Welcome to My Autobiography

 

 

Chapter 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

I Wanted to be Somebody Famous

 

Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant, than pretend to be somebody and have no food. (Proverbs 12:9)

In my mother's photo album is a picture of me when I was three or four years old on the stage at the Opry House in downtown Dallas with Sonny James, a popular country-western singer in the fifties. Periodically, over the years, I would look at that picture of myself, on the stage in my cowboy hat and boots, and dream of being famous. The name, James Melvin, just screams, "pseudonym." It was like my destiny was to be on a stage. No jokes, please. I’m serious.

           

Melvin and the Beanstalk

 

When mother and the giant got married in 1954, we moved to a house off Greenville Ave. near the only Sears & Roebuck store in Dallas, at the time. It was an old two-story brick house, which had been converted into a quadruplex (not the Sears building, but the house we lived in).

             Ours was one of the ground level apartments. I didn't realize why, at the time, but mother and Joe stayed in their room and left me alone a lot. I stayed outside most of the time, hiding in the bushes in front of the house pretending to be somebody. I don’t think children pretend enough these days. On the other hand, I think adults pretend way too much. So, I guess it all equals out, somehow.

            In the fifties, if a person found a penny they would stop and pick it up, especially a kid. You could actually buy stuff with a penny, like a baseball card with a really hard piece of bubble gum. And if you found a dime or a nickel, it meant you were practically rich.

            There was a drugstore about a block from our house on Greenville Ave. and anytime I got hold of a penny or a nickel I would sneak away and run to the store. I put the pennies in the gumball machine and the nickels in the machine with the little plastic capsule which contained prizes inside. Then I would run back home, hoping that mother or the giant hadn’t come out looking for me while I was gone. They never did, though. Back then you didn’t worry so much about your kids disappearing into the hands of some evil villain.                      

I stashed all my treasures in my secret hiding place; the brick ledge behind the shrubberies. When we moved, after just a few months, I forgot about my treasures and left them behind. So, if anybody reading this found little toys on a window ledge behind some shrubs at a house on Sears St. in 1954, they're mine.

            We moved north on Greenville Ave. to Longview Dr., almost to Mockingbird Lane, into a two-bedroom, two-story duplex. We were directly across Central Expressway from the Mrs. Baird's Bakery. The smell of baking bread still takes me back to that time, sitting on the grassy slope that connected our lawn to the shoulder of the highway, waiting for Papa to stop by in his furniture truck on his way from a delivery to downtown Dallas. He would always give me bubble gum and a penny and a nickel for the ice cream man. Cokes and ice cream were just six cents each back then.

I remember the little red Coke machines with the arm you pushed down after you put in your penny and nickel. And you had to put the penny in first or it didn’t work. By the way, the Dr. Pepper plant was just a couple of blocks away from our new home, too, but the smell of drinks being bottled does nothing to jog my memory.

           

            Central Expressway was what they called the part of US75 north from downtown Dallas. Today that name stretches for miles both south and north of Dallas. In the ‘50s there wasn’t much past Loop 12 (Northwest Hwy). You were pretty much in the country. Living near Mockingbird Lane, we were near the fringes of Dallas. New neighborhoods were starting to build up to the north.

           

E Pluribus Unum

 

            It was around this time I started kindergarten. In the fifties kindergarten wasn't in the public schools and it wasn't required. I only have two memories of that school. First of all, the lady I stayed with after school and her yard where I played, after walking to her house a few blocks from the school. And second was a homosexual.

            I had no idea what a homosexual was, because nobody was talking about them in 1954, but my natural instincts told me it was wrong. I thought he was an adult, although he could have been a thirteen-year old kid for all I knew. When you're five years old everyone over twelve looks like an adult.

            He confronted me in the restroom after school. I had never heard of such a thing in my life, but I immediately felt ashamed. I didn't want to tell anyone how I had acquired the big sack of candy he had given me. I told the lady I stayed with that a man at school just gave it to me for no particular reason. She told my parents and they made me throw it away. I got nothing but the guilt and a lesson learned the hard way. (E pluribus Unum)

 

Just Imagine That

            As a kid I was mesmerized by television. I used to think there was a way to get those people out of there. Maybe I could even play with them, especially the cowboys. I loved westerns. I guess everybody did in the fifties, because there were so many of them.

            I watched so many movies from the forties on television I thought New York City was black and white. It turns out that all of America was black and white in the forties. Cars were black, gray or brown. Shirts were white. Suits and ties were black, gray or brown. It seems like colors weren't invented until the mid fifties, then they went crazy with canary yellow, turquoise, and hot pink. I was blinded by the sudden brilliance of it all.

            Even though television shows were black and white, we knew Lucy's hair was red, because they told us. And we knew Superman's cape was red, thanks to comic books. Most of the time we just used our imagination, but then along came color television, and we didn't have to use our imaginations anymore.

            When the television was off, though, my imagination was on. If I wasn't pretending to be a cowboy, then I had a towel around my neck, not only pretending to fly everywhere, but also that the towel was red. With my hands out in front of me, I ran through the house and the yard. When I pretended to be somebody, I was them.

            Daddy used to get me every other weekend and sometimes he would pick me up after work on Friday and he might have a buddy from work in the car with him. That was the case on a day I remember vividly.

            I had my towel hanging from my neck and I stood in the front seat between daddy and his coworker. There was no law against children standing in a moving car back then. That's why so many kids in the fifties didn't have front teeth.

            Daddy's buddy lit a cigarette with the car lighter, then held the lighter up to me and said, "If you're Superman you can touch this and it won't burn you." Without a second thought or hesitation I stuck my finger into that glowing grill, which was imprinted on the tip of my finger for months after that. I think that man was as shocked that I actually touched it, as I was that it actually burned me. I mean, I really thought I was Superman, up to that moment, anyway. All I remember after that is me crying and daddy saying, “Don’t tell your mother.”

            Did you ever notice that no kid pretended to be Clark Kent, the mild mannered reporter. They always bypassed the middleman and went straight to Superman. I never saw a kid wearing a suit and tie, going into a phone booth to change. We never saw Clark Kent actually change clothes in that booth, so we didn't know how he did it so fast.

            I always wondered if I was the only one who had a problem with the fact that Clark Kent could take off his glasses and nobody recognized him. I've known a lot of people who wore glasses and I recognized them, even after they took the glasses off. I know superman wore tights and a cape, but even if my grandmother took off her glasses and put on tights, I might be a little nauseous, but I would still know it was her. Clark Kent worked with some really dumb people.

            I did like Superman and the three stooges and cartoons, but cowboy shows were the best. I had a replica of every gun made popular by television. I had Wyatt Earp's Buntline special, Yancy Derringer's derringer, the Rifleman's rifle, and Josh Randall's sawed off rifle. I even had swivel holsters. Back before people were worried whether kids got hurt or not, I had a toy gun that actually fired a plastic bullet that attached to a spring-loaded shell. You could even put a “greenie stick ‘em” cap on the back of the shell. That way it sounded like a real gunshot and could even put someone's eye out. It was great fun.

            It seems like something wasn't fun unless someone could get hurt doing it. When I was a kid everything that was fun had a consequence. It would put out your eye, stunt your growth, break your neck, or stick like that for the rest of your life. "Don't throw that paper airplane inside the house or you'll put somebody's eye out with it." Did you ever see somebody with a paper airplane sticking out of their eye socket? And why was it only dangerous inside the house? Couldn't you put their eye out in the yard? Did you ever know anyone that put an eye out with a BB gun? I did know a kid who almost lost an eye when he dropped a firecracker into a bottle. That bottle acted like a gun barrel and shot that wadding back into his face. But we were having fun.

When I was five, I was running to Mama's porch and fell and hit my face against the concrete step. I still have a scar under my right eye to attest to the fact that a kid should never, ever run. I mean, I could have put my eye out or broke my neck. If you had fun, then you’ve probably got scars.

 

Nobody Likes to be Told What to do or Not to Do-Nobody

 

            There were no malls in Dallas in 1955. When people went shopping they went to downtown Dallas on Saturday, and like New York, it was pretty much black and white. I remember the crowded sidewalks with the legless beggars rolling around on their coaster boards, the blind men selling pencils, the street cars with the sparks flying on the wires above them, the flying red horse, and eating lunch at Woolworths.

            When I was five I didn't understand why black people got to sit in the fun seats at the back of the bus. Your perspective changes when you're told you can't sit somewhere. All of a sudden that's where I wanted to sit, because I was told I couldn't sit in those back seats. It was where the "colored people" sat. I noticed they even had their own drinking fountains and restrooms and I wasn't allowed to use them because I was white. At least, that’s what I was told. This must have been the early vestiges of my stubborn streak. I was told I couldn’t, so I wanted to. I thought they were allowed special privileges because of the color of their skin. I was five, okay? Not so many years later I realized the tragic truth, but at that moment I wanted to drink from the colored only water fountain and used the colored only restrooms. And I wanted to sit in the back of the bus. I guess I never did like being told what to do or not to do. Nobody does.

 

Grownups Make Life Complicated

 

One of the many absurdities of life is, when you're a kid you're forced to take a nap after lunch, and you don't want to. When you're an adult you want to take a nap after lunch, but you're not allowed to.

            The summer of 1955 was a time of discoveries, like you're not supposed to eat the tails of the fried shrimp. I was six years old and it was the first time I ever ate shrimp. My own mother gave me the shrimp for lunch and never once said, "Don't eat the tails." That is something you shouldn't leave out when you're giving someone their first plate of fried shrimp. I’m serious

            When I think back, I'm sure I remember a sly grin on her face. I was always told to clean my plate, so I did. After she saw my empty plate, mother said, "Where are the tails?" To which I replied, "What tails?" I’ve got to tell you, fried shrimp tails are bad.

            I also discovered free toys came in cereal boxes. I soon learned to look for the free toy, not whether the cereal was worth eating. I spent that summer playing with the little submarines that you put baking soda in and they dive to the bottom of the bathtub or the little blowup swimming pool.

            I think the boy next door to us must have been rich, because he had one of those swimming pools that was about six feet in diameter and didn’t need air to hold the water in. It had walls.  It held so much water, they never wanted to drain it, so the water stayed in until it was brown and had things floating in it. Most of the debris was from the huge Sycamore trees that shaded the backyard. I learned to hate those trees. They always smelled like stinky feet, especially after it rained. One day I discovered those little brown balls floating in the water weren't all Sycamore seedpods, when I picked one up and mashed it. Needless to say, I never played in his pool again. After that I always had the habit of smelling my hands.

            During the summer of '55 I had a lot of alone-time again. My half brother, Joey, had been born May 10th and he kept mother busy that summer. I played outside by myself and the sidewalk was mine. I rode my red pedal car all the way to the busy intersection at Greenville Avenue, two long blocks from our house. There I sat and watched the traffic whiz by. Other times I sat on the grassy knoll over looking Central Expressway, watching for Papa’s truck. I also spent a lot of time riding my horse, which was a stick with rags wrapped around it for my saddle and rope reigns, which turned it left or right like a real horse. I loved the sound that stick made as it dragged across that rough concrete. It was all my imagination needed. It sounded like horse’s hooves to me.

            Sometimes I would stay off the concrete and walk with my head down watching my booted feet and imagine I was on the streets of Tombstone or Dodge City. I was a gunfighter. I would get so wrapped up in my imaginations that nothing else existed. My life was in my mind; that hollow place where I could hide.

 

 

 

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