Long, long ago in a dead town far, far away, three brothers grew up in a good place in the sticks. That would be Mooringsport, LA, stuck up there in the extreme northwest corner of that poor state. Mom taught school. Dad ran construction crews that built neighborhood shopping centers, small office buildings, doing an occasional remodel of a school or parish courthouse.
We could have done much worse. Oil City, four miles to our north, was a bridge too far to commute to Shreveport, and they had so many oil wells and pump jacks that those inevitable overflow ponds bred mosquitoes so big the brown bats feared them. Rodessa and Ida, nearly 20 miles north were totally dependent on a refinery whose days were numbered in the very low four digits. Hosston and Belcher were plantation towns with a few very well-to-do families and many more cotton pickers. Vivian was the All-American small town, but you didn’t need bifocals to read the hand-writing on the walls of its economy: the future was bleak.
But back then most of us knew nothing of economics, growth trends, or land development patterns. We were young, dumb, not yet fat, but by and large happy. Sure, Hosston’s Sam Herring might bury a fastball in your ribs, or Punkin’ Thomas from Ida might strike you out in three consecutive plate appearances on nothing but curve balls, but by and large life was good. It was good, I tell you! I cracked a double off Punkin’ driving in the winning runs in one of my last organized baseball games. Never mind that my eyes were closed: life was good.
We grew up in an old house on the intersection of Mooringsport’s two highways, Louisiana 538 and 169. Across the street stood Scott’s Grocery, Tayloe’s Hardware and Croom’s Gulf Station. Were we urban before cities were cool? Umh, not so much. But ours was a fine lookout post for seeing anything (never much) and everything (get bored enough: there’s always something) that happened in the Little Port. Shreveport remains the Big Port.
There was Marion, the blind guy who walked faster then than I do now as he followed that tap-tap-tapping white stick with the red tip. There was an albino kid who hiked to the grocery with his black family. There were easy girls from New Jersey who visited grand-parents every summer, but at that time I had no idea of what ‘easy’ could mean. But across the street sat Croom’s Gulf, where Earl Holliman, Robert Mitchum, and Bill Holden once stopped to gas up and asked advice on where to eat. Surely they jest!
My brother, Ed, whose people skills surpass mine by mere light years, was in good with Croom Gulf’s main man, Percy. Percy was a black guy who probably earned the minimum wage back in 1959: $1.00 per hour, about $8.50 now. I think he had a family, but we never knew. And although Cokes were a nickel from Croom’s machine, Ol’ Perce bought Ed a Coke just about every day. All Ed had to do was flash that six year old’s grin, holler across the street “Perce! Buy me a Coke.” And there it was.
What became of Percy? I don’t know. We never kept track of colored folks back then, even though once upon a time we felt very close to them. I have lost track of my all-white high school class, but that’s my own fault. But the gas station’s Percy and Jack Gibson, Ed Mathews (from The City’s 42nd Street and Advanced Infantry at Fort Polk), and my buddy Lou Brown (from the Treme and Deloitte & Touche CPA’s, back in New Orleans)? They too are lost to me. It would have been but a tiny gesture in American race relations, no more than a cork on the ocean, and yet on some microscopic scale, if done more often, keeping in touch with old friends could begin to make a difference.
I may never be in a position to do better. But if you are, go for it. We are all people and our descendants must find a way to co-exist. Let’s work on it.