The Vagabond – Growing up in Gadsden, Part III

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Author’s note: Robert Elton recently sent The Vagabond his memoirs of growing up in Gadsden, and I’d to share his story. 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 Carolina Educational Television Network. Robert and his wife Jean Pearce Elton live in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This week we will share Episodes 5 and 6.

Episode 5
That’s all I remember of the Zorro theme song that introduced the Saturday movie cliffhanger at the Princess Theater in Gadsden. The featured actor was either Hop-A-Long Cassidy, Gene Autry or a newcomer named Roy Rogers.

Our heroes rode horses. In our childhood years, we rode a “pretend horse.” This is how it was done: from the waist up, you were a cowboy or a cowgirl. From the waist down, you were a horse. You made a pair of fists, held them about waist high, turned your torso slightly to the right and then charged off in a kind of skip. Don’t forget – you had to provide your own musical “sting” as you rode over the ridge, which went something like, “Daant-ta-daaaaaahh!”

Our gang was semi-democratic. Each day we elected the Zorro for that day. The clubhouse was a bathroom attached to the back of Jimmie Johnson’s garage. It was a real bathroom with real plumbing that did not work. Zorro had the privilege of sitting on the throne during meetings while the rest stood or sat on the floor.

Jimmie loved to build mo-del airplanes. His kits came with soft balsa wood for the frame. A long rubber band was laid inside the fuselage. One end was attached to a hook in the tail and the other attached to the propeller at the front. There was thin, colored tissue paper for the outside that was glued to the frame.

After the frame was completely covered, there was a small bottle of “dope” to apply to the tissue, causing it to tighten up flat against the frame. Jimmie would wind the prop as tight as the rubber band would allow, then let it fly.
It was a crude contraption in the 1930s, but a kid’s imagination would easily fill in the details. When Jimmie finally tired of playing with his creation, he would walk up to the corner of Berea Avenue where the houses were built on a small hill. From that hill, he would light a match to the tail while we watched the plane go up and then down in a blaze of glory.

Jack and James Little, who lived in nearby Berea Court, were creative and adventurous guys. When they tired of playing cowboys, they gathered up some long straight branches, tied them together in a cone shape and covered the outside with newspapers to make a really neat teepee. It was great fun sitting inside until someone decided that it was more fun to slip outside and light a match to the newspapers. We were all potential arsonists, but nobody got hurt.
Our older neighbor friends, Howell Lee Hallmark and Ernie Hofferbert, Jr., were creative as well. During a big snow, they got hold of some curved barrel staves and attached metal straps for makeshift skis. Howell Lee and Ernie attached a pair of staves to the underside of a wooden box to make a sled. A Mr. Sandberg lived at the corner of Eighth Street and Berea and had died in an accident at the steel plant. We honored his memory by naming his steep driveway Sandberg Hill.

Somebody drove a wooden stake at the top of the driveway, tied a rope to the stake and laid the rope down to the street so us kids could pull ourselves up to the top and either ski or sled down for the thrill of our lives.
Howell Lee’s father was the Hallmark of Isabell & Hallmark Furniture store. We collected furniture crate lumber from the store in order to build small shacks in our backyard. They were shabby looking but pretty sturdy.
We later built a larger shack designed to look like a fort with peephole windows and a lookout tower. Inside we included a small bed and a working wood stove complete with a stovepipe chimney run through the wall. It looked like Hoover Town had come to Berea Avenue.

Episode 6
Basement. Just the sound of the word has a sinister and dirty feel t0 it. Cobwebs and crickets, oozing water, dark corners and musty smells. It served as the hiding place for all the evil monsters and other bad people we never saw but shared our house with during our growing up years. If they could not be found when we ventured down to the basement, they surely were spending that particular time in the attic.

One corner of the basement was the laundry area. One day, Dad brought home a new Sears-Roebuck wringer washing machine, propped on the running board of his Terraplane automobile.

Dad had built a laundry chute from upstairs so we could conveniently send our dirty clothes down to the table below. The chute was a great place to be during a game of indoor hide-and-seek. Mother spent a large part of her young married life down in the basement with the Oxydol, the Octagon soap and her “rink-a-ti-tink, rink-a-ti-tink” state-of-the-art Speed Queen wringer.

The remainder of the basement in our old home place was Dad’s playhouse. It was divided into areas of his expertise: carpentry, machine tools, electronics and junk. There was no TV when Dad built our house, but he did pre-wire it for radio.

There were aerial “outlets” in the living room and kitchen and at his electronic workbench in the basement. This system was connected to a broomstick post outside my sister’s upstairs bed-room. The copper aerial wire itself stretched from that broomstick to the top of the garage. We could pick up AM stations quite clearly from Birmingham. FM radio did not exist at the time.

A favorite rainy-day activity for us kids was to put on our roller skates and turn the entire basement into a roller rink. It was a great “pretend” place, becoming a submarine, an airplane, a spaceship or a Frankenstein laboratory at one time or another.

Dad and his National Guard band were often called upon to play for local civic events. I particularly remember the barbeques held down at Moragne River Park back when the roads were dirt and the park heavily wooded. We would reach into a big ice-filled wash tub and pull out a Nehi Grape or a Double Cola and enjoy the music from the old wooden bandstand.

Since I was the youngest member of the family, my siblings would put me up to asking Dad to take us for a ride or go on a picnic to a place called Tawanah Springs, which was located just northeast of Gadsden. The creek that ran down from the spillway had no bridge over it for a long time and the water ran right over the road. Dad would ford the creek in his 1939 Hudson with no problem, but it scared us kids half to death.

The pond is gone now, the roads are paved and houses are built all through the area.

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