The pickup bumped and bounced along the road that was barely a layer of blacktop painted over the jagged terrain. It chugged up the hills and breezed down the other side to the screaming delight of the three children riding in its bed. My grandfather was taking us to Dixon Creek, and as the blacktop turned to dirt road, we kicked off our shoes and held on as the pickup splashed through the creek and rolled to a stop in the grass on the other side. The three of us clambered over the tailgate before Grandpa even had a chance to unhook the chains from either side and we hit the ground running.
My cousin, Raye, was four years old and I was to keep an eye on her. That was fine with me as I would much rather play with another girl even if she was three years younger. We all headed for a shallow pool of still water where we stood on the edge looking for minnows and tadpoles before we waded in, scuffing the thin layer of algae that coated the smooth rocks until it swirled around our feet as we sloshed about. Mere wading was too tame for my older brother, Sev, and he left us in search of fast moving water and frogs further downstream.
When we bored of our little pool, we walked upstream along the bank of the creek in the direction Grandpa had gone. As we walked, startled frogs jumped into the creek and shot into the creek ahead of us. Finally, we reached Grandpa as he sat fishing with a cane pole. We watched the red and white float bobbing in the water and waited impatiently for a fish to grab the hook and pull it under. We squealed with delight when the float disappeared for a moment and groaned with despair when it reappeared, and in the moments between we jumped up and down despite Grandpa's pleas for us to be still and quiet. Then, Sev ran down the creek bed holding a bullfrog in each outstretched hand. Raye and I screamed and hid behind Grandfather with Sev right behind us. But he tripped over a rock and both frogs lept into the creek. With a sigh, Grandpa stood and pulled in his line, then picked up his thermos, and we all headed back to the pickup empty handed. And so started our week of vacation with Granny and Grandpa in Phillips, Texas.
Now if you visit Phillips today, or look at a recent aerial photo, you'll wrinkle your nose and say Ewww, they lived there? But I assure you, it wasn't like that in the '50's and '60's when I was there. Then, it was a Mayberry-like town, with tree lined streets, sidewalks, and green yards surrounding simple, well-kept houses. It had a small downtown area, a single school, a hospital, and a couple of churches. There was no unemployment, no vagrancy, and few, if any, strangers because there was no hotel. Anyone needing a hotel had to find one at nearby Borger. You see, it was largely a company town where most people either worked for Phillips Petroleum Company, or for a business that serviced the people who worked there.
If you want to see what it looked like in its early days, there are photos at the Phillips High School website. Originally, the company leased land near the refinery to build homes for its workers. The houses on each street were built quickly and all with the same design, like a line of little Monopoly houses. They were whitewashed frame homes with two bedrooms, one bath, kitchen, and one room that was both living and dining room. Between every four houses, there was a long shed-like structure built of corrugated tin with dirt floors and containing four single stall garages, each with a double door. Every house was assigned the garage nearest them, not that I ever saw a car parked in one; most people just used them for storage.
My grandparents were lucky enough to live next to one of these garages, so they could park in the gravel driveway beside their house. People in the two middle homes either had to park in the street in front of their house, or park in front of their garage and walk back to their house.
At first, Phillips Petroleum rented the homes to the workers, but later they allowed workers to buy their homes. Then, as people began adding on their homes, the Monopoly houses became Mayberry houses. Chain link fences circled the houses, softened by hedges, rose bushes, and vines. They didn't have trash pickup, instead they had incinerators placed here and there. Where most towns have alleys, Phillips had walkways. The walkways were grassy paths, wider than a sidewalk, which led to the incinerators where people dumped their garbage. One incinerator was behind Granny's house. I was fascinated by it and loved to watch people throw in their trash. They were like a big, iron dumpster, with a gas flame that burned all the time. If there was an odor from them, I don't remember it, or maybe it was masked by the odor from the refinery.
Grandpa worked for Phillips Petroleum and Granny worked at the hospital which was located behind their house, and our annual summer vacation with them was always during a week when Grandpa worked the night shift and Granny worked the day shift. I suppose that is so we would be constantly supervised, but it really gave us unlimited freedom.
Our visit to the creek was on Saturday morning when both Granny and Grandpa were off work. After lunch, Grandpa and Raye took naps and Granny took Sev off for some one on one time. Granny had always wanted a boy, and Sev was her only grandson, so naturally he was her favorite. That was just fine with Raye and me, because it meant we could spend more time without his tricks and constant harassment. After her nap, we were free to roam the town while Sev was stuck shopping with Granny and we didn't feel the least bit sympathetic. Granny may have kept a closer eye on Sev too because he was a handful, and that's putting it nicely.
I wasn't the only one fascinated by the incinerators, only Sev didn't just watch them, he wanted to experience their power. There was a sign that said not to throw in aerosols or anything flammable and that prompted Sev to pilfer Granny's hairspray so he could throw it in and listen to it explode. I don't know which neighbor told Granny about it, but since it was Sev, he didn't get in trouble. After that though, Granny hid her flammables when we visited.
That Saturday afternoon, Raye wanted to go to the store and buy some candy, but I didn't have any money. Grandpa was asleep and I wasn't about to wake him. Raye said she would wake him and started to march into his room, but I grabbed her around the waist and carried her into the backyard. No use starting the week off in trouble, that could come later, it always did.
Granny had a swing set in her backyard and even though it wasn't as big as the one we had at home, it had a glider. So I dragged Raye over to it and plopped her in one of the seats and I took the other one facing her and started pushing. We were having fun until the frame started lifting on each side as the swing rose on the other. Raye liked the ka-thump of the frame's legs falling back into their hole, but I knew from painful experience that it only ka-thumped back in place a few times before the whole thing tipped over, so I slowed it down. Then it wasn't any fun, so we decided to go to the park at the end of the street where the swing was firmly set into cement.
We had just settled into the strap seats of the swing when a group of girls approached us, and one told us that it was their swing and their park. The lead bully of this little gang of girls gone bad was named Randi and she ordered us out of the park. When I started to protest, they picked up rocks and sticks and began throwing them at us. Being responsible for a four year old, I couldn't fight back without getting her hurt, so we left. But that wasn't good enough for Randi. Her little group of bullies followed after us shouting and throwing whatever they could pick up along the way until we began to run as fast as Raye's little legs could go.
Now before you chide me for comparing Phillips to Mayberry, let me remind you that even Opie ran into bullies from time to time. When we got back to the house, we told Grandpa what happened. Grandpa was a lot less philosophical than Andy Taylor and just told us to stay away from Randi. I had learned at an early age how to avoid Sev, so avoiding Randi was no problem for me. But Raye lived there and would have several run-ins with her in the coming years.
As it turned out that day, we got home just in time to help Granny and Sev carry in the groceries and help with dinner. I thought Granny was a wonderful cook, but maybe that's because she let us help and at home, mom wanted us out of her way. After dinner, we all helped with the dishes too, another thing we didn't do at home.
I loved Saturday nights at Granny's house. First was a bubble bath in Granny's clawfoot bathtub. I had never seen a bathtub like it before. Instead of a spout, it had a nozzle with an attached hose. A kid could make a real mess playing with that hose. But it was our first day there and I was still on my best behavior. Not so with Sev.
We didn't have bubble baths at home, and you wouldn't think a boy would want a bubble bath either, but a nine year old boy with a full bottle of soap (it was really dishwashing liquid), and a deep bathtub with a long rubber hose, well, it's just too much temptation. He probably knew he was in deep long before he called for help. By the time we all crowded into the bathroom, the only thing without bubbles was the window. The floor was coated with them, both the sink and toilet were full, and of course the tub was full. And there stood Sev, in the middle of the bubbles holding an empty bottle in his hand.
"Joseph Ray! (Sev's full name), what have you done?!!" said my grandmother, whose tone of voice was somewhere between angry and panicked. Aunt Jenny stepped in, grabbed a towel, and started smothering the bubbles, drained the tub and sink, and generally took control of the situation. Grandpa herded Raye and me back to the living room while the women dealt with the mess, and Sev.
Raye and I slept in the front bedroom, the one that used to be the living room and dining room, and Sev slept on a cot in my grandparent's room. Being the favorite definitely had its down side. After Raye fell asleep, I lay awake, watching the curtains flutter in the breeze, and listening to the sounds of the neighborhood settling in for the night. Snatches of conversation as neighbors walked down the sidewalk, and then the squeak as someone lifted the latch on a chain link fence. Their louder goodbyes and then the click as the latch dropped back into place. A dog barked in a distant yard, and the murmur of my grandparent's lowered voices in the living room as they waited for Sev to go to sleep before they climbed into their own bed.
The next morning, we were dressed in our Sunday finest and instructed to stay out of the dirt, and out of trouble while Granny got dressed and fixed up. Raye and I sat on the swing glider and Sev climbed a pile of bricks stacked against the back of the garage and then pulled himself onto the top of the garage. We heard the sound of the tin roof popping in and out as he jumped on the roof, fully enjoying our attention. When Granny came out and saw him up there, she was not amused and demanded he come down. But he couldn't climb down as he had climbed up, and Grandpa had to get a ladder and bring him down. That afternoon, Raye and I went to Dumas with Aunt Jenny, and Sev stayed home with Granny and Grandpa. Lucky boy, that one, to be so favored.
That night, Grandpa had to go to work and Granny packed his black, domed lunch box. Granny said he worked graveyards, and I was afraid for him. I didn't know there was a cemetery at the refinery, but I could imagine him outside all night, with the fog drifting over the headstones and making monsters out of shadows. It was many years before I learned that the graveyard shift was merely the night shift.
The next morning, Grandpa came in just as Granny was leaving for work. She left some sandwiches in the refrigerator for our lunch and instructed us to play quietly and let Grandpa sleep. The black shades in their room were drawn and Grandpa would sleep until Granny arrived home that evening. Across the street, the neighbor's grandson, Mark, had arrived, and Sev spent the day with him while Raye and I were on our own. Rather than play quietly in the house, we preferred to be outdoors where we could sing and shout, and skip and play.
We spent a lot of time in the walkways behind the houses. Not only did they provide paths to the incinerators, they were a maze through the entire town. It was possible to walk from Granny's house to the other side of town and never walk down a street. The walkway was bounded on each side by the chain link fence of someone's back yard, and most people had hedges or vines over these too. They were mowed regularly, often had flowers planted on the edge, and we thought of them as our secret passages. Another benefit is that they were difficult for a group on bicycles, and that was Randi's mode of transportation, so we were able to avoid her and her group of flying monkeys.
Most of our days were spent in the same way. We played all morning, ate our lunch in the backyard, and then I tried (not very hard) to get Raye to take a nap. Sometimes we joined Sev and Mark, making food bombs or creating some other boyish mayhem, and sometimes we just lay in the grass pointing out animals and monsters in the clouds as they passed by. When Grandpa slipped us some money, we walked to the store for some nickel candy or an ice cream bar which we ate while sitting on the window ledge outside the store. On the way home we ran along the sidewalk, dragging a stick along the chain link fences in front of every house, enjoying the thwack, thwack, thwack that announced our presence to every dog and child within hearing. The dogs came out barking but keeping their distance; the children came out bashfully, and slowly worked their way to the fence where we compared our tans, our missing teeth, and the scars on our knees. If we measured up, we were invited inside the fence to play. If not, the boy or girl would inch away and dart back into the house and we continued on toward home. We idled the days as we pleased and only had to be back home in time for dinner.
When we came home after a day of play, there was only one rule: don't sit on the living room furniture. Not that we wanted to because it was covered with plastic slipcovers and our bare legs stuck to it. The plastic was to keep the furniture clean from the clouds of carbon black that often drifted through town. Even in the 1960's after filters were installed at the plant, Granny wouldn't take off the plastic covers. She thought the carbon black coated everything outside, and who knows, maybe she was right. Our feet were certainly black after a day outside barefoot. We didn't wear shoes unless it was Sunday or we were going to town.
Looking back on those years, especially in comparison to our lives today, I am amazed that a four year old and a seven year old were allowed to roam the town all day. But it was a different time, and a different place, a safer place where nearly everyone knew everyone else. And while we thought we were alone in our secret passages, I'm sure we were watched. I'm sure Randi was watched too, although in her case, reporting her behavior fell on deaf ears.