Right before the Second World War, a small army ordnance depot in N.E. Alabama hired civilians to man its tank reclaiming operation and to act as a storage site for missiles and various forms of ammunition. There were earthen igloos built underground to house the large missiles. Many "pasteboard" apartments were built to house the civilian workers and their families. These apartments were in rows, and the apartments were stretched out in a row with several units in each row. After being built, some of the hardwood flooring in the apartments were covered over with green linoleum. With the linoleum, came the smell of horse hoof glue that had been used to put down the linoleum, (a smell that stayed with the apartments for a long time).
I moved into the apartments with my mother and father in 1949, as my father was a veteran of WWII and had veteran preference for a government job, as did many of the men who worked at the depot.
There was a housing officer who assigned the units, according to what size you needed. These units were partitioned off with only 4 x 4s and sheet rock, so that if you listened closely, you could hear your neighbors’ breakfast table conversation. We were living in one another’s pockets, but that didn’t matter. We had a post office, a drug store, with Mr. Stephens being the pharmacist at the drug store. We could get hand-dipped ice cream at the drug store, or ice cream in a glass with 7-Up and have a 7-Up float. The drug store was part of a row of housing that had been outfitted for stores. The post office was next door to the community center, a meeting place for any assembly we might require. We had our church on Sunday mornings, Sunday night and Wednesday night in the Community Center until our church was built in 1954. There were several of the children of the community whose fathers worked together and whose families went to the same church. We started first grade in 1950 together, in the library, which was next to the post office, if I remember correctly. After all, it was 60 years ago. The school was maybe a mile away. There either was not a first grade class built at that time or it was too far for we little folks in the first grade to walk.
We first graders had a wonderful teacher named Ms. Payne. Each of us had a little cubby for our wool coats. There was no polyester then and the wool coats on rainy days had a smell of damp sheep in the pasture. We took a sandwich lunch and the smell of damp wool and left-over roast beef and mayonnaise sandwiches and bologna sandwiches wafted over the classroom all morning. We could share at lunch if we didn’t like our lunch and get someone else’s and they could get ours. Sharing was encouraged. We could bring banana flips, moon pies, cinnamon rolls wrapped in waxed paper (this was before plastic baggies were invented). Three or four of us who started first grade in 1950 wound up going all the way through 12 years of school together, graduating in 1962 from Anniston High School, about 10 miles from Bynum. But, before graduation came around, we had a lot of living to do at Bynum. Bynum Elementary school only went to the sixth grade and then we rode a government bus to the school in Anniston. We sang on the bus, and of course, the older boys sat in the back of the bus and were typical boys, acting goofy. We girls pretended not to notice them.
The great thing about living in an insular community such as Bynum was that everyone watched everyone’s children. The government-employed guards patrolled the area of the apartments and crime was low, only an occasional person who got into liquor somewhere, (we were in a dry county) was picked up by the guards, sobered up and sent on his way. Some of the married couples had hasty, hot words for one another and the guards would be called to restore harmony.
There was a lake on the property, and we spent a lot of time at the lake. It was just a sand-bottomed lake with some play equipment, swings, seesaws, a merry-go-round and most of our warm weekends were spent at the lake. The old folks (our parents) would sit watching us while they talked with the other parents. Then we would go home on Saturday afternoons, change and go to dinner on family night at the Officers’ Club. Pasquale was the chef there and he made home-made onion rings to die for. These were the best onion rings I have ever tasted and I asked him to tell me how to make them. I made some for my husband once and that did it. Now every time we have Vidalia onions from Georgia, I have to make Pasquale onion rings. All the food Pasquale cooked was so mouth watering I could not wait to get there on family night.
By 1954, one of the local realtors in Anniston saw an opportunity and built homes across the access road from Desoto Manor, near the school and sold these small starter homes. You could have a 2 bedroom or a 3 bedroom for about $7000 or $8000, give or take a $1000.00. All the two bedroom homes were identical, just different colors of siding, as were the 3 bedroom homes. This saved the realtor a lot of money in architect fees. My parents bought a two-bedroom home. There were four rooms and a bathroom and a utility room, maybe 1000 square feet, if I had to guess. Now, of course, the houses don’t look alike, as people have added their special touches. The houses there have aged, as we have, but, when they were new, it was a wonderful place to live and for children to play. The housing development was built around a horseshoe with asphalt road and a couple of great hills.
We were so far away from town, 10 miles, that our playmates were our school mates. The asphalt road was a wonderful place to ride bikes and skate. We had no indoor technological equipment. If we played, it was outside. The good thing was that we could ride bicycles anywhere on the depot that we wanted, and no one would kidnap us. We had skates that attached to the bottom of our shoes with skate keys, which we carried on a string around our neck. My friends and I would skate on the sidewalks there and sing “I wait around and wait around this old town too long and I feel like I gotta travel on.” If we fell and skinned something while skating, we could stop at anyone’s house on the horseshoe and get a band-aid from any mother. Everyone knew everyone’s children and we were all considered children of the village. We harmonized while we skated. I don‘t know how we had enough air to do that, but we did. On Sundays, my friends and I sang in the church choir and many of our classmates were in the same Sunday School classes, Sunday night classes, Bible School classes, whatever we did, we were always together.
In the summers, we had vacation Bible School. Before the church was built in 1954, we had Bible School in an empty apartment. We were always served Kool-Aid in tiny little paper cups and usually peanut butter cookies or chocolate chip cookies for a snack. No prepackaged Sunny Delight then. The mothers would take turns bringing the cookies and the Kool-Aid. For crafts, we would have paint-by-number pictures of Bible characters during Bible School and I developed a love for painting then, and I taught myself to paint free hand 30 years later. We would make hand prints in clay for our mothers, and let them dry and paint them, or any number of things with Popsicle sticks. We would memorize Bible verses and Books of the Bible to say at Commencement night on the last Friday night of the two-week Bible school. We wore our fanciest Sunday clothes for commencement because all the parents and some of the grandparents would be there.
At Christmas, one of the local men would dress up as Santa and we had a custom called “Walking with Santa.” Santa would walk all through the roads through the apartments and pick up children to follow him, just like the Pied Piper. The crowd of children following Santa would get larger and larger, until we filled up the whole road. Parents came to their doors and watched our progress as we walked around the asphalt roads. It took a good while to get around all the roads but we did. Santa then turned and went back the same way we came to get all the children home safely. He would drop them off one by one and we were red-cheeked and excited about Christmas by the time we got back to our own home. This tradition died with the death of the man who dressed as Santa.
Also at Christmas we had a hill on the depot property which always had a light display shaped like a Christmas tree. I never found out who put it there but the lights were lit every night for a month or so before Christmas. As a 5 year old, I was entranced by the light on the side of a mountain, as I was entranced by walking with Santa, as were all the children of the village. All of us remember that time as special.
At the entrance to the depot, we had a theater building. We had movies there, for 10 cents‘ admission. We had Friday cowboy movies with Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Gabby Hayes. One of the boys said that the empty field across from the theater building was where the boys would reenact all the cowboy shoot-em up movies. Saturdays, I am told, were for romance movies. We also saw Snow White, Alice in Wonderland, Bambi and several more of the Disney cartoon movies. I am telling our ages to say that we saw them when they originally came out, but we did. There were basketball games there, any number of social events in that building. Every year on Halloween we had the Halloween carnival there in the theater building, with Go Fish, the haunted house, cake walks and all the other little games that children love. It was a several-hour carnival, with all the parents participating to make the evening a memory for us. We had no fear of strangers coming into Desoto Manor or Alan Homes, the new development. Almost everyone left their doors unlocked. The only time the doors may be locked was in July. Some people had garden plots in the back of the homes in the U-shaped development and they would take the extra veggies to someone and if the people were not in, they would just go in and put the surplus on the table. Well, some of the women had been canning all summer and didn’t want to can any more, so they just locked the doors to keep from getting unwanted produce. It would be wonderful now to find produce on the table, but those days are gone. My next door neighbor had a wonderful veggie garden in his back yard and he grew kohlrabi which tasted like a cabbage core and I adored cabbage cores. He would always give me a kohlrabi, which looked like a small cabbage. You could also steam it like cabbage and add salt and butter, scrumptious. My father had a good-sized garden and it was my job to wash all the glass canning jars. In July, I would always be up to my elbows in soap suds while my mother canned. We enjoyed the fruits of the canning in the winter, home-made vegetable soup especially.
Right on the road into the depot, on the access road, was the elementary school with the sidewalks all the way up the access road where we skated, as well as another institute of the depot, Carr’s Store. Carr’s store was the Mega Mall of Bynum, the WalMart of the depot. It was a small store, owned by the Carr family, parents of 8 children. We went to school with most of the children and knew them all our lives. Mr. Carr was a very tall man, especially to me. The store was full of things we might need in between going to the A&P in Anniston 10 miles away. There was bread, eggs, crackers, vegetables, fruit and my especial favorite, huge dark mahogany grapes, big as figs. They were 40 cents a pound and I could stop in with 20 cents on my way home from school and get half a pound of these wonderful grapes. I can still taste them today. They also had pencils, and paper if I recall correctly.
It may have been Carr's store or Pate Morrison's grocery store on highway 202 where I bought the best colored pencils I ever had, with a soft chartreuse pencil and a soft purple pencil. I really believe it was Carr's store, though. My friends and I did a whole wall mural of the three wise men and Bethlehem on brown kraft paper with those soft pencils and the teacher put it all around the room over the black board. The chartreuse and purple were the perfect colors for the wise men. My camel looked a little crooked, though. But we were little kids, so it worked out okay.
Nowadays, children do not have the option to roam the neighborhoods and skate and bike as we did. There is much danger lurking and it is a loss of freedom for children. We never heard of child abductors (if the truth were to be told, they would have brought us home almost immediately). We left the house after breakfast and only came in to get water and then went back out. We came in reluctantly at dark when supper was ready. Our parents didn’t worry about us, because all the parents worried about all of us and watched us. It was a way of life that is completely gone now. Neighbors don’t know neighbors any more. We stay behind locked doors with air conditioning and never meet the neighbors. Children do not want to leave the computers and video games. We have lost so much of community living and the sad thing is that community living will not be back as it was in the mellow times of the 1950s. The apartments at Bynum have been torn down for many years now. There is still a depot where they refit tanks but also now they burn nerve gas there in the Westinghouse plant. Everything we knew as a child is gone up in smoke, not to be seen again.