The Vagabond - Growing up in Gadsden, Part IV

July 24, 2020 chris
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By Danny Crownover

Author’s note: Robert Elton recently sent The Vagabond his memoirs of growing up in Gadsden. Robert is originally from Gadsden and graduated from Gadsden High School. He studied broadcast production at Auburn University and went on to work for South Caro-lina Educational Television Network. Robert and his wife Jean Pearce Elton live in Orangeburg, South Carolina. The following is the fourth part in the series.

Episode 7: Christmas memories

For Christmas at our house, we always had to have a cedar tree. It had to be full all the way around and had to be eight feet tall. The tree was mounted upon a stand modified from part of a broken rifle rack Dad had confiscated from the National Guard Armory. Our decorations were special. The garland was a thin red velvet-like rope. The icicles were made with a lead content so that they hung straight.

The icicles were silver on one side and shiny blue on the other. The tree lights were much larger than today’s bulbs and were German creations: a pocket watch, a clock, a Santa head, an apple, an orange, a bunch of grapes, etc. Along with the usual shiny and colored glass balls, we attached a few glass birds. On top was a shiny metal gold and silver star.

We did not get involved in any organized youth activities, but on our own, my three siblings and I went out Christmas caroling, memorized in four-part harmony. The Hood mansion on Chestnut Street, which is now the Gadsden Woman’s Club, was obviously a place where rich people lived, so we stood on their porch and sang. Colonel and Mrs. Hood opened the door and graciously invited us in for hot chocolate. We were too shy to say much as we enjoyed our refreshments and gawked at the opulent surroundings.

Back at our house on Christmas Eve, instead of hanging stockings on the fireplace, we put a couple of dining room chairs in the living room. Mother borrowed two pair of my sister’s long socks to hang on the chairs with care. The socks were later filled with the traditional fruit, nuts and candy.

The candy was the old-fashioned hard stuff of various shapes, some waffled, some twisted or folded in ribbon loops, all very colorful and very hard. There was always the orange slice candy and candy corn kernels. My sister complained for weeks afterward about her sticky socks.

On Christmas morning, my brother and I warmed our fannies by the wood stove in the dining room. He eventually reached down and pulled the bottom of my trousers forward so the hot denim hit the backs of my legs. Before I could get revenge, the living room door opened and we ran in to find our presents.

Episode 8: School days and the war

Directions: pick up a box of crayons. Close your eyes, open the box lid and breathe deeply. What do you see? Of course, you can see it clearly – the massive columns, the dark hallways with high arches at the ends, the white tile floors and the portrait on the wall of George Washington.

I can see Miss Holland in her colorful smock standing at the front of the room. Our other teachers at Striplin Elementary School were very different – Miss Hendricks, Miss Cathy, Miss McFerrin and Mrs. Sikes.

The school originally was located on College Street where the Gadsden Public Library now stands. Once a year, a Halloween carnival was set up on the front lawn of the school. There were ponies to ride around the circle and a fortune teller in costume and heavy makeup (who was probably Miss Eura Brown, the principal). There was the old “go fishing” game and other stuff. Parents enjoyed spaghetti suppers in the lunchroom and bingo in the school library.

I was not quite old enough during World War II to fully grasp what war was all about, but it provided me with a secret trauma that I carried around for a long time.

I overheard our parents telling frightening stories of the atrocities, and I imagined all kinds of horrible things that might happen to us.

My fellow students and I collected scrap metal for the war effort, and with my allowance I bought defense stamps, which were accumulated and exchanged for war bonds to support our troops. We had an “A” sticker for gasoline rationing on the car windshield and had to use ration stamps for food, shoes, tires, etc. We missed having Hershey chocolate bars and Lear’s bubble gum.

At school, we sang “White Cliffs of Dover,” and you could see tears well up in our teacher’s eyes. A little boy came into our classroom to bring a message. After he left, our teacher told us that this little boy’s father was a prisoner of war in Germany. I was traumatized at the possibility that it could have been my dad.

When the war finally ended, the relief we all felt was never forgotten. I remember watching the victory parade on Broad Street, standing right across from the present-day Pitman Theater where Broad Street makes a curve. The old streetcar tracks were still visible in the pavement.

I remember a soldier was sitting on the front fender of a car in the parade. He had a big grin on his face and a huge can of ice cream on his lap, which he was digging into with a large spoon. Happy days were here again!