Crayons And Cakes

Friday, 24 October 2014, 14:37 | Category : Life
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The things you remember from childhood are probably not the things your parents would expect you to have remembered. It’s often little things that stick with you – not that they’re the only things, or even the most significant things, but they’re sitting there on your memory shelf alongside the big stuff. For me, from my elementary school days in the early 1960s, it’s crayons and cakes. And let me say at the outset that I’m not complaining that I was made to do without. I had three older sisters and a younger brother, and a mother who stayed home to take care of us, so money, while never absent, wasn’t flowing in abundance. Every year, when it came time to buy school supplies, I wanted one thing – one of those big, genuine Crayola 64-crayon boxes with the sharpener in back and the unbelievably cool gold, silver, and copper crayons.

What I got was the smaller box, no sharpener, no gold, silver, and copper crayons. I do think maybe one year I got the big box, maybe 5th grade. Or maybe a friend gave me the cool crayons, I just know that one year I did have gold, silver, and copper. But I always felt just a little less worthy, only having the 24- or 48-count box (whatever was the minimum required, probably 24).

And then there’s cake. My memory is a little hazy, but what I remember is that our weekly lunch tickets came in two variants: basic and deluxe. I’m sure they weren’t called that, but that’s that they were, I think. The basic ticket got you lunch, but no dessert. The advanced got you dessert. And dessert was often either square yellow cake with chocolate icing, or chocolate cake with chocolate icing. And I almost never got dessert. As I said, my memory is a little hazy, and it’s barely possible that rather than having two levels of lunch ticket, dessert just cost extra and you had to clean your plate first, and I almost never cleaned my plate, because English peas were often on the menu and I’ve always hated English peas. And I’m sure much of the rest of the menu was nasty by my elementary school definition. Anyway, for whatever reason, I rarely got the cake. I wanted the cake, especially when it was chocolate on chocolate. Somehow I survived and grew to be a mostly-responsible citizen of these United States, but imagine how much further I might have gone if I’d had 64 crayons and cake?

What I’m Reading Now…

Thursday, 23 October 2014, 20:26 | Category : Books, History, Life
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is a lot of Cold War spy stuff. Novels – The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Non-fiction – Legacy Of Ashes (not just Cold War, but that was the driving force behind my picking it up), The Art Of Betrayal. It’s not coincidence. After reading several books about the period leading up to World War I, and the war itself, I was looking for a new genre. And despite all the books I’ve read through the years, spy fiction and non-fiction was something I rarely delved into, unless you count some Tom Clancy novels during the 80s and 90s. But while I liked Clancy’s stuff early on, there came a point, I think probably with Debt Of Honor, when it felt like Clancy would get two-thirds of the way through a book, get bored, and decide to just wrap it up. But I digress….

I grew up in the shadow of the Cold War. As an elementary school student in the early-mid 1960s, I lived in a world of atomic-bomb tests (we, students and teachers alike, still called them atomic bombs then, although I’m pretty sure everything was thermo-nuclear by then) and Civil Defense signs, and fallout shelters. A family up the street from us had a fallout shelter in their back yard. I never saw the inside – I never knew the family – but you could see the entrance to the shelter through their carport. All of those things were constant reminders that the Godless Russians might very well one day decide to blow us all to Kingdom Come. It was a strange time, I guess. We were not far removed from World War II, although at the time that seemed like ancient history. But we were only 20 years beyond that catastrophic struggle. Now I look back on things 20 years past, and I wonder about all the men and women – our fathers and mothers, aunts and uncles – who served or just lived through it, and I think about things that are now only 20 years in my past, and I think how strange it must have been for them. Maybe strange isn’t the right word, but there they were, just two decades past an event that dwarfs anything I’ve experienced in my life, and yet the world they made for us was so normal, so seemingly free of problems. Except that atomic bomb thing. And then Vietnam, which was piped into our living rooms every evening at 5:30. My idyllic existence began to crumble a bit then, as I approached the teenage years, then the later teenage years, then draft eligibility. Vietnam was winding down by the time I was actually eligible, in 1972, but it was a cloud hanging in the distance during my high-school years. It was the Cold War turned hot, on the other side of the world.

So the Cold War has always held a certain fascination for me. What would have happened if it had ever really turned hot? What if Soviet armor had come pouring through Fulda Gap? I’ve read many books about what might have happened in a World War III. But the actual conflict was played out in the shadow world of espionage and counter-espionage. And so, when I went looking for a new subject area for reading, Cold War spies were waiting. And there’s something else at play here, I think. The conflict between the West and the Communist Bloc, frightening though it was, seems so much simpler and more understandable than the world we’re in today, with religious fanaticism and Third-World nationalism fueling an ever-changing set of enemies that don’t match up well with our traditional means of applying resolutive force. It’s almost a sense of nostalgia for a conflict that made more sense, even if the potential for national destruction was much, much higher. So, for now, I’m reading about Cold War spies. Duck, and cover.

Field Trips

Saturday, 27 September 2014, 20:05 | Category : Life
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Headed to work yesterday, I saw a line of school buses leaving the local elementary school. Judging by the time (mid-morning), I guessed they were headed off on a field trip. And it took me back many, many years to elementary school and field trips we took. I don’t know what kind of field trips elementary school kids might go on now, and I suspect they aren’t like the ones we took. I remember going to the Coca-Cola plant, and a dairy, and several museums. But the one I remember most vividly was the trip to a local bread bakery – in those days (early 1960s), bread was made locally; now, I have no idea where it’s made. By “bread”, I mean what’s sold on major chain grocery stores. I know there are small specialty bakeries in the area, but I don’t think there’s a major brand bakery in my city anymore. Another thing that falls in the category of “Days Gone By”. But back then we had several bakeries – Colonial and Hardin Bread for sure. In fact, there’s a surplus building supply store in the old Hardin Bakery building, and on occasion I find myself there. You can wander through the old rooms, now piled high with doors and cabinets and flooring, but if you look hard enough you can see the ghosts of rising bread. That may have been the bakery we went to on the field trip I remember – it’s in the right part of town – but there’s something that tells me we went to the Colonial Bakery, which has been gone for years, replaced by a parking lot just south of downtown. But what makes the field trip stand out is the little loaf of bread they gave us as we were leaving, in its own little bag, a miniature version of what you would have seen in the grocery store. I just thought that was the coolest thing, and I wonder if bakeries still give tours to elementary school students, and if they give them those little loaves of bread. For me, it made a memory that’s lasted a lifetime.

All gone, to look for America

Tuesday, 23 September 2014, 11:54 | Category : Life, Southern Stuff
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Old gas station

Along Highway 80 in Alabama, in that lonely stretch west of Selma, there’s a derelict gas station. It’s been closed for years. When I lived in Montgomery in the mid-80s, it had already been closed for years. It’s at the intersection of Highway 80 and a state highway, so I’ve always supposed that at one time it was a busier place. But when that was, is a question that’s intrigued me since I first saw the place while driving to Montgomery for the first time in 1984, and it came back to me when I passed it on the way to Montgomery a few years ago, and again last fall when I passed that way. I have this vision of a 1950s service station, with the oil cans stacked outside, and a desk inside where the owner ran the place, and a counter with glass jars filled with gumballs and jawbreakers; a back wall covered with belts and hoses, and a shelf on the side wall with oil filters neatly stacked. The sign out front has to be a Sinclair dinosaur – it just does.

I don’t know why this place has fascinated me so. There are plenty of abandoned gas stations scattered across the south. I suppose this place, like many others, is a throwback to a time of two-lane highways and 15-mile-per-gallon cars, and roads that wound through every small town, so a 250-mile trip took 8 hours, not 4 or 5, with frequent stops for gas and snacks and rest stops. Now we can blast along at 70 miles per hour, on wide interstates with wider medians and shoulders, so that the view along the way is a sterile strip of created, boring landscaping. Fifty years ago, a road like Highway 80 was a narrow line of concrete or asphalt winding through farmlands and fields, by isolated farmhouses, through small towns – through America, in other words. I wonder when that gas station pumped it’s last gallon of gas. I wonder when that America went away. Somehow, this old service station, on a lonely road that I generally drove late on a Friday afternoon going to visit my parents, or late Sunday afternoon going back to Montgomery – late weekend afternoons accentuate that loneliness – this old service station came to symbolize a lost part of Americana.

McDonald’s New Bacon Clubhouse Burger Judged, Found…

Thursday, 27 March 2014, 14:11 | Category : Life, Other Stuff
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no better than their other burgers, unfortunately. It amazes me how a chain that is synonymous with “burger” has such terrible hamburgers. The basic single hamburger is the best burger on their menu, and that’s because it’s that one with the least burger to it. I can only think of one place where I’ve had a worse hamburger, and that was years ago at a small local chain in south Mississippi which shall remain nameless. I thought maybe McDonald’s had gotten a clue with this:

McDonalds Bacon Clubhouse Burger

I mean, it looks pretty decent, right? Look at the fresh lettuce, those crisp strips of bacon, that glistening gourmet bun!! But alas, the reality was a big hunk of tasteless tomato, limp lettuce, limper bacon, and a bun that was just thicker bread than their normal bun. And a slab of that industrial-tasting McDonald’s beef-like substance. At least the fries were good.