Living Out Loud

The Golden Era

CleanShot 2024-06-08 at 19

#100DaysToOffload 9/100
In the mid 70s, my family took a break from our yearly or bi-yearly moves and stayed in the same place for my brother and sister and I to put down some roots, albeit shallow ones. We lived in a huge mill-owner sized house on a corner lot with giant mature magnolia trees in the central-North Carolina town of Lillington. We were able to afford the spacious digs under one condition, allowing the landlord, the wife of the local Ford dealer to employ home repair workmen for the entirety of our stay. It was commonplace to wake up on a summer day to find someone in my bedroom putting in storm windows or climbing on top of the wrap around porch to begin sanding the trim in preparation for painting. the house had a curling banister leading to the second floor. Everyone had their own bedroom and there were rooms designated as the playroom, the TV room, the dining room, the breakfast nook and the living room. It had the unimaginable luxury of three bathrooms. It was so far removed from the tiny houses and quadraplex apartments it replaced in our lives.

Lillington was and is a small town of about 2,000 people laid out on a grid patten next to the Cape Fear River. In the 70s there were still textile mills in the area and a smattering of other manufacturing jobs, but the economy was very much agriculturally based and by agriculture, I mean tobacco. Large tobacco farms employed hundreds of local teenage workers and if the crop were late, the board of education would delay the opening of school so that kids could help get the fields gathered. The school I attended in the 5th and 6th grade was located in Shawtown, the highly segregated African-American community outside the city limits. Ten years prior it had been a segregated school, and my generation of Gen X kids were among the first to start from the first grade in a totally integrated environment. As was common for former all-Black schools, it had not been well maintained and the county played catch up once white kids started attending. My strongest memories of the education I received there are of the yearlong Bicentennial fever that the US underwent in 1976, while Jimmy Carter was running for president.

The best part of living in Lillington were the summers. We lived three blocks from the public library and for my siblings and I it was the center of our existence. Years after moving away, the staff at the library still remembered us and occasionally called to check in. In the summers the library held a reading contest to see who could read the most books in various age groups and we dominated. I devoured every book they had on my interests at the time, which were baseball, horses and what passed for young adult novels in the 70s. The prize for winning the contest was a tennis racket (WTF) but I only cared about the bragging rights. Moving into adulthood, it was still among my proudest achievements. We also managed to belong to the local pool, which is puzzling to me today. As an adult, I realized that the pool was all white and my mom and stepdad had different values than that but it's a conversation we haven't had yet.

I could go anywhere in town on my bicycle. I picked up used glass soft drink bottles on my rides to sell, invariably using the money for comic books, which I purchased at an old-fashioned drug store with a lunch counter that also sold fresh squeezed orange-ade. I also sold copies of the weekly newspaper outside the post office for spending money. The town had youth sports leagues in which I participated until invariably getting into some kind of trouble. I wasn't the best-behaved kid. There was a movie theater on Main Street with one screen that showed one movie at the time, if you can wrap your head around that. You could almost see the theater from our house.  Tickets were one dollar for all comers. When Gone with the Wind was re-released in the 70s on the big screen, I went to see it alone on the big screen. I also saw 70s classics there like Walking Tall and Billy Jack.

My folks weren't religious at the time, but a friendly neighbor who was the foster parent of our best friends took us to Fellowship Baptists Church twice every Sunday, once for worship and again in the evening for the Royal Ambassadors, a boy's fellowship group he led. Nearly 50 years later we are still in contact with those kids via Facebook.

We moved away from Lillington in April of my 6th grade year to live in New Bern, a larger town closer to the North Carolina coast, into a tiny duplex apartment. We were there less than a year before moving again. In 2000, after living in the county adjacent to Lillington as an adult, I applied for a job there with the school system and was hired. I worked based from there for the next 20 years and got to regularly revisit the site of some of those happy memories.