Country Bumpkin Goes To Town by Arnie Dowdy




May 18, 2008

Country Bumpkin Goes to Town

  Looking back it seems like the experience should have affected me more. But my memory says that it didn’t.

It was 1955 and my family had decided to move from rural Kentucky to Los Angeles, California. We had been living in Milburn, Kentucky, population about four hundred. You might have needed to count the people in the cemetery to get up to that number. Milburn was a bucolic, idyllic sort of town. It was situated in Carlisle County which is located in the western end of the state.

The town wasn’t much, and really never had been. It was kept alive in the most part by the farming community that surrounded it. Almost all of the town was built along a curving, winding road that was a part of a state highway. The road only had two intersections. One went past our house and dead ended, pardon the pun, at the cemetery. The other led down to the school and continued on as a gravel road to some of the more remote farm areas.

There wasn’t much in the way of businesses. There was a Post Office, a Masonic Lodge, one small “belly up to the counter diner”, a barber, two small groceries and one general store. The diner was where I sometimes ate lunch. It cost a quarter. I could get a chili dog, an RC cola, and a bag of peanuts. You put the peanuts down the top of the bottle of soda and drank through them finally eating the peanuts when the cola was done.

There were two small grocery stores. One was called Crider’s and we never shopped much there. The other was Roy Evan’s Grocery. We lived down the lane from the Roy Evans family so our shopping dollars were mostly spent there. The owner was called “Mr. Roy” by everyone in the community. Most everyone was indebted to him as he allowed the whole community to buy on credit. Cash money was not always available. Visiting Mr. Roy’s store on the way home from school was always good, especially if you had a nickel burning a hole in your pocket. He also had newspapers for sale and I enjoyed glancing at the headlines to know of the latest world events.

Mr. Roy’s store was also one of the first places we checked out on November 1st each year. It was tradition that the young men would disassemble a wagon on Halloween night as a prank. It would then be reassembled on top of Mr. Roy’s grocery. As kids we loved it and never thought once about how it would come down. We just trusted that it would happen.

The general store was the most interesting place in town. It was run by an elderly man named D P Sanford. The store had been in his family for some years. It was an interesting eclectic collection of items to purchase. If what you wanted wasn’t on display, all you had to do was ask Mr. Sanford and it was likely he had it had it in the upstairs storage.

D P Sanford’s general store had one thing that no one else had. It was the only store with a real candy counter within ten miles. The sweet treasures located behind the glass at that candy counter tempted us every day. It was also in that counter that I discovered baseball cards. For a penny I could get not only a piece of gum, but a cardboard representation of a baseball player. These small pieces of cardboard thrilled the imagination of the young boys who bought and traded them. If I could get a player from my favorite team I was ecstatic for a week.

Alas! The candy counter has one horrible memory for me. One day after school as I was peering through the glass trying to decide what treat my penny should bring me, I threw up. I was so embarrassed. It was some bad sour kraut that I had eaten. Mr. Sanford tried to assure me that it was ok but I do admit that it took a few days before I was able to go back into his store. I also haven’t eaten sour kraut since.

Milburn had a collection of churches of varying protestant denominations. We didn’t discriminate. Each summer my brother and I attended each one’s vacation bible schools. It was just about the only entertainment available. We went just to have fun.

The school was located about mid ways along the curving state highway. Buses brought in all the students from the farms. My brother and I simply had to walk. There were a few crumbling sidewalks that had been constructed as a WPA project in the 1930’s. We walked past all of the homes, most of them starting to move towards varying states of decay. Most of the homes seemed to be occupied by elderly widows, no doubt waiting to join their spouse down past our house at the end of Cemetery Road. I loved these ladies; they were my best customers.

My enterprise as a young man getting ready to face his teens was that of a garden seed salesman. I had answered an ad from the back of a comic book and became affiliated with a seed company. They mailed me the seeds, I sold them and mailed in the money. Then they sent me whatever prize I had requested such as a baseball glove or a basket ball. Each year these widow ladies would wait to buy their seeds until I had visited with my selections. I wondered where they would get their seeds when I moved to California.

The walk to school each day was accompanied by our dog Trixie. She would walk with us as far as school and then turn around and go home once she knew we were safely there. The amazing thing was that she would come back to school in the afternoon to pick us up for the return journey. I know it sounds crazy, but that is what happened. My seed customer ladies would call out to each other that it was time for school to be out as they had seen the Dowdy boys dog heading that way.

Milburn school had students from all twelve grades. There were four rooms downstairs each holding two classes who were taught by one teacher. The upstairs, forbidden to us lower level students, was the high school. It always had an air of mystery. Every now and then we would get invited to come upstairs and purchase a treat for recess. I never was able to attend classes upstairs as we moved after my seventh grade year.

Milburn school also had one other building, much newer than the school itself. It was the basketball gym. Basketball in Kentucky is sort of a religion. Our team was the Milburn High School Blue Devils. Each year they would have tournaments at the grade level. First grade would play second grade and so on. I am convinced it was a way to find out which kids would be able to play on the high school team in later years.

Most of my Milburn school life was an experience of joy. There were a couple of exceptions that come to mind.

The first involved the game of marbles. The normal game for boys was called “for keeps”. You drew a circle around yours and your opponents marbles and you tried to knock them out side of the ring. If you knocked it out you got to keep the marble. Every boy traveled daily with his sack of marbles. I was no exception and considered myself a pretty good marble player. That is until I met up with an older boy. It was on a trip to the bathroom. An older boy, was also in the bathroom. He asked if I wanted to play marbles “for keeps”. Of course I did. A big mistake as it not too long afterwards I returned to my class with my marble sack almost empty. It was a difficult lesson to learn.

The second bad experience involved our high school basketball star, Sonny Fristoe. Sonny had caught me in the bathroom having a smoke with my buddies. All of us being raised in tobacco country thought nothing of trying out the commodity each time we could snitch some from our fathers. Sonny told me he was going to tell my parents. I was scared to death. To make matters worse Sonny worked in the grocery store in Mayfield where we went on Friday night to buy our provisions. Every time we went he would make my evening miserable. He was a stock boy there and he would peer around the end of the counter and hold up two fingers to his lips as if smoking. He would then point to me. I hated Sonny Fristoe. Maybe one of the reasons I was so happy to go to California was to get away from Sonny Fristoe.

A couple of years ago while visiting with my family in Kentucky I was driving back from Mayfield. Along the side of the road, I notice a sign that said Sonny Fristoes Truck Stop and Convenience Store”. It had to be him. It was just too much of a coincidence. Once inside the store I looked around to see if I could possibly recognize Sonny. There he was behind the counter. He asked if I needed help. I told him that he probably did not remember me, but that I had remembered him all my life. I explained how I had hated him because of what he had threatened to do to me. I also told him that I had now forgiven him. He was in a bit of shock, to say the least. Suddenly another couple standing near by started to laugh. It was Sonny’s daughter and son-in-law. They did so much enjoy seeing his discomfort. With a wave and a laugh I was out the door never to be troubled with the memory of Sonny again.

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