A Porch of My Own

A Porch of My Own

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Donuts and Army Tanks

When I was a little girl my Papa would sometimes take me to work with him on Saturday. Sometimes he took me and my brother David and sometimes he took each of us by ourselves. Papa had been a farmer most of his life, but that was before I knew him. We lived in a duplex house on Orange Street in Monroe, Louisiana with Papa and Mamow living on one side and us living on the other. When you are one of seven children, you rarely get any special treatment; you tend to get lost in the crowd! So these trips to work with Papa were a treat.

My Papa was one of the crankiest people I have ever known. He had a terrible temper and verbal fisticuffs between him and my mom, his daughter, were not a rare occurrence. But he thought I was special. Every evening after supper, I would go to my grandparent’s side of the duplex to watch television. None of my siblings ever went; I was the only one.  I had a big chair there that I would sprawl out in with my feet hanging over the arm and listen to Ed Sullivan talk to Topo Gigio, the little Italian mouse, or follow Dorothy as she made her way to Oz. I was fascinated by a house that had places not taken up by people and felt I had room to breathe there. Our big family took up all the room and sucked up all the air on our side of the little house. 

After Papa gave up on farming he worked part-time as a custodian at the National Guard building in our town. This is where he would take me on Saturdays. We would ride the bus to town. I was a little scared of the whole bus process. I knew that I would never be able to navigate my way anywhere on the bus without Papa. He knew all the mysterious workings of what bus to get on and when to get off it. Papa held my hand and I felt safe with him. Our town was not that big and when we were older we sometimes walked downtown from our house. But I was about 5 years old then and our town could have been the size of New York City for all I knew! Not that I had ever heard of New York City at that point in my life.

The National Guard building both fascinated and scared me. It hung precariously on the crumbling edge of the riverbank beside the Ouachita River. Carefully and slowly, I crept up to the huge windows with many panes that opened on the river side.  I felt that one wrong move would send me and the whole building into the river. Peeking over the window edge I could see the tangle of vines and plants that grew on the riverbank just below the windows. While Papa swept the floors with the gigantic push broom, David and I wandered the floor and watched the river flow by. Once Papa finished his work we knew we were in for a special treat; the main attraction of the building and the reason we wanted to go! There was a real live army tank on one floor and we were allowed to climb on it and look inside!

Once we had used the tank to defeat our enemies, we headed down to the first floor offices. Papa would open the door to the street and visit with people walking by. A ceiling fan turned slowly overhead as we sat in the desk chairs and explored the desk drawers. The offices had gigantic desks with soft rubber desktops, all darkened with age. There was a wonderful smell of old furniture, equipment, oil, and a general mustiness to the room. I can close my eyes and still smell it.

By midmorning, Papa locked things up for a while and we took off walking down the street to Smitty’s Café. Ms. Smitty had the best donuts and we knew Papa was going to treat us to some!  We didn’t normally get donuts at home. With Shipley’s Donuts and Krispy Kremes and local donut shops on every corner now, this doesn’t seem so special but to David and I then it was something out of the ordinary. On the way to Ms. Smitty’s there was an empty lot that had access to the river. David and I always ran to the river’s edge here to get a closer look and to see if there were any turtles there. Papa let us dawdle a while before he rounded us up and herded us on to the café. As we walked through the doorway, Ms. Smitty would call out to Papa, “Hello, Gene! Come on in! How are you doing?”  I was amazed that someone knew my Papa and called him by his first name. We didn’t really think he knew anyone but us and I was surprised to know that he had a life outside our house. Ms. Smitty was an exotic looking woman with her coal black hair and square jawed face and big open smile and manner. I always thought she was a gypsy woman. She and Papa would visit over coffee while David and I focused on the donuts.

Many years later when my Papa died we were living in Houston and had been for years. We took him back to Monroe for the funeral and he is buried in a little community called Chase in northeast Louisiana. We are a big family and most of the attendees at the funeral were either family or friends of our family members. I was a grown woman then with children of my own. As we stood around greeting and visiting with everyone, an older dark haired woman with a square jawed face came up to me. It had been a lifetime since I had seen her but I knew right away who she was. She took my hand and squeezed it and said “you’re that little girl that used to come into the café with your grandfather.” We talked for a while and then she left. My mom asked me later who she was. It was then I realized that no one knew her but me and David. I looked back on the little girl I had been, holding her Papa’s hand and going off to spend the day with him at work. And I wondered what all he and Ms. Smitty had talked about in the years they were friends. And I wished I had sat down and asked my Papa what his life was like and asked him to tell me some stories about it. Maybe he told Ms. Smitty stories about his life, about losing his only son in World War II and about his daughter dying when she was 13 years old. Maybe he told her about farming and how hard that was. Maybe he told her about his grandkids and how he loved to take me to work with him. I hope so. 

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