Chinqua Where? The Spirit of Rural America, 1947-1955 Review
By Fred B. McKinley
Growing Up in the Middle of Nowhere
Last month, the Austin-based headquarters of Texana received review copies of two splendid books. Fans of life in 1950's America should take note. Both books are written by Texan men who grew up in the state during the Post-World War II era, a time of much change, especially in Texas where it rapidly transformed from a mainly rural state into an urban one.
That time period etches numerous memories upon these writers, who have fortunately written them down into these inspired books for posterity.
Fred B. McKinley is a transplanted Texan living today in North Carolina. (We in the Lone Star State can forgive him for that) McKinley grew up in a tiny hamlet, nestled deep in the piney woods of East Texas called Chinquapin (pronounced chink-a-pin).
Chinquapin is located between San Augustine and Bronson, big cities in comparison, in rural San Augustine county. He states up-front that no one has ever heard of it, and not to bother looking for it on any maps.
In the aptly named Chinqua Where?, McKinley relates in a series of twenty-three essays about life growing up in the isolated, innocent culture. Of the two authors, McKinley wins the contest for growing up in the poorest place. Roosevelt's New Deal had not reached this part of the country by the late date of 1947. There was still no electricity, or running water. Actually money was an extremely scarce commodity, a common fact of life to rural Texas farmers. McKinley's mother once gave him a dollar for milk and enforced this lesson on him, "This is last dollar we have to our name, so you'd better not lose it!" People didn't have much, but neither did anyone else.
McKinley explains, "I didn't really dwell on our wretched state of negative cash flow. It became unimportant, because every member of that local community shared the same circumstances. We were all extremely poor, but didn't realize it. Or at least, that's the way it seemed."
McKinley's stories are personal, laid out to show how he learned important lessons. In one story, he relates about how his parents discovered him smoking tobacco (they were using Bugler or Prince Albert). He relates stories of schoolyard fights, puppy love, his first day at school, and other pleasures and disappointments. McKinley's book is dedicated to Americana and to "us country folks at heart."
George Arnold's wonder years were, by comparison, downright scandalous. He grew up in big cities, so he had many more ways to find trouble. Arnold is a gifted writer, and he writes out his stories with an enviable storytelling ability.
He begins Growing Up Simple by discussing his own generation, and how it fits into the scheme of history.
"(My) group, a half generation born between 1939 and 1947, has isolated itself so thoroughly with U.S. market researchers that it has been given a name and identity by psychologists, sociologists and researchers. It is called the In-Betweeners"
These are the folks born between the Great Depression and weighty Baby Boomer generation. He explains, "In-Betweeners are what they are because they grew up in the placid 1950s, a decade totally different from any other in the 20th century. In a laid-back world....of Donna Reed, Loretta Young, and Beaver Cleaver. The only real thing we had to fear while growing up was the ever-present danger of contracting polio."
Arnold's dry wit crackles on every page. For example, he describes his mother enrolling him in the First Grade. They had only just moved to town from Uvalde. "With her usual sense of direction, she couldn't find Becker Elementary School. Instead she tried to enroll be at the State of Texas School for the Deaf on South Congress Avenue. Perhaps she thought my chronic failure to obey was somehow linked to a hearing disorder."
Arnold's book is longer, but his stories are more detailed, filled with idle speculation and comments about the people involved. His father worked for the Department of Public Safety, so he and his stories move from Austin, to San Antonio, to Waco and back to Austin again.
Here is how he found a job that really impressed his friends:
All four of us has paper routes. Folding, delivering and collecting for the daily Austin American Statesman was the sole livelihood for each of us, although we always suspected Andy's mother either gave him extra cash or he lifted it from her purse.
Don and Andy had over 100 customers each. Kenny had 110. And I had only 65 to start with. That meant they always had about 50% more money than I did and, hard as I worked at it, I couldn't get my smaller route over 90 papers.
Having earned $10 an hour getting healed on my first job, I was the first to get restless with the meager pay and upside risks of being a (very) downscale entrepreneur. So I went looking for an after-school job. With a steady paycheck.
As luck would have it, the manager of the Varsity Theater at Guadalupe and 24th streets was one of my brother's best friends from Waco High School. So I called him and I put on a suit (a photo of which appears in the book) and I went to see him. Miraculously, he hired me.
It still wasn't $10 an hour, but I could clear $25 a week, a full month's net on a paper dickey, a clip-on black tie, dark blue pants with a red stripe down each leg, and a powder-blue, double-breasted jacket with gold-buttons and epaulets. Wow! I was an Interstate Theaters usher, looking like a Russian Air Force general.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof started playing the same day I started ushering. It starred Elizabeth Taylor as the neglected wife, Maggie, The Cat; Paul Newman as her drunk husband, Brick; and Burl Ives as "Big Daddy," Brick's father. Today, more than four decades later, I can still recite the entire screenplay, and I can point out three minor continuity lapses on the release print. I watched that movie forty-eight times before I learned that an Interstate Theatres usher wasn't required to watch the movie at all.
Arnold's Growing Up Simple won the 2003 TPRA Silver Spur Award for books, and deservedly so.
The fifties is a time remembered with nostalgia or just as passed-down stories from older generations. Both books illuminate the reader to life as a kid in 1950's Texas. Arnold's American Graffitti stories, and McKinley's bucolic both spin yarns of simpler days.