Cakewalk Summers in Parsons were fun and full of life lessons
Note: This is another excerpt from my upcoming book, “Cakewalk Summers: Growing up a West Virginian.”
I was walking in circles.
Not aimlessly, but with a purpose.
It was a summer Saturday evening in Parsons, West Virginia. My mission was a very important one for a 10-year-old boy. I was trying to win a cake!
I was competing in the weekly cakewalk on the Court House square, just as I did every Saturday evening in summertime, when visiting with my great-uncle and aunt, Joe and Lorraine Barrick.
It was the 1960s, a time when the nation was divided over the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement was in full force, and the counterculture generation was determined to overthrow the old order. The assassination of national leaders sent repeated shock waves through the country. In school, we practiced the drill of hiding under our desks, should there be a nuclear attack. In short, there was a lot going on to make a young person feel very anxious.
That is not, however, the way I grew up. Oh sure, I was beyond anxious if my mom or dad were hunting me down for my latest shenanigans, but I never sensed that those around me were fearful that the sky was falling. The adults in my world understood that there were far too many fun things to do and too short of a time to enjoy our childhood than to scare us to death over the events that were beyond our control. We weren’t ignorant of these national upheavals, but that was not what our lives were focused on, not by a long shot.
In Parsons, for example, such problems were somewhere “way out there,” beyond the surrounding mountains that encircle the town with a towering embrace like a hug from a close friend.
“Social media” was very much a part of daily life in Parsons in the 1960s. Walking up and down the street, talking with folks on their porches or in the storefronts, was real social media. And the news was typically upbeat, even folksy
Joe and Lorraine, while never having children of their own, were quite intuitive at how to direct my attention to joyful experiences.
In Parsons, that was easy to do.
They owned Parsons News and Novelty, located on Main Street. Perhaps that is where I fell in love with the smell of newspaper ink, as piles of newspapers lined a wooden shelf. I certainly remember the addicting odor of the oil-stained wood floors.
It is my taste buds, though, that conjure up sweet memories of the narrow but long store. There were shelves of candy bars and other no less tempting goodies. The cooler against the wall had every type of soda conceivable, all recognizable by their bottle caps, as the bottles stood upright in that old, long, but reliable refrigerator. Theoretically, I was expected to do chores around the store to earn the right to have a candy bar and grape soda. I did sweep the floors and help Uncle Joe put up stock. I would even ride with him to Clarksburg to pick up cases of candy, cigarettes and a few food staples.
I loitered about the candy shelves and soda coolers; Uncle Joe and Aunt Lorraine watched me.
Yet, as I recall, they really never denied me anything I’d ask for from the store. I’d “earn” it somehow. Uncle Joe was the easier target, so it helped that Aunt Lorraine had another job that kept her away from the store for hours at a time.
One memory stands out of how I learned just who was in charge. It happened at a cakewalk. For the uninitiated, a cakewalk is where music is played while people walk around in a circle with numbered sections. When the music stops, you stop. If they call the number you’re standing on, you win a cake. At least that’s how it worked in Parsons.
The band – much like the collection of animated musicians in the movie “Mary Poppins” – would sit on the courthouse steps and play while we walked around the circle, drawn on by chalk. In any event, I had gone at least a summer or two without winning a cake. One evening, however, I was running the table. Before it was over, I had won three cakes. At the end, when I went to collect my home-baked goodies, Aunt Lorraine told me I could choose only one. My appeals were ignored. “You can’t eat three cakes Michael!” she insisted. I made the error of appealing that ruling. “Yes I can! I won them. They’re mine!”
I turned to Uncle Joe. He was staring beyond the hills into the waning light of the day, pretending to be preoccupied with pondering the Cosmos. Finally, with a glance, he offered, “Listen to your aunt.” It was a firm warning. He was supporting her and wanted me to obey. He also knew I was risking my scalp and his plans for a quiet night at home watching baseball.
Lorraine was towering over me. Others looked on. It became hard to breathe as the others collectively inhaled all of the oxygen in town. I looked along the table of cakes and quietly took one, backing away, and feeling as sheepish and embarrassed as if I had been caught with my hand in the proverbial cookie jar!
The cake and I made it home safe and sound, and it was gone in no time flat, especially with Uncle Joe’s help. We could have eaten the other two, but I didn’t dare suggest that to Aunt Lorraine.
Did I mention I was having fun through all this? There is a joyful parable in every memory. They were people of their time: industrious, frugal and simple. They were kind and modeled politeness and citizenship.
The Black Fork River ran along their back yard for 100 feet or so. There, the six-mile long tributary of the Cheat River (also known as one of the Forks of Cheat) was rocky and mysterious, as across the wide expanse of rapids and rocks to the distant shore (it seemed so to us), was a cliff several hundred feet high (which explains the flooding of 1985 and other times). There, I remember not only summer days, but weekends throughout warm months when Aunt Lorraine would give my sisters and me walking sticks and across the river we’d trek in our tennis shoes. Or try to.
Aunt Lorraine played golf, and took me along to join in that fun adventure. I just tried to stay far enough away to keep from getting my cheeks pinched by her doting golfing partners. I shagged hooks and slices, and in general, just enjoyed being outdoors on that beautiful golf course in the relaxed company of Aunt Lorraine and her golfing partners. Uncle Joe took me fishing a couple of times, but fetching worms wasn’t nearly as much fun as searching out wayward golf balls.
I loved the out-of-doors. I also enjoyed the tranquility of their home and wrap-around porch (one of the first hints that writing might be preferable to me than being sociable). Nights were starlit and still. The entire valley seemed to embrace me. The News and Novelty store was certainly a highlight. Going to dances on Saturday night as I got a little older was always fun. Meeting new girls I didn’t know from school allowed me a bit of anonymity, as if I was James Bond. Of course, anything that happened in Parsons would have been on the grapevine within minutes, so no shenanigans were attempted. Nor, of course, as a good Catholic boy, would I ever have entertained any thoughts that were not of the utmost purity!
It has occurred to me – in hindsight – that the reason why I value the time with Uncle Joe and Aunt Lorraine as much as I did is because they didn’t change their routine for me. They made me part of it, and were sensitive to the fact that I was a child and wanted to play and eat sweets. In the end, though, I learned many valuable lessons for being an adult, and not once do I recall them telling me that they were teaching me a valuable life lesson. They just modeled it.
Any chapter in this book could have also been used as the book’s title. Yet, I chose a memory based on cakewalks. Why? With hindsight, my childhood seemed like a cakewalk. It was almost always fun and sometimes life would throw me a free cake. But it was made clear to me by the adults in my life that “nothing in life is free.” Cakes and other good things don’t generally get handed to you simply for walking in circles and stopping when the music does. Nevertheless, they also were discerning in ensuring that my childhood days were filled with childhood activities. We would grow up soon enough.
So, I learned to relax on the porch, eat fresh corn in the summer and end the evening watching baseball. I found those examples to be eternally joyful, so I embraced them and still do – along with many other lessons, big and small. And to this day when I eat corn on the cob, I do what Uncle Joe did. I turn that corn perpendicular across the butter and roll it back and forth until it’s good and lathered, with butter running down my fingers. He knew doing it would get a rise out of Aunt Lorraine. So behind Uncle Joe’s horn-rimmed glasses I am certain were twinkles of orneriness. She would say, “Joe, use a knife. You’re teaching bad habits.” He’d glance at her and push the butter to me. I used a butter knife, though I knew he was right. But Aunt Lorraine was not to be trifled with, whether it involved stocking shelves or hesitating to eat a hamburger with mayonnaise on it even if I didn’t like it.
These memories and their lessons are but brief flashes of time relative to my time visiting this planet. They seem to have passed as quickly as chalk on a sidewalk in a rainstorm.
That’s not the case though today, as the cakewalk diagram is no longer outlined in chalk. Rather, it is now set in stone. After a devastating flood in 1985, when the town was rebuilt, it made sure the cakewalk would be a permanent fixture. It is an appropriate metaphor for what I learned in Parsons. No matter what else is going on, take time to do a cakewalk. So long as I never forget that, I think I’ll be OK. And though I certainly miss Aunt Lorraine, it’s good not to have somebody telling me I can’t keep all three cakes!
© Michael M. Barrick, 2021.