Louisiana Shotgun House, circa 1950
Shotgun Houses, Stolen Childhood
I grew up in a blue-collar suburb of New Orleans, farmland that had been subdivided in my grandparents’ youth and subsequently dotted with nondescript, shotgun-style houses. These narrow, single-story homes without halls took shape as Depression-era residents added one room at a time, as they could afford to build them without the luxury of a bank loan. As the name implies, if somebody discharged a shotgun at one end, the pellets would take out everybody in the house.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, the era of my childhood and adolescence, air conditioning was just appearing in the American South. Every once in a while, somebody would install a window unit. But the builders of these houses knew nothing about insulation, making those noisy, inefficient, electricity-sucking cooling machines an expensive and wasteful luxury. For the most part, we relied on high ceilings, big wood-frame windows, and powerful whole-house fans to keep us as comfortable as possible during the muggy, suffocating, ten-month southern summers.
Wide open windows and doors, and pier-and-beam foundations that raised these houses several feet off of the ground in order to escape frequent flooding, made every family’s life an open book. When a husband and wife got into an argument, everybody in the neighborhood heard the details. If a young couple’s marital passion floated on the magnolia-scented late evening breezes, the gossipy neighbor women speculated about the stork’s scheduled arrival in nine months. Likewise, when a dad’s belt landed on our juvenile posteriors, its smacks and our cries could be heard at the other end of the block. The evening’s spankings became our first item of discussion as we kids gathered at the school bus stop the next morning.
It wasn’t always this way. The original Irish, Italian, and German immigrants lived far enough apart so as to retain a sense of privacy. As the South industrialized in the booming, postwar era, and its children turned away from farming and subdivided their inheritance, new shotgun houses sprang up almost overnight.
With all of these long, narrow houses situated close to each other, the stay-at-home mothers of the late 1950s maintained an efficient neighborhood surveillance system. Multiple sets of maternal eyeballs tracked every move we kids made, sight lines unblocked by even a single fence on the entire block.
There were few secrets to be kept in Old Metairie, where everybody knew everyone else’s business, and no incidence of juvenile mischief—or family discord—went unobserved or escaped neighborly comment.
* * *
Then one spring a contractor began building a different kind of house on the vacant lot behind ours. Its cement slab foundation, brick veneer siding, and composite shingled roof not only threatened the architectural monotony of our neighborhood, but its social structure as well. With double-pane windows, fiberglass insulation, and doors that sealed firmly into aluminum frames, what transpired inside became nobody’s business. A couple could argue vociferously, make passionate love, or firmly discipline a recalcitrant child, and what happened in the family stayed in the family.
This marked the beginning of the anonymous middle-class American neighborhood, studied by sociologists and rued by journalistic commentators in the decades that followed. Neighbors in their cookie-cutter tract homes lived next to each other for years, drove off to their city jobs during the week, and to diverse, distant churches on Sunday--and never introduced themselves to each other. But the appearance of the first such bunker house in our neighborhood really didn’t change much—at least, not at the beginning.
Any curiosity we kids had about parental discipline in the Laningham family quickly disappeared when the voluptuous, red-headed mom, Wanda, poked her head out of the door to threaten her six- and eight-year old cherubs, in her Georgia-accented voice that carried across the neighborhood, with a “panties-down whoopin.” No, we never heard the subsequent smacks; that happened inside that soundproof, window-shaded vault that passed for a home.
Wanda Laningham was a dish, even in my ten-year-old mind. Her auburn hair, arranged in a high-stacked bouffant, signaled her temperament. She and each of her daughters bore copious freckles on their faces and forearms. We boys wondered whether the Laningham girls sported freckles on their butts—and whether they’d change color when mom applied the wooden spoon that she often held in her hand when she shouted those spanking threats across the neighborhood.
Wanda’s large, perky breasts didn’t sag an inch. Sometimes, in the deepest recess of my forbidden thoughts, I wondered if those boobs bounced up and down when Wanda wielded the wooden spoon, a redheaded munchkin positioned, bare-bottom, over her knees.
We kids found another problem with their house. Because the Laninghams had strung a chain-link, hurricane fence around a large portion of what had once become the de facto neighborhood football field, we as the youngest residents of the neighborhood felt dispossessed of our traditional stomping grounds. Finally, it was decided that one of us should ask permission to use that large enclosed back yard for its original purpose. As I was the oldest member of the neighborhood rat pack, guess who received the assignment?
* * *
One fall afternoon after school, just a couple months after the Laninghams moved into the first brick house in the neighborhood, I hesitantly shuffled up the concrete walkway. Clad in my sweat-soaked t-shirt, short pants and black U.S. Keds with white socks, I felt like an unwelcome interloper as I approached their front door. Reaching up to push the newfangled electric doorbell button, I wondered if this redheaded Amazon would answer the door with her wooden spoon in hand.
A blast of central air conditioning struck me in the face. As I looked into the open door to see Wanda Laningham looking down at me, I wondered how people could live in such polar conditions. It was as cold as a meat locker in there. We Louisiana kids were accustomed to 90-degree days soaked in 90-percent humidity. If we were lucky, it got down into the 80s on sweltering summer nights. We usually felt air conditioning only when our moms took us to the downtown New Orleans department stores.
“Well, hello young man,” she said in a slow, pleasant southern drawl. “What can I do for you?”
No, she wasn’t carrying the wooden spoon. Nevertheless, I found myself mesmerized by this tall, buxom redhead. She stood barefooted, her fingernails and toenails painted in the same orange-red hue. A tight-fitting red tank top clung to her, leaving nothing to be imagined about her cleavage. The shortest of white shorts extended only one-third of he way down from her waist to her knees. Her forelegs, both above and below the knee, sported a huge crop of reddish, orange freckles. There was not doubt she was her daughters’ mother.
Only half her size, I stood there looking straight into her belly button. I let my eyes drop and wondered how it would feel to be taken across those long, shapely, freckled legs, firmly positioned for an over-the-knee spanking. I fantasized looking down through my tears at her brightly polished toenails, my short pants and undies down around my ankles, one of her large hands pinned to the small of my back while those long fingers on her other hand wrapped themselves tightly around a wooden spoon that delivered lick after painful lick to my sore, flaming bare flesh.
I could hardly find the words as I looked up into her effervescent smile, as she patiently waited for me to compose my request.
“Uh, good afternoon, ma’am, uh, my name is David,” I finally stammered, “and I live in the house across your back fence.”
“Well, hello little David,” Wanda spoke pleasantly. “Have you been a good boy today?”
Wow! I had only spoken one sentence and already Wonder Woman was inquiring about my behavior.
“Yes, ma’am. Me and the boys were wondering, you know, since we used to play football in the field that you fenced off—well, would you mind if we still played back there after school and on weekends?”
She paused a bit, her hazel eyes seeming to inspect me from top to bottom, as if she could do a character evaluation with a cursory examination.
“Well,” I suppose, David. “Of course, y’all are gonna have to be real good, understand? No fightin’, no cussin’, and the first time somebody breaks a window, there’s gonna be a peck of trouble. Do you understand me, David?”
I got the words out, but my mind was still stuck on that business about the consequences of breaking a window. Luckily, we southern children always had a fallback when we felt lost for words. Since we were old enough to talk, our parents insisted we reply with “ma’am” and “sir” to every adult inquiry, just to show the proper respect. When I moved up north as an older child, the teachers discouraged such perfunctory courtesy, preferring instead to judge our deportment by the way we acted. I understood. Too often we southern kids hoped to escape or at least mitigate our transgressions by appending all of the trappings of deferential courtesy to a weak alibi.
“Now before you and your friends start playing, you make sure to knock on my back door. You can come in the back gate without permission, but you made sure I know you’re here. Hear?”
“Yes ma’am.” Then she said something that got my belly quivering.
“And I’m real serious about you boys not misbehaving. I’m holding you responsible, David. I give good spankings, understand?”
Wow. I don’t recall how the rest of the conversation went. After a remark like that, how could I remember any of the mundane details?