Archive for the ‘Sassafras Tea and Fried Oysters’ Category

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

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

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

To seem to do nothing

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

Ships rise from over the horizon

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

Feeling the pull of the Sun and moon

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

But never mind . . . go see for yourself.

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

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


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Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Photo credit: Sam Matteson

Behold I show you a mystery: it seems to me, that the greater my distance from home, the better I understand my mother’s voice. After sixty years, I can still hear Audrey, my mother, speaking to me: “For a hungry man, no bread is too stale; for a starving man, no soup is too thin. So, drink your soup! Eat your toast!”

The trouble was that in my family we did not willingly eat mushrooms. It was decades later and leagues away from the swamps outside Mobile—after I left home for good—that I learned of the pleasures of button, Shitake and honey mushrooms, of mushroom and Alfredo cream sauce, of sautéed mushrooms and onions, of salads with sliced, fresh mushrooms and almonds, of meaty portabellas, morels and golden chanterelles. Such exotic delights had to wait for sophistication. But when I was a child of the 50s, mushrooms were treacherous plants—as everyone knew. People died eating them.

We were convinced of the facts because we encountered ‘shrooms all the time in the woods. Circles of the white and elegant Death Angel grew in mysterious, deadly fairy rings in forest glens. Overnight, after a rain, brown-encrusted buttons pushed up from the black humus, summoned by unknown malevolent powers. Dire warnings were not lost on us about eating wild fungi and the fate that befell indiscriminant mycophagists.

We Kept Our Distance

We were well acquainted with mushrooms, but without really knowing them. We encountered them everywhere but maintained only a nodding acquaintance. Mushrooms, toadstools, bracket mold, and mildew, all were denizens of the dark and decaying places of the earth. No place was safe. Even in our bathroom in the humid corner under the toilet tank, there grew up what my mother—a proper Southern lady—called a Devil’s Finger: red, sticky and rank. But in my roguish imagination Lucifer’s fungal appendage seemed something more phallic—and alarming—than an interloping digit.

Thus there was no escaping the incursion of mushrooms into our lives. And mushrooms and toadstools were indistinguishable to children. So we maintained an uneasy truce, keeping our distance, we and the fungi. Perhaps, if we gave them a wide enough berth, they would not harm us.

At the same time my Mother Audrey, faced a daily and challenging question that grew ever more acute as she “X-ed” her calendar, inching toward Dad’s next payday: “What am I to feed my hungry children?” I am sure that she felt like the mother bird with a nest of open-mouthed chicks that are never satisfied, all pin feathers, flightless wings and mouths agape. I see her standing before a near-empty pantry, one hand on her hip, one hand drumming her cheek, her eyes scanning the labels of the few remaining cans on the shelf. “What to feed them? Oh, Lord have mercy! What to feed them? Ah! Soup! And toast.   ‘Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom.’ Mmmm…I wonder? No Tomato. This is all we have. It’ll have to do.”

Anti-fugal Insurrection

In retrospect, I, Sammy Gene Matteson—as the eldest, at the cheeky age of nine—must have been the provocateur who incited the riot, the one who reminded his sister Cindy Lou, his junior by twenty months and their brother “Baby” Dale, soon to turn six, of the admonitions regarding eating wild mushrooms.

“What if they made a mistake at the soup cannery?” I began.

“Yeah! . . . What if they put in a toadstool by mistake?” Cindy added.

I continued, “It could happen. Remember when we got the piece of rag in the can of beans?”

They both nodded.

“What if Mother has finally had it with us? We have been a little naughty, lately. . . . Do to think she is trying to get rid of us?”

I thought of the headlines: “MOTHER OF THREE POISONS KIDS! MUSHROOM SOUP IMPLICATED!” We began to bawl. We began to howl.

“What’s the matter, children?”

“You’re trying to poison us! You’re feeding us toadstools!”


Her reply did not convince us. Indeed, nothing she said made any difference. No reasoning, no cajoling, no pleas had any effect. At last, her face reddened in frustration, then she began to cry, too. “This is all I have to give you. Can’t you eat it? It won’t kill you.”

After more tears and more negotiation, we children finally agreed to drink the creamy soup, but we resolutely refused to eat the “poisonous” mushroom pieces that floated in it. I finished my soup first. I looked down to glimpse an ironic half-formed fairy ring of uneaten mushroom bits smirk back at me from my bowl.

I hear my beleaguered Mother’s voice once again, and it breaks my heart. For from this distance I understand, at last. She set more on the table than food: she ladled love-seasoned desperation into our empty bowls. She offered up everything she had, meager and unwelcome though it was to us. We did not mean to be cruel. I only hope that she forgave our anti-fungal insurrection. Surely she did. But whether she did or she did not, she never tried to feed us mushroom soup again.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) "Baby" Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.

The usual suspects. The Matteson kids ca. 1953, a few years before the soup riot. (L to R) “Baby” Dale, Cindy Lou, Mother Audrey, and Sammy Gene.


As those who follow this blog will notice, this vignette was read for the Listen to Your Mother casting. We were disappointed to learn that it did not fit with the directors’ vision for this year’s production. More the better for my readers, since the tale is too true and too “rich” to sit on the shelf.

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Who can find a virtuous woman?  for her price is far above rubies.”
Proverbs 31:10

         A sister is often, for a brother, a dubious blessing at the start.  At the beginning he cannot easily see what value is her half of humanity. Sisters are truly different, bona fide members of that subspecies of homo sapiens that is uniquely female and, thus, alien to him.   My sister was no different, nor was I.

Cindy Lou, of course

         Cynthia Lou Matteson, known, of course, as “Cindy Lou” was always part of my world, just as were my mother and father.  From my first memories she is there with them, but as somewhat of a competitor for their attention rather than as a collaborator.  And nearly two years my junior, she seemed much more vulnerable and helpless than any of my peers as we grew up, so that—unfortunately—I slipped into that common brotherly state of mind that discounted her as one not having much to contribute to my interests.  I was wrong.  I did not understand her for a long time, or any other woman, for that matter.  If I had paid closer attention to the lessons she could have taught me then, I would have been so much better prepared to become a husband, a father and grandfather of the girls and women of my life.  But brothers begin thickheaded and slow, more inclined to rough housing than to listening, more attuned to footraces, marbles and tree climbing than insights into feeling.

Nobody in my family enjoyed washing the dishes after our family meals.  As the dessert was finished, my sister and I would glumly look at each other.   The first to speak was sentenced to a lonely half hour over the sink.  At first it was just the two of us, Cindy and I, who sat in jeopardy, but later, when “Baby Dale” was older, there was a trio of potential bottle washers.  So loathsome seemed the task that I, sometimes, would give Cindy a provoking look or whisper, “It’s your turn.”  Somehow I often could get my sister to speak out loud.  “Sammy talked first!” Or “Mother, make Sammy stop tormenting me.”

Cackling syblings

“You children stop ‘nyah-nyahing’” Mother would plead. “The first chicken that cackles laid the egg,” she would intone and Cindy was often chosen.  The pronouncement would be met with “That’s not fair!”  And it probably wasn’t fair.  But more often than I, Cindy was sentenced to sink duty, although it did not seem to me to be too frequent at the time.  For things in the kitchen were “women’s work” when I was a child.  Such tasks were resented by my masculine prejudices.  When asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I was heard to reply, “A man would do nicely.”  Indeed, I was very glad I was not a woman.

It seemed to me that girls were held captive by their bodies.  A guy was okay if he showed the least bit of athleticism, or he could compensate with knowledge of sports or automobiles or even science.  No boy thought it a compliment to hear that he was such a pretty baby.  A heavy male could be a lineman on the football team.  A freckled-faced carrot top, known naturally as “Red,” could still be a cheerful pal.  But a girl was judged fit or worthless by her looks and that was the end of it.  If she were overweight or plain or shy in the critical eyes of her peers and of those she admired, then she was doomed.  What is more, her emotions were the slave of hormones that raged through monthly cycles with frightening changes, both publically visible in acne or bloating or more intimately and more distressing.  I had only a dim understanding of human physiology in general and that was primarily focused on the masculine gender in particular, despite a provocative but remote interest in the female anatomy admiringly inspired at a distance by women other than those of my clan.  I did not really know nor appreciate what women endured.  I was only glad that I was or would some day be a man.

When I did ultimately become an adult, I began to understand what passed between my sister and me.  I once was asked to give advice to a newly wedded colleague.  He had lived as a bachelor for a long time and had never had any sisters.  He recounted how his bride was angry with him for hurting her feelings.  “I told her, honestly, that I did not mean to hurt her feelings…She was still mad as a hornet.  What can I do?  She is just not being rational about it.”

I thought back to my own experience.  I should have begun to understand this very situation, years before, on that day when I was playing with an old sock.

My sock-full of angry

In my part of Alabama, we had to make our own fun.  I had found an orphaned athletic sock, the kind that eventually everyone finds in the wash, its mate absconded to parts unknown and the forlorn lone sock destined to live out its miserable existence abandoned in a drawer.  I had rescued the lonely hosiery and put it to better use.  I sat on the grass beside the sandy cul-de-sac of Broadmoor Place filling the sock with gray sand and pounding the ground with this surprisingly hard dirt hammer.

I heard my name called.  I twisted to look over my shoulder to see Cindy.  She frowned at me and called out again, “Sammy Gene, Mother says you need to come in to wash up for supper…and by-the-way it’s your turn to do the dishes tonight,” she added a little too sullenly, I thought.  Then she turned to reenter to the house.

In disgusted resignation I carelessly flung the sand-filled sock one more time into the air.  “Ah, forget it all!” my action said.  I jumped up and turned to go in.  To my surprise and horror, the sock that I had released had become a ballistic missile that was arcing in a high and graceful parabola toward my retreating sister’s back.  I calculated the place where it would land and extrapolated Cindy’s position.  I had thrown the projectile with a precision that was far beyond my skill.  I wished I could reel in the airborne bludgeon with invisible threads of regret, but it was now beyond control.

The sand-loaded sapper struck Cindy between the shoulder blades and sent her sprawling under the oak tree.  I heard her scream in pain and anger.  She lay there for a short while with the breath knocked out of her.  I started for her.  Then I stopped.  Breathlessly at first, she pushed up to her knees, then, deliberately, ominously she climbed to her feet.  She turned to me with eyes of fire and came running at me, her fingers spread with claw-like nails to scratch my eyes out.

She would not listen to my protests of innocence and apology.  She clearly wanted blood.  Fortunately, I was bigger and stronger and caught her by the wrists before I was blinded in her wrath.  I held on tight and struggled with her.  She cried and yelled in pain, fury and frustration.  At last, her anger finally began to abate as I continued to apologize.  Eventually she relented in her attack, but I think she was still not convinced of my truthfulness despite my continual protestations of innocence and of regret.

Many times since that day I have let loose reckless words that flew in what seemed like a high ballistic arc out of my control; I always wished that I could suck them back into my mouth or freeze them in place so that they fell to the earth and shattered, anything, as long as they would not hit their unintended mark.  But alas, words, like sand-filled socks have a mind of their own when we have flung them out.  And every time I let fly reckless missiles I relive the sickening scene of remorse.

Not all lessons are lost on brothers

Fortunately, such lessons are not always lost, even on brothers.  Sibling-inflicted pain is not necessarily simply perverse or suffered in vain.  I had learned a lesson that was valuable, a lesson taught to me at my sister’s expense.  I told my friend to imagine that he were working on his house, happily and distractedly driving nails into the siding with a large hammer.  “Imagine,” I continued, “your wife softly comes up behind you unnoticed.” In my parable he strikes his dear one in the head, hard but unintentionally.    She is gravely hurt.  “Of course,” I said, “you say, ‘I’m sorry that you are hurt.  I didn’t mean to hurt you.’  But she continues to cry and perhaps is unreasonably angry in her pain.  Then will you say to me: ‘Now isn’t that just like a woman! So irrational!  I said I’m sorry but she still is upset.  Women, who can understand them?’”   He got the message.

I wish I had got the message sooner, too.  I guess that I should have paid more attention when I was just a brother; then I would have been wiser, sooner and a better husband from the start.  Too bad I was asleep during most of my adolescence, dreaming my own dreams.

I did try to make it up to my sister afterward, but I now realize that even the kindness I showed her was still selfish at its base.  I would, from time to time, surprise her with a little toy I made for her, like the inch-long knife, spoon and fork that I hammered from a wire for her to use when her dolls had tea.  I would carve pine twigs into dolls for her dolls.  She always seemed to appreciate whatever I gave her.  I secretly appreciated her, although I did not really show her.  When you are self-absorbed and uncertain, you are more than a little bit frightened that who you are becoming is not who you want to be, and you have little time or interest in any other person, except when they make you feel capable, admired or at least more worthy.  Sisters rarely make you feel more capable or worthy when you are an adolescent.  Their opinion can’t be trusted, you see; sibling rivalry and jealousies make them untrustworthy.  And besides, they have their own problems.  They also are much like you, since you are from the same gene pool and household.   And you may not care much for such a faithful mirror.

So you’re a Matteson?

So I left Cindy to fend for herself most of her high school years.  I think that she did not have an easy time following two years behind me in school.  Sisters rarely do.  Whether a brother does well or not, expectations and biases among teachers cannot be avoided.  “So you’re a Matteson, huh?” a teacher might remarks ominously and vaguely.

But the magic of maturation and experience happens even when we are not looking.  While I was away from home, first at college and then on my own, my ugly duckling of a sister metamorphosed into a swan.  Somehow the awkward girl became a capable woman when my back was turned and my attention diverted.  Some may wonder if it were she or I that changed—or both.  In any case, now I look on my sister’s accomplishments with pride, and marvel at her affection for the not-always-kind brother of her youth.  I must not be such an awful human being if a person of her caliber finds me worthy of friendship.  Or perhaps it is just that she is a person capable of saintly forgiveness.  Nevertheless, I listen to her with new interest and wonder. I have learned at least one thing: I now know that brothers have much to learn that sisters were specifically designed to teach, both at their beginning and later on.

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 “We would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our troubles.”
2 Corinthians 1:8

My brother and I dispute the facts. That is a fact.  It is also a fact that we each honestly remember the events of our childhood differently.  The phenomenon is common to siblings, I hear, probably because brothers are different people from the beginning and because their experiences—although ostensibly shared—are actually seen from subtly different views.

Moreover, in the end it is not what happens but what we experience and what we remember that makes us who we are.  I also have learned that the most vivid memories of humans are those that we have most inhabited and thus most renovated and—perhaps—reshaped from actuality to conform to an inner reality of our unique vision, our secret hopes, and our deepest desires.  And then we forget that our own thinking created the images.  Notwithstanding all that, it is a fact that we agree that we, two brothers, are always there in our recollections, disparate though they be—yet there always together.

Where babies come from

My very first memories are indeed of my brother—a red, wrinkled little old-looking man-child blanket-wrapped in my mother Audrey’s arms.  His name is Dale Webster Matteson, and he reminds me a little already of the other old, but larger man I know: Theodore Noah Webster Moates, my Grandfather.   We will call this little Webster “Baby Dale” for many years. My sister Cindy Lou is there, too, as is our Father Lew—her namesake, along with Mom.  I have no memories that are B.D., “Before Dale”; there were many that follow, however.

 “Why is Mommy sitting in the back seat, Daddy?” I ask.

“To bring home your new brother Baby Dale from the hospital.”

I am not quite four years old; more precisely, I calculate that I must have been three years nine months.  The tableau, however, is etched into my memory despite my youth.  I have replayed the same scene often.  The stage is our family car, a ’41 Ford, a venerable vehicle that my father nursed along until we finally sold it in the early sixties.  We sold it to a car dealer so that he could push-start other younger but less reliable automobiles.  It is the memorable and moveable stage of so many dramas.  The dramatis personae comprise my family, the casting just now complete.

A simple story

The script is a simple story; the scene a homecoming for my mother and a new sibling.  For years afterward, I thought in some vague way that the origin of siblings was a place called “Providence” (Hospital, that is) where your parents went to pick out a baby, much like picking out shoes at Gayfer’s Department Store or at Buster Brown’s.  Some early nights I am sure I wanted to send him back, but he was in my home to stay. From that moment onward he became part of my life and of the context of who I was.  His arrival turned me instantly and forever into his big brother.

He, fifty years later and no longer a “little” brother, is now a giant man who towers over me, a mature father whose features confirm my first impression of him as the “spittin’” image of our grandfather.  Dale tells me that I was indeed always “big brother” to him.  He reminds me of the time he fell out of the tree.  We agree that I loved climbing trees and regularly conquered green turpentined towers.

Photo CC-BY Wikipedia/ Pinus_taeda

Big Brother–Baby Dale–a limb too far

We concur that whatever I, his big brother, did then he must also do, as my little brother, like my tiny mirrored image I saw on the back of a soup spoon that mimicked my every move.  My latest conquest had been a twisted, forking loblolly pine that soared from the woods.  Thus, he must climb it too.  When I was distracted he began his ascent.

Dale reached a notch high up in the branches near the top before I noticed he was gone.  He continued his upward climb without incident until he stepped into the vee of the fork to purchase a foothold for his step up to the next perch.  The tree in reprisal for his intrusion grasped his shoe in a wedging notch-vise.  His foot got stuck, dogged down as on an anvil waiting the hammer blow!  Dale struggled mightily but could not free his foot; he lost his balance; he tumbled backwards; then he stopped; he hung upside down, dangling by one leg, thirty or more feet in the air.

I heard him cry out for help. As I rushed to get a clear view of him, I stifled a shameful chuckle at his comic predicament; then his laced leather shoe released its grip on his foot, and he fell.  He crashed into the first limb, then cart-wheeled into the next lower branch, and the next, falling by stages, cascading by degrees.

I watched with my mouth open, helpless.  He reminded me of a human pinwheel in a fickle wind blowing first one direction then another.  At the bottom limb of the tree, his descent halted briefly. His suspenders had caught on a bough.  He hung, momentarily oscillating elastically, a few feet above the brambles, just before they gave way and he crashed the last increment to the ground.  He remembers the pain, the scratches, the broken clavicle; I remember only the vision of his fall.

Dale tells me that I became angry at him later because our mother blamed me for his accident.  “If y’all hadn’t climbed that tree, he wouldn’t’ve tried climbing the same tree ‘n he wouldn’t’ve fallen,” she explained in faultless parental logic.  “Now, go back into the woods and fetch your brother’s shoe from up in that infernal tree.”  This I do not remember, but it sounds like an accurate account.

Divergent Memories

There were many other scrapes and bumps and bruises I do recall in our growing up; the fall was only one.  Once our cousins from Dothan, Margaret Ann and Nelson, were visiting us when we had the inspiration to dig a hole and completely bury someone alive, or at least up to the waist.  From whence such preposterous ideas spring into the juvenile brain, I do not know or have chosen to forget, but in the liberty of unsupervised child’s play such delightful and inspired mischief is inevitable.  Nevertheless, we did, indeed, dig a hole and half-bury someone.  Here Dale’s worldview and mine diverge.

Each of us claims: “What are you thinking?  I was the one we buried! Not you!”  No matter what he claims, I distinctly recall the sensation of the damp sandy earth pressing in on my kneeling legs and lower abdomen.  I see my cousins dancing around me in glee at the spectacle of a semi-subterranean boy.   Then I feel again the pain as the shovel cuts into my big toe when Margaret Ann, after a half hour of fun, tries to dig me up from behind with a stab of the shovel.  I remember leaping from the ground trailing sandy loam and blood behind me. Margaret Ann remembers it too.  It must be so.  I am sure.

Dale recalls it differently, though.  He avers that it was he that was buried and cousin-butchered.  I insist it was I who was injured.  Maybe it’s the spoon again. Empathy is a powerful emotion; by it sometimes we mirror hurts and emotions so faithfully that they become our own, only distorted.  Empathy then can produce unexpected effects—shared memories that are vivid but faulted, for one.  I feel it so strongly that I must be right.  Yet, he makes me doubt myself, since he just as strongly recalls it—but differently.  And he was witness, too.  On that we agree.

Other Scars

Later in our lives we shared other pain that we agree was his, but of which we do not often speak.  There was one great hurt that could not be repaired with stitches or iodine or aspirin. I see my brother as a young husband, married less than a decade, sitting in my living room in an agony of heartbreak.  His wife had demanded that he move out. “She wants her freedom—without me,” he tells me.

He who had faithfully provided for and loved his spouse is injured as surely as if he had again fallen from a great height into sharp, hateful brambles.  I am glad he can come to my home for refuge.  I hurt for his pain.  I also hurt for my powerlessness; I am big brother, the protector, the one who made all things right, the retriever of shoes, and I am without means to do anything to assuage his agony; I have no balm to heal his wounds.  I have no remedy for his pain.  We can only weep together.

In the end, he went on.  His life has turned out better than I or he have had a right to expect.  He later met and married a wonderful woman; together they reared a family of boys and are happier than he could have ever thought possible.  Recalling the evening that he sat crushed in my living room, I have wondered if—just maybe—without the pain we do not understand the joy.  But I have not really earned the right to have an opinion, for I only have the memories of a spectator; his are those of the actor.

Your may have the memories

At our mother’s funeral, her children traded stories and shared memories.  Cindy recalled the story of the subterranean brother much as I did.  Dale laughed and smiled a crooked smile, “You two!  You may have the memories, but I have the scars.”  Cindy and I looked at each other.  Then, we simultaneously laughed.  What really happened?  We will never actually know.

But it matters little; the memories are what matter; the memories are what shape us.  The narrative of the childhood that he each carries behind his eyes is what shapes the story of his life.  Memories of those stories that he wields like a hammer are what forge his being into its uniquely shaped self on the anvil of his past.  Each is he who is the author of his own tale and who is simultaneously its tireless reader, reciting to his own internal ears his story’s significance and meaning, even if the details differ from the irrelevant recollections of all the others in the world.

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“I will surely make thy seed as the sands of the sea.” Genesis 32:12

I hear “them” talking. They are saying that this is not really my story, that I should not be telling it.  But they are wrong.

I confess: it is the story of others—of my parents, of my family, and of millions of other men and women and children who lived or who were born along with me and ahead of me in our century.  I admit that it is their story.    But it is my story too, for I was there.  I was surely there, as each of us is there, at least a little, even before our consciousness gets on its feet, for each of us is part of what happened before we were ourselves apart from all the others who came before us.

We are there, first, in bits of our parents, in their DNA, the twisted parcels of humanness that are our ancestral birthright, the miraculous molecule in whose fantastic shape—first conceived in the 1950’s by Watson and Crick—is written our flesh and form.  We are there, also, in the knotted choices and intertwining events that knit our fate and our nascent being together, there whether we follow a beaten path or first trace it.  We are part of their history and of their flesh and they ours.  So this is our story, my story.

My Story

It is my story, too, because of my memories.  Wondrously, I remember tales that transpired before I was born.  Surely, I must only recall what I was told.  That must be so, else I did not come into the world without a past, as I always thought.  These must be memories of what I was told and then remembered as my own, because I held them close and turned them over and over in my mind, caressing them like a favorite plush animal or fingering them like a prayer thread.   I know that I found them precious and comforting, even if they were incidental gifts.  So those memories became my own as the story became my story when I relived it in memory.

What is more, the story will become part of your story as I relate it to you, and it will live again in your memory henceforth.   This is the “why” of who I am and the “how” of my coming to be.  As you see yourself in it, you will find that this is your story, too.  And as Oliver Sacks chronicled in his memoir of clinical neurology, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: “We have, each of us, a life-story, an inner narrative—whose continuity, whose sense, is our lives.  It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and that narrative is us, our identities.”  Thus, this is or will be our story.

Child of War

The sad truth of this story is that I was born because of a war.  My life and its history are linked to the deaths of millions of other humans.  I will not deny it.  I cannot. The mid twentieth century was a time of fiery global war and the perpetual and imminent threat of war, a “Cold War.”  It is fact: I was born because the Second World War of the century began for our country in 1941 and because it ended when it did, abruptly in 1945.  I was born when I was because of its ending, and it concluded with a colossal explosion, a reverberating boom that echoed through to the end of the century in millions of lives.

Sociologists and demographers refer to us born then as “Boomers.”   They call us that because of the “boom” in the birth rate that began with the Second World War and persisted for about twenty years.  But I submit that I am a “Boom Child” also because my birth was a direct result of the repercussions of the horrendous blast that signaled the conclusion of hostilities in the Pacific.  To be sure, it was an infinitely kinder explosion among the families of Mobile, Alabama, United States of America than the cataclysm that our Air Force unleashed on the hapless citizens of Nagasaki or Hiroshima, Imperial Japan.  I was born in mid winter of 1947; I speak with a slight Southern drawl; I am because of that concussion.

Mark Twain wrote that “There was never yet an uninteresting life….Inside the dullest exterior there is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy.”  And I would add—there often is a romance, also.  While in the history of the world the courtship of my parents hardly warrants a footnote, it is, nevertheless, momentous to me and to my family.  It was my beginning. Their story is the story of so many others as well.  Here is how it happened.

The Families Matteson and Moates

The Matteson clan of Lewis Edward Matteson had sprung from the loins a seventeenth century follower of Roger Williams—Henry Matteson of Rhode Island, who had been, like other Baptists, expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Over the three hundred years since that time, his descendants had wandered to New York and the Northwest Territories and helped populate the northeastern United States, Texas, and the west coast.  Thus, the U.S. census of 1920 documents a notable absence of Mattesons in Alabama, where the family of Audrey Moates, my mother-to-be, resided with the bulk of the American Moates family.

Whether separated by a single mile or a thousand, two lovers will never meet or found a family unless their paths cross at some time.  Crucial to our story, my century saw a migration from farm to city.  Not so much a movement from one region to another but a general stirring of the population.  In this great mix brought on by the war, my parents happened on each other.

When bombs of Imperial Nippon fell on the warships at dock in Pearl Harbor, the United States was irreversibly sucked into the global conflict; yet my father did not go off to fight as did so many other young men.  Polio, the scourge of summer and youth, had assured that he would never march, that he would never carry a rifle into battle, that he would never stand watch on the deck of a battleship at sea, that his right foot would forever have its unique shape.

Moreover, FDR exhorted the citizens that the fight was not just in Europe or in the Pacific but on the “front lines” of factories and on the farms of America also. Lew had been schooled on his family’s Ohio farm in hard work.  He hired out as a “day hand” or as a “month hand” when his neighbors were short of men but long on work, so he resolved to do his part for the war.

Ohioan Mechanic

Because it was his patriotic duty and since years before he had left off school after the eighth grade and had begun to earn an honest wage repairing machinery and operating it on the farms of the area, he jumped at the chance to study aircraft maintenance at the National Youth Administration Camp, the “NYA,” when it opened nearby.  He saw this, also, as an escape from the dead end of the farm; it was at once a stile over the barbed-wire fence of his family farm bridging the way to a world beyond the Ohio, a world that became especially real when word came in ’42 that the Army Air Corps had opened a repair facility in the Southern port city of Mobile and had need of trained mechanics.

Thus, in March of 1942, at the age of twenty-two, he said “good-bye” to the life he had known in Ohio and—with a comrade from the NYA camp—he turned the wheel of his auto south for Brookley Field, Mobile, Alabama to join thousands of other state-side warriors.  That is how my father-to-be came to the steamy port of Mobile and there to wait unwittingly two years for my mother to find her way into his life.

Alabama Typist

In May of 1944 a pretty Alabama girl, next to the youngest of nine children of Theodore Noah Webster Moates (Noah) and Katie Robertia Holland Moates (Bertie), who lived in the wiregrass and peanut country near Dothan, graduated senior high school.  The following day she packed a single plain suitcase and boarded the Trailways bus that displayed a sign in the narrow window over the driver’s head that read “Mobile.”  The world she saw lay open to her, like a picnic cloth laden with opportunity.  The Maritime Commission in the port of Mobile was hiring secretaries she had read.

Her typing and shorthand classes could be put to good use there, much better there than in the cotton and peanut farming community of Dothan.  Soon Audrey Moates had a steady job at the dry docks and ship building facility on the Bay and she shared with new friend May Burnham a pleasant room located within walking distance of work.

Their accommodations were in a boarding house for respectable young women, where they resided with five other girls and the proprietress.  Money was scarce and commodities rationed, so entertainment often meant strolls in the park and attendance at church meetings reached on foot—first at the stately First Baptist Church, then at Hershel Hobbs’ church on Dauphin Street, Dauphin Way Baptist.

There the Ohio mechanic and the Alabama typist first encountered each other, but only across the room.  They were “nodding” acquaintances in the BYPU, Baptist Young People’s Union that congregated on Sunday night deep within the gothic glory of Dauphin Way.  They smiled shyly across the circle of folding chairs and said a quiet “hello” when they saw each other but did not otherwise speak directly.

The Wedding

Lew and Audrey actually met formally at a wedding.  After prayer meeting on a Wednesday night, before the benediction, Pastor Hobbs addressed the congregation: “Please remain seated.  We are going to have a wedding for Johnny and Vera, here.”  The bride and groom stood before the preacher.  Audrey and May, seated next to each other in the pew near the front, wanted a better view of the ceremony.   They each shifted, one a little to the right, the other to the left.   Thus a fateful gap opened between the two roommates.  Small acts, deliberate or unintended, can be like intersections on a county road, little noted and unmarked but journey shaping.  That gap is one such fork in this story.

Seconds before the rituals began, a handsome young man slipped into the pew and sat down between the girls.  They did not protest.  They recognized him from BYPU and he was so dapper, with his blond hair wavy and his physique muscular.  The wedding was simple and beautiful.  “I do—I do. I promise—I promise.” Rings exchanged. “I pronounce you husband and wife.” Kiss! Mr. and Mrs. John Lance. Applause. Benediction. Time to go.

As the smiling crowd drifted out of the door and cascaded down the steps of the church, the trio ambled out together.  And—being or playing the gentleman he was or wanted to be—Lewis insisted that he walk the young ladies home to their boardinghouse.  The three of them walked side-by-side, Audrey-Lew-May.  The autumn air was clean and crisp, and the stars winked slyly from the sky at the sight of the three.  It could have been so romantic—for a couple.

“Good night!” said Audrey,

“Good night!” said Lew and nodded.

“Good night!” repeated May.

“‘Night!” Lew replied and smiled at both. Then he turned and disappeared into the night.  So began a pattern for the next several weeks: the young Yankee mechanic would walk home the secretaries from Alabama after every service, after every meeting, saying good-bye at the door.  Then, safe in their rooms, alternately giggling and jealous, the girls wondered, “Who is this guy interested in, anyway?  He surely looks interested. Don’t he?”  “Yeah! And interesting, too,” they agreed.

First Date

The answer came the week before Christmas.  The telephone rang in the hall of the boarding house.  It was Mr. Matteson calling for Miss Moates.  “Audrey!…Audrey! It’s for you.”

“Would yah . . .  ah . . . celebrate Christmas with me?  I can’t get back home to Ohio for the holidays. . . . I’ll be alone in the city and I was a-wondering. . . .”

“Oh, Lewis!  How sweet! Thank y’all ever so much for askin’ me . . . but Aah can’t.  Aah’ve got to spend Christmas with my cousin and all.  You know how family is.”

“Sure.  Maybe we can get together another time?”

“That would be nice. Aah’d like that swell.”

“Well, bye.”

“Bye…Oh!  Y’all have a Merry Christmas.”

“Thanks. . . . and, uh . . . you, too . . . Bye.”

“Bye, now.” . . . Click!

Lew was not ready to “meet the family” before he had had a single date.   But a week later he found an occasion and the nerve to try again when Roy Rauls suggested to Lew that they double date in his auto and so celebrate New Year’s Eve.  When Lew telephoned a second time, Audrey agreed to go to the movies with Lew, accompanied by Roy and a girl named Carol.

Pooling their ration coupons, they rode in Roy’s roadster.  Newspaper advertisements of the day proclaimed the premier of National Velvet introducing Elizabeth Taylor, but Lew and Audrey never recalled what was showing that first date; instead they remembered the excitement of a charming conversation partner and the agony of doubt, the pain of “does he (she) really care for me or not?”  Haltingly, the courtship began—uncertainly but yet decisively.

Romance among the Tombs

Long walks after church continued, but now, instead of a threesome, a couple promenaded arm-in-arm the oak-arched streets scented with azalea and camellia blooms.  But they did not stop at the boarding house door when they reached it but walked on to Magnolia Cemetery.  Among the tombstones and statues of lost loved ones, the young and very much alive lovers talked privately, overheard only by the eavesdropping but departed residents of the graveyard, who could keep secrets well.

They preferred the garden-like setting with crinoline pink azaleas and stately oak trees to the cramped parlor of the boarding house that they must always share with three or five other couples.  The cemetery was an oasis in the heart of the concrete and brick metropolis.  It was their secret garden.

Lew and Audrey talked for hours of family back on the farm, of their hopes and dreams, about what life might bring for them.  They came first to appreciate, then to admire, then to adore each other.  Their love blossomed among the tombs, beneath marble angels and lambs, “gone but not forgotten.”  Yet there was a price to pay for the intimacy: Lew constantly swatted at mosquitoes, and he frequently returned from their tête-à-têtes with new angry red dots on his neck and arms, where he had lost a battle with a particularly fearless and wily kamikaze insect.

Late in the evening, frequently, the couple returned to the boarding house, only to irritate the landlady as Audrey inadvertently rang the door bell; “Riiiing!” it went, when she swooned against the door jam.  So romantic and dreamy were those goodnight kisses that she forgot to avoid the door bell button.   How blissful it was!  At least until the angry face of the landlady appeared in the crack beside the door jam.  Day-by-day the early spring gave way to late spring and the couple grew accustomed to their own company.  Was it love?  Was he (she) “the One”?

May 10, 1945

Amid the beauty of the azaleas and camellias, on May 10, so Mother often and precisely told me, “Your father asked me casually, ‘Would you marry me?’”  I suspect—knowing Dad as I did years later—that he intended his question to mean, “Do you care enough for me to marry me sometime in the vague and distant future if I were really to ask you?”  But that is not what he said.  He was hesitantly testing the waters, but he slipped and fell in.  Audrey did not hesitate.  She did not pause to test anything since her heart had decided weeks before.  She jumped into the water with both feet.  “Yes, I will marry you, Lewis Matteson! I will marry you!”

In the face of her delight and to Audrey’s dismay, Lew was disappointed in her answer.  He was unprepared.  He did not have an engagement ring.  He had envisioned a grander gesture and a more orchestrated scene when he did actually “pop the question.”   He had anticipated something different, more than a simple question and an overwhelmingly positive response.  Audrey joked years later, “He was disappointed because he wanted to beg me to marry him.  But I fooled him; he had asked me to marry him and I had accepted.  We were engaged.”

A week and a day later, the great events of the war swept over the lives of the newly engaged couple: the war in Europe ended.  V-E Day was a day of joyous celebration.  The war, the interminable war that had been both the background and the center of all thought and action was truly ending.  But for Lew the joy quickly faded, to be replaced by a gnawing dread.

The end of the war could mean the end of employment for Lew and Audrey. Lew had seen in the years before the war what unemployment could do to a family.  Lew had promised to marry, but he was determined not to marry unless he could provide for his bride.  After a long talk beneath the magnolias, the couple agreed to wait until the war had ended and their employment situation was settled before they “tied the knot.”

Cold Feet?

So the courtship languished, waiting, waiting for the great battles and struggles that blacked the headlines of the Mobile Press Register to end, waiting as if they were spies anticipating secret coded instructions from a clandestine operative among the public notices.  Thus, August 6, 1945 was a day that forever changed the history of the entire world and of the lives of Lew and Audrey in particular.

A bright, searing light blazed above the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and the lives of hundreds of thousands of our fellow earthlings were obliterated in the flash.  The world had finally reached the edge of the pit of global destruction and had begun its dance on the rim above the abyss.  The shock waves from that blast reverberated around the earth.

Within two weeks, after a second device detonated over Nagasaki, the Empire of the Rising Sun capitulated and unconditionally surrendered.  Peace and victory were at last a reality.  The world war was over.  V-J Day exploded, too, in a wild rejoicing of release for Americans everywhere; but amid the celebration, uncertainty and apprehension seized Lew.  “What will happen now?  I could get ‘riffed’” he wondered.

He dreaded the vision that haunted him: a jobless husband and an impoverished wife.  He had seen the drama played out before. That was not for him! He had always worked and provided for his meager needs, but far from the farmland of Marion County, Ohio, he was stricken with doubt that he could support them both.

Home to Dothan

Audrey saw things differently, however.   “His straddling the fence is not the act of a man in love,” she thought.  “He is gettin’ cold feet.”  She could not bear to see him again.  The pain of rejection was too great.  Audrey caught the bus home to Dothan.

The red dirt roads led through familiar fields of cotton arrayed in their summer green.  A month more and the pickers would take to the fields with their long sacks slung over their shoulders, bent at the waist, moving slowly, stripping tufts of snow from the withering plants.  The cotton gin on the acreage next to the house would be sending up billowing clouds of lint, smelling of earth and dried leaves.  But now the air smelled of pine needles and wildflowers.  Instantly she felt safe in the clapboard house that wrapped its comforting arms around her.  Soon she was absorbed again in the domestic routine of home.   She could finally put out of her mind the pain she had suffered in the cemetery.

Then, only two days after she had walked up the broad pine steps of the back porch with her plaid suitcase in hand, a letter arrived postmarked, “Mobile, Ala.”  She recognized the handwriting.  In the kitchen, shelling peas with Nell, Audrey shared the “pitiful” letter from Lewis.  He pleaded with her to marry him as soon as possible.  He professed his love and begged her to forgive him his uncertainty.  Nell looked up from the pages and the pea hulls and said, “This man loves you. Marry him!”  And Audrey agreed.

Events developed quickly then.  Lew had also earlier written Pa, Audrey’s father, to ask for her hand in marriage.  Pa’s only comment had been, “That was some letter!”  He had no other response.  Now he stood by, stoic and silent as ever.

Among the heirlooms that sweetly document the reality of these events is a telegram dated August 29, 1945, 12:32 pm.  It was a practical itinerary at its inception but has become a public declaration over the years; it reads:


When he did arrive on the 4:30 bus, the couple proceeded directly from the Trailways station to the courthouse, where veterans of the other great wars of the twentieth century gathered under the pecan trees and relived their battles in clouds of Bull-of-the-Woods and Prince-Albert-in-the-can tobacco smoke and reviewed the strategies of remembered campaigns over battlefields of red and black checkers.  Inside the courthouse the obligatory blood test was performed and the license inscribed.  The legislated three-day wait began.

The Zbender Parsonage

The time was not wasted, however; there was not a minute to spare; plans must be made.  The wedding would occur at the parsonage of the Headland Baptist Church with Pastor Zbender  presiding.  Lew was prepared this time, with a gold band he had purchased in July at Gabriel’s Jewelry of Mobile.  The flowers, a bouquet of yellow sweetheart roses, were ordered.

“If only Pa would take a few hours off from his carpentry job and come to the wedding,” Audrey sighed.  “It would be perfect.”  But Pa did not attend weddings.  He rarely went to church and always seemed uncomfortable with the formality of such occasions.  He had no time for such things.  Weddings and such were for Bertie to attend to.  His was earning a wage to put food on the table.

At last it was time.  The wedding party included a few family friends, the couple, and family members: a brother, Ma Bertie—“Mother”—and three sisters, Nell, Mary and Vivian.  And what sisters!  Mary and Vivian, the very image of legendary elder sisters, loved to tease and torment Audrey with pranks.  They did not stop with a wedding; it was too tempting an opportunity.

Fresh Flowers

Mary volunteered to collect the bridal corsage from the florist.  “How thoughtful!”  But she had another agenda.  She asked the florist to show her out back to the garbage can in the alley behind the shop.  There she carefully selected from the wilted and decaying compost the components for a second disgusting bouquet that she tied with a yellow ribbon and placed in a second fresh floral box.

Back at the house, Mary delivered the box dramatically.  As the couple prepared to depart for the parsonage, the box was opened.  Lew was crestfallen with dismay and disappointment when he looked at its contents.  But laughter filled the room at Audrey’s sweet, innocent reply to his consternation: “Flowers don’t really matter. All that matters is that we’re together.”  But the couple did not share everyone else’s amusement when the real flowers were shortly produced.  They only blushed—relieved but embarrassed—embarrassed at their gullibility and flabbergasted by an impish sister’s mischief.

August 31, nearly September, had come.  The parsonage was ready, they knew.  Mrs. Zbender would have seen to that.  The party rode excitedly to the parsonage, but Pa was not among them.  All of Audrey’s pleading would not persuade him to agree to come with them.  Yet, as the bride and groom—with Ma Bertie beside them—walked up the path to the front door of the Zbender home, they saw a figure reclining in the shade of a magnolia tree beside the door—a tan, lanky frame clad in white carpenter overalls and smoking a Camel cigarette.

It was Pa!  As they approached, he silently rose and greeted them, expressionless. His nervousness was not immediately apparent even though his hand shook as it always did with “the palsy,” until he mumbled “Glad y’all could come,” as he shook his wife’s hand.  Then he leaned down and kissed the groom on the cheek!

Mrs. Zbender had exerted her best efforts to make the ceremony memorable.  The parlor was arranged with a large mirror behind her husband so all could see the faces of the bride and groom.  Pastor Zbender did his best too.  The ceremony was mercifully brief but meaningful.  After the “plighting of troths” and the “’til death do you part,” the couple kissed and the deed was done.

From simple promises life-long compacts issue.  Lew was so impressed with the proceedings that afterward, while the crowd exchanged hugs and congratulations, the groom, in a typical fit of generosity, instead of the ten dollar honorarium that he had planned, slipped the surprised pastor an “Andy Jackson,” a twenty dollar bill.  The pastor’s wife was pleased.

The License

One last formality remained—the signing of the marriage license.  Before the ink was dry, Bertie snatched up the document and declared that they must immediately proceed to the courthouse to register it and have an official seal attached.  As the matriarch marched the wedding party out the door, she explained that her girls, married to service men, had had so much trouble getting their allotment checks from Uncle Sam that she would take no more chances assuring the legal status of any union of her children.

Then it was a short ride to the bus station and the newly weds were on their way to Panama City, Florida, for their honeymoon.  Audrey blew kisses with a gloved hand as the bus pulled back from the station; Lew leaned over and waved too, smiling. The air was still and the sun shone unblinking on the tarmac.  It was the hottest day of the year, the hottest any of the veterans under the pecan trees could remember, but with the windows open and the air streaming through the coach, it was bearable.  Audrey and Lew were resplendent, she in her new teal dress and midnight blue sequined pillbox, he in a light-colored tweed suit with maroon and cream silk tie with matching handkerchief.

The passengers shot knowing looks at the couple and then exchanged smiles, as Audrey and Lew whispered to each other and bowed their heads together like mourning doves.  The countryside slid by, the rows of cotton plants fanning across the window pivoting on the horizon, the telephone wires dancing up and down in time to the music of the tires on the pavement.  As the bus approached Hathaway Bridge the passengers began to relax and settle in for the journey.

Hathaway Bridge

At the exact mid-point of Hathaway Bridge, black smoke began to stream from the rear of the bus and the comforting rumble of the diesel engine stopped abruptly, with an alarming “cough” and “clunk.”  The motor coach coasted to a silent stop.  The driver opened the hot, shiny metal doors at the rear of the bus and a dark cloud roiled out and rose straight into the still August sky.  The engine was hopeless.  Soon the bus was an oven, and Audrey’s beautiful dress began to darken under the sleeves.  Lew removed his coat and tie, and Audrey tried to take off her smart pillbox hat.  When she did, her forehead was dotted with sequins that adhered to her perspiring face.

Hours passed.  Finally, a second bus hissed to a stop beside the stricken vehicle, and the honeymoon couple resumed their Odyssey.  Audrey’s dress bore large indelible purple water marks under the arms as souvenirs of the ordeal of the trip, but that only made the sight of the sugar-white beaches of Panama City more welcome.  The couple did not go to the beach that day, however; it rained.  And it rained every day they were there.  But as Mother told it to me, it was “perfect honeymoon weather—no place to go, nothing to do except only be together.”  Thus, was born the family maxim and superstition: “It always rains on important days in our family.”

The rain ended only when they returned to Mobile. When Lew and Audrey arrived at their upstairs apartment, their new home, they found a basket of “goodies” that Ma Bertie had sent by way of Audrey’s elder brother, Louie: a quilt, some preserves, some sugar and other rationed items.  From the windows of the second floor apartment the couple looked out over the century-old oaks.  In a “tree house” they began their life together, one they shared for fifty-three years, until Audrey died in 1998.  “’Til death due us part” was more than a motto to them from beginning to end.

Small History

I joined the couple seventeen months later, but that is another chapter. So there is the story, their story, and the start of my story, too.  It is a small history that was repeated with varying filigrees of woes and joys by millions of other couples in the middle of a century of struggle and of hope.  It is a story that can be told simply in one breath: they met, they loved, they married, they made a life together.

Simple to tell, but the intricate twists make it uniquely their history and my history, also, and that makes it important to us who are their family and yours, for while the singular grand epics play large on the stage of history, the myriad quiet and private scenes lack no significance for their walk-on players who deliver their few quiet lines and then depart , stage right.  In retrospect all of history was ordained; yet, in the living of it, all is contingent.  And there lies the romance, the drama, the comedy, and the tragedy.

History is writ both with two inch headlines and eight point type.  Thus the impact of a single weapon that split the impalpable atoms of a kilo of uranium and that instantly destroyed a hundred thousand lives is, in truth, monumental, but no more so than the repercussion of the union of this single couple repeated one hundred million times over.  A hundred million times were we born with the Bomb; thus, Boomers, we are—indeed, siblings of this age. Verily, we are children of the boom, all of us, and this is our story.

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“The kingdom of heaven is like unto a merchant man,
seeking goodly pearls.” Matthew 13:45

I always feel a little hypocritical when I eat fried oysters.  I rarely eat other shellfish or crustaceans—mollusks, shrimp or crayfish.  You see, I don’t eat bait.  I prefer to eat what you catch with those kinds of things: real fish—snapper and flounder, or even catfish.  Every time I see the shrimp pink of sea bugs, I remember the over ripe smell of the gray Jurassic-scaled thoraxes that I pierced with a hook.

And I don’t eat crab, either, if I can help it.  I have too often seen crabs at the bay shore devouring a carcass: pick, pick, pick.  They are the vultures of the sea.  And I remember the “Jubilee” of Mobile Bay when thousands of crabs would crawl out of the shallows to invade the wetlands.  Fiddler crabs, in particular, in a Night-of-the-Living-Dead exodus would swarm across Terrell Road, making walking impossible and driving disgusting and tire threatening.  So, I don’t eat most shellfish.  But I really enjoy a dozen or so fried oysters.

Colored Photographs

Why I lack culinary integrity is, probably, because of the pictures that I carry with me.  All the Kodaks that I have seen of the 1950’s, the ones in albums with black paper corners half fallen out, are in black and white—fading apparitions of gray silver iodide, really—yellow around the serrated edges.  However, my memories of those days are different; when I close my eyes I see colored pictures, but not written in the primary chromatic alphabet of RGB—simple red and green and blue.  Instead, I see all the tints of a full box of Crayolas: crimson and fuchsia and carmine, jade and aqua and emerald, or azure and lapis and lavender.

That’s how I remember and see those days: with subtle colors, rich smells, and vivid tastes.  I often wish that I could dream with the palette of my memories; then I could be there again.  There are special things, though, that sometimes really do allow me to slip back sweetly to my childhood, as when I sample again fried oysters.  Something about the unique Gulf Coast shellfish specialty is for me peculiarly evocative.


I admit it doesn’t make much sense; who would rationally eat a gelatinous indiscriminant blob that is mostly a liver and that is sustained by ingesting every microscopic thing that floats by on the tides of Mobile Bay or of Mississippi Sound?  Who sensibly would eat an organism that is linguistically circumscribed?  One that you should eat—if you want to avoid illness— only when they have been harvested with oversized tongs from the shallow bottom shoals of the Bay in months containing an “r”—at least in English?  Growing up, I often wondered if it were okay for a Chinaman to eat an oyster in, say, the month of May, since none of his months have r’s in them to begin with?  I must have asked such an impertinent question, and I must have been told not to worry, that a Chinaman would eat anything.  So, I confess it plainly: I am definitely a shellfish hypocrite; I say one thing but do another.

Actually, I probably owe this gastronomic peccadillo to Mother and Dad, Audrey and her accomplice, Lew.  It’s not that I inherited a recessive oyster-loving gene from either of them. And they did not force-feed me anything on the half shell, either.  Instead, my peculiar appetite wells up from a picture I only half remember but that contains the Taylor House, a Sunday afternoon, and our venerable automobile.

The Taylor House

I recall riding in the backseat of the gray ’41 Ford coupe that our family owned for over fifteen years (it was not new when it entered our service, either) days and nights, coming and going, up and down with Michigan Avenue and Church Street and the “Loop” with the tires and the road singing a comforting duet: “Thumpity bump!” and “Bumpity thump!”

I am hearing again the cramped up tar squeezing from the cracks in the cement playing the tire drums in a calypso rhythm.  I hear, too, my father’s loud, deep Yankee voice like the boom of surf blowing back in the wind from the driver’s seat; it is filling the back seat of the car with the sound of strength.  Mother is whispering to us like breezes in the Southern pines, her head turned to watch over us; she is spilling “Aah love y’all” over our childhood from lips of carmine, scented with Evening in Paris Eau de Cologne.  I am sheltered, slumped in the backseat with my sister.  My brother chortles up front in Mother’s lap.

“Why don’t we…uh…go to tha Taylor House…uh…for dinner today?” my father unexpectedly blurts after “big church” at Dauphin Way, one April afternoon.

“Ken we affo’d it?  Aah could just fry up thah poke chops Aah got in the Fridgeda-ah,” Mother replies.  Then she pauses….“But they all ken wait until tomorrah nahght, if y’all want.”

“Well, yeah….It’ll be okay.  I got some overtime comin’ ‘n ya need a break sometime ‘n the kids like it swell there.”  And Mother nods.

So Dad turns the car left onto Fulton Road, heading for the small cinder block building that sits back twenty feet from the GM&O railroad right of way.  It is the one, I know, with a rose-shingled roof that is marked by an elaborate neon sign and it fascinates me.  “T-a-y-l-o-r H-o-u-s-e” it spells out in scarlet fluorescent and sinuous characters, letter-by-letter, then blinks twice and begins again.

The rhythm of four wheels bobbing down Fulton slows and we turn sharply; then a gentle bump, and another, accompanied by a distinctive sound of crunching scrap roofing shingle.  I know this sound well. The parking lot is covered over with a flattened tangle of strips of recycled roofing like a plate of foot-long multicolored and granulated asphaltum noodles.

A Big Boy

I am six and a half—a big boy.  I do not want to wait for anybody to open my door, but I must.  I watch through the oval rear window the neon dance above, but I am oblivious to the full significance of the threading shapes that glow in the heavens. The lights, I know, invite me “Come inside, Sammy; y’all’ll eet good in he-ah.”  I know that this is the special sign announcing that we have arrived at the “Tayluh Hows.”

That these tubes are symbols of crystallized speech writ with torch-bent glass and glowing electrified plasma of neon gas is a cipher that is lost on me.  They are merely a beautiful, colorful mystery.  I am a big boy, but I am also only six…and a half.  I cannot yet read words but I drink it in nevertheless with wide-looking eyes.

Soon my Father is out and tips forward the front seat that has barred my escape.  I pause to glance through the windshield and see him limp around the front of the ornamented hood, displaying surprising speed and grace despite his shortened right leg and malformed foot, forever gimpy from his private war with childhood polio.  I close my door with two hands, leaning hard.  It slams shut.

When he arrives on the passenger side, he pulls hard on the chrome door handle to open it for the “ladies,” and takes Dale from Mother as he holds the door back with his elbow.   Then our flock of five galliard the way toward the door that beckons to us from under a striped awning.  We leave a discernible track of overturned scraps as we chirp and flap across the yard.

Her Flock

Audrey biddy-herds her flock of chicks, like a broody pullet with outstretched, sheltering wings, simultaneously clutching Cindy’s hand and clucking periodically with a reciprocating head to Lew, who totes a squirming two-year-old on his shoulders like a sack of feed.  At six and a half, I am sure that none need hold my hand.  Our covey scratches forward, too slowly for me.

Three yards from the screened door I fly away, and fling it open.  I stand holding the door ajar with my backside pressed hard against the fly screen and the decorative bent-aluminum scroll; over my head the sign reads to adults “Open/Come In.” To me it whispers, “This is it!”  The inner eight-pane glass door is blocked open with a brick and somewhere in the dark interior an oscillating fan stirs the air to waft to my nostrils the oily and sweet aromas of cornbread hushpuppies and French fries, peanut oil and other good things to eat.

“Ahn’t y’all thah little gent’lmin?” Mother chirps.  I look up at her as her pink-gloved hand pats her fair-haired boy on the head. I smile and mentally photograph the pink faux pearls around her neck and the matching black and pink straw hat; its black net pulled back over the crown for the morning.  With her other hand she propels Cindy forward into the darkness of the dining room, a hand on her shoulder.  Cindy blinks; and, as she lifts her own gloved hand to rub her eyes, it catches on the crinoline of her petty coat.

“Honey, be modest!”

“Yes, Momma,” she mumbles as the five-year-old lady brushes down her rumpled dress.

“Ooo-ah! Thank ya, Sammy,” Dad crows as he sways by with my toddler brother, whom he swings to his hip.

Audrey looks back over her shoulder disapprovingly. “Lew, pleeze!  Yo’ so loud.”

“Yes, dear,” he replies in a hushed and more dignified tone.  The sun glints from the chain securing his propeller-shaped tie clip that reads something in blocky indecipherable letters.  I know it is a prized badge of an aircraft maintenance school now tethering his tie, dapper wide and silky floral.

“Someday, I’ll wear a suit and tie, too, on Sundays,” I think but do not say.

“Cindy Lou, Sweethaaht,” Mother directs, “Y’all sit ovah they-ah by yo’ fathah….Now don’t-cha’ pout. Ya’he-ah?”   With a crimson fingernail of an outstretched index finger she guides my sister to her assigned seat on the worn plastic of the booth opposite, as she clutches the empty pink glove in her other still-gloved palm.  Slowly, as if she were dragged by an invisible leash, Cindy glides into her place in the corner next to the beadboard wall.

“Ah wan’ fried chickin, Momma!”

“Of course, Dahlin’….   Sammy Gene, you sit raht theh-ah aside me….  Lew, De-ah, will y’all take cayah of the chayah for Baby Dale?”  So we sit, parent and child, child and parent, on opposite sides, mirrored like the checkered tiles of the floor.  As usual, my sister and I perch next to the parent whose patience we have each least exhausted that day, and three-year-old Baby Dale, like an infant king apparent, the Dauphin, on his throne in a high chair at the end, already leans forward to reach for proffered oyster crackers.

I look at the black and white linoleum tiles, the cracked red vinyl bench cover, the white cotton stuffing protruding here and there.  Cindy and I scribble on the paper placemats with crayons that appear magically from Mother’s “pocketbook.”

Aah wan’ fried oysters

“Aah wan’ fried oysters,” I say.  My parents only nod but Cindy looks up, makes a face and spits out “Ugh! Sammy, how ken ya eet those thangs?”

“It’s ah-raught if he likes ‘em, ‘long as he cleans his plate,” Mother replies.

A large black waitress in starched apron and cap arrives, and smiles with glistening teeth.  I have seen her before.  She listens as Mother and Dad place their orders.  She scribbles on a green pad. Then she smiles again and speaks to me, “Le’ me g’ess.  ’Bet y’all be wantin’ fried oystahs, Honey.  Am Aah raught?”  I nod.

“’N ketchup,” I add.

She returns in a few minutes, not long after I have completed a seascape complete with a three-masted galleon; her arms are loaded with plates of food, a juggling spectacle worthy of the Bailey Circus.

At a subtle cue from our mother, we bow our heads and fold our hands against the table edge.  Cindy opens one eye to peek and sees me looking at her.   Before she can blurt her accusation, “Sammy’s not prayin’ raught! He’s lookin’ ‘round,” I quickly close my eyes tight and Dad begins:

“Our gracious Heavenly Father, we comta  Thee t’day
to thank Thee for all that Thou hast bestowed upon us:
this good food before us, our home ‘n thah strength t’doo Thy work.
Forgive us our trespasses ‘n sins, ‘n bless this we are about
ta partake for thah nourishment of our body….
’N bless each ‘n every one of Thy children around this table.
In the name of Jesus, Thy precious Son, we pray.  Amen.”

Dad rocks to his side to retrieve a handkerchief from his rear pocket to wipe the tears from his eyes.  I look down; “He always cries when he prays,” I whisper under my breath to no one.

But Mother leans forward, reaches across the table and pats his arm and whispers to him, “Thank ya, Lew.” And then we eat.

I feel a warmth that flows over the Formica table and spills into me.  I am not a stranger in this circle even if I seem a little strange and show an inexplicable fondness for illogical shellfish of exotic origin.  I need not understand nor explain myself to anyone nor make excuse even to myself.    It is enough to be warm and fed and welcome at the table.

Blessed Ketchup 

It was there at the Taylor House that I learned the eternal joys of the genus ostrea.  It was in that circle that I ascribed meaning to their taste.  It was there that they became forever tinted in my memory.  But there was more to it than a culinary preference for shellfish.

I liked the oysters, for sure; but I think I loved the ketchup even more—the way it ran down between the golden morsels onto the triangles of toast carefully arranged to sop up the surplus peanut oil.  The way it tasted tart and sweet and purest red.  A wonderful invention, ketchup.  It was more, yet.

As I dined, I dreamed of finding a pearl of great price hidden there among the crispness and ketchup, worthy of all I had. A pearl that I could sell and spend on me and share with my family.  After I had spent all of the money, I would still be known as the boy who found the wonderful pearl.  I looked for a long time—then and afterward.

I did at last find a pearl among the oysters.  Like much in life, though, it was not what I expected.  It was rough.  It was brown.  It was mean.  I nearly broke a tooth on it, too.  I could not sell it to anybody.  Ultimately, I lost it when it slipped though a hole in my pocket.  I was at first crestfallen, but later I changed my mind about it all: maybe I did come away with a treasure, in the end, one that I could not lose.

Of Pearls and Hypocrisy

Perhaps I found something else of even greater value, an under-appraised asset hidden there among the oyster fries.  Indeed, I did find something early that, these days, I unexpectedly run upon again and again, every time I taste the dark bay-shoal flavor of oysters.  Whenever “now-a-days” I taste the oyster and close my eyes, I see again the warm colors of the faces of my mother, my father, my sister, and my brother, their smiling eyes—their unfeigned but tacit acceptance shining through—and I feel the vibration of the road drumming comfortingly beneath me. I smell the bay breeze coming onshore, as I fit neatly into the pentagonal assembly.

Soundlessly, inchoately, blessedly they all hold up fingers of benediction to me like iconic saints in a Byzantine mosaic that speak “grace and peace to you.”  I am home.  This is what I remember.

Yes, to me, my shellfish hypocrisy notwithstanding, fried oysters taste very special, indeed, very much like the taste of…family—my family, of the Alabama gulf coast and of Mobile Bay.

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“And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground.” Genesis 2:7

In the very beginning no beaten paths or black top roads pierced the innocent and inaccessible woods.  Yet by the time I arrived there, ancient and anonymous feet had already pounded out for me a few venerable foot trails, well-packed, black and shining, winding deep into the wild green of my Lower Alabama forest and the swamp that leaned in on either side and hung low above.

At the start I never really knew for sure where the paths were taking me, although I held it as an article of faith that all tracks led somewhere even if they were unmarked or uncharted.  And, too, I did not actually understand, as it was happening, the meaning of what lay along the way.  Nevertheless, while I did not fully appreciate the importance of what I risked on my wanderings and while I insisted on trudging along in a general youthful obliviousness, it was precisely then that I heard the Sassafras call to me; it was then I received my invitation to taste her root.

She spoke directly to me—quietly but unmistakably—calling out from among the trees of the emerald-tangled depths of the South, wooing me off the path and into the woods, and—although her voice grows faint now from a distance of the better half of a century—I hear her call still echoing from afar in the way of a swamp bird’s shrill cry ricocheting for miles from cypress and water oaks.  Hers is a song, subtle and poignant, even if it only persists now as a whispered memory.

Sassafras, the American Herb

Sassafras, that uniquely American and peculiarly Southern spice, is as common as dirt and at the same time is as exotic as any other herb that commends to the world the alien Spice Islands over the horizon of the Gulf, beyond the mouth of Mobile Bay, beyond Dauphin Island, beyond the unseen but fabled ocean. Yet I know only a few of my countrymen who have really tasted the Sassafras, few, I say, who have answered her call and have intentionally searched for her; fewer still who have stumbled on her without seeking; precious few, indeed, who know her as intimately as I.

Sassafras, in my eager anticipation, was an exotic herbal notion.  In the hunt she was high adventure, but, in the end, her brew was an anticlimactic disillusionment to imbibe, lying some place between flat root beer and creek water, nearer bitter than sweet.  I discovered this extraordinary fact for myself barefoot among the brambles; but, to tell the truth, I am convinced that such knowledge is now even more inaccessible to city-shod feet than it was then to me.

Such wisdom is indeed rarer since the day that the Food and Drug Administration declared that the principle and most flavorful ingredient of Sassafras, a compound called “safrole,” is carcinogenic, at least in the livers of rats who dine on pounds of the root.  So, long gone is the chance to taste Sassafras in innocent and blissful ignorance—up and gone since the FDA proscribed its consumption by humans.  Therefore, it is a certifiable fact: without the forbidden safrole, root beer no longer tastes exactly as we remember it in “the Good Old Days.”  But then, not many things do.

Even if Sassafras may be ultimately an over-rated and an unrepeatable gustatory experience, it was, nevertheless, an unforgettable proposition in the doing, an event that is worthy of revisiting, like many other unique and singular events that form us by their oft-relived memory.  I did not appreciate the import of this or many other events at the outset, innocently walking in the moment as I was, before I had tasted much of the root or of life and had awakened to what was passing about me.  It was only by stint of later manly exertion and resolute perseverance—and providential grace, I admit—that I came to such a profound knowledge of the Sassafras root.

Mobile Did Not Remember

As rare as such knowledge is today, even in the 1950’s and 60’s I did not know many who had tasted this thoroughly authentic American elixir; not among Mobile’s patrician families who traced long and distinguished genealogies in the South, unapproachable aristocrats who inhabited the reconstructed white-washed Greek Revival city houses I saw on Government Street.

I stared at their alabaster manses that lolled under the ancient live oaks and knew that these were homes to socialites and Mardi Gras Crewe members whom I imagined sipped orange Pekoe or Oolong tea from Delftware or Wedgwood cups amid polite conversation in drawing rooms with damask chairs and oil portraits that lay behind the shut and leaded glass doors, but whom I supposed were also the masked revelers who tippled pre-Lenten Bourbon and Scotch.

In either case, they were incognito to me.  Sassafras, I suspected, had been long forgotten by most of such genteel Mobilians, although I am sure their great grandparents knew well of the home-brewed tonic in plantation days, even if only from visits to the cabins behind the big house in the country.

Nor Pritchard or Birdville

Nor did I know any herbalists among the Jesuit fathers at the college on Spring Hill, the most venerable institution of higher learning in Alabama; nor was I acquainted with any herb-sipping suburbanites with model families of two parents and 3.7 children who occupied the streamlined, modern “Southernaire” brick houses that sported sleek car ports aligned in neat rows arrayed under the pines of Cottage Hill.  Indeed, I heard none report of Sassafras among those who dwelt in these bungalows and ranches that are, by now, mature, vintage, ”Mid-century” relics that still ring—like a camellia bush hedge—New Orleans’ elder and more sedate sister, Alabama’s seaport, the azalea city, Mobile, Alabama.

I did not know anyone who had tasted Sassafras, either, in Pritchard or Eight Mile or Africatown, reeking of paper mills and diesel trains, or on the Causeway or among the Docks or even in the projects of Birdville where I started my life, flocking with thousands of other “Boomers,” the fledgling offspring of war brides, mobbing the drab roosts that sprang up across the railroad tracks from the Brookley Field aircraft hangers.

I doubt that I or they would ever have even seen a Sassafras tree unless by a wrong turn or on a lark, or by fate or blind chance, we had found ourselves wandering the paths in the swamps that lay at the lower margins of this belle of the South.

Bartram and my Trees

Mobile reclined then, as she does now and as she did for centuries, on a chaise lounge beside seven rivers, and there she dangled her toes in the tides of Mobile Bay where the bridge drew up over Dog River for sailboats and shrimp trawlers before the lifting span was demolished and replaced by a thoroughly modern high arc of nearly a half-mile length.

It was here Sassafras and I could be found in those days.  It was here, as well, in the trackless tidal marshes near my home site—before there ever was a river bridge—that the eighteenth-century botanist, William Bartram, Audubon’s Audubon, tramped about in 1775, while visiting a Creole plantation on the bluff at the mouth of La Riviève aux Chien.

 I often wonder if the colonial explorer chanced to observe a grandmother or great grandaunt of the trees I knew in the swampland of Dog River. For even as he tramped about the swamp, nearby a quarter-acre wooded plot of land lay, yet unsurveyed, where would later stand—from about the middle of the last century until today—a small frame house in which my family of five would live after I turned eight. The resolute house that faced bravely hurricane squalls and mosquito-clouded summers for decades grips still with clinched cinder-block fists the barely dry ground roughly equidistant Perch Creek and Mobile Bay, not far from Dog River Bridge and the long-ruined Plantation Ronchon.

There, too, God or Nature had planted many species of the arboreal family—pines mostly; pines with evergreen needles; loblolly and slash pine.  But also there were wild cherry and ash.  Oak and hickory.  And a lone Sassafras tree.   Although to call it a tree is a most generous hyperbole.

More a tall bush it was—but I must be fair—it was taller than I, and yet still small enough for my thumb and forefinger to grasp it at shoulder height, my fingertips just touching without strain.   I reckoned the tree to be only as old as I was.  But as I think on it, that fact is of no account, since such a tree will outstrip a boy at the start only to be blown down in a gale off the Bay long before the man is felled by his own calamities.

I do not recall the precise day when I first recognized the mysterious aromatic properties of this spindly tree with the three-lobed leaf.  But I do remember dropping down, bare-bellied, onto the wet ground that day, my nose a mere inch from the black earth.  When I scratched with my forefinger the bark of its root, the unmistakable scent of root beer and a hint of the Cajun filé rose up to fill my nostrils.  I salivated as if Pavlov had rung his bell. I could make my own root beer or at least sarsaparilla!  What an adventure!  What an irresistible invitation!

The Miracle of Adam

I was enthralled by the wonder of this plant.  I had been warned about atoms, the invisible but palpable essence of all material things.  Somehow I got the notion that they were something mystic as if they were the soul of stuff: of the air, the water, the earth, and of fire, and who knew of what else?   Thus, no matter where a tree is planted, I reasoned, whether by chance or by design, the place gets in at the root and must mingle inescapably among the tree’s atoms even if it is ultimately uprooted.

This, at once, I knew must be true, not just about trees, but about people, too: no matter where you wander, the place where you begin gets into you at the root.  I had been told about Adam, too, God’s own clay doll slapped together by His very hands from the swamp mud and animated by His holy breath.

Therefore, Man, I deduced, is made primordially of the place of his genesis. In the innocent conflation of a child’s ear, I confirmed my hypothesis in the commonality of the name of the first “atomic” (or was it “Adamic”?) man and the elemental dust that formed him.  I slept and dreamed of me standing in the Swamp; I saw her atoms flowing upward through my bare feet, insinuating themselves in among my atoms slowly like the brown stain from Luzianne tea leaves that always crept out of a silver ball when Mother made iced tea in the clear glass pitcher.

Strange it seems now that this vision did not much trouble me.  Perhaps it was because of the Sassafras tree.  By some strange and wonderful alchemy of grace the stuff of the black and sandy earth and of the leaf-stained creek water was transformed into a unique aromatic and singular living thing.

If a tree could inhale the mephitic vapor rising from the tannin-brown bog ever reeking of rotten eggs and then metamorphose it into something grand and exotic, then perhaps there was hope for me too.  I had to sample this elixir for myself.  And maybe also I could be the first to prove Ponce De Leon right in his claim that the only original New-World spice was indeed a draught from the mythical Fountain of Youth.

The Sassafras Safari

But I was restricted by my parents to sniffing the bark of only a few roots that grew near the surface and that radiated from their prized ornamental bush before I, too, was driven from Eden, the earth likewise refusing to yield its bounty to me just as it was forbidden to Adam.  Undeterred, I recruited my next-door neighbors, Pete and Dean Cooper, my usual collaborators in harmless mischief and grandiose exploits.

With my sister Cindy Lou and brother “Baby” Dale as uninvited but tacitly assumed tag-alongs, we five embarked down the path for an excursion into the wetland woods that crowded in on our sand-paved court of seven five-room, nearly identical square-box houses that the grandiloquent developer Mr. Taylor had extravagantly advertised as “Broadmoor Place.”

This clearing in the woods was our base camp for the grand expedition to collect Sassafras root.  Armed with a rusty shovel with a split handle and with a pair of sharp sticks, we made safari to track our prey in “the woods” that were actually owned by nobody, by everybody, or by nobody we cared to know.

Trophies of the  Woods

Bare feet trooped back and forth, eyes vigilant for water moccasins and copperheads or the occasional ‘gator, arms beating the brush like hunters in the Kalahari flushing lions; we flung aside the green scrim of the Swamp relentlessly until we exposed the shrub with the distinctive three-toed paw, cowering behind a sumac bush.  Quickly and bloodlessly we dispatched it, ripping the small sapling up by the trunk, its roots making a loud sucking sound as they lost their grip on the muddy bank.  On we pressed until another bush fell, and then another.

“Good enough! To the camp!”  I commanded , in my best impression of Henry Stanley, and pointed with a swaggering stick in the direction of the gaggle of houses.  At that moment I longed to be wearing a pith helmet, but imagination alone had to suffice. We returned to the backyard, the “big boys” carrying the fallen bushes over our shoulders like trussed up trophies, a tangle of roots at our bare brown backs trailing behind us clots of cool muck that caused Cindy to sputter “yuck!” as she stepped over the piles on the shiny beaten trail, while Dale danced ahead as “point” of our patrol.

With knife and hatchet we butchered the carcasses of our poached and uprooted quarry then bathed them clean in clear water from the hydrant at the corner of the house until their orange-red skin glistened in the afternoon sun.  At last we skinned the roots and set them out to dry on Sunday’s newspaper, no mean feat in a fetid July of a steamy Alabama swamp.

A day later half of the root-skins were still sodden and beginning to mold, but the other half had dried sufficiently to sample.  Five milk-glass mugs that Cindy had “borrowed” from Mother’s kitchen; a finger-full of the dry orange-hued bark; boiling water from a makeshift kettle-pot heated over a fat-pine-knot fire; it was tea time under the pines!

When the infusion had cooled enough to drink, we sipped tentatively, straining splinters of floating wood though our teeth.  At that moment I began to appreciate the art of Charles Hires, the pharmacist and entrepreneur who introduced to the American public at the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition in 1876 a “small beer” extracted from the native roots.

“Could Use Some Sugar!”

“Could use some sugar,” I said, invoking a rule I have always held: “Anything, even swamp water, tastes better with a tad of cane sugar.”  Pete and Dean, Cindy and Dale all concurred.  In the South there’s tea—sweet, of course—and then there’s that other unsweetened and unpalatable tonic that Yankees and Limeys drink.  Sugar was for me a separate food group that, along with oleo margarine and a folded slice of “light bread,” comprised a rustic ad hoc delicacy, the “Butter” and Sugar sandwich that I loved, despite dire admonitions from my playmates that I would catch the “Die-bee-dees.”

Yet despite our saccharine amendments, even as we added two tablespoons of refined white sweetness to each mug, and then two more, and as the tan liquid began to look more like thick Sorghum syrup than like tea, we were still unsuccessful.  No matter how much we sweetened the brew, it never fizzed or bubbled or spritzed.

It slumped quietly in the cup, an anemic sepia-toned water, looking slightly bored, perhaps even somewhat sullen.  Still it smelled like the real thing that I had tasted at A&W.  It tasted vaguely reminiscent of root beer to be sure, but it was a pale fraud of what its aroma advertised.  All in all, I was more than a little disappointed by its performance, and I have always despised a false advertisement.

The Trees are Safe Once More

After that we never hunted Sassafras again, and I thought I heard the woods exhale a small sigh of relief.  But it could have been the evening breeze off the Bay.  In any case, the trees were safe again from the Sassafras hunters.

I was let down, as a matter of fact, but I since have learned that ours was not a wasted effort all together.  In the years since, I have come to see myself a brother of those trees, uprooted like them, carrying—mixed among the atoms of my body—residual parts of Sassafras and the Swamp.

I have on several occasions since encountered on woodland walks an actual phylo-typical sister of my boyhood trees, her identity betrayed by her Trinitarian-leafed finery, and I have left the beaten path to dig again with my finger at her root.  A fragrant nick of root bark under a nail always confirms those long-ago wrought memories and affirms again my wonder at it all.  Standing in the understory alone, I look about to see only the forest, then down at my fingers, stained orange with safrole.

Then I feel sorrow for all those who surge past on the packed trail unaware of the wonders underfoot.  As I said at the outset, I don’t know many who have tasted real Sassafras; not many, that is, beside me.  But those of us who have tasted it savor it all our lives—both in our memories and in our blood.

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