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I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

Meanwhile, in English class, Mrs. Thelma Vanderweiss (not her real name) subjected us to a regimen of daily reading of verse in the sincere hope that “culture” would take root in our juvenile minds.  We read and committed to memory sections of “Annabell Lee” by the tintinnabulating poet Edgar Allen Poe and other “classics” of nineteenth century American literature.  She furthermore inflicted upon us one of her favorite “modern” compositions, Vachel Lindsay’s “The Congo.”  Mrs. Vanderwiess , a tiny woman with a tyrannical air, was the whitest woman that I ever met.  Her skin was pale, her pallor accentuated by her fashionably powdered cheeks.  She was, indeed, fair skinned from her high forehead to her diminutive feet, but I intend more than that; her air epitomized to me the aristocratic pretension that I thought Mobile’s white society espoused.  She always wore large diamond rings on her fingers, white pearls and a demur dress or business suit; and black pumps after Labor Day.   She seemed perpetually offended that she must attempt to instruct such uncultivated pupils as we.   She rarely smiled in my presence.  I recall how she drilled the class daily in the recitation of “The Congo” for weeks.  It was to be the centerpiece of a school-wide assembly.  The sound of her more than her image haunts me still; it is her pointed-toe shoe stomping the rhythm on the worn pine floors of the now razed Robert E. Lee High School building where we were holding classes.   “Stomp—THEN I SAW THE CONGO—stomp—CREEPING THROUGH THE BLACK—stomp— . . . .   Do you feel the beat?  All together now! Stomp— CUTTING THROUGH THE FOREST—stomp— WITH A GOLDEN  TRACK—stomp. . . .  That’s it!  You’re getting it!”

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Vachel Lindsay source: Unknown-Modern American Poetry website, Public Domain, commons.wikimedia.org

The rhythm was exciting and, despite my aversion to the manner of Mrs. Vanderweiss, I fell in love with the power and music of the poetry.   Lindsay’s rhythms were intoxicating.  There was jazz in the meter.  I suspect that the poet was sympathetic to the plight of the inhabitants of the Congo, but his voice was not the voice of a black man even though it had the power of the beat of the human heart.  His verse was a minstrel voice dressed up in black-face chanting a white man’s song.  It was only pretending to be in the Style Africaine.  Even a young teen such as I could discern the patronizing and denigrating tone of the poem entitled “The Congo, A Study of the Negro Race” with stanzas named “Their Basic Savagery,”  and “Their Irrepressible High Spirits,” and “The Hope of their Religion.”    I was embarrassed but could not explain why when we chanted lines like, “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room,” and “A good old negro in the slums of the town/ Preached at a sister for her velvet gown….”  I did not know any Africans nor did I really know any “colored people” in my town, and thus, I had no way to test my misgivings.  But something seemed odd to me about the characterizations and words I was chanting.

I might have marveled then, as I do now, if I had known of the African community around the corner. In a curious and ignored twist of history a transplanted African village existed for a century less than ten miles from where our map hung in my school room.  I might have felt more connected to Africa and to history if I had known of Africatown.  As it happened, in 1860, in the year before Alabama’s secession from the union and the subsequent “War between the States,” a swaggering Mobile ship builder, Captain Timothy Meaker, bragged that, although the importation of slaves had been illegal in the United States since 1808 and had been declared a capital offense equivalent to piracy in 1820, he had built a sloop fast enough to out run any Yankee gunboat.   He could defy the jack-leg Feds and meddling abolitionists.  He made good on his boast when he handed the Clotilde over to a Captain William Foster of Maine for the purpose of acquiring a cargo of humans.

Foster had no difficulty in securing the “merchandize.”  The Dahomey tribesmen who resided in what is present day Benin happily sold their Tarkbar captives to the captain for $100 per head.  Unfortunately for Meaker, when the Clotilde reached Mobile, the Federal troops were waiting.  He sailed the sloop up the Mobile River, herded most of his human cargo onto a barge, and shipped them to Montgomery.    Then he ran the ship aground and burned it.   Later the thirty-two Africans that he had reserved for his own use were cut loose and settled on his property, freed presumably to avoid his being caught red-handed.  When the war broke out, the displaced African nucleus was joined by others who had escaped their captivity up state.  Together, they established a discrete community with a distinctly African culture just three miles from downtown Mobile.  Known locally as

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Abache’ and Cudjoe Kazoola Lewis at Africatown. Mobile, Alabama in the 1910s. Source: Emma Langdon Roche, Histroic Sketches of the South (Knickerboker Press, 1914) Public Domain

“Africatown,” it persisted until World War II as an identifiable community.  This was the last instance in US history of the importation of slaves into North America.  It seemed so long ago, but the last survivor of the Clotilde “passed” only thirteen years before I was born.  Meaker was apprehended but was never convicted, the Civil War intervening.  African history happened next door and I never knew it.  Perhaps those who taught me did not know it either, or perhaps they ignored it since they thought it irrelevant.  I realize now that I really knew nothing about Africa or Africans until I met Duke Badejogbin in college.

Duke was a Nigerian.  He was a Yoruba.  He was my brother in Christ.  When we met in my second year of college, I began to learn something of what was Africa.  He was one of the first missionaries from the Nigerian Baptist Convention to the country of Sierra Leon, more than a thousand miles up the coast of West Africa.

“I realized that I needed more education if I were to minister to the people the way our Father wanted me to,” he said, pronouncing “education” with a precision that inspired in me a new appreciation for the word.  “But when I wrote to the mission board to ask to return home, they cut us off completely.  There was no more support.  We were marooned without enough money to buy food or a ticket for the boat home.  We sold everything we had, down to the pans as small as this,” he showed me the pink palm of his left hand as he made a slicing motion at his wrist with his right. “But God is good.  He brought us home and now He has brought me here to study.”

I learned from Duke how he had reluctantly left his children and pregnant wife in the care of his family and ventured to the United States.  I agonized with him and prayed with him when word came of the coup back home and how Elizabeth, his wife, had fled with their children to the bush.  Then I rejoiced with him when he learned of the birth of his son Ayo and at the news of their safety.  Soon Elizabeth and Ayo joined him while the older children remained with his parents.

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Yoruba Ceremony Nigeria. Source: heartmendersmagazine.blogspot,com

He taught me rudimentary elements of his Yoruba culture, how his family name was a badge of honor signifying that his ancestor was the friend and advisor of the tribal ruler who danced the Jogbin dance with the chief, how his family did actually live in a mud hut with a thatched roof and no door.  Thus, I learned of the custom of clapping your hands at the doorway instead of knocking on the nonexistent panel.  He taught me that sanitized running water, air conditioning, electricity and automobiles that effortlessly rode on paved streets were luxuries that I took for granted without thinking.  It was no stereotyped lie; many Nigerians did not enjoy these amenities.  I found nothing to belittle him about.  Instead, I admired this short wiry man, his courage and resilience.

From Duke, I heard of Schweitzer’s philosophy and ethic: that all life was sacred and we must exercise a grand reverence for life.  When a visitor was about to swat a mosquito, the Nobel laureate is reported to have cautioned, “Take thought!  Remember that you are a guest in this country.”  One Sunday afternoon, my fiancé and I were visiting Duke and Elizabeth in their apartment on Second Street near the black church that was sponsoring their stay in Waco.  Suddenly, Duke pulled off his slipper and flung it across the room.  I turned just in time to see a cockroach skitter behind a bookcase.  I asked him, “What would Dr. Schweitzer say?” He replied sheepishly, “That is philosophy. This is different.  I must think about Ayo now.”  Then he smiled.  His look reminded me of what he had told me, “Ayo means ‘joy’.  As Isaac means ‘laughter’ because Sarah and Abraham laughed when he was born, so we called our son ‘Ayo’ because he brought joy to Elizabeth’s and to my heart.”  At that moment we were not Yoruba and Alabamian, Nigerian and American; we were brothers.  I began better to understand Africa.  The inhabitants of the continent were people as we are, grown from a different soil but of the same seed, cherishing a different history and culture but with the same needs and longings.

A curious word “stereotype.”  We use a stereoscope to see things in the round.  We listen to stereophonic music to be immersed in the sound.  In stereo we better understand the reality of a thing and it seems more “solid.” But when we harbor a stereotype of a person or place, we substitute a counterfeit death-rigored lie for the living, breathing reality.   I have grown to distrust statements like “All _____ are _____.”

I still despair sometimes.  We cling so jealously to our tribalism and distrust of others not of our clan. “We belong to the European tribe, the Anglo-Irish clan, the Italian family, the French enclave, the Cherokee Nation,” I think I hear us mutter.  “They” are the Africans or the Indians; they are the Whites or the Hispanics, the Asians or the Arabian; they are all a different tribe.

I hear African voices, “We are Tarkbar; they are Dahomey. They killed our ancestors; they sold us to Captain Foster of the tribe of Maine who was just the agent of Captain Timothy Meaker of the clan of Alabama. . . .  We are ‘Kikuyu;’ we are Muingiki, the second Mau Mau; death to the European exploiters.”
I worry that the tyranny of the tribe survives too strong in our breast. Yet, opposing the rule of the clan, of the tribe, of the race, opposing “us or them” stands the Family of Man.  It affirms that we are one species, one humanity.  It is not “us or them,” rather, it is only “us,” or it is nothing.

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

The real shape of the Earth is a sphere, and its net of latitude and longitude begins in the Atlantic Ocean near the mouth of the Congo.  This is an appropriate convention of geography.   “Appropriate,” I call it because anthropologists tell us that humanity—Adam and his bride—began their pilgrimage somewhere in east Africa.  Thus, there is ultimately “home.”  Thus the proper map of Africa and of its place in the world would show it at the center of our view of a globe.  On the other hand, anywhere could be the center, for this planet is round.  In spherical geometry one place is as good as another.  What is more, when we look at it aright, we see that the coast of Africa is the complement of North and South America; West Africa fits neatly into the Gulf of Mexico, while the Gulf of Guinea cups Brazil comfortably.  This remarkable fact exists because once, as children are now taught, the whole of all the land was one great Pangean continent.  Later the waters and our history came between us, but the Earth still has no edge, no real border—no border at all, except that which we have drawn between us and the others—except of course for the great oceans and the rivers, like the Congo that yet spills blue across the map and into the sea of our imaginations.

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As we grow, we draw our own maps of the world as we imagine it, gathering cartographic “facts” wherever we can, from what we are told and from what we see for ourselves on the journey.  At the end of the middle decade of the twentieth century—just as you might turn a calendar page or flip over a map leaf to discover hidden notes scribbled underneath—I turned over too.  In 1960 I began to understand for the first time that most issues of life and history are more subtle than they would have you believe who perennially view the world only in black and white and explain it all by a simple and comfortable paradigm and in a rigid stereotype.   The world is not peopled by identical copies of even a few types that are easily characterized as “good” or “evil.”

As I turned the calendar page to 1960, I began to suspect, as well, that ignorance was never an impediment to opinion, and uninformed opinion—no matter how emphatically affirmed or taught, or perhaps especially when it is chanted—is ignorance most blatant, most diabolical.  Moreover, ignorance is often chained in the darkness of its own shadow out back while prejudice hawks out front with midway barker shouts of “Hey! Rube!” but it is actually counterfeited knowledge and bogus light within.  I ultimately concluded that we do well to stand in humility before continents of human experience that are dimly known to us and reserve our judgment of those we do not understand.

 

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A map of Africa ca. 1960 source: http://www.timemaps.com

 

The decade that began when I entered the second year of junior high school was one of world-wide political upheaval.  Colonialism and Imperialism, that had flourished for centuries, were rapidly dying in a convulsion of nationalism.  No object better represents that turmoil in my memory than a giant map of the continent of Africa that hung on the wall of my social studies and geography classroom.  I entered eighth grade with an eager expectation of exploring Africa, at least from an ancient wooden school desk, if not from an armchair.  I, like Joseph Conrad’s Marlowe, had “a passion for maps . . . I would put my finger on [a place] and say, ‘When I grow up I will go there.’”  In my imagination I already had been there.  I put out my finger and traced the boundaries of Africa, of its coastline, of its rivers, of its colorful countries.

 

In profile the continent reminded me of the brow ridge of a skull—somehow human—like that of a brooding silver back gorilla or of a millions-of-years-old Zinjanthropus, like that which Louis Leakey had just reported in National Geographic, the Atlas Mountains marking the hairline, the Gulf of Guinea the empty eye socket.  Or perhaps the shape was more like a Neolithic axe, a war club, wielded by a gigantic unseen hand submerged in the Indian Ocean.  “It looks like a question mark,” I decided at last, albeit a crudely drawn question mark, limned in blue by the Congo and the Nile, and punctuated by Madagascar.  Africa was a stage of eleven and a half million square miles, a macabre circus for a tragedy of European colonies to play that comprised a cast of hundreds of tongues and thousands of tribes and clans, millions of people and a drama of global exploitation.  It had been explored, “discovered” by Europeans of the last century.  I had heard of the great explorers:  David Livingstone and Henry Stanley, especially the latter who famously, nonchalantly posed the inane query after a grueling search for the famous physician, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”  There was, of course, a contemporary adventurer-missionary, even if he were a bit elderly by then: Dr. Albert Schweitzer

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Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) source:wikipedia

—physician, theologian, virtuoso organist, Nobel laureate, and humanitarian.  We knew after his capturing the Nobel Peace Prize that this “Reverencer of Life” had returned from France to somewhere in the heart of equatorial Africa—we were not quite sure where—to serve the medical and spiritual needs of his black “junior brothers.”  He was universally lionized in Europe, the United States, and Africa for his unselfish service to—in the European mindset—the hopeless and childlike natives of the “Dark Continent.”  He was regarded as a champion of the “colored races” even though he publicly supported the oppressive French Colonial Government of Equatorial Africa and regarded the indigenous population as inferior to the civilized European “race.”

 

We thought we knew Africa because we visited its jungles for half an hour every Saturday morning in the adventures of “Ramar of the Jungle” and in the film adventures of Tarzan the Ape Man.  I presumed that the entire continent was a dense tangle of vegetation crawling with snakes and crocodiles, ringing with the howl of monkeys and pocked with treacherous pools of quicksand.  In many ways the images suggested to me that Africa was very much like my back yard, my woods, and my swamp. Yet the human inhabitants of this alien world were both like and unlike those I saw in my country.

In the cinemagraphic jungle that I visited each Saturday, Jon Hal, also known by his other stage names of Charles Locher and Lloyd Crane, portrayed the intrepid Doctor Tom Reynolds in black and white reruns from the 1952 and ’53 seasons.  Ramar, whose name we understood to mean “Great White Medicine Man,” ever wearing a pith helmet, epaulet shirt, Bermuda shorts, and a stoic demeanor, weekly battled evil white poachers and thieves, as well as  black “jungle native” voodoo witch doctors.  He, like the real doctor Schweitzer, took care of his “child-like” patients with a benevolent patronage that demonstrated unequivocally the superiority of the European civilization to the savage “native” culture. Every show could be counted on for a leopard-skin-clad woman, some quicksand, or cuts of stock African wildlife photography—slithering snakes or snorting hippos.

The good doctor was assisted in his exploits in many episodes by his comical retainer and guide Willy-Willy played by Nick Stewart, a black actor who had given voice to the character “Lightnin’” on the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.  He was also the voice of B’rer Rabbit in Disney’s Song of the South.  It seems oddly ironic that Stewart would reach a measure of notoriety portraying such comically subservient and stereotyped roles, then spend the remainder of his career directing the Ebony Showcase Theater in Los Angeles where African-American actors performed serious drama and grand theater.  But much that I saw in popular culture regarding Africa, I now know, was a contradictory mixture of truth and fabrication, but that is the nature of entertainment.

Ramar and Willy-Willy did not actually move about the jungle, rather they performed their

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Left to Right: Nick Stewart (as Wiily-Willy), Juanita Moore , and Jon Hall (Ramar) in episode “Savage Challenge” source: it.wp.com/thebiggame hunter.com

exploits on a sound stage in downtown Hollywood, California.  Neither, to my knowledge, ever got within a thousand miles of the jungles.  The animal scenes were spliced in from “spec” shorts shot on location by freelance adventurers.  My more critical adult eye can discern today the different sources as obvious, but for us, the children, the television took us in reality to darkest Africa.  Every child was sure he knew the sounds of the jungle: “Bwana, listen to the drums.  I hear the drums . . .” and then a piercing “koo-koo-koo-kaw-kaw-kaw,” actually the song of the Kookaburra bird.  Unfortunately, the bird never existed in the wilds of the African bush, residing as it does in Australia.  Its sound was appropriated because it sounded “jungle-like” to an inventive sound engineer.  Curiously, truth and fiction melded everywhere.  Ramar, as well as Tarzan, was often called “Bwana,” a legitimate Swahili word meaning “Lord,” or “Sir” or just plain “Mister.”  Yet this appellation was often coupled to the interjection “Ungawa!”  The latter word is a fabrication reputed to have been the brainchild of screenwriter Cyril Hume, who was inspired by the sound of the answer to the question “Where is Paramount Studio?”  The answer: “On Gower”—Boulevard, that is.  Much of what I thought I knew of Africa was like that: a cauldron of dark ignorance containing much speculation, some fabrication, and a few craven lies, but with a pinch of truth just to make the brew palatable.

 

The map of Africa that hung on the classroom wall became an object of infinite irritation.   The multicolor rotogravure print of the “dark continent” was a continent of frustration to me and others who were trying to learn the political geography of the vast continent.  The inconsiderate Africans had begun, in earnest, the practice that they would continue for the rest of the century: continually changing the names; redrawing the boundaries of their countries; declaring their independence here; building a new nation there.  It was all too chaotic for a junior geographer to master.  Nothing seemed to be as tidy any more as the beautiful poster of colonial Africa would suggest.  If the nineteenth century had seemed a sweeping romantic symphony of discovery, then my century resounded with the melded syncopation of jungle drums and bar room jazz.  In a futile attempt at making sense of the splintering African political landscape, my teacher placed beside the brooding map a tack board headed: “Current Events.”   She awarded points for every relevant article we clipped from newspapers and magazines like the Mobile Press Register or Newsweek or Life.  As we entered the class room we would glance up to the board by the map.  “What is the name of the Congo, today?” I heard more than once.

Indeed, the names of the countries began to change that year, as did the geopolitical realities within the former colonies.  In particular, the Belgian Congo disappeared from the map and was replaced by the Republic of the Congo, or was it called the Congo-Brazzaville?  No, wait.  What about Katanga?  Was it a separate nation?  Was Kenya still a British colony or did it go independent over the weekend?   What about Nigeria?

“At least, they haven’t changed the rivers,” I whispered to myself and to anyone standing nearby as I ran my finger up the Nile from Lake Victoria.  Then I followed the blue, tortured track of the Congo west from the savannah near Lake Tanganyika below the heights of the Mitumba Mountains, crossing the equator twice before disgorging into the Atlantic Ocean.  This was then and is today Africa’s most powerful river and, only after the Amazon, the second most voluminous cataract in the world.

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River Congo, Africa source:africa-facts.org

If I had picked up a copy of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, I would have agreed with Marlowe, “There was in it a mighty river that you could see on the map resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country and its tail lost in the depths of the land.”  But Conrad’s masterpiece was not on our approved reading list, nor even in the school library.  Neither was Twain’s King Leopold’s Soliloquy readily available.  We learned simply in our social studies text that King Leopold of Belgium had ruled the Free State of the Congo after the United States and thirteen European nations had met in Berlin at the end of the nineteenth century and had agreed to permit him to become the protector and overseer of a territory larger than pre-world war Germany.  If we had read Twain’s scathing pamphlet as we can now via the Internet, we would have been scandalized at the atrocities perpetrated against the people of equatorial Africa—atrocities that rival in brutality those committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust.

Particularly savage was the practice of severing the right hand of Congolese men, women, and children as punishment for failing to meet the quota of the rubber tax.   They were required to feed the army that terrorized them.  If they failed to cooperate, they were slaughtered wholesale.  Twain’s final words on Leopold are a bitter epitaph that he hoped would soon be appropriated for use: “Here under this gilded tomb lies rotting the body of one the smell of whose name will still offend the nostrils of men ages and ages [hence].”  When I learned of the exploitation, murder, cannibalism, and abject slavery that Leopold’s agents practiced on the hapless inhabitants of the Congo basin, much of it brokered initially by Henry Stanley, I thought that, if I were Congolese, I would forever despise Europeans and hate the white race implicitly and always mistrust anyone not of my tribe.

I was told nothing about the “unpleasantries” of the genocide for which Leopold was culpable.  The similarities to the exploitation of Kenya by the British should have been plain, but we were preoccupied with news of other atrocities.  The seven-year-long state of emergency in Kenya ended that year.  To our great relief, the Mau Mau Uprising was over.  The Mau Mau or the Muingi were primarily of the Kikuyu tribe of Kenya.  What made the Mau Mau seem so horrific and frightening was the “oath.”   It was a magic ritual in which the blood of an exsanguinated goat was blended with that of the adjurer who, standing before a fearsome idol of the old god Ngai, and the mingled flow was sprinkled over banana leaves and raw earth, recited a vow of obedience to the movement and an eternal, lethal hatred of the British.  Refusal to take the oath meant instant and fatal reprisal by the Mau Mau.  Consequently, it has been estimated that over half the indigenous population of Kenya had taken the oath by the end of the insurrection.  Oaths are not taken lightly in Kikuyu culture, and, despite the criminalization of the oath as a capital offense by the colonial government, the populace had little choice but to comply if forced to swear allegiance to the rebels.

Based on the lurid newspaper accounts, we imagined wild-eyed, dread-lock coiffed, machete-wielding butchers running amok from Kilimanjaro to Nairobi, slaughtering whites wherever they met them.  In actuality only thirty-two Europeans were killed by the insurrectionists in the seven year revolt, while 11,500 “Mau Maus” perished at the hands of the British often without trial; one thousand of them were hanged.  The colonial government’s practice of mutilation of the corpses by amputation of the right hand (“for finger print identification” was the official explanation) is bizarrely reminiscent of the Congo a half century before.

I began the decade regarding Colonialism with modestly high regard, but I grew uneasy about what little I heard about Africa and its colonial history.

(to be continued)

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Ma Bertie in Dothan

Ma Bertie Moates (family photo)

Some would say I got religion early.  Some might even claim that I inherited it from Dad’s family, all the way back to Henry Matteson in the sixteen hundreds.  It is true that Henry was a follower of Roger Williams and a non-conformist believer who was run out of Massachusetts Bay Colony for his Baptist beliefs.  And it is true that there have been Baptists and Congregationalists in my father’s family for generations since then.  But I do not make any claim to prestige because of Henry’s presence in America in the seventeenth century, that he lived on this continent earlier rather than later, since everyone has to be somewhere and everybody has ancestors as ancient as Henry, even if they do not know of them by name.  Nor do I lay claim to any piety by association, not even from my saintly maternal grandmother Ma Bertie.

Rather, I think that there is a deep-seated need in every human to look up.  Awe is an emotion that is appropriate to man.  I felt it early when I looked out on the endless water of the Gulf of Mexico reaching from my feet, halfway to the heavens.  Then, I knew that I must always swim only in the shallow end and marvel, at a distance, at the secrets of the deeps.  I sensed God was at work in the mighty and marvelous things I saw. I knew God in the simplicity of a child’s trust.  The message I heard was plain: the Maker of all that is knew my address, knew who I was and loved me anyway.  We called Him “Father.”

My first memories of church are of singing.  I see myself sitting beside the piano in a white oak chair.  The handle of the piano is as high as my left ear.  Brother Mac, the choir director, is trying patiently to help his music makers to learn the melody of a simple song that we will sing in big church just before Christmas.  It is Dauphin Way Baptist Church. Mother is waiting for me in the parking lot while I practice; then it’s home to our house in Birdville.

I knew the Jesus script well.  He was a baby in December; by spring he was grown and the story grew gorier.  There were rumors of an unjust execution and the death of a perfect man who was, somehow, God inside.  Because God loved me, he took my place and my punishment.   But the full import of that was lost on me.  I knew too little of guilt and no shame at all to feel a need for God’s forgiveness.  But I knew God, not just things about Him.  And who could know God and not love Him?  I talked to Him, silently most often but out loud when I was otherwise alone.   And He talked to me.  Not in audible words but in impression and in peace.

Once, when I was six and after I had been very ill, and I was sure I would die with my father far away in Puerto Rico, I longed for my Daddy’s sure hand gripping mine. Years later, my mother told me what I had said and done.  I asked her, “Momma, when is Daddy coming home?”

To this she responded—exasperated and beat down by three sick children and a husband gone forever on TDY, “Temporary Duty,” that nevertheless seemed eternal –“Only God knows.”

“I’ll ask him, then.”  I agreed.

I left the house on Flamingo Drive and walked down the gray sidewalk between the gray clapboard-sided apartments to the gray and empty wading pool in the common field.  The structure was a square “fort” with a foot and a half high wall, twenty by twenty.  It was my special place, a place that was my thinking place, a special place where I talked to God.  In half an hour or so I returned and said to my Mother, “Daddy’s coming home.  I talked to God.  Daddy is coming home.”  I pronounced it with such conviction that she was shaken.  She called Brookley Field’s operations to see if indeed there was a chance.  But they reported that a hurricane was bearing down on Puerto Rico, and they doubted that anything would be leaving the airfields down there.  Mother was worried my faith would be shaken.  I was unconcerned.

That night Mother received a long-distance call from my father.  He would be arriving at 3:00 a.m. She woke me. “Daddy just called.  He is on his way home.  Let’s meet him at the airport.”  I was happy but not surprised.  I remember seeing my Dad descending the stairs from the Convair turboprop, he sporting a red goatee.  He was home.  He had flown out on one of the last planes to leave Puerto Rico before the storm hit.  He had flown out on a plane whose propellers he had serviced.  His was a faith in his own work.  Mine was a faith that must of necessity lie in something greater than me.  As a child, however, I felt my premonition unremarkable, but it was not the last time I had such an adventure.  Only sometimes the answer was not what I wanted or expected.

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Convair turboprop similar to that the author’s father returned from Puerto Rico. Phosot credit: http://www.goodall.com.au

My Grandmother, Ma Bertie, had a quiet faith that did not shout or boast of its strength.  Hers was like the rocks that lie at the edge of the sea whose strength is hidden deep beneath the surface and is only revealed when the storms crash against them, and they are unshaken.  This was her faith.  I have sat beside her at the harmonium, the pump organ, and listened to her sing in a high reedy soprano the melodies of the faith from the Sacred Harp Hymnal.  The mystic shapes of the notes were like the gamut of her life.  Married as a naive teenager to a straight and strong young man who was a good man at heart but was a lover of strong drink, she, nevertheless, stood faithful.  The notes sharpened as she learned of the struggle of rearing a family at the turn of the century.  During the Great Depression, like other Americans singing the blues in a minor key, she took solace in the hope of her faith despite the privations and the loss of their farm.  She was not perfect, this granddaughter of the circuit riding Pastor Thomas Dew, but she was genuine and strong.  When I knew her, she was already over seventy and had weathered many storms.  She seemed the epitome of resolute faith.

I recall sitting beside her in the Assembly of God church where she attended in Panama City.  I was a little frightened by the commotion that swirled around her when all prayed aloud.  She held a man’s handkerchief twisted in her left hand and whispered softly, “Sweet Jesus! Yes, Lord!” with her eyes clinched shut.  I knew that she asked God for more than she spoke aloud.  I was troubled by those who “spoke in tongues.”  One sister in particular shouted out at every meeting what sounded to me to be exactly the same babble every time she spoke.  Pastor Riddings translated her declaration for the congregation without hesitation.  It was always something on point with his sermon.  But I did not mind as much the show of their worship when I thought of how they loved “Sister Bertie.”  They loved her in warm appreciation and practical ways.  They loved Pa, too, even though he did not attend.   Perhaps the whole affair was lost on him due to his deafness.  I suppose it was to him like the distant incoherent roar of the sea, like the ecstatic tongues that never get translated.

It is told of my Ma Bertie that when a prayer meeting was called at the church to petition the Almighty for rain to end the drought, she was the only one to come to meeting with an umbrella under her arm. Such was her faith.

Ma Bertie’s favorable hymn was “Victory in Jesus.”   The affirmation of the words was like the steel bands of a stave barrel; she held together because of what she believed.  When she ultimately died of stomach cancer that followed throat cancer, all brought on by years of dipping snuff, she faced it bravely.  The scale was returning to “Do.”  She hummed the broken melodies of the hymns of faith with the little strength of her failing body.  But she was unafraid and was hopeful of an ultimate victory in Jesus.

PICT0019 edited

The author’s mother, in one of her most common poses: sewing. (family photo)

I have shared that faith for much of my life.  I sat in the pew at Hollinger’s Island Baptist Church, realizing that there was something between God and me that I had to get straight.  I saw that Jesus had paid the debt of my willfulness and disobedience.  My “sin,” Pastor Rusk called it, was getting in the way of my life-long friendship with God.  I told Mother after the service that when Brother Rusk told us to give our hearts to Jesus, I wanted to go to the front of the church, take out my heart and lay it on the altar.  She arranged for me to visit with the Pastor.  He quizzed me and declared that I was old enough and understood enough to make my own commitment.  I was nine years old.

I was “dunked” on November 5, 1956.  The baptismal pool was deep, and the water was cold.  The deacons had put a cinder block in the bottom for me to stand on, but I had to swim from the step to Brother Rusk.  “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost…” under the water; “rise to walk in the newness of life!”  I rose from the water shivering, but happy.  I was proud to show outside what had happened inside of me.

My subsequent adventures in the faith have been much like that icy pool of water.  Much of the time I cannot touch bottom and the water chills my soul; occasionally, I do get a toe touch of solid ground, but just for a moment.  Nevertheless, I am rarely afraid, since I grip a strong hand of One who has been here before me, just as I did that November night.

I have examined that faith repeatedly over the years.  Every time I found that it was indeed real and reasonable.  It may have been the faith of my fathers, it may have first belonged to Ma Bertie, then to my mother, but it is also mine.

Some would say I got religion early.  I say that I found God none too soon.  I found Him for myself and have been making sure of it ever since.  What I discovered in my search is that He does not hide when you really look for Him, and you will recognize Him instantly when you meet Him, even if you never saw Him before in your life.

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rain

Rain. Photo Credit: dehayf5MHWL7.cloudfront.net

The rain is beating against the window glazing with tiny, crystal-ball hands.  You can see your entire world reflected there if you look hard and long enough, only small and coiled up inside a minuscule globe.  Billowing sheets are down there hopscotching their round foot prints across the parking lot like some ghost of a lost tropical storm were puzzled to find herself in my neighborhood and she does not know where to turn next.  I start when I realize that I have been staring so long out the office window.  The light is failing; night is coming and I can begin to see myself, there in the window—like the portrait of a ghost, too, a framed specter sprinting through the gray hissing gauntlet.  Strange it seems to me, but when the light it is that rose and gray just before sunset or when some twist of the quotidian ordinary pricks loose some fragment of a memory or the smallest piece of a memory of a feeling that it flings up against the inside of my head or the backside of my eyes, I will wander off into a melancholy place.  That is where I am, now, and there I find my grandfather, Pa—Theodore Noah Webster Moates.

Pocket Contents

I do not recall not knowing him or when I first realized that this rock of a man was my ancestor and I, his progeny.  Yet my recollections are really few, much like the contents of a small boy’s pockets: in my right front I find a marble, a pebble, a penny from 1947-lincoln-wheat-pennies-value-78-13936425071947, the year of my birth; in the left, a jack knife with one of the grips missing—lost playing mumbly peg, and two bent rusting nails, one square, one round.  I lay the contents of my pocket memory on the sill beneath the window that never has opened before and I see a Mount Rushmore-ian figure.  I see his towering head with its craggy nose and high domed brow.

I did not think of his beginning until he died.  He seemed always to have been there, an ancient sun baked creature speaking slowly, wisely, steadily even as his calloused carpenter’s hands oscillated tremulously with “the palsy.”  He smelled of cigarettes—“I’d walk a mile for a Camel”—an exotic, dark tobacco aroma that hung on his clothes like an invisible mantle of virility.  And there was also that faint, strange sweet yeasty smell that was both the comfort and the curse of another Noah after the legendary flood.

 

Pa Moates

Theodore Noah Webster Moates ca.June 1969  Panama City Florida Photo credit: the author, his grandson

Pa was one of the oldest human beings that I knew as a child, though I doubted even then that he had been acquainted with the ark builder, even though my grandfather was builder too. I suspected they had more in common than I could understand, but I realize now that I did not really know him well, despite our times of tales on the screened porch, tales of the days before paved roads in Florida, when the Moates family traveled by buckboard wagon two days to visit Aunt Sadie.  I can see the pair of white sandy tracks of the trail when Pa speaks.  He smiles when he recounts how in a sudden thunderstorm they find shelter in an abandoned smokehouse—all that remained of a farm stead build before the war—the War Between the States, that is.  Settling back in his aluminum lawn chair, my grandfather paints a dark and mysterious still life study with his drawled words, a picture of close, black restless sleep in the ancient building, smelling of age and decay and hams.  Suddenly he leans forward, grabs my hand, and blurts out: “I snapped to when I felt something awful wet and hairy slam in my face.”

“What was it?” I demand breathlessly.

“Well, I couldn’t rightly say.” He is stalling. “Until the next flash of light’n showed up some wild goats go a-runnin’ out the door that was a-bangin’ in the wind.  They was as sceerd as we was, I reckon.”

We both laugh—I in my child’s high rattle, he in his deep rumble that sounds like the breakers of the gulf that slam against the shore.  Pa’s chuckle is powerful like thunder itself that makes you shake, laughing or not, in spite of yourself.

Amazing Camellias!

I see him now walking after the rain among his camellia bushes, and I remember the mischief in his eye.  Pa had found a mail order catalog that advertised growth hormone.  With a vial of the magic elixir he treats each bud of every plant in his garden.  He even secretly applies it one twilight evening to the camellias of his friend and neighbor, as well, across the sandy street.  Weeks later she brags to Pa about how green is her thumb.  Pa only chuckles mysteriously and never lets slip the truth of his evening rounds.  Now it makes me smile that for fifty years she never figured out what she had done that miraculous year to make such beautiful and grand blossoms.

There is so much that I do not know or have forgot.  I feel it all slipping away like the sand of a castle on the beach as the surf flings foaming salt water higher on the shore when the tide moves in.  I can cling to the few grains that volunteered on the back of my hand, but why did I not grab up whole handfuls and stuff them into my pockets?  But that I had been wiser than the child I was!  Pa, I am now a grandfather myself.  Now I wish I could know you; now perhaps I could understand.  But all I have is remembrances and faded photographs.

I can no more relive the past than I can return the rain to the sky.  I can only treasure the memories I hold in my pocket and, on occasional rainy days and in rare quiet moments take them out and amble among them.  This I will do and Pa, you will be remembered and loved again.

Beach

Beach after the rain, before night. Empty. Photo credit: the author

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St Nick

St. Nikolas of Myra, the prototype of Santa Claus is revered throughout the world. Photo credit: the author.

I am, at times and by spells, a true believer. From my earliest memories until the age of eight I was indeed a true believer. Until an embarrassingly advanced age, I trusted implicitly, without question, what I was told—especially by my elders and by older children. As a child, I believed devoutly in Santa Claus, flying reindeer, and the North Pole workshop. Fortunately, I rarely heard tales of witches and goblins or trolls in my bedtime stories, or I would assuredly have been terrified by an absolute faith in those horrific fantasies, as well.

I began first to appropriate the Clausian mythology almost osmotically. The grand elf appeared soon after Thanksgiving in all the shops and stores of the city. He—or his surrogate as I learned when I inquired—even held court in the big department store downtown in Mobile, Alabama. I accepted as believable the explanations of the only-approximately-polar attire of Gayfer Department Store Santas: shoe covers to simulate boots and false cotton whiskers. Santa’s “helpers” were in abundant attendance, too, characters who supposedly reported their conversations to the jolly elf, His Great Redness, himself. I found it an inescapable and seductive prospect that my deepest desires could be granted by a benevolent, generous old elf in a red suit if I but let him in on my secret wish by whatever means available. Thus, I was compelled to believe. Just to be sure he got the message, I also wrote to him in block letters on a Big Chief pad of blue-lined paper addressed to “Mr. S. Claus, North Pole.” I told of my longing for an impossibly expensive bicycle. So trusting of his intent and benevolence was I that it did not occur to me that his clandestine nightly visit should have been slightly threatening. That he annually persisted in his recidivistic practice of committing a class-C-misdemeanor of global breaking and entering on the evening of 24 December was of no concern at all.

The Gospel According to Clement Moore

I found “The Night Before Christmas” a wondrously compelling tale, which my faithful father and mother read to me, my sister, and my brother every Christmas Eve. Flying reindeer! Imagine the sight! Reindeer, themselves, were exotic enough for a swamp-rat like me to comprehend, but flying reindeer? I had seen flying squirrels and flying bats as well as millions of birds on the wing. But I had never seen a Lapland reindeer at all and certainly not a flying one. But who was I to question the veracity of such accounts of air-borne sleighs, accounts that were documented in sacred print and attested to by radio reports of his progress across the globe? Had I not even once received a telegram from the North Pole encouraging my “nice-ness”?

I was just a child of eight. I was discovering daily other wonders previously unknown to me that were being revealed to my wondering eyes in books and in the tales my science teacher told. I was learning that my imagination did not limit the range of what is Reality. Thus, I chose to hope and suspended any doubt. To doubt might make it impossible to acquire the bike that I so wanted. And thus I waited. I suppressed my guilt at my mercenary faith.

Christmas 1955 was approaching. I was growing anxious. How would Santa fit my bike into his small sled or down a chimney? How did he enter our house that had no chimney? And would he be able to find me when we were visiting at my Aunt Vivian and Uncle “Doc’s” house in Columbus, Georgia?

“No doubts!” I reminded myself, but I fretted anyway. When I shared my concerns at supper the week before Christmas, my parents remarked that surely Santa could find me since he kept up with such things routinely, and anyway, perhaps he might bring a special gift as a special pre-Christmas delivery before we left on the trip. The next night again we sat at supper.

Before dessert my parents stopped, looked at each other. “Did you hear that? I thought I heard sleigh bells.” Mother declared.

Dad suggested, “Sammy, why don’t you go look in the living room, and tell us what you find?”

I complied and was overjoyed to discover a bicycle, shiny and new, sitting in the middle of the floor. No tag or bow was necessary; I knew for whom it was, and I knew who had brought it—a surreptitious, hasty reindeer aviator.

After several minutes of exaltation, I rushed outside to tell Pete and Dean Cooper, my boyhood neighbors and pals, of the miraculous appearing of my great gift. They were likewise pleased for me, as real friends should be. They even assisted me in searching for reindeer prints in the dirt. I found several suspicious marks that were evidence enough that I had been, indeed, visited minutes before by Saint Nick himself and by his flying herd.

Xmas Reading

Part of every Christmas eve at the author’s house was a review of The Night Before Christmas. Sammy, Dad, Cindy Lou, and Baby Dale absorb the gripping poem ca. 1954. Photo credit: Matteson family snapshot scanned by Cindy (Matteson) King.

But I secretly wondered. I had heard the smug pronouncements of the second-grade Santa-agnostics. I half-worried that I was the victim of a conspiracy, a hoax, a grand deception. But I kept quiet about my growing doubt as we traveled to Columbus, Georgia for a family Christmas.

I looked on Aunt Vivian and Uncle Doc as aristocrats. Uncle Doc Jordan—“Jur-den” as it was pronounced in the proper vernacular of western Georgia—was a respected urologist. He always wore a bow tie that, amazingly, was not a clip-on, but rather the real thing. He reminded me of the many illustrations of Saint Nicolas that I had seen: short, silver haired, balding and a little stout, with “smoke circling his head like a wreath.” Only “Doc” was somewhat strange; he smoked cigarettes held in a Dunhill black lacquer cigarette holder that with his glasses evoked the mystique of FDR. Uncle Doc spoke earthily with a gravelly drawl but always in a charming and sophisticated manner. Once he examined his sister-in-law Ruth, who was suffering from a bladder ailment. He gleefully reported to the family that he had found a Green Stamp adhering to her derriere, probably due to a wayward saving stamp that had fallen into her dresser drawer. “Sister, do you always give Green Stamps to your customers?” He snickered as he recounted his question to the adults. I did not fully comprehend his meaning at the time. He only gave me a sly wink and a nod.

Aunt Vivian was a giant woman who towered over her physician husband. They had met professionally years before when she worked as an LVN, but now she managed their large household and two rowdy boys. Hers was an elegant table that often baffled me. I tasted politely the strangely pale spread that they called “butter.” “Give me my yellow oleo margarine-butter, thank you!” I thought but did not say. There were also casseroles concocted of exotic substances like egg plant that looked like no egg or plant that I had ever seen before and that my child’s palate did not appreciate. But the dark golden candied yams with white punctuations of melted marshmallow I devoured. I wondered between bites if the strange and fancy foods that their dark skinned cook prepared and passed to their gray haired maid in her starched gray uniform, who served it on silver trays, was what made my aunt and uncle seem so sophisticated.

The Jordans lived in a large multi-story red brick house that accommodated all of the assembled family for the holiday. I was assigned a guest bed situated at the top of the grand staircase that led up from the living room out of sight of the festive room but only barely out of earshot. Christmas Eve finally came and the other children and I were at last dispatched to bed. But sleep did not come soon to me. I worried that if I lost my saintly faith the magic of Christmas Eve would vanish as well. Simultaneously, I wanted to see for myself the mystic elf materialize in the room below, but dreaded the unthinkable truth. Late in the evening the house grew quiet except for suspicious noises that drifted up from below. I struggled not to listen too closely, wondering if it were Santa or some other individual “making Christmas.” I had seen unusual lumps under a quilt in the trunk of our car when my father had put in the suitcases earlier. I ached with doubt, not wanting my myth to die, but not willing to live ignorant and foolish, a child forever.

In the early morning as the sun slipped through the crack in the blinds and poked me in the eye. I awoke. I lay in bed awake. I did not give in to the compulsion to run downstairs until I heard my name being called, “Sammy! It’s Christmas!” Sammy required no second call. The living room was beautiful. Everywhere there were brightly packaged gifts for everyone. I recognized some of the wrapping paper from trips to the market. “Did Mrs. Claus shop at Delchamps too?” I secretly wondered. The cookies and milk that we had left for Santa were gone. A note lay in their place. It read, “THANKS, SANTA,” written in a hand that reminded me of my mother’s block script. Like too much sugar in a cold glass of iced tea, my doubts crystallized and precipitated into apostasy with this last teaspoon of evidence.

A Fall from Santa’s Grace

Sometime during Christmas Day I silently decided that I would not believe any more, despite the risks. Santa Claus dissolved in my mind. The myth died in me. I did not speak of it, but I slipped into unbelief. I returned to Mobile less a child of wonder than when I had departed.

At sixteen, those same feelings of unease returned. I began to question whether the stories that I had heard in church and during weekly squirming hours at Sunday School—tales that the adults and older children around me loved and believed so devoutly—were only childish myths like stories of the great polar benefactor, too. How does one know the truth, if indeed there is a Truth?

The same aching faith-storms I knew in my long Georgia-Christmas night rose up again in my mind as viciously as the meteorological gales that lashed Bayfront Road. I began to think about what I had heard and to review and examine what I thought I knew. I learned from credible historians that Jesus was indeed real; he was not a made-up character, a mere excuse for Christmas retail. The records of his life, the Gospels, while controversial in their origins, were not invented in the middle ages nor was the Bible “written by Shakespeare” as one ignorant and arrogant self-styled atheist high school acquaintance claimed, even if the English translation I was reading was filled with a hundred pages of “thee” and “thou” and “Yea! Verily . . .”

I learned that Saint Nicholas was also a person, a bishop of third century Asia Minor, who had such a generous heart that he did many deeds of kindness in secret. His bones can still be visited in the village of Bari in southern Italy. Yet, how had a real person, one who acted in real time and space been so transformed into a mythical elf? Even more troubling was the thought that, perhaps over two millennia, the real Rabbi Jeshua had been corrupted into a Christ myth. I had to know. I dug deeper, fearfully at first. I began to consider the major religions of the world. I examined the major philosophies of the ages. I thought about the evidence for and against the proposition of God and of the Christian God, in particular. In my search I was helped by conversations with my wise and kind pastor, Brother Mahlon Thomason. (We in the 1950s South always called our pastor and deacons, “Brother” in a reverential tone.) He never seemed to be shocked at any proposition that I brought to his attention, nor did he ever tell me I was wrong. Rather he simply asked me questions that often began, “Have you considered . . . ?” I felt safe to talk to him about what was troubling me. I began to feel that I need not fear to examine my doubts or to face the truth, whatever it was.

A Transforming Story

In my deliberations—the deliberations of a jury of one—I became convinced that I could get a sense of who this Joshua (another transliteration of the common first century name Jesus) really was. I concluded that he is and had been a transforming personality to everyone who met him, in person, or in the witness of the New Testament, down through the centuries. Even Nicholas of Myrna, the original Saint Nick, was changed when he met the Christ of the Bible. His character had been transformed by his faith and he was never the same afterward. I, too, had met God in my own experience, not just as a myth or in a story, but in my own life and I had been existentially changed forever by that encounter. The track of my life took a turn when at age nine I committed what I was and would become to him. While the storm of doubt and self-questioning raged, I had an anchor: I did not just know about God; I felt that I actually knew God Himself. I had never really met Santa Claus, even though impersonators had tried to delude me with tangible fakes. Conversely, I really knew this very God by intangible, but nevertheless real encounters. What I concluded was that there was evidence, and that it made sense. I became a believer again, not a believer in a fairy tale told to a child, but rather a convinced mature believer who is persuaded by evidence and reasonable argument. In the decades that followed, even as I pursued my calling as a natural scientist, that persuasion became even more compelling. The physical universe appeared to me to be ancient but not eternal. No means was found by which it could have created itself. Moreover, mankind was not inevitable on this planet. That we are, indeed as is all we encounter, a wonder, a providential grace. The more I learned, the more beautiful I found the universe to be. Indeed, it is good. And what of the human condition? I saw the image of God imprinted in me as well as in each person I met. Yet we are ever striving souls that struggle to have our own way, preternaturally estranged from that glorious promise, potentially holy but more often horrific.

Now, I see all of creation in the light of the story of a loving God rescuing His wayward children through a redeeming Christ. The heavens are indeed telling the glory of God, the story of a real event that occurred in history and of a life that was lived in the first century of this current era. That story proclaimed that there is hope for humanity, but only in redemption.

It is a truism that not all we think we see is real. We sometimes find what we are looking for, despite the evidence to the contrary. Thus, I have been on my guard to critique my persuasions since my youth. Conversely, not all we cannot see is unreal. In the end the evidence of what is actual must decide the issue for us. We must only have the courage to look at the facts as squarely as we can and take what we find for what it is. Then we must risk all that we are—or that we have—to live by that knowledge and walk about in that light. Then and only then—my experience prompts me to believe—have we the right of claiming ourselves honestly to be true believers.

Rainbow

Does knowing that the beauty of the rainbow arises proximally from the dispersive refraction of sunlight through droplets of water reduce any of its glory or obscure its ultimate meaning? Photo credit: the author.

 

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Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth Grade South Brookley School

Sammy Gene Matteson, fourth grade South Brookley School ca. 1957

Childhood is an innocent space where we become who we are. I was not a beautiful child, but, on the other hand, I was not a cruel child, as children sometimes can be. I was not a difficult child in elementary school, either. At least that’s the way I remember it. I was eager, earnest and—some might call it—“experimental.” I tried out ideas, and at the beginning, I did not think through to the end what were the implications of my impulses and inspirations. But that’s the nature of a child who is innocent of consequence.

To be sure, there were times when I sat in Mrs. Becton’s office and then waited on the broad wooden steps after school for my mother to pick me up. Whatever her actual size, “Mizrez Becton” will always seem a figure six feet tall, dressed in a black suit with white lace trim, wearing heavy-heeled, high-heeled dress shoes that sounded on the pine board floors of South Brookley Elementary School the cadence of authority. In the evening, I still imagine, the black janitress would spread rose-colored cedar sawdust on the floor—as I often saw her do after school—to sweep up the footfalls of the Principal and teachers and the thousand stumbling scuffs of children and, too, the hundreds of ideas lying there unused that were tossed about but failed, this time, to stick. Mrs. Becton was in charge. Her gait and demeanor said so to me. She was the Principal teacher, but her kind eyes were not hidden behind her tortoise shell glasses.

The Great Bathroom Experiment

Grade school is a place to begin to find out where you fit, jostling against girls and boys your own age. The jostling, for me, did not stop even in the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they called it “bathroom” since it contained no fixture anything like a bath except an immense urinal trough. It was the fourth grade when I discovered one of the wonderful properties of the equipment with which God had blessed Adam, a urinary tract that terminates in a marvelously directional nozzle. To my boyish delight, I could urinate well up the tiled wall behind the ceramic trench. When I revealed this discovery to some admiring comrades, they responded enthusiastically to my demonstration with their own attempts. Thus, began a short-lived tournament. Who could hit the highest point? That was the goal. Unfortunately, our glee was apparently too boisterous. I heard a “clump, clump, clump,” that I recognized all too well. Surely a lady would not come into the boy’s bathroom!

I was wrong. My explanation of our “experiment” did not appear to persuade the lady in the black dress. Whether she was amused or not, I cannot tell. Although my mother could not refrain her laugh, although she tried to hide it behind her hand, when she told me that she had had a telephone call from Mrs. Becton. My embarrassment was sufficient punishment, I think; I recall no other consequence except a deep redness in my face that returns even now when the competition comes to mind.

But I was truly not a mischievous child. Whenever I was accused of transgressing the bounds of propriety, I had an explanation that seemed sound and reasonable to me. Once I was called an exhibitionist. But, honestly, I was falsely accused. It was a conspiracy of events and my Mother’s infatuation with technology and fashion. Alabama, Mobile in particular, was hot in the spring—and unbearably humid in that un-air conditioned age. On a particular day I was dressed in a nylon paisley short-sleeved shirt and an old man’s cotton undershirt.

The Hateful Nylon

The air in the classroom hung hot and damp like still wet, poorly wrung clothes on a line. No breeze stirred in the classroom, even though all the sash windows were open to their full height. The nylon shirt clung to my skin. Nylon was the new “wonder” fabric; light and sleek like silk but affordable to everyone. I looked at the paisleys swimming randomly in blue over my stomach. I loathed paisleys. The forms that swarmed over me and seemed to devour my body were neither distinctly identifiable as animal or vegetable but were, instead, the creation of some deranged imagination designed to offend the masculine sensibilities of little boys who were forced to wear them by their mothers “without another word, young man.”

It was hot. I was hot. Somehow, the paisleys amplified the stiflingly humid warmth. Then the teacher left the room for an errand. I had an inspiration! Too many layers of clothing were the reason why I was dying of heat prostration. I did not hesitate. I unbuttoned by shirt and stripped it off. I began to remove my old man cotton undershirt, wet with sweat. I intended to redress with only the hated paisley shirt when my plans were thwarted. Just as the cotton shirt came up over my head, I saw through the weave, my teacher reappear.

“Sammy Gene Matt’son! What are you doing?”

“Just, trying to get cooler, Ma’am.”

“You go directly to the bathroom and put back on your clothes. Then, report to Mrs. Becton’s office.”

I have always hated paisleys.

The Secret Code of Reading

I came to reading late. It was second grade before I made sense of the black blocks they stacked in meaningless clumps and irregular rows like some inky vegetable crop that I did not like. I did not care for Dick and Jane, either, who seemed to want to do little more than run and see their dog, Spot. I was interested in National Geographic.   I “read” the pictures of far-off places and exotic adventures: a toddler sitting in a footprint; a monkey swinging from a branch; a raft floating on the ocean.

I was in the “second circle.” When I was forced to read aloud, I stammered and stuttered with fright and mortification at my ignorance. I did the best I could, but it was a paisley shirt to me. Mrs. Vera Pounds, however, would not let me be satisfied. I thought that she stopped teaching and began mettling when she called my mother. They decided that there would be no more National Geographic until I had learned to “read it proper.”

Presented with this ultimatum, I chose to make the most of it. To my surprise, I ultimately did break the code of the black blocks. I learned, too, that there was a person standing behind the picture telling his story in lacy black print that surrounded the photographs. The child was sitting in the fossilized foot print of a giant meat-eater in the track way in the Pulaski River in Texas; the monkey was one of a newly discovered species in Madagascar; the raft was the Kon Tiki and carried adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who proved by his voyage that Polynesia could have been peopled by ancient travelers from Ecuador.

I look at the school photograph of a child. “South Brookley, 1957” it reads. I am dressed in a polka dot knit shirt and a smile, my lips closed, my hair combed to the side. This is the same me that looks back in the mirror in a suit and tie, still smiling a closed lip smile, but with thinning hair combed straight back, now. I outgrew my paisley nylon shirt. Everyone does. We put off childish things. We become who we are. I look in the mirror and I see. I am wearing a paisley tie.

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: www.bows-n-ties.com

A Paisley Tie, photo credit: http://www.bows-n-ties.com

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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.

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