Sylacauga is a much changed city because society has changed! Nothing brings the past in focus as much as the present. Our Marble Festival promoted a walking tour, but upon arriving downtown Saturday morning, there were no visible walkers. Many people were in their cars going to Auburn or Tuscaloosa to watch some men run about in a big cow pasture as Andy Griffith put it in, “What it Was, Was Football,” the comedy routine that attracted so much attention to his career. Walking is a recreation now, not a necessity. Recreation is competitive, and football will win every time in the South.
Growing up in Sylacauga, walking was a necessity for many. Believe it or not, it was fun! My family moved to 303 West Spring Street when I was five years old. It was a beautiful tree-lined street where families lived in modest houses and worked, played, and sent their children to school. The hospital was a new white, four- story building that sat behind our house. A wooded lot separated our house from the amazing fountain that spurted water and the changing colors that made it so fascinating to the two little George girls. There was no nursing home or school of nursing, only trees, rocks, grass, and wildflowers (about as green as it could get). We did not have a car, so on the first day of school at Main Avenue Elementary, my mother walked my sister and me across the two wooded lots until we reached West Walnut. There we joined other moms and their children to make the trip down to Broadway, cross with the policeman stationed there, and go on to Main Avenue to Mrs. Leamon’s first grade class. After that first day, we walked by ourselves. We connected with the children from over “Johnny Brown Hill” at Margaret Smith’s house, the house occupied by Mrs. Louise Mathews now. Mrs. Smith was not a working mom, so often on the walk home in the afternoon she would offer us refreshments, sometimes homemade cookies. It was a safe city because there were not many cars on the roads, and the only “dope” we heard about was when we heard an old timer call Cokes “dopes.” As I moved up through the sixth grade at Main Avenue, “Merry Meadows” was built, and lots of new families built houses there which meant an increase in the number of walkers.
Having a car was definitely a good thing, and more and more people began to buy them. As for the George family, we understood it was a luxury we could not afford. My Daddy drove the bread truck for Jones Bakery, and if we had an emergency, we could use the truck. Mr. Tommy Jones even allowed us to drive his car to Fairhope, my dad’s old hometown, for a short vacation. My mom’s sister had a car, and they were generous to take us to the doctor and sometimes to Birmingham at Christmas to look in Loveman’s windows or to the Alabama State Fair in October.
Moving to the high school meant a longer walk and a need for a good winter coat, a rain coat, and an umbrella. Sometimes we were able to ride with daddy in the morning, but we most always walked home. Walking home from the high school was the desire of even the kids who had cars because it was so much fun! Mac and Ted’s Drug Store was the destination for cherry Cokes, lemonade, and other treats. The little tables and the soda fountain stools would be crowded with noisy, happy, loud adolescents. Mr. McKinnon, “Mr. Mac” as we called him, was always walking around greeting kids as they came in and making us feel welcome. Our business made some problems for this normally peaceful store, but we were tolerated with grace and love, and sometimes correction, when it was needed.
Walking offered those who had cars an opportunity to show grace to those who did not. My good friend, Kathy, would often stop at my house on those walks from the high school, and we would listen to a little Elvis or talk about the hundreds of things high school girls have to talk about. When she left for home, I would walk her half-way which was down to the end of the block. Kathy’s parents had a car, so sometimes when we had band practice at night, they would stop for me. Even now, I try to be very sensitive to those who need a lift because I remember those car-less days.
Walking at night was a family event, and sometimes if mother and daddy were not too tired, we would join our neighbors who lived behind us in what we called the “little house” for a walk around the block. The adults would talk and the kids (and dogs) would run and play and sing and listen to their parents’ warnings, “Don’t get too far ahead.”
Today’s walking is mostly done on walking tracks, and we have some good ones in our city. Tracks of a necessity have to be well-lighted and walkers must be watchful of any unsavory characters that may be in the area. Churches have walking tracks , and treadmills have made walking at home an option. These walks are different from the walks around the block in days gone by; but even today, walkers make friends with other walkers.
My parents and grandparents were always mentioning the changes in our habits as compared to theirs. Their stories, “I walked to school five miles there and five miles back in the snow when I was your age,” have turned into a joke; but the truth is many did. They did what they had to do, and it made some tough, able people, the “great generation,” that led this country through the Great Wars. They worked hard, ate less, and walked more.
In Australia, the Aborigines youth took what was known as a “walkabout” to mark the passage from adolescence to maturity. This walkabout was to teach people about themselves, to prepare them for life. Walking is a good thinking time, and even a good time to pray for your needs and those of your neighbors.
Walking may not be the necessity it once was, but it is healthy and fun! We have such a beautiful little town! When opportunities present themselves, let’s walk!