Feeds:
Posts
Comments
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.

Aston Martin Photo credit: cdnl.autoexpress.co.uk

Aston Martin Photo credit: cdnl.autoexpress.co.uk

Skip never knew how much I admired him. In our high school days the adolescent Sammy was too much self-absorbed and too fresh to articulate what he felt. Even now, years later, I find it hard to put into words what Stephen Underwood “Skip” Davis inspired in me and showed me. Adolescence is that age when we struggle to declare our independence from our parents’ generation’s authority and to forge an identity uniquely ourselves. Then we spend the rest of our lives tugging here, stretching there, struggling to find a comfortable fit for our skins.

My teenage companion of approximately three years has become more than just a person to me. He has grown in retrospect to be a talisman of the indomitable human spirit. Skip had contracted polio myelitis, the scourge of summer in the days of my youth. His right arm was withered. He never mentioned it in my presence and never complained—or explained. I never mentioned it either. It was just something that was part of his physical presence like my cowlick, only more challenging. His unwelcome single handedness forced him to use his left hand almost exclusively. Though I suspect he was right-hand-dominant before the infection, he adapted to it in many subtle ways. Unable to conform to standard penmanship, he block printed, with a rapidograph India ink pen. I recall admiring how his left hand and wrist curled to scribe the letters in retrograde without a smudge. I also recall the displeasure of our teachers who were tasked with teaching us proper cursive. The fact that his text was infinitely more legible than my cursive scrawl bought him an indulgence from his instructors, I suspect.

Birth of a Super Hero

Indelibly scratched on my imagination was the birth of Skip’s alter ego, Addison Steele. In memory I am looking at a single page in our English literature textbook. It lies open to a page where two long dead British essayists: Joseph Addison and Richard Steele, editors of the Spectator published in the 1710s stare back at me. I glance at Skip sitting next to me. He looks through his thick glasses and smiles a strange smile, then he stares out the window. I hear him whisper the words “Addison” and “Steele, ”and then “Addison Steele!” I had never witnessed the birth of a super hero before or since. In Skip’s imagination a James Bondian character sprang full grown like Athena from Zeus’ forehead. Addison Steele became an alter ego for Skip. He began to appear in essays and English class creative writing tasks.

The memory of Skip’s children’s story was brought to mind as several of the class of 1965 toured the beautifully refurbished halls of B.C. Rain High School at the fiftieth class reunion. In the very classroom on B-hall where we played at learning to write, I mentioned Addison Steele and a classmate confirmed my memory of “Tommy Tortoise,” Skip’s literary response to the prompt to write a children’s story. In brief, Tommy attempts to crawl across the highway to get to the other side. As he nears his goal his carapace is crusted by the wheel of a sports car. Addison Steele leaps from his Aston Martin and kicks a bloody carcass from his Perelli tires, declaring “Damned ambitious tortoise!” Our teacher was not amused. His classmates, however, roared with delightful approval. Skip’s story, a mischievous rebellion against authority, made us wish we had the courage and the wit to pull it off.

We Departed for Parts Unknown

The last week of high school, just days before graduation, we pranked our English teacher with a mock air raid in class. One student began a loud verbal impression of an air raid siren while Skip scanned the skies of the classroom with two Coke bottle binoculars. The rest of the class cowered under our desks. After half a minute the all clear sounded and we resumed our demur poses in our proper seats. The astonished teacher stood open mouthed for a moment then proceeded as if nothing had happened. I, however, was marked for life, thanks to Skip. I treasure the innocent and harmless mischief of that day.

Skip and I parted fifty years ago. He did not attend graduation but left with his family for parts unknown. My last memory of my high school companion was the day he gave me a ride in his new red convertible. He reached across his body with his left hand and pressed down on the gear shift lever. Whatever the make or model of the vehicle it was an Aston Martin in our imagination and as we sped away, we were and will always be Addison Steele and his admiring side kick Sammy.

Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters  in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

Globe at Waterman Steamship Lines World Headquarters in Mobile. AL. Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1969

The world is round, round like a green-gray melon. I believe this. I know this as fact. I know this deep within myself. I know this, not because I read it in a thick, dusty book or heard it whispered in my ear by a classmate. I know that the earth is round just like the globe I always stared at in the lobby of the building where the Waterman Steamship Line had its worldwide headquarters a few blocks from Bienville Square in Mobile.   It was not because of Waterman’s globe that I know but because of her ships that I learned that the earth curves gently down before me as I look to the horizon. I know the earth is a ball because I have seen it for myself.

To seem to do nothing

I would wish for every human being the pleasure of seeing the Bay as I have seen it. I would wish for all the joy of seeming to do nothing, but of doing much just by sitting still on the rocks of the jetty that thrusts itself out into the water and by looking. I have watched freighters steam forty miles down the Bay, plowing the green water in a long foaming furrow-wake that flowed out unnoticed until it tangled with the bottom in the shallows and stood up to crash in a curling surf. I have watched the ships sail from the docks at the head of the Bay to the edge of the world underway to foreign ports with accented names. There, painted on the southern line drawn between sky and water, the ships—I have observed—slowly descended. First the hull sank low, then the superstructure, then the smoke stack, until, at last, only a plume of smoke trailed up like an arrow marking where she went over the edge.

Ships rise from over the horizon

And watching that horizon intently I have seen smoke, just a wisp, pull up the barrels of chimneys from out the Gulf beyond Dauphin Island and Gulf Shores, chimneys I knew that were marked with a “W.” Then a hull would emerge with its red water line rising in turn from the Gulf. No dragons lay beyond the joint of the circle of green and the bowl of blue. Climbing a pine tree I could see a little farther over the curve of the earth and farther out to sea. I could see a little more than those who were content to stand on the ground. Joining them, I drew in the sand what my eye saw: a boy looking to the edge of sight, the corner of the sky. I imagined that the gulls could see a grander circle from their great heights than the small world of a fiddler crab on the beach. So on a calm day I plunged into the Bay’s quiet water sinking down until my eyes barely cleared the surface, a centimeter above the water line. There I saw it! The horizon zoomed in to only a thousand yards away. The beach across the Bay slipped out of view. Only the pine-covered tops of the bluffs of Fairhope peaked above the water. Mon Louis beyond Dog River sank and rose with me as I alternately sat or stood in the water. I saw the earth curving down before me obscuring what lay beyond my line of sight. A great exhilaration flowed over me like the water that dripped from my nose. I could see for myself the pregnant swell of the earth’s belly.

Feeling the pull of the Sun and moon

I went again and again to the jetty. I always found it faithful. I studied hard at the school of seeing. One day I saw a long, low heap of water pile up. The quarter moon stood high in the pale blue sky, gray and ghostly. I saw the tide coming. I had seen the tidal flow before, swirling around the pilings at the mouth of Dog River. I had seen the boats float higher and higher on each swell. I had seen the tide stall the lazy flow of the river and send salt water upstream and into the creeks and sloughs and bogs, all the way up to the swamp puddle that lay behind my house. The combined pull of the moon and the sun reached across thousands of miles of emptiness to draw up the drops of water, at least a little. And the water’s surface tracked the sun and moon as the earth turned beneath them. Then I realized that the moon was pulling on me, too, lifting a fraction of my weight from me. Like invisible threads joining the dust of the moon and flaming gas of the sun to the cells of my body, gravity tugged and pulled at me. And I pulled back. The moon then adjusted its orbit infinitesimally because of my trek to the beach. I left the beach feeling the earth pull my bare feet to it in a weighty embrace. And my toes tugged back boyishly on the great green ball on which I walked and ran and sat, watching. And when the wizards of the flat earth tried to tangle my thoughts with purloined and perverted theories of light and gravity to stand arguments on their heads, I simply shook mine. The earth is round, I say, rounder than our imagination. This I know, for I have seen it. You have my word on it.

But never mind . . . go see for yourself.

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

Earthrise: a view of the earth from the moon NASA photo

A pack of camels is a symbol of judgement for Sammy    Photo credit: S. Matteson

A pack of camels is a symbol of judgement for Sammy Photo credit: S. Matteson

I sometimes wonder about Jesus. And I wonder what people would say about him if he lived in my neighborhood. I suspect that you would find him, if you were the inquisitive sort, at Joe McGovern’s Tavern on the Bayfront after he left the cabinet shop down the road. He would be eating fried flounder and drinking a beer, listening to fish stories the men who frequent Joe’s liked to tell. He would look out over the water and see the lights of the flounderers gigging the flat fish in the shallows of Mobile Bay. He would listen to the men, who smelled of day-old sweat and too many yeasty brews, as they squinted through the blue smoke from their cigarettes. He would laugh at their jokes and look at them with eyes that look right through you. And they would look back at a man with big hands and sawdust in his hair, one that listened hard, like he really cared what you were saying.

Religion is in the salt air

In Alabama we don’t hide our religion in a broom closet. Spirituality is not so much a private issue as I have heard that it is up north. We aren’t embarrassed to say, “I’m a Baptist, a Methodist, a Born-again-twice-blessed-Pentecostal Brethren. Or he’s a Catholic, a Jew, or a reprobate.” (Chances are, too, we knew somebody who was the latter and one of the other categories at the same time.) We get out more, I suppose. Out in the woods and out on the water. It is hard not to be spiritual, even if in an unorthodox way, when you walk out under the moss-hung oaks and hear the whispers on the bay breeze, the whispers of long dead loved ones and of enemies, and of people gone on ahead.

Everybody in Mobile is religious, it seemed to me. Even—or particularly—fishermen, though frequently they didn’t seem very pious. But rare is the fisherman of my acquaintance that doesn’t tip his hat to God now and again. Just to be on the safe side. Too many fellows have gone out on a sunny day and not come back after the sudden storm.

But, if Jesus lived on Bayfront road there would be talk. Of that I am sure. There always is. Church people can be the meanest flock of birds in the world. Like a yard full of chickens that peck another hapless biddy to death because of a spot on her head. Dad quit the church for a while once because the Deacons were pecking away at the preacher in a squabble. When he could stand it no more my Dad embarrassed me to death: he stood up in a business meeting, leaned on his good leg and requested that his name be struck from the church rolls. He would have no part in the fight. He had been the Chairman of the Deacons, too—until then. The fight was about which side of the church we would put the organ, I think. No, it wasn’t really about that at all, when I think about it; that’s just what people said it was about; what they talked about. It was really about who was in charge, the Preacher or the Deacons. People and chickens, just the same, it seems.

A Disappointment

The Church had a Youth Camp down on the bayou with a weekend of meetings, singing, games, and preaching by an itinerant youth evangelist just five years older than I was. All the girls were in love with him and all the boys wanted to be him, even if only to have the girls love them. He shared a cabin with me and four other boys. Since I was in charge of the sports equipment and had worn myself out trying to keep up with volleyballs, softballs, bats and horseshoes for forty or fifty careless teenagers, I got to take a nap one afternoon during the fifth evangelistic service of the weekend. I walked into the cabin where the suitcases were laid out on the bunks. One beat-up tweed suitcase stood open. I wasn’t snooping, but I saw there, stuck in the corner under a pair of socks, a pack of Camels. Cigarettes are very much against the rules at a Youth Camp. Smokes are an unholy vice, as everyone knew at my church, since smoking was declared a venal sin, along with drinking, rock and roll, and dancing, of course. Cigarettes on the hollowed grounds? Appalling! And what is more, the suitcase lay on the Preacher’s bunk!

I did not sleep well during my nap. I was at once horrified, disappointed, angry, betrayed and bewildered. “The nerve of that man! To preach holiness to teenagers in ponytails and tee shirts; to exhort kids in white socks and poodle skirts to strive for purity and all the while secretly winking at his own sins! He is just like all the other men folk who stand around on the back stoop of the church house, smoking between services and then go in to pass the offering plate, their breath still smelling of tobacco.” I woke up with a headache.

I waited sullenly, until my righteous indignation turned to smoldering shame.   After the kids spilled out of the chapel back into the cabins, Billy, a pre-delinquent thug, sauntered into the room, shut his suitcase and moved it from the preacher’s bunk up onto his own.

If Jesus lived in my neighborhood, I wonder if he would smoke Camels. It probably wouldn’t matter. People would think he did. The church people would disapprove. He would smell of the smoke of Camel cigarettes because he spent too much time at the tavern loving fishermen.

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954    photo credit: Sammy Matteson

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954 photo credit: Sammy Matteson

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 378 other followers