Today we will ponder America, a country, even a civilization, that existed long ago where the United States is today, but bore little resemblance to it.
It will be like studying cave drawings, or Sargon of Akkad. Pay attention. The is original source material of historical importance.
I was there, in America: Athens, Alabama, at age twelve.
Athens was small and Southern, drowsy in summer, kind of comfortable feeling, not much concerned with the outside world. It left the world alone and the world left it alone. In those days, people in a lot of places figured this was pretty workable.
Kids went barefoot. So help me. After about two weeks in spring your feet got tough and you could walk on anything, except maybe gravelly black asphalt that got hotter than the hinges.
Parents let you do it. Today I guess it would be a hate crime, and you’d get an ambulance, three squad cars and Child Protective Services all honking and blowing and being important. We didn’t know we needed protecting. Maybe we didn’t.
It wasn’t like today. When your dog wanted to go out, she did, and went where she thought was a good idea, and nobody cared, and she came back when she thought that was a good idea, and everybody was content. She probably slept on your bed, too.
Today it would be a health crisis with the ambulance and squad cars. We just didn’t know any better. I don’t remember anybody dying of dog poisoning.
Now, BB guns. We all had one, every kid that was eleven years old. Boy kids, anyway. Mostly they were Red Ryder, for four dollars, but I had a Daisy Eagle, that had a plastic telescopic sight, and was no end uptown. I was always aristocratic. Anyway, you could go into any little corner store and get a pack of BBs for a nickel.
In downtown Athens–there was about a block of it, around the square–there was the Limestone Drugstore. It’s still there, like them pyramids at Geezer. Kids came in like hoplites or cohorts or hordes, or anyway one of those things in history and leaned their BB guns near the door, with their baseball gloves too usually.
Nobody cared. We didn’t shoot each other with the BB guns because we just didn’t. It’s how things used to be. We didn’t need the po-leese to tell us not to do it because it wasn’t something we did. Shooting another kid was like gargling fishhooks or taking poison. You could do it, but probably wouldn’t.
Anyway the man that owned the Limestone was about eighty or a hundred years old and had frizzy red hair like a bottle brush and his name was Coochie. It’s what everyone called him anyway. He liked little boys–not like those Catholic preachers always in the newspapers–we didn’t do that either–but just liked kids.
There was this big rack of comic books that nobody ever bought but you just took them to a table and read them till they fell into dust and drank cherry cokes and ate nickel pecan pies. I think Coochie used comic books as bait so he could talk to us. It was mighty fine.
We all had pocket knives, or mostly anyway. If you were rich you had a Buck knife. That was the best kind. We’d take them to school because they were in our pockets and it was hard to leave your pocket somewhere even if you thought of it. You could carve your initials on your desk when the teacher wasn’t looking.
Today if you had a knife in school you’d get the squad cars and ambulance and get handcuffed and have to listen to a psychologist lady until you wanted to kill someone. Probably her.
It was different then, back in America. We didn’t think of stabbing anybody. It would have seemed like a damn fool idea, like eating a peanut butter sandwich dipped in kerosene.
It wasn’t how people were. I guess how people are is what they’re going to do, not what laws you have. You can tell a possum to sing church songs, but he won’t, because a possum just doesn’t have it in him. It’s not how he is.
When you shot a BB gun at something that needed shooting, like an insulator of a telephone pole, it was like a thing of beauty. You could see the BB sail away, all coppery and glinty against blue sky and it was like a poem or something.
Maybe anyway. You could see it start to drop when the speed wore off and go sideways a little with the wind where there was any. You learned to calculate and you could hit just about anything.
Lots of things was different. Water fountains on the town square said White and Colored, White folks and black people didn’t mix at all.
I thought it saved trouble for everybody but people from up North said it was wrong and I guess it was.
Now the black folks up north are killing each other by hundreds, the papers say, and I’m not sure why that’s a good idea, but then blacks in places like Newark and Detroit have really good schools because Northerners really care about blacks and they mostly go to Harvard, so I guess it’s a lot better.
Another thing you could do with a BB gun was to get a twelve-gauge shotgun shell which you could do in several ways. You might steal it from your dad’s gun rack if he had one, or stick it inside a roll of toilet paper in a store and buy the toilet paper. But I don’t know anything about that.
Anyway you could cut the shell off just in front of the powder and put the powder and primer on the end of the barrel of the BB gun. Pow! A spray of orange sparks would shoot into the air. It was real satisfying. It may not have been real smart.
Finally, manners, morals, and language as practiced in America. As boys, which is to say small barbarians in need, when alone together, of socialization, we insulted each other. “I’ll slap the far outa you, you no-count scandal.” I will slap the fire out of you, you scoundrel of no account. Or, “You ain’t got the sense God give a crabapple.”
But, barefoot and tatterdemalion though we might be, or in fact certainly were, the elements of civilization had been impressed on us. We did not cuss or talk dirty in the presence of girls or women. We didn’t curse out teachers neither. I don’t rightly know what would have happened if someone had tried it.
No one did. We weren’t that kind of people. It’s the kind of people you are that counts.At least, that’swhat I reckon. Even at twelve, I had that figured out.