Thursday, August 25, 2005

Lois Swanee
Museum Curator

Summer in Mississippi

Long ago in Holly Springs there was no air conditioning. I remember fans in each room, the windows were raised and we waited for a breeze to ripple the curtains; screens covered the windows and doors. We didn’t even shut the door at night, just hooked the screen. Summers then were intensely hot with temperatures steaming in the upper ninetys and quite often over a hundred degrees. There was no air-conditioning anywhere. Maybe it had not been invented yet, but I think it had elsewhere.

Summer used to be my favorite time of the year when I was a child. I loved to play and play we did. We played in the street, even at night (College Avenue), as there was hardly any traffic. In the fall the traffic was busy taking cotton to the compress but most of that was wagons pulled by mules or horses and that was only in the daytime. Hitching a ride in a full loaded cotton wagon and in an empty one coming back from the compress was quite an adventure.

We were having a terrible drought, as it didn’t rain for weeks. Everything was mired in a foot of dust and that bright sun ball had no mercy on anybody. I can’t remember when it was so hot. When it hadn’t rained for weeks, I heard my mother intensely praying on her knees to the Lord for rain. I waited to see if the Lord listened to Mama’s petition. In a few days it came a flood. Even the Lord listened to Mama. I felt the community owed Mama a debt for breaking the drought but maybe a lot of people were praying the same thing. We were used to that intense heat or maybe it was because I was a child and the heat didn’t bother me.

The swimming pool was a great ally to fight the heat. It was located at the north end of Center Street at the west hill edge of Spring Hollow. It was never open on Sunday as that was the Lord’s Day and we felt if we broke that fourth commandment, we might accidentally drown.

On the way to the swimming pool we would stop off for some ice at the local icehouse across from the pool. It faced south but was on Center Street. When I remember it today, those were wonderful summers.

We played a lot in my backyard. I had a playhouse that was actually a portable wagon on wheels (it was like a gypsy wagon and was stationary for me) from which someone had sold food at the fair. It was approximately 10 feet long, five feet wide, and eight feet tall (remember, I was small and the dimensions aren’t very accurate.) It was big for a playhouse. It had two stories at one end. My playmates and I spent many happy days there.

But one winter day, an eleven-year-old black boy named George came to my daddy at the store uptown wanting work. He was an orphan and someone had shot out one of his eyes with a B.B. gun and he had no place to go. So my daddy let him move into my playhouse. That ended the playhouse days although George didn’t last long; he moved on.

In my backyard was a double car garage and in that garage, my friends and I had drama plays. One time, we had a scientific laboratory where we were performing tests. Frank Hopkins was the brains of this endeavor. Sam Lowry was in charge the time we were having a Hawaiian luau -- “Our Gang” movies had nothing on us!

Despite the Depression: In the house everybody had a radio. Seldom did anybody have two. For us radio was not invented until 1927, (Marconi invented radio in 1894). Talking over that wire was like a miracle coming into your house. Phonographs were invented about 1900 and a lot of people had those with records. But radio! A twist of the wrist or a snap of the fingers and there you had a band in the kitchen or shows like Amos and Andy or in the late thirties Red Skelton, both hilarious comedies. Our President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt invented “Fireside Chats” with America that endeared us all to him. We would gather around the radio in a circle and listen intently to what he had to say. Lowell Thomas’ news was important, too. Some of the radios were table models and others were floor models. In an earlier column I told about how each Sunday morning, I ran out and got the “Commercial Appeal” and fished out the funny papers. I spread them on the living room floor and at 8 o’clock Mayor LaGuardia of New York City read the funnies to me and all American children who were interested in the funnies. Some of the radios were manufactured by Crosley, RCA, Zenith, and Sears and Roebuck. Sears and Roebuck put out a floor model radio for $59.95 which was a lot of money in those days.

Then about a decade later radios were put in cars, a real luxury but the constant movement of the car caused reception not to be so good and the static was too much.

On September 1, 1939, I was visiting my sister, Connie Beck in Memphis when the Memphis Press-Scimitar put out an “Extra” newspaper. The headlines were “Germans invade Poland!” It was scary then but little did we know that the event would change the world as we knew it.

Another write-up in the paper was about Mussolini having to wear glasses and it said, “After all he is 56 years old and only human!” Then history proved him to be almost non-human!

The clothes were made of linen, which was supposed to be cool. It really wrinkled easily though. Shoes had sharp pointed toes and some had straps across the instep. Men, too, wore linen suits, usually white, but the suit that was almost a uniform was the men’s seersucker suit, no wrinkling, but cool. Clothes were made at home on those Singer sewing machines. Store bought clothes were too expensive.

When I was nine, my mother and I went to California to see Aunt Stella and Uncle Max Soley. He was born in Denmark and Aunt Stella was born in Waterford. They lived in a wonderful place called Sonoma. We toured California, Nevada and Arizona in Uncle Max’s Deusenberg. When we started to cross Death Valley where the heat was 120 degrees in the daytime, we stayed in a “tourist camp” (prelude to the motel) in an oasis in the desert called Las Vegas. The guest houses were in a circle surrounded by palm trees and in the center was a building that housed the two rest rooms, one for the women, one for the men. This was before someone (was it Bugsy Seigel?) had the Las Vegas vision.

The morning we were to travel across Death Valley, we arose at four in the morning to make this trip. Uncle Max had purchased ice bags to hang on the front of the radiator to keep the engine cool. I had filled a quart milk bottle full of water so I wouldn’t thirst to death while crossing this desert. I drank all the water before daylight.

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