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Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

My first friend was a Mexican. It was early in a long life, so it was well before I learned that this detail should matter. Before I was informed that “they” are not “us.” Johnny Hernandez, or Juan, if I were to speak more precisely, was a few years my senior and befriended me, the skinny one, “El Flaco,” during my days in the Birdville housing projects. I recall very few images of his face, the memories of early childhood corroded by decades. Only the back of his head and neck are vivid. They remain a vision of a fine round shape studded with the short black stubble of a crew cut and topped by a blazingly white, perpetual navy seaman’s cap, its upturned cuff of a brim carefully pulled into an oval and worn slightly canted to the right. When I think on it, it brings to mind the cap worn by Popeye the Sailor Man of the cartoons. But Johnny was more than a cartoon.

I say that Johnny was a “Mexican,” although I really never knew on which side of the border he was born, whether in Alabama or some other US state or in one of the states of Mexico like Coahuila, Chihuahua, or Sonora. It never occurred to me to ask, so we never spoke of it. It would not have mattered anyway since I had no concept of a state or a country then, nor of the significance of the information.

Johnny was just my big friend who looked after me in the communal meadow where the neighbor kids climbed and swung from the ancient oaks, played chase and ball and roamed. I was his “Swinn-fendered” friend too who rode on the back of his bike up and down Flamingo Drive, my legs outstretched to avoid entanglement in the spokes or sprocket and chain. It was he who picked me up when I lacerated by calf on a broken bottle in the commons and who carried me bleeding on his back, nearly soiling his pristine cap in the process of my rescue. I still bear a white line of a scar with four pair of pale dots as outriders where the staples went through the skin to effect a closure of the muscle and other tissue. It is a constant reminder that my memory of the experience is real and of the reality of Johnny’s kindness and friendship.

Maracas Phot credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

Maracas Photo credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

The truth is that Johnny is a friend from the dawn of memory when all things that I still retain are mist-covered and rose-hued; he was part of the days before I went off to school and learned the cruelties of the playground, the will to power that is the feckless desire of nations. Thus, only later did I conclude the country of origin of Johnny’s family from reconstructed evidence: the souvenir maracas that always rested on the telephone table by the stairs that exulted in colorful painted and fluid script, “Mexico!”; the strange way Johnny said the word, “Meheeko” when I asked about them; the sweet but indecipherable speech he used when he spoke to Senora ‘Ernandez; the exotic aromas of onion, garlic and cumin that wafted like a halo around her as she stood in the doorway of her cocina next to the hand-tinted print of Jesus of the sacred heart that hung above the dinning table. She was a short, very tan lady who reminded me of a younger version of my beloved grandmother. She never said a word to me, only smiled when I came calling on Johnny.

Señor Hernandez I saw only on the weekend and always in a cotton-ribbed undershirt and khaki twill pants. Often he held a newspaper in his hand when he greeted me at the door, his smile barely visible through a black moustache peppered with graying hairs. “Hello, Sammy. Johnny will be down in a minute,” he would say. Then turning to the stairs he would shout across the maracas something that I could not understand that could have sounded like “¡Oye, Juanito! Ven aquí! Tu amiguito esté aquí.” Then he ignored me as he returned to his newspaper. In a few minutes I would see the white seaman’s cap sail down the staircase with my friend suspended underneath.

Despite his friendly demeanor, Johnny’s father frightened me a little, as did all of the unfamiliar Dads in the neighborhood. His mother I did not know at all since she never spoke to me. Thus, I was never invited to sample any of the dishes she always seemed to be preparing in the back room of the apartment. Not until I had moved on from Birdville and out to the swamps on the Bay and had deserted my Spanish-speaking friend did I even taste “Mexican food.”

My first taste of Mexico came from Mrs. Adams, known behind her back as “Mrs. Atom Bomb” for her volatile temperament, who was my desperate sixth grade teacher at South Brookley Elementary School, and who was the unlikely source of my initiation into Latino cuisine. She opened a small tin can of tamales and warmed them in an electric skillet she had set up next to the cloakroom door during an otherwise forgettable social studies unit on Central America. It was my first and only taste of Mexico for many years. Her culinary experiment unfortunately missed the mark as I and my classmates were put off by the nondescript taste of the greasy pork blobs held together with translucent corn husks and masa glue. I looked at the faces of my peers and saw there the same repulsion that I felt. Nevertheless, I knew better than to hold my nose as I had done to impress Mary Louise Thompson of the long platinum hair when Mrs. Adams had read the story of Lazarus in our morning Bible reading a few weeks earlier. “Sammy Mat’son, meet me in the cloakroom!” She had demanded. My penance: to stand alone, banished for an hour after a severe chastisement for irreverence.  I was unimpressed by the food, not only by its taste but also by its unhappy association with the nearby closet.

On the other hand I was very much impressed by the appliance she had brought to school for the occasion. I had never seen such a device before nor had Juan, I suspected. I wished he were there to see it. The skillet was manufactured by General Electric whose motto—“Progress is our most important product”—was emblazoned just below the trademark. From the demonstration I concluded that if tamales were all a Mexican chiquito had to eat, it was no wonder why he was starving. It was also clear to me why he surely and earnestly longed to emigrate northward across the river to find real food such as I enjoyed.

For a long time afterward I thought of Johnny’s nameless cousins whenever I was admonished by Mother to eat everything on my plate. “Remember all of the starving children who are going to bed hungry tonight while you throw away food.” Thus, I internalized the lesson of nonsensical consumption on behalf of the huddled and hungry masses of the world. I learned to feel a sense of global obligation whenever I sat at table, one I discharged faithfully with “Please pass the mashed potatoes and the gravy” and by manfully cleaning my plate.

It would be necessary for me to abandon the South and migrate west before I could really taste the flavor of “Tex Mex” and fall in love with chili peppers. During my college years, however, I subsisted on Tuesday night enchiladas at El Chico Mexican Restaurant. What is more, summers—while I was in college—were spent in Texas, too, where I received basic training in extreme “southern” cooking, that is, cuisine that came from south of the Rio Grande. The city of San Antonio was where my palate acquired its affinity (at five for a dollar) for the crisp, delicious melded flavors of meat, corn tortilla and greenery. I crunched contentedly and  I audibly blessed the unknown genius who invented the taco. I thanked God for my good fortune to happen on the crispy Mexican sandwich at last. In the Alamo City one can not escape the scent of Latin spice, but in Mobile in my youth we did not know of such “ethnic” or “immigrant” cuisine, Mexican, Chinese or even Italian.

I have reflected on the oft-asked question: what does it mean to say “I am an American?”   Almost all of the people I meet are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Only some have come to North America earlier than others; only some under more affluent or respectable circumstances than others.

The “Mexicans” and other Spanish-speaking Mesoamericans, as well as Middle Eastern speakers of Arabic or Farsi surged to our republic at the end of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century it was merely different peoples: the Irish, and the Italians, and other Middle Europeans. A century earlier the British and the Spanish and the French came to the “New World”—and Africans. Some immigrants came willingly; some were compelled. From the first European colonization of North American until the trade in human life was outlawed in the United States in 1802, twelve and a half million persons were forced to immigrate to this continent as slaves, 10.7 million surviving the journey.

“El Flacho” a.k.a Sammy, Johnny’s amigo. Family photo ca.1953

By whatever means we came or whenever was the day, none found a welcome from the “others” who had preceded him. I have read of the resentment of the Irish Catholics who dared to settle in Protestant New England.   I have heard of the scorn of freed men in the hearts of their former masters during the “Reconstruction” of the South. The first inhabitants of America who had themselves immigrated here ten to twenty thousand years earlier did not welcome the avaricious “white” men and apparently for good reason. Inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them” and in the process miss out on so much, I fear. The thought saddens me and I wish for all, the same innocent friendship I knew in Johnny, joyfully ignorant of our irrelevant respective and divergent patrimonies.

In the succeeding post next week I will examine why the human compulsion to tribe is both natural and immoral. Until then, I offer this sweet comradeship that many would disdain: my first friend was, most likely, an alien but also a most kind human child, who befriended me without condition.

The intangible gift received by the skinny kid (pictured above), now a man grown old, he will forever treasure just as surely as if he still held his friend’s hat in his very hands.

The Fish Camp

Proud Sammy, the Fisher boy, ca. 1954. Family photo, via Cindy Matteson King

Proud Sammy, the Fisher boy, ca. 1954. Family photo, via Cindy Matteson King

Today, I am an indifferent fisherman. I suspect knowledge of that fact would be a small disappointment to my grandparents, were they alive today to acknowledge it. Pa Moates and Ma Bertie were themselves gifted and serious anglers, who more than subsisted on the bounty of the creeks and rivers of lower Alabama. Although, I think of the two, Ma was a trace better at outwitting the fish, judging from the photos of her holding gargantuan bass.

Fishing is best when the sun is just up, or so Pa claimed. So they often stayed in the plain cabins under the pines at the Fish Camp. The little two-room-with-a-bath boxes were paneled inside with Masonite, had cold water and a hot plate kitchen and were located less than a hundred yards from the river. Bertie’s sister, my great Aunt Kittie, was the proprietress and manager of the camp and its small diner. Fisherman would bring their catch to her, gutted, the scales and heads removed, of course, and Kittie would fry it up along with her famous hush puppies. Served with iced tea it was a banquet. Aunt Kittie seemed to me to resemble the proverbial “horse that was rode hard and put up wet.” Her face was a pale gathering of wrinkles resting in a nest of gray hair. But her dark eyes twinkled with an impish delight as if she were thinking on a secret or a joke that the rest of the world did not know.

Kittie’s Fried Fish and Hushpuppies

One afternoon I helped her serve in her diner when a pair of fishin’ bubbas brought in their catch for her to cook. They smelled of beer and looked a little unsteady on their feet. I became convinced of their inebriation when they began to flirt with Aunt Kittie, fifteen years senior of the eldest bill-capped angler and so unattractive to my more sober eyes. I concluded that their befuddled vision and questionable judgment was not a total lost, however, when one of the scraggly bearded diners, after he had finished his fish and corn bread, hooked his head twice to me, leaned to his left reaching into his jeans pocket and slapped a silver dollar down on the oil cloth of the table. “He deserves a tip, Kittie.” Then he winked at Aunt Kittie, who smiled a crooked smile and nodded to me to pick it up. Fishing was a gentle sport, I reasoned, that seemed to bring out the best in most people, sober or not.

Pa took me fishing a few times; even fewer of those times it was just the two of us. We stepped into the boat sending waves out across the river. I shivered as I saw the stream darken in a slithering burst of water moccasins that had been resting in the shade of the gunnels. I pointed at them but Pa only chuckled at my goose flesh and wide eyes. They were only part of the nature of the place. It was no matter, Pa did not swim where he fished.

The motor at the square end of the john boat cleared its throat with the first two pulls on the rope Pa made, then began to sing with a puff of pale blue smoke smelling of burnt oil that rose from the tea brown water at the stern. Pa skillfully revved the little Evenrude and turned the bow of the boat toward the center line of the river. The water parted before us in a sharp “vee” than went out softly and lapped against the shore where we had passed.   Soon the motor’s monotonous “aaah” lulled me into a quiet reverie. I watched the palmetto plants under the Spanish moss-hung cypress trees slip past us. On the knees and snags that stuck up from the still water an occasional box turtle lolled in the sun or a snake bird perched; the strange bird was silhouetted like a crooked cross as it dried its wings in the sun. I looked down into the water and could see the white sandy bottom and occasionally thought I saw a fish. I wondered if the word had got around the fish gossip-line that the fisherman was out.

Soon we were at one of Pa’s favorite fishing holes. I watched Pa bait his hook. I was amazed that he did not hook his big hands; they shook so with “the palsy.” I hooked my earthworm as he had, with steadier but more fumbling fingers. We cast the lines a few yards from the boat. I watched the red and white bobber float idly on the surface. I was tempted to lift it from the water and cast again, but I knew that Pa would chide my impatience with “You can’t catch a fish with your hook out of the water.” So I sat quietly and gazed at the ripples on the water and watched the sun play at decorating the side of the boat. I could see the line beneath the cork going down and then vanishing in the glare.

The Ones That Got Away

Pa did not speak much. He rarely spoke at all and almost never when fishing. Back at the camp he enjoyed a good joke, however, preferably a fishing joke. “The warden suspected a fellow of using dynamite when he fished, so he arranged to go out with him one day. Sure enough, the fellow picks up a stick of dynamite. Lights it and throws it into the lake. The warden shouts, ‘You can’t do that!’ Then the fellow lights another stick and tosses it to the warden, ‘You gonna fish or talk?’” I can still hear Pa’s laughter, slow, deep, like the sound of thunder from heat lightning over the horizon. I loved telling Pa a new joke; if he had heard it before, he still laughed, whether out of courtesy to me or for the pure pleasure at the humor of it all.

My line went taut and then began to write “s” on the surface of the placid stream. My heart jumped and I reeled in the line. I felt the tension of the fish pulling hard to get away. I reeled and pulled; then I jerked the line and heard a disappointing “snap!” The line hung limp.

“You lost him when you jerked your line.” Pa said in a slow drawl.

“He was a bigg’n wasn’t he, Pa?” I jabbered.

“Sure. The biggest are the hardest to land. Don’t fret none. I’ve lost a few myself. There are more fish to catch out there. . . . But you’re gonna need a hook. Let me see your line a minute.”

We fished all morning and into the afternoon. We caught a mess of stupid perch and crappie but did not boat any of the wily bass. They are still in the lake, I suppose.

In Appreciation of Fishermen

I appreciate the taste of a well caught fish. I know that somewhere some fisherman has exploited all of his guile in a metaphor for all the rest of life to wrest a living and sustenance from the bounty of the sea, the river, or the lakes of this world. It comforts me both that we, humans, are near the top of the food chain, but also that there are many fish that get away. Often they are the biggest and the most desirable.

Fishing is surely a sanctified preoccupation, seeing how the apostles, Peter, James and John, were fishermen who lived by angling. I imagine the lakes of heaven calm and peaceful like that day on the Fish Camp river, with a strange threesome—Pa and Ma and Saint Peter, the Big Fisherman—sitting serenely in the Jesus boat wetting their hooks, angling eternally and joyfully for the biggest fish that ever got away.

Bertie MOates, Sammy's grandmother. Now there was a fisherwoman and a grandmother. Family photo 1858, courtesy Cindy Matteson King.

Bertie Moates, Sammy’s grandmother. Now there was a fisherwoman and a grandmother! Family photo 1958, courtesy Cindy Matteson King.

Maya Angelou (1928-2014)  Photo credit: www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Maya Angelou (1928-2014) Photo credit: http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/maya-angelou

Eleven years ago I attended, with my wife, a speech by Maya Angelou at the University of North Texas. It was an inspiring ninety minutes that included a slam poet Joaquin Zihuatanejo, a personal friend and a powerful voice for La Raza and the Chicano experience. Much was made of words, little swords of truth, even to the point of encouraging the listener to write their own works.

The message was not lost on me. I was inspired to compose a poem in response to Maya’s challenge. Of course, one does not write a poem or prose to be read in your closet, speaking only to the walls. Therefore, I sent the poem to the university sponsor of the event. She insisted (to my embarrassment) that we send a framed copy to Maya Angelou herself, which we did. I do not know what Dr. Angelou thought of my work, but no matter, it was a positive response to what she proposed we (read I) do. Last year she died. Thus, I will never know.

Given the events in our nation in the last few weeks and my post last week that reveal how far we have come in race relations (not far it seems), I offer this poem for your reflection and your inspiration. Write your verse and share it however you may.

On Hearing Maya Angelou

I would live a large and unabridged life,
Not a quiet, small, condensed, digested
Version, read so safe, content, and cowardly,

A life as large as black mommas singing
Gospel hymns and William C. Handy tunes,
The poesy of black humanity’s pain.

Think not that Angelou could sing the blues
With such wide mirth and clarion voice unless
She first had bound it—to speak at last for us.

Think not that you alone stand soaked with rain
And search in vain for Noah’s sign above,
A lost rainbow-hope in clouds of dark struggle.

Think not that Christ the hope of Easter morn
Secured without its price of Thursday’s long
Night of olivine doubt and Good Friday’s cross.

Rainbows come only when our own sun winks
Through the storm and back refracts its wan light
To show to us gossamer spectra within.

I would live a large and unabridged life
Where pain and joy together teach me what
A human is: black, brown, white, bold, joy-filled, large…free.

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo creddit: /twitter.com/thepoetjz

Joaquin Zihuatanejo, slam poet. Photo credit: https://twitter.com/thepoetjz

In the heart of Mobile's Bienville Square stands an ornate wrought iron fountain. Photo credit:Karen Warren; www.thisgirltravels.dreamhosters.com

In the heart of Mobile’s Bienville Square stands an ornate wrought iron fountain. Photo credit:Karen Warren; http://www.thisgirltravels.dreamhosters.com

Empathy lies at the root of all morality; so I have heard and so have I observed. I heard it first in stories about the Rabbi Jesus in Sunday School. He said it plainly: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I recall, my Dad, the teacher of three rowdy boys, kneeling backward in the front seat of our automobile while Steve Garner, Dean Cooper and I squirmed in the backseat, more or less captive for the thirty minute lesson. He would be surprised to learn that I also remember what he had to say: how a bystander in the story that Jesus told squirmed, too, and defensively inquired, “Who is my neighbor?” when the interlocutor was confronted by such an uncompromising imperative from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. But it is not only from hearing that I have become convinced; I have found that my recognizing or overlooking my humanity reflected in another—whether neighbor, stranger or enemy—is the key or the lock to how moral will be my actions toward them.

There are aspects of the Alabama home of my youth of which I am proud. There are many recollections of the 1950s and 60s that bring me joy. There are memories of the ancestral South that warm my heart. The polite and genteel manner of folk toward each other, their passion for spirituality, our respect for a precious legacy as stewards of the land, the comfortable and languid speech that savors the delicious taste of words even as you utter them. One image shames me, however; one that is an indelible picture will forever pain me. I close my eyes and still see painted there on the floor of the city bus a filth-besmirched pale green line. You see, I was not permitted behind that line, nor were the others allowed to sit at the front.

A Magical Bus Ride

Once, when I was a fledgling flitting from one playmate’s nest to another on Flamingo Drive among the gray clapboard-sided duplexes of the “Birdville” projects, I rode wide-eyed with Mother downtown on the city bus. It was an awe-filling adventure to hear the “whoosh” of the brakes and the “whack” of the door opening near the smiling driver clad in a white short-sleeved shirt with black tie and smart blue cap, to smell the clouds of black diesel smoke leaving an atmospheric, nearly invisible trail behind us. We disembarked at Bienville Square, it dark and cool with deep refreshing green shade—really almost black in contrast to the blazing morning sun—with darkness spilled out in irregular puddles under the ancient oaks that were planted well before the War Between the States, or the “Civil War,” as Yankees like to call that same conflict of a century before. We ate at Woolworth’s lunch counter seeing only pale faces—like mine—reflecting back from the mirror behind the waitress. I glanced up from my sandwich just in time to see a chocolate face under a white paper cap peer out from the kitchen. He looked at me, then crooked his head out the slot to sing, “Order up! Miss Betty!” wiping a diadem of sweat drops from his forehead. “How does that Hersey-bar man keep from melting?” I mused silently.

We crossed the square past the fountain to buy some salted peanuts at the Planters Store then moved to a park bench between the wrought iron fence next to the azaleas and the ancient and ornate fountain that splashed noisily and blue. I saw a woman with skin the color of cocoa hurry by in a starched gray uniform. “Maid,” I thought, then turned again to the greedy squirrels. When we had exhausted all the peanuts, the riot of tails that surrounded us dispersed to reassemble around another benefactor, and we gathered ourselves with our packages and walked back across the street. At the corner we circumnavigated a knot of people that gathered around a slightly frightening creature with a bushy head.

He was jet black: black skin, almost gun-barrel blue-black, black hair, black clothes. His hair was electrified, here tangled, there matted, everywhere standing up and out. His eyes rolled in a wide voodoo evil eye, flashing maniacal conjunctivae the color of café au lait. His clothes were worn shiny and black with bus diesel smut and street grime. He gripped an ancient banjo that he strummed while he danced a bare-foot shuffle on the pavement with a soft whisper slide and a clap of the sole.   I was surprised to glimpse the pink of his palms and the inside of his mouth when he placed a light bulb in his mouth and crunched down just before Mother dragged me around the corner and out of sight the degrading spectacle.

“Momma, who was that man?” I asked.

“He is nobody. You don’t need to concern yourself none, honey,” she replied, distracted.

Our World Was Separate

Ours was a separate world, I remind myself. We did not concern ourselves with what the dark-skinned cooks did in the kitchen or where the maids were going, since we had no maid or cook—black or white. I glanced sidewise out the corner of my eye—it is rude to stare I was taught—at the black man in the red uniform who operated the elevator at Gayfer’s Department Store. He wore white gloves, a red cap and a deferential attitude. “Mornin’ Ma’am. . . . How are y’all young man? . . . Third floor . . . shoes, suitcases and housewares . . . . watch your step.” We did not trouble ourselves over where he went at night or what he thought. He was just there to serve us. Nor did we did trouble ourselves with the concerns of the black stevedores on the docks of Mobile Bay whose backs glistened in the sunshine like proud muscular horses as they unloaded boxes and crates from ships laden with the goods of the world. They were not our people nor were their concerns ours. We had our own concerns.

1943 Colored Waiting Room sign Photo credit: americanhistory.si.edu

1943 Colored Waiting Room sign Photo credit: americanhistory.si.edu

Yet, I was fascinated by the forbidden fountains that advertised “colored” water. However, I was doomed to disappointment, since the water that shot up arched only in a clear parabola before it splashed against the porcelain, just like the “white” water.   The people who came and went from the “Colored” bathroom, on the other hand, were indeed colored: cinnamon, cocoa, chocolate, coal, tar, toasted, caramelized and burned dark; young men and old and boys with dark curly hair; black, brown and gray. I wanted to rub my thumb against their arms to see if the color would rub off, like charcoal or chalk. I watched intently. But I saw none among them who I reckoned to look like me: pale, fair with white-blond hair or green eyes. “Pink and green are colors, too, aren’t they?” I thought.

I rode on the bus and looked back at the little brown boy just my age who sat in the wide seat at the rear of the bus on the other side of the pale green line. I secretly wanted to ride there and look out of the rear window, watching where we had gone. But then I began to wonder if he ever wanted to ride up front by the driver and see where we were going? I began to feel sorry for us both.

But I was frightened at the difference and distance between us. As I grew to be a teenager, I became even more frightened at the demands I heard them make, and the men who shouted them in the streets. I was frightened and frustrated because I suspected that their banners listed just demands, that I was on the wrong side of the line, and that I had no real voice to answer or any real courage to speak up or the wisdom to understand what was happening.   Dr. Martin Luther King was in Birmingham leading the protest. He was arrested. He must have been doing something illegal, I thought, because law-abiding citizens don’t get arrested. He wrote a letter answering the criticism of some prominent clergymen, as well as my tacit indictment. But I did not read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” until forty years later. Yet in it he writes of me as if we had been corresponding. In his letter he speaks with sadness, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” he wrote of me, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I See Myself Reflected

I am a moral person, I protest. Often these days I don’t even notice the color of a person’s skin, I treat everybody with respect, and I am relieved not to live in a world with official but unjust walls of discrimination. But, too, I am shamed still that I stood by with lukewarm acceptance and thus defended an immoral status quo by my inertia and by my fears. I finally see myself reflected in the eyes of those I once feared.

There are many things that I remember proudly from my youth. But that line I wish I could forget. But I cannot. I meet it again and again even today in subtle and ugly ways, in others and in myself. And then I see in my imagination myself sitting in the back of the bus, looking were we—the brown boy and I—have been. We are sitting together on the same bus, sitting on the same seat, sitting behind the pale green line, and looking out the same window, together. Like a pair of sons of the South, brothers really—what we actually are.

Family photo of Sammy's mother, Audrey, at about age five with unidentified friend in Dothan, Alabama.

Family photo of Sammy’s mother, Audrey, at about age five with unidentified friend in Dothan, Alabama.

In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival.  Originla photo source : www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

In Dothan three radio towers stood together as a beacon of our arrival. Original photo source : http://www.old-picture.com/american-legacy/010/pictures/Towers-Radio.jpg

Dothan always seemed the closest thing to heaven that I could imagine. It is, as I remember it, a magical place trussed up like broom straw in the red-hill-and-wire-grass corner of the state, as nearly Florida as you can be and still claim to belong to ‘Bama. They tell me Dothan, at least the original Dothan of the Bible, means “two wells,” the place where Joseph found his hateful half-brothers plotting a swift end to a dreamer. Lucky for Joe Jacobson that one of the wells was dry and that’s the one they chose to drop him in. Seems I remember, too, a Sunday-School story of Elisha pursued by an army near there. Shaking in his sandals, Elisha’s servant cried out “We’re doomed, there are too many of them.” But old Elisha saw with different eyes the valley filled with angels. And I, too—though not a prophet or the son of a prophet—see Dothan with different eyes.

Ma and Pa Moates Lived There

Dothan was home to my maternal grandparents, Ma Bertie and Pa, the place where they homesteaded in ’04 or so. Because my Father’s widowed Father was exiled “up north” in Ohio, I rarely saw him. But Ma and Pa Moates filled the role of grand people most ably and most happily. Grandparenthood is a special state to which only those are entitled who have endured the trials of infancy, childhood, adolescence and the declaration of independence of at least one offspring. My grandparents epitomized unconditional love to me, and I loved them in return, although they were already “three score and ten” before I first knew them. Despite the distance between their generations (or perhaps because of it) children and their grandparents are natural allies in a gentle rebellion against the intervening generation of parents.

Ma taught me to love the earth. The dirt there, the color of iron or old blood, is ancient, elemental and alive. When the rains fall, iron nodules stand exposed on toe-high pedestals, with all the dirt around washed clear, an earthen lithography. Beneath a broom straw a tiny siege ramp leaned against the orange brick foundation of the house, after a rain. I liked to lean on Ma Bertie sometimes, just like the cow did when she milked it. But she did not slap my side as she did Bessie’s broad brown raw hide or shout “Stand up, Lazy!” in her high reedy soprano voice.

Pa taught me to love wood: the smell of it and its touch and the way it tells the story of its life in the grain and burl and knot. Mornings I would rise when the dew-chill was still on the field and hear the “chug-chug” of the sawmill, down the red dirt road, its refrain punctuated by the trill of a meadowlark. I would smell the pinesap spilling as the saw ripped the flesh of the tree and made boards for people to use. Today when I run my hand over an oak tabletop and feel the ripples of the grain, I know that each is a year, lean, fat, dry, wet, like the lines the years have drawn in my face or that of Pa. I know, too, that the tree has come down to make a table, or a chair or a house, or a pencil.

Across the road in Dothan a wood lot stood; pines growing up for harvest someday. Twenty, thirty years maybe, then clear cut and begun again. I wondered if people were like that too. We would only be useful after we were cut down. I still wonder.

The Road Trip Was Long

We went often, as often as we could to Dothan. The trip from Mobile along highway 90 and the Florida coast took us across many rivers, the seven rivers at the head of the Bay, the Escambia, the Styx, and others. A wag in the highway department had hung a sign on the bridge, “Styx River, Charon retired.”   Years later I learned that Charon was the boatman of Greek mythology that demanded the coins from dead men’s eyes as the fare to cross the Styx River to Hades. But we paid no visible toll on our way.

The trip to Dothan was also eternal. Einstein was right; time is relative. To children, five minutes seems a long time; an hour is agony; and four hours a never-ending purgatory. My parents had heard the universal questions, “Are we there yet? How much farther?” so often that they told us, “Watch for the red lights of the three radio towers. That’s how you will know we are close to Dothan. Look for the lights of Dothan.”

There are many towers that stud the night outside of every town in the panhandle of Florida I learned, but none but Dothan had three together. My Mother would turn her head so that her hair was illuminated in a kind of holy light from the headlamps of the on-coming cars and whisper in my ear. “Why don’t you sleep now, Sammy? The night will seem shorter. I will wake you when we get there.” And often I did, and she was right, it was shorter. But I always missed the lights when I slipped into sleep, and then I awoke, disappointed.

My Grandmother’s death was my first loss.   I was in college at the time but I could have been a child. Now, I think I was a child. I did not think so then. We are always children when death comes to those we love. They say in Alabama that death comes in threes. I don’t think that it is really so, but I think we could not bear an unbroken string of loss. When the third has fallen, we can exhale and wipe our eyes until the next sad triad. But often a single death is overwhelming and two is devastating. As I sat to write these words, a friend was burying her mother, her son lying dead and undiscovered in another city. Then my friend and former boss died. Three. I can breathe again. But death does not come in threes for us; it comes singly for each of us. We must face it alone and in the dark. But I hear rumors of another life and I hope. As I approach my Dothan, though, I look hard into the dark night. I am looking for the lights before I sleep, the lights of Dothan.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy's Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

Robertia and Noah Moates, Sammy’s Maternal Grandparents. Source: Family heirloom photograph.

Pair and singletree wagon. Photo credit: www.usgennet.org/usa/ny/county/jefferson/hounsfield

Pair and singletree wagon. Photo credit: http://www.usgennet.org/usa/ny/county/jefferson/hounsfield

Just Conversation, Really

Sometimes you get to talking and it happens. You don’t know why but you find yourself talking about your family, I mean your “big, way back” family, like your Dad’s childhood family. Then things come out that you never heard before, either because you weren’t listening the first time or because the time never was right to let the ghosts out of the attic. Conversations sometimes simply go that way, twisting and meandering about, without an agenda, without a goal or an intentional moderator. They seem to have a life of their own, and at other times they seem like patches rubbed clear in dirty front-room windows of long-abandoned houses that let you peek in and read the headlines of a forgotten newspaper lying on the floor inside, or you see there an old doll that has eyes that never shut any more, and you think you begin to sense what it was like to live there. It is then you think you feel ghosts rising. And, too, you can read a snatch of the history of a man in a few, painful glimpses into his heart.

A Revelation

“You are not named after your grandfather, Sam,” my father, Lewis Edward Matteson, insisted, slightly raising his voice.

“But my first and last name are identical to his,” I thought silently.

“I would never name a son of mine for him. You were named for you mother’s grandfather, Samuel Holland . . . and for me,” Dad continued. “My father doesn’t deserve to have a son of mine named for him.”

“He was a big man, your Grandpa Sam—over six feet tall . . . and hard . . . he was a hard man.” Lew swayed to his left, then right, ducking unconsciously. He went on, “He used to wear me out. But time came that he couldn’t get the best of me any more. Once he wore out a leather razor strop me, but it didn’t do ’em any good.” Dad chuckled. “He broke it clean in two.”

“I did somethin’ . . . forget what . . . and one of the girls—probably Edna—ratted on me. Well, Grandpa got the razor strop that hung on a nail by the door, and he grabbed me by the arm and went to whalin’ the tar out of me. But because it was cold and just as likely ‘cause I suspected he was after me, I was wearing two pair of gabardine trousers. My old man could not make me cry because he couldn’t hurt me enough. Those two heavy layers were enough to take the sting out of his strokes. So when he saw he couldn’t get the best ‘o me, he got madder and madder and beat me harder and harder. He kept flailin’ at my legs until the strop came apart and flew in every direction. Then he stopped and went into the house. He just left me alone behind the shed without another word.”

I looked at my wife and then my daughter who sat at the dinner table. I wondered if they felt as shocked and saddened as I. It was a sick feeling and at the same time, a feeling of frustration and mingled pain. I had—in my fifty years as a son—never heard Dad speak of his father as he just had. I remembered my paternal grandfather, Grandpa Sam, only from a few mental snapshots and fewer actual photographs. I recalled vaguely a tall, gaunt figure that only approximately resembled my own father. Grandpa Sam’s face was hard, with hard lines that did not come from smiles.

A Peek at My Grandfather’s Life

Once during a brief visit to his apartment when he was in his seventies, I got a peek at my grandfather’s life. I was ten. We Matteson kids sat uncomfortably on his narrow bed in his one room apartment dimly lit by a single bare bulb that swung overhead. On the wall over the bed a calendar hung, one that flaunted a buxom girl who wore only a pair of short blue striped bib overalls. She leaned forward seductively above the words, “Ohio Implement.” Grandpa Sam was telling about his years in the foundry and how he had been “one tough cookie.”

“You don’t haveta worry ‘bout me. I ken take care of myself. Just the other day, a Mexican tried to ‘roll’ me. But I beat the tar outta ‘em. Ran ‘em off. He won’t be messin’ with me again. No Sirree.”

I looked at those big fists that, Popeye-like, swelled at the end of sinewy arms. I imagined, too, a whirlwind of flailing and pummeling limbs. I wondered at that moment if he had always been as violent with would-be attackers in Marion, Ohio. I wondered when I heard Dad’s story, if he had always been as tough and violent with his sons, also.

Astride the Singletree

My reveries were interrupted by agitated sounds emanating from the man sitting next to me, from my father’s direction. His breathing deepened and increased in its tempo as he leaned forward in his chair. There was more he had to say. “I remember the last time my old man, he hit me.” It was as if my father was transported back to the fields of Ohio and the 1930’s, reliving the events sixty years earlier.

“When you cut corn in those days—Don’t ya see?—you cut it with a big knife at an angle. “ Dad made a slicing motion with his hands. “The dried stalks are left in the field for a while, until then are like so many spears, sharp on one end. Then ya come along with a wagon and haul the stalks off, and you burn ‘em.”

“One day,” he continued, “when I was about seventeen, I was up on the wagon stackin’ the stalks while my Pa was down on the ground forking ‘em upta me. He used the three-pronged hay fork. I used my hands. He would stick two or three stalks and then throw ‘em up on the wagon where I was astandin’. Well, he kept turnin’ the pointed ends towards me, so as they would stick me every time he forked over a bunch. I said, ‘Stop stickin’ me with the sharp ends of them stalks.’”

“Pa glared up at me and said, ‘Stop whinin’ and get to work.’”

“Then I says, ‘I am workin’ and as hard as you. But just stop stickin’ me with them sharp stalks.’ That just made ‘em mad. So he grabs me by my lame foot and drags me off the wagon. I fall down a-tween the horses. I got on my feet straddlin’ the singletree between those chestnut draft horses we had. They stood up to my shoulders on both sides.” Dad made a gesture to his shoulder as we stared at him blankly.

“The singletree is that wooden hitch that we connect the horses to the wagon with. . . . Well, still and all . . .” he went on, “my Pa came after me. He drew back his fist to slug me. . . .” Lew leaned to one side in his chair—as if the fist were about to fall—then ducked a little to receive the blow again. “I looked up at him. . . . He was a full four inches taller than me . . . and I said, ‘You’re goin’ to have to beat me to death. And even if you do, it still won’t make you right! . . . You’ll haveta kill me. And them what?’ . . .  For a minute I thought that he might actually go ahead and do it. But I had had enough. I wasn’t goin’ ta take his beatin’ me any more.”

In my own mind I saw the fist poised in mid air, like a black and awful presence with a life of its own. I drew in my breath and held it for a moment, thinking of the anger of a teenager chafing under such a tyrant. I had known that feeling, only attenuated. For a long and awkward second we all sat silently. I heard the clock ticking on the wall.

“Did he hit you, Dad?” I asked at last.

“Naw. . . . not really. That time he just cuffed me one. But he never beat me any more. But if he hadda come after me, there between the horses, we woulda really mixed it up. And those draft animals weighed over a thousand pounds a piece. They woulda stomped us both to death without a doubt.”

“Did you leave home soon after that, Grandpa?” My daughter Carrie asked with the hint of a tear in her left eye that she daubed with the corner of her napkin.

“No, I never really left home. . . . I mean, I never ran away from home . . . if that’s what you mean. No, I stayed on the farm and hired out to other farmers as a day hand until I came South in ’42 when I was twenty-three. But that was the last time Grandpa Sam ever laid a hand on me.”

You Never Really Leave Home

Some say that you can’t go home again, but I believe, that you really never leave home; I say that because you always take home, where you grew up, with you. There, in the recesses of your mind, in the corners of your heart, is every joy or agony that you have ever experienced, like a trunk in the attic or a cardboard box in the cellar. It is your home, even if it was not a happy one. That day, at the dinner table with my widowed father, I grabbed a glimpse into a boarded up house that sits in the back pasture. Dusty, smelling of age, ignored for the most part, but there . . . always there.   The memories that haunt the houses we think that we are well shed of and that we have left behind, find us even in the daylight.

Because my father shared his painful memory, because he rubbed a peek hole on the window of his heart and let me peer in, I will never be the same. I understand better now why he left the punishment of the children to his wife, my mother, when I was growing up in his house. I understand better the congenital, stubborn and angry insistence Dad showed at times. I understand better what he means when he says, “Grandpa Sam was a hard man.”

My paternal grandfather had a rod of iron in his hand; my father had a rod of iron in his spine that often shows up in photographic portraits as a  slightly too erect posture. My grandfather decreed and punished. My father stood stiff with a will that would not bend. I am thankful that my Dad resolved to do differently with me than his father had done with him. I thank my father that he chose to be kind and tolerant of my teenage declarations of independence. I am glad that from somewhere I learned to respect and obey my father—not for his edicts—but for his character. And I thank God that I was thus spared the hard life of standing astride my own singletree.

Lew with Audrey and children (L to R) Sammy Gene, Baby Dale and Cindy Lou. Flamingo Drive, Mobile, AL ca. 1953 Family Photo

Lew at 33 with Audrey and children (L to R) Sammy Gene, Baby Dale and Cindy Lou. Flamingo Drive, Mobile, AL ca. 1952. Family Photo

Lew at 79. San Antonio, TX. Photo credit: S. Matteson

A Pair of BVD’s

Vintage Ad 1911 Photo source: .amazon.com/Menswear-Vintage-Undershirts-Garments-Clothes

Vintage Ad 1911 Photo source: Amazon.com/Menswear-Vintage-Undershirts-Garments-Clothes

I have been peeved at Larry Carpenter for about eight years now. He claimed to be my friend for life. I guess he was, indeed, one of my closest friends growing up in the swamps south of Mobile, Alabama. After fifty years though, he had receded into the pleasant and prismatic memories of my childhood home. The romantic hued, crystalline vision of my past was shattered when he reinserted himself into my attention via that thoroughly post-twentieth century technology, e-mail. Larry pleaded in print for me to come home to Mobile for our 42th high school reunion. A reunion? I thought of all the middle-aged, over-weight, balding men trying to hold their stomachs in for three days, and me there among them growing weak from all that exertion. I saw high school girls grown up to be grandmothers, some blue-haired I imagined. I shuddered. But I owed him a debt. He had come to collect it. There was no way to evade.

Larry was the kind of boyhood friend you always wanted: cheerful, full of fun and generous. I cannot remember when we first became friends, for it seemed that we always played together, alternating between our respective homes despite the three miles or so that lay between our families’ abodes.

Though the Carpenter house on Staples Road sat on high ground, a small, unnamed creek lazed below the hill on their acreage like it did not have anywhere in particular to go. Larry’s dad had built a boardwalk across the bog by nailing planks to the tops of cypress knees that jutted up conveniently here and there. The path zigged and zagged to span the slimy water. Larry and I ran from field to boardwalk to house and back, twenty times one afternoon. On the twenty-first circuit I stumbled and fell off with an impressive splash.

A Mother Intervenes

I was soaked in an instant with black ooze smelling of rotten eggs and dead leaves. Larry laughed. I laughed. But Mrs. Carpenter did not laugh.

“You’re soaked through, child. Your mother would just die if she saw you now,” Larry’s mother sang like the mother Mocking Bird she always reminded me of. I cannot remember her face now, only a voice that sang “Whispering Hope” in a sweet reedy soprano voice.

“Come in here on the screen porch and dry off. Larry, honey, go get Sammy some dry things to put on.”

Soon my friend, who was a perfect fit for me in height, girth and boyish energy, returned, producing a complete set of dry clothing: red shirt, blue jeans, white socks and BVDs—the precursor brand of Fruit of the Loom by which we identified white, knit undergarments for boys. I put on the clothes hesitantly. It is a strange feeling to wear the clothes of another person: the shirt you have seen him wear twenty times and is a red warning flag in your mind of an invasion of personal space; the same jeans he always wore—as if you were mocking him by dressing as he. It is also much like putting on their skin, and too much empathy is draining and an awkward sensation. We boys, for all our bravado and camaraderie, innocently skinny dipping, sharing open plan locker room showers, living out the original meaning of gymnasium, always carefully averted our eyes to clothe our buddies in invisible decencies. The fact was, however, we were embarrassed to share intimacies as blatant as underpants. I feared becoming the object of jest and enduring what we called “teasing,” then, and now is called “bullying.”

But Larry never kidded me about how clumsy I was or how foolish I had been to fall in the first place or how bad I smelled, or how silly I looked in his underwear. He simply gave me dry clothes with a smile and no comment. So, you see, I have been in debt to him ever since, even though our lives took us different directions from home and far from each other’s company.

Time to pay up

Then he called to collect his emotional deposit, and I found I had insufficient emotional funds. “I cannot get away,” I wrote. Of course I was peeved at him for shining a light on my inadequacy. Then he made matters worse. He died not long afterward. Now I will never be able to square the deal. It is as if my mortgage company called in my debt and moved without a forwarding address. I am too old and too proud to default on such a note, especially one from a friend. But I do not know how to repay him for his kindness and friendship. He is gone.

I must become resigned to that fact, I suppose. I can never repay Larry for what passed between us. I must keep his generosity on deposit like an unclaimed bequest, eternally compounding interest. I suppose I should pay out the dividend to others who would be my friends, too, just to keep the capital manageable. For example, to a dear friend of my adult years, who—not long ago—left his wife of many years to start again with a new love. He did not just fall off the boardwalk; he derailed his life in a colossal train wreck. Bits of broken hearts lie scattered among bitter disappointments and betrayed hopes in lives all around him. He never asked what I thought of his betrayal. I never told him, either. Instead, I was just his friend.

Such is a time you pay out interest on deposits made. Now is when you give as good as you got. Here you begin to understand true friendship. For it is a true friend who loves you for yourself and who will loan you their BVDs and never remind you how clumsy, flawed or human you really are.

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