I grew up at a time when the brand of your clothes you wore was a major factor in you determining social status. Polo, Izod, Gant, OP, Jams, Guess, Reebok–it didn’t matter if the off-brand clothing item was identical; without the brand, it was absolute TRASH and you were better off not even trying.
I learned this in my days of middle school in Norman. I moved from a small farm town in Arkansas where I was aware of name brands, but so many of us were poor and I think we were more forgiving about clothes. In that town, Lee jeans were the standard. You looked for that genuine cowhide patch with “Lee” branded on it. They weren’t expensive. They didn’t promise any kind of status. We just liked them. But Lee was not cool in 1984 Norman. I was set straight very soon at Whittier Middle School. In a panic, I begged my mom to buy me a couple pairs of Levis, but I had to wait.
Many of you will recall that the standard for school cafeteria back in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s was dramatically different than now. Sure, we complained mercilessly about Salisbury steak and lima beans, but try eating at a school cafeteria now.
I first realized how good I had it as a child when I began working for an elementary school in Moore. It was the food I remembered from childhood. Not the nachos, chicken nuggets, pizza, and crappy shipped in food. We’re talking big, scratch cinnamon rolls with a heavy dose of buttery icing drizzled on top. The kind where the center is so soft and moist that you just want to start in the middle and work your way out.
I was very skinny at that time, and the cafeteria ladies were determined to fatten me up, so they would make a special cinnamon roll for me that was about 30% larger than the ones the kids were eating. Their yeast rolls were equally good. It reminded me of my childhood cafeteria. Green beans stewed with bacon. Chicken fried steak smothered in cream gravy. Steak fingers. Chimichangas. Apple sauce jello.
You may not remember apple sauce jello fondly. First, let me remind you of what it is. It was that Jello that wasn’t clear. It was grainy and opaque because instead of being just water and gelatin and sugar, it was made with applesauce to give it some nutritional value.
I was a cafeteria survivalist. I learned how to like the foods that the other kids did not like. Applesauce Jello was one of those foods. I looked forward to applesauce Jello days because I was the kid who would call across the table to you and say “You gonna eat that?”
I found that people also didn’t care for rolls, canned fruits, fish sticks, spice cake, and a few other odds and ends. My stomach was a bottomless pit. I could always eat more than my allotted share, and I hated to see food go to waste.
My twin and I recently shared a memory of the bad weather morning donut. In elementary school, when the weather was too cold or rainy for us to stand around the schoolyard before class, we would be ushered into the cafeteria. We were not permitted to talk. Goodness knows why not. But we were each given a donut and a carton of milk.
Pretty cool, right? Wrong. This went way beyond “pretty cool”. These donuts came to us warm in a little plastic package. They were soaked with melted glaze and when washed down with cold whole milk (yes we had whole milk in those days, white, chocolate, and my favorite, strawberry), it was, to this day, one of the most delicious things I have ever eaten. I’ve tried to replicate this with donuts in the microwave, but it’s never the same. We only got them a few times that I remember.
The cafeteria was also a social experiment. We had to sit in the order of the line that we marched to the cafeteria in. The best you could do to sit by your best buddy or the cute girl, was to jockey for a position in line next to them, and it would only be your best buddy in the scope of your home class. So this meant that you would be sitting by people who you wouldn’t normal be sitting by. People with cooties, people who’s head was shaven due to lice, kids who nobody played with on the playground. Turns out that “cooties” originates as another word for head lice, but in those days it simply meant the make believe germs that boys could give to girls and girls could give to boys making them persona non grata.
One particular day, I got to sit across from one of the cute girls in my class. She was very crushworthy. I often had fantasies around a particular song with a particular girl, and every time I hear this song I think of her. “I Keep Forgetting'” by Michael McDonald. I liked the idea that we’d already had our passionate romance and she’d thrown me away. I wasn’t in love with her. Maybe I just liked the song a lot, and she happened to be in front of me when I was thinking of her.
Another female friend taught me something that I’ve never forgotten. It’s not really rocket science, but I didn’t grow up in a house where we did this. I noticed one day that she was dipping her fat, perfect yeast roll into her whipped potatoes and gravy. I asked her if it was good, and she suggested I try it. Once you’ve done this, there’s no going back!
I couldn’t say if the food we ate was healthier than the food kids are eating today, but it was made scratch by the hands of women with large moles on their cheeks and hairnets over their tightly bunned hair. Kids today are so picky, I’m not sure they would even eat the food I ate as a kid, but we didn’t have a choice other than bringing bologna, American cheese, and mustard on Wonder Bread with Cheetos, an apple (which was meant to be thrown away), a Ding Dong wrapped in foil, and a Coca Cola in a Star Wars lunchbox.
To be fair, if given the choice between Salisbury steak and Pizza Hut, which would you pick?
Between 1978 and 1984, my father was the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Lonoke, Arkansas. It was his first post after Austin Theological Seminary, and our first time to be a preacher’s family. Upon arrival from Texas, my twin brother Paul and I were permitted to visit the city park down the block while my parents unpacked. It was a different time then, where a couple of four-year-olds could walk to a strange park by themselves and play on the merry-go-round. I’m not sure kids are even allowed on merry-go-rounds anymore; too many accidents.
We lived in a manse, which is a house for a minister’s families on the church grounds. First Pres was a stately, old church designed in the Tudor Revival style. It was founded in 1854 and this particular building was built in 1919.
When you live at a church, you develop a different kind of relationship with it than other folks. It’s more familiar. It becomes a part of your own home. We had free range of the grounds. There were two buildings, the fellowship hall and the sanctuary. These buildings were full of marvelous secrets which were the source of much curiosity and speculation.
The fellowship hall was a one story building joined by a breezeway to the sanctuary. In it were Sunday school rooms, a kitchen, a nursery, two halls, my father’s study, and the Coke room.
Every Sunday morning after Sunday school, we lined up outside of the kitchen to order up a bottle of soda, or as we called it, a Coke. My favorite Cokes were Sprite, Welch’s Grape, and oddly enough Tab. I drank Tab because my Aunt Nancy drank Tab, and she was very cool. One Sunday, I broke two, maybe three Tabs on the floor of my Sunday School room. No one said a word. They just cleaned it up and gave me another one.
I recall doing a little bit of exploring in the summer. I was looking around my dad’s study and discovered a door that I had not noticed before. With a little bit of trepidation, I opened it with it’s ancient door knob and was astonished at what I found. There was another room which I had never seen, and in it were about a thousand Cokes in nearly every variety. I concluded that this was where the Sunday school Cokes were coming from, and I now had full access to them. I pulled out a warm bottle of Sprite and thought about opening it, but there was something sacred about the bottle that I felt I should not disturb. I thought that maybe stealing something from a church was a high sin, and I suppose it is.
Once a month on Wednesday nights, we had what was called a Fellowship Supper. This was a thrilling event for me. My mother was a good cook, but there were certain foods that I only got at the Fellowship Supper. Fried chicken, lime whip, and buttery French bread to name just a few. I didn’t have to sit with my parents. I and the other church kids would eat in a Sunday school room and chatter away, daring each other to dip our cookies in the punch. But after dinner was when the real fun began. We would climb out of the window and gather on the lawn, and the tag game would begin.
We played two types of tag. Standard tag and Chinese tag. Chinese tag is where if your teammate is frozen, you have to dive between their legs to get them out. Our home base was a mysterious hump jutting out of the sanctuary building. We played well into the night, and we sweated hard.
The sanctuary itself, was altogether holy to me. I did not play in it although I did explore it often. It was years before I unraveled all of it’s secrets, and I’m not convinced that I discovered them all. I’ve had vivid dreams of secret rooms and ghostly presences.
On the outside of the building, there were open vents to the basement which were just big enough for a kid to crawl through. I did it once on a dare. The basement was deep enough that I could not climb back out. It was lit only by the light of day coming in through the vents. It was full of dusty, old junk and Christmas decorations. I was quite certain it was haunted. I found my way to the creaky, wooden stairs and let myself out into the foyer, very much relieved.
Stairs from the foyer led to a second story of classrooms. For much of my childhood, I was afraid of climbing up there. We liked to make up stories about tragic events that may have occurred there. When I did finally muster the courage to climb the stairs which took several turns, I discovered two classrooms, one of which may have had a trap door. In retrospect, it was probably just a section of the floor that had been repaired. That room was were kids were spanked, and we concocted a story that a teacher had opened the trap door on a kid and dropped him down to his death. Another scary aspect was that there were often bees. I was never stung, but there was something unsettling about their presence.
The sanctuary itself was a very sacred place in my child’s heart. And in the very front was a stained glass window of the shepherd Jesus, which was often the focus for me in worship. I would count all of the individual panes while my dad preached, and it contained a mystery.
After the service, the ushers would exit the sanctuary through the doors on either side of the chancel with the offering plates. For years, I did not know what they did with the money. I knew enough that the offering was to be given to God, and I liked to imagine what that might looked like. I envisioned the men of the church praying and raising up the plates to the heavens, and then the money would rise in a stream of light. I was disappointed to find that it helped pay my dad’s salary.
But one day while exploring the church alone, I discovered where they were going. Behind the window was a narrow passageway where if you looked up at the window, you could see an exact backwards replica of the window. I felt very privileged to know what was behind this. And if memory serves, there was a little room called a sacristy where my father dawned his robe and stole.
To this day, there are vivid memories of feelings and smells which I associate with this church. Sometimes I would peak into the baptismal font and smell the water. It was musty, and I believed it to be a kind of magical substance.
In the winter, when I was old enough, Paul and I were invited to be acolytes. We waited in the foyer as the prelude was played on the organ. Furnace heat rose from the floor vent toasty and warm; a respite from the frigid air that blew in through the front door as people entered. Gas furnace heat has a distinctive smell, especially when the first days of cold descend and the fire burns the dust from the previous winter. We had a forbidden ritual. We would light the candle and let it drop on the palms of our hands while the adults weren’t looking. We pretended it didn’t hurt, but it did. Then we would peel the cooled wax from our skin and pretend things about it, although I cannot remember what.
At Christmas, the youth group would climb ladders to decorate the enormous Chrismon tree. A Chrismon tree is decorated in white ancient Christian symbols. When I was big enough to do this, I felt proud. I felt that my horizons were broadening in some unnamed way. We all chattered joyfully as we decorated.
I learned how to sing hymns in this church listening to my mom. I imitated her adaptations. When the melody rose too high, she would drop the octave and so did I for several years. I recall a Mr. Holmes, an attorney married to a journalist for the Lonoke Democrat. I thought he must have been the best singer in the church. He had an easy tenor voice with something I’d never heard before: vibrato. I very much desired to sing with vibrato after hearing him, but it did not come for many years.
Sometimes I wish I was still a member of this little church. My family was well cared for by it. I suspect that they made my dad’s first years as a minister a little easier. It was my playground, my family, and my house of God. I visit it once and a while and look at the names dedicated on each stain glassed window, many of whom were ancestors of the very people with whom I worshiped; the people who made fried chicken and mac n’ cheese and who took me to the spanking room when I needed it.
As a child, my family lived in a small farm town east of Little Rock, Arkansas called Lonoke. It was named for a famed landmark oak tree near the train tracks whose rails cut straight through the town. Lonoke’s main exports were rice, soybean, and fish. I took pride in the fact that it was home to the largest minnow farm in the world; China being it’s biggest customer. Although we think of minnows as being a form of bait, the Chinese use it as a food source. In fact, there used to be a Chinese restaurant in downtown Norman that served it’s fried rice with whole minnows. As I picked them out of the rice, I would wonder if they came from Anderson’s Minnow Farm in Lonoke.
Lonoke was a town of catfish fries in the park or in the street between my church, First Presbyterian, and the Methodist church. They fried the fresh caught catfish and hush puppies in large drums filled with dangerously hot oil. One time, Governor Bill Clinton attended a fish fry in the park just south of my house. I’ll never forget the warmth and strength of his handshake. There was something reassuring about it in my child’s mind. I’ll also never forget that Hillary introduced herself as Mrs. Bill Clinton. She had received criticism for going by Hillary Rodem in her early years of first ladyship in Arkansas. I recall, a local journalist for the Lonoke Democrat scratching out shorthand for her brief interview with Bill. You don’t see that very often anymore.
Many other wonderful things happened on my street, Center Street, which was the town’s main drag. Every year, the homecoming parade crept passed my house. We were the Lonoke Jackrabbits, and I always looked forward to the Easter Bunny-esque mascot who threw out candy along with the rest of the paraders, but there was something special about getting a Now N Later from the jackrabbit. The most exciting part, though, was that any kid who wanted to and was old enough could ride his bike at the rear of the parade. Then after the parade, my friends and I would search for hidden candy in the gutters.
I also recall a yearly fall hay ride through the streets. However, this event was stained by the tragedy of one of the town’s boys getting crushed under the trailer. There were many such tragedies in Lonoke. A friend of mine’s little brother was sliced to bits by a combine. A kid was killed on a three wheeler. Countless others.
My street being the main drag, teens in Camaro’s, Trans Ams, and pickup trucks drove up and down it at night blaring music often with boosters to give it a kick. I would listen quietly at night from my bedroom and wonder if I would one day do the same. I never did. We moved to Norman in my 6th grade year.
A couple of winters, it snowed so much, that the snow plow piled a huge mountain of snow in the street in front of my house which my brother and I played on for a few weeks. My dad also pulled us through snowy streets on a sled with our yellow Ford Fairmont station wagon.
This is not Lonoke, but it sure could’ve been.
As fall approaches my new hometown of Norman, I think about the signs of fall in my childhood hometown. The first sign was a change in the atmospheric acoustics. I would usually notice it for the first time when I heard the scream of a buzz saw somewhere in the neighborhood. The sound would be more crisp, more pleasing. This was a town of ancient oaks and pecan trees. The leaves would turn colors in massive patches atop trees that may have been as old as the town itself. And when they dropped their leaves, it was nearly unmanageable. But we didn’t use bags or anything else to haul the leaves away. And what we did do really brought the greatest sense of fall for me. We burned our leaves. The citizens of Lonoke burned leaves in the street in front of their houses, even on Center Street. This wonderful fragrance expressed the heart of autumn for me. I wasn’t supposed to mess with the leaves, but I often poked at the burning piles with a stick or threw acorns in them which would pop like a fire cracker if it burned well enough.
Now that I look back on it, this was a preposterously dangerous practice by today’s standards. I say “today’s standards” because we are a culture obsessed with safety. I don’t recall there being any problem with it back then. I suspect the practice has been banned by nearly every state in the country. Probably for the better. But in that little town when I was a kid, the streets were friendly. We celebrated our community in them. And now in Oklahoma, I get a similar sense of fall when I smell the first fires lit in hearths of Norman, but it’s a really bad idea to throw acorns in your fireplace.