My summers as a child were often spent visiting our grandparents in the small East Texas town of Lufkin. My sister, Tammy and I loved staying with our paternal grandmother, Nanny. She had a membership to the pool at the Shangri-La Motel, made the best homemade biscuits I’ve ever eaten, and she let us go to the general store all by ourselves.
In 1963, I was 8 years old and Tammy was 6 and things were quite different from the way they are now. Kids played outside unsupervised for hours and wearing shoes in stores was not a requirement. In fact, most kids went barefoot all summer. And, anyone could buy cigarettes. Nanny trusted us to go to the neighborhood store to buy her cigarettes when we visited – and of course we got a treat too!
When she reached for the worn leather bank bag that she kept in her desk, I knew that we were about to head to the store. Nanny would pull a few crumpled dollar bills from the bag, hand them to me and send us on our way.
We didn’t care that the East Texas heat was sweltering, or that the asphalt burned the bottoms of our feet. We would wheel Nanny’s blue Schwinn bicycle out of the carport and head out on our way. I commandeered the bicycle and Tammy always hopped on the back so I could “pump her” to the store. The store was located on Timberland Drive, the main thoroughfare in Lufkin, but we always took the back roads, weaving our way past rickety frame houses and yard dogs too hot or too lazy to bark at us.
It was hard work getting to the store. There were no gears on Nanny’s bicycle to help with going uphill, so I sometimes had to stand up and pedal furiously. Perched on the back, Tammy’s feet held straight out to avoid the bicycle spokes, she would hang on for dear life, trusting that I would get us there safely. And I always did.
Hot, dusty and worn out from the ride, hair plastered to our heads with sweat, we would stagger into the store to get Nanny’s cigs, some candy and a cold drink. The slamming of the screen door alerted the owner that we were there to shop.
He knew us and he knew Nanny.
Without a word, he reached up and pulled down two packs of Lucky Strikes and put them on the worn wooden counter, then silently went back to reading his newspaper.
Tammy and I always headed first to the cooler to pick out a cold drink, sliding our bare feet over the wooden floors worn smooth from years of customers making that same journey to the back of the store. I always got an Orange Crush and she loved Root Beer. We would reach down into that icy cooler, identifying our chosen beverage solely from the color of the bottle cap peeking out from the ice surrounding them. After opening the bottles on the side of the cooler, our sweaty selves were cooled with that first sip – always thick with icy goodness.
Then our reward…the candy section. And, oh my, what candy there was.
Up and down, around and around we would walk, trying to choose from the offerings – Cherry sours, banana taffy, Pixie Stix, rock candy and sugared orange slices. Wax lips, Sweet Tarts, Atomic Fireballs, jaw breakers, and candy cigarettes. Candy necklaces and bracelets, guaranteed to leave your neck and arm a rainbow of colors and a sticky mess. So much to choose from!
Tammy’s very favorite was the Nik-l-Nips bottles – a two-for-one treat. They were always one of her choices. Standing in the store with no shame at all, she would free one of the bottles from its packaging, and bite off the wax top. After sucking the tiny bit of liquid syrup out, she would pop the wax in her mouth and chew it like a piece of gum. Only then, her routine complete, would she would continue shopping.
I liked Banana taffy and Pixie Stix. Of course, we both got a candy necklace and bracelet. Nanny would expect no less.
After browsing around the store, taking a look at the displays of paperback books and fishing tackle, hardware and dusty souvenirs, having drained our bottles of pop, we sauntered back to the cluttered check-out counter. Only after placing the empty bottles on the counter and pulling the crumpled bills from my pocket did we hear the shopkeeper speak. “Tell Miss Mabel hello for me,” he drawled. Then he took my money. With the thwack of the screen door behind us, we headed back to Nanny’s house in the scorching heat.
Our return trip was downhill, so the journey went much faster. Even now, I can feel the wind in my face and the sticky candy necklace around my neck. I still hear Tammy squealing in my ear from the thrill of the ride (or maybe the terror of it!), a wad of wax tucked in her check and hanging on for dear life.