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

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 · 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.