1960s · Sisters

Winding Gravel Road

Winding Gravel Road -1962 by Ginger Keller Gannaway

When the car turned onto the gravel road after dark and approached our family’s ranch style brick home, I looked out the backseat window to search the ditch to my left or the grassy roadside to my right for critters.  I saw plenty of small brown and gray rabbits or the occasional opossum and a rare raccoon. The creatures would scurry alongside the car or make a Russian Roulette dash in front of the car.  Their nocturnal eyes fascinated and scared me.  Rabbits did the freeze-frame thing and acted like taxidermy projects. I never remembered the car hitting a rabbit on the short drive, about two football field lengths, and I admired the scared yet swift, soft yet wild things.  

My sisters and I loved almost all animals. We always had at least one dog and several cats running around outside for entertainment and companionship.  The kittens endured being dressed in doll clothes or becoming race kittens.  From our first dog Lady, a queenly collie, to Footsie, a mutt with only three working legs, we counted on the loyalty of our dogs.  Footsie kept one injured leg permanently bent up against his chest, like the way I tucked my left hand up and out of the way. He watched over us and endured our fickle behavior like a good dog does.

I tried rescuing less domesticated animal, like a featherless bird in a nest that had fallen from a backyard oak or a wounded mother opossum with six babies that lay in the grass next to the rice field a few yards from our garage.  At first the opossum did its acting trick until I poked it with a stick. When it opened its pink eyes, barred its tiny pointed teeth and hissed at me, I ran to the kitchen to report the situation to Momma.  She said, “Don’t you go near that animal!  It will bite!  Daddy will take care of it when he gets home.”  My sisters of course wanted to see it, but Momma raised such a fuss, we settled for paper dolls inside.  

We did look out the pink bathroom’s window, and I pointed to a spot too far away to make out what was there.  “I see it,” said Kelly, but Gayle said, “All we can see in a bump in the grass.”  Momma had even tied up Footsie in the side yard to keep him from risking a tangle with the critter.   

My pity for the mother opossum and her hairless grub-looking offspring bothered me about eight minutes until my sisters and I got wrapped up in a paper dolls afternoon.  By the time I remembered the sad rodent family again, Daddy had taken care of the problem.  All that remained was a small area of flattened grass near the carport and a couple of dark sticky spots on the shovel in the garage.  

Some people believe raccoons share a bunny’s cuteness, but I knew raccoons’ true nature – vicious and destructive. One winter a bandit rodent moved into our attic and its nocturnal movements overhead sounded like it wore army boots.  Momma first alerted Dad to its presence above their heads as it traveled from the long bedroom hallway and settled  atop Mom’s bathroom area. I could hear its night exploration as it scratched and marched the attic floorboards down the hall right outside my bedroom and rummaged through something clunky before it returned to my parents’  above-the-bathroom space.  After several nights of listening to the unwanted visitor, I heard my parents discussing what to do.  Dad had put “wolf urine” in the attic, yet the raccoon seemed unafraid. Mom talked about a “nest of babies,” and I felt a tinge of sadness. But before the family forced the raccoon to vacate their attic, it had torn up a large part of the attic and faced off with Footsie in the yard.  I could not believe the size of it- like five cats all balled into one mass of furious fur, and I knew Footsie would lose the fight if the animals had been allowed to get to each other. 

Once the raccoon left the attic and crouched by the backyard rope swing and glared with satanic eyes at Footsie who was tied to the wooden dog house, Dad shot his hunting rifle in the air and sent the raccoon running. I admired the intruder’s spunk but feared its hatred of humans. 

At night along the winding gravel road, I tensed when I saw a raccoon or opossum’s eyes.  From the side of the road these creatures’ blank stares turned sinister in the headlights’ strong white beams.  I thought of the 1964 movie Children of the Damned and the aliens’ eyes. The blond boys and girls whose white illuminated stares forced people to kill themselves or attack others. A raccoon’s frozen gaze made me pray for the car to get to the garage faster as I held my breath and counted the seconds it took to drive past the evil running around our property.  

Children of the Damned, 1964

The uncertain threats in the darkness contrasted with the familiar well-lit comforts inside our home.  I could look at the untamed animals in the night and let my heart beat faster because once home I knew Momma would offer us nourishment and unconditional love while Dad gave us protection and confidence.  In a way, scary movies and the wild rodents connected with real life dangers and made me believe in the safety and stability of home.

Our Backyard

1960s · Sisters


Hammock by Ginger Keller Gannaway

My two younger sisters and I grew up down a winding gravel road on the outskirts of a small south Louisiana town in the 1960’s.  Spaced out two years apart, we shared our clothes, our secrets, and our hot and spicy tempers.  Without nearby neighbors we were each other’s everyday friends, especially in summers.  As the oldest, I’d often hold my sisters close and tight before sending them off and away on a long yo-yo string.  We were pros at hair-pulling, hitting, and biting, yet we also shared a tight connection and learned how to balance our differences.

Shared Birthday Party (1964) Notice how both Gayle & Kelly’s hands are on the Barbie case.

On a July afternoon in 1964 after some predictable kitten races and boring inside hide-and-seek games with my sisters, I wanted some alone time. So I decided to test our new green hammock that stretched stiffly between two live oak trees on the side of our home. I crawled up in the “lounger” with a paperback between my teeth, but my sixty-three pounds could not make the weaved nylon bend and dip. I was in no way cocooned the way magazine pictures of hammocks told me I should be. I stretched out and put the small round blue accent pillow I’d borrowed from our living room couch under my head. The hammock was as tight as Aunt Fanny who clutched her change purse like a Cajun guarding the last bowl of gumbo.  I opened Pippi Longstocking to my bookmarked chapter and told my body to relax. 

The sun’s rays peaked behind hundreds of small green oak leaves and gave my book’s pages a dappled look. I repositioned my pillow and held the book above my head long enough to read two pages. Feeling a stitch in my neck, I sat up and swung my legs over the side of the hammock. My ankles extended two inches over the edge, the blue pillow slid down to my lower back, and my weight still failed to create an indentation. My eight year-old self-awareness told me that I looked ridiculous.  Then I heard my little sisters’ voices.

“My turn! My turn!” yelled Kelly as she ran toward the hammock wearing a new lime green seersucker two-piece short set.  As the baby of the family and with dimples deep as a mother’s love, she grew up thinking all should bow to her charms. Gayle, wearing one of my hand-me-down t-shirts and elastic waisted shorts, followed carrying three library books of different sizes. As the middle girl she fought the unfairness of life with the determination of a seasoned Mardi Gras parade-goer grabbing beads.

“I just got here,” I said pretending that sitting on the unyielding fabric was comfortable. I cleared my throat and wiggled my hips as my round pillow fell to the ground. “I ‘m reading,” I said. With her hands above her head, Kelly pushed the hammock back and forth.  

“I got books,” said Gayle as she dropped two books next to my pillow on the ground and held the remaining book over her head. “I have Alice in Wonderland.”  

Kelly stopped pushing the hammock to beat the area under my butt with her fists. “Read it! Read it! Read it!” she said. The kid had excellent rhythm for a four-year-old.

I loved reading to my sisters, but I also loved bossing them around. “Pick up the pillow, Gayle. Quit messing with the hammock, Kelly!”

My youngest sister continued pushing the hammock and made me drop my paperback book while my middle sister struggled to join me in my position of power.  “Lookit what you did, couillon!” I said to the former and, “I didn’t say you could get up here,” to the latter. 

Gayle tossed her hardcover library book up towards me hitting my left cheek and knocking my brand new glasses askew.  Kelly’s strength matched her stubbornness, and the hammock moved enough to keep her sister from climbing in.  Then Gayle’s sideways hip bump landed Kelly on her skinny bottom and gave my middle sister confidence to believe she could join me in the hammock. She extended her arms and tried clawing her way onto the slick green lounger.  Her clear blue eyes framed by black pixie-cut bangs peeked up at me. From her seat in the dirt, Kelly kicked at Gayle’s legs.  

To avoid an all-out fight, I decided to give in and help my siblings join me. I pulled Gayle’s right arm hard enough to dislocate her shoulder, but her determination to be first in the hammock kept her from yelling “Owww!”  Kelly had scrambled to her feet and went back to moving the hammock back and forth. 

“Stupid face!” said Gayle as she settled in next to me with the book in her lap and looked down on Kelly.  Now with two sisters seated, the baby of our family had trouble rocking the hammock.  She stuck out her tongue and bit down to concentrate on annoying us.

“If you stop pushing, you can get up here,” I said and reached out a hand. Kelly smirked and lifted two dusty arms. I succeeded in pulling her about three inches off the ground. “Help me,” I told my hammock companion.

Poopee!” Gayle said to Kelly before I grabbed the small one’s elastic waist band and Gayle pulled both of her shoulders up and over.  Our combined weight made the hammock finally relax a bit in the middle. Three small butts settled next to one another.  We all gave our attention to the book now in my lap.  Kelly leaned her head on my shoulder and Gayle popped the thumb of her right hand into her mouth as I opened the classic story.  I straightened my blue cat-eyed glasses, and with a sister to my right and a sister to her left, I ironically began, “Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister…”

Sisters post-party, 1964.

1960s · Movies

Stel and the Long Hall

I was reading Clovis Crawfish and his Friends on Grandma’s front porch when Stella Parrott walked toward the house carrying a tower of books. I closed my book and skipped down the thirteen concrete porch steps to help Stel with that week’s stack of reading material. 

“Ya gonna read ALL these?” I asked the retired school teacher widow who lived with Grandma Keller. 

Stel handed five books to me and smiled. “ Well, Ginger Ann, what else would a person do with books but read them?”  

“But you got so many.”  

Have so many,” corrected Stel . 

“Right. Have. How you gonna have time?”

Going to have time,” enunciated Stel. 

“OK, but the library makes ya give back the books in ten days,” I explained. 

“The library allows you to borrow books for two full weeks. That is sufficient time to read a dozen books.”  

“A dozen! That’s twelve books, Stel!”  

“Correct.” Then Stel added, “How would you like to have a cold drink in the kitchen with me after I put away these books?”  

“Mai oui,oui, cher,” I said, echoing my MaMa Joe’s words from yesterday.

Stel smiled as we walked down the long, dark hall, stopped off to place the books on her mahogany dresser, and then resumed walking towards the kitchen’s swinging door. 

Once safely in my grandma’s  home’s most well-lit room, I went straight on the back porch to grab two six-and-a-half-ounce bottles of Coca Cola from the wooden crate that held twenty-four bottles while Stel got ice from an aluminum ice tray and filled two jelly glasses with ice. I opened the bottles on the mounted bottle opener near the pie safe and sat at the kitchen table. 

“I normally have my afternoon coffee about now,” said Stel, “yet I do believe a nice cold drink is in order for an August afternoon.” 

C’est ci bon,” I said.  

“I was not aware that you were bilingual,” said Stel as she poured the Cokes making sure the fast-rising soda foam did not overflow.  

I held my glass next to my lips and slurped the warm foam. “Huh?”  

Bilingual means you speak two languages.” 

“Oh,” I said and took a long sip before I mimicked the commercial, “Ahhhhhh.”

“Would you care to learn a new card game?” said Stel as she picked up a well-worn Bicycle deck. 

Stel in the Kitchen in 1980

Oui, oui, mon ami!” 

So Stel shuffled the cards and announced, “This game is called Casino, and the rules are quite precise.” She dealt us each four cards and intermittently placed four cards face-up between us on the table.  “The ten of diamonds is called Big Casino and is worth two points; the two of spades is called Little Casino and is worth one point.” Stel always pronounced each syllable of each word as if each one was special, yet she never made other people, including kids, feel like she was talking down to them.  “Each ace earns you a point, and the player with the most spades gets a point. Also, the person who has the larger number of cards at the game’s end receives three points.”  

“Can I look at my cards now?” I asked even though I was already checking out my hand.

May I, hon,” said Stel as she nodded and placed her own four cards up for teaching purposes. “This shall be a practice game.” 

I then laid down my own four cards. 

“The object of the game is to pick up as many cards as possible to gain more points than your opponent. You may go first. Pick up the Queen of spades with your Queen of diamonds and place the cards in a neat pile in front of you.”  

As I followed Stel’s directions, a loud “BUZZZIT!” sounded from a small speaker next to the stove.  

“I suppose your grandmother is up from her nap,” said Stel. 

“I’ll see what she wants,” I said and got up to heed Grandma’s call.

“Thank you, Ginger. I will make her coffee, and we shall continue Casino lessons shortly.”

I waited on the other side of the swinging kitchen door to let my eyes adjust to the darkness of the long hallway towards Grandma’s room. Even at three p.m. on a sunny summer day that hall stayed dim and shadowy enough to give me pause. I heard Stel fixing the aluminum coffee pot and turning on the gas stove’s front burner. I ran and reached Grandma’s door in eleven seconds. I rapped softly and entered.

“What ya need, Grandma?”

“Get your grandma a glass of water, baby.”

Oui, oui.”

Outside the door, I heard Grandma use the remote to turn on her t.v.  A zydeco…zydeco…zydeco beat accompanied a local used-car ad.

I peered into a darkened room. I knew the school children were safe in the house for now, but I heard the birds flying into the windows and squawking outside.  My head was still bleeding from the pecks of at least five birds when I went outside to rescue a girl who had fallen. The birds had attacked without warning, and I believed their numbers had increased in the minutes it took to get the kids inside. I had to devise an escape route to a more secure location. If I could make it to the telephone in the kitchen, I could call for backup. Thuds and cries intensified as I ran down a hall and through a room that had dozens of windows. The bird shrieks grew louder as more crashed into windows in a room that went on forever. I ran faster. A loud crack made me turn left to see two birds dive-bomb a broken window and soon 20, 30, 50 birds came flying toward me. I covered my head with both arms and ran toward a sliver of light under a door a block away. Birds were everywhere, flapping, squawking, crying and flying into me. Angry beaks found my legs and arms as more birds flew into the room that seemed to have a ceiling made of black feathers. I moved my shoulders back and forth, ran even faster, and used my head to butt my way through the swinging kitchen door. 

The Birds, 1963

“What does she want?” asked Stel when I plopped into a chair and took in gulps of air. I held up my right hand as if to bless Stel and took four long breaths.

“Water…water,” I gasped and Stel filled a glass with tap water and handed it to me with a smile.

Merci beaucoup, mon ami.” 

I held the glass, stood up, and kicked the swinging door with my left foot and made ready to fight my way back to Grandma.

Stel and I on Grandma’s porch, 1984

1960s · Sisters

Christmas Cat

1964, Christmas Cat

A.J. my son’s cat that bares a striking resemblance to my Christmas kitten

My Christmas present was hiding under Kelly’s single bed. I lay flat on my tummy and peered into the dark place. Coloring books, socks, shorts, some Legos, and two rectangular boxes took up most of that space, but all the way back against the wall, I saw a pair of yellow eyes.

“Minny, minny, meeyew,” I called to my first all-for-me pet. Footsie (like all dogs we had) was a family pet, but the hiding kitty was all for me, a present from Aunt Dolores, who was married to a vet. As soon as my aunt had stepped inside the house to visit Momma, she announced that she had a special gift for me. Aunt Dolores placed a large striped box on the coffee table, and as soon as I lifted the top, a black blur of fur jumped out, jetted down the Terrazzo hall straight into the middle bedroom and under my sister’s bed.

When my cat calls did not convince the gift to emerge, Kelly handed me half a vanilla wafer. “Try this.”  I ignored the offering and ran to the kitchen for a small bowl of milk.  Momma, fixing fresh Community coffee for her sister, warned me, “Do not spill a DROP on the carpet.” Aunt Dolores smiled and added, “Bon chance, Ginger.”

I maintained a steady pace and looked straight ahead and not at the sloshing bowl just like Lee Ester had taught me to carry a tray of coffee cups, cream. and sugar to grown-ups. I did feel a drop or two on my bare toes so I moved slower.

Gayle and Kelly had stayed in the bedroom, and almost all of Kelly except her two feet was underneath the bed now. 

“Move outta there,” I said. 

“I’m petting him,” said Kelly from beneath the bed.  

“Just pull him out by his paws,” said Gayle. 

Coullion!” I said at first but on second thought told my middle sister, “You could pull Kelly out by her feet.” Gayle obeyed immediately so I stood out of their way as they shoved and fussed playfully.

“I know what my kitty wants,” I said and placed the milk on the floor. “Minnie, minnie, meeyew.” A weak “Meow” answered me, yet the cat did not move.  

Kelly jumped on the bed thinking to scare the cat out, so Gayle joined her. The two held hands as they jumped up and down.  

“Get off and get out!” I said. “Y’all are just scaring him to death.”  My sisters stopped jumping but stayed on the bed. 

“It’s our room,” said Gayle. 

“Yeah! And it’s my bed,” said Kelly.  

“Look, we gotta give him time to wanna come out,” I said. The two bed jumpers stared back at me.

“Y’all want Aunt Dolores’s peanut butter cookies?” Momma called from the kitchen and both younger girls jumped off the bed and ran to the kitchen.  

AJ in the wild

I let out a sigh and sat on the floor with a couple of stuffed bears. I had patience galore, and I leaned against a bookshelf. I caught the super soft zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the central heater kicking on.

You had to be patient. One does not make real change over night. I took a large leather bound book from the floor to ceiling, wall-to-wall book case in the study and pushed my dark round glasses up a bit. A wild haired child sat on the floor rocking a rag doll. I sat next to the girl who jumped at my approach. “It’s ok, Helen. I have an idea,” I said  and sat on a foot stool beside the child. The girl was deaf and blind, and I put my right hand over her left one and used sign language letters to communicate. Helen touched my face and then mimicked my hand motions. I guided one of her hands to my face and nodded to let her know she’d spelled the word correctly. She moved her fingers to create the letters again. I smiled and squeezed her hand before moving it towards my face again so she could feel my smile. Helen rewarded me with her own smile. I leaned over to kiss the top of her unkempt head. Helen made a purring sound and leaned into me. 

The Miracle Worker, 1962

The shiny black cat had left his hiding place to lap up my milk offering. His fur felt like silk and his tail curled into a regal question mark. After his snack, he thanked me with a few sandpaper licks.  “Lookit you,” I said as I scratched my pet behind the ears.

AJ looking regal

“I’ll call you ‘Christmas’ because you’re the best Christmas gift I ever got.”  

I pampered my pet like royalty, and several months later I shortened her name to Chrissy when she gave birth to five mewing kittens.

My friend Nancy’s cat, Emmy, also reminds me of my Chrissy.

1960s · Cerebral Palsy

Book Pincher

  Book Pincher  1967  

Mr. B was my first male teacher.  If he represented the world of masculine educators, I hoped to go to a Catholic college run by nuns.  Mr. B. taught seventh grade, and most of what he said or did floated above my consciousness.  Turning twelve gave me the confidence to better escape school’s daily dose of boredom.  I started each subject’s lesson as the bespectacled model student I was famous for being. My three-ring binder was filled with looseleaf paper and sat on my desk below the pen and pencil that shared the narrow writing utensil groove of my wooden desk. I made all A’s and turned in every assignment neatly written and on time.

Me in 7th or 8th grade

On a drizzly November morning Mr. B. said, “Get out your science books and turn to Chapter Thirteen on page 262.”  In eleven seconds I pulled the book from the desk’s metal under seat container and opened it to the right page. Mr. B. began the lesson drone from his wooden podium at the front of the room; however, after he had asked student volunteers to read book sections aloud, he paced up and down the rows to discourage student shenanigans.  I forgot my typical shyness and volunteered right away to read aloud.  The teacher was prone to call on cute girls first. So I bided my time, and my hand was up as soon a cheerleader had finished Section One, and B. asked for a new reading volunteer.  This time I got picked (probably because Section Two was about Classification Kingdoms and included lots of bolded scientific terms).  Multi-syllabic words could not intimidate me.  I read well, and B. himself sometimes mispronounced words.  I looked at B.’s shining bald head after I finished reading and nodded a couple of times as I watched his flappy lips move, but I took in none of the meaning of his words.  I stared ahead as I slid my novel I had underneath the Life Science textbook to the top.  I held my fake focus on the teacher even as I opened Little Men to the bookmarked page.  I was a third into Louisa May Alcott’s novel and was eager to reenter Jo’s world as head mistress at Plumfield Academy for orphans.  As soon as Mr. B got his third volunteer reader going, I entered my book.  The stress and worry of seventh grade disappeared. I forgot about my stupid hair, oily complexion, and big feet. I did not care that some girls in my class were “going out” with the same boys that two years ago all of my female classmates agreed were “gross and stupid.”  I loved Jo’s compassion, even for the unruly Dan.  The fictional students were valued and molded in marvelous, nonthreatening ways.  I let my former successes at reading a book inside a book keep me engrossed in all things Plumfield, especially the scenes with Jo and wild Dan. 

In the past I had always caught a whiff of B.’s Brylcreem when he got near my row (Why did an almost bald man need hair stuff?), and I would slide my novel back beneath my textbook like a seasoned card magician.  

Maybe Mr. B. forgot to smooth down his seventeen strands of hair that morning.

Maybe I was coming down with a cold.

Maybe Jo’s expert handling of Dan’s rule breaking made me believe I was at Plumfield.

I felt a sharp pain on her upper right arm, exactly on my chicken pox vaccine scar. 

My “Hey!” came out before I realized what I was doing.  B. had used his go-to class management strategy on me: a pinch and a twist to a kid’s arm with his long thumb nail and dirty index fingernail.  I had seen purple and red marks on arms before – usually on boys’ arms- and usually for rowdy stuff like chalk throwing and spit balls but had never been pinched myself.

“What is this, Miss Ginger Ann Keller” he said as he grabbed Little Men off of my desk. Is our lesson on life forms and kingdom classifications not grabbing your attention?” 

I was not shocked enough to cry even though I could break out a crowd of tears faster than Elvis got girls screaming.  Mr. B. admonished me for my sneaky ways, but I heard only the zydeco…zydeco…zydeco of the struggling electric school fans. 

A bulky man with long fingernails pointed a hairy finger at me.  I was standing and holding out my empty wooden bowl.  “More?!  More!?” said Baldy.  I nodded and said, “Yes, please.  May I have some more?” and I felt the fear of hundreds of uniform-clad kids seated at rows and rows of wooden tables behind me.  Baldy started singing insults at me while waving a yardstick like a baton. He had a nun to his right who accompanied his singing with a harmonica. Baldy used my name to express his hate:  “Ginger Ann/ Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!”  And all the kids beat time on the tables with wooden rulers and echoed his song. “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann/ What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann!” Then the nun gave her harmonica a break to add specificity to their chant. “She trips. She falls. /And her face is afire with zits galore./  She thinks she has brains and wits. /But she’ll never get liked cause she has no tits.”  And the room’s “Ginger Ann/Ginger Ann /What a mess of a girl is Ginger Ann” continued. The rhythmic sounds beat me down to my knees and I tried to escape by crawling under the tables, but the kids all kicked me with their saddle oxfords and laughed as I crawled faster while the “Ginger Ann” song got louder. The table extended for miles, and the nun got back to her harmonica as Baldy chased me by running between the endless rows of tables. Then an extra hard kick on my left ankle forced me to stop crawling.

“You gotta go up front,” said the girl who sat to my left. 

“What are you waiting for?” asked B. “ Sign my detention form and be here after school if you want your book of,” and he read the cover, “Little Men back!” 

I felt the suppressed giggles from all sides as I walked to the teacher’s desk and counted the floor tiles. I made sure to not drag my left foot and I tried to hide my shorter left with my good right arm. I felt relief that I’d washed my hair the night before so the long waves of boring brown hair that now covered my face were not greasy.  Three tiles away from B’s desk I tripped on a baton that stuck out from under a future majorette’s desk. It was not a fall-down trip, just a hiccup of a stumble like a possible dance step if I had possessed an iota of coordination.  A big-toothed boy loud-whispered, “Don’t fall for your Little Men now.” 

Mr. B. slapped his yard stick on his podium to say he had attempted to control the laughter from half the class.  I scrawled my name on the detention notepad and ignored the drop of wetness on the paper. He covered his mouth and coughed.

Did B. put his hairy, dirty, long-nailed fist to his mouth to hide his own laugh, or did he really need to clear his throat? I thought.  I retreated to my desk without time to count tiles because a song/chant formed in my head. “Book Pincher./ Arm Pincher. / What a mess of a man is Book Pincher/ Arm Pincher./ May he rot in a pot of reptilian snot!”

1960s · Movies

Matinee Memory, 1966


Grandpa and Grandma Keller

My siblings and I grew up at the picture show. Our grandpa J.C. Keller, Sr. had opened Eunice’s first movie theater in 1924 and once owned five theaters in town.  By the time our parents married, Grandpa had died and Grandma owned the Liberty Theater downtown. Uncle Jake and Aunt Rose ran the show for their mother.

Saturdays meant double feature matinees at the Liberty. The Saturday lineup was often westerns or comedies with Little Rascals and Looney Tunes in between. Since all of Grandma’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren got in free, I saw everything that played in town until 1968 when the ratings system (G, M, R, and X) censored my movie freedom. Matinees were my favorite: four hours of sitting in the third row, sharing popcorn and candy with my sisters, and letting the moving pictures and stereo sound take us to exotic places with high adventures.

This Saturday’s lineup was top-notch:  Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, nothing but music and comedy with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello! We pooled our dimes to share popcorn and candy since our parents only gave us each a dime. (We wondered why our parents were so stingy since we didn’t pay to get in the show).  

I sat in the middle and shook popcorn into Gayle and Kelly’s laps; Gayle doled out even amounts of Milk Duds. The thick velvet burgundy curtains opened and the pre-movie show started. The theater of kids got quiet.  

This reverent silence did not last. Today’s Daffy Duck cartoon and Spanky and Alfalfa’s adventure were reruns, so the audience talked and messed around. When tossed popcorn hit my middle sister’s head, Gayle stood up to yell at the silly kids behind us, but she made a quick about-face, sat down, and said, “Big Jim.”  Kelly stopped kicking the empty second row seat letting it push forward and pop back. I removed both feet from the seat’s arm rests in front of me. The three of us sat up straight as Slim Jims as the picture show’s usher and handyman lumbered down the aisle. Big Jim spent most of his work time on his usher’s throne in the lobby where he sat on the chair’s arm rests and had a good view of the screen. At random times he swayed up and down the aisles with a flashlight and threatened moviegoers with “Shhhhh!” or “Get your feet down!” During rowdy matinees he would add, “Don’t make me take off my belt!” to the most disobedient ones. The idea of seeing the entire length of Big Jim’s belt was enough to shush the sassiest rebel-rouser. 

My sisters and I were extra respectful of Big Jim’s power because he was close to the family. When Mom and Dad went out nights, the picture show became a free babysitter. If their grownup fun lasted longer than the movies did, Big Jim waited with the us until Dad drove up. Big Jim might change out movie posters or help Miss Pearl, the ticket seller, or one of the projectionists. If he still had more waiting time, he’d ask us about a movie or tease us about having boyfriends. I tried my best to balance respect and fear when interacting with Big Jim.  His sweaty face had him often repositioning his black-rimmed glasses on his face, and he must have bathed in Aqua Velva. (This overuse of cologne did not serve Big Jim well when he dressed as Santa Claus for Grandma’s family Christmas Eve parties). But we endured Big Jim’s attention and his good-bye hugs when Dad pulled in front of the Liberty to pick us up.  

I remember a Saturday night we girls were hanging out in front of the theater to wait for our folks when Claude Emile appeared and called Frankie and Johnny (one of our favorites)  “a stupid waste.”  

“You’re stupid,” said Gayle and Claude held up his special frog knuckles as a threat.  Kelly stuck out her tongue and skipped close to him and backed away.  

I said, “You don’t like Elvis cause you don’t like music.” His answer was yanking my head back by my ponytail and running inside to bother the projectionist. 

Coullion! Coullion!” said Kelly glad to be rid of the nuisance of a boy like Claude.  

I looked up and down the empty street wishing Mom and Dad would get there soon.  I needed to pee like a race horse, but I didn’t want to brave the show’s spooky basement bathroom located past the lobby’s water fountain and down an old staircase that ended at a musty bathroom that reeked of disinfectant. “Gayle, come with me to the bathroom,” I said.

“No way! It stinks down there!”

“Kelly?” I said.

“No! I call shotgun on the way home,” and she knew she had to be near the curb when Dad drove up to claim that spot.

Big Jim came outside with a box of red plastic letters. The projectionist followed him with a ladder and with Claude Emile in the rear.  

“Is the bathroom still open?”   I asked. 

As the guys started to change the show’s marquee, Big Jim said, “I think so.”  My full bladder forced me to chance it, and I went inside and smiled as I passed Miss Pearl counting the night’s ticket money.

The concession stand was dark except for the light on the popcorn machine. The lobby was dim, and the worn carpeted stairs down to the girls’ bathroom were nothing but darkness. At the top of the stairs I saw a weak beckoning light from the bathroom. I hugged the wall because the stairs were steep and I counted eight steps then six that turned left before I hurried to the first of two stalls. The overpowering sweetness of the round pink disinfectant tablets in the toilets made me hold my breath. I left the stall door open and focused on the sink. My pee came in a forceful stream, and I closed my eyes in relief for the final few seconds. I opened them and sighed just before the lights went out. “Shit! Shit!”  

urinal cake

The basement bathroom was as black as the inside of Dracula’s coffin. I heard the nearby scamper of what I felt sure was a rat as I fumbled for toilet paper to finish my business. I blinked hard in hopes my eyes would catch a spec of light, yet the picture show was devoid of any illumination beyond the lobby. I knew time would help my eyes adjust to the blackness so I waited and listened to my fast breaths and the scratching steps of the rat’s family. After seventeen seconds, I gained the confidence to face the dark. I straightened my useless glasses and used my good right hand to follow the wall until I reached the first set of stairs. I took the first steps slowly even though I imagined a bathroom zombie followed me in the darkness. When I reached the final few steps, a distant red Exit sign’s glow gave me confidence to move faster. From above I caught music from Miss Pearl’s transistor radio, and my head converted the muffled sound to zydeco…zydeco…zydeco.

I held my breath and jumped out of the striped plane.  I was free-falling and doing summersaults through a clear sky. Far below a crowd of surfers looked up at me and pointed. I pulled my parachute cord at the best time to land on the beach amid my bikini-clad best friends.  All cheered and clapped as I took off my red helmet and let my poofed-out brunette hair pop into place. Then I shed the jumpsuit and felt right at home in my sexy red one piece bathing suit.  A go-go song played from my boyfriend’s radio, and the crowd of teens shook, shimmied, and jerked to the beat.  A loud engine roar broke up the dance when Eric Von Zipper and his band of black leather hoodlums zoomed up on motorcycles. I grabbed Frankie’s hand and together we walked up to the Ratz gang. From his sidecar Von Zipper opened his mouth to say something ridiculous, but all I heard was –

“Ah ha! Got you!” as the lobby lights came on and Claude Emile pointed and laughed at me walking past Big Jim’s chair.  

“Shut up, you booger breath!” I said.   Then I heard Dad’s car horn outside. I ran out the theater, endured Big Jim’s hug, and joined my sisters in the gray Mercury.