Karen M. Rice

A NIGHT AT THE OPERA

When I was thirteen years old I started work as a cashier at my dad’s store. This dry goods store was in the old opera house on the northeast corner of the courthouse square. The ground floor which originally held the performance space had been remodeled to accommodate tables and shelves for merchandise. The mezzanine, formerly seating for the “poshes” and “swells,” was now the office. One long plank served as the manager’s desk, held the cashier’s till and a big black Remington typewriter with ivory colored keys, as well as an enormous hand-cranked adding machine – and the latest technology – an electric ten key adding machine. It weighed about 25 lbs.

This entire enclosure was two stories high with an intricate contraption that conveyed cash and handwritten sales slips in a wooden cup from the eight sales stations on the floor up to the mezzanine. The wooden cup clipped to a metal trolley and was propelled up the wires by a sales clerk jerking a cord hard enough to release a spring that sent the little cup and its treasure speeding up the network of wires.

The third floor did double duty as merchandise storage and a place for cheering kids to hang out the window and watch the rodeo parades and Thanksgiving parade. It also held a little secret, and sales clerks had mandatory orders to always keep the door closed.

There was no air conditioning, only ceiling fans. Often in the fifties we had horrendous red dust storms – towering into the sky, ominously reminiscent of the black dust storms of the thirties. At night all the tables had to be covered with canvas tarps. One particularly dry, sultry summer afternoon, we had a plague of crickets. They moved across the state from west to east, devouring everything in sight. Denim Levis, cotton canvas, yard goods – it was all a feast to a hungry cricket. So the store closed at an unheard of 1:00 pm and everyone pitched in to sweep crickets out of the store and into the street. There everyone from school kids to the local parsons were busy stomping crickets – we had a real “hoe down” – a totally new version of a “stomp dance.”

A couple of years later we were at the busiest season of the year. Kids and farmers from all around were spending cotton chopping and picking money for brand new school clothes. Three of our clerks were a skinny farm kid named Larry Derryberry (he later became the youngest person ever elected to the US House of Representatives, then Oklahoma State Attorney General, and an unsuccessful candidate for the governorship of Oklahoma) – and a tall freckle-faced red haired boy, and a young man from the newly re-opened Air Force Base. One of them ran, literally ran, up to the third floor, grabbed all the merchandise he could carry back to the ground floor without falling as he ran back down the two flights of wooden stairs – and, guess what? He forgot the mandatory order to shut the door. As fate would have it, the secret got out. In mere moments, squeaking furry black bats were flapping about in utter confusion. The maze of wires for the change cups was disabling their sonar. They flew into the hair of customers. They caromed off the tin ceiling. They spun off ceiling fan blades like clay skeet pigeons. They dive-bombed the cashier’s cage. Customers from four to eighty assumed the prone position. Larry grabbed a broom, one grabbed a baseball bat, Dad grabbed something handy, as did the other young man. They hopped about, leaping over prone customers with incredible agility swinging and swatting at the poor, confused, hungry bats. Just like the posh swell I thought I was, I laughed and applauded the spectacle – right up to the moment a bat careened off my forehead. I immediately assumed the duck-and-cover position under my desk! Ahhhh, a Night at the Opera. The Marx Brothers would have been proud.