To downtown and back, alone, at age 6
As a little boy I loved to run, ride my stick horse and play cowboys and Indians, and soldiers — the latter usually as a fighter pilot, flying my P-47 Thunderbolt.
I my first idol for emulating was Gene Autry, atop his horse Champion. Then I transitioned into Roy Rogers. When I did, my stick horse miraculously changed into the golden palomino, Trigger. I enjoyed cowboy music, especially Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers. "Tumbling Tumble Weeds" and "Cool Water" are two of my all-time favorites. Cowboy music has always had a deep meaning for me.
I started at South Waco Elementary, 15th and James, in September of 1940. During the summer before was when I really started to feel like somedody, especially the few times when on a Saturday would find me heading "to town" — Austin Avenue.
Making the trip to Waco's commercial and cultural epicenter was very exciting to a young boy. Downtown encompassed the area from the square, the block surrounding the Waco City Hall, all the way to about Ninth and Austin.
It included wonderful stores, all up and down that wonderful large wide street Stores such as: Goldsteins, R.E. Cox, F.W. Woolsworth, Kresses, Levines, R.T. Dennis, 1st National Bank and the Red Goose shoe store, featuring Buster Brown shoes. The Raleigh hotel, with its intriguing "Purple Cow Restaurant" on the ground floor, at 8th and Austin, looked very mysterious to a pre-teenagcr,
Austin Ave had all the movie theaters except for two on the square. The Gem, bearing the advisory, "coloreds only,", was on the east side of the square at the corner of Austin Avenue or maybe one building over. The Rex Theater was on the west side of the square, next to the alley between Austin and Franklin.
Going up Austin on the north side was the Crystal Theater between Third and Fourth streets. To its south between Fourth and Fifth was the Grand. In the middle of the next block also on that side was the Strand.
The Orpheum was just off Austin, one half block to the north on Sixth Street, next to the alley. Between 7th and 8th, on the south side of Austin was the Rivoli, a long, narrow theater almost next to the king of them all: the Waco Theater — now known as the Hippodrome.
The Waco and the Orpheum were considered the two top theaters.
Austin Avenue, was bustling with many clothing stores, pawn shops and the tallest building in the world (or so I thought), the Amicable Life Insurance Building — ALICO.
Many times have I gone into that building just to ride that elevator as far up as one could go, then go into the restroom and look out the window. What a view.
To me two of the most places were right next to each other.
One was Johnnie's Shoe Shop. As you walked by you caught the wonderful smell of leather (all cowboys love that smell). Johnnie's had one of downtown's most famous characters, a shoeshine named Red. He was proud to tell us he was from Ethiopia. I didn't even know where Ethiopia was until I was in high school. Red, would be on the sidewalk, hawking clients for the "shine stand" part of the shop.
Inside were five or six elevated chairs along the right side of the wall, so the "shine boys" could get to the customers' shoes and boots more easily.
It was a real education to stand there and listen to those guys popping their shine rags. The song "Chattanooga Shoe Shine Man" could have been recorded right there, each shine boy trying to outdo the other at their trade. Many years later, when I got a little money, I would go to Johnnie's just to try to get Red to shine my boots — he was a true icon.
Next to Johnnie's was Mrs. Keton's Bakery a place of beautiful sights and smells. As a child, most of the time I could only gawk and inhale. When I could get possession of three cents, I would treat myself to one of those glorious cream puffs. Never, have I found one to compare.
Many times when penniless I would stand there a while, probably hoping someone would come along and treat me to one. It never happened.
When I got older, I enjoyed the mystery and excitement of the darkened stairwell that led to a basement pool hall (collapsed by the Waco tornado in 1953). I knew for certain that at the bottom of that darkened stairwell was hidden something more than just a pool hall.
This area boomed until about, 1955, when I went into the army. It provided so many of us with marvelous times, which I shall never forget.
Growing up in South Waco
Before I relate my first and subsequent trips "to Town" and the Kiddie's Matinee, a few words about the home in which I grew up: There normally were nine of us living at that little house at 1618 Speight Ave. My immediate family numbered 7, but there were always other relatives living with us — all my life. We never gave it a second thought, or at least I didn't.
The meager amount of money that my daddy made (about $18 per week), had to be managed carefully. The minimum wage effective in 1938 was 25 cents per hour (no overtime provisions in the first phase of the law). In 1939 it was raised to .30 cents per hour. A nickel per hour more doesn't seem like much, but it was actually a 20 percent increase. Think about that in terms of today's earnings.
I think my daddy had a Ph.D. in economics, earned from the school of Hard Knocks. Otherwise, he and my mama could not have done what what they achieved. I had been born at, 1024 So. 18th St, on the corner of 18th and Dutton, in a rented house, in 1934. My folks, like most hard-working Americans, always wanted to own their own home. Many people had lost their homes between 1930 and 1939 — the Great depression continued until WW II, before the highest unemployment rate in history began to ease, primarily because of the war-time economy.
My folks were able to take advantage of someone else's loss. Insurance companies had re-possessed many thousands of homes and were eager to sell them at very low prices and good terms. The house at 1618 Speight sat on a lot 50 feet wide and 165 feet deep. It had five rooms, one bath, no hot water heater, and 800 square feet of living area.
We purchased it on a ren-to-buy agreement The contract called for the payment of $15 per month, including 5% interest, on a loan of $1,650, for a period of 10 years. We made a down-payment of $361.
We had no money, but we had two Jersey cows — Brownie and her calf, Friday. We had chickens and usually raised a hog each year for slaughter. Therefore we had milk, butter, eggs, fryers and pork. Our Jerseys gave enough milk that Mama even sold some to a couple of neighbors. Also she sold some butter and eggs. Our garden was the envy of the block. Mama canned everything she could get her hands on.
The summer of 1940 my daddy, my sister (who was married by this time), and my oldest brother were all working at the Texas Coffin Co. One of my brothers was working at Salome's grocery at 13th and Speight and another was working as an elevator operator at the Hardin Apts., at 13th and Austin. At 6, I was the only unemployed member of the family.
That's when we had one of the earliest trips "to town" I can remember: to attend a Kiddie's Matinee, something I'd only heard about on the big radio we had in our living room. The bus fare was five cents round-trip, or three cents one way. (By the way, that fare was still in effect in March of 1946, when I left Waco to begin a new adventure living on a farm three miles north of Hico.)
To the best of my memory, the price of a ticket to the Kiddie's Matinee, could be covered in one of three ways: (1) fork over five cents, (2) present a Jones' Fine Bread wrapper (3) present a bottle cap — actually a bottle stopper from a bottle of Pure Milk.
Since we were pretty poor, we never bought "light Bread," — our word for commercially baked, sliced bread. That was for special occasions only. Mama bought flour by the 25-pound bag and baked biscuits by the dozen. Having our own milk cows, there was no chance at a Pure Milk bottle stopper. Therefore, I had to come up with 10 cents cash money — bus fare and movie ticket. That's not much by today's standards, but it amounted to about one-half hour of work for Daddy. Consequently, I had to use my best, most pitiful appeal. My daddy was sure that no economic value was to be had from blowing 10 cents on a picture show. My battle to go to the Kiddies Matinee had to be a two-pronged attack, because I had to convince Mama that I was perfectly capable of getting to town and back.
None of this would be possible in this day and time, because of the meanness that exists in today's society. I convinced Mama by telling her that all I had to do was to walk the block and a half to the corner of 15th and Speight and catch the only bus that came by there.
Great corner for burgers
Many are very familiar with that corner, because it had the best two hamburger joints in Waco: Diamonds and Heaton's Eatons.
Some of you were thinking Cupps. Actually, Mr. Cupp first opened up half a block block west of there. I knew that Cupps inside and out, a white-painted concrete block building, one-half of which was portioned off into a grocery store. That's where I had my first job, as a dishwasher in the summer of 1945. I worked for Mr. Cupp until I moved to the country in March, 1946.
Not only could they make great hamburgers, but Mr. Cupp was one of the finest men I ever knew. He paid me .25 cents per hour — twice what I was worth.
That was big money. The first time I caught the bus to a matinee I was somewhat embarrassed, because Mama tied up my money — those 10 cents — in the corner of a handkerchief and I had to struggle with my small hands to get it the knot out of it. In the future I would get that thing untied before that bus driver stopped for me.
What a show
The Waco Theater was wonderful — so big and beautiful with those high-domed ceilings and the soft-cushioned seats. The balcony was the first I had ever seen. After I got older, I found out why the boys and girls liked it so well. The program that day was really great — not just a picture show butan amateur talent show with a variety of acts, as was the practice on a matinee Saturday. Once a man ate an incandescent light bulb as a part of his magic act. He put the microphone right up to his jaw and we could hear him crunching the glass. I was very impressed and was sure that he had actually eaten the bulb. I was not tempted to try it at home. My favorite entertainer was a teen-age boy in a cowboy hat and beautiful western shirt, a neckerchief around his neck. "Just iike Roy and Gene," I admired. He played one of my favorite songs,"0l Shep," about a boy whose pulled him from certain death in a water hole. It brought tears to my eyes then. It still does today.
The boy in the western shirt and bandana won the talent show many weeks in a row. 1 always intended to ask Hank Thompson, if it was him, but never got the chance.
After the week's talent show, the entertainment was on the big screen — cartoon features, and then at least one serial. The serials, sometimes lasting 10 to 15 weeks, were a drawing card, always with a cliffhanger ending to keep the audience in suspense. The next week the hero would stage a miraculous escape. We would yell, clap and cheer when the miracle occurred. It kept us coming back. And why not? They were FUN, FUN, FUN.
At the end of the show we would all, yes all, sing "GOD Bless America," led by Kate Smith, up on the movie screen.
The trip home
Now came the challenge of the bus ride home. Being only 6 and not having gone to school at that time, I could not read. I could recite the alphabet and count to 100 (taught at my mama's knee). However I did not have any training in recognition in print. I was supposed to get on the S. 15th Street bus, but managed to get on the North 25th bus.
I will admit I should have questioned Mama a little closer, but had I done that it may have given her the idea that I was not quite competent enough to make the trip alone. As soon as the bus turned north at 4th street, where Montgomery Wards was located, "I knew I had dirtied in the churn."But the bus driver was very caring. Seeing the panic on my face, he gave me a transfer to catch another bus at no cost.
Some anxious moments followed, but when I saw that wonderful school building at 15th and James, I knew that I was O.K. — that the next corner I would see Diamonds and Heaton's Eatons. I had traversed the universe, on my own as a, 6 year-old South Waco boy. I was as happy as I could be.
The summer of 1940 — a good time, well-remembered. maybe not perfect in every detail, but my memories of that summer are all good.
To paraphrase an old Ivory Snow commercial, these narrations are 99 and 44/100ths true.
Billy Loden's varied career included rural postal delivery and ownership of a small business.
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