Boy Meets World – in the Sewers of Montgomery

Hurricane Frederic swept across the Gulf Coast in September, 1979. At the time, it had the largest storm center ever measured: 50 miles across. Hammering the coast with 130MPH sustained winds, it passed over Dauphin Island, where my adoptive mom (and Dad Wife #1) lives now, a small barrier island just south of Mobile, AL., with wind gusts of 145mph.

Dauphin Island

Luckily, my family was not there at the time, having temporarily moved to Montgomery for a year and a half following my dad and his new contract job, which coincided with his marriage to Wife #2.

We kept our house in Mobile, only renting in Montgomery since we knew dad’s contract would eventually run out. When we returned home shortly after Frederic for a check-up on the old homestead, other than a pine tree now residing smack-dab in the middle of my swingset, crushing it like a frat-boy fist-smashes empty beer cans, we had little damage.

Generic single-family-home in Montgomery, AL
Souther residence from 1979-1981. My room had the window on the front.

Back in Montgomery, our new step-mom was still coming to grips with suddenly having two boys to deal with and my brother didn’t make it easy. While the new couple went on their honeymoon, our new step-Grandmother, a quiet, somewhat aloof prayer-warrior of a woman, left her modular home and her soap operas long enough to come watch a couple of young kids, something she hadn’t done in 20 years.

Her short time there was the beginning of what I can only call, “Quite a Year.” Kicking it all off was the “fire incident,” which happened within days of our new grandmother coming to stay with us and while dad and Wife #2 were on their honeymoon. My brother took our father’s small, propane-powered torch and burned holes in various parts of the house. My parents were only then starting to realize what they had gotten in my brother, so of course, I was questioned about the burn holes, as was he. But, it was pretty obvious which of the two of us was most likely to have done it; the 9-year-old or the 12-year-old. When asked, I’m not even sure he denied it. It was a sneak peek into a long line of future shenanigans.

Another time, the newlyweds were chasing each other around their room and our new step-mom smashed her shin into a bedside table. Normally, this would just hurt like hell for a while. But, she ended up in the hospital with major bone trauma, requiring a leg brace for weeks.

Then, there was the time I got bit–I called it “mauled”, but Step-mom called it “bit”–by our neighbor’s dog. It was a large German Sheppard that normally barked threateningly at me as we cut through the narrow walkway between it and its neighbor’s fence on the way to school. This day, the dog was not barking at me and, wanting to be friends and not have it terrify me on a daily basis, I put my hand in his fence to pet him. You can guess what followed.

Undoubtedly, our new step-mom was questioning her decision to join up with our merry bunch when the 80s began.

But perhaps the most memorable thing to happen that year didn’t involve our parents. In fact, it’s questionable they ever knew about it, which was just fine with me. And to this day, they still don’t know about it, which is also fine with me.

Now, despite my age, I had always been very much aware of girls. I’d been good-naturedly chased around the playground by packs of them in elementary and growing up with a brother three years my elder, and hanging out with him and his friends when they would let me, exposed me to things usually reserved for the more worldly: dipping, smoking, cussing. By the time I was 10, I’d at least tried all of it.

Behind our white-bread neighborhood in Montgomery, and in fact, also behind our neighborhood in Mobile, was a series of drainage pipes. Some were completely underground, while others were half-pipes, split horizontally so that only the bottom was concrete. These were storm sewers that almost always had water in them, presumably from some upstream lake or stream that was being diverted away from the houses. We spent a great deal of time walking, or crawling when it got tight, all through these concrete pipes, hoping to escape the brutal summer sun while simultaneously praying we didn’t stumble on a water moccasin resting in the shadows.

One particular day, my brother and I were exploring a section of half-pipes with a couple of the other local boys. Passing a smaller, intersecting pipe, someone noticed something set back a few feet in the dark. Crowding around, one of the older boys climbed up in the pipe and after much dragging and scrambling, pulled a wooden box into the daylight.

Measuring about 16″ square, it was solidly built, with an oily exterior, presumably to protect it from moisture. Holding the lid tight, was a padlock. We all took turns touching the box and pulling on the padlock and making sure it wasn’t somehow unlocked. It wasn’t.

Finally, someone said out loud what we were all thinking, “Should we open it?”

Despite each of us having a healthy fear of what could actually be in a locked box stuck way back in a storm sewer tunnel, we all nodded in excitement.

My brother, maybe not the oldest, but certainly the leader based on pure grit and meanness, picked up the box and threw it on the concrete floor as hard as he could. The sturdy box cracked, but didn’t give up its secrets just yet.

Two more similar beatings and the box burst open, its content spilling all over the floor of the storm sewer, and changing my 9-year old world-view forever.

Within the confines of this plain, wooden box, were dozens of dirty magazines! Hustler, Playboy, Penthouse, and some I had never heard of; they were all there. In bright, pristine colors, every teenage boy’s second-most favorite thing lay spread out at our feet.

As the initial shock wore off, we descended on those magazines like vultures on carrion. There was plenty for everyone, but still, expletives flew and we shoved each other in our excitement to see “what we could see.”

We must have spent an hour thumbing through the slick pages; holding them up to show the other boys with a, “Look at THIS!”

But eventually, the light began to fade and, knowing we had all better be getting on home for dinner, we made a pact to never tell anyone else about our find, lest they come and steal the magazines, or worse yet, destroy them! And so, with our heads still in the clouds, we put the magazines back in the remains of the box as well as we could, put it back up in the recesses of the dark pipe, and we headed home.

That would be the first and only time I would see our secret stash. I don’t know what transpired over the next week, but a few days later, on our way to school one morning, we saw what we had all feared might happen.

Along the main road leading up to school, all along the grassy bank, someone had ripped from our beloved treasure, page after glossy porn-covered page, and laid them out on the bank of the roadside for all to see–driver and pedestrian alike. It was awe-inspiring and sad at the same time. As we and a dozen or so parents accompanying their kids to school walked by this travesty, this betrayal of boyhood promises, none of us looked at each other, partly out of shame and partly for fear we might give away the fact that we’d known about the magazines for days.

I never found out who was responsible for this act of teenage vandalism. Whether it was one of us who originally found the box, or someone whom one of us had told, I don’t know. My brother and I never spoke of it again. But, it didn’t matter. The damage was done. I’d seen things no 9-year-old should see, and I loved it!

My dad’s contract expired a few months later and we moved back to our home in Mobile. There, I spent many hours exploring the storm sewers hoping to find something even remotely as cool as that box; but, I never did. Like so many things that happen to us when we are young, it was amazing and brief. But oh the memories.

 

 

 

 

The Lies We Tell Ourselves to Protect Our Children

Aerial overhead of Mobile, AL and Roswell, GA
Aerial overhead of my home as a child, and today.

As a parent, I have often heard, and said, “Things are different now. We can’t let our kids do what we did as children.

I’m not sure, but I might be lying both to myself and to my kids.

When I think back to my summers growing up in what could only charitably be called “the suburbs” of Mobile, Alabama, the environment is very similar to where my kids live now.

  • My childhood “Pine Run” community spanned a linear mile easily, with numerous side streets. Today, we live in a similarly-sized neighborhood, albeit with a few more hills.
  • Riding around on my little Huffy bike growing up, there were always people around. Today, there are probably more people walking around my community because we have sidewalks, where there were none when I was little.
  • We had our share of weirdos and pervs in my youth. In fact, growing up, I lived just through the woods from the “Albert P. Brewer Development Center.” Closed now, the Center was a hospital for the mentally challenged. Now and again, one of the patients would “escape” and the local police would drive through the neighborhood keeping a lookout. We all knew then not to talk to strangers or, God forbid, take candy from them. None of that has changed today.

Chris Riding BicycleSo why do we kid ourselves and pretend like we’re protecting our children from “the times” when things are little changed from when we were kids?

I don’t know for sure, but I think it comes down to awareness. Awareness of what’s going on around us. Awareness of the “statistics” around child trafficking and homicides and heaven forbid, the awareness that our every move is being watched, and judged, by other parents.

During this COVID lockdown, my three children, led by my 16-year-old, have taken to 10-15 mile bicycle rides during the day. I showed them a good circuit once and they’ve repeated it just about every day for a week now.

Chris and Robert in the River
But, along the route, they pass a couple of my daughter’s friends’ houses. One of which, includes a helicopter mom who simply cannot believe we allow our three kids to roam around on their own.

I can’t help but recall my summers growing up. Dad would leave for work. My brother and I would eat breakfast and then we were either doing chores or kicked out of the house for the next 4-6 hours, returning only for lunch or a Band-Aid. If you were thirsty, there was a hose on the side of the house.

We spent our days riding bicycles all around the neighborhood, and yes, often where our parents told us not to go. But that’s what being a kid is about; exploring on your own and taking risks and hoping you don’t get hurt or worse yet, caught. Chris Camping Birthday

If my parents had seen the poorly constructed bike ramps I jumped or seen some of the disgusting bodies of water we skim-boarded in with our pilfered bits of plywood from our father’s garages, they’d have been furious.

But they didn’t see it; we did it anyway, and we survived. And we made some pretty great memories along the way.

Still, though, the thought of allowing my 10-year old daughter to ride her bike alone in the neighborhood terrifies me–as it should. But that’s on me, not her. She knows what to, and not to, do and that’s the best I can do at this point.

Let your kids go out and just “play.” They might surprise themselves, and you.

 

 

My Secret Shame: Custom-Fitted Ladies’ Undergarments

When I was a young tween, my mom starting selling bras out of a suitcase. It was not my proudest period. Too young to leave at home, I was often whisked along as she made house-calls for women who needed–a little more support than that afforded by the under-garments sold at the local mall. Or so went the sales pitch anyway.

These were Norvell bras. I can still see–and smell–the dark blue, pleather suitcase which housed her inventory. It had a silk-screened, white outlined face of a generic woman on the outside. It was almost as large as me at the time and it didn’t have wheels.

It was my job to bring it in from the car, while my mom rang the doorbell and exchanged pleasantries with the “client” — always the “client.”

My mom was actually my stepmom and she and I were closer in age than she and my dad; my adopted dad to be more precise. A few years earlier, he and my adopted mom split after only a couple of years together, post-adoption, and my dad–always a sucker for a sad luck story–befriended my now-step-mom, who worked with him and who was going through a rough patch of her own. That marriage would last 14 years in total and end in divorce the very year I left home for the military. My father should have seen it coming–I saw it coming–but the suddenness and certainty of it rattled him and he never quite got over it.

But, suddenly at home, still young, and saddled with two young boys, my new, young step-mom no-doubt sought a little bit of independence in what was likely one of the original “independent sales representative” companies, even before Avon was a thing.

What made Norvell different, apparently, was both the quality of the craftsmanship of the garments, but also that they were custom-fitted.

Here’s where it gets weird for a tween boy.

After I had half-dragged, half-toted the oversized suitcase full of bras into the prospective customer’s home, my step-mom and the “client” would disappear off into a room and close the door where, presumably, the client would remove her top for my step-mom to measure her bust using a long, cloth measuring tape. The tape measure was blue and it remained in use in our home for years, long after the Norvell days were past. I could never see it lying there in the junk drawer in the kitchen and not pick it up, wondering in its softness so unlike my father’s unyieldingly stiff, and often painful, Stanley measuring tapes. And I could never NOT think about the hours I spent just outside the door of what was many a young boy’s fantasy.

As a boy about to hit puberty, my mind went on some pretty imaginative trips while waiting on the “custom fitting” to complete. Just a few feet from me were women, in the next room, taking their clothes off. And these were not usually old women either. No, they were 30’s-ish moms, usually from our church, who had the kind of money available  to spend $35 or $40 dollars on a custom-fit garment in the 70s and early 80s.

I had always been aware of girls. In fact, I became more shy as I got older, so even as a young boy, I appreciated the female form most definitely. And, most of these ladies were, at least moderately, attractive. Oh, if only the door was cracked just a little, or what if someone inadvertently stepped out of the room to get something and I saw…but no. That never happened.

Inevitably the fitting would conclude, usually in about thirty minutes. I’m not sure my step-mom ever didn’t make a sale. These business models almost guarantee sales anytime a customer is put in a position to feel that they owe the representative something and didn’t they owe my step-mom the purchase of at least one bra after she and her young son had come all the way out on a fine, warm summer morning to her home? Of course, they did. But, I suspect there were few follow-up orders, which explains why this was a fairly short-lived endeavor for my step-mother.

Eventually, the in-home custom fittings grew less and less, and the orders dried up. But, I still remember my mom keeping the blue suitcase full of bras. And I remember her telling me how well made they were and that I was to never, ever put them in the dryer when I was transferring laundry from the washer. And so, I remember so clearly pulling out these off-white bras, twisted and damp from the washing machine. And I would look at them and think, “They don’t look like much.”

But, for a time, they were a symbol of something for many. An independence they felt they needed in a time where women’s roles were just beginning to shift from Suzy-homemaker to the Power Pant-Suit. And clearly, something about this ritual left its mark on me, else I wouldn’t remember it so vividly now.

An internet search for Norvell yields a generic page listing its business model and a website link that returns a 404 error. Seemingly, Norvell is no more.

Long live custom-fitted women’s undergarments.

Thanks for the memories

A bit more than eight years ago, CareerMom and I bought this crib. We went to Toys-R-Us, Babies-R-Us and every other R-Us derivative you can imagine. I think we ended up about 15 miles north of our house in some suburb of the suburbs, in a no-name strip mall containing a high-end baby store.

And thus the Bonavita “Carla” crib came into our home.

Two weeks ago, I dismantled it. Eight years and three kids later it’s finally done. And other than some dried, crusty milk between the vertical slats, it’s in pristine condition. None of my kids “teethed” on the rails. It’s bittersweet letting it go, but it was time Baby-Girl got her own big-girl bed.

Government safety laws prohibit the donation of cribs manufactured prior to 2010 due to some issue with drop-sides on pre-2010 cribs and even though ours doesn’t have a drop-side, we still can’t donate it. Which is a shame. You spend $1200 on a crib, you want to see it not end up in a dumpster somewhere. But I think we have a taker for it (for free). Hope it goes to another good home.