Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Distant Memories of an Oak Cliff Childhood

As you get older—I am now 61 going on 62—you start to look back at your past life in a way you didn’t look at it when you lived it. Recently I have been thinking a lot about my childhood in Oak Cliff, Texas.

I grew up in the late 1960s and 1970s in a part of Dallas called Oak Cliff. I lived in a new middle class home in a new middle class subdivision in southwest Oak Cliff at 3422 Guadalupe Avenue. To the west of Guadalupe lay Cockrell Hill Road. Between Guadalupe and Cockrell Hill was an old ranch or farm where we sometimes rode motorbikes, the Clyce mansion, a wooded area, and a bridge. Los Angeles Boulevard lay to the east while Blue Ridge Boulevard lay to the south. On the north side of the dirt road section of Blue Ridge Boulevard was a field, probably an old farm or ranch which stretched all the way from Blue Ridge to Kiest. On the Blue Ridge side of the field stood an old shack. Inside that shack I discovered a limerick that I remember to this day: “Tough titty said kitty but the mic was still good”. It took me years to fully understand what this limerick meant. To the south of Blue Ridge was a wooded area that I occasionally cut through to go to school and where I once saw a copperhead. To the north lay Kiest Boulevard and Five Mile Creek. Over the years my brothers, my sister, and me wondered the creek east and west, from Guadalupe Avenue to Cockrell Hill and from Guadalupe Avenue to Pecan Grove Park, our local park which was at the intersection of Kiest and Westmoreland Avenue, catching sight of the occasional crawfish and water moccasin as we hiked and drank from it.

There are a lot of things I remember about my Oak Cliff childhood, a childhood that in retrospect seems quite idyllic. I remember the lone pecan tree that stood by the last home on Guadalupe heading toward Kiest thanks to which I was able to pick up enough pecans to fill a large grocery bag. I remember swimming for free during the boys hour at the pool in Pecan Park every summer weekday. I remember seeing the asphalt bubble up as I walked what was then a ruralish two lane stretch of Kiest from Gaudalupe to Pecan Park. I recall thinking that the chasm beneath the bridge that ran across Five Mile Creek on Westmoreland near Pecan Park looked like the grand canyon of Oak Cliff to me. I remember scooting on my behind with my brothers and sister on a pipe that ran across Five Mile creek west of the Westmoreland bridge once or twice during my childhood life. I remember the huge hill that Boulder Drive ran up near the grand canyon of Oak Cliff.

I remember my school, TW Browne Junior High School. I recall that I wasn’t particularly a great or even good student for a variety of reasons. I liked the social sciences but I wasn’t particularly taken with or good at maths or the sciences. I remember once getting an A on an art assignment in which I mimicked Andy Warhol’s famous Campbell’s soup can. I recall that my metal shop teacher made us bring Lava soap to shop and that I made a wood and metal sign of our address in metal shop class for our house. I remember that Dad put in our front yard. It disappeared two or three days later. I recall the foul smell near in the biology room in Browne. I remember that it was warm enough in Dallas so that every day we went outside during our lunch period. I recall one day when a light snow fall led to the school sending us home early. I recall being on the proverbially worst team in everything during gym period. I remember playing paper football in the lunchroom with other early arriving students before school started in the morning. I recall the last day of school when paper rained down like thick snow and covered the halls of TW Browne Junior High School.

I remember listening to what was the most listened to radio station in Dallas at the time I lived there, KLIF. I loved the Beatles, the Stones, the Supremes, the Airplane, and the Temptations all of whom you could hear on Dallas’s number 1 top 40 station at the time. I recall listening to a report one Sunday morning on KLIF about the supposed death of Paul McCartney. I remember hearing Credence Clearwater Revivals “Fortunate Son” for the first time on KLIF, a song about entitlement and nationalism that would have a huge impact on me intellectually. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s that I graduated from KLIF to to a non-commercial FM station in Arlington that played albums by King Crimson and the Moody Blues, two other bands, along with the Beatles, which would have a huge impact on my intellectual development. I remember seeing Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds for the first time on TV. My Dad urged me to watch it. I loved it and have been a cinema nerd ever since.

I remember my best friend John Cerillo. I met John at Browne. John had an enormous impact on me. He and the Beatles introduced me to the joys of progressive and protest rock and horrors of the Vietnam War. I remember that after I started listening to the Beatles and met John I began to turn against the war in Vietnam. I recall that I typically wore the bohemian uniform of jeans and an old army jacket to school. I remember that I wanted to, like other anti-war activists and many rock stars, let my hair grow and grow but I couldn’t. My parents wouldn’t let me and the vice-principal of Browne checked every morning to make sure that male hear length met the anti-long hair standards of the Dallas Independent School District. I recall John and me going over to Kimball High next door to Browne and protesting at Kimball’s after school ROTC drills before John’s father picked us up in his car and took us home. I remember wearing a black armband in protest against the war in Vietnam to school. I ended up wearing it under my army jacket, however, because I knew if I wore it on the outside that I would be kicked out of school. I still got in trouble. I remember trying to organise a walk out at Browne with John in protest against the war. Our walkout was timed to take place after the every Friday football season pep rally. The powers that be, however, heard about it, stationed teachers at every door, and put chains around all the door handles of every door in the school except for those leading to the courtyard to keep us from walking out. A bunch of us walked around the hallways for a while before returning to class. I still felt like I had accomplished something.

There are a lot of other things I recall about my Oak Cliff childhood. I remember buying "The Ballad of John and Yoko" and "Give Ireland Back to the Irish" at a drug store near, if memory serves, the Piggly Wiggly on Cockrell Hill. I remember going to Gibson’s on Westmoreland a hop, skip, and a jump from the intersection with Kiest. I recall walking to a record store on Kiest near Kiest Park to get Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Band in November or December of 1967. One of my brothers, if memory serves, went with me. I remember going to a record store on Jefferson Avenue, the high street in what was “downtown” Oak Cliff, where I bought bootleg Beatles and Moody Blues albums. I remember the old Texas Theatre on Jefferson where Lee Harvey Oswald, the man who shot President John F. Kennedy, was captured after he shot JFK. I remember how mammoth and magical Jefferson Avenue seemed to this kid at the time. I remember riding in my parent’s car along Kiest to Polk Street and into the heart of old Oak Cliff. I recall thinking how nice and prosperous everything looked. I remember taking the bus to the State Fair of Texas on junior high day at the fair.

I remember swimming in the big Westmoreland Park pool once or twice. I remember representing Pecan Park in the backstroke at the huge pool in Kiest Park. I finished third. I recall playing on the Tyler Street Methodist Church softball team in Kiest Park though I was neither Christian nor religious. I remember the big neighbourhood football game between the Clyce team, which included my brothers, and my team on the rocky field near the Clyce mansion. It ended in a 0-0 draw after one of my brothers broke his arm just as my father predicted. I recall being a rabid Dallas Cowboys and Texas Longhorns fan. I remember being terribly disappointed when the Cowboys lost to Green Bay for the second time in a row at the Ice Bowl. I recall going to the Cotton Bowl one year where I saw Texas beat Tennessee. I remember thinking that the #1 Longhorns were going to lose to the #2 Arkansas Razorbacks after the Razorbacks took a 14-0 lead so I took my weekly Saturday bath. When I got out of the tub I learned that the Longhorns had scored in the fourth quarter to narrow the gap. They would score again and successfully complete a 2-point conversion to win the game. Football for me and for Texas was our real religion.

Not all of my memories of my Oak Cliff childhood are idyllic. I got severe asthma when I was 12. I was running track and suddently couldn’t breath one spring afternoon. I recall that my Dad took me to the Methodist Hospital in Oak Cliff for treatment. It seemed huge to this smallish teenager. At first the doctor put me on cortisone. It worked well allowing me to continue to run track—I generally finished first in distance running—until side affects began to appear. Eventually I was put on portable respiratory machines that were only of limited help. I remember being barely able to walk up to the second and third stories of Browne because my breathing was so strained.

What I didn’t realise at the time was that the Dallas and Oak Cliff in which I lived was segregated. There were no Blacks and, rumour has it, only three Hispanics, at Browne when I was a student there. Blacks were segregated into South Oak Cliff at the time.

As I get older I find myself thinking that I would really like to see my old Oak Cliff haunts again. I am sure, however, that my memories of the Oak Cliff of the sixties and seventies are quite different from the reality of Oak Cliff today. What hasn't changed is that Dallas remains a segregated city and no section of Dallas reflects that economic and ethnic segregation more than minority dominated Oak Cliff.

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