Getting Electricity for the First Time
“Recollection is the only paradise on earth from which we cannot be turned away.”
Anyone born or raised in the country, as I was back in the pre-indoor-plumbing, pre-electric light days, will appreciate the sentiment expressed by my visiting country cousin (after we had moved to town) who, eyeing the proudly displayed, shiny porcelain bathroom fixtures, longingly and enviously remarked: “Ah tuk me a bath in one `a them slipp’ry tubs one time.”
Well, I can’t say that I remember the first time I “tuk me a bath in one `a them slipp’ry tubs,” but I do recall quite vividly the first time I turned on our very own “’lectric lite.”
It was back in 1947. The long-awaited day finally came when electric power was extended to our little rural Southeast Arkansas community of Selma (Drew County, pop. 200—counting dogs, pigs, chickens, and guineas). Comprised of a general store/post office combination (à la the Waltons), a two-room school, two sawmills, two churches (Baptist and Methodist, of course), and scattered houses and farms, Selma was to me Camelot, Shangri-La, and Treasure Island all rolled into one Tom Sawyer paradise.
The absence of modern facilities was of little concern to me, a nine-year-old, barefoot, tousled-haired son of the soil. After all, at that age, it’s not so much the things of life that are important, but life itself—the exhilaration, the sheer joy, of being alive and young and free.
Nevertheless, the anticipation of the arrival of such a wonder as electricity was enough to cause a thrill of excitement in our otherwise routine lives.
Finally, the long-awaited day came. The poles were set, the lines all strung, and gradually individual houses were linked to that magic current that ran mysteriously through the drooping wires from some who-knows-what miracle source off yonder somewhere in the vast outside world.
Our house was wired and eventually connected to the system one Saturday, the REA electricians finishing up their work just as we set out for our weekly excursion into town (McGehee, pop. 5,000, distance fifteen miles).
This “Sairdy-nite” ritual was as established in our weekly regime as the regular Sunday-afternoon pilgrimage back out to the country “to visit the ole fokes” would be later after we ourselves had joined the swelling post-war migration to the “city.” Somehow I never questioned it, nor did I consider that there might come a day when we would no longer pile (all five of us) into the cab of that stockman’s GMC pickup (we kids couldn’t rightly ride in the rear because of the billowing dust and the reeking cow manure) and journey to Metropolis.
Mama and Daddy said they went to town to “watch the country folks parade.” I don’t recall what my two teenaged brothers did. But I went to meet my Selma buddies at the Ritz Theater (later the Malco) where we sat through a fantastic double-feature —which always, but always, included a Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Rex Allen, Red Rider, Lash LaRue, et al western; a cartoon; a serial; and advertisements for RC Cola (“Best by Taste Test”) and the local Chevrolet place. At an admission price of fourteen cents, I can guarantee you it was worth every penny!
This particular Saturday night, Huntz Hall and the Bowery boys, Johnny Mack Brown, and Yosemite Sam were of especial delight to me, tingling as I was with pent-up excitement at the mere thought of what awaited me back home.
across Bayou Bartholomew (“Longest Bayou in the World!”), through the luxuriant fields of cotton and corn and rice (a newcomer that year from Texas), up out of the flat tableland of the Mississippi River Delta, and into “the hills” thick with pine and cedar and oak.
After an eternity we lurched to a halt in front of the yard gate, and I scrambled out of the truck like a shot to be the first to run up on the porch and into the house to turn on that magic lantern.
I’ll never forget that experience. You would have thought I was lighting the National Christmas Tree.
Looking back, more than a half-century later, I am made aware of how little any of us realized then the full impact of the moment, that Saturday evening in 1947.
Oh sure, we knew it meant that now we could enjoy all those marvels of modern living: a “gen-u-wine ’lectric ’frigerator” (not an ice box, though we still called it that), a non-battery radio that wouldn’t run down in the middle of Amos ’n Andy, a real-live oscillating fan (at least fifteen inches in diameter), not to mention light at the flick of a switch instead of from a flickering “Aladdin (kerosene) lamp.”
But perhaps most wonderful for Mama, it meant a trip to Sears & Roebuck over in Greenville, Mississippi, to pick out a brand-new, shiny Kenmore electric washing machine—“with a wranger ’n ever’thang.”
Yes, it meant that soon Mama would never again have to go outside in the blistering heat of August or the bone-chilling winds of February to build a fire under the old soot-blackened pot to heat water for washing.
No more leaning over those scorching flames to stir clothes with the end of a cut-off broomstick while the sun beat mercilessly down on her exposed head and neck.
No more breaking her back and scraping her aching fingers hand-scrubbing on that old washboard.
Like the wood cook stove and heaters, the bottle of bluing was destined to eventually become a thing of the past. And the Number 2 and Number 3 washtubs would one day be retired from active duty, except for Saturday afternoon service as makeshift bathtubs for our weekly family ablutions.
Yep, that bare little 40-watt bulb dangling from the living room ceiling on that twisted cord —that amazing symbol of post-war prosperity—signaled more than any of us ever dreamed.
True, it heralded the arrival of a wonderfully new and exciting and innovative electronic age.
But, unknown as yet to any of us, that marvelous little bulb, lazily swinging back and forth like a bell, was also silently tolling the end of an era.