At the risk of sounding even older than I am, let me say that there are things I miss about “the good old days” of my youth. Yes, life had its trials back then, too, and—especially having just finished reading “The Help,”—I realize that being white and growing up in the 50’s and 60’s was a whole different experience than my black friends had. But, still, there are by-gone things that I miss. For example…
Each year we had a Halloween carnival at our school. And, no, we did not call it a “fall festival;” it was a Halloween carnival. As I recall, it was a fund-raiser.
It started out with dinner of some kind in the “cafetorium,” which doubled as a lunchroom and auditorium for plays and programs. It had a stage at one end of the large room with the kitchen and serving window at the other end.
In between stood long folding tables with chairs to accommodate the school kids at lunch each day and, on this occasion, the community diners. Often the ladies would have prepared huge vats of chili or spaghetti. Sometimes just hot dogs were sold.
We had standard carnival activities, each costing a small price to participate and each offering some kind of “prize.” There was always a fishing booth. Volunteers were behind a sheet with small prizes. The contestant would drop a fishing line over the sheet (the “hook” was a clothespin) and wait for a tug on the line. When he brought it back up, there would be his prize! No skill required but somehow fun for us kids.
There was always a haunted house room, and there is no telling how many kids we scarred for life with this venture. It was always in a darkened room, of course, and we would be told the back story of the poor dead man who was scattered about the room. We would be led from station to station to feel all his parts…grapes were his eyeballs; cold spaghetti were some of his “guts.” You get the picture…we loved it!
But the one activity that was a draw for everyone was the cake walk. I’m sure the schools still have them, but there is one big difference: Schools nowadays require the donation of only packaged, commercially-prepared baked goods at school functions. Back in the day, no one ever would have even considered donating a store-bought cake for the cake walk!
No, mothers baked their finest to show off their culinary skills. There would be pies galore. Ms. Elta’s three layer German Chocolate Cake was a legendary standard, much-anticipated each year. There would always be at least one large coconut cake with seven-minute frosting (no canned frosting!). If there were cookies or brownies, they were definitely homemade and piled high, as befits a prize.
And it was this activity that would bring Phroney Hale right into our midst for a change.
Phroney was a man—maybe in his 50’s or early 60’s, hard to tell looking back—who lived, so I was told, miles on up our road, far away from our little hub of a community. His face looked permanently swollen and disfgured which, alone, caused us kids to shy from him.
Also, we understood, he was a hermit of sorts. He apparently lived alone in poverty. We knew very little about him, only that he was a fixture of sorts in our rural community. We saw him several times a week, walking, walking, walking along the side of the road. He clearly had no car and he would carry things wrapped in a cloth—exactly like you might see a hobo do. In fact, “Hobo” was the word you might think of if you saw him. Today you would peg him as “homeless” from his look. He was tattered—usually in coveralls, as I recall; never looking very clean.
A lonely figure, always.
Sometimes he would be sitting cross-legged under a shade tree, munching on a sandwich at midday. He never spoke to us and we sure never spoke to him…skirted him when we saw we were meeting him on the road.
Phroney kept to himself as far as I could tell, and had no use at all for any social graces. One time when my brother was a young teenager and suffering from the pangs of acne, he stood in line behind Phroney at our little grocery store. Unbidden, Phroney turned to him and gruffly said, “If ya’d use a little Epsom Salts on yer face ya could clear that mess up.”
My brother was shocked and not a little hurt that one who had such a messed up face as Phroney did would have the nerve to call his face a mess! It only served to heighten his anxiety about how bad he looked with his acne…
So, back to the carnival: Every year Phroney Hale came to the carnival. I do not recall seeing him partake of the pre-carnival dinner, but every year, without fail, he would pay his dimes and take his place on the cake walk, walking until he won an appropriate piece of baked goods. Each year we’d see him walk away into darkness, toting his goodie.
As I look back with warm nostalgia, I realize that this was just an opportunity for Phroney…it was a way for him to have—for once—something good and home-made by others. I wonder if it was an indication of more than just a hankering for these fine and beautiful cakes. Maybe it was a desire, too, to fill his lonely life once a year with some other kinds of home-baked goodness.
As I think about him this morning, I realize that there was more to Phroney’s life that we knew about. We knew very little about him, really, and what we didn’t know, I’m afraid we probably filled in some blanks badly, ala Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird. It is my hope, as I sit her, that Phroney, in fact, had a circle of friends around him at his distant house or maybe family of some kind who would share time with him.
We just never saw any evidence of it.
And I miss some of the eccentricity of my neighbors in my community, which I realize now was moving from country to suburban life in America’s march toward more and more to the homogeneity of civilization.
Yes, I miss so clearly seeing those marching to different drumbeats. And I miss Miss Elta’s three-layer German Chocolate Cake. C
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