Growing Up Colored: Everyday Life



“Jambalaya and a crawfish pie and file’ gumbo
‘Cause tonight I’m gonna see my ma cher amio
Pick guitar, fill fruit jar and be gay-o
Son of a gun, we’ll have big fun on the bayou”

“Sing it again Daddy, Sing it again!” We pleaded with our father to sing some more. “Huh? You wanna hear it again?”, he asked. “Yeah, daddy, sing it one more time”, we were all yelling by then. Dad started the song from the top again…

“Good-bye Joe, me gotta go, me oh my oh
Me gotta go pole the pirogue down the bayou
My Yvonne, the sweetest one, me oh my oh
Son of a gun, gon’na have big fun on the bayou “

(Cue up the sound of children’s laughter, applause and screams of delight)
Our father didn’t sing very often, but he had a really good voice and we loved to listen to him. He liked both kinds of music Country AND Western and that’s all he listened to when we were growing up. You can be guaranteed that nine times out of ten, if he was singing in the car, we were probably sitting, parked in front of J.J. Newberry’s Department Store on East Davis Street in Culpeper waiting for our mother to finish doing her weekly clothes shopping or we were in the parking lot of Dr. Walter S. Nicklin’s office in Warrenton. We sometimes waited for 3 or 4 hours for mama to come out of the doctor’s office. Back then, there were separate waiting rooms for White and Colored.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
Dad taking care of the kids while Mom takes the photo.
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Dr. Nicklin’s office scheduled appointments so Whites were served mainly during the day and Blacks were scheduled in the evenings, even so, if mom had a 7pm appointment, and a white person came in without an appointment, my mother would be pushed back so the white person would be next in line to go in. This was very convenient for those whites who did not like to wait their turn during the day with the other white patients; they could just waltz in any time after six in the evening and be next in line to see the doctor no matter how many people were waiting. So many times dad had his hands full trying to keep the six or seven of us under control while Momma got herself or one of us checked by the doctor. I always enjoyed Dr. Nicklin’s, I’d survey the examination room, looking at all of the old photos of him in his Army uniform and wondering where each photo had been taken. I believe Dr. Nicklin delivered all of us, except Bajean, she was born in my grandmother’s house in Remington. According to my mother, Earlene Brown, “She was almost not delivered by a doctor. Grandma Brown would not let anybody go get Ellsworth and sent to town for old Dr. Grant, who lived in the upstairs drug store building. He was very old and had to walk the 1 mile from town. He had to go to town back twice to check his elderly sister.
Barbara was a natural child birth because the bottle of ether Dr. Grant brought with him was empty. I suffered for years because he did nothing to make sure I was okay. Dr. Nicklin had a fit when he to examined me and the baby.
He said," Earlene I am sorry to tell you that you will never be able to have any more children", famous last words, I had five more.”

On Saturday’s we’d drive to Warrenton to pick-up the week’s mail orders that had arrived at the Sears and Roebuck on Main Street. That’s Fridays in Culpeper, VA and Saturdays in Warrenton. Dad would go to both the A&P and Safeway using a long list and sometimes a coupon or two, but mostly he stuck with the deals he already knew existed through years of experience. The weekly shopping routine had been honed into a science, with our parents working as a team to get it all out of the way as quickly and efficiently as possible, they were the shopping version of weekend warriors. If it had been an Olympic event, our parents would have won a gold medal.

Photo/Courtesy of photography-in-place.blogspot.com
If you asked me, Baby Jim’s sold the best hot dogs on the planet back then.
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We were avid movie goers, as I mentioned before, we were always at the drive-in theatre, but the best treat of all was getting all of the shopping out of the way and then going to “Baby Jim’s Snack Bar”, which is still in limited operation on Main Street in Culpeper. They had some of the best hot dogs known to man, whereas, “Clayton’s” on old Rte. 29 in Bealeton had some of the best Fried Chicken and potato salad this side of the Rappahannock (unfortunately, I was not well traveled back in those days and didn’t have much experience outside of the Rappahannock region). We didn’t get to go to Clayton’s very often, but we gobbled down that chicken like it was our last meal on earth. We always made time to go the Glen’s Fair Price Store on East Davis Street, where we would spend our weekly twenty-five cent allowance. I could spend the entire day in that store just looking at all the “stuff”, they had lots and lot’s of stuff.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
Glen’s store in Harrisionburg is still in operation.
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I still can’t figure out how we escaped major injury while we were growing up. There were so many pitfalls that we walked in to and then out of most times unscathed. I remember the time the whole gang of boys decided to go squirrel hunting. It was early on a Saturday morning and the guys had just arrived from ‘over on the Ridge’ to get started. There was Frank, Buster, Herman, Donald, Almond, Raymond, me and several others. We spent the better part of the day traipsing around through the woods searching for game, we didn’t find a thing. The last time we went hunting, we had a skinned squirrel hanging from our clothes line waiting to be cooked. The older kids never went hunting without making sure what they bagged was eaten, this was not just for sport. We all had our Daisy B B guns, some were the pump action, some had the Red Rider Carbine. I just know that the pump guns were far more powerful than the carbines. As I stated earlier, we had been out in the woods all day long and we were getting fidgety, we were looking for something, anything to shoot at. Finally someone said, “Let’s play war!” “Yeah, let’s play” We all agreed that war was the thing to do. Now I had heard about these legendary war games and still saw the after effects of one really huge battle. Sonny Davis still had a crater directly between his eyes after one such episode, when he got shot between the eyes they decided it was time to quit. And Donnie showed me the damage done to his finger when he was shot while aiming his gun, that shot in the hand probably saved his eyeball.

Photo/Courtesy of The Brown Collection
The sooner we can get the shoveling done, the sooner we can go squirrel hunting.
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But this time I was in on the action. Buster chose one team and Raymond chose the other, being Raymond’s tag-along brother meant that he was obligated to pick me for his team. The teams were divided up and final rules and regulations were put in place. “Shoot for the legs or the coat, no shooting above the chest”, we all had our Navy pea coats on and I knew from prior experience that a BB meant absolutely nothing hitting you with your pea coat on. Raymond and I used to take turns, turning our backs to one another and shooting each other in the back with the guns, we never felt a thing. So I knew that as long as I got shot anywhere on my coat, I was safe. “If you see a squirrel, the game is over, we go after the squirrel”, Buster made sure everyone knew what we were really out there to do.

Our groups split up and we went off to a distance where we couldn’t see their team and could barely hear one another. We were defense, Buster’s team was offense. We hid and set up a perimeter to protect our fort. Softly we could hear them trudging toward us in the leaves. I lay on the ground still as a field mouse waiting to see the whites of their eyes. Suddenly out of the darkness a form came into view, it was Buster, he was bent forward keeping low so as not to be easily spotted. But I had my sights set directly on Buster’s chest. Suddenly, he noticed me on the ground, he turned, picked up his rifle and aimed it directly at my head and just as we were both about to fire our weapons, someone yelled out “SQUIRREL!!!” – “SQUIRREL! STOP THE WAR! Almond has a squirrel up in that tree”, we all jumped up and ran to where the yelling was coming from. I breathed a big sigh of relief and stood back and watched as everyone lifted their guns and aimed at the poor little creature, they all shot, they all missed. The squirrel must have decided that it was time to high tail it out of there and took off to the ground, that’s when it became a foot race, man against squirrel. As Almond chased the animal he must have gotten a brainstorm because he took his Daisy Red Rider Carbine and picked it up by the stock and started swinging it trying to clobber the squirrel. As the squirrel zigzagged through the woods Almond stayed right on his tail. The squirrel jumped onto a young elm tree and clung to it about eye level high and that’s when Almond reared back and swung as hard as he could at the thing. But by then the little squirrel was gone and all that remained was the elm tree. Almond wrapped the entire barrel of the gun around that tree. The instant he did it, he realized that maybe this hadn’t been such a good idea, he immediately fell to his knees and started crying. And try as hard as they might, they couldn’t put the Red Rider back together again. Almond cried all the way home that day. But we were very lucky, maybe even blessed, that no one was hurt in that entire melee. We went home, tired, worn out and ready to face another day and with a really good story to tell.

Looking back, I have come to appreciate how well kept we were growing up. We received 3 square meals a day and always a snack immediately after school (usually peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and milk). Sometimes we had a delicious ‘Nuco’ sandwich. Nuco was what we knew as fake butter, because for many years we got our butter from Mr. Bowen up the road, but then daddy started buying margarine, but we didn’t call it that, we called it by its brand name. There was bologna and cheese or Spam sandwiches for lunch, there was no cafeteria, so we had to brown bag it to school every day. Almost every Sunday we’d have Steak and eggs and fried potatoes piled with onions for breakfast or toast and chipped beef gravy, that heavy gravy that sticks to your ribs. Sunday dinner was normally fried chicken and potato salad, cabbage, spinach, kale or some other green vegetable from the garden. But the best meal of all wasn’t really a meal at all. On Saturday nights we were sometimes treated to a sneak preview of Sunday dinner with fried chicken and potato salad, this would be the only time we did not sit at the kitchen or dinner table to eat. On Saturday nights we could bring our plates into the living room and watch Jackie Gleason or Gunsmoke while we ate our late supper.
Yeah, there was a lot of love in our family. We stood in line to kiss dad goodbye each morning as he went off to work and mom kissed us as we left for school each day. We ran out of the house to greet our father when he came home from work and we were in church every Sunday morning rain or shine. Growing up Colored for those of us blessed enough to have been born in Remington, VA wasn’t as tough as some have made it out to be, it was a great place to grow up.

Growing Up Colored
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4 responses

  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful post.

    I was born and raised in Culpeper, Virginia and still live there. My dad is around about your age, I’m guessing, and I’ve always loved hearing him tell stories about his childhood.

    I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of your blog, thank you so much. 🙂

    Like

  2. I can already tell that this will be a blog upon which I will spend a great deal of time. I loved this entry, particularly because it goes against the stereotype of instability in black families in the South. This is a wonderfully heartwarming recollection of your childhood, which I thank you for sharing.

    Like

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