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My 1963 Poteau Christmas parade story

By Joe Harwell

My 1963 Poteau Christmas parade story

In the summer of 1963, Dad sent Mom, Sis, Grandma Nora Henson and me to Las Vegas. Mom's sister, Dolly, her husband, Johnny, and our cousins, Cindy White and Deborah K. Campbell lived there at the time. Cindy and Debbie are very close in age to Sis and I.

Dad told me he paid for the trip with silver dollars. When customers at the lumber yard paid using silver dollars, he brought them home and tossed them in the bottom of a sock drawer. Considering the value of a dollar and the cost of airfare in 1963, it was possible. Wish I had those silver dollars back. We left June 9th, on my 9th birthday from Fort Smith on a Frontier Airlines prop-jet to Dallas with a connecting flight to Vegas via jetliner.

A year earlier, Dad ordered two things from ads in the back of a magazine. First was an old Italian military rifle similar to the gun JFK was shot with (depending on which assassination conspiracy you trust) along with 700 rounds of hollow point bullets. It was equipped with a flip up sight. I never figured out how to use it and didn't hit the bullseye or tin cans very often.

His other purchase was a spider monkey, with brown fur and circles around the eyes. Yes, you could purchase monkeys via mail order back then. We named her Coco for reasons I don't remember. Coco was small, cute, and entertaining with very sharp teeth. As careful as we were when playing or otherwise handling her, little Coco put her teeth to us often. Neighbor kids were also bit.

Coco was shipped in a cage about 36 inches long, 18 inches wide and 2 feet tall. When she wasn't caged, she was on a leash. Sis wanted to dress Coco in doll clothes and lay her a doll bed in the playhouse dad built for us in the back yard. Coco wasn't keen on this, resulting in more bite marks. We adjusted to the limitations of our relationship with Coco to lessen the chance of being bitten. She wasn't the best pet in the world but we loved her, plus we were the only family in town with a pet monkey. How cool was that?

During our Vegas trip, Dad sold Coco to his friend, John Bennett, who owned a business up the street from the lumber yard. His children were happy to have a biting pet monkey. Returning to mail order, Dad purchased a ring-tail Capuchin, a/k/a organ grinder monkey, already named Ginger.

When we returned home in July, Sis and I rushed to the back yard to greet our Dachshund, Bootsie, look for the big yellow cat, who wasn't around, then into the garage to see Coco. Sis screamed and I gasped before running back out into the yard. Sis quickly recovered and by the time Dad coaxed me back inside, she was laughing and playing with Ginger. I quickly got over being mad when Ginger immediately took to us without biting us all the time.

Ginger's cage was larger than Coco's. She was also kept on a leash attached to a collar when outside. Dad put a wooden spool in the backyard next to the playhouse with a hook to attach Ginger's chain. The lightweight chain was repeatedly extended in length to expand her play area. Ginger quickly learned to unsnap the chain from her collar. We freaked out at first but she stayed in the yard most of the time, observing the chain link fence boundary around the yard. Ginger loved water and ran under the hose when we watered outdoor plants. More than once she picked up the hose when water was coming out and tried to get us wet.

Neighborhood kids liked Ginger's friendly, non biting personality. Sis and I gained some popularity with kids who hadn't been close friends before Ginger joined the family. Pretty cool, right? If you’ve seen movies with organ grinder monkeys, they are known to be entertaining and capable of hijenks. Ginger opened clothes pins with ease and her favorite item to take off the clothesline were Mom's bras. She didn't tear them up, she just carried them around our yard and across the fence into neighbors yards and always brought them back. Mom soon began hanging bras in the garage to dry.

One of our across the alley neighbors, the Davidsons, grandparents of Nancy Adams, grew a large garden. Another neighbor, the Cowans had apple and peach trees in their back yard. The Davidsons didn't mind Ginger coming over to explore because she didn't damage anything and ate very little. The Cowans were good natured about her eating an occasional peach or apple. She even brought one home from time to time, completely unmolested, and placed it near the door to the garage as a gift to our family.

The Christmas parade in 1963 presented an opportunity for Ginger and I. Mom and Dad wired her cage onto my red wagon and decorated it with tinsel. To the delight of my sister, Ginger didn't mind wearing clothes and was dressed in a sweater for the parade. Ginger and I were lined up behind a high school marching band. A parade organizer, who noticed I was kinda nervous, stood be me when the parade started and held us up until the band was about twenty feet away. He instructed me to maintain the distance and stop when the band stopped to play.

As the parade proceeded up Dewey Avenue, Poteau's main street, my nervousness faded. The beat of drums from the band ahead of us, the festive nature of the parade, plus the crowd reaction to Ginger put me in a zone. As much as a nine year old is capable of zoning. I was really getting into it, even waving to the adoring crowd.

Two blocks into the parade, the band stopped in front of the Victory Theater to perform. Still soaking up crowd adoration, I kept walking until the music jolted me to reality a couple of steps before I ran into the backside of a band member. The crowd turned on me and I kept my head down until the parade ended.

Time heals most ego wounds and I survived. Nine years ago when I converted from MySpace to Facebook and began catching up with people from Poteau, some asked about our pet monkey. Reminiscing with childhood friends brought back memories of good times including my friend Dale West DeCamp. Dale and I hadn’t seen each other in person for decades and began catching up by posting memories of things we used to do as kids.

I haven’t gone back far enough on my Facebook page to find our exact exchange about the monkey, but it went something like this. “Me: Do you remember my pet monkey? Dale: Yes, it was fun to come over and play with your monkey.” As a writer and journalist, I'm careful how I word sentences and use punctuation. People innocently post things on Facebook meaning one thing, which may infer a completely different meaning to others. People posted LOL, WT? or ?????, requiring further explanation of our conversation.


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