Riding Life!

Riding Life!
Life is like a wild horse--Unless you ride it, it will ride you! (from the movie: "Princess of Thieves.")

Friday, July 29, 2011

C: Cake Walks

nostalgia 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.

 cafeteriaschool stage

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. 

After dinner, the volunteer parents would take their places at the activities set up in the class rooms, and the doors would open to the carnival, proper.fishing

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 german chocolate cake 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.

If you have read this blog much, you know that I grew up coconut cake surrounded by eccentrics.  You can read about some of them here and here, where I wrote about Bud and Cassie.  Phroney was another odd one.

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 ofhobo 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 hobo2 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.

halloween carnival So, yes, I miss those days of show-off-Mom cakes and pies; of popcorn balls made by neighbors and shared with kids without fear of poisons or contamination.

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


TexWisGirl said...

a mixed melancholy memory. thanks for sharing.

Laurie said...

Your post brought back a lot of memories for me. We also had a Halloween Carnival at our elementary school. Loads of fun.....ping pong ball tossing into cups with goldfish. How my mom hid her disdain when I always won a goldfish. It meant at least 6 months of cleaning a slimy fish bowl and the inevitable floating fish soon after that. Cake walks were great, too! Fun times! Enjoyed your post and the story of Phroney. I think every community has a mysterious person that causes tongues to wag.

Anonymous said...

I guess every small town has a Phroney. Ours is Mary. She lives about ten miles from town and walks the highways, around town, down country roads -- I'll find her about anywhere. She never acknowledges anyone that stops to offer her a ride, and she wears a coat over several layers year 'round, no matter the temperature. I see her carrying long sticks with black garbage sacks tied on the end, used for collecting her treasures. I'm sure she's had an interesting life and seen many things.
You brought some good memories to mind. I always enjoy reading your posts.

Richard said...

Just to share with you folks, i have a new post today on Amish Stories from the Terre Hill days even that was just held in Lancaster Pennsylvania. It was a very hot day but i was able to get i think a few good images from this event. The town is populated with a mix of Amish and old order Mennonites which only adds to its charm. They even have what has become famous in Terre Hill their "outhouse race". The town sits on a hill so it overlooks Lancaster farmland in almost all directions. This is one of my favorite towns to visit because its free from commercialism, so if you are looking for a really all American kind of town with the added bonus of seeing its Amish and Mennonite residents at work and play, then this town is for you. Thanks folks. Richard from Amish Stories.

Karen said...

Great memories, C. Life was simpler then.

Our Phroney was Fat Cathy... horrible name to reference her, but we were kind to her and engaged in conversation and games when she would come around. I don't know that everyone in her life was kind, but my circle of neighborhood kids felt for her and hopefully were encouraging. I still wonder what became of her.

Vee said...

Food sales aren't allowed anymore? What a cryin' shame.

I'm reading your story about Phroney when I realize with a start that we have such a character in our town. A schizophrenic who is odd and yet sweet. He once pulled my mother off the sidewalk to show her a wild cabbage plant. She stood there looking at it with appropriate awe and reverence for she said he seemed to expect that of her. And the thing is I haven't seen him lately and I'm wondering what happened to him.

A sweet post, Colleen. You write with the best of them.

Stickhorsecowgirls said...

I do remember him along with Bud the farrier! I think of Phroney as big heavy set fellow, but Bud was dark and lean. I was afraid of both of them--they just seemed so mysterious!
Cowgirl V

carla said...

My favorite kind of post - thank you!

Our school also had a carnival every year - it was one of the highlights of the school year for us. We also had the haunted house (always the 6th grade room) and the sock-hop with a live band (in the cafeteria, sponsored by the 8th grade), the white elephant booth, the cake walk, the basketball throw and more. One activity for each class K -8th.

The most enticing cakes at our cake walk were ones where the mothers had placed one of those plastic dolls with the real full skirts on top. I always wanted one.

Could Phroney be a World War I veteran who was disfigured overseas?

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