of  Big Jim’s rounds as kids started behaving as he swayed his 400 pounds left and right down towards the screen, walked past the front row, and resumed the left/right motion back up to the lobby and his usher’s chair near the lobby’s water fountain.  His flashlight jumped around as he discovered and corrected feet on the backs of seats, trash tossed to the floor, or unnecessary talking. 

As The Raven’s credits began, and the audience settled down for the Saturday matinee, I unwrapped my chocolate-flavored treat allowing myself one chunk of the taffy-like candy every ten minutes.  With ten sections in a roll, the candy should last for the whole movie.  But since I didn’t possess an accurate sense of time, I usually finished a Tootsie Roll half way into a movie.  

The only concession stand candy that could last a full feature was the hockey puck sized Giant Sweet Tart – a single hard Sweet Tart as thick as it was wide. (made in 1965-66).  My favorite was the grape one, and I first used my front teeth like a beaver.  If I later licked the endless amount of sour/sweet goodness when I tired of scraping off its powdery goodness, my candy lasted for the whole movie!  This Saturday afternoon I opted for a Tootsie Roll because my tongue and the insides of my cheeks were still healing after the Giant Tart I had last week.  (Mouth ulcers were an unfortunate downside to gnawing on 3.5 ounces of sugar for ninety minutes).  

Vincent Price’s voice recited the beginning stanzas of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven” as I chewed my first section of Tootsie Roll.  “Once upon a midnight dreary as I pondered weak and weary” was familiar because Daddy liked to entertain us with the classic poem.  He knew the first two stanzas by heart but made up the rest of the poem adding original gruesome rhymes of his own. 

The Raven, 1965

On this Saturday afternoon, I enjoyed the poem’s opening lines, but the movie’s mood went from ominous to comical six minutes in.  After Vincent Price let the raven through his chamber door, the bird did not keep repeating, “Evermore,” but started asking for a glass of wine in a British accent.  Several minutes later, Vincent fixed a magic potion to return the bird to its human form.  Jaunty sound effects accompanied the scene as the bird directed Vincent to fill a bubbling cauldron with dead man’s hair and lizard’s tongue.  After drinking the brew, the raven transformed only partly.  A buggy-eyed man’s head replaced the bird head, yet the rest of his short, pudgy body was feathers and wings.  The easy audience laughed, but I wanted to be scared.  The poem Daddy recited to us had the sorrow and darkness of a man tortured by the death of his wife.  The raven was supposed to drive the man insane, not boss him around like a bratty wino.  

I was chomping on my third section of chocolate taffy when I heard a familiar scream.  (Not, of course, from the horror movie turned comedy).  

“I’m bleeding!” was followed by “Shhhhh! Wanna make Big Jim come over?”  

I recognized my little sisters’ voices and left my front row seat to check out the drama.  Kelly and Gayle sat in the middle of their row while folks nearby tried to shush Kelly.

“Blood!” said Kelly.  “Lookit!”

“Kelly, come here,” I told the five-year-old from my squat position in the aisle. 

“Ginger?” said Kelly as she passed both annoyed and interested kids on her way to me.  Gayle followed and we made our way to the lobby with me holding Kelly’s hand.  

Big Jim stood next to his usher chair and watched us walk toward the red lobby bench a few yards from him.  We knew Big Jim was a loyal employee of Grandma’s and he cared about our safety, but he still weighed 400 pounds and wore a very long belt.  

I heaved the whimpering Kelly onto the red lobby seat and checked out her injuries. I saw no blood.

“Lookit,” said Kelly, and she opened her mouth and simultaneously held out a small hand holding a tiny bloody tooth.  “Blood.”

I pulled a crumpled concession napkin from my shorts pocket and placed pressure on the place where the missing lower front tooth had been.  “Press down here,” I instructed.

“Ya’ll need help?” said Big Jim who moved closer to us.  Gayle climbed on the lobby bench to help Kelly stop the bleeding.

“We’re ok, Mr. Jim,” I said.

Gayle leaned in to put her hand over Kelly’s.  “Push real hard,” she said.

“Owwww!” said Kelly.

When Big Jim realized how minor our emergency was, he returned to his usher chair sitting on its arm rests and said, “OK, but ya’ll let me know if you do.”  

Big Jim almost knocked down a small boy who had followed us into the lobby.  For the kid the possibility of seeing real blood trumped the movie’s lack of anything remotely scary.  He held a cherry-flavored Giant Sweet Tart in a sticky fist and licked the candy as he stared at Kelly.  His bright red tongue made his mouth look bloodier than my sister’s.  He seemed too young for the black-rimmed glasses he wore, and his blond crewcut revealed a lumpy little head. After avoiding a Big Jim collision, the boy stepped closer to Kelly.  He still believed there would be blood.  This close I thought I saw blood on the boy’s tongue.

“What you want?” said Gayle to the gawker.

The kid blinked several times and licked his messy candy. My sisters did a stare-off with him.  I moved both of my sisters’ hands to discover Kelly’s mouth had stopped bleeding.  

“Let’s go get you a drink of water,” I said and put Kelly on my hip.  

All three of us crossed in front of Big Jim towards the water fountain.  I placed Kelly on the top step of the wooden block that acted as stairs to give short kids access to the coldest water they had ever tasted.  Kelly still had to get on her tippy toes for her mouth to kiss the metal spout.  I stood to the right of the water fountain and pushed the spring-loaded handle that started a trickle of water.  Kelly slurped several gulps before Gayle said, “Ok, my turn.”  Kelly kept slurping until Gayle nudged her back.  But just when Kelly decided she’d had enough and Gayle put her foot on the next step, the Sweet Tart boy cut in. He used his knotty head to butt his way in front of Gayle, and I had to pick Kelly up so she would not fall off the wooden step-up.  

“Hey!” said Gayle. “I’m next.”

But the boy had pocketed his cherry candy mess, stood on his toes, and turned the handle to produce the weakest dribble of water possible.  He made desperate slurping sounds and I could relate to the cool relief he must feel on his abused tongue.  Gayle, on the other hand, felt no empathy for someone who cut in front of her.

“It’s my turn!” she said as she shoved the kid off the wooden steps.  The boy toppled over, his glasses flew off, and he bit his swollen tongue during his fall. He tumbled his way to half a foot from Big Jim’s untied cheap shoes.   

“What are ya’ll up to?” said Big Jim.  He pulled the boy up by his right arm and blood bubbled from his lips. 

Big Jim stared straight at me and my sisters. He meant business, so Gayle forgot about her thirst and jumped off the water fountain step and hid behind me.  Kelly gave the usher a wide-eyed stare as if she imagined Jim’s extra long belt leaving its pants loops.  

Then the boy’s extreme scream changed Big Jim’s focus.  I couldn’t believe a puny child could create such a sound.  The initial, “WHAAAAA!” was high-pitched and steady like our town’s noon whistle.  But then he took a deep breath and spit out blood for a string of low toned “Heh! Heh! Heh!’s” that reminded me of Jerry Lewis’ sound effects. Big Jim let go of the little screamer’s arm, and the boy rolled down part of the slanted lobby floor.  

With the quick moves of an action hero, Gayle left her spot of safety and ran to stop the boy’s descent.  She stopped his rolling and sat down next to him on the faded carpet. Using the napkin that had stopped the bleeding in Kelly’s mouth, she slowed the blood flow from the boys’s mouth.  In seconds Gayle held a bloody paper mess. The kid looked up at Gayle’s blurry face.  Big Jim had gotten a cleaning rag from the concession stand and handed it to Gayle since he would not be joining the kids on the floor.  

Kelly pulled me towards the action where several curious theater goers had gathered, opting for the lobby drama over the lame horror flick.  I, understanding the importance of corrective eyewear,  picked up the boy’s glasses and handed them to Gayle who put them on the boy’s face with her right hand while she applied pressure to his already swelling mouth. The crowd of spectators kept a respectable distance due to the proximity of Big Jim.  

A gangly girl with stringy dark pigtails pushed through the kids.  “Booger!  What you doing now?” she said and frowned down on her little brother and Gayle.  The sister pulled him up and walked toward the bathroom stairs. When they passed, I noticed the boy’s jeans were held up by a large safety pin. The sister frowned down on her younger brother, saying,“Gotta get you cleaned up. Again,” and she shook her head as she dragged the boy away without so much as a “merci beaucoup” to anyone.  

“Get on back to your seats,” said Big Jim.  The kids obeyed and I watched Gayle return to the water fountain.  Kelly decided she needed another drink as well and followed.  

Wearing my new blue-framed glasses, I noticed a pink piece of candy on the floor near Big Jim’s chair.  The poor boy’s half-eaten Giant Sweet Tart had escaped his pants pocket during his accident.  I picked up the sticky mess, but I couldn’t make myself throw it away.  I put it in my pocket.  My heart was a tangle of pride and sadness, and I decided to sit with my sisters when they finished drinking and walked back into the dark theater.

Liberty Center in Eunice, Louisiana

Cerebral Palsy

Truth Hurts

 1964 -Truth Hurts  (West Side Story)

Going to the camp on Good Friday epitomized “Lassiez les bon temps rouler!” for me.  A  pre-Easter family reunion meant cousins running all around Grandma Keller’s camp, fresh fried catfish, a softball game in the afternoon, and Stations of the Cross led by Monsignor Jeanmard in the morning, plus the main attraction: about 200 pounds of hot boiled crawfish! The relatives all fought for good standing room when fresh batches were poured over newspaper-covered tables.

Grandma closed the picture show to celebrate with her large family on this special holiday.  I wondered why Catholic considered eating seafood on Fridays a penance. Were not shrimp, crab, and crawfish three of the best delicacies on earth?  On this Good Friday in 1964, I did not consider the rationale or rules of being a Catholic. Everyone I loved went to mass every Sunday and various holy days of obligation, accepted the necessity of confession, prayed to the Virgin Mary, gave up something they liked during Lent, and went without beef, pork, or chicken on Fridays. And thank you, Jesus, they had crawfish boils on Good Friday!

About 6:30 p.m. I was in the car with Momma, Gayle, and Kelly driving back home. Kelly was fast asleep on the backseat next to me, and Gayle sat in the front seat, as usual. Dad was driving back later with Claude Emile since the males helped clean up all the outdoor cooking mess.  

I stared out the back window and Gayle bounced a bit on the front seat.  “She’ll be coming around the mountain, when she comes,” she sang, and Momma half-heartedly joined in.  I mouthed the words as if the lyrics were a secret.  

The day had been 82% favorable.  The softball game made insecurity settle in my eight- year-old heart. When the team captains were choosing kids, I heard a third cousin tell a first cousin, “Don’t pick the crippled one.” 

I was used to being last picked at school, but some of my cousins did not know I ran fast despite my weak left side.  These kids had known me all my life, and I usually felt at ease with them. Plus, the camp was my favorite place to be. 

A few minutes earlier Gina, my closest cousin, had pulled me by my right arm over to the crowd of cousins waiting to be picked.  The tallest leader picked Gina early on since she and her eight siblings were known for their athletic skills.  

The third cousin’s comment made me hold my stupid left arm behind my back. After several minutes of tense team choosing, I stepped to the side of the other two unpicked kids: a nose-picker and a crew cut cousin who had just then decided to join the game.  Third Cousin picked the crew cut latecomer, and one of my popular first cousins chose the nose picker.

I  walked head down to third cousin’s side and hid behind the tallest cousins.  First cousin’s team was first at bat, and cousin Chickie began arranging the batters from youngest to oldest. Gina took my good hand and led me out toward third base. My team’s captain was the third baseman, and Gina walked past him and pointed to a distant pine tree, “You go play left field for us,” she said and gave me a pat on the back and a soft shoulder nudge.  

I kicked pine cones and  needles on my way to where the ball never went. I could barely make out my little sister Gayle getting ready to bat at home plate. Overhead, a woodpecker did what it does and the lonesome sound of a fiddler playing mixed with the bird’s taps in a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco way.

I walked down a city street toward a fence-enclosed playground. I wore new navy jeans and a cool red jacket. As I walked, I snapped the fingers of my left hand. My feet kept the beat of a song in the background.  My short black hair was slicked back to stay in place.  Two boys with similar hair joined me on the street and picked up the rhythm of my snaps and steps. In unison V  the Sharks and I kicked, twirled, and jumped to the band’s expectant music.  My left leg extended high at hip level and I spun like a ballet performer while my crew and I approached a basketball court. Some kids shot baskets, but the guy with the ball froze when my crew came close. The Shark on my right grabbed the ball and passed it to me. I completed a perfect pirouette and made a basket!  The Sharks continued their snapping, side kicks, and twirls towards an alley.  

“Look out!” said the guy to my left.

I saw the softball fly over two cousins’ heads and head straight towards me. I held out my ungloved right hand but closed my eyes.  The ball plopped a yard to my right. 

“Get it! Throw it!” yelled voices.  I picked it up and aimed it at jumping Gina, but it landed a few feet from where I stood as the batter headed to third base. I felt every player stare at me and I silently cursed my stupid left arm.  

Gina ran to get the ball and threw it towards home plate. I went back to my position and took a knee to pretend to tie my shoe.  

Three hours later driving home, I relived my dismal first and last time to join the Good  Friday softball game. At bat I struck out both times I was up, and another ball never came close to my outfield area.  “I will never ever in a  hundred million years play that game,” I promised myself.

“Your turn,” said Gayle. “Pick a song.”  My usual optimism brought me back to our car ride home. At least singing didn’t require two good hands, so I choose my favorite song: “You Are My Sunshine.” Gayle and Momma joined me for what I believed was a rousing rendition.

The crawfish boil had disappointed my momma in different ways than it did me. Kelly did not keep still for a second, and Momma had time for maybe five crawfish for herself after peeling several for her youngest daughter and having to help the other mothers with organizing the dessert table. Dad stood around with other crawfish boilers and laughed and talked sports. Momma could hear him entertaining his crowd of men with long jokes that included both Cajun and British accents. When Momma finally got a reprieve from two teenagers who scooped up Kelly to play in the sand box,  she had hightailed it to the fried catfish spot where Lee Esther was already cleaning out the cast iron Dutch oven. “You missed the last of it,” Aunt Fanny told her.  And the skinny widow walked off with a paper plate full of catfish.  Once home she would face a kitchen full of dirty breakfast dishes, baths for three overtired girls, and a load of laundry to fold. Her own mother’s words “It never ends” echoed in her head.

Now driving home the girls’ off-key singing added to Momma’s hunger headache.  She made a right turn onto the road that led to Eunice and sighed.  

“Ginger, you can’t carry a tune in a bucket,” she told me. She did not notice my quivering  bottom lip when I slumped back on the seat and stared out at the pine trees that lined the ditches of the highway.

Gerry and Reginald, 1982, The Calcasieu River

Sisters

Playing School

Emile, Ginger, Gayle, Kelly ready for school, 1965

When I was seven years old I tried my hand at what would become my future profession.

On a late summer afternoon, I smoothed the front of a stiff red and white church dress, brought my tanned shoeless legs together, repositioned my white plastic headband, and looked my class over from the white brick fireplace mantle that raised me three inches above those I’d be instructing that day. Kelly, age three, wearing light blue shorts and a sleeveless white cotton crop top sat barefoot and crosslegged on the carpeted living room floor; she held a Big Chief tablet and a red crayon. Gayle, age five, wearing a faded hand-me-down t-shirt with a never worn navy blue school uniform skirt, sat erect on a small wooden chair and tapped her brand new letter-practicing book with a pencil and wriggled her toes as she stretched her feet to touch the legs of a red and yellow plastic chalk board that came with my special surprise birthday gift that year: a Suzy Smart Deluxe Doll Set!  

Suzy Smart with her chalkboard and desk

Suzy Smart, dressed in a white blouse under a red plaid jumper and standing two feet tall, completed the class and sat stiffly in her own red and yellow plastic desk. I smiled down at my class of three and held up a piece of chalk to draw a large capital letter “A” on the chalk board. 

“Today we practice our A’s.” I established eye-contact with each student and added, “Y’all must draw ten A’s for me. Now go!”  Gayle took to the assignment like a Cajun to hot boudin. Having to use her lap was all that kept her from making uniform A’s. Kelly tried her first A, but the slanted lines were uneven and her letter did not look like the teacher’s. 

“I’m gonna make the little ‘l’s’,” she said and started covering her first page with a letter she liked.

I focused on the obedient ones. “Good job, Gayle,” I said.  Suzy gave me her straight-forward stare. “Nice listening, Suzy.” 

Then I knelt down next to Kelly. “Your ‘l’s’ are very good, but we are working on ‘A’s.’  Here. Let me show you how.” I put my hand over her fist and guided the red crayon through the perfect A formation. “Like this.”  

Kelly pushed aside a stray strand from a pigtail and said, “OK,” and continued to drew more l’s. 

“I said ten letters and you made like fifty-five l’s already. You need to learn your A’s.”  

“No A’s in my name.” 

“Good! You know how to spell your name, but I’m teaching all the letters today.”

“ ‘A’ is the very first letter,” said Gayle as she completed her tenth “A” and gave us all, including Suzy, proud smiles. She wrapped a long strand of jet black hair behind her ear and waited for further instructions.

“How many letters?” asked Kelly.

Getting a bit of teacher inspiration, I said, “We should sing the A-B-C song!”

The human students stood up to belt out “A,B,C,D,E,F,G…”  Susie listened. As Kelly screamed out the final Z, she grabbed Gayle’s hands, and led her in circles for the “Now I know my ABC’s” part.

I knew I was losing control of my class.  “OK. Good job, y’all. Now let’s practice the second letter – B.”  The dancing pupils added impromptu hip-shaking for the song’s end.  “Sit down, class, sit down.”  Both obeyed, but first Kelly traded her red crayon for Gayle’s new pencil.

“Hey. Give it back,” said Gayle.

“Just let me borrow it.”

“You suppose to ask.”

“Can I use your pencil?”

“Please.”

“Pleeeease.”

“Say pretty please.”

“Pretty please, ya dumb sneeze.”

“She called me ‘dumb,’ Teacher.”

Kelly stuck her tongue out at the snitch. I clapped my hands together. “Class. Y’all gotta listen.” Gayle snatched her pencil back and bounced the crayon off Kelly’s pert pug nose. Kelly grabbed the letter practice book and ran behind me.

“I’m agonna rip this up,” she said. Gayle could not wait for the teacher’s help. She knocked over both Suzy and her desk as she rushed after Kelly. 

I tried keeping the girls apart, but Kelly danced behind me and moved the book in circles around her face. “Na! Na! Na! You can’t get me,” she chanted right before Gayle got ahold of her right pigtail. The letter book fell, the chalk board collapsed, and Kelly sprang into fight mode. With me between them, both girls got fistfuls of hair. For several seconds the hair-pulling tug-of-war was a stalemate. Gayle’s longer arms gave her an advantage, but Kelly’s hotter temper made it a fair fight.

“Stop it! Y’all are wrong, wrong! Stop!” I said as I got out from between them.  Kelly was biting her stuck-out tongue to concentrate. Gayle held both of her sister’s pigtails when Kelly dropped her sister’s hair strands. Her smaller stature lacked the force she needed to make Gayle release the pigtails, so Kelly leaned back a bit and kicked her left foot high enough to get her foe right in the tee-heinie. The taller girl let go of the shorter one’s hair and fell to the carpet. She put both hands over the place of pain and let loose the “OWWWWW’s”

“That’s what you get,” said Kelly.

Gayle moaned like a dying opossum.

I sat on the wounded girl’s chair in defeat. Kelly tapped a line of dots on the fallen chalkboard as Gayle moaned on the floor. The taps and the owww’s melded into a zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythm in my head.

I looked out the room’s picture window to see a black and white world. A door marked ‘Fire Escape’ appeared to the right of the window. I walked to and through the door and looked down a narrow London street. Four mop-headed guys rushed past me. I gasped when the last one turned back and said, “Hurry! This way, luv.” I ran to join George and the three other Beatles. An old, clean man with round spectacles passed me. “Outta me way! I’m parading,” he said. I wore a short purple mini-dress and groovy white boots. In my left hand I held a beautician’s comb. “Here I come, George,” I said and sped past the grandpa. I followed John, Paul, George, and Ringo down alleys, through doors, and over fences before I thought, “Why are we running?”  Grandpa gained on me and as if to answer my mental question said, “They’re getting closer, lads!” From around the corner sped sixty-two screaming girls!  George reached for my right hand and pulled me into a limo parked on the street. I squeezed between George and John. Paul smiled hello and Ringo tapped my knee with his drum sticks. I held on to George’s hand and John tweeked my nose and kissed my cheek. To hide my nervous joy, I started styling their hair. First, I combed George’s and then leaned forward to comb Paul’s and Ringo’s. John pulled his cap low over his hair, so I turned to Grandpa. “I ain’t got much hair, ya cheeky girl, but you could massage me bum,” he said. Paul winked at me and told Grandpa, “Stop being such a mixer now, ya old troublemaker.” The car braked in a flash and we all tumbled out the limo and through a stage door. Cops held back new crowds of hysterical girls. I lost George’s hand but kept up with the band down dark halls, past dusty props, and through curtained passageways. I saw a light ahead and anticipated a magical stage, but going through the final black curtain led me to the white raised brick hearth of my parents’s fireplace.

Kelly and Gayle held tennis rackets and were strumming them like guitars.  “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” sang Gayle, and Kelly shook her hips and moved her head back and forth fast enough for her bangs to keep rhythm with the “yeah, yeah, yeahs.” The rubble of my alphabet lesson littered the living room floor.  I began picking up chalk, crayons, a pencil, and writing tablets as my little sisters lost themselves in their music.

I sat on the formerly wounded sister’s chair in defeat and decided teaching was not for me.

Cerebral Palsy

Lost in Space

 Lost in Space – 1964  (Mary Poppins)

“Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!” yelled a third grader as she got into the robot’s part, waving her arms around like a frantic parent. I  got stuck playing a bad guy alien and walked mummy-like toward the girl who had nabbed the prime role of Penny Robinson. I added head jerks and let out,“Beep! Boop! Ding!” in the way an alien would do as I chased the Robinson family.  “Run!” yelled the good guys as I followed the retreating kids and raised my arms to seem scarier.   

At St. Edmund’s School my classmates and I recreated scenes from hit tv shows at recess. This week’s television obsession was “Lost in Space.” We girls vied for roles each day and half-imitated/ half-made up episodes about the Robinsons in outer space. During this Tuesday’s recess, I did not see the skinny new girl right behind me. Skinny Girl mimicked my spastic left arm movements and limping left leg.  A group of first graders giggled and encouraged the newcomer’s accurate imitation of my cerebral palsy crookedness. When I turned to see who was laughing, a popular seventh grader had cut across the playground on her way to the school’s front office and noticed Skinny Girl’s shenanigans.  

She yanked the performer by her fake-crippled left arm. “What are you doing?” she demanded. Before the child could answer, Seventh Grader lit into her. “How dare you? Don’t you see she’s crippled? How would you like to have to walk lopsided?  You think it’s funny?  Funny to be born with a birth defect – to be slower and weaker than everyone else?  Wait until I tell Sister Joan what you did!” And all during her lecture Seventh Grader shook the girl’s arm as other kids gathered around. First, they stared at Skinny Girl looking like a dish rag someone was twisting the water out of. Then they looked at me. Pity and sadness shone on each kid’s face. Had they always looked at me that way?   

Next Seventh Grader yanked whimpering Skinny Girl to stand in front of me.  “Apologize right now!”  

The younger girl’s navy blue skirt had a safety pin holding it up at her waist, and all that shaking had pulled the white blouse out of its tucked-in position. I noticed that her hem was frayed and stained. Also, the girl’s thin black hair was half-in rubber band pigtails and half-out. I thought that I should be apologizing to her for the mess of the way she looked. 

“Go ahead. Say you’re sorry,” Seventh Grader told her. 

The young girl stared at her untied, dirty saddle oxfords and whispered, “Sorry.”  

“Louder! So she can hear you.” 

“I can hear her,” I said, looking down at my own ugly, scuffed brown corrective shoes. 

“You ok?” Seventh Grader asked me, and I nodded without looking up. I knew if I said anything else, I’d be crying through the rest of recess. Skinny Girl was half-dragged towards the front office.

An empathic third grader put her arm around my shoulder, and the whole “Lost in Space” game was shot to shit. “That kid is just a stupid Yankee from Shreveport,” my friend said. I heaved a sigh and felt even sorrier for Skinny Girl. 

“Gotta pee,” I said before turning to run to the bathroom. Once safe inside a stall, I felt fortunate that I’d chosen one with a lock that actually worked. The words “crippled” and “birth defect” bounced around my brain over and over: “crippled…defect…defect…defect…crip…crip…defect…defect.”   I turned the words into a type of music I heard on KVPI.  “defect, defect, deco, deco, zydeco, zydeco, zydeco.” 

I tapped my black umbrella on the floor a few times and looked around the mess of a nursery.  I removed my neat black hat with white flowers on it and patted my neat brown bun. Two small children looked up at me. “First, we must clean your untidy room,” I said with a confident smile. I snapped the fingers of both hands. Music played, and a robin sang outside the nursery window. As I sang a song about sugar and medicine, I taught the boy and girl how to make their room as neat and sweet as I was. With a whistle here and umbrella taps there, the beds were made, toys were put away, and the room was “practically perfect in every way.”  I even had the robin accompany me in the song. The children loved my magic and we became instant best friends. Without warning, the song ended and a long ringing erupted from the hall.

Recess was over. I flushed the unused toilet, wet my fingers in the sink, ran them through my hair, and looked in the mirror to make sure my eyes were dry before I rushed outside to line up outside Sister Grace’s classroom door.

Sisters

Dig It

The camp sand box
Ginger, Emile, Kelly, & Gayle at the Camp

Dig It  1962-  (Breakfast at Tiffanys)

Only my right hand had dark brown sand stains. A rainy afternoon at Grandma’s camp near south Louisiana’s Calcasieu River meant coloring and playing cards on the front porch or digging in the sand box off the side porch.  My sisters and I had dug holes and shallow moats and created lopsided sand castles for over an hour. The rain pelted the tin roof as Grandma, Stella Parrot, and Momma sat and talked over Salty Dogs on the front porch. 

We had kitchen spoons for shovels and two empty plastic gallon ice cream containers for buckets. My hair was in high pigtails and most of my curls stayed in their rubber bands.  Gayle had a new pixie cut just below her ears, and less hair made her look more confident.  Two-year-old Kelly had hair that barely reached her shoulders and bangs that made her large brown eyes look soulful. 

When her firecracker temper stayed contained, she watched her sisters with a focused stare unusual for a toddler.  Any activity the older girls got involved in had to include her. During sand castle construction, Kelly tried filling one of the buckets until that bored her. But this baby sister would not be left out.  She threw Gayle’s spoon into the rain-soaked grass and stepped into my half-filled bucket of sand.  After many, “Stop that’s” and “No, Kelly’s” Gayle and I took turns burying the two-year-old’s feet while the other sister tended to sand castles. 

Once the main buildings looked decent and Gayle was building a moat, I taught Kelly about tunnels. I dug two three-inch holes with her spoon about a foot from each other.

“This is your hole,” I told Kelly.  “Now use your hands to dig sideways to me.” And I demonstrated how to dig. 

“Dig,” said Kelly, and we worked together.

“You dig my way,” I said, “to make a tunnel.”

“OK,” said Kelly.

After a minute of digging, I moved to Kelly’s hole and saw she was digging down, not across.  “Dig my way,” I repeated.  “Make a tunnel sideways,” and I tried to show her.

“My way,” said Kelly and pushed me aside.

“That’s not a tunnel.”

“Mine!”

So I made the tunnel myself with my right hand, using my fingernails to scrape sand out of my hole and dig to reach Kelly’s hole.  My left wrist hung bent and useless at my side. I wiped loose hair from my face with the back of my good hand. I felt like the tunnel was almost done. Kelly stopped digging and looked over at Gayle’s moat progress. I guessed the two-year old’s thoughts. 

“Hey, Kelly, put your hand in your hole.”  She looked at her boring hole and back at Gayle’s interesting project.  I dug faster.  Kelly stood up.

“Hey! Lookit your hole,” I said. “We made a tunnel! Stick your hand in!”

Kelly reconsidered and knelt by her hole. 

I raised my voice gave her my best smile. “Wow! We made a tunnel! You’ll see when you stick your hand in!” I said. 

And like a miracle, just as Kelly reached in, my fingers broke through the sand, wiggling and reaching for the toddler’s hand.  We both smiled as fingers touched and I strained to shake the small hand. Kelly squealed at the success of the sand tunnel. 

“G.!  G.! Lookit me!” Kelly told the moat maker.  Gayle kept working.

“We did it!  You and me!” I said, and Kelly’s excitement got her up and dancing.  She stomped our sister tunnel collapsing it.

Then she danced toward the unimpressed Gayle. “I did it! My tunl!” she said and her jump destroyed half of the moat. 

“No! Kelly! No!” said Gayle, but Kelly jumped toward the rest of the moat.  Gayle stood and pushed Kelly backwards and her fall destroyed the fancy half of the sand castle where her sister had added rocks and leaves as adornments.  “Stupid Kelly!” said Gayle and threw double fists of sand at the kid.  Kelly kicked with both legs to bring down the other half of the castle.  Gayle tossed half a bucket of sand at Kelly with most of it landing in her eyes.  Kelly screamed and lunged for Gayle, but since the long black hair had been cut off, the toddler had nothing to grab.  The girls tumbled around in the sand. 

I walked to a wooden sand box swing, sat, and used my toes to move it back and forth even though raindrops peppered my back. The swing creaked back and forth, and I listened to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco rhythms coming from the adults’ radio on camp’s front porch.

I sat on a sofa in my New York City apartment with handsome Fred. I wore a sleek black dress, and my long dark hair was arranged in a fancy twirled bun to accentuate my dangling diamond earrings. I went to the table and from a large hat box pulled out a dramatic black hat with a prominent white sash. As I put on the hat, an orange cat jumped on the table and then out the window even though it was raining.  “Hey, Cat!” I said. 

Fred moved next to me and said, “You don’t have to leave.” 

I said, “But of course I do, Fred, darling,”and I donned a pair of cool sunglasses. “Please help me find Cat.”  I pulled on a beige rain coat, walked out the apartment and down the stairs. 

Fred followed with, “Wait. You know I love you.” I stayed focused on finding Cat and rushed down the busy sidewalk and turned into an alley when I heard meows.  Cat was behind a trash can and I reached down, rescued him, kissed his wet head, and tucked him into my rain coat.  Fred ran to meet us and hugged and kissed both me and Cat.

“You’re getting all wet,” said Gayle as she watched me swinging into the rain. 

“Gingah!” said Kelly.  The sisters had stopped fighting – more interested in my strange behavior than throwing sand.

I jumped off the swing, approached my sisters, and brushed sand from Kelly’s yellow romper.  “Look at you, my darling, you are such a mess.”  I picked up my youngest sister and rested her on my hip.  “Let’s go have a coloring contest.” 

“OK,” said Gayle and kicked the ruins of her sand castle world.  “I want a popsicle!” 

“What an absolutely marvelous idea!” I said, and Kelly smiled and rested her sandy head on my shoulder.

Movies

Red Lobby Benches

Red Lobby Benches -1962 (The Magnificent 7)

Liberty 1
Liberty Theater now

Gayle and I slipped back and forth and up and down the long red plether lobby benches as we waited for the 8:00 pm showing of Music Man at the Liberty Theater. The line for tickets wound around the corner, but we had just waved to Miss Pearl as we strolled past the line and into the lobby.  Being grandkids of the owner of Eunice, Louisiana’s picture show had its perks.  Normally we watched the six p.m. feature, but this Saturday our parents had their annual “progressive supper” where five couples went to five houses for a multi-coursed dinner.  Two-year-old Kelly was staying with Grandma and Stella, so the picture show served as a babysitter for the older kids, with Big Jim and Miss Pearl as overseers.

We played in the crowded lobby as patrons waited for the early feature to “let out.”  Since the carpeted area right past the concession stand inclined up towards the entrance into the theater, the two long red lobby benches held interesting dimensions for games. The beginning of each bench was high above the carpeted floor, and at ages four and six  we struggled to climb up to the seats. As one bench got closer to the usher’s chair and the other ended at the theater entrance, the distance from floor to bench was shorter and no problem to climb up on. 

We had created the Swimming Across the Lobby game for the times we had to wait for the show to start.  The lobby’s carpet was the Calcasieu River; the lobby bench on the right side was the sand bar line while the left side bench represented tall pine woods. The mostly grown-up theater audience in the middle were alligators, and kids were snapping turtles. If you touched any of these, you drowned. On the sand bar side of the bench you could sit and plot how to cross the river.  On the tree-lined side, you had to stand and hold on to the walls or risk tumbling into the dangerous waters. You could not stay on either side longer than ten Mississippis. If you did, your sister was allowed to push you into the Calcasieu.

Since we had arrived twenty-six minutes before the eight o’clock feature, the lobby had few alligators to avoid.  We went across the lobby with big confident swimming strokes. Only once did Big Jim say, “No running,” (to G. of course).  Claude Emile sat on the tall end of the sand bar side reading a Superman comic. He pushed Gayle off the bench because she got too close to him, so she fell into the river and had to avoid four alligators that had just bought popcorn and sodas. 

I did not relish swimming across the lobby.  What I enjoyed was scooting up and down the long length of the red benches as I counted in my head.  I’d start at low end of the pine woods next to Big Jim where my toes reached the floor and then slide towards the concession stand and watch the floor get farther and farther away.  On a less crowded night the benches would be free of people and I would move up and down as fast as my uneven arms would allow. I could pretend I rode a horse clippity-clop up a mountain. My horse would be the world’s smartest and fastest animal, but he let only me ride him. We’d trot up the mountain to get a bag of gold as a reward for saving a baby from the outlaws who had kidnapped it.

I  had forgotten about my sister, who had left the tree side bench and was swimming over to force me into the river.

Ginger and Gayle 1961 or 1962
Me and Gayle, 1961

 

Black Beauty and I were halfway down the mountain when Gayle grabbed my right leg to climb up on shore. I kicked her like a reflex move and she fell backwards.  The four-year-old landed with a thud and startled an unsteady grandma and her toddler grandson.

“My lord, cher! Why you on the floor?” she said.

“Oh, yi, yi! I’m gonna die,” said Gayle as she struggled to stand up.

I jumped off the red bench and stood up her dramatic sister.

“Sorry, ma’am,” I said.

“Find your momma,” said the grandma and she led her grandson up past the theater’s entrance and into the Cry Room/ Smoking Area.

“You’re drownded,” said Gayle.

“Give me your nickel. I’ll get us some popcorn.”

“I want Dots.”

“You don’t have enough money. A nickel only can get you a Tootsie roll or Pixie Sticks.”

“Dots.”

“They cost two nickels,” I said as I led my sister to the concession line. “Let’s get popcorn with both our nickels; it lasts longer.”

“No. Dots.”

“I want popcorn.”

Gayle shook her pageboy bob back and forth. “Dots!”

“Let’s flip for it,” I said and took out my nickel and tried to hold it on my curved index finger and use my thumb to flick it in the air the way Dad did. The nickel plopped to the floor and rolled away. Gayle got on her hands and knees to follow the coin, but it rolled its way behind the glass candy display case. She stood and pushed a short wooden flap door that separated customers from concession workers and her from the nickel she needed to get Dots.

“Hold on, kid! You can’t come back here,” said a teenager with braces and over-sized glasses. Her brown eyes were magnified by her thick lenses.

“Dots,” said Gayle.

“Get in line,” said the teen.

“Nickel?” tried Gayle.

“Dots cost a dime.”

I grabbed my sister’s hand as the teen pushed her to her designated area, and said, “Sorry” for the second time.

“Ginger! I want Dots.”

“All we have money for now is a Tootsie Roll. Give me your nickel.”

“ No. Dots!” And she stomped away.

“Get back here,” I said and watched Gayle walk up toward the main lobby and get in everyone’s way. A man wearing overalls and a sweat-stained cap took a step backwards to make way for the black-haired, blue-eyed child who walked with both hands balled into tight fists. I stopped to sit on the red bench on the tree side. The lobby had filled with young couples and families and rowdy teens. The popcorn machine was overflowing with the hot, buttery kernels I craved. The popping sounds slowed and spaced out until I heard a staccato zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.

The steady clop of horses in a line through the brown world of mountains, sand, and scrub grass kept me confident.  The six gunfighters followed the man dressed in all black.  Their combined gun, knife, rifle, and tracking skills made them ready to defeat the outlaws that tormented the village of farmers all dressed in white.  Working together, we seven sharpshooters would be magnificent!  As the youngest gunslinger in the bunch, I brought up the rear. Being the only girl, I fought for acceptance with more action and less talk.  None of the other six men were blabbers. Their tight-fitting cowboy hats and their swift hands gave them taciturn demeanors and bold movements.  During that day’s siesta, I could sneak off to catch a few fish or snare some rabbits to add to their supper. I knew my six-shooter’s aim had improved after riding with these men. A sharp jab to my shooting arm startled me.

“Take care of Gayle,” said Claude and he pointed to a tall guy with his short date talking to the four-year-old.  The guy looked annoyed while his girlfriend was all smiles. I walked over to them.

“You shouldn’t kick strangers,” said the tall one to Gayle.

“ You’re lost, aren’t you, honey?” said his petite date who was not that much taller than me.  Gayle gave the teen the once over and caught sight of the box of Dots in her right hand.

“Dots!” said Gayle.

The girl laughed. “You like Dots?”

Gayle returned the laugh and nodded.

“I’ll give you some and then you tell us where your momma is, ok?”

Gayle cupped both hands and held them up to receive some of her favorite candy. I watched the generous girl fill both my sister’s hands.

I approached and said, “There you are, G. Let’s go find our seats.” I put my right hand on Gayle’s left shoulder to steer her away.

“Keep better watch of your sister,” said the tall guy and his date winked and waved at Gayle.

Gayle put most of the Dots in her pockets and popped two in her mouth. She then handed her nickel to me and said, “Tootsie Roll.”

 

Cerebral Palsy

Heel, Toe

 Heel, Toe- 1963 (101 Dalmatians)CP clinic

On August 23, 1956 the oxygen in the Eunice hospital’s delivery room was not working, so the doctor who performed the c-section that brought me into this world had to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. My time without oxygen led to a case of cerebral palsy that affected the left side my body, especially my leg and arm. My momma did not notice a problem until I started to walk and a cousin told her, “That child has a problem.” After my CP diagnosis, from ages two to ten I had weekly physical therapy sessions at the Cerebral Palsy Clinic in Opelousas, Louisiana.

I called my therapist “Uncle” Daly.  He had a pink face and hair cut so close to his head it stood straight up. He smelled like Old Spice and liked to spoil me.  “I got something for you,” he’d say at the end of my exercises as he held out two closed fists. “Which hand you want?” and even if I picked the hand without the treat, Uncle Daly opened the other hand and gave me the Bazooka gum. I hugged his neck when I first got to the clinic and when Momma and I left.

The thirty-minute sessions quickly became routine.  First, I’d climb up wooden steps to lie on a padded brown table so Uncle Daly could stretch my left arm and leg. He’d extend my left arm as far as it could go and open my crooked, sweaty fingers in his large palm. When he tried turning my wrist palm up, it never cooperated, and I would see faint freckles underneath dense yellow curly hairs on his forearms. Then he moved my left leg up and down and side to side. The stretches felt necessary and my appendages enjoyed the forced movements.

But then came the individual exercises that lasted forever. 

Uncle Daly first had me walking the length of a large room in front of a tall mirror. Wearing stiff white corrective shoes, I focused on my left foot. “Heel, toe,” was his directive. My foot had to be reminded how to walk properly since it preferred to drag itself along the floor, leaving my left shoe’s toe scuffed and worn down. I repeated Daly’s “Heel, toe” instructions with each step I took toward and from that full mirror.  Of course, the “heel, toe” mantra could not correct my limp since my left leg was a couple of inches shorter than my right.

Uncle Daly also told me to keep my skinny, crooked left arm down by my side and not up at breast level with a bent wrist like some stroke victim. But my number one concern was my left leg, so my head repeated “Heel, toe” as I walked the length of the linoleum tiled floor. The back and forth monotony and the full mirror image of my uneven self made me yearn to be someplace else. It felt like I walked back and forth seventy-seven times, but it was really twenty times because I had to keep count in her head.  “Don’t drag your left foot; remember heel to toe,” said Uncle Daly. So I did the first two lengths perfectly because my therapist was watching. Halfway through the fourth walk, I focused on the thuds of a kid going up and down the exercise steps and the clanks of metal weights lifting and falling.  Like  zydeco…zydeco…zydeco tunes on the radio, the rhythms took me away from my boredom.

I ran across a field of deep snow with beautiful even strides. My even legs let me keep pace with Pongo, my faithful Dalmatian, who barked his encouragement.  We were guiding ninety-nine puppies towards a large barn in the distance.  I had rescued the pups from the witch lady with two-tone hair right before the bumbling henchmen tried to kill them.  Once inside the barn, the puppies  raced with each other across the hay-scattered floor. Only Rolly had trouble keeping up.  “Not only do we have the cutest puppies in London; we will also have the fittest pups in all of England!” I said.  Pongo yipped approval. Using both of my nimble hands,  I raked hay into neat bedding piles for the puppies after the barn’s generous milk cows fed them.  Rolly preferred sleeping in my lap.  I smiled knowing I had a secret plan to get all the dogs to safety in the morning.  Pongo put his paw on my elegant left hand and gave me a dog smile of gratitude.

“Let’s go,” instructed Uncle Daly. “Time for your stair work.” I turned from the long  mirror and met Darby at my next exercise station.

Now during these COVID19 times I go on early morning walks right after the sun rises. I maneuver the uneven sidewalks of my neighborhood, look down at my sneakers of two different sizes, and recall the “heel, toe” exercises of long ago. These uncertain days require awareness and concentration. Watch your step. Don’t trip. Notice things. Wear your face mask. Wash your hands. Don’t touch your face. Keep social distance.

As a child, I followed my therapist’s directions to strengthen my under-developed leg and to teach my foot the proper way to walk. Today the “heel, toe” reminder keeps me from falling and it makes my unruly, worried brain stay focused and not race into dark rooms of disease and anarchy and hopelessness. I tell myself to think as I move through my day’s routines. Take my time, watch my step, and notice the tiny purple flower between the cracks of the hot concrete.purple flower