The houses in my grandmother’s neighborhood were built just after the turn of the twentieth century. Some of them were made of brick, but most were wood-frame, usually painted white. They were sturdy houses, and all of them were well-kept, because to do anything less was unthinkable. They were small by the standards of today. My grandmother’s house had two bedrooms, one bathroom and a garage big enough for one car. It was shaded from the sun by the branches of oak trees. This shade, in concert with a smorgasbord of fans, served as air-conditioning, such as it was.
My grandmother lived on Elm Street, a tree-lined thoroughfare in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. When I was a boy, my brothers and my mother and I, and sometimes my father, would make the trip from our home in Houston to visit her. We travelled there every summer, often by train, from about 1957 until we moved to Pine Bluff permanently in 1966.
The Pine Bluff of those years, as seen through the eyes of a child, was a place where people always had a kind word for everyone, and nobody was ever in a hurry. It was a place that was unfailingly sunny and warm. Husbands went off to work in a jacket and a tie, and at noon they returned home to find dinner waiting for them on the table, just like supper would be waiting five hours hence. Neighbors passed evenings on wide porches as fireflies blinked above their lawns and overhead fans spun the tranquil air into a gardenia-scented breeze. It was a place where a boy could have a bottle of Coca Cola whenever he wanted, or a root beer float, or an ice cream cone dipped in chocolate. It was where, every morning, the milkman left bottles of cold milk on the back step. It was where old ladies who smelled of lilac patted my head and cooed, “My, haven’t you grown.”
My cousin Charles lived a half-mile from my grandmother’s house, as the crow flies. He and I were the same age, and we shared the same passion for turtles and bugs and things of a similar nature. We rode bicycles all over town, searching for treasure and adventure. We were never concerned about our safety, and as far as I know, neither was anyone else. Our favorite thing was to collect old pop bottles, then redeem them at the corner grocery for change, which we immediately spent on candy and more pop. Sometimes we poured peanut M&M’s into R.C. Cola, convinced we had invented something original and delicious. I never said we were smart.
I’m fully aware, of course, that most of what I have just described is closer to a caricature than a factual recollection, but I make no apologies. It’s natural to have a sentimental yearning for the happiness of a former place or time. That, after all, is the definition of nostalgia. As I grew older, I became aware that Pine Bluff was far from perfect. The little town had more than its share of problems, most disturbing being the simmering racial tensions that would erupt in 1968. And while the underlying causes of those tensions are certainly worthy of a discussion, it is a discussion for another place, because as an eight year old boy, they were beyond my understanding or concern. To me, the Pine Bluff of the early 1960’s was no less perfect than Tom Sawyer’s Hannibal or Opie Taylor’s Mayberry. And since they are my memories, that is how it shall stay.