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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.

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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 on 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 they 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

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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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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.

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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

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Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY.  Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Interior of Mary Todd Lincoln Home, Lexington, KY. Leaning against the hearth is a crude broom that evokes the memory of the yard broom of the story. Photo: Sam Matteson

Some heirlooms are not as ponderous as a black wrought iron pot or as self-consciously decorative as a crocheted doily. Some treasures passed down by mothers to their children through the generations are as intangible as they are precious, nevertheless they are as pointed as Pa Moates’ awl, even if as ephemeral as the breath of my first grand child, Paul, on my cheek when I held him close on the day he was born,   Paradoxically, the most enduring legacy is one that is beyond our touch; it may seem ever out of reach—impalpable, even ghost-like, yet never beyond touching us.   The artifact of most durable beauty is often invisible to others, a holy relic of the spirit. Such are the “yard sweepers.”

Down South, stories are part of the fabric of society and of who we are. Narrative weaves between the people: over one, under another, in a Jacquard of life and history. In the damask and twill of struggle, lessons are writ in the tales that define and give meaning to our history—personal as well as corporate. The stories may be remolded by memory and the retelling, growing a patina of myth, but their truth shines through unmistakably. A treasured century-old aphorism came to me that way, told first by my Ma Bertie to a favorite daughter Audrey; bequeathed by her to a son, me, and passed on to his progeny. We all share it as if it were a familial watchword that allows us safe passage into the larger family, a shibboleth of belonging. We know it; we treasure it; we pass it on because it is ours—and because it is true. And because we belong to it.

A Tangible Memory Encountered

It comes to mind again, resuscitated in physical reality on a summer day by our visit to a living history museum. It is like a lace curtain—so often ignored—that unexpectedly billows, propelled by spirit or by wind, a genteel but bracing slap across our face. My daughter echoes her great grandmother, whom she knows only in story and in her admonition: “Sweep the backyard first.”

We are standing before a restored antebellum dog trot set high on orange fired brick pillars with a broad pine stoop leading up to the covered porch that wraps around the clapboard structure like an apron drawn up with a string on the ample waist of a matron. From the creaking rocking chairs we survey the yard under the pines and oaks. There is not one blade of grass for a hundred yards in every direction until the shoulder-high weeds begin over there, on the way out to the field that is a dark and dangerous tangle, cut only by a beaten path. This was precisely the way of the early days of the rural twentieth century of my mother’s Alabama youth, recreated faithfully here, a custom born of practicality. Fire and snakes menaced the home when grass grew too close to the door. So bare dirt yards were the norm then, long before suburban homeowners took to grass farming and became perennial lawn mowers and greens keepers.

A broomstraw yard sweeper stands in the corner ready for its daily ritual of grooming the tamped and barren earth. Grass and weed seed fall but never take root when daily swept away. “We swept the yard,” Mother frequently told me “to make it safe.” But “Mother,” my mother intoned with impressive gravity and slow incantation, “Always reminded me, ‘Sweep the backyard first’.”

On a beach on another day, I retrieve a clam and oyster shell and learn again the same, simple lesson. I hold the clamshell in my left hand and marvel at its symmetry and fluted ridges. Inside, however, is plain and unremarkable. The oyster shell in my other hand seems fit only for roadwork and fill, so apparently misshapen and drab, until I turn it over and catch the glint of mother of pearl and iridescent beauty—within.

A Treasure In Your House

Subsequently, my kindergartener grandson visits my home while I am away, and plays at pirates and treasure maps. Returning, I find his note: “FROM PAUL TO PAPA… THER. IS. A. CHRECHIR. CHEST. IN. YOUR. HAWS.” Old truth, ever iridescent, flashes again in his innocent script. When in the press of pride and self-absorption I am tempted to expend my energy in meaningless show and glory-seeking, I hear again my grandmother and her Good Book speaking: “Honey, sweep the back yard first. Where your treasure is, there your heart really lives.”

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

Katie Robertia Holland Moates, The Original Yardsweeper, ca. 1950 Family photo.

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There are many things in life that I have never figured out, things which forever seem a mystery. There was a time, with the arrogance of youth, when I thought I could—given enough time—figure out anything. Science, now, that’s how you do it, and mathematics. By the 1950s we had figured out how to fly faster than the speed of sound; we had flung satellites in orbit, and we would, before the end of the century, put a man on the moon and return him safely home. We had discovered penicillin. We had recently conquered the scourge of polio. Surely, there was nothing that lay beyond our reach or beyond our understanding. So I thought before I learned how very much we really did not know and how puzzling the simplest events could be. So I profoundly believed—before Uncle Grover conjured my wart.

Toads To Blame

I played in the dirt and handled toads routinely in those days. Such was the way of child’s play where I lived. And child’s play is a child’s job. Warts were, therefore, an occupational hazard. My wart was of astonishing size and was situated at the extreme vertex of my elbow. When I touched the alien growth with the fingers of my opposite hand, it lacked feeling and moved about as if only incidentally attached to my arm. Looking in the mirror, my arm twisted awkwardly upward, I observed it. It was as if one of my cat’s eye marbles had taken up residence under the skin on my elbow. I stared at it in the glass for a long time. It was amazing and frightening at the same time.

I suppose I had infused the knot of flesh with a virus—an organism of which we were ignorant then—by my habit of resting my chin on my fists, my elbows securing a foothold in the dirt, to form a steady A-frame. Thus stabilized, I—preternaturally a scientist at heart—could satisfy my curiosity by looking at things: by observing ants scurrying down a trail among the leaves; by staring at the ripples tadpoles made in the rainwater of the bar ditch; or by watching the waves break on the beach of the Bayfront. My wart was a huge and awkward knob of flesh. It was annoying.

Once, during a visit to Ma Bertie and Pa’s house in Panama City, Florida, my grandmother noticed the ugly growth. She reached out and gently stroked my elbow with her free hand. “What you got there, honey chile?”

“Just a wart.”

“Does it bother y’all?”

“Some.”

She paused a minute and stirred silently some Sun Perch she was frying for supper. Then she spoke deliberately. “Go down the street to the white house at the end, the one with the big porch. Show your wart to your Uncle Grover. He’ll know what to do ‘bout it. . . . Run along now; supper’s almost ready.”

A Visit to Uncle Grover’s House

I did as she instructed, but not without trepidation. Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates was one of my Pa’s elder brothers. He was an even more ancient variation on my grandfather, smelling of decrepitude and Camel cigarette smoke, with age-spotted hands, and deeply creased, leathery skin clinging to his jowls where sprouted a thin haze of white stubble. He said little the few times before when I had visited him with my grandparents on his porch, and what he said was gruff. To go to his house alone was intimidating. I walked past the live oaks beside the lane, their menacing Spanish moss fingers admonishing me not to venture into the unknown at the end of the street. The ominous shadows of the evening also were creeping ahead of me toward Uncle Grover’s house as I walked toward it. They arrived just before I did. But I was relieved when I saw my great uncle lounging out front in a ladder backed chair, his lanky legs crossed before him. I had no desire to enter his alien white-washed frame house. Who knew what lurked inside?

Walking up to his slightly bent, cadaverous form, I pretended more courage than I felt and showed him my wart. “Ma Bertie said I should show you this here wart.”

Uncle Grover pushed back on his balding head a felt hat and adjusted a pair of rimless spectacles that rode astride his monumental “Moates” nose.

“She’s a big ‘un, ain’t she?” He commented as he uncrossed his legs and sat upright. “You want me to conjure it for y’all?”

“What do you mean?

“Conjure it; make it go away.”

“You can do that?”

“They call me a ‘wart taker’ cuz conjuring works a’time. Done it for lots a folks afore. You want me to get ridda the wart, or not?”

“I guess so.”

A Wart is Conjured

“Well, just stand still, boy! Stop yore fidgetin’. Let’s us just see what we can do.” He grasped each of my shoulders with his bony right and left hands and roughly squared up his hesitant client to face him head on. He slid forward to the edge of his chair. It creaked a small complaint as he moved. I stood on the ground before him, trembling slightly. Doubling up my arm, my uncle, the wart taker, held it against my chest with one hand where I could feel my heart beating hard against the inside of my chest. He began gently rubbing the end of my elbow with the upturned palm of his other hand and simultaneously mumbling a quiet incantation. His gaze was fixed in concentration: distant, looking over my shoulder.

After a few seconds he announced, “Wart’ll be gone in a few days.”

I felt a little disappointed. “You don’t gotta bury a dead cat or something?”

“No, there’s no need. Best things are simple. No need for prettification.”

I thanked him in my most polite manner. (My mother would have been proud, I thought.) Parting amenities completed, I ran back to my grandparents’ house and dinner, happy to be done with the unsettling ritual. I, nevertheless, was skeptical and would have forever remained so until two days later when we returned home to Mobile. I reached into the car through an open window to fetch a toy from the backseat and brushed my elbow against the door frame. The wart ripped from my arm and fell onto the floor, a bloody knot of flesh. I stopped doubting Uncle Grover then. He had, indeed, conjured my wart. It was not as I had expected, nor do I know how he did it, but it was, in fact, gone from my arm, never to return.

I Despair of Understanding

There are things that I have learned to be true that I don’t understand. There are other things I will never understand, partly because I will not live long enough and partly because I have been to the edges of my understanding and looked over. And partly, too, because some things defy figuring out.

I can still hear Uncle Grover’s gravelly voice saying, “Well, Sammy Gene, you don’t need to dress it up any. Sometimes a thing is just itself, and it’s a mystery.”

I think I hear him mumbling: slow, low, solemn: “Wart, go away! Wart, go away! Wart, go away!” His hand is trembling, circling gently, touching my planter’s wart that mistook my elbow for a foot. His hand is as soft as a whisper in your ear, as gentle as a moth’s wing upon your forearm, touching, doing its work profoundly but also almost imperceptibly. I know now that Uncle Grover Cleveland Moates, a retired octogenarian, sitting on his porch in overalls, was wiser and closer to the truth than many whom I have met and who wear black gabardine university gowns and sit on the dais and from whom all wonder has drained away.

Some things, I have concluded, are and will ever remain, indeed, just themselves— a mystery.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland, Christopher Columbus, John Adams Family photo.

The Moates boys (left to right): Noah Webster, Grover Cleveland (wart conjurer), Christopher Columbus, John Adams Photo credit: Annette Moates Sasser (Uncle Grover’s granddaughter) ca. 1952

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