Yesterday's Magazette

13 – Summer of ’59

Summer of ‘59

By Bonnie S. Davis

As I watched my third grade report card float to the bottom of the school dumpster, I breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing my parents needed was to see my final grades for the semester. Poor concentration written in red told the story. My attention had not been directed towards division problems, but to my problems at home. I was glad summer was finally here, but at the same time fearful of how it would end.

Although I usually walked home with my friends, today, the final day of school, I lingered behind, reflecting on last year’s summer vacation. I could almost smell the catfish frying in the skillet atop the wood coals at Fish Creek where my family owned a rustic two-room cabin. I remembered my daring leaps into my favorite swimming hole via the old rope swing just outside the cottage door. My older brother, Bobby, would scoop me out of the water and throw me kicking and squirming high up into the air. I recalled the moment when my parents’ yellow rubber boat blew a hole in the seam and sank in the middle of the creek. I could still hear their laughter as they swam back to shore. So much had changed since then. I doubted if even Fish Creek could save my family now.

Although I was only eight, I understood my hometown of Cameron, West Virginia was experiencing hard times due to the closing of the local pottery, a plant that supplied most of the jobs in the area, but as a child I didn’t understand how it could affect my life. Our family business, a Ford garage dealership, appeared to be as busy as usual. It was a hub of activity supplying new and used cars as well as gasoline and automotive repairs for our small town of approximately 2,500 people

Nothing really changed in my home until after Easter when I noticed my father was seldom there. Our once happy home became a house where a family once lived. My parents argued long into the night about unpaid bills and their future in a depressed town. My mother talked about taking me and staying with her mother in Wheeling, a city 55 miles away. I dreaded the summer break because it could mean the breakup of my home.

“I can’t find my report card,” I lied as I dumped my book bag onto the kitchen table.

“What were your grades?” my mother asked as she looked through my papers and books.

“Why does Daddy work so much?” I said to change the subject.

My mother took a deep breath as she smoothed out my wrinkled papers before placing them back into the bag. Her pink starched dress and her blonde curls made her seem like a little girl in a grown-up body. She stared across the room as the gully of worry between her eyes deepened.

“Honey, people have lost jobs and are moving away. Daddy’s had to let some of his employees go. He has to work their jobs too.”

The screen door opening behind me interrupted her.

“Hi, girls,” I heard my father say in a hoarse voice.

“Here this is for you Betty,” he said as he placed a green and yellow quilt on the table.

My mother paused, reached down to feel the handmade comforter, but quickly withdrew her hand as if she had touched a hot iron. “What did this buy? A new muffler? A tire? A gallon of gas? When will you stop allowing people to take advantage of you?”

Although my dad was a successful businessman, he couldn’t say no. Our cold cellar held an inventory of eggs, smoked bacon, canned vegetables, and deer meat. Our larder was full of the only payments my father’s customers could afford.

“Monday, I’ll take this quilt to the bank and tell them this is our late mortgage payment,” my mother said as she retreated to the kitchen to bring in the dinner dishes. I could hear her crying just seconds before the plates crashed onto the sink.

Without moving, I nervously looked at my dad. His face was empty of expression like a dying animal caught in a trap. I wanted him to go to my mother, but he didn’t. He sat down at the table and buried his face in his hands. I stood up, reached over and patted his soft brown hair. “What can I do to help, Daddy,” I said quietly. “Please tell me what to do.”

During the next few weeks I withdrew into my own little world. In the daytime I rode my bicycle and took long hikes into the woods that surrounded our home. In evenings I stayed in my room and wrote stories about Fish Creek and last summer’s adventures. I wanted to be happy, but the anxiety inside me battled my joy and won. My stomach ached constantly. I felt helpless. I wondered if I was the cause of all my family’s problems. I remember burying a bottle of cologne I received for Christmas in the backyard. I associated wearing it with my parents’ arguments

Although I prayed each night for a solution to my problems, I wasn’t quite ready for the answer to come in the form of a tub of dead worms.

“You killed my fishing worms,” my brother said angrily one evening as he stomped up the cellar steps. I was ready to deny the allegation, but then I remembered I had forgotten to water his large metal tub of night crawlers. My brother’s thriving fishing worm business provided the money to keep his car running and a few dollars for spending money.

“I can’t be two places at once,” he said with tears filling his large blue eyes. “You promised me you wouldn’t forget. You do nothing to help the situation around here. You could earn some money too. Collect pop bottles. Shine shoes. Clean toilets. Do something. I’ve given up my summer to help Dad. What have you done?”

Although I apologized to my brother, I still felt I should do more. Maybe he was right. Maybe I could make a difference. The next morning I paid a visit to Whipkey’s store and bought the supplies I needed to start my new business. Once I explained to Mr. Whipkey, a friend of our family, about the benefits of my new enterprise, he was willing to give me credit for my purchases. He also loaned me a wooden apple box to use for the comfort of my customers. Myron, the body man at the garage, painted me a large sign on the back of a Valvoline poster to advertise my trade. After borrowing a few dishtowels from my mother’s kitchen drawer, I was ready to open my new business. I didn’t tell my father about my plans because I wanted to surprise him.

When my dad arrived at work the next morning I was close behind him setting up my shop outside the front doors of the showroom. I waited until the morning patrons began to arrive before delivering my commercial.

“Shoe shine, get your shoes shined,” I yelled as the customers came in the door

“Bonnie, honey what are you doing?” my father said as he rushed to the entrance.

“ I’m helping out,” I said as I buffed another pair of mud encrusted work shoes with a blue and white striped kitchen towel. “Now get in line, Daddy, your holding up progress.”

My father didn’t scold me or tell me to stop. He bent down instead and hugged me. “I love you,” he said before standing up and moving to the end of the line.

Until school started in the fall, I shined several shoes and Dad sold a few cars. My brother, Bobby, continued working at the garage and my mother took over the office duties. I think she realized she was alone in her opinion about staying with Grandma in Wheeling. We didn’t become wealthy that year, but we survived as a family. I didn’t miss Fish Creek because I found a new paradise in the garage helping my family survive a difficult time. Instead of catfish we shared bottles of Coke, Hershey bars, and penny peanuts in the evenings before walking home with the comforting sounds of the crickets and the flickering lights of the fireflies. The summer of ’59 started as a time of loss, but ended as a season of victory and commitment that taught me lessons I never will forget.

 
 
 

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