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

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

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

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

Kittie’s Fried Fish and Hushpuppies

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

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

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

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

The Ones That Got Away

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Appreciation of Fishermen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma and Pa Moates Lived There

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

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

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

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

The Road Trip Was Long

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Mother Intervenes

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

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

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

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

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

Time to pay up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birth of a Super Hero

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

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

We Departed for Parts Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

Religion is in the salt air

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

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

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

A Disappointment

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

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

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

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

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954    photo credit: Sammy Matteson

Mobile Bay Front ca. 1954 photo credit: Sammy Matteson

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

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

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

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

A Tangible Memory Encountered

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

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

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

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

A Treasure In Your House

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

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

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

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