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

Toads To Blame

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

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

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

“Just a wart.”

“Does it bother y’all?”

“Some.”

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

A Visit to Uncle Grover’s House

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

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

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

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

“What do you mean?

“Conjure it; make it go away.”

“You can do that?”

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

“I guess so.”

A Wart is Conjured

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

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

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

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

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

I Despair of Understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Poem For Carrie

Original poem and photograph by Sam Matteson. Permission is granted for non-commercial use. (Click on figure to enlarge.)

We can often learn much from the most innocent among us if we are really listening. As my wife and I visited the gulf coast of Alabama during the past week that included my 50th high school reunion, I was reminded of the story of the first visit to the sea shore of a young girl who had just learned to swim. She ran down the dunes to the beach but stopped short of the surf and looked from her toes in the foam that swirled about her feet up to the horizon in the distance. After standing for several minutes silently contemplating the expanse of blue before her, she said in a small voice: “I think that I will swim in the shallow end.”

The picture above is of our daughter Carrie when she first visited the Pacific Ocean in the late1970s. I held her hand that day as we played in the ocean, just as my father had held mine in the years before when I was a child and we visited the gulf and played in the surf. I recall the feeling of the swells rolling into the shore lifting me, with the help of my Dad’s strong grip. My feet often did not touch the sand beneath the waves, but Dad was always there.

Then I grew up. My father did not hold my hand very often after that, until the day he died and in an unnatural reversal, I held his hand—though he did not know it, stricken by an ultimately fatal stroke as he was. In that dark night, I thought again of sweet Carrie’s plea from years before: “Don’t leave me alone my Daddy. I don’t want night to get into my eyes.” Yes, too often it seems to me I have let night get into my eyes and darken my soul. Too often I feel at sea and like Peter who began so well bidden by Christ to come to him upon the sea, I seem only to sink down. Yet, I take comfort in the words of Matthew’s gospel that follow: “ [W]hen [Peter] saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’ Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him.” (Matthew 14: 30,31)

I did not choose to swim in the deep end of the sea, but life has cast me there. Many times I have seen the waves and felt their swell and was afraid. It was then that night began to get into my eyes and I reached out and caught hold of a hand not my own. So I persist swimming on without touching the bottom, fearfully at times but hopefully as well, swimming in the deep end of life.  My own child taught me this.

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Poem Call it GoldenThe Cousins

Cousins are a curious clutch of characters, relatives with whom you share a frightening familial commonality and sometimes much more. Cousins can be a special circle of instantly understanding friends, but, in this age of wireless long distance and perpetual roaming, they may be FB friends yet still RL strangers, those who share with us common snippets of DNA passed down to us from our mutual grandparents. And it is true that some bereft folk have spindly family trees with few branches and dire prospects for its extinction by evaporation of their shallow gene pool and, thus, they have few cousins. I, on the other hand, was fortunate to spring from a bushy branch of humanity and to have become acquainted with scores of first cousins that sprouted at odd angles and curious places from my father’s and mother’s collective families of fifteen other siblings. I knew most of the cousins by sight and many by name despite their dispersal across the Ohio Valley and Michigan, the southeast of Alabama, up to Plum Nelly, Georgia (that is, plum out of Alabama and Tennessee, and “plum-nelly” out of Georgia), the panhandle of Florida, the heart of Tennessee and on out to New Mexico and California and beyond because of determined and frequent efforts “to get together.”

It is inevitable, I suppose, that one will find favorites among a group of people because of time shared and of things held in common, because of mutual affinities, or because of parental bias. Among my many cousins whom I knew and loved, two were especially close and even today occupy a special place in my heart and imagination: Nelson and Margaret Ann, the children of my Aunt Nell of Dothan, Mother’s closest sister. I always thought it ironic, even before I knew that word, that Nelson was so named, because he was truly “Nell’s son.” Aunt Nell was an “Army widow,” what we called a wife deserted by a husband who seemed to be always serving in distant duty stations.

The Jenkins Clan

I remember only once meeting Sgt. Henry Jenkins, my uncle. It was 1954, in the middle of the night at the train station in Washington, D.C. My family was relocating for three months to New Jersey where Dad, a master aircraft mechanic, would study jet engine repair at a special school.   Uncle Henry arranged for us a midnight tour of the illuminated capital city from the backseat of a Yellow Cab. It was a thrilling even if frenetic experience that I shall never forget; we gawked at the capital, blinding white in the search lights, the Washington Monument streaking into a black sky and Arlington Cemetery with the marble marines raising the flag on an inky Iwo Jima. But I left on our train a few hours later, wondering what the city and my uncle were really like when they emerged from the shadows.

On the other hand, I knew quite well what my Aunt Nell and her children were like; they were an extension of home, were family, were people who seemed to love or at least tolerate me with right good humor. I do not remember a time when they were not part of the scenery of my grandparent’s world.   There were the summers when my mother brought my brother, my sister and me for a two-week stay “at Nell’s.” When I reflect on those few days out of my life they glow in my imagination as if they were the substance and main part of my young days. They were that significant.

It was then that I ran barefoot among the broomstraw and began to learn something of who I was. There were one hundred chases around the chicken coop that Nelson, Dale and I later made a clubhouse—for boys only. We even painted a rude sign, misspelling in capital letters, “NO GIRLS ALOUD!” We had no worry, actually, of female intrusion, since the place still smelled of chicken excrement and rotting feathers even though the birds had been evicted two years earlier.   Margaret Ann and Cindy Lou held their noses whenever they passed the rickety door, whether at the lingering smell or at our preadolescent prejudice, I am not totally sure. It was a time when Dad was again away from home on TDY, a hateful designation but one that was lucrative for the family budget. In letters exchanged between my parents I learned of forgotten misadventures.

To her husband, Audrey wrote in a letter dated July 16, 1956, “Our visit in Dothan was nice enough considering the number of children. Nelson and Sammy converted the chicken house to a hut and in the process Sammy learned the facts of life….Sammy expects a birds and bees conversation out of you for I told him Nelson’s ideas might be cockeyed but you’d know the straight of it.

Nothing more eventful happened other than the fact they set fire to the hut with gasoline. I managed to smother it before the wood caught fire, just several sheets they had hung as curtains. Papa was home but we got it out before he saw it and dispersed the smoke with the hose….”

Two Sisters in Conspiracy

To me, the weeks seemed endless and an eye-blink at the same time. The mornings of almost every day were filled with hot hours of blackberry picking in the pastures with four others—brother, sister and cousins. We five, in a running contest, filled buckets with gallons of the black, juicy fruit destined for the jelly pot of my industrious mother and Aunt Nell. I wondered how adults could have such obvious fun doing a monotonous and arduous task like jelly making or canning, but the two women, their heads frequently together, touching, hair in bandanas, laughed and smiled and glowed with more than perspiration as they worked together to mash the berries, strain them through ancient purple-stained tea towels or boil the juice with sugar and pectin, eternally stirring and vigilant lest it burn. I never learned from either the thousands of things they spoke of when the children were out from under foot, but they seemed as if they grew wiser and more peaceful with ever minute they shared.

Cousin Margaret Ann (L), Sammy Gene and Cousin Nelson Jenkins (R) ca. 1952

Cousin Margaret Ann (L), Sammy Gene and Cousin Nelson Jenkins (R) ca. 1952

I was the eldest child in my family and was always looked to with expectations of leadership and responsibility. In my cousin Nelson, I had my own interim surrogate older brother of sorts. In many ways I secretly admired his version of adolescent rebellion and his emulation of James Dean. For his part, he tolerated me, I think, even if four years his junior, as only a mild annoyance, sharing, instead, the secret pleasures of country and small-town life. I was convinced that he secretly approved of me because he did not ignore me but rather playfully wrestled with me and tormented me as young pups do. My head became accustomed to its occasional knuckle rub. His was just enough rough housing to make me feel initiated, but not so much as to feel abused or unappreciated. It was he who taught me the clandestine and disobedient joy of riding a footlocker down the mountain of cotton lint that was deposited by the cotton gin on the lot down the road. Mother had—unreasonably I thought—forbidden this exploit for fear that we would suffocate like infants in the slick fluff. It was he who took me “cruising” in his truck when a teenager; he revealed the sights, the smells and the light-hearted breezes of the summer night of the small 1950’s town of Dothan, Alabama; its Main Street, the Diary Freeze, the long country roads, Dothan Senior High. There he attended as had my mother and Nell and Johnny Mac Brown, cowboy film star. All these common sights were exotic and special to my eyes. I took in all he had to say as wise and worldly. I remember to this day his admonition when I reached the bottom of a milkshake. The sound of slurping through the straw he called, “The mating call of the North American Fool.” Now, I sometimes slurp for my own private rebellious delight and sometimes I am politely silent, but I never reach the end of a shake or malt without thinking of Nelson and what he gave me.

Margaret Ann was my idea of the perfect bobby-sock teenage girl, complete with poodle skirt and pony tail and Friday night softball games where she arranged for me to sell peanuts to the spectators. She let me listen to her precious collection of 45 rpm vinyl disks and hear the crooning of the heroes and idols of my generation, American Bandstand in her bead and board bedroom accompanied by the rhythmic sawing of summer cicadas outside the screened window. I appreciated her kindness then and her playfulness. What I did not appreciate at the time was her hidden strength of character and spiritual depth that revealed itself as an adult in her ministry to women across the South and her positive spirit and hope in the face of the deaths of a husband and a mother by cancer. But such assets may not be visible at our start. Indeed, who would have guessed her awkward and stuttering cousin, Sammy Gene, would have become a professor who for nearly thirty years daily lectured hundreds of people at the university.

Days of Luxurious Indolence

In those days of luxurious indolence, I learned how to turn boredom into peaceful reflection and loneness into solitude. When we were sentenced to the sweltering hours of mother-decreed afternoon quiet time, I happened upon the excitement of discovery in Nell’s parlor. The encyclopedia held a deep well of knowledge that I learned I was thirsting for, like a berry-picker in the noon-day sun without a water jug. I randomly looked up a topic, “Argentina,” and there was “Argon” beckoning; preceding “Balloon,” with a picture of Picard ascending, was “ballistic.” On and on. Soon I looked forward to the hours I could read of the wonders of the universe. My cousins shook their heads at their strange relative. “Sammy’s reading the encyclopedia, again.” They must have wondered at this freak of nature that was related to them, secretly fearful that such bookishness was congenital.

I did not read all day, however. In the long otherwise empty afternoons we invented our play. I once discovered the ant lions under the house that sat on red brick pillars tall enough to permit you to walk crouching under the floor jousts. The predatory insects made conical pits in the dust there that had lain protected from water for decades. A hapless ant that attempted to traverse the pit would slip hopelessly down into the vertex where she vanished in a flash of sand. If you pushed a little sand into the pit, the thing that lived at the bottom of the inch-deep crater flung a plume of dirt out over the side. I spent hours watching and teaching myself to catch the mysterious tiny monster. A little spittle on a straw and a quick jerk at last brought up a hideous creature the size of a grain of rice with disproportionate claws and mouth. This must be what ants dream of when they have nightmares. I thanked God that I did not daily face such a challenge as I walked about.

Call it “Golden,” Indeed

Cousins are indeed curious characters, but they are more than set decorations in the drama of my memory. They are individuals who loved me even though they did not have to. I shall never see a jar of home-style jelly, the sun shining through it like some cathedral glass rose window, without thinking of the hands that picked the fruit and the labor that transformed the juice into jelly. I shall never cease to feel the glow of those summers. When I review the scenes of those days, I am sure that they are priceless; and on sober appraisal, “golden,” indeed, is what I shall call them ever.

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