My Sweet Sister Nancy

My sweet sister Nancy is six years older than I. Nancy plays the piano beautifully, just like our Mother did; and when I think of her in my younger years, I picture her either at the piano playing Malagueña or in her Bisonette uniform on her way to a football game. We experienced some wonderful Towner camping trips together, and at home she played jaxx with me on the smooth solid concrete of our front porch. She taught me how to play Canasta, but she always won; and she taught me there was no Santa Clause. I shared a room with her when I was very small, and when our sister Patsy moved out, Nancy moved into Patsy’s room and left me alone in mine.

Before I was born, my mother and dad took Nancy (no older than six years old) and Patsy to see the Grand Canyon; and, of course, Daddy took family photos of the trip. As the story goes, while posing the family for a photo on the edge of the canyon, he looked into the camera’s viewfinder and was shocked to see Nancy swinging over the canyon on the guard rail like a gymnast. Unfortunately, I have no photographs of this.

Nancy went to L.V. Stockard Junior High School and was a member of the Sunset High School drill team, the Bisonettes. She had many friends and was voted Wittiest Senior Girl in high school. I was twelve years old when she was a senior, and I envied her keen sense of humor and her popularity. I was also jealous of her collection of shoes. During her senior year of high school (or perhaps the summer before) we moved from our house on Mt. Pleasant to a new house on Ovid. Although we moved out of the Sunset school district, she was allowed to finish her senior year there. Her upstairs room in our house on Ovid had a spacious walk-in closet. Inside the closet door on the left was a built-in wooden boxed platform shelf about three feet high. On this shelf is where she kept her many shoes stacked in their original boxes. I loved looking through all of her beautiful shoes. I don’t remember if I did this with or without her permission. When I whined to Mother about Nancy’s collection of shoes, Mother said I could have a lot of shoes, too, when my feet stopped growing. That made me feel a little better, but I still don’t have a collection of shoes to match hers from 1962.

In the summer of 1962, my sister Nancy had major back surgery to straighten her spine which was severely curved from scoliosis. She recently wrote in a letter to me,

I remember Mama telling me to sit up straight one day. I guess I was about eleven. I was on the floor sitting cross-legged. I replied that I was sitting as straight as I could. She argued and told me to stand up. Then she started really looking at my back. After that episode, she showed Daddy, and then we started making doctors’ appointments…. I don’t recall how many doctors we saw, but they all said the same thing:

1) I could stay in a room where I was unable to stand erect until I was about 20,

2) I could have spinal fusion, but if I were the doctor’s child, he would not do that since the correction would not be worth it,

3) [I could] do nothing.

Doing nothing meant that gravity would continue to tug on her spine, and her back would become progressively more crooked. She would become more and more incapacitated, and her life-span would be short.

Then one day in junior high school, Nancy said she was looking at the newspaper or a magazine and saw a full- or double-page advertisement or article about an innovative surgery for the treatment of scoliosis. She said she was surprised and excited to see many pictures in this article of backs that looked just like hers. She showed it to Daddy, and she and Daddy wrote a letter to the doctor in Houston who was performing this surgery. The doctor responded with a few questions and asked that we set up an appointment to see him in Houston. The surgeon’s name was Dr. Paul Randall Harrington, and his ground-breaking surgery consisted of straightening the curved spine and attaching a metal rod to it. This metal rod came to be known as the Harrington rod.

Nancy, Mother, and Dad drove to Methodist Hospital in Houston for a consultation in the fall of 1961 (her senior year), and Nancy said she was surprised to find an entire wing of the hospital dedicated to Dr. Harrington’s scoliosis patients. He encouraged Nancy to talk to some of the patients who were almost well enough to go home after surgery. Suddenly, Nancy said she didn’t feel so alone.

Mom and Dad saw this surgery as Nancy’s only hope for a longer and more normal life, and they scheduled surgery for her right after her high school graduation in the summer of 1962. This is when I spent a couple of weeks in Austin with my sister Patsy and her husband Bob. I believe Patsy, Bob and I drove to see Nancy once, while she was in the hospital in Houston. I vaguely remember seeing her lying in her hospital bed in a room she shared with at least one other patient. Dr. Harrington corrected Nancy’s back from a 72 degree curve to an amazing 27 degree curve. He performed many surgeries of this type in the 1960s and 1970s and is renowned as a pioneer in the field of treating scoliosis.

Nancy’s surgery was the reason Daddy sold our house on Mt. Pleasant in 1962 and bought the bigger and nicer house on Ovid. Unfortunately, the family’s insurance policy  would not cover her surgery. Every doctor Daddy and Mother spoke to up until the time they took out medical insurance told them there was no treatment for her back problem, so the insurance agent changed the form to indicate no preexisting condition for Nancy. When Daddy asked the insurance company about covering her surgery, they said they would not cover it because her back problem was not listed on his insurance application. Of course, if her back problem had been listed, they would not have covered it because it was preexisting. So, in early 1962, Mother and Dad sold the house they bought in 1946 on Mt. Pleasant in order to use the equity to pay for the surgery.

After Nancy’s back surgery, she rode home from Houston to Dallas on the train. She was required to wear a cast from below her hips to her armpits for six months, and she had to stay in a prone position for three or four months, at the end of which time she learned to walk again. Mother and Dad gave up the only downstairs bedroom so Nancy could use it during her recovery. Her only mobility until she began walking again was log-rolling around the king-size bed that Mother and Dad purchased to help make her more comfortable during her recuperation.

Nancy had a television in her room, and she liked to watch The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson late at night. He must have been brand new to The Tonight Show at that time. I was not allowed to stay up and watch him. He came on too late, and Mother said I was too young. One night after Mother shooed me away to bed, I lingered on the stairs outside Nancy’s bedroom to listen to The Tonight Show. I wanted to find out why I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I guess I learned a little, but I still didn’t understand why it was such an issue.

After Nancy began to walk again, occasionally she stepped outside to visit with friends and family. One evening, as she stood on the front porch, a bug flew down the back of her cast, and she became nearly hysterical. I was the only one with hands small enough to reach down her back underneath the cast, so I was somehow able to rescue her from the bug and scratch her back until she said I could stop. I also occasionally swabbed her back with alcohol underneath the cast. She said it felt good. I felt useful.

After six months of recovery, Nancy had her cast removed but not by a doctor. Daddy cut Nancy’s cast off with a carpenter’s saw. Mother begged him to let the doctor remove it, but he did it himself in order to save money, under Mother’s heavy protest but without incident.

In 1965 Nancy married her best friend and high school classmate Larry. Nancy and Larry dated in high school but not each other. They were best friends, and Larry often came over to visit Nancy after his date with someone else. He came over or called frequently; and if I answered the phone, he always addressed me as Ta-Ta-Ta-Tina and chatted a few minutes with me before asking for Na-Na-Na-Nancy, which always made me giggle. While we still lived on Mt. Pleasant, he and Nancy liked to go out to our camper trailer parked in the front driveway…to study. I believe Nancy told me that she and Larry had an agreement that if they had not gotten married to anyone else by a certain date, they would get married to each other.

Larry was an active member of the United States Navy when they married, so they spent the first year or so apart. She flew to see him once when he was in port in Norfolk, Virginia; and he was proud to take her on a tour of his ship, the USS Georgetown. To prepare her for her onboard tour, Larry told Nancy that she would have to follow proper protocol when she boarded, and he taught her what to say and do. As she boarded, she obediently snapped her best salute while yelling, “Request to come aboard, SIR!” exactly as Larry had instructed and as she had rehearsed. The uniformed recipient of her snappy salute discreetly exchanged grins with Larry, who was standing directly behind Nancy. She was then granted permission to “come aboard.”

In 2009 Nancy saw a doctor about some back pain and found out that later in life many of the first scoliosis surgery patients like Nancy had problems resulting from their early surgeries. The articles linked to this post use the term “flatback syndrome,” referring to the problem caused by straightening the spine too straight and not leaving its natural curve. In the letter Nancy sent me about the surgery she said she had no regrets about these residual problems, because Dr. Harrington gave her the opportunity to marry, have three beautiful children, and live a fairly normal life. She said, “God is very good.”

 

1961 abt Nancy in Bisonette uniform
Nancy in Bisonette uniform; off to a football game, 1961

 

1961 Nancy Piano
Nancy at the piano, 1961
1961 abt Larry and Nancy on Mt. Pleasant
Friends, Larry and Nancy, 1961
1962 Larry Nancy PatDay DonnaMorgan sr all night party
Larry and Nancy with friends at Senior All-Night Party, 1962
1962 Nancy n friends back surg recup
Nancy with friends, recuperating from back surgery at home, 1962

 

1962 Nancy walking aft back surg
Nancy feeling proud during her first walk after surgery, at home, former neighbor Tom Kirk in background, Daddy is holding her arm, 1962

 

1963 Nancy and Daddy on bikes back alley
Daddy and Nancy (in her cast), riding bikes in alley behind our house on Ovid, 1962

My Sweet Sister Patsy

I don’t remember much about Patsy while she was still living at home. She is ten years older than I, and she married and left home when I was almost ten. Swimming with her is one of her and my favorite memories. She earned her Red Cross lifeguard certification and taught swimming for the YWCA to small groups and individuals. She taught me to swim, although I don’t actually recall learning, because I was so young and (excuse the double negative) I don’t remember not knowing how to swim.

Patsy said one of her fondest memories of her baby sister is treading water under the low diving board and waiting for me to jump into her arms and swim to the side. I was  probably younger than five. We swam often at Weiss Park in Oak Cliff. One time the lifeguard blew the whistle at me and told me I couldn’t be in the deep end of the pool unless I could swim across the deep end unaided, so I showed him how to do it. Patsy swam with me, without making any contact, in case I got into trouble. I was so proud of myself, and my family was proud, too – not to mention the look of surprise on the lifeguard’s face. I remember having quite an audience, and it really was quite a feat. I had not an ounce of fat on my body; so when I quit swimming, I sank like a rock – not like now.

1977 Patsy RedCross news

 

Patsy told me that Mother and Daddy let her drive the car by herself for a couple of years before she legally obtained her driver’s license. They probably did that so she could help chauffeur me and my sister Nancy around and run other errands for Mama. Patsy remembers driving to Weiss Park to swim and to Mereck’s grocery store on Gilpin near Ft. Worth Highway (U. S. Hwy. 80). She reminded me of a time when she was driving, and I was in the back seat right behind her having trouble with my whirligig, which I was holding out the window. It was just the two of us, and we were only a block from home going down Frances St. I remember this fairly well and vaguely remember that a telephone pole was involved somehow. Patsy writes,

The wind was too much, and the whirligig wouldn’t turn, so I just turned around to help you. Your little voice still rings in my ears. “Watch out Patsy. You’re gonna hit the house.” I turned around and discovered we had gone up the drive into the alley and crossed over into someone’s yard and was headed right for the back of the house. I quickly turned the steering wheel, slammed on the brakes, and jumped the curb back down into the street….I remember it so clearly. It was summer time and hot, and we were in the little white Ford (model?). You were sitting on the little box in the back seat with only your underpants on. I don’t know where we were going.

 

My mother’s brother Fred, his wife Thelma, and their daughter Phyllis lived in Hawaii in 1958. Fred worked for the FBI. That year, a year before Hawaii received statehood, they invited Patsy to visit them in Hawaii for the summer. It was a high school graduation gift for Patsy from Mom and Dad and from Fred, Thelma, and Phyllis. Patsy so loved the ocean and the islands and has dreamy memories of that summer. Thanks to our cousin Phyllis and her parents, my sister was able to see Hawaii under the very best of circumstances – as a local and before it became a state and so commercialized. Patsy had a high fidelity long-playing record album of tropical island style music called “Taboo” by Arthur Lyman. I still have the 33 1/3 album. She brought me a grass skirt when she returned from Hawaii that summer, and I played that album and danced tirelessly around my room for years to come. I listened to that music on YouTube while writing this chapter…minus the grass skirt and the hula dancing, which was tempting. Have a listen to “Taboo.”

1958 Patsy arriving Hawaii; (front row L to R) Aunt Thelma, Patsy, cousin Phyllis, Uncle Fred, 1958
Front L to R: Aunt Thelma, Patsy, cousin Phyllis, Uncle Fred; Hawaii airport, 1958

 

In January 1960 Patsy married Bob, her handsome Air Force veteran boyfriend. I was almost ten. Bob was a student at The University of Texas in Austin, where he obtained his degree in electrical engineering. Before they were married, Bob drove his Triumph motorcycle from Austin to Dallas to see Patsy. At least once he took me for a ride around the block on his bike. The family drove to Austin to visit the newlyweds during the summer of 1960. Bob was nice enough to invite his ten-year-old sister-in-law to play tennis at a nearby tennis court, where he taught me the basic rules of the game. They lived in a garage apartment on Enfield Road, and before we left to walk down the hill with our tennis gear, I went into the bathroom to take care of some business. There, on the wall right in front of me, was a magazine rack; and as I began browsing through the eclectic assortment of magazines, I found a Playboy. I had never seen anything like that before. I was mesmerized and completely lost track of time. I’m not sure how long I stayed in the “reading room,” but apparently long enough to be missed. Bob and the whole family began looking for me, and I could hear Mother calling my name. I felt very guilty when I walked out of the bathroom, but I tried desperately to act normal. I thought things were going OK until, instead of asking who had the tennis balls, I blurted out, “Where’s the Playboy?” Everyone laughed, except me. I erupted in a bright red-hot blush of embarrassment like no other time before or probably since – another memorable moment that Mother loved to repeat.

While Patsy and Bob still lived in Austin, my other sister Nancy had major back surgery in Houston. This was the summer of 1962 after Nancy’s high school graduation. I was twelve. I will say more about Nancy and her back surgery in a subsequent post, but she was in the hospital in Houston for two weeks. During that time, I stayed in Austin with Pat, Bob, and their toddler Michael. They lived in the Deep Eddy Apartments, which was campus housing for The University of Texas but was originally built as military housing for the nearby army base. The two-story apartments were made of wood and built on stilts. I believe they were painted white with dark green trim. Steps led up to the front door which opened onto the interior stairs and into the living room. The living room opened to the kitchen, where there was another door that opened outside to the back. The kitchen had a double sink, one of which was deep enough in which to bathe Michael. Their apartment had two small bedrooms and a bath upstairs. Bob built a desk in the very narrow hallway between the two bedrooms upstairs, and he stayed up late at night studying in his dark makeshift but adequate study. He must have been thrilled to have his chatty 12-year-old sister-in-law around for two weeks to help him study.

Aside from all of the beautiful Highland Lakes in and near Austin, there are some other interesting and scenic places to swim. While Pat and Bob were living in Austin, they introduced me to the frigid waters of Barton Springs, a picturesque natural spring pool which is open all year. We also frequented Deep Eddy Pool, which is another natural spring pool surrounded by huge old oak trees and was walking distance from the Deep Eddy apartments. About 25 miles from Austin is Hamilton Pool, which was and still is also natural and is now designated a nature preserve. During the summer, reservations are now required at Hamilton Pool Preserve due to the high volume of visitors. In the 1960s, reservations were not required, but I think there was still a small entrance fee. It was and still is a spectacular place to visit. A 50 foot waterfall flows into a collapsed grotto pool below that is so deep the old rumor was that it was bottomless. It isn’t, of course, but it is very deep, about 30 feet. One time Daddy and Mother let me swim above the falls, which is not permitted now. The beautiful clear stream flowed through a series of small pools formed in limestone riddled with holes. I had the best time exploring the limestone nooks and crannies. When I emerged from the water hours later, I discovered my fingertips were all bleeding, rubbed raw from holding onto the rocks. Aside from swimming, Hamilton Pool Preserve is a great place for nature hikes, but I recommend not going in the heat of the summer, as there is not much of a breeze down toward the pool. My sisters and I made that mistake a few years ago, and it was a struggle for us to get back up the hill in the heat.

Two things I have never forgotten about my stay in Austin were the grackles (noisy, black, crow-like birds with yellow eyes) and the GIANT beetles in the trees around Deep Eddy Apartments. I had never before seen anything like the cottonwood borer beetle. I remember these beetles as being nearly as big as my hand, but they are actually closer to two inches long. Occasionally, one of those monsters made its way into the apartment. It was too big to swat, so I always called for reinforcements, if I saw it first. I’m not sure how Patsy took care of the problem, I was just glad I didn’t have to. There must have been an infestation at the time, because I have lived in the Austin area since 2003, and I have yet to see one.

While staying with Patsy and family during the summer of 1962, my parents enrolled me in a horseback riding day camp to keep me entertained. Patsy shuttled me back and forth and made me a sack lunch every day. I was in horse heaven. I already knew how to ride pretty well, but I also learned to care for the animal – from cleaning hooves, grooming, putting on the reins and saddle, etc. I learned from experience that it wasn’t easy for this skinny twelve-year-old girl to saddle a big horse and cinch it tightly. My enormous horse Mr. Walker mastered the trick of bloating up his stomach while I tightened the cinch; and as soon as I was sitting proudly in the saddle, he relaxed, and the saddle and I slipped over. I was paired with Mr. Walker for the entire two weeks, and we got along fine after we got acquainted. That was the summer when I learned how much horses love to roll in the mud after a rain, even if someone is in the saddle. Maybe I should say, especially if someone is in the saddle. The following winter, I took my parents to meet Mr. Walker for the first time. I certainly must have known better, but I walked right up to him to give him a warm greeting. As I approached, he stretched out his long neck and bit me on my chest – hard. It hurt, and I was badly bruised, but it didn‘t break the skin because it was cold and I was wearing a heavy corduroy coat. It certainly would have been much worse had I not been wearing that overcoat. Mother was afraid this wound, which covered the entire left side of my chest, would cause a problem for me when I began to develop. She took me to see Dr. Graham, our family physician, when we got back home to Dallas; but he said there was nothing he could do to help it heal. The area was swollen, sore, and very black and blue for a quite a while, but I had no serious long-term problems.

Me, and my nephew Mike riding Mr. Walker, Austin TX, 1962
Me with my nephew Mike astride the infamous Mr. Walker, 1962

 

1962 Mike taking bath in sink Austin (2)
My nephew Michael bathing in the kitchen sink; Deep Eddy Apartments, Austin; 1962

 

I have many happy memories of my early childhood with my sister Patsy. After she left home, our lives diverged for a while, and we didn’t have a lot in common to talk about. However, after I married and began having children, we became close again. Mother said that would happen. Mother was right.

Happy Fourth of July

My family took frequent camping trips in our camping trailer to Lake Texoma on the Texas-Oklahoma border. I plan to say a lot more in subsequent posts about our camping trips, including Lake Texoma, but one of those trips to Texoma was over the Fourth of July, which I thought would be fun to write about over this Fourth of July holiday:

I was about ten years old. To get to our favorite campsite, sometimes we drove straight up State Highway 289 (Preston Rd.), but often we drove up U.S. Highway 75 to Sherman, then west to Pottsboro, then north past Loe’s Highport (now Highport Marina). It was about a two-hour drive. This Google link shows our favorite rocky point. I’ll call it Towner Point for sentimental reasons. It is the peninsula in the middle of the image next to the words “Oklahoma-Texas” on the state line. This rocky point is no longer accessible by car.  My husband Gene and I drove by here about ten years ago, and it was gated off, probably because it’s too dangerous for public use. I know we had a few exciting moments here ourselves over the years, and this was one of them.

Once we got near Lake Texoma, Daddy stopped to buy some fireworks, which I’m sure I must have begged for the whole drive up. We always went to this same spot ─ a small elevated rocky point north of Loe’s Highport on the Texas side of the lake. We spent our time canoeing, swimming, fishing, and diving and floating off of the rocks down the hill from our campsite. Other than the numerous tarantulas in the rocks and the spiders in the trees, it was a great spot, and a popular one. There were always other people picnicking or camping there, except that one time when it poured down rain for days, and we had it all to ourselves.

As soon as Daddy stopped the car and got out to set up the camper trailer, I jumped out of the car with numerous brown paper bags full of fireworks and went straight to a concrete picnic table just a few feet from the trailer door. While Daddy began unhitching and leveling the trailer, I wasted no time dumping everything out of the paper bags and spreading all of the fireworks out on the concrete picnic table. I had roman candles, bottle rockets, firecrackers, sparklers, punks, and the empty paper bags they all came in. I then placed one small bottle rocket into an upright bottle and promptly lit it with matches that Daddy had conveniently dropped into one of the bags so he wouldn’t lose them. The bottle rocket blasted off into the air, just like it was supposed to, and simultaneously ignited the array of fireworks on the table, which were aimed in all directions except up. The Roman candles went off with repeated and endless foomphs, randomly firing toward the humans below on the lake’s rocky edge. People hit the ground, dove into the water, or ducked for cover behind a tree or a rock. I started a grass fire and almost a forest fire, but thanks to some fancy footwork by everyone within firing range, “we” were able to put out the fire without the help of the Park Rangers, which I believe were called. It was a chaotic scene.

My parents were horrified, but no spanking or reprimand was necessary. I felt the horror, too. It was a close call and a valuable teaching moment. I never felt the same excitement about fireworks again after that. In fact, I loathe the personal use of fireworks now, but it took decades to make that complete transition. This story has been told many times by us Towners (mostly my mom), and probably by the visitors to Towner Point that Fourth of July.

On that note and in the patriotic spirit of the holiday,

I wish everyone a safe and happy Fourth of July and
God Bless America

Flag2

1950-62 Early Childhood on Mt. Pleasant

My parents were both 37 years old when I was born. They were older than any of my friends’ parents, but I didn’t think much about it. I was about 50 years old when I asked my parents if having me was an accident. Answering in unison, Mother said “yes,” and Daddy said “no.” After giggling quietly to each other, they quickly went on to explain that after my sister Nancy was born, they tried unsuccessfully to conceive again for five years. They finally gave up, which is when Mother became pregnant with me. That’s their story.

Daddy was tall, thin, and, of course, handsome. He had very straight fine hair, and I fondly recall sitting on the living room floor with him while he let me comb his thin oiled black hair with a fine toothed comb. When I was little, we often played a game where we rubbed noses and repeated, “Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy, Buddy…”  I believed Daddy when he told me and my sisters that his real name was “Timothy Titus Obadiah William Henry Walter Simm Ruben Rufus Solomon Jim Simon Timon Wallace Pat Christopher Dick Jehoshaphat!” He always repeated it at a quick rhythmic pace, and it always sounded like it ended with an exclamation mark. I only recently discovered the background of this rhyme when I searched the Internet and found an early more accurate version of the entire ditty. The Longest Name Song

At about the age of five, I went with the family to a public swimming pool somewhere near Ft. Worth, I jumped into the very crowded wading pool, slipped and fell on the sloped sides, and split my head open. My big sister Patsy was watching after me, and she ran to get our parents. They rushed me to an emergency room where a doctor stitched up the back of my head. All I remember about the hospital treatment room is staring up at the bright ceiling lights from a narrow table that looked like an ironing board.

My playground was the great outdoors, where I played unsupervised with neighborhood kids for hours at a time. We played catch, hide-n-seek, chase, jacks on the front porch, and the now politically incorrect cowboys and Indians, where I galloped around on my stick horse, wore a holster, and waved my cap gun. I also liked to kick or throw a football around with Daddy in the front yard.

It was always fun drawing hopscotch squares on the sidewalk with chalk rocks that I found in the dirt. Sometimes I got creative, and once (around five years old) I embarrassed my sister Nancy when I chalked “TT + BM” in big letters on the sidewalk in front of our house. (The boy next door was “BM.”) I had no idea why Nancy was so completely appalled about this, especially since I was so proud of knowing my alphabet. Speaking of BM, I once walked into his house without knocking. Their screen door was shut but not locked, which said, “Come on in!” to me. I walked in the front door, around the corner through the hallway, and into the bedroom near the front. There I stood, dumbfounded and face-to-face with Mr. and Mrs. M.  Mr. M also stood dumbfounded – in his underwear. Mrs. M was still in bed with the sheet only half covering her naked body. I had never even seen my own parents in this state of undress!

When Dallas received a good snow, which did happen more frequently in the 1950s and 60s, I bundled up in my overcoat, mittens, and toboggan, and I dragged my toboggan down the street. (I wore a toboggan, and I rode a toboggan.) Mother often made me wear layers of socks over my mittens and shoes to help keep warm. Around the corner on Frances Street there was a big steep hill perfect for sledding. No one (not kids, not parents) ever worried about getting hurt flying down that steep hill in the snow. It was thrilling. I came home frozen to the bone with a bright red nose; and my face, hands, and feet hurt from the cold. Mother peeled off the layers of icy clothing and set me down by the ceramic heater to thaw.

I was in first grade when Mother signed me up for ballet and tap dance lessons. She picked me up from school in the car and drove me to my lesson somewhere on Jefferson Ave. It was a typical dance studio for the time with tile floors, mirrors, and ballet barres. I watched myself in the mirror, thinking I wasn‘t very good. I must not have taken dance lessons very long, or I would remember more about it. I also took ballroom dance a few years later; and when the twist dance craze erupted around 1960, I went to a party where everyone learned to twist non-stop for a couple of hours to Chubby Checker’s “The Twist.”

Daddy and Mother were very close to their three girls, but they were not involved in school. Mother did belong to my PTA, although she was not a very active member. She once apologized to me, saying if she had been more involved in my school activities, I would have had an easier time in school. She said this when I didn’t make the first list of girls who made the high school drill team, but I was brought into the drill team before the first season began. I was surprised and puzzled by her remark, because I never felt slighted in any way. My parents did not attend football games when I was performing with the drill team in junior high school or high school. They did, however, come to the high school musical productions I was involved in.

I was happy not to be a Brownie or a Girl Scout. I think I went to one Brownie meeting. I was not interested in joining any group or activity that would require me to go away to camp or spend any time away from home. I was spoiled. I often watched a black and white TV in my room late in the afternoon and fell asleep in a chair watching cartoons while Mother fixed supper. She woke me up when dinner was ready.

No wonder I didn’t want to be away from home – nothing but fond memories of growing up on Mt. Pleasant.

 

The Towner Family Christmases

The Towner Christmases were always special. One of my favorite stories is from about 1955. It was Christmas Eve, we were living on Mt. Pleasant, and Mother asked my sister Nancy (six years older than I) to take me into another room and entertain me for a while. (Mother had some last-minute gifts to wrap which she did not want me to know about.) Nancy and I disappeared into the bedroom and closed the door. She took out a deck of cards, and we sat on the floor where she dealt herself a hand of solitaire. I’m on the floor in front of her, looking her in the eyes and probably jabbering away. She looks down at her cards and nonchalantly says something along the line of “You know there’s no Santa Clause, don’t you? Mother’s out there right now wrapping your gifts from Santa Clause. Look under the door.” I did look under the door, and I could see Mother’s hands wrapping a box with Christmas paper…and that’s how I learned about Santa Clause. Please don’t misunderstand how I feel about this or how I feel about my sweet sister Nancy. I remember this vividly, but I wasn’t shocked, sad, or surprised. I just remember it today as a funny anecdote, which I love to tell.

Towner tradition was: every year the family would go pick out a tree. Each year we went to a different place. Sometimes it was a local grocery store which brought in trees for the season. In the ’60s, I believe there was a nursery in the area that had trees, too. It seems like we usually bought green trees, but every now and then we took home a flocked tree, which I loved. At least once after we moved to our house on Ovid Avenue in 1962, Mom and Dad put one of those fake silver tinsel trees in the front window with a rainbow strobe spotlight on it – trendy. We opened presents Christmas morning and enjoyed a big traditional Christmas meal on Christmas Day.

Our house on Ovid had two huge picture windows with window seats on the front. The living room window was a perfect place for a Christmas tree! I liked to see how long I could stand without moving next to the tree in the front window, so people driving by would think I was a big doll. It’s odd that with all of the photos Daddy took, especially in the 1960s and ‘70s, I don’t seem to have any photographs of Christmases at our home on Ovid.

Meanwhile, back on Mt. Pleasant…

Unlike the house on Ovid, our small house on Mt. Pleasant actually did not have a perfect place for a Christmas tree, but Mother made one. My favorite thing to do was set up my Lionel train set under the tree. I can still smell the odor of that transformer mingling with the scent of the tree. I don’t remember when we got the trainset. I don’t even know if it was really mine or not, but it always felt like mine. During the year, Daddy stored the trainset in an antique wooden box which Daddy’s Uncle Jim handmade for him when he was living in Dwight, Kansas. (I am happy to say that I still have the box.) Decorating our Christmas tree was always a family affair, with glass Christmas balls, the ever-stubborn strings of lights, and usually silver tinsel icicles.

Christmas morning was a thrill for me, and we always had a lot of gifts under the tree. I specifically remember only a few of the gifts from my youngest years: a Patti Playpal doll, a white rabbit stole with hat, and a wooden highway set. In my pre-teens or teens Mom and Dad gave me at least one Beatles album; a green portable stereo for the Beatles album; a set of Lincoln Logs, and a spotted rabbit parka with hood, which I loved and wore way into my adulthood, even though the sleeves were slightly too short.

My most meaningful Christmases of the 1950s and 1960s involved my three years with the Westminster Youth Choir of Oak Cliff Presbyterian Church. In 1966, at the invitation of a childhood neighbor friend Andy, I reluctantly joined the choir. It was difficult for me to step out of my comfort zone of sticking close to Mom and Dad, but I never regretted it. Besides all of the other choir activities and fellowship, every year the large youth choir presented Handel’s Messiah on Christmas Eve. We rehearsed for months before the concert and performed for congregation, friends, and family. Our concert began at just the right time so that it ended at midnight with our singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Being a member of the choir in general was a very moving experience for me, and performing Handel’s Messiah with the choir, even more so. My parents were always there, and I think my sisters were probably able to come at least once. This made for a very late Christmas Eve for us but was something I looked forward to every year. I miss it.

This brings my childhood Christmas musings to an abrupt close, and I want to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very Blessed Christmas.

Peace on Earth.

The Towners, Eyewitness Photographers at the JFK Assassination (Part 2)

As I continue to recognize the upcoming anniversary of the JFK assassination, the following is the second excerpt (of several) from my book, Tina Towner, My story as the youngest photographer at the Kennedy assassination.

Excerpt from Chapter 2, 1963 President Kennedy Comes to Dallas:

In October, 1963, Daddy read an article in the local newspaper reporting President Kennedy’s scheduled trip to Dallas in November. I don’t know if Daddy voted for Kennedy, but he seemed to like him OK, and I think he would have wanted to see the presidential motorcade, regardless of who the president was. I knew nothing about politics and only read the newspaper when required to by a teacher as a school assignment, but I did know who President Kennedy was….

I probably wasn’t as enthused about the president’s visit as my parents would have liked me to be, but a week or two before the president’s scheduled trip to Dallas, Daddy asked me if I wanted to get out of school to go with him and Mother to see the presidential motorcade. I jumped at the chance….

Prior to the scheduled motorcade, a public announcement indicated that going to see the presidential motorcade would be an excused absence from public school….I was in the eighth grade. My mother wrote an excuse for me to give to the school’s attendance office, and my parents picked me up from school around 9:30 or 10:00 a.m. I heard there were a few other students doing the same thing, but I didn’t know any of them by name….

Friday, November 22, 1963, was a pretty day. It was partly cloudy and cool. Some reports said it was a warm and sunny fall day, but it was cool enough for me to wear my blue sweater, which is visible in some photographs taken by other amateur photographers at the site. We drove from Oak Cliff across the Houston Street viaduct toward downtown Dallas, only six or seven miles from our house. Daddy had already decided where he wanted to go to watch the motorcade. He thought the best place would be at the end of the motorcade route, at or near the Elm and Houston intersection. He believed it would be less crowded there, parking would be free at the nearby Union Terminal, and we could walk to the site from our car. After turning the corner onto Elm from Houston and passing by the grassy knoll area, the motorcade would disappear under the triple underpass, enter Stemmons Freeway, and head toward its next stop at the Dallas Trade Mart for a luncheon where President Kennedy was scheduled to speak.

In 1963, Union Terminal was a very busy train terminal located where Union Station is today. We parked in a large parking lot on the west side of the terminal and walked through Union Terminal, which smelled heavily of exhaust fumes. We continued walking north on Houston to the corner of Houston and Elm. From our car, the walk through the parking lot and train terminal was at least a couple of blocks. It was then approximately another four blocks to Elm Street.

We arrived at our chosen spot early, around 11:00 a.m. The motorcade was scheduled to arrive around 12:30 p.m. Daddy said his first choice for a good vantage point was on Elm Street about halfway down the hill from Houston toward the triple underpass. He thought that location would allow us a clear view of Kennedy’s motorcade as it came down the hill from Houston, and he would have more time to focus the camera. However, I began to feel queasy standing in the sun, so we stayed up on the plaza where there was a little shade that Mother and I could sit in while we waited. We picked our spot on the corner; but Daddy still wanted to check out the area farther down the hill to make sure there wasn’t a better location for us. He decided we could stay where we were, and we planted ourselves on the southwest corner of Elm and Houston, directly across Elm from the Texas School Book Depository building. While we waited, Mother and I took turns sitting on a small, green, folding camping stool we brought with us for that purpose. Like most the men that day, Daddy was dressed in a suit and tie; Mother and I were each in a sweater and skirt, and I was wearing bobby sox and flats.

As we waited for the motorcade, I recall that Daddy looked up at the buildings on “our” corner and observed a number of people looking out of the windows. He commented that they really had birds’ eye views and specifically mentioned watching one woman lean out of the window in a building catercorner to the Texas School Book Depository building. In our oral history recorded by the Museum in March 1996, Daddy stated that most of the windows in the TSBD had the shades pulled down. He also stated, as he had stated several times over the years to family and friends, that he told a uniformed police officer standing next to him that he saw a man in a white coat standing in a sixth floor window. Several times over the decades, Daddy repeated that the police officer saw this person, too….

As the motorcade finally approached, Daddy, Mother, and I took positions next to each other on the corner around which the motorcade would turn. Daddy asked a uniformed police officer for permission to step off the curb (which has since been removed to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act), and we stepped into the street….Standing to my left, almost elbow to elbow with me but a step behind, Daddy opened the viewfinder on the top of his Yashica camera, pushed the magnifier out of the way, held the camera up to his face, looked through the hole in the viewfinder, and captured one magnificent color photograph of the presidential limousine. At the same time, I took 8 mm movies with the Sears Tower Varizoom movie camera….I looked through the viewfinder, as Daddy taught me to do, and smoothly panned the camera in motion with the limousine, as it turned left onto Elm directly in front of and around me….

Because of the obtuse angle of the Houston and Elm corner, the presidential limo began to disappear down the hill into the crowd to my left. I continued filming until I could see only the back of the limousine. The meter on the movie camera was broken, which we were already aware of, and Daddy told me earlier that I would know when the film ran out when I heard the clicking sound of the film inside the camera. He knew before we left home that the reel of film in the movie camera was nearing the end; however, he was confident I would have plenty of film for what I needed. Under expected circumstances, this would have been true.

After the limo passed us by, bystanders on our corner began to move back up onto the curb, and many of them turned and started following the president’s limo down the hill. Both of my parents began to walk away from where I continued filming a few seconds longer….

I believe Daddy was about to head down the hill to get another photo, but there was not enough time before the first gunshot sounded – only a second or two, if that, after I stopped filming….

[My book is available at Amazon.com. The Towner Collection of film, photos, and cameras can be viewed on-line at Towner Collection at The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza.]