MUD PIES, PAPER DOLLS, HOPSCOTCH, AND TADPOLES

My childhood occurred during the worst part of the depression, followed by World War II, in which my only brother was killed when I was barely fifteen. But,  children will play, no matter what. Here are some memories of how I played.

A few small things were purchased for me each Christmas. Most likely my parents bought those things from Woolworth’s “five and ten cent store” which was about twenty-five miles away in Paris, Tennessee.  There might be a coloring book and some crayons, or a small rubber ball in my stocking. On Christmas Eve, in preparation for Santa, I hung up the same long brown stocking I had been wearing all day. I did not feel deprived, since other kids in the neighborhood didn’t have a lot of toys either.

In the town of Dover, TN, where I later went to high school, I would see kids on roller skates, but we lived on a country road where there was no pavement for skating. I was totally unaware that there were toys I could have wished for. There was no television to influence children to want certain items. We simply didn’t know to wish for more. We were pleased with the few little things we did get. An orange was a special Christmas treat, or a piece of chocolate candy in the toe of our stocking. I liked to write, so sometimes there would be a box of stationery.

Shirley Temple was a child star during the early 1930’s, and I was about her age. I remember having a Shirley Temple paper doll book. It had perforations to aid in punching out the stiff paper doll, and then the paper doll dresses could be cut out with scissors. The paper dresses had foldable paper tabs for attaching the dress to the paper doll. One year I got a baby doll with a voice box that would cry when turned over, and another year a doll with eyes that opened and closed. Long after the dolls’ clothes and hair were gone, I still hung onto them.

I also remember a set of really tiny doll dishes. The blue celluloid plates were not much bigger than a fifty cent piece.  There was a deck of cards for playing Old Maid. Nobody wanted to be left holding the “Old Maid”. There was a deck of cards with names and pictures of famous authors, including Louisa May Alcott and Nathaniel Hawthorne. There was a set of jacks with a small rubber ball, and a set of pick-up sticks. I had a five year diary with its own lock and key. I also remember a tiny cedar chest, three or four inches long. Those dozen or so items are all I remember of “store bought” toys during my entire childhood.

I played, but not with toys. I sat in the dirt in our backyard and made mud pies. In the summer I played in the creek. In the winter I marveled at icicles hanging from the eaves of our house. Or, with my galoshes on, I smashed the thin ice on mud holes in the dirt road. Mostly, I hung around my three older sisters who were always talking and giggling about dates with their boyfriends. I learned to embroider because my sisters were embroidering pillow cases and table scarves for their hope chests. Of my sisters, Imogene was the best at needle work and cooking.

With any random stick, I could draw a hopscotch pattern in the dirt road and practice the jumps, making my feet land in the right spaces. There was very little traffic so it was perfectly alright to play in the road. Mostly, I played in the shallow rocky creek, arranging rocks to create small pools where I could keep captured minnows and tadpoles. Crawdads were harder to keep in one place as they could crawl away. Leeches might attach to my ankles, but I would just pull them off. A little further up the creek was a swimming hole. I did not go there by myself. If there were men or boys around, rock skipping became the challenge. To fling a flat rock and make it skip three times on top the water was success indeed.

We had an old piano, and an old organ, both of which I played poorly. I knew how to read music from the Methodist hymnal, which was my only source of music besides The Grand Ole Opry. In a few hymnals, the music was still written in old-fashioned shape notes. Of my sisters, Leita was the best at playing the piano and organ. It was a lot of work to pump the organ with your feet and, at the same time, press the notes on the keyboard.

Daddy sometimes made me toys. He made me a sling shot. I soon learned that could hurt, as the propelled rock was likely to hit my own hand the minute I let go of the rubber strip which had been cut from an old inner tube. He made me Tom walkers, our term for stilts, but I wasn’t very good at that either. He made me a swing by attaching an old automobile tire to a rope hanging from a tree branch. He made me a push toy, a strip of wood with a cross piece, with which I pushed a rusted metal ring from the hub of an old wagon wheel. I called 90 year old, Dudley, recently to ask him what we called that thing. His answer was “Well, I don’t reckon we ever called it anything.” But, he said he pushed his so much he wore a dent in the wood.

At one point, around 1930 – 31, Daddy started driving a homemade school bus for carrying my oldest sister, Dot, and three or four others in her age group from our neighborhood to Dover to attend high school. There was no other transportation. A few years later, when the county got a real school bus, that covered wooden structure, in which the students had ridden, was removed from the truck chassis and placed on the creek bank between our house and the creek. That cast off wooden school bus became my playhouse, snaky place that it was. The interior was lined with a wooden bench on each side. I had a few broken dishes, a cast off aluminum percolator, an old tablespoon, and my two dolls, in there to play with. But, I was alone and the playhouse did not hold my attention for long.

If you had a rubber ball and a friend to play with, you could play Annie Over. One player yelled “Annie Over”, then threw the ball over the roof of the two story house. The opponent, waiting on the other side, tried to catch or retrieve the ball, then run around and tag the thrower before he or she could get safely to the opposite side. The problem was you never knew which route they would take. I played this some with my cousin, Harry Parker.

Another cousin, Darrell Russell, and I played in the hay loft over the barn. After wheat threshing every summer, there was a fresh stack of wheat straw to play in near the barn. Early evenings I caught lightning bugs and put them in a blue Vick’s salve bottle, where they created a blue flashing light. With a loop of twine on our fingers, we could make twine designs, one of which was called Jacob’s Ladder. Yo-yo’s were around, as well.

We also played with Diamond matches, which were readily available. Boxes of wooden matches were kept handy for lighting coal-oil (kerosene) lamps at night, or starting a fire in the wood burning cook stove, or lighting hand rolled cigarettes, or lighting the lantern for Daddy’s early morning trip to the barn.  With matches, and I don’t remember what in mind, Cousin Harry and I set his backyard on fire one Sunday afternoon. The grass was thick and dead and burned easily. Only when the fire was nearing their back porch, did I tell Harry we ought to go tell our parents, who were visiting together on the front porch. The four of them, Uncle Jack and Aunt Mattie, and my parents, Stanley and Hattie Martin, came running, and stomped out the growing circle of fire. Their backyard was black, and I felt bad about that.

SEE ROCK CITY was painted in black and white on the roof of many red barns in Tennessee. Those signs advertised Lookout Mountain near Chattanooga. I went there once with Uncle Lohman Nance and Aunt Nancy, their young daughter Oma Sue, and my parents. On the way there, we stayed in a tourist cabin that had electric lights and a flushable toilet! I pulled on a string which turned on the ceiling light bulb, but I did not know how to turn it off. I asked, and was relieved to learn that all I needed to do was pull the string again.

We had a hand cranked Victrola and a few Carter Family records. The Victrola had an arm for manually placing the needle into the beginning groove, being careful to not scratch the record. But first, you had to wind it up each time, otherwise the record might grind to a halt in the middle of the song, and that was hard on the needle, and the record.

I remember having one book to call my own. It was called Pansy Eyes, and was given to me by Dudley’s mother, Miss Ethel. I was standing in Carter’s Little House with Mama and Miss Ethel when she noticed that I had latched on to that book. She told me I could have it if I wanted it. I remember the moment and the absolute joy I felt over being able to take it home with me. Those used books were provided by Mr. Arch Trawick who would bring boxes of them down from Nashville. The books were kept in what was known as Carter’s Little House in the corner of the Parker’s backyard. The little house served as the neighborhood library, more or less, but I was too little for most of those books.

Sometimes Mr. Crockett, Dudley’s father, would sit in his front porch swing, spit tobacco juice into the yard, and tell ghost stories. He succeeded in scaring and spooking us kids about walking by graveyards, but we begged him to tell us more.

On school days, at the Mulberry Hill school playground, we played dodge ball, in which you tried to dodge the ball if you were “IT” with other kids in a circle around you throwing the large ball at you. But, the favorite game was town ball, loosely based on base ball rules. Our total number of school children for all eight grades was about twenty-six. Team leaders took turns choosing who would be on their team. Even the little ones got chosen. It was very democratic and fair. We supervised ourselves. Usually, the teacher didn’t even come outside during recess.

If someone provided a long enough rope, the girls would play jump rope. Sometimes we played “Mother, May I?” a game in which you ask permission to take a certain number of steps of a specific size. There was no playground equipment except what came from neighborhood homes. It was an exciting day when someone showed up with a real bat. The bat was old, but an old bat was much better than the rough scrap of board we had been using. During school recess, kick the can was always a popular game, as was any version of hide and seek, or tag. An old beat up tin can made a most satisfying sound when bouncing along the ground. The older boys could kick it really far, allowing us more time to hide. Leap frog was played, but I don’t remember any rules. One kid got on hands and knees and was leaped over by another. Again, we supervised ourselves. Leadership just happened. We didn’t give it any thought. We all were kinfolk or close neighbors.

There was croquet. On Sunday afternoons, some of the adults in the neighborhood might get together on the school playground and play croquet. They had pooled enough money to buy a croquet set which was kept at Moore’s Store, just down the hill from the school. I remember playing croquet a few times. Also, the men might play horseshoes in their yards on Sunday afternoons. No purchase was necessary for that, as there were plenty of worn out horseshoes around this farming community.

In the fall, I played in huge piles of maple leaves in our yard. In the spring, I played with violets and jonquils. Any old piece of rope became a jump rope. I learned how to hypnotize a chicken. First you catch the chicken, set it down, hold it still with one hand and with your other hand make circles in the air around its head. Just for effect, you drew a line in the dirt in front of the chicken and told it not to cross the line. Stand back, and the chicken would just sit there dazed and disoriented, until it decided to get up and run off. Big roosters were scary. They would flog a little kid, so I stayed away from them, as well as their gross droppings. At Christmas I would put silver paint on the spiky sweet gum balls from our own sweet gum tree and use them as decorations.

Bobbie Jean Parker and I were both born in 1929, but Bobbie was nine to ten months older than I, and therefore always more mature. We took turns going home with each other after church on Sunday. First we “helped” with setting the table for midday Sunday dinner, and then helped with the dish washing and drying. Later, outside, we might build a play house by outlining the rooms with rocks on the ground, then furnishing the pretend rooms with whatever debris could be dragged up. Bobbie had a bicycle and I didn’t. She let me take turns riding the bike down the hill from Uncle Rob’s and Aunt Irma’s house past the spring and onto the gravel entrance to Parker Brothers Store. I was not strong enough to actually pedal the bike on gravel. There was no pavement, so bike riding was a strenuous business. When Bobbie spent Sunday afternoon at my house, we sometimes see-sawed on a plank which we stuck through a board fence. That put one of us in the lot with the cows, and the other one in the chicken yard. At the end of the afternoon, some family member would drive the visiting friend home, about two miles away.

When our “citified” Uncle Johnny Martin and Aunt Martha, with daughters, Virginia and Louise, would visit from Decatur, IL, we would play the card game, Rook, with them. Uncle Johnny loved playing cards. Their visits were always exciting. Farm life was an interesting change for them.

One day, Mama came from the kitchen to check on me in the other end of the house, I guess she was curious because I had been quiet and alone in one room for a long time. What she saw when she peeked in, was a ball of white twine which I had threaded back and forth from one piece of furniture to another, crisscrossing the room every which way, creating a dazzling and puzzling display of white twine to boggle the mind. She looked amazed and amused, but said nothing, quietly closed the door and went away. I guess she knew it would take me an hour to undo my work of art and wind three hundred feet of twine back into a ball.

School, and school activities, kept us occupied in the winter. Revival meetings, Bible School, and a week of community wheat threshing, kept us entertained in the summer. There were “all day singings and dinner on the ground” at church. Somebody would make homemade ice cream by chipping a block of ice bought off the ice truck from Dover, and hand cranking the ice cream maker. We cut watermelons from our own watermelon patches. The women all brought homemade dishes for others to taste and compare.

Childhood in rural Tennessee, during a depression and a war, had its moments of boredom, isolation, fear, and sadness. It taught me a lot of valuable lessons. One lesson is that I can be creative and make do with very little. I am reminded of the times I’ve seen a child discard a new toy I bought for them and be intrigued instead by the empty box.

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