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Silver Threads: Whatchamacallits from decades past

Bettye Anding

Bettye Anding

You’ve probably seen those continually updated lists of things people don’t know anything about if they were born only 10 or 20 years ago and that YouTube video showing some cute eight-year-olds trying to master the art of making a call on a dial telephone.

Dial telephones were new technology to me when our family moved from a tiny town in Texas to Hattiesburg, Mississippi when I was 12. That was early 1948, and the folks in my hometown had placed a call by turning the crank on a box on the wall. And then, speaking to the operator, Miss Audrey, who recognized your voice and told you that your mother wasn’t home, that she was probably at your Aunt Millie’s house. "Did you want her to call there?" she'd ask.

I think I’ve already told you about Miss Audrey, but you’ll just have to 'scuse me because I turned 79 this past Monday, so this kind of repetition is getting more and more frequent. Anyhow, I thought I’d entertain with information about what’s been deleted from our daily lives since I came on the scene and matured to voting age.

The first thing to occur to me was the outhouse, which I never had to use except when visiting my grandmother and certain friends and cousins who lived on farms across the woods from our little town. Then I realized that even my 16-year-old grandson must be quite familiar with them, living the life of Boy Scout summer camp counselor as he does. So I’m instead bringing up the icebox, one of which stood on the back porch of the home of my paternal grandmother, who spent her whole life on the family acreage,and never even had electricity because she lived five miles off the REA circuit.

You never see things like outhouses and iceboxes on those lists of things most people don’t know anything about today, and I can name some more: kerosene lamps, scrub boards, #3 tubs for bathing, cardboard fans with colored drawings of Jesus and the little children on them for cooling down in church, wells alongside kitchen steps (you dropped the bucket in, let it settle into the water, and then brought it up using the rope and pulley), and telephones you cranked -- but I already mentioned that, didn’t I?

Those lists of things people don’t know anything about today sometimes include cars with stick shifts, but they never mention running boards that kids stood on to get rides from Grandma’s gate to her house, with daddies holding their arms tightly for safety. Or those wonderful little “shelves” just above the back seats where you could lie at night and maybe doze off or look out the back window at the thousands of stars in skies nowhere near city lights.

The lists also never mention wooden wagons loaded with cotton and pulled by mules to the gin, sometimes driven by guys who would give you a ride. I guess you have to be a Southerner and have once lived among the cotton fields to remember that.

They don’t mention castor oil or hand-cranked ice cream buckets, gas stations from which a guy ran out to fill your car up and check the air in your tires, radio shows like “Let’s Pretend,” “Young Widow Brown,” “Lights Out,” and “Inner Sanctum,” elevators with operators, attic fans, space heaters, washing machines with wringers, or lightning bugs, which sadly disappeared in towns and cities when Mosquito Control took over.

Also missing are the “air conditioned!” signs at the doors of stores and the movies; lawn mowers that required muscles to push; wood stoves; victory bobs; sewing machines with foot pedals; grocery stores where the stock was behind the counter that a clerk personally removed your products from, where there were barrels of edibles from which you helped yourself and an employee weighed for you.

So many of the things people my age once took for granted are gone, have been for years, and are now replaced by -- yes -- something better. I prefer my cell phone to my landline, my TV to the radio, my PC to a typewriter, email to snail mail and, yes, my Kindle to a book.

I like DVDs and DVR and CRVs, even though I sometimes get mixed up when I’m talking about them.

But the lists don’t record the life of someone who’s just a smidgen from being 80, never mind those who have the good fortune to be 10, 15, 20 years older. I saw a picture of a 116-year-old woman in the paper last week; I’ll bet she could tell you about some things that even people born in 1935 don’t know.

Bettye Anding is a former editor of the Living section of The Times Picayune, for which she wrote “Silver Threads” until her retirement. Email comments to her at [email protected]