Bill Wright and Norman Oakes
Miss-Lou Fair, Vicksburg, MS, ca. 1950
Several times, I have been asked to write a biographical story of us two boys in order that our children and grandchildren might read that we really did exist before they knew it. It also serves Norman and me a means to reminisce the days of our youth. It was a time so different from the present.
I have thought many times of just how different it was, and the most striking is the independence we were allowed. I notice that the youth of today cluster with others in a clique, and remain in a tight grouping until adults. As a rule they do not exhibit the independence in getting away from that which they are familiar. Norman and I had other friends, but what one of us did had little effect on the other. We were born during the "Great Depression” followed by the country being in the midst of World War II.
Below are photos of a variety of Yazoo River houses from the early part of the 20th century. Most are associated with relatives and friends of theirs.
Perhaps our parents had more to think than what we might be up to. Those who might read these words need to visualize a time with no credit cards, no TV, no cell phones, and perhaps no telephone at all. Few families had a car. If you lived in town you walked, rode a single speed bicycle, or, if you had the money, you might have ridden a bus, but the bus stop might be a mile away.
My family moved hack to Vicksburg from the Delta in the summer between my second and third grades. We moved to 939 Bowmar Ave., and l was enrolled at Bowmar Avenue Elementary, a block away. The principal told Mom l could not enter the third grade coming from a Delta school, but would have to repeat the second which l had already passed. I was so bored from repeating the same schoolwork, I seemed to be in constant trouble with the teacher. She accused me many times of “day dreaming". I was always taking notes to Mom from the teacher. I suppose I did “day dream” a lot. I missed the days of living on a farm with animals. I learned to shoot with my grandfather and uncles. I missed my grandfather. Life had been exciting there for me, like the time a biplane with a checker painted cowling landed in the field behind the house, and the pilot got out wearing a cap with goggles to check his plane. I remembered a motorcyclist also stopping along Highway t61 to adjust the chain. I was probably the only second grader at Bowmar who knew how to saddle a horse, or milk a cow, or to shoot a rifle.
I was sent home for a few days when my teacher suddenly appeared before my desk and told me to shut up, sit up, and stop daydreaming. I told her something to the effect “I wasn’t" .... Maybe she assumed I wasn’t going to obey her. She slapped me across the face. I was hurt, embarrassed, and in anger when I stuck my hands into the tray beneath my desk and felt an apple that was rather soft with age. As she returned to the front of the class, I hurled the missile against the back of her head. I was paddled and immediately sent home. That afternoon, my teacher knocked on the door. There were a few choice words from my mother. I remember the teacher saying that she expected someday to see me in a penitentiary. With a few choice descriptive words from Mom, the parent/teacher meeting ended right then. A few days later we moved from Bowmar Ave. to 1715 Martha Street.
The war had been going on for a short time and Dad, unsure of his future, managed to buy a house for Mom and me. Mom sent a note to this effect to my school. The move put me into a different elementary school. I was immediately and unceremoniously shown the door by the principal of Bowmar Avenue Elementary School with just a few weeks remaining, in the school year; to find my own way to our house on Martha Street alone. We had just moved there the day before, and if I had not seen the railroad depot and yard that day, I would have had a very difficult time. The school and our new residence were a couple miles apart. For a second grader (OK, suppose to be third) that is a long distance to walk, especially carrying all my gear from school. Fortunately, l remembered that railroad. I walked past my former house on Bowmar to Drummond Street, then north on Cherry. When l reached Depot Street and the Cherry Street viaduct over the tracks, l walked down toward the depot and across a number of railroad tracks to the end of Martha Street and my new home. When I drive down Bowmar now I see the house. I see the porch where I was sitting, eating a piece of mincemeat pie, when I heard the announcement that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. I cannot think of any good that came from living at that house.... just bad memories.
When I enrolled in Clay Street Elementary School, I could tell an immediate difference in the kids. They were friendly and the teacher was much more compassionate to the students. I had left a school where the students learned in fear to one that taught with love. In less than a mont,h I passed the second grade for the second time.
In the third grade I had a teacher I loved like a grandmother. Miss Eliza Fox gave me a challenge to appreciate learning and school. It was 180 degrees opposite from what I faced at Bowmar. I sent her a handkerchief in a Christmas card every year for the rest of her life. While overseas, I wrote her a note thanking her for what she instilled in me. A few days after receiving the letter, she was substituting at Bowmar, where, I was told, she read that letter to the class.
My grandfather gave me a rat terrier, l think because my father was leaving for the army, I named him Mister. Dad had been a cadet at Mississippi State A&M, so I suppose this is why he was assigned to what he called the “cadre” at Camp Shelby. Although I guess I didn’t appreciate its implications at this time, but my mother was pregnant with my brother, George. One of the kids in the neighborhood also had a rat terrier, named Peewee. I guess it might be said that Norman and I were introduced by two dogs. We became buddies right off. Because of Norman I became acquainted with more of the neighborhood kids. It was Norman, that was unknowingly teaching a country bumpkin kid the life of the city. On Bowmar Avenue, I had no other kids to play with. Now I was a very happy and contented youngster. The only entertainment I had on Bowmar was skating down the hill into our yard and grabbing the limb of a crepe myrtle tree to stop. At least in the Delta, I had lots of animals ...horses...cows, and Daddy Lee’s dogs to occupy my time. Now I played card games, checkers, shot marbles, even hopscotched with the girls. With the boys, Norman, Roy McDonald, Sonny Bliss, D.W. Lyons and a couple more, I played Cowboys and Indians, and war games with rubber band guns when it was permitted for kids to do so.
During WWII, there were very few toys to be had, but that didn’t stop us. We built them. From the limbs of horse apple (bois de'arc), and hickory we made bows, and fashioned arrows from cane. The fletching feathers came from Mrs. Allen’s chickens. The tip was either an original Indian projectile point, one we tried to make, or a cartridge case slipped over the end. From the ruins of an old antebellum house, we obtained the narrow wall lathing boards which we fabricated our “boomerangs” by tacking two pieces of board about nine inches long in a cross. The accuracy we obtained could have been lethal. Old inner tubes were real rubber, and with these, we found a Y branch and the tongue of an old shoe to make our slingshots. We gallantly repulsed a couple of boys with BB guns that “invaded” our domain with the boomerangs. I think one escaped with a bleeding scalp wound.
Eventually, when we were able to get big firecrackers that were like a quarter stick of dynamite. we found a piece of pipe just right for a marble to slide down. We put a cap on the end with a hole drilled for the fuse. We could shoot this marble cannon all the way over the railroad to land on the tin roofs of houses over on the hill. We would fire and listen for the POW as it hit. We set booby traps, too. One night, I heard someone running for all he was worth down our driveway and through the back yard. BOINGIII I hear the THUD, the thrashing about, cussing, moaning, and the crash of someone going through the hedge at the rear corner of the yard. The next morning, there were several heads of cabbage in the yard.
The Presbyterian minister, in the big house on the corner, had two sons we liked, but one day they told us their father had forbidden them from playing with us. I can’t speak for Norman and the other boys, but I was reminded of my days at Bowmar. We liked these boys and suddenly through no fault of them, the other boys and I were treated like poor white trash. I know for a fact this minister’s holier-than-thou attitude left a distrust of preachers in both Norman and my young minds for a long time.
Norman and I were fascinated with nature...fishing, animals, and particularly catching small turtles. We dug out a hole in our back yard to sink a washtub, brought buckets of sand from a railroad car, and fenced the area to keep them in the enclosure. We stocked the tub with minnows, bugs, and crawfish. Norman caught this soft shell turtle about five inches in diameter. That thing would try to bite your finger off. The soft shell always sunned on a certain spot on the sand “beach” we built. I told Norman, “I`ll bet that turtle has been laying eggs. Norman got so excited. I had few antique clay marbles, which I had placed beneath the sand where that turtle rested. One day when the turtle wasn‘t on the sand l took a little stick and lifted one of the marbles out. Norman became hysterical with happiness. He would rake the sand off everyday and check the “eggs“, then carefully recover them. After a couple weeks, he was becoming anxious about the eggs not hatching. I took one from his hands as he so carefully cradled the fragile egg. Woops.... I dropped it. When it bounced, he wanted to whip up on me. I think before school began we took the turtles to the nearby bayou.
We went to Blanton, a small cotton farming and ginning settlement halfway between Onward and Cary on Highway 61 where I had lived prior to moving to Vicksburg. My grandfather, Daddy Lee, lived there and Deer Creek was right across the highway. The Creek was fairly clean, flowing, and full in those days. Today, it is nearly covered with aquatic growth and sluggish. We fished from a boat tied to the bank, but stuck out enough to get us past the bank brush. We caught, cleaned, cooked, and ate the fish we caught. Then Norman stuck a fishhook in his finger. A local animal vet living nearby cut the hook out and poured a blue liniment on the wound. Norman walked around with that bandaged finger sticking in the air for three days.
We never passed a chance to go fishing. If a fish took our bait we kept it. As long as it made the grease pop we ate it. About this time, we joined the Cub Scouts. As I remember the Cubs were more involved in outdoor activities than what I see today of the Boy Scouts. We learned about nature, survival, camping, making fire without matches, and how to identify animal tracks. We learned to trap a rabbit, even how to cook camp food. At this time, we could camp in the Vicksburg National Military Park. I can see Norman and me standing there at attention in our blue shorts uniform, yellow scarf and wearing a blue baseball style cap with a bear cub on front, and our advancement medals like ribbons on our left pocket.
The YMCA became our “go to” place. We would swim naked, then go to the softball field behind the Y and follow that up with a fresh sweet roll from the Piggly Wiggly bakery across the street. They were so large we would split it in half as close as we could… whoever broke it always turned a little under so that they looked equal. Then we would get on our bicycles and ride home.
Following Gray-Y softball, Norman and l discovered the real ball game of..."hardball.” Several of us neighborhood boys, would play a little baseball on a flat area of the railroad yard. You had to be very dexterous in jumping over the tracks when going after a fly ball. There was no real need for a catcher as a pile of cross ties covered in front by a piece of roofing tin served as a backstop. I recall Roy McDonald had the only real bat, a relic from an earlier time. It was black and weighed a ton. Someone hit a ball into the golden rod patch in “left field." I ran to retrieve the ball, but there was movement when I reached for it. I jumped back thinking SNAKE! That ball had bagged a rabbit. The game was called to let Norman take the rabbit home for supper.
Norman and I would lie on the floor listening to the Vicksburg Billies out-of-town games being broadcast on the radio, brought to us through the courtesy of Shakespeare Rod and Reel. We used handmade scorecards to keep up with every play. Ask us a pitcher’s won vs. loss record and we knew it, a batting average... no problem, but, if the same scenario were applied to a school math problem, we might have looked up with a blank face, yet we did this by “long division” with a pencil and paper. Fifty years later, l am told that what we thought were live broadcasts of our beloved Billies was really a delayed ticker tape to an announcer sitting at the radio station in the Hotel Vicksburg with a recording of game sounds, and making the appropriate click of a bat or the pop of a catcher’s mitt. I haven’t told Norman this yet ,... it will disappoint him as it did me .... Our heroes were surely not some gyrating fool with a microphone stuck in his mouth as today’s youth. Our heroes wore spiked shoes and wore a cap with the bill turned to the front as it should be. I remember us going by the Smoke House on Washington and begging for last week‘s issue of SPORTING TIMES, and later we might do the same thing for a more recent issue. We eagerly waited for the Vicksburg Herald to see how these heroes performed, and we cut the covers from Wheaties boxes that we put in notebooks. We read where Bob Feller, a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, had thrown fast balls over 100 miles an hour. Norman and I didn’t know exactly how fast that really was, but Norman figured he was going to do it too ...., when he got a little bigger.
Keeping air in our bicycle tires was a constant worry. Although things like tires and tubes were coming on the market after the war, we had no money to buy them. We were going to Daddy Lee’s house in Grace, Miss. Just north of Rolling Fork, with the bike baskets loaded down with everything from .22 rifles, rods, tackle boxes, clothes and canteens, when Norman’s front tire goes Blewiiie!!! The tube had patches overlapping patches and the tire bead was held in the rim by friction tape. The first pickup we see is my grandfather, Daddy Lee. He carries us back to Rolling Fork. We have about three dollars to last us a week, but we had to have a tube and a good used tire. We got them.... I think maybe Daddy Lee might have thrown in a dollar or so. We fished everyday on Steele Bayou. When it got too hot for the fish to bite, we would go swimming. From experience, if you plan to bathe in a creek, lake, or river use Ivory soap… it floats.
While touching on the subject of bicycles and how difficult it was to keep the tubes patched and tires on the rims, I was in the library at school reading MECHANICS ILLUSTRATED when I should have been preparing my homework. I was reading an article about the army developing puncture proof tubes...not tires as today, but everything had tubes back then. I was so involved reading this article that I sneaked the pages out.
I had found the panacea to flat tires. There was a photograph of a tire with nails protruding and still holding air. The article told of how the tubes contained a “paste” which sealed a puncture preventing complete loss of air. Paste!... a paste! What kind of a paste would remain soft. The paste we were most familiar with was the white paste used for gluing paper. Naw, that wouldn’t work.... l sure wish Norman were with me instead of at Redwood. Together, we could solve this problem. Then it dawned on mc to use flour to make a paste. I mixed the flour to a consistency that would squeeze from an old tire pump into a tube stem with the valve cone removed. By placing the stem on top I managed to inject the “paste” into the tube. Finally convinced l had enough paste, I washed the mess out of the pump and after replacing the valve core, aired the tire to sufficient pressure. I must have ridden a few weeks on this miracle flat fixer. It wasn’t even losing air; in fact, it seemed to also be gaining pressure. THEN.... I am peddling at a good clip down Washington Street when I hear this weird BLAHP...PLOP-PLOP sound from my rear tire, my bike is swerving and I am being slapped all over my head, legs, and back with this horrible moldy black goo and it smelled BAD. An old man on the sidewalk comes over to investigate what he sees, he comments as if only to himself, "What the hell is that?” He does not wait for me to answer, but continues on, shaking his head.
Our favorite camping place was a cabin on the Yazoo River at the mouth of the Little Sunflower River. If Norman ever told me its owner, l do not recall. Sometimes I knew when not to question Norman about matters of little consequence like trespassing and borrowing. I never knew where Norman got his hands on things, but he managed to “acquire” this little Wizard outboard with a sack of shear pins tied to the motor. I doubt it had six horsepower fifteen years earlier, but it would push that little john boat up the Yazoo as long as you didn’t fight the center current. We were the real Huckleberry Finns. We fished, frog gigged and had wonderful times.
Norman once “acquired” two illegal trammel nets that we strung across the Little Sunflower. The next day we sold a load of Fish to EJ Platt fisheries on the Vicksburg waterfront. Sure glad no one asked us for a commercial fishing license. (Norman’s grandfather Charlie Oakes worked at Platt’s fishery at this time.)
Earlier, Norman had “acquired” other things like this Flexi. I know there are many that have never seen or heard of a Flexi. It was a sled, except it had wheels that were steered by short levers on the front. If you pressed down on the levers, it applied the brakes by means of friction on the rubber tires. By ‘manifest destiny' Norman was the pilot of this Flexi he intended to ride down the hills of Vicksburg. We first needed to make a test ride on nearby Harrison Street. If all goes right, he would sail down the hill, pass Spee Chu’s Chinaman store, over the bayou bridge, and halt at the end of the sidewalk at First North. We needed a good push off to get up to speed quickly. First, try to imagine a skinny seventy-five pound Norman stretched flat out on this Flexi. Off he goes. Uh-O, he is out of control! The front control wheels come up, and Norman climbs up the side of the bulkhead. He and that Flexi tumble, flip and slide down the hill, Norman hollering loudly. In the 60s, I was reminded of this wreck on the Flexi by the recording of Brother Dave Gardner “.... It was awful, teeth, hair, and eyeballs… all over th’ concrete.”
Fortunately, it wasn't that horrific, but Norman still shows me the scar every time it comes up. I have yet to learn from whose shed that devilish Flexi was “acquired”, or for that matter what ever happened to it after its first flight. I do not recall seeing it again.
We habitually sneaked in the home games of the Vicksburg “Billies”, the Southeastern Class A league. We usually would get to the park early and hide until the gates opened, then we were home free. If we had not sneaked in, we would not have had the 35 cents for a coke and hot dog. Two of the team members moved into the same apartment building as Norman. I know we pestered Frank Tincup and Norbert Barker to no end, but Norman got Tincup to tutor him on how to throw a curve ball. I had the catcher’s mitt which popped away the long hours in our driveway with Norman’s fastball striking its pocket. Soon Norman began to throw well enough that I began to call pitches for him to throw. Surely some team needs our talent.
Then Norman moved to Redwood. Our career was over before it began. This separation didn’t stop us though. I managed to get to Redwood as often as he would manage to catch a ride to town. Then Norman came through, he learned his Uncle Fred, owner of Oakes’ Auto Parts, sponsored a baseball team. This was before Little League existed around Vicksburg.
Fortunately for the young boys, men like Mr. Oakes loved baseball and kids enough to mix the two together. There was no “draft” like in little League. Each sponsor recruited his own players. Norman and I gathered up our glove and mitt and caught the bus to see Uncle Fred. We found him behind the parts yard in a field with some of his team practicing. He gave us a tryout. He must have been impressed with his nephew‘s pitching because he put us on the team. Every team needs a catcher, and I could catch Norman’s curve and fast ball which was thrown harder, faster, and truer than any other pitcher we played against. I was the only non-Redwood boy on the team.
One of the teams we played was the Roseland Drive Team. Mr. Oakes told us there was a girl on that team, but warned us to not underestimate her. I thought for a minute, “Mr. Oakes, if she tries to score how do I block her, how do l tag her?” Without hesitation he replied, “Like a gentleman.” For two years Norman and I played for Oakes’ team. Following our home games at Redwood, Mr. Oakes would take us to Vernell’s store and treat us to a Coke. It is amazing to think he could treat everyone for less than a dollar with drinks like big R.C. Colas being 5 cents. I doubt we lost more than two or three games, and we would play anyone, even older boys.
Back Row: Donald Oakes, Phares Griffin, Billy Wayne Bishop, Melvin Oakes, Norman Oakes, Billy Wright Front Row: Floyd Oakes, Bobby Jernigan, Harold Barker, Lamar Thomas, Earl Martin, Johnny Griffin
Later, and now older, I am catching for the Vicksburg Carr Central GREENIES, my high school team. As I turn and remove my mask following a third out to go to the dugout, I see Mr. Oakes sitting in the stands behind me. I go over to the wire fence and speak to him. When I returned behind the plate he was gone. I will say no man outside my family influenced me more than Mr. Fred Oakes...God Bless him, he was a true gentleman. If Heaven has baseball and should time happen to be a Field of Dreams, Fred Oakes will be at the game. Like all boys, there is fertile ground for horseplay and practical jokes. l must admit I sometimes went too far with Norman. I am not sure he ever forgave me for the turtle egg incident. Norman had this love of milk, just plain ol’ homogenized milk. Mom had put a glass of starch in the refrigerator that looked just like milk. l just happen to call Norman’s attention to that glass. He had it half gone before the taste hit him. l locked myself in the bedroom when he got after me. He put black pepper in the outlet hose of Mom’s vacuum cleaner and blew it beneath the door at me... that ‘s all right... revenge is sweet. Following a later squabble, Norman goes in the bedroom, and locks me out. I know Norman! I put a sprinkle of pepper in a straw, as I know he will eventually take the key out and peep to see if I am still there. I wait until I hear the key being removed and see light through the keyhole then dark again. I know now he is peeping through the keyhole. I blow the pepper through the hole. You’d have thought a bear had him with all that hollering. Early pepper spray?????
Norman’s and my favorite fishing place was an old ox bow called Boat Slough. We fished nearly every weekend. The casting rod with nylon line was a real challenge to keep from having backlashes, so we resorted back to basic poles, corks and worms. One day while sitting in the boat on the slough, two men ease by fly-fishing. Norman and I are amazed at this art. We had never seen someone fly fish before...Look at that...they are catching one bream after another. We have got to get us one of those...for some reason Norman and I didn’t always think of dual acquisitions, we virtually shared everything. We head home to get a start on this fly rod business. From the hardware store, we buy a set of fly rod eyes to glue, wrap, and tie, on a pole. I think an old gentleman in the neighborhood gave us a used fly line and leader. We still have to get flies. We’ll just have to do without a reel for the time being. We find pieces of red foam rubber on the football field that we cut to bug shapes. We have a supply of hooks, and Mrs. Allen's Dominecker hens supplied a bit of soft neck feathers. Unfortunately, the bright red or blue colored bird feathers were the result of a BB gun‘s pellet. With mom’s thread and pieces of yarn we were ready to go. We did a good job… we began to catch fish with our homemade rig.
As always, Norman had a way of “acquiring” things; he came up with a metal telescoping fly rod and reel that weighed a hand full. I think we transferred the line from the first rig we made. Since Norman had the acquired possession of the rod, he was in charge of using it and “sharing his newfound expertise” while I paddled him slowly along the slough’s banks. He was proud of his ability to back cast and plop that fly where he thought it should land. He is drawing back his back cast, when all of a sudden he almost goes out the boat backward. There is a loud SPLASH behind him...the line zings through the water…under the boat to right at my backside where this long neck with a longer beak breaks the surface. His back cast had wrapped the line around a shikepo's neck. For those not familiar with a shikepo. it is what the more educated call a cormorant. That wasn’t all he caught with a fly rod, he once jerked a big wasp nest on me. Time to abandon the boat, and we scared nearly to death some man's mule drinking water when he popped a fly beneath its nose and a large ‘grinner`(grinnel) struck the fly. Now for the unknowing, a ‘grinner’s’ correct name is a bowfin. We had our own names for lots of things, but we could tell a grinner from a gar, a mud cat from a flathead, a blue cat from a channel cat, and knew where to grip a bream so we could make it pee on the other.
With Norman not being an everyday part of my life when he moved from Martha St., I found other boys that loved the same things Norman and I did. One of these was Jimmy Higgs. Jimmy had been a grade school friend, and now we were in junior high. Jimmy also liked being in the outdoors; so we thought the thing to do was join the Boy Scouts. We didn’t know that the Boy Scouts didn‘t permit .22 rifles at their campouts. Disappointed, Jimmy and l got back on our bicycles loaded with camping gear. We were way out past Culkin School House. Not wanting to waste a good camping opportunity, we headed for McNutt Lake north of town and west of Waltersville. What a rain! Mom suggested to Dad he take a truck and go out to the Scout Campgrounds and bring us home. Dad told Mom, “Aw, Charline… They have shelters and cabins with grown men there... they’ll be all right.” Little did they know that Jimmy and I were huddled in a GI pup tent on the banks of McNutt Lake in a thunderstorm. All the wood was soaked, we were hungry and now missing that dinner we were expecting out on Boy Scout Road. We even tried to cook a small bream we caught with the fire of a carbide lamp... didn’t work. I never convinced Mom that we had not originally intended to be on McNutt Lake, and we had really gone out to the Boy Scout camp. She always said that was the only lie she caught me in. HA!
Jimmy and I were fishing, again on McNutt Lake, when he takes a worm and drops it in my canteen that I had just opened to get a drink. We both hit the water tied up in it dispute over that worm in my canteen. Like Norman, Jimmy would leave. I was to see him twice more, in California and in New Orleans. We were both in boot camp in San Diego and met on the “grinder” of Camp Pendleton. A few years later, I am in New Orleans picking up a car for a dealer when I hear someone yell my name from across the street. It’s Jimmy Higgs. He was going into a restaurant to get a Po’boy sandwich. I had never heard of a Po’boy sandwich. We go in and Jimmy treats me to a Po’boy... still didn’t make up for that worm in my canteen. That was the last time I saw Jimmy.
As kids, Norman and I loved to go to the skating rink. Neither of us was good, but we went to see the pretty girls. We were out at the rink on Clay Street when this kid … kinda stuck up wussy kid... drives up in a Crosley car. They were smal, apathetic, innocuous, little cars without the power to pull the cap off your head, but cute enough the girls liked them. This boy with his date parked his little convertible at the curb. Oh, well. Norman, Henry Hazzlerigg, and I pick this car up by hand and wedge it across the sidewalk between two telephone poles with only about a two-inch space at each bumper. We listen to the announcer call for the car`s removal from the sidewalk. Finally, they come out and see the predicament their car is in. It took a wrecker and five policemen to get that car out. Someone points to Norman and me as the culprits, and the police give chase. They have just graded for the drive-in movie behind that site… It’s dark. We didn’t know that there was about six inches of mud over the area. Of course the policemen don't chase two wild boys into a bog. Norman lost one of his good shoes... sucked it right off his foot! We backtracked to retrieve the shoe. After getting out of that mess and washing off with a hose, we are driving around and see the Crosley again. We play a little harassment with Norman and me in front and Henry behind them. Just innocent play, but when they get to her house, they both run screaming and yelling to the front door. We just drive on off. Norman has his shoe and the fun is over. Not quiet. The next day, my Dad finds me and says: “Mr. Pullen is upset at the way you scared his daughter and that McKay boy. I think you ought to go see him so you can apologize and see what you can do to make things right.” He wasn’t a happy man. I had to pay the wrecker fee, and Norman and Henry got off scot-free.
Henry Hazzlerigg’s, one of the culprits in the last venture of wedging that Crosley between the poles, father had a salvage yard full of old cars. His father would let Henry have any car that we might get running. One of these beauties was a 1934 Lafayette. You had to spin the steering wheel to take the slack out, and the mechanical brakes were only as good as the car’s behind it on some of those hills, To support the fuel cost (22 cents a gal.), we divided the car into one foot squares. For 50 cents, you could paint the square any color, put your name, or whatever, but you had to supply the paint. The seat caught fire when the springs contacted the battery posts, but we got it out and threw it off a bridge, and picked up another at the yard.
Four of us, including Norman, were going rabbit spotlighting when Henry missed a turn. He thought the road went to the right… it went to the left and we sailed end for end off a thirty-foot bluff. Those old cars had plain glass… not safety glass... broke every one of them. Fortunately, with four loaded shotguns in there and that flying glass, only one boy got a scratch on his ear. Henry got his dad’s wrecker and we put that car back on the yard for parts. I think this was the same old Lafayette that Norman had “acquired” when he lived up on Highway 3. At least, it had his initials on the steering wheel. He used to drive it on a rough gravel road when we would go swimming. The bouncing of the front end seemed to help the alignment, and it didn’t wobble as much.
We have entered the era of girlfriends… never paid that much attention to girls before now. But we still had fish to catch and squirrels to hunt. We had this new friend named Noel Eugene Van Norman (1935-70)… too long a name for a little fellow, and we already had one Norman. We’ll just call him Doodle.
The first time Doodle went camping with us, Norman and I would flip a clod into the woods so he would throw another log on the fire. He eventually got wise to us. He once stayed with us a week camping, and he did well. We left the day he and I got out of the junior year of high school. Norman had graduated the day before. About mid-week, Mom and my girlfriend brought us some supplies and Doodle’s and my final report cards. Doodle failed Miss Arrons' English class… he was ticked. Now he had to enroll in summer school as soon as he got back.
Doodle was a real piece of work. He was the only person I ever knew that I could talk into being sick. I could ask him: “Doodle, do you feel all right today? You look a little red in the face, you don’t have fever do you?” That boy would be in the bed sick within an hour. I think he just felt safe beneath covers. I recall him running his daddy’s Nash off down a hill with a carload of county schoolgirls. It didn’t turn over, and all just climbed back up the hill, but Doodle thought he might seek the sanctuary of the Infirmary Hospital bed to escape the wrath of his father. There was nothing wrong with him. The Nash.... welllll!
When camping in the woods, there is a beauty of the woods awakening, the sun on the trees, the birds stirring about singing, the smell of coffee boiling, bacon frying and the bark of a squirrel challenging our intrusive presence. The nighttime is normally quiet, but yet if you listen it also has its unique sounds. Some scary. Some innocently lonesome. There were the Saturday nights Norman and I might be in the woods hunting or camping and hear the distant melodious sound of the Grand Ole Opera from a battery powered radio far off in the hills. The hoot of an owl is so often heard as if protesting our being a rival to his catching that rabbit. He need not worry. Norman and I both shot as many spider eyes as we did rabbits. A spider’s eye appears like a rabbit that only shows a single eye due to it being on the side of his head. Norman and I could identify most of these night sounds, but I once had Doodle with me in the hills around Snyder’s Bluff. Suddenly a screech owl screams which naturally made me jump, but Doodle gels close by me.... "What was THAT!!!!?" I knew the sound, but told Doodle, “Don`t worry. It is probably a panther. You’re safe, I have my rifle right here." He was ready to get out of there.
Norman wanted to visit my girl cousin in Greenwood ...I have to admit, for a cousin, she was cute. He borrowed my girl friend’s Harley motorcycle to get there, and wore a starched white shirt, too. I wasn’t going at first, but decided I would. He had already left, but I caught him as he entered Highway 3. Norman wasn’t thinking when he pulled up behind a cattle truck instead of staying to the side and passing as quick as possible... yeah… that is exactly what happened. Whew, what a mess! I wasn’t for him going to see my cousin smelling like that, and I sure had no intention of swapping shirts with him, and I don't think he even washed the bike before returning it.
Time was going by so fast, Norman graduated from Redwood, Doodle and I were seniors, Uncle Sam was breathing down Norman’s neck, and recruiters were making personal visits to Doodle and me. Norman (at right) joined the Air Force, said he couldn’t wait for me. Doodle joined the National Guard, but I didn’t want to be a weekend warrior: Two other classmates and I were given bus tickets to have physicals for draft card updates. Even before graduating, my card was changed from 1-S (student) to 1-A. Robert Arledge went from 1-S to 4-F, he was out of the chase. Luke Mobley’s also came back l-A.... scared him so badly he joined the Naval Reserve. Again, I didn’t want to be a weekend warrior or a dry land sailor. I was in a quandary. My father was insisting I enroll at Mississippi State where I had a little funding from a General Motors stipend. No, I was not ready to be a freshman at a college. I was tired of school. I had been talking to the Marine recruiter, but still wasn’t ready to make up my mind. My girl friend and I were breaking up, but I didn’t want to leave for service without at least a friendly girl to write me. Nor was I particularly wishing to date another girl from my alma mater. The fact I had no girlfriend really bugged Doodle. He was more concerned than I was. Norman was gone. Doodle and I would usually cruise around town at night. He seemed to know every girl in the county schools. He would occasionally have a couple of them to ride around with us, but it just wasn’t the same. We would usually go by the Dixieland Drive-in for a burger and coke. I was buying a few burgers and cokes, but so far nothing, and time was running out.
While in a math class, Doodle had once shown me a photograph of a Culkin girl who had been selected as cutest in her class. She was a year behind us in school. Her name was Maxine Thomas. He knew all about her, but when I inquired about her, Doodle would not tell me much until finally one night he takes me by her house and introduces me to her. She is cute! The next day l called her for a dinner and movie date. She thought for a minute, but did consent.
I had found that most county-school girls (1) didn’t want to date boys from Carr Central High School, and perhaps especially one that rode a motorcycle.  I believe that once a boy graduated from high school he is less likely to get a date with a girl still in high school; I didn’t take Maxine to the Dixieland for a burger and coke. I took her to the Glass Kitchen and introduced her to one of my favorites; the hot roast beef open face sandwich, and a shrimp cocktail… then a movie. Afterward we did go to the Dixieland where I could show her off.... and cause some to ask questions…
The night I graduated from Carr Central I got on my travel-loaded, and gassed motorcycle and left town while graduation celebrations were still in full swing. I rode all the way to Sheppard Air Force Base in Wichita Falls, Texas to see Norman. I brought him up to date on my situation, but I still was undecided about which path to take in military. The only way to stay around was to join the National Guard, Naval Reserves or relent and go to college. I honestly believe as confused as I was at the time, I would have flunked out the first semester of college. I decided that if I were to go into the army, I would take basic at Camp Chaffee, Arkansas. Maybe if I didn’t get sent straight to Korea, I might get stationed for a while in Louisiana or Georgia where I would stand a better chance of running home on a weekend to see Maxine. Maxine and I were married three months alter her graduation. (Picture below.) Norman was my best man, and Doodle was one of my ushers. I did get to Norman and Helen’s wedding to serve as his best man.(Norman had met Helen in 1954 while stationed in Lake Charles, LA. They married the following year.–Mel) We left Doodle to watch after things in Vicksburg while we were away. Nine months later, Maxine joined me at Kodiak Naval Air Station, Kodiak, Alaska.
That’s really where, we might say, we spent our honeymoon, in a cabin overlooking the bay, smelling the tide. Helen could watch whales move through the channel from the kitchen door. Of course, she had no real idea of my duties, but when asked what I did she replies: ‘°Nothing… all he did was hunt, fish, and shoot.”
I had finally just told them at the draft board if they were going to take mc, then get it over with. I ended up in naval aviation. I didn’t get basic in Arkansas. I took boot camp at San Diego, California. The water was cold, the mountain hills were dirty and tiring, the wind blew, and the smog smelled bad. I was totally unprepared for the likes of California. The first few days we were run from one physical to another before being issued a uniform and weapon. I am standing in line trying to commit to memory my serial number, 477-53-25. I am in my skivvies, folder with papers in my left hand, and my rolled up civilian clothes in my right. This doctor asks me if I have ever taken drugs. I answer, “yes sir“! I am then sent to another doctor that asks me what kind of narcotics I am taking. I told him that I didn’t smoke… I thought he was talking about nicotine. I’m a naive Mississippi boy that was totally out of my element in California. The doctor exclaims loudly, “No!" and names several other forms of dope I still don’t understand, so I just squint and look stupid. I tell him that I had once had penicillin shots for blood poison caused by a rusty can under Norman’s tire swing..,, Na, I didn’t tell him about the tire swing. He gave me back my papers and told me to get back in line.
After returning to duty following a quick trip home from California to Mississippi, I have to go all the way back west to Seattle, Washington. We are standing in extended formation at Pier 3, Seattle, Washington preparing to board a WWII liberty ship, the USS John O’Hara. It is cold and miserable. It is not even daylight... probably around 4:30 - 5:00 am, when here comes several ladies and a man or two, pushing large cans with coffee urns, and boxes of donuts. They were wearing the uniforms of the Salvation Army. They made sure everyone had a cup of hot coffee and two donuts. They disappeared as fast as they had appeared. As we were ready to board, the loud speakers told us to place the cups and debris next to our right boot. I looked back from the deck. The eerie view of all those white cups in perfect alignment reminded me of a graveyard. I hoped it was not a harbinger of times to come. I try to support the Salvation Army today.
Norman stayed in the Air Force Reserves following his active duty and eventually retired. He spent all his duty on the east coast and I in the Pacific. As my second tour on Kodiak was at an end I considered asking for a third, but no such luck. The papers came in for California. No way did I want to go back there. I decided to not extend, but go to Mississippi.
Before I left home I had this dog named Duke, a rather large and clumsy mix of part German sheppard and whatever jumped the fence. I got him from the local vet, Dr. Lindley. Duke, despite his being as graceful as an ox, was very smart and was as fine a watchdog as Mom could have wanted. No one messed around there. I return home, sea bag over my shoulder walking up the driveway at 4:00 AM. Duke is already alert and raising a ruckus. In a natural tone of voice as I walk toward the steps, I say: “Hush Duke!" Instantly the fierce bark becomes the banging of his heavy tail striking against the kitchen cabinet. Alter two years of not seeing Duke, he was giving me the best welcome home I could have wished for.
After a short time I did what Dad had wished. I enrolled in college. Doodle had been attending night classes at Mississippi College while we were gone. At one time, I thought I might like a career in law enforcement, but after six months I realized I had at least two disqualifying handicaps for the Vicksburg Police Force at that time. I had honor, and I was honest. I entered college with many other veterans.
Even while still in College I had applied with the Corp of Engineers. I was getting no encouragement when others with less than stellar grades had no trouble being employed by the COE. After a while, like Davey Crockett said in 1835, “They can go to hell, I’m going to Texas.” I later was told if there wasn’t a legacy, i.e. a relative already working there, I might as well forget the COE. I had a great service buddy from Texas. We had served together from boot camp to the day we were separated from the service… there were only ten digits between our serial numbers. We shot on the rifle team together. He talked me into moving to Texas. Maxine and I bought a house in Mesquite, and shortly afterwards bought a larger home in Dallas, near White Rock Lake, nice neighborhood, great neighbors, and five minutes from my office. I didn’t realize I wasn’t permitted to skin a deer behind my house in Dallas.
We learned Maxine was pregnant… an answer to our prayers. Life was good! It was about this time that I find an UNOPENED envelope from the Corp of Engineers a notification of my acceptance. There was a note on the back Maxine had written to someone. I never got the letter until nearly four years later. Probably the best thing that could have happened, and it got us away from home, but l always knew one day I would again return to Mississippi. Norman and Helen had a son and a daughter, Doodle and Betty had married while Norman and I were away and now had a son. Doodle was still plugging away at night school, three hours at a time. We were now in the daddy stage of life. In early 1969, I could see changes in engineering principals with the advent of the computer. The slide rule was extinct. Then there was a rumor of my company closing the Dallas office. I would have to transfer to Tampa, Beaumont, Memphis, New Orleans (God forbid) or Saint Louis. I told Maxine that we were going back to Mississippi. It took just a few days to obtain an engineering job in Jackson. The problem was the technology was decades behind, and they resented any ‘upstart’ change. As time permitted, I began taking courses at Mississippi State for fun. I had a love for history since Miss Fox’s third grade class. I had minored in history, and that was the only straight A grades I had. Finally I am finished, and I realize that liberal arts only taught me when to use a semi-colon. History was limited to teaching, or working for an agency. Then there is the real reason I was taking history… for fun and enjoyment. I continued in engineering. Then one day I get a call from the Mississippi Department of Archives and History actually recruiting me for a historian’s job. I had not made an application. I talked this over with Maxine. She is concerned that it would be a cut in pay. OK! For the stress factor, I accepted. I am spending all my time fooling with little old blue-haired ladies, and self-trained historians full of old wives’ tales and myths. I have got to get out of these walls. The staff archaeologists are trying to do work on a historical site. They have no interest beyond Indian projectile points and potshards. I spent the summer with them at Ocean Springs, trying to interpret the meanings of post mold stains and historical artifacts. All of a sudden, I am a historical archaeologist.
Our buddy, Doodle dies from a sudden heart attack while at a National Guard meeting. Like Norman and his Air Force Reserve, Doodle was making a career with the National Guard. He only lacked three hours receiving his degree from Mississippi College... one lousy course. I attended his funeral and grave services and unashamed, I cried. In high school he had been my closest bud. I think back and realize if it had not been for him I might never have met Maxine, and how different my world would be.
When I retired from archaeology in 1985, there were 21 positions advertised with the National Park Service in Vicksburg that I wanted. I made the necessary applications, and was selected, and notified when the job would begin. I was excited and thinking of that “Smokey Bear Hat". Alas… Other than military service I was not having much luck with the Federal Government.... The job was abolished with the new presidential election four days before it was to begin. Even though I cut my own throat in a way, I’m still glad I voted for Reagan. After the COE and NPS job disasters, I vowed to never again apply for a government job. I had ’burned my bridges’ at the Dept. of Archives and History. In archaeology, l had two choices...contract archaeology, which consists of surveys for environmental studies, or another agency that was considering adding a historical archaeologist, the State Crime Lab. I had been involved with enough skeletons long dead. I did not care to fool with fresh ones.
I decided to venture into a long love of mine, "motorcycles. I had taken advantage of 25 cents a mile while with the Archives to attend several archaeological conferences riding my motorcycles: to upper Michigan, to the University of South Carolina, San Antonio, Texas, Albuquerque, New Mexico, and L.S.U. in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I had been riding bikes since my early teen years and occasionally been very involved with tuning competition road racing bikes… those that go for long periods at well over 150 miles per hour. My tuned bike was the first place non-factory bike at the Daytona 200 out of 80 starters. First privateer bike is like winning to me. Some of the factory bikes had over a million bucks spent on development. I opened a motorcycle parts and accessory store. It was successful, and I enjoyed the work. It gave me the opportunity to make primitive camping trips to the Smokey Mountains and other places.
Norman and Helen eventually moved to Alabama where I managed to see them on my many trips to camp in the Smokey Mountains. I would drop by their house on the side of the mountain at Chula Vista, Ala. If they were not at home I might leave a ‘totem’ so that he would know. It might be a golf ball sitting on a Coke bottleneck, a baseball, or little white rocks from his flowerbed spelling my name. I once left an alligator tooth, but I don’t think he found that. Although we always remember each other ‘s birthday with a call or card, I managed to retrieve a brick from the old chimney of the cabin on the Yazoo and Little Sunflower which I engraved: “Lest we forget the good times,” and gave it to him as a birthday present.
One might say that it is not possible for a senior citizen to make “real” friends. I have many acquaintances, but REAL friends are not simply made through an introduction and a handshake. That’s not a real friend. A real friend is cultivated over many years and forged by stress and love. Today, I can count my REAL friends on my hands, perhaps on one. Of all my real friends from my military service, there is only one surviving today in Ohio.
Never question a veteran why he still keeps in touch with someone whom he might not have seen for decades, and perhaps you never met. From my days of growing up, all of my REAL friends are gone with the exception of Norman. I tried to even visit my old high school girlfriend and her husband a couple years ago down in Pensacola, Florida. I left there liking him, but I felt resentment from her that I could not understand. Sixty years is a long time to stay mad about something only she can imagine. I took a silk scarf she had left in my saddlebag in 1952. I thought she would appreciate my gesture to return it alter sixty years. She looked at it, but showed little interest so I picked it back up and stuck it in my jacket pocket. I am not going to let this trouble me. If we meet again I will pretend I didn‘t notice.
Life has a way of weaving in and out, to intertwine again and again. That’s the way it had been for Norman and me. Time has a way of moving quickly and catching us unaware–it seems like only yesterday we were young. We looked at older folks we used to see and never thought we’d be them.
Yes, we had fun. We swam the pools, ponds, rivers, bayous and the cold clear stream the Indians called Skillikalah that came from the Oak Ridge hills down to near Redwood. We fished, hunted, camped, and grabbed pears from trees in yards we ran across. We played sports and rode bicycles… and then motorcycles, and cars. We invented and improvised and adapted a solution to our need. If hungry, we managed to solve that whether it be with a pilfered piece of fruit, or melon, or a welcomed raid on Mama’s kitchen… perhaps a plate of Steel Bayou Catfish or even blackbird dumplings if necessary. We did it!
Norman came from a larger family, being the fourth of five kids. He had two brothers and two sisters. I had the one brother who was nine years younger. I know Norman more as a brother to me than a friend. I love him as if he were my brother. Our lives, especially our youth was a true adventure you will not likely find among today’s kids. We feared nothing, and were game to try anything. I think Norman will share with me in saying: Yes, we have regrets. There are things we wish we had not done... things we should have done, but didn’t, and many things we are happy to have done. It’s a lifetime of memories we share with you.
Norman Oakes, 5/25/33
Blll Wright, 2/22/34
Norman and Me Photos