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April 14, 2018

Growing up in Louisa – Echoes of Laughter!

Weekly feature . . . by Mike Coburn

I know that Kentucky is still living with winter’s snows, but over here on Virginia’s coast we’re finally getting a break in temperatures and enjoying some tentative outdoor opportunities. In fact, my wife and I are trying to close on a new home that will offer fishing and other outside activities. A deck will provide plenty of sunshine as if I needed to get my summer tan. More likely I’ll be inside flipping through a different kind of channel.

While growing up had its ups and downs for most of us, it is the good times that we like to remember. For example, I remember those summers of long ago where we kids grabbed an empty canning jar and went in search of lightning bugs. Once we had them secure in the jar their little flashes would light up sending excitement as we marveled over the miracle. We were quick to let them go since we didn’t want to harm them. Along the same line, we also caught ‘June Bugs.’ While they were larger and made a buzzing sound with their wings, we learned, perhaps from an older kid, to tie a string on the bug’s back legs and then let them fly. Of course, they could only go as far as the length of the string, so they flew in circles around us to our delight. Maybe the Lord will punish us one day for being cruel to the little creatures, but until the new wore off, this was an annual entertainment on those warm days.

I am looking forward to our first lightning bug hunt this year because we have three toddler grandkids staying with us for a time. I know they will be interested in capturing a lighting bug or two. That should have brought back a memory for most of you readers because it would have been a rare kid that hadn’t collected those in their early years. My kids and the older grandkids still get excited watching the bugs blink on and off like a commercial neon sign. Even as an older kid, chasing friends around during a late game of tag, or hide and seek, lightning bugs were always part of the scene. I’m sorry for any reader that may be offended by this activity, but it still is a common practice.

I remember the echoes of laughter and the screams from delighted children on a summer’s evening. Supper was over, the adults had settled on the porch, and we ‘young’uns’ were free to run, at least for a time. I think the most common thing to play was ‘tag.’ No one wanted to be ‘it’ and the competition was sometimes fierce. Slower kids like me were regularly ‘it’ to the point I often wondered if I’d ever shed the role. We surely remember calling out the phrases, “Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free” or “Ready or not, here I come.” I remember those little chanted songs such as “Here we go ‘round the Mulberry Bush” and “Here’s the way we wash our clothes (Who remembers how to use a washboard, or even know what one even is?) Even using a new ringer/washer in those early days was a game at first. Then, we found out that ringing out the twisted wash burned our hands, especially in cold weather. That wasn’t play anymore!

I remember one summer’s evening when I was playing in a friend’s backyard down near the northern end of Lock Avenue. Lighting was scarce because it was after dusk. I didn’t know the terrain well but still joined in a game of ‘tag’ or ‘hide and go seek.’ I was a tall, skinny kid, so you might be able to picture my trauma when I ran through a neighbor’s yard and hit a clothes line. It got me on my neck and like an arrow that was strung on a bow, the wire stretched as far as it would go. Then it did its job and shot me backwards as if I was an arrow. When I came to my senses I realized that I was on the ground and suffering some serious pain. I grabbed my throat and found a raw, nasty welt. I had seen pictures of hangings that (thank goodness) were before my time, but never thought I’d feel their pain. Other kids told me it looked bad so I was certain I was near life’s end. Of course, it wasn’t really that bad, but try to tell that to an injured teenager.

My grandmother told me the stories of kids from her generation running barrel hoops down the road with a stick. I’ve seen pictures of that, but barrels weren’t as common as they were before my time. I have never had a wooden barrel hoop but have seen steel ones. Used to hold barrel stays into place, they fell out of fashion when farmers no longer had to buy things in large quantity. I own a couple of ‘nail kegs,’ but can’t imagine buying a barrel of anything. In considering that older ‘sport,’ I could visualize the hoop breaking loose and crashing into a car or hitting someone. Back in the day there was less to hit, but shiny new cars changed that.

The closest I came to that kind of thing was a game of ‘kick the can,’ or ‘rock,’ or ‘stick, or whatever.’ I would move the object along as I walked up and down the roads of our little town. I’m sure the rough treatment didn’t help my shoes any, but it did keep my mind from drifting toward anything useful. It reminds me of a film on “Funniest Home Videos” where this dog kept pushing a rock with his nose. The sound bite that went along with it said, “push the rock, push the rock, push the rock’ over and over. I guess kicking the can was a little like that. Duh!

I remember neighborhood girls playing skip rope, or jump rope. (I never could do that, nor even wanted to.) They also played hopscotch (I was far too clumsy and was a guy anyway). Excuses aside, girls weren’t always nice if we cut in on their games, anyway. They would make faces, wiggle their hands next to their ears and sing in unison, “nanny, nanny boo-boo.” Boy! I hated that! It ranks right up there with ‘Nah, nah, Na nah nah.’

I remember that many boys played basketball at my house. We had a light wired way up in the trees so we could play up to eleven o’clock at night. It was before air conditioning, so all the windows were open in the neighborhood. Sounds of the ball being dribbled on the hard ground must have kicked off several headaches. Half of the LHS basketball team played there, learning the tricks they would later apply on the high school’s full court on Friday nights. Charlie Jones was one that often stopped by. Jim Bob Hatcher, Butch Wellman, and I think maybe Larry Weeks also played some there. I know Harry Richard Cyrus was there, as was Creep Chandler and Jimmy Walker. Billy Elkins remembered playing there when I spoke with him recently. Age didn’t matter so much, but the older fellows were automatically team leaders, or captains. We would choose up teams, an odd man sometimes ruled out. I was plenty good at being the odd man out. The last time I visited the old homeplace I looked at that area of the yard and wondered how we played is such a small space.

Yard games, such as badminton, croquet, dodge ball, choose-up baseball, football, and horse shoes were commonly played at parties and get-to-gathers. I remember two devout techniques on throwing horseshoes. I have seen the opposed points of view argued nearly to the point of fighting. One figured that holding the shoe near the opening of the ‘U’ was best while others thought that holding it at the bottom of the ‘U’ was the better way. Some spun the shoe while others tried to keep it from turning to keep it aligned with the post. I saw some real tournaments over those ‘growing up’ years. Some players were clearly better than others, but I think a measure of ‘luck’ often made the difference. I know that when no one was looking some players often tested other methods, hoping to find the perfect pitch. Then, there were those that would try to cheat. Not me!

Some of us boys had seen so much of John Wayne in war movies, we could not help having a favorite past time of playing war. We would build forts or redoubts on the river bank, or in the woods, and fight the imagined dreaded hoard of ‘Krouts’ or ‘Japs’ (depending upon the latest movie) until we met our deaths as valiant American heroes. We would crawl for hours through the mud to sneak up on a team of friends that was playing an enemy. I know Billy Elkins and Harry Richard played, but I expect that Jimmy Mullins, Creep (Paul Herman) Chandler, Johnny Bill Boggs, Stanley Brown and Johnny Justice were there, too. Billy told me he remembers one special redoubt/pillbox that we dug on the banks of the Big Sandy River below the bridge. It had to be near the place of an early landing at the end of Main Street. In our play we knew that we could ‘control’ the river from that site with a machine gun placement.

Along a different line, several of us town guys would meet on a Sunday afternoon and divide into two teams to play ‘track.’ One team would leave about thirty minutes before the other group and head up town hill and points beyond. The second group would have to go up and look for signs of passage such as a freshly overturned stone or broken twig. It was the second groups’ challenge to locate and catch up with the first group. That sometimes took hours but it was great fun, always ending with a wild chase up and down steep hills. I remember once going down a hill so steep that I only hit the ground every ten feet or so. When I realized a small tree was directly in my path that I wouldn’t be able to avoid, I ran right into it and tore it out of the ground. Thank goodness it was a small sapling. When I got down to the creek at the bottom of the hill there was a flat flood plain. My friends informed me that my head was bleeding. I felt a big knot and located small cut on my forehead. We laughed and headed back to town, having caught up with the first group. We were brothers who enjoyed being together. What a day!

When we were younger, we also played cowboys & Indians and would dress up with home-made war paint and feathers. (Chicken or goose.) I tried to figure out how to make breech cloths but quickly found that towels didn’t work very well. They rubbed us raw and inflicted great pain. If any adults or girls were near we also discovered that they were also dangerously susceptible to wardrobe malfunctions. Whoops!

As a boy, I dreamed of having some deer-skin pants like the ones worn by Tonto, but I never saw any for sale. I did find some neat moccasins on a Sioux reservation in Canada when on a fishing trip. I had worn them every day until they finally went in the trash my junior year.

Sure, there were a few times when I was bored, but those times were rare. After all, I had an imagination and could put any object to use with a little ‘make-believe.’ Sticks became guns or horses, or a baseball bat. In some ways, I think toys are almost too available, today. Certainly, we had some when growing up, but we also made our own. Whether it was out of an empty Quaker Oats box, or something else we found in the trash, we made do.

Life’s memories are made from things like games, and a ‘pretend’ attitude. Young minds and bodies grow when we reenact life by observing our parents and those around us. Play helps kids understand the past, and gives them a solid platform to figure out the future. Playing is how we learn, how we cope, and how we grow into adults. In school, recess was sometimes the best part of the day. Even better, it was at night when the neighborhood play-grounds drew those echoes of laughter and gave us immeasurable delight. I remember. Finally, with my energy spent, it was sweet to finally lay down my head and sleep.

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Comments  

+1 #2 Bernard 2018-04-14 15:07
Lots of great memories in this one Mike, from Lighting Bugs, June Bugs, cowboy & Indians, WOW!!! I too remember the ring, could be made of an old barrel ring, bicycle wheel etc, with a good stiff wire you could make the part needed to make it go & guide it. Yep watch out for the low cloths lines, they will take your head off or at least make you think it has. Thanks for the memories, tons of good memories of the 330,40's & 50's.
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+1 #1 Terry 2018-04-14 14:52
You always write such wonderful memories!!!! I miss the good ole ‘70’s which was my era. I was born n Louisa n the old General Hospital n 1955, Dr. Sheely delivered me. I was really glad to see my uncle’s name n your story, Charles Jones.
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