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.]