Eyes in the Alley
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by Vallie Fletcher Taylor
Category: People/General Nonfiction
Description: To most people, the Great Depression brings to mind shantytowns and fields buried in dust, breadlines and shuttered banks. For young Vallie Fletcher, it was a time when she startled her San Antonio neighbors by jumping off garage rooftops, convinced she can soar into the air. After all, that's what she did during a near-death experience at age two. It was a time when she looked into the face of a starving child, a face that would haunt her throughout her childhood. Segregation rules that did not make sense, sharing a classroom with four sets of twins, "medical" treatments and "health" rules that seemed as likely to kill as to cure, music and dance teachers collaborating with mothers who saw too many Shirley Temple movies trying to turn children into performers--all and more are combined in this fascinating memoir of a time that to many is no more than a notation in a history book in a place where the past is as much a part of the infrastructure as the streets.
eBook Publisher: Zumaya Publications/Zumaya Publications LLC, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: April 2009
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [533 KB]
Reading time: 314-439 min.
Today, as I walk past any mirror I happen to encounter, I expect to see reflected the image of a young blond girl wearing a giant hair bow held in place by a golden barrette. Instead, an almost perfect replica of my great-aunt Vallie gazes back at me. Most assuredly, it is Aunt Vallie as she was in her elder years and not the glamorous socialite of the late nineteenth century.
I check the back of my hairdo with a hand mirror and realize that every swirl and wave of my swiftly graying hair has emulated the growth patterns of that first Vallie Fletcher's crowning glory.
Yet, I also realize that, somewhere beneath the surface of today's reflection, the little girl whose mother secured taffeta mega hair bows to silky blond hair still lurks. This child loved stories that began with "Once upon a time..."
Once upon a time in south Houston, I found myself surrounded by twelve-year-old history students with inquisitive natures. Their young minds were best served by placing boring textbooks, written by college professors to impress other college professors, on a dusty shelf inside a sizable dark closet. Then, I began telling stories in the manner of ancient tribal wisdom-keepers, who passed along the history and customs of their people. Oral history was the brush I used as I painted portraits of courageous, and often impetuous, characters who once populated our state.
Focusing on the actions of individuals instead of mass political movements or terms of treaties, we proceeded to revisit dreams, fears and eccentricities of early Texans. As novice sleuths, my students acquired investigative skill as they attempted to track and relate to these wilderness pioneers.
Certainly, they came to realize that some who designed the heritage of our state were flawed and misguided, while others operated as true visionaries. Each displayed a combination of human characteristics and frailties which caused him or her to be truly unique.
As we viewed what was going on in the world through the eyes of powerful personalities who had escaped the confines of textbook covers, we discovered new lands, left behind loved ones and comfortable homes and initiated treacherous and physically draining journeys into the unknown. When stories bogged down because of sketchiness, and threatened to sink into a murky void, we turned to research and discovered facts that would float them back to the surface.
Those same pupils taught me an important and long-remembered lesson as we were involved in re-creating their favorite segment of Texas history. That lesson is: "People view what they read through the lens, and in the context, of their everyday life."
The first log cabins built and occupied by early Texas settlers held precious little in the way of furniture and personal belongings. These cabins, along with their meager contents, inspired a great deal of fascination and comment among my students. I was of the opinion that I had done a worthy job of transmitting details and concepts concerning the lives of these courageous individuals.
At the end of days of discussion pertaining to the lives of 1830s settlers, I tested student comprehension by passing out copies of a simple cabin floor plan and asking these seventh graders to draw the cabin's contents. As I checked the drawings of several students, I viewed some extremely puzzling pieces of furniture.
"What is this mysterious piece in the corner with three circles in front of it?"
"Oh, that's their TV with the stools the children sat on while they were watching."
Another student was asked, "What is this large object outside the cabin?"
"That's their car. I wasn't sure if they had a garage."
So, I was confronted with the sudden realization that, regardless of the time devoted to discussions of journeys by horseback, wagons or on foot, despite the fact that we had listed and re-listed the few pieces of furniture and personal belongings they built or brought with them, regardless of heaping a large measure of attention upon items we now take for granted but they did not have, my generous students greeted the settlers' arrival with gifts of modern technology.
As we advanced through numerous decades within the school year, we eventually came upon one that occurred a century later. Television historians of today refer to it as "the dark decade." In the past few days, with precious little time to devote to tube-watching, I have heard this same decade referred to as brutish, gloomy, dismal, disastrous and doomed.
Teachers searching for visual aids to illustrate classroom tales from this time period come upon the same few pictures reproduced in a variety of sources. Observing a current television documentary, I watch the identical miserable family standing in a cloud of dust that I first saw pictured in a copy of the San Antonio Express during the 1930s. A melancholy portrait showing a long line of men awaiting a steaming bowl of charity soup has also been used endlessly to illuminate the era of the Great Depression.
Yet families trying to survive farm life in arid Midwestern dust bowls or somber job seekers hoping for a hot meal in the Northeast neither illustrate nor represent the totality of contrasts embodied in the culture of the 1930s. When history is recorded for the benefit of future generations, it is most valuable when told through the eyes of one who lived it. This individual must stick to recounting firsthand experiences so the world around him or her will eventually fall into place for the reader.
I am either blessed or cursed with a wonderful memory. During the years I cared for my mother, until her death at age 93, I realized the importance of writing a memoir when one's memory is still intact and anxious to be tested.
I honor the writers who have gathered historical data and statistics for the rest of us to access. My strength does not lie in the field of numbers but my mind delights in the ability to revisit a past era at will and re-experience the sights, sounds, tastes, feelings and emotions of a young child.
Some terms used in the 1930s and '40s, especially those with relation to racial issues, sound crude and insensitive today. Yet those same words were not meant to be derogatory at the time they were spoken. In attempting to become more informed and sensitive, our culture has changed its vocabulary in a number of situations. In being true to the events and the era when these experiences occurred, and at the same time writing for today's readers, I tend to use terms from several different generations in my descriptions.
Lynda Powell, who works as a "land man" in the gas and oil industry, has become aware of numerous Depression-era sagas as she labors in courthouse basements tracing the ownership of mineral rights.
"I'm very sensitive to that era," she explains, "because my grandfather was a poor tenant farmer and my father a Depression baby. I remember my grandmother telling me that she once had nothing but a sugar cookie to give my dad to eat.
"My father, L.B. Billingsley, began delivering milk twice a day at age ten. He earned a dime for each shift and that helped feed his family.
"Now, as I search through old records, I learn so many facts that bring tears to my eyes. Land deeds tell of families who lost everything they had--their homes, their food, vegetable crops they grew and animals they raised, their income--all because they didn't have the money to pay taxes.
"I read where the lack of cash caused one woman to sell her prized milk cow in order to raise money to bury her husband. The owners of mercantile stores, where these poor farmers 'traded on account,' sometimes ended up owning their land as debt payment.
"On the other hand, records show where individuals with cash sometimes were able to accumulate great wealth and large land holdings during the Depression era. They were in a position to purchase prime farms and ranches that had been confiscated by a sheriff, simply by paying back taxes. Selling off timber, raising cattle or profiting from the minerals that were transferred with theses lands created a new wealthy class."
Lynda's insights into the Great Depression come from tedious research, turning the pages of dusty ledgers to which few people seek access. They bring to mind situations, both enviable and pitiful, of families I knew as a child.
This book was written in a manner opposite to the manner in which non-fiction works are normally executed. Rather than doing copious research and then sitting down at a computer with note-filled legal pads, I enjoyed working hind-part-before. I let my memory flow nonstop on each particular subject or category; and when I came to a stopping point, only then did I look up family notebooks, old newspaper articles or do research on the computer to check my facts. It was a painless procedure, and I was able to easily transport myself into early childhood surroundings.
Sometimes even Google does not have a memory that stretches back as far as mine. When I typed in "Comic strip character Tillie the Toiler," it shot back the question, "Do you mean Tillie the Toilet?"
My true ace in the hole, as far as memory goes, is having been born in the first half of the 20th century, living surrounded by elders who lived in the 19th century and being able to enjoy a happy and healthy 21st-century life. It helped that my elders and ancestors were fond of writing memoirs. Those who didn't record events were wonderful tellers of tales.
I invite you to explore a time that was very different from the one in which you now live. Visit my neighborhood, which none of the residents considered "gloomy" or "dismal." Share a delicious meal with my family, who set a fine table despite "dark" and "disastrous" events occurring elsewhere in our nation. Ride a bus into downtown San Antonio where surroundings were tranquil rather than "brutish." Play games with me and my childhood friends. We were all too naive to realize we were "doomed."
I have attempted to sketch vignettes that will both elucidate and polish some of the many facets cut into that heavy and symbolic stone called the Great Depression.