Rebecca West: Words & Music

My Teenage Years

by Bob West

After we moved from the farm back to Newbern, I continued to work in the fields hoeing cotton and corn, and picking cotton. A truck would come around to pick up laborers and I would climb aboard. I remember leaving home early in the morning and returning home after sundown. Sometimes a storm came up and we had to quit early. I had mixed emotions about that. I was tired and the sun was hot, so I wanted a reason to go home early. But I also knew we needed the money.

Living in a residential area, I was able to earn money other ways as well. I mowed lawns (push mower, no power mowers back then). I delivered newspapers (the Dyersburg State Gazette weekday afternoons and the Memphis Commercial Appeal early Sunday mornings). At other times I distributed movie advertisements to homes and stapled posters to power poles for the Palace Theater. My payment for that was passes to see the movies, and maybe some popcorn (I don't remember for sure). I liked all kinds of movies, especially the westerns and serials on Saturday afternoons.

After I finished the ninth grade at Newbern, we moved to Dyersburg and I worked part-time as an usher and substitute projectionist at the Ritz Theater. One summer I took inventory in the parts department at the Ford dealer where my father was a mechanic. No doubt there were other jobs I did while in high school that I don't remember.

I do remember working very hard one Saturday at a department store on the courthouse square. I felt I was always being watched by the owner. I had to look busy, even if all the clothes had been folded and re-folded and there were no customers and nothing to do. I don't think I made very many sales, but I was completely exhausted before the day was over. I don't remember if I got fired, or quit, but it was one of my worse memories.

High school was not a happy time for me. I was very shy and never asked a girl for a date. I was small for my age, self-conscious about my size, and found it difficult to make friends. I tried to be witty to gain the approval of my classmates and only felt foolish and more ashamed as a result. But that wasn't their fault.

Teachers and classmates were impressed with my art work. I prepared visual aids for the classrooms, posters for the library, and became a cartoonist on the high school newspaper. But I still felt lonely and unfulfilled.

DHS Hill Echo cartoon by Bob West
One of my editorial cartoons that was published in the Dyersburg High School Hill Echo.

During the time that we lived a few miles out of town, every day after school I had to walk to Newman Jones Ford where Dad worked as a mechanic and wait for him to get off work and give me a ride home. It was very tiresome and boring until I discovered that they stopped selling tickets for the movie matinee next door at the Francis Theater as soon as the feature film began showing, and I could go inside and watch the rest of the movie without a ticket. Trying to imagine how all those movies began must have played a part in the development of my imagination, which would be put to use in my career.

One day on our way home, Dad let me practice driving so I could get my license. There was a drainage ditch beside the highway and a culvert for our narrow driveway. I slowed down to make the turn and then accidentally hit the accelerator instead of the brake. The car careened and the fan tore into the radiator. I felt humiliated and ashamed for my error and the financial hardship I knew it would place on our family. And I knew from Dad's reaction that he was disappointed as well. I decided that I would not ever try to learn to drive again.

Alton West bio 1950 Alton West senior photo
My senior photo and bio appeared in the May 27, 1950 edition of the Hill Echo.

After high school I worked for the local Coca-Cola Bottling Company, bottling Cokes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, helping a route salesman with deliveries on Mondays, and painting signs, mowing the lawn, and washing trucks in between. Below is a photo of one of the signs I painted and one of me in my Coca-Cola uniform.

1950 Coca-Cola sign painted by Bob
Bob in his Coca-Cola uniform 1950

A few months later, Art Craft Signs offered me a job where I could paint showcards and signs every day. Glenn Dallas and Jeff Beale were experts in neon and painted signs. Their instruction and my experience working for them was valuable.

While working for the sign company, I changed my mind about learning to drive and got my license. There were times when Jeff needed to send me out on a job alone, and I would have to be able to drive their large pickup with a ladder rack.

And it was during this time that I got up the nerve to ask a pretty blonde girl at church for a date. She said yes and we went to a drive-in movie, but I wasn't brave enough to put my arm around her or even try to kiss her.

After several months the creative end of the sign business had slowed down, and I spent a lot of time out in the sizzling hot sun on a scaffold with a blow-torch, chipping old layers of paint off billboards on the side of the highway. Since they were paying me a salary for work that did not generate any income, my boss may have felt relieved when I resigned my job and joined the Air Force on October 2, 1951.

I thought at the time it was my decision, but I learned years later that the Lord had decided it was time for me to leave home.

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