By Ron Buck
Stuart slipped into the mineral room and switched on the black light’s ultraviolet rays. The jagged, translucent, crystalline forms in the display instantly glowed in their bright neon and cool pastel colors. Chip flew down the rickety staircase to gawk at the wild game animals and the huge Grizzly flashing his stiletto fangs. I was transfixed at a Native American Indian display, face pressed against the cold glass, imagining how as a Choctaw brave I would sleep in a teepee made of buffalo hide, race my Appaloosa by the river, but only eat after I’d fished for my dinner, or speared it, or pierced it with a bow and arrow.
Experiencing Memphis in the ’60s for us included spending entire Saturdays exploring the mineral room, the Brooks Exhibit, the Planetarium, and all the fascinating history-laden recesses of The Pink Palace Museum.
Just south of the old Kennedy Hospital (where the U of M’s South Campus is now), my gang ran wild in the streets around our neighborhood, at least as far as our parents let us. A dozen sons and daughters from four households learned about the wonders of life and the natural world together under the plum, pecan and crabapple trees, the pin oaks, the sweet gums, and the weeping willows. We piled in the station wagon and carpooled to school (Sherwood Elementary and Junior High, then Overton), the movies, the Mid-South Fair, everywhere we didn’t ride our bicycles.
So ours is not a sob story about a boy and his dog. We didn’t flee flying monkeys in the Wizard’s hot air ride. Ours is a tale still being told by the kids who grew up on Dogwood Drive. Our time in East Memphis was filled with struggles and rewards, life challenges and little victories. And the adults I grew up with continue their life-long journey that began over 50 years ago in the curve of that quiet, tree-lined street.
We inhaled the fresh, hot-fried goodness of Thornton’s Donuts on Park Ave., explored aisles of good books and the worlds they contained at the Highland public library and at Blue and Gray bookstore (next to the Y, now Moe’s), and rocked to Elvis and Stax. We rode our bikes to the Goldsmith Civic Garden Center (now The Memphis Botanic Garden) in Audubon Park, and learned to swim and play pool at the Mason YMCA near Memphis State (now the U of M). We raced go-carts, batted in cages, and putt-putted at Al’s Golfdom after church on Sunday nights (before where the Mall of Memphis once stood). Our proudly named softball team the Dogwood Dinosaurs (with the Sinclair brontosaurus on our T-shirts) dominated neighborhood arch rivals The Fizer Ratfinks (who were low down as ratfinks were known to be).
We threw pirate parties with eye patches, swords and doubloons, set up our own library of science fiction, comics, and MAD magazine, and conducted magic shows for the whole neighborhood. We built two story clubhouses with an old church’s wood, dug foxholes, and sat in wonder at jet air travel at the edge of the airport. Some of us tossed Frisbees under the streetlight until Mrs. Corliss rang her little triangle or late into the evening until someone’s Mom yelled for us to get our butts inside.
Yet you know how we arrange our thoughts sometimes so that when we’re sad all we think about is sad things and when we’re happy nothing can bring us down? When I recall our time on Dogwood, it’s not like either of those feelings at all.
Along with the fun packed into our many excursions, there were real life dramas playing out in and outside our small red brick homes. We grew up with loving but also with strict, disconsolate, or absent parents. There were broken family budgets, divorce traumas, and secret sorrows deeply sewn.
We witnessed poverty-stricken classmates, glaring social injustices of prejudice and discrimination, and Walter Cronkite’s daily updates of American soldier deaths in Vietnam. We were stunned by the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. But later we and the nation were thrilled and inspired when we watched Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon (50 years ago this week). The astronauts’ accomplishments provided some needed relief from the strife and worries of the day and they inspired us to want to be better, to learn more, and to explore.
The adult kids from my street don’t need the Wizard’s help to return to the wonders of home. We can think back there in a flash, and relish sweet memories of homemade ice cream, sandlot softball, and bobbing for apples on Halloween. We’ll always carry with us the flaming sunsets from Audubon Park, the aroma of cathead biscuits at Buntyn Restaurant, and numerous valuable life lessons from growing into adults together in that quiet East Memphis neighborhood.
We can look back now and know that despite the troubles of the day our circle of friends, our extended family, created a happier life together. And through our many escapades we learned we had the heart, the brains, and the courage to fly on to the next adventure. <>
In memory of ROBERTA MANN “BERT” CORLISS
February 13, 1961 – June 20, 2019
Ron Buck grew up in East Memphis, went to Overton High School and Memphis State. Ron is a photographer and a DJ for WUMR 91.7 The Jazz Lover. This story was written as part of StoryBoard’s Page One Writer’s Workshops