Woodland 3-2484. That was the telephone number of my childhood until 1964, when alphanumeric phone numbers were discontinued. There was significant uproar when it was suggested we move to a ten-digit telephone number. It was considered dehumanizing, a Communist plot. Our black plastic phone had a rotary dial. If a phone number had more than one zero, it took forever for each number to complete its journey. As early as 1947 Oregon was assigned the area code 503 for long distance calls and in 2001 it was required that the area code be dialed even when making a local call. I remember the immense burden I felt when that requirement was put into place. The Communist plot was now complete; we were ten digits.
We had a party line that was shared with my father’s barbershop. When my father picked up in the middle of my mother’s call to Carol Ann Shaw, they were discussing the sordid plot developments of the soap opera, “As the World Turns.” Flabbergasted, he burst in on the conversation, but was embarrassed to discover that the affairs and evildoings were not those of people we knew.
We lived across the street from the Emmersons. They did not have a telephone. Arnold Emmerson was one of my best friends. He was my only friend without a telephone. Our greatest dream was that my father would buy us walkie talkies. This would allow us to have late night conversations and add a degree of realism when we played war. We knew that walkie talkies were unrealistic, and did make a feeble attempt at tin cans and taut string, but the distance was too great between us.
Mr. Emmerson was an alcoholic lumberjack. I feared him when he was drinking. He was an angry drunk and his wife took the brunt of his tirades. These left her the color of gray smoke, the color of smoke from a fire completely doused by water. They had one daughter, Rhonda. She was the oldest. There were four sons: Eugene, Mike, Arnold, and Babe. Babe was obviously the youngest, and I never recall him being called by his given name.
We had a black and white television. It received three channels, ABC, NBC, and CBS. I do not remember when we bought a color television set. I do recall, however, when the TV Guide began to indicate with a “C” the shows that would be broadcast in color. Our television was a constant presence in our home. My mother believed that you would wear out the television tube by turning the set on and off. It was an unspoken rule that the television was turned on the first thing in the morning and turned off when my mother went to bed.
The Emmersons had a television, however it was not the center of their social life. Instead, they played cards. One evening, Mr. Emery was playing cards and obviously drunk. I stood near the table and he reached over and pulled me next to him, “See these cards, Davey. They got naked women on ‘em.” Against my better judgement, I looked at the cards in his hand. I immediately made an excuse to go home. I never told my father about the incident. He had rules against playing cards and naked women. I feared that if daddy found out about the incident, I would not be allowed to play with Arnold.
Arnold and I spent hours and hours playing cars in their backyard. We would sling the transistor radio in the branches of the cottonwood tree and listen to KLBM play its usual mix of the Beatles and Johnny Cash. To the soundtrack of the day, we built roads and bridges over their entire property, including near their toxic septic tank. I loved the miniature world we created.
When we tired of playing cars or needed to pee, we would go into Arnold’s house. If it was near dinner time I would see Mrs. Emmerspn preparing supper at their wood stove. What she cooked rarely varied: ground beef, heavily salted and peppered; white gravy from flour and water; green beans from their garden. I often watched her sitting on their front porch, snapping the fresh green beans into the dented metal pot. At their table, the dinner plate was finished off with a slice of white bread. I was often asked to stay for supper, and I rarely remember a meal that was not hamburger gravy over white bread.
As many times as I spent eating hamburger and gravy at their home, I never recall Arnold having dinner with us. The kids of the neighborhood spent hours playing in our large front yard. Many nights, all the Emmerson boys would drag sleeping bags to our yard and sleep outside. However, we never had them in for dinner. There had a large vegetable garden and a patch of corn. They shared green beans, tomatoes, cucumbers, and corn generously from their garden. I am wracking my brain for a single time we had them over for dinner. My father was a generous man and many Sundays we had visitors to church, complete strangers, home for a Sunday dinner.
The last meal I had at the Emmersons was a fried egg sandwich with ketchup. It was lunch on a Saturday. Later that afternoon, Arnold’s father worked himself into a drunken rage that became a dangerous game of hide and seek with his sons. The older boys, Eugene and Mike, could take care of themselves. I took on the responsibility of protecting Arnold and Babe. I decided that Mr. Caldwell’s house would be our best place to hide.
I am not sure why I chose Mr. Caldwell’s house, other than he was the wealthiest man in our neighborhood. He lived in a sturdy white house with a full cement basement. He had a raspberry patch. I took it as a kindness that we were allowed to pick berries from his patch. I think that he was a widower. In our brief interactions, I determined that he was a nice man.
I was not afraid when I knocked on Mr. Caldwell’s door and explained our situation. I knew that my house would be the first place Arnold’s father would go to find his sons. Mr. Caldwell did not seem phased by our request for sanctuary. He took us into his kitchen and suggested we bake chocolate chip cookies. This took our attention off the dangers of the outside world. Halfway through the process, he stopped, “You know, the best part of baking cookies is the dough.” He placed some spoons about and we ate the chocolate chip cookie dough straight from the steel mixing bowl. Soon the dough was gone and there was nothing left for baking the cookies.
The storm had passed. We placed our spoons in the sink and went out to play cars. Mrs. Emmerson stood at her wood stove making hamburger gravy. She sang along as the radio hanging from the cottonwood tree blared, “And when I touch you I feel happy inside … It’s such a feeling that my love I can’t hide …”