Thanks a Lot, Mr. Martin

One of Sara's annual Band Festival shots for the Commercial Appeal

One of Sara’s annual Band Festival shots for the Commercial Appeal

Here we are, once again, on the second Friday after Thanksgiving. If you grew up in Greenwood, any time from the 1930s on, that means something to you. For Sara, it was the second-best day of the year, eclipsed only by Christmas. It meant lights and music and fireworks and Santa and all the joy of a Delta childhood wrapped up in one big technicolor bundle. It was Band Festival. It was “The Parade.”

As mentioned before on this blog, this was Mr. Roy Martin’s 1935 brainchild, and what a wonder it was in its time. Mr. Martin, that kind soul, transplanted to Greenwood from Arkansas, found his heart breaking for his GHS students, trapped in the worst of the Depression and low on hope. The Greenwood schools were so strapped for cash that they could barely outfit a football team and patch up the old band uniforms, and luxuries like annuals and senior plays were just forgotten. So many students had dropped out in search of scarce jobs that the class composite from those years are down to just a handful of young faces, peering out into a very uncertain future.

Roy Martin found a way to reward his persevering trumpeters, drummers and majorettes. He claimed the second Friday after Thanksgiving as the date, invited a few surrounding towns to send their bands, and persuaded the City of Greenwood to string some lights along Carrollton Avenue and Howard Street. And instead of just christening this a “Greenwood Christmas Parade,” he declared it to be the “Delta Band Festival and Winter Carnival.” It sounded much bigger than it was, that cold fall day in 1935. But it gave Mr. Martin’s students a reason to practice and dream and march their boots off, and it sparked something deep within the beaten-down soul of Greenwood.

That first parade was a rousing success. A few more bands came in 1936, and the city added a few lights over the next few years, and Santa’s float grew bigger and more glorious with each passing year. WWII took some of the original participants away but it brought hundreds of Greenwood Army Air Field cadets and officers to line the sidewalks of downtown. And by the time Sara had her hands on a camera in the mid-1950s, Roy’s little celebration had grown into Mississippi’s premier Christmas parade, one of the largest in the Southeast. At its peak, more than 8000 high school band students poured off the yellow buses in the pre-dawn hours, rolling in from Yazoo City and Jackson Murrah and Pontotoc and Hernando and every little burg that could pull together a band to march. Ole Miss’ “Pride of the South” showed up. As did MSU’s “Famous Maroon Band.” With a morning parade and an evening parade, the streets were packed with teenagers in their crisp uniforms all day long, and the sound of drums and tubas and clarinets drifted from the campus of the old Greenwood High School from early morning until the end of the evening’s fireworks.

Sara had a guaranteed spot in the Tri-State section of the Commercial Appeal for a Band Festival story every year, and she was like a little girl in her anticipation of the big day. She would be on the high school lawn with her YashicaMat when the first buses came around the corner, and she photographed as many of the young musicians as she could corner. Cathy and I were given pocket money and sent off to the Red Cross building to watch the morning parade, then turned loose for the afternoon to entertain ourselves and hang out with friends. School on Band Festival Day? That just didn’t happen, and we felt like the luckiest kids in Mississippi with our extra holiday and our very special town.

There will be a Delta Band Festival Parade today at 4pm. It will delight the children who hear the music and watch the floats and wait for Santa’s triumphant entrance. It will be special for them, and that’s a gift. But the gift that Roy Martin gave to my generation, to the Baby Boomers and our parents and our own children, was a mixed blessing. We experienced something, every second Friday after Thanksgiving, that was so magical and wondrous and enduring, that nothing will ever match it. Not today’s Greenwood parade, not Macy’s, not the most elaborate parade anywhere in America, will ever equal what we had on those memorable days of the 1950s and 1960s. You spoiled us, Mr. Martin. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Are You Ready?

img086Here’s Brownie Criss, all dressed up and ready for an early 1960s Ole Miss weekend. Like everyone else in our family, her fall Saturdays revolved around that little ear plug in Russell’s left ear, snaking down to a Philco or GE transistor radio, usually on the back porch. In those pre-SEC Network days, you could pretty well estimate the score by the number of cigarettes piling up in the green beanbag ashtray by his chair. Close game, a whole pack of Salems. Runaway Ole Miss victory (which happened fairly frequently in those Johnny Vaught decades), just a few smoldering smokes. If he’d smile and wink at you across the porch, it was safe to go over and crawl up in his lap, because the Rebels were having a good day. If he had his eyes closed and arms crossed, it was best to go on outside and pick up some pecans or take a bike ride.

Russell never took a class at Ole Miss. I don’t know that he ever had the money to see a game as a teenager. He was one of those kids who got hammered by Depression and War and football Saturdays were meant for someone else, for boys with nice cars and more than one suit and some money in the bank. But somewhere along the way, on those fall weekends in the 1920s and 1930s Delta, the essence of the Ole Miss Rebels was engraved on his soul, and it never left. The words, “Hotty Toddy,” never crossed his lips and he never pulled against anyone else’s team except LSU, but he lived and breathed and soared and suffered with the Rebels until the day he died. I had a standing date with him for the Veterans Stadium games in Jackson during the early 1970s, and those are some of my very best memories. He’s pull up at my MC dorm, beep the horn, and ask me “Ready for some football, Charlie?” as I got in the car. Was I ready? “Hell, yes, damn right…..”

Tomorrow is as big a Saturday in Oxford as there’s ever been. I’ll be there with Russell’s grandson and I’ll try my best to be as even-tempered as he was, no matter the outcome. And I will send up a quiet thanks to the man who taught me that caring deeply about something that, honestly, is just a game, is OK. We’re ready.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Bungalow Dreams

Howard Evans (right) and unidentified friend at Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill, circa 1920

Howard Evans (right) and unidentified friend at Buckeye Cottonseed Oil Mill, circa 1920

And another happy birthday to my grandfather, Howard Evans, who would be 120 years old today. In that picture above, he’s about 26 and climbing the corporate ladder with Proctor & Gamble’s Buckeye Cottonseed Oil industry. Within 2 years, he would be running one of their largest mills, just west of the Greenwood city limits, and that excellent job would allow him to make Jessie Evans’ dream come true.

It seems that Jessie, a child of the Holmes County countryside, had her heart set on a “bungalow” like the ones she had seen in movie star magazines. After years of living in rented rooms along Strong Avenue, Mississippi Avenue and on the grounds of the Buckeye, Howard and Jessie bought a shady lot on the far west end of Strong Avenue, right where the cotton fields began. The street was dirt but it was filling with nice middle class homes, and Jessie was pleased as punch to be building the “first brick bungalow in Greenwood.”

1212 Strong Avenue, brand new, 1922

1212 Strong Avenue, brand new, 1922

The Evanses and their three little girls moved into 1212 Strong Avenue in 1922. This cozy, comfortable house was the first home my mother, Sara, actually remembered, and she cherished her seven years there all her life. In 1929, Howard’s ambitions took the family off to Jackson and the beloved bungalow was sold. When Jessie and her five children returned to Greenwood in 1932, Howard was dead, and at least part of the family would share space with the Stott clan on East Washington for the next 28 years. The brick bungalow would be one of only two houses Jessie ever owned.

Howard with Tiny, Sara and Mamie, circa 1925

Howard with Tiny, Sara and Mamie, circa 1925

1212 Strong Avenue passed through many families and housed Greenwood Leflore Hospital administrators for quite a number of years. Its last role was as the WIC distribution center, but even that purpose dried up about ten years ago. All the time since, it has sat forlorn and empty, all but forgotten and quietly sagging in on itself. I got to where I avoided driving Sara down Strong Avenue, because she would look for the house, comment on its deterioration and the happy years she knew there, and then get very, very quiet.

The same west windows, 89 years later (2014).

The same west windows, 89 years later (2014).

As I mentioned last year on this blog, there’s a little glimmer of hope for the bungalow and plans are picking up speed. I hope to have good news, very soon.

Happy birthday, once again, Granddaddy. We’re looking out for your house.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Still Fooling Around

Sara on the left with two buddies in Jackson, around 1936

Another April 1st rolls around, and this one would be Sara’s 93rd birthday. Hard to believe it’s been almost a century since the third of Jessie and Howard’s stair-step girls came into the world on Strong Avenue. It was such an appropriate arrival date, that April Fool’s Day, and she always cherished the uniqueness of her birthday.

Sara definitely had a streak of prankster about her, evidenced above in a Belhaven photograph from the mid-1930s. Who knows if those teenagers bothered to replace the auction sign or if it’s in the bottom of one of these boxes of Sara’s ephemera that sit up in my spare bedroom? I wouldn’t be surprised at all to run across it. So many odd tidbits have come to light over the past year: As Allan Hammons, Donny Whitehead and I have worked well into a lot of nights with the Greenwood history volumes, one weird coincidence after another has us all convinced that we have at least stretched the time/space continuum if not ruptured it altogether (with apologies to Steven Spielberg and Marty McFly). Long-lost photographs have turned up, letters have appeared, trinkets and mementoes that were desperately needed to illustrate some Greenwood event have just mysteriously turned up, always just in time and with no viable explanation. Our suspicion is that Sara is to blame for all of this magic and mystery. We’re writing books about Greenwood and she has, as always, inserted herself smack in the middle of the action.

Happy Birthday, Sara…..and please keep those April Fool’s jokes coming our way.

 

Image | Posted on by | 1 Comment

Thunderbird

Russell at one of WWII training camps before deployment to Africa and Europe

Russell at one of WWII training camps before deployment to Africa and Europe

Happy 97th birthday to my father, Russell Criss. He’s a cocksure 25 years old in that picture above, ready to serve his country as a medic in the 45th Infantry. The next few years would be spent in a hell beyond what any young man should ever endure.

img915

Now he’s made it back home, and home by 1945 was 115 East Washington, Greenwood, Mississippi. That was where all those letters from Sara and Tricia and Mamie and Son and Jessie and Big and Uncle Roy had poured forth for four long years, carried from that safe corner to Sicily and Anzio and Salerno and Paris and Dachau and Munich. He’s a much, much older man in this picture, though still only 28. But he could still blow bubbles with Tricia and a neighborhood kid, and that was the attitude he carried forward through his long and happy life.

200px-45th_Infantry_insignia_(thunderbird)I’m going through some of the boxes of WWII materials now, and I run across the 45th Infantry’s Thunderbird emblem quite often. Russell and Sara actually made a trek to Oklahoma to visit the 45th Museum, and I plan to do the same one day. It was a proud division and I assume that there were a lot of brave, dedicated men who made it one of Army’s finest. But in my mind, 70 years later, it all revolved around one unlikely medic who spent his war saving lives and the rest of his life making me happy.

Hope it’s a Happy 97th, Daddy. Miss you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Heart of my Heart

Sara's Commercial Appeal photo and article, probably around 1960.

Sara’s Commercial Appeal photo and article, probably 1960.

Sara loved holidays. Even those that weren’t really holidays. Valentine’s Day was a perfect excuse to roll out teacake dough, made with just the right amount of red food coloring to turn it a soft pastel pink. She had heart-shaped cookie cutters in every size from one-bite to mega-heart, plus cupids and arrows. The teacakes rolled out of her old oven by the dozens, bound for room parties at Bankston and Granny’s house and even a few for us.

And boxed Valentines? Not in Sara’s house, no matter how much you begged for the pre-packaged Flintstones or Roy Rogers or Barbie brands. A real Valentine involved doilies and red construction paper and scissors and glue and glitter. It was a down-on-the-kitchen-floor project that didn’t end until every child has a personalized heart, ready to be stuffed into their shoebox on the big day. I never see a doily that I don’t think about those February Sunday afternoons and the scent of fresh-baked cookies and Elmer’s glue.

The Valentine cookies followed me to college, where my dorm friends learned early on to watch my MC mailbox for the little pink slip that meant “package to be picked up.” At Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s Day, or any event that even loosely qualified as a holiday, Sara’s box jammed with appropriate teacakes would land in the post office and I would suddenly have a group of devoted friends trailing me back to Latimer Webb dorm. Sometimes I would find nothing but a sad little pile of pink or green or yellow crumbs in the bottom of the box by the time I cleared them out of Room 218. Sara thought that was hysterical and it simply enlarged her circle of admirers. And more than one of those girls has used “Sara’s Teacakes” in various church or civic club cookbooks through the years. True talent never dies.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Snow Day

409 East Adams in the 1950s

409 East Adams in the 1950s

Our recent brush with snow and ice in Greenwood brings back memories of wintry weather on East Adams. It seemed that every year there was at least one truly useful snow event, although I’m sure my recall is faulty. Oh, but when it did happen, it was Christmas Day and the Fourth of July all wrapped into one big package. Cathy and I would hover at the kitchen window, praying and hoping that those fat flakes would continue to the point where Kathleen Bankston would declare “No School!” Sara was as excited as we were, pulling our Yankee cousin’s hand-me-down snowsuits out of the attic and cooking up vats of hot chocolate. Russell was always the voice of reason and gloom, with dire predictions that “Grounds too wet. It won’t stick,” or “Grounds too dry. It won’t stick.” I never did figure out his climatological methods and didn’t appreciate that he had to get out and drive in this mess, no matter how treacherous, because his customers needed pickles and ketchup, no matter what.

There was nothing in the world for a Delta child like waking up to several inches of pristine snow. The whole neighborhood emptied into front yards: Crisses and Gwins and Stiglers and McLeans and Eidmans and Shorts and Leflores and Toomeys, tumbling like bunnies in the drifts and hurling lumpy snowballs at each other until someone started crying and everyone realized that their fingers were starting to ache. By afternoon, someone’s dad had carried the whole crowd over to the levees behind Crosstown, where makeshift cardboard sleds soon wore out whatever snow was piled up there. And there was always one kid who, for some reason, had a real sled and a parent willing to hook that contraption up to the rear bumper of their car, sending us sailing down East Adams in a whirl of pre-litigation ecstasy.

Cathy, me, ?, Martha Gwin, ?, Chris Eidman in front of the Gwin's house at 407 East Adams

Cathy, me, ?, Martha Gwin, ?, Chris Eidman in front of the Gwin’s house at 407 East Adams

This has been a long and bitter winter in Greenwood and I hope it ends soon.  But I do hope for one more day, at some point in my life, to have a waxed square of cardboard on the levee,  just for one good run, one more time.

Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments