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Posts Tagged ‘childhood’

The Pines

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

Alabama Pines Photo credit Carol Highsmith, Library of Congress http://www.loc.gov/item/2010640176/

The colors of autumn in Vermont where hundreds of Mattesons fill a graveyard, the citron medallions of Colorado’s aspen, the Emperor’s crimson of a Japanese maple in the garden, all make their claim on my admiration. But give me, instead, a pine tree, or—better—a whole woodlot of evergreen prickly posts smelling of balsam and pine-straw-needle mulch. This is the tree that is my brother, or at least a close cousin.

Our little house in the swamp was built of pine, each board branded SPIB for “Southern Pine Inspection Bureau.”   The studs I knew intimately from when they were installed like soldiers on guard duty, silent, attentive, their feet toe-nailed into the plate. Later they were hidden with camouflage of sheet rock and siding. They were out of sight then, but I knew they were there, standing still and silent, faithful like the trees they had been. I could see the floors, made of pine too, only sanded, varnished and polished to the shine of a yellow mirror where you could see your face when you hung your head over the edge of the bed. And I could smell them. Their balsam scent waffled to me like a balm of Gilead that always soothed my soul; it was the smell of home.

A Boy Should Have A Wood

I came naturally to this affection for the needled citizens of my life from rambles, aimless and free, in the “woods” as we called it. Every child should have his woods, though a “hundred acre wood” is a more immense space than most neighborhoods can afford. Some must do with a mere thicket like my son’s “Bamboo Forest,” fifty feet on a side. The important thing is that you can lose yourself in it and set free your imagination to swing abound without breaking out into the sight of everyday. But I had my woods that stretched from a few yards from behind our lot to the edge of the world, I supposed, since I never reached its far border.

There were other trees about to be sure: oak, and chinquapin, hickory, black walnut, sweet gum, wild cheery, and sassafras, of course, but mostly there were pine trees. They were of all sizes from infant bushes to a giant mama tree that challenged this boy to reach around her trunk with a complete hug. Many others challenged him, too, to climb. The wind would make each one sing, and the lyrics sounded like, “Come up, boy. Come up and brush your hair against a cloud.” So I accepted one invitation after another; often it was an easy climb with branches near the ground, better than Jack’s bean stalk ladder to the sky, but sometimes the only way up was to shinny: to grasp the body of the tree with its rough red-brown bark in a two-handed hug and place a dirty bare foot on each side pincering the trunk. Then push up and hang on with your arms until you can get another toehold. Up and up, each minute higher and more perilous. It can cost to climb a tree; I recall intense maternal scoldings for torn shirt pockets and rosin soiled shorts. I never fell like my brother once did, though I do bear scars on my chest and abdomen from breathless slips and bark-burn descents. Mostly, I ascended without fear or incident.

The View From Above Is Worth The Climb

You knew you had gone high enough, though, that you had reached the zenith, when she began to give way to your grasp, when your perch swayed with every breath of air and when the earth beneath seemed far away. When you are high in the crown of a piney wood, people, viewed from high above, become tiny and curious circles of flesh, and their cares shrink in significance, as well. On days when my cares press in, I sometimes go again to the needle nest and see me down below in a true out-of-trouble experience. All seems different when viewed from far above, even if only in the imagination.

I am partial to pine trees. Not just because they were kind to me and gave me a fragrant gymnastic diversion but also for what they still can teach us if we pay attention. Perhaps their patient steadfastness grows out of a difference of perspective. Life looks different when viewed from above. Often we can see no way out while we stumble about in the understory of brush and bramble. But from above a reason for hope is easier to see.

Sammy Gene's boyhood home in rare snow fall. Photo credit: family photo.

Sammy Gene’s boyhood home in rare snow fall ca. 1964. Photo credit: family photo.

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The Toys

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Marionettes in Der Speilzeug Museum in Nuremberg, Germany.           Photo credit: Sam Matteson 1978

Play is the serious work of children, and toys are the tools of that play. I share a persistent affinity for the well conceived play-tool, “Der Spielzeug” as it is known to German children and adults. Such clever and engaging devises of childhood occupation have transcendent appeal, not only for me, but also for all children. Indeed, such toys are known and loved world-wide, their charm universal and their delight easily translated into indigenous glee for the children, die Kindern, les Enfants, los Niños, Watoto, the little ones of a thousand lands. The universality of child’s play suggests its hidden utility in shaping human work.

Impoverished and crippled, assuredly, is the spirit that does not play. There among the tools of play we see character abuilding: Imagination clocks in for work in dress up and in snow forts; Design dresses for the day and a life with crayons and stubby pencil; Discourse struts in a puppet theater; Analysis sits, reflecting on a collection of handsome rocks, curious bones, odd seeds or colorful buttons. We learn first very real empathy and then justice in the malleable make-believe kingdoms of our juvenile creation. The problems of the world—technical and interpersonal—have solutions tried on for first fit like a tailored bespoke suit in the give and take of playmates, there chalked up for alterations later in the diplomacy of adult statecraft and social interaction. In the tussle of a game of ball on the green or the dusty village clearing or a session of paper dolls in the parlor with a sibling or with a gang of friends, a child reaffirms for herself the rules of fair competition and the oxymoronic selfish joy of unselfish teamwork and shared accomplishment. In idle dreaming and cloud gaping are birthed wonder and the liberating possibility of hope.   All this is child’s play, the work of children.

Anything is a toy if we play with it, but the very best toys are they that demand that the child or the child-in-the-man supply the principal and missing ingredient themselves, from within. The best tools are not those with the most lights or LEDs or microprocessors or that clang with the loudest bells or whirr with the most raucous whistles; rather they serve us best that should have had an advisory label attached: “Some Fancy required (Imagination not included).” When I recall the toys of my youth there are few that survive the sieve of years and fading memories. There are yet a few toys that still bring joy to my heart to recall; they are items that never fade since their luster comes from within me, from what they evoke in me.

A Teddy Bear was my frequent companion in the “Birdville” projects on Flamingo Drive. I christened him “Tim” because that seemed his appropriate name. I imagined my pal an intrepid, high wire artist—graceful even if furry—as he scaled the dining room chairs and walked the strings across the circus of the living room, high above the center ring laid out on the bare hardwood floor far beneath. It was his warm and fuzzy whisper heard only in my ear, more than any adult’s exhortation, that put heart into me and lent me courage to face the ether (“Now count backward from a hundred, Sammy”) and the awful scalpel—really a wire-loop-tool—for a tonsillectomy (Do you want some ice cream afterwards?). And, painfully, he also taught me remorse at age six. I thought him beautiful, despite or perhaps because of his blue and white pillow ticking chest where Mother had repaired him when I left him on the stoop, vulnerable to the neighbor dogs that naturally ripped out his stomach. But I was bereft and guilt-stricken when I thoughtlessly deserted him again, and he was obliterated completely. It was my fault, I knew. Loyalty, I suppose, made me give up on Teddy Bears altogether after that; no successor that my kind parents offered would suffice to take his place or assuage my grief and guilt.

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

Sammy with his vintage Hoody Doody Puppet. Photo Credit: Audrey Matteson Christmas 1954

There were other more durable toys, fortunately, ones I learned to treasure and care for better. I, like millions of other children, was in the Saturday morning thrall of Howdy Doody. I laughed and sang with the television screen along with my brother and sister at the antics of the wooden-headed cowboy and his posse. I begged my parents with earnest pleading voice—and in writing to Santa Claus, just to be safe—for a Howdy Doody marionette. I was blessed to find him under the tree the next Christmas. He entertained us for years afterward with spontaneous and creative puppet shows, staged with sofa cushions and dining room chairs. He was joined by a supporting cast of sock puppets animated by small hands, characters that we fabricated on the spot or acquired with the savings of our pennies and nickels. “Howdy” earned his place in our memory by faithfulness; he always danced when we juggled his strings, and he always spoke our thoughts with his enameled jaws. Thus, he still stands or hangs about today, well worn and well loved among the kites, the interlocking lettered blocks, and the Lincoln Logs, a freckled icon of my childhood. Mother kept him safe for me as she did other playthings, some that I never understood, like the voice-actuated Japanese bus that “Slim,” Aunt Sister’s and Uncle Howell’s merchant marine friend gave to me one April when he was in port. It buzzed and whirred and flashed and changed direction when you called to it, no matter if in English or Nipponese. It was a curiosity for a week, then went, boxed again, up on the shelf forever. It came with all its parts and demanded nothing more. I was grateful for the stranger’s generosity but unimpressed.

In “Birdville” and later in the swamps of 1950’s Lower Alabama I had fewer toys than I wanted, but probable more than I needed.   At my house I learned that the statement “I’m bored” was not accepted as a valid complaint but rather was thought an admission that I was too lazy or too uninspired to think of some play to entertain me. So, I learned to augment our toy box with found things. The day the Catchots next door killed and plucked a huge turkey I seized upon the wing feathers and soon the air above our court of Broadmoor Place swarmed with “hawks” we built of three feathers wired together in a “T” and flown with a few yards of thread.

An old discarded shoe’s leather tongue and two lengths of its shoe string became David’s sling that launched egg-shaped pebbles far into the woods. And thus I proved to myself and to my delight the potential lethality of the shepherd-king’s defense against Goliath. I whittled twigs, with scars to prove it. I hammered wire in miniature black smithy to shape small knives and forks and spoons to complement wooden plates that I carved from rounds sawn from pine boughs. I built covered Conestoga wagons with other sectioned-limb wheels. I joined “Pete” and Dean Cooper, next door, to explore our woods and draw maps of buried and imagined treasure. I dreamed of sailing ships with models and pencil and paper, of automated and robotic automobiles that drove themselves for us and rockets that I would someday build and fly to the ionosphere. I studied chemistry in the kitchen sink with baking soda and vinegar and ecology in a drop of hay-infused creek water under a toy microscope in the wash room. I so equipped my soul with play-tools and my mind with games, that today if I am sometimes forced to sit, waiting, idly it seems, I can busy myself within. I jokingly say, but only half in jest, “Not to worry. I have a rich inner life to entertain me.”

And so my grandchildren benefit from my appreciation of play. Paul Samuel, first grandson, was heard to remark with pleasure, “I’m glad Papa is coming! He plays with me.” But now with them, mine is not the play of children, self-absorbed and selfish. Now the children are my toys, to wonder at and to encourage, and I suppose, I am theirs to use as well, a smiling and benevolent overgrown playmate or a colossal robotic doll. Play was something my grandparents had forgotten how to do by the time I came along, and I regret that deeply.

Yet, I was and am a blessed child of this planet. I am indeed a fortunate man-child, one whose adult work rewards creativity and affords his imagination a wide field in which to play. I would gladly pay, if I had the means and it were required, to do the “work” that I have chosen most seriously to pursue, for I very often find that the best work I do these days, the labor for which I am most highly appreciated—as much now as when I was rightly called “a mere child”— looks so very much like the business of children’s play; and the tools I employ to accomplish great deeds are—of a truth—really my newest toys.

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a "tuned" wive goblet, one of his many science "toys." Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

Dr Sam at his retirement admiring a “tuned” wine goblet, one of his many science “toys.” Photo credit: Department of Physics UNT

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Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Functional MRI of human brain (amygdala in red) Photo credit: wikipedia/ amygdala

Johnny’s sailor hat, atop his Mexican head, is an image that always reminds me of a truth I only realized later in life: inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them.”

Perhaps it is just our “nature.” Deep within our brain lies a small but powerful organ in the most primitive part of our brain. This master of emotion is called the amygdala. Evolutionary biologists explain that it is a remnant of our hunter-gather past. This feature of our cognitive equipment, they argue, was selected for by the preservation of “our” kind, a drive to protect the gene pool embodied in our family and clan from the danger posed by the “others,” who do not value or bear our genotype. The amygdala is source of the unthinking start we experience when we see out of the corner of our eye a sinuous shadow in the woods. Before we can think “stick” the primitive part of our brain shouts “Snake! Run!” and our heart races and our muscles contract with an unannounced rush of ephedrine. This is the famous “fight or flight” syndrome.   Thus, we might say, “It’s only nature” when we wish to justify our fears of others, just as we might claim it is natural to feel our heart race at slithering shadows.

I call for a new resolution: Question instinct! Examine intuition! I challenge what is “natural.” I contend that all that we call “natural” is not necessarily good, healthy or right. Too much adrenaline will stress the heart and other vital organs unnecessarily.  Moreover, morality is decidedly unnatural. Much of ethics is counter-intuitive. Consider the Judaeo-Christian injunction to empathy and doing good to all, even those who would harm you. Indeed in the Levitical law the Almighty enjoins us, “When an alien lives with you in your land do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens.” Apparently, divine admonition is insufficient to cause us to modify our behavior. The problem is not that we do not know what is the right thing to do; rather the problem is simply in doing the right thing. It often is amygdala versus cortex, fear against reason. Too often our lower nature wins.

Sad that, while we live in a different technological world that is so distant from the archaic horizon where our brain arose, we are still captive to the automatic, instinctive, intuitive “natural” brain of the first humans. What Jeffrey Kluger wrote about worry is true about our unreasoning xenophobia. He remarked in a Time feature article, “The residual parts of our primitive brains may not give us any choice beyond fight or fleeing. But the higher reasoning we’ve developed over millions of years gives us far greater—and far more nuanced—choices.”

Ironically, the very clannishness of our species may have made possible a way to reveal who we really are and where we have come from. I am fortunate to know my lineage, the genealogy of the “Matteson’s,” at least in America. Thanks in no small measure to the research of cousin Porter Matteson, I am aware that ten generations ago, Henry Matteson (1646-1690), called “The Immigrant” arrived in Rhode Island around 1666 at age twenty. Two or three years later he married Hanna Parsons recently arrived from England. I am designated J.411.a in the family record, tenth generation three hundred forty years here on this continent.   Most who bear my family name in the United States are descended from Henry, who is reported to have originated in Denmark. It gives a strange irrational satisfaction to know where one’s forefather lived so long ago.   Yet, the plain fact is that no matter how long one’s family has been in the America’s they immigrated here at some time.

A Genetic Decoder Ring  Recently I read that a project was underway to determine where all of humanity migrated from the first reaches of prehistory. I gave myself a sixtieth birthday present when I purchased on-line a participation kit. I was as expectant as the time that I sent off box tops for a decoder ring.

I went to the mail box expectantly every day. I had a premonition that the kit would arrive soon, and there it was, in the over-sized compartment of the communal mail box. I was sure what it was from the return address: “National Geographic Society.” I could barely restrain myself from tearing open the brown cardboard box immediately, but my prefrontal cortex did its work and reigned in my impulsiveness with an appropriate, rational inhibition. “Later when you can give it my full attention,” it told me. The rest of me agreed reluctantly.

Later that evening, I did allow myself to unpack the shipping box. Inside was a strikingly illustrated carton, six by nine, that bore the silhouetted image of a lone man walking an empty landscape. This figure suggested to me the unknown ancestor or ancestors who more than two thousand generations ago fathered all who would live today, all we could call human. From what I read, I concluded that this earth, the Adamah, is such a harsh place, at times, that only one family has survived from that time 60,000 years ago. Gone are the thick muscular children of the cold dwellers whose bones were first found in the Neanderthal; gone, too, are the tiny children of Florens; and gone are all the other hominids, all the other man-like creatures that have walked on two legs on this unforgiving and lethal planet. What is more, only one clan, the offspring of one Homo sapiens survives, a man who lived in north east Africa about sixty millennia ago. We humans are the children, the great-many-times-over grand children, the progeny of one individual or a small family. For good reason geneticists call this man “Adam.” The word is a Biblical Hebrew name that meant originally both “man”-kind and “earthling.”

Hnry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religioous leader Roder Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Phot source NPS www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

Henry Matteson was a follower of the non-conformist religious leader Roger Williams, shown here meeting the previous tenants of Rhode Island. Photo source NPS http://www.nps.gov/rowi/learn/historyculture/images/roger-williams-Welcome_Colony.jpg

I conclude after deep reflection that, no matter how superficially different the “other” earth dwellers that I encounter on my way, we are family, the Family of Man. In fact, “they” are actually “us.” This is what Johnny’s hat taught me those many years ago, and for that additional gift, I thank him.

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Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

Popeye the Sailor man Fan Art by Avantika Srinstava http://avantikasrivastava.blogspot.com/2011/08/popeye-sailor-man.html

My first friend was a Mexican. It was early in a long life, so it was well before I learned that this detail should matter. Before I was informed that “they” are not “us.” Johnny Hernandez, or Juan, if I were to speak more precisely, was a few years my senior and befriended me, the skinny one, “El Flaco,” during my days in the Birdville housing projects. I recall very few images of his face, the memories of early childhood corroded by decades. Only the back of his head and neck are vivid. They remain a vision of a fine round shape studded with the short black stubble of a crew cut and topped by a blazingly white, perpetual navy seaman’s cap, its upturned cuff of a brim carefully pulled into an oval and worn slightly canted to the right. When I think on it, it brings to mind the cap worn by Popeye the Sailor Man of the cartoons. But Johnny was more than a cartoon.

I say that Johnny was a “Mexican,” although I really never knew on which side of the border he was born, whether in Alabama or some other US state or in one of the states of Mexico like Coahuila, Chihuahua, or Sonora. It never occurred to me to ask, so we never spoke of it. It would not have mattered anyway since I had no concept of a state or a country then, nor of the significance of the information.

Johnny was just my big friend who looked after me in the communal meadow where the neighbor kids climbed and swung from the ancient oaks, played chase and ball and roamed. I was his “Swinn-fendered” friend too who rode on the back of his bike up and down Flamingo Drive, my legs outstretched to avoid entanglement in the spokes or sprocket and chain. It was he who picked me up when I lacerated by calf on a broken bottle in the commons and who carried me bleeding on his back, nearly soiling his pristine cap in the process of my rescue. I still bear a white line of a scar with four pair of pale dots as outriders where the staples went through the skin to effect a closure of the muscle and other tissue. It is a constant reminder that my memory of the experience is real and of the reality of Johnny’s kindness and friendship.

Maracas Phot credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

Maracas Photo credit: ruskin.mysdhc.org

The truth is that Johnny is a friend from the dawn of memory when all things that I still retain are mist-covered and rose-hued; he was part of the days before I went off to school and learned the cruelties of the playground, the will to power that is the feckless desire of nations. Thus, only later did I conclude the country of origin of Johnny’s family from reconstructed evidence: the souvenir maracas that always rested on the telephone table by the stairs that exulted in colorful painted and fluid script, “Mexico!”; the strange way Johnny said the word, “Meheeko” when I asked about them; the sweet but indecipherable speech he used when he spoke to Senora ‘Ernandez; the exotic aromas of onion, garlic and cumin that wafted like a halo around her as she stood in the doorway of her cocina next to the hand-tinted print of Jesus of the sacred heart that hung above the dinning table. She was a short, very tan lady who reminded me of a younger version of my beloved grandmother. She never said a word to me, only smiled when I came calling on Johnny.

Señor Hernandez I saw only on the weekend and always in a cotton-ribbed undershirt and khaki twill pants. Often he held a newspaper in his hand when he greeted me at the door, his smile barely visible through a black moustache peppered with graying hairs. “Hello, Sammy. Johnny will be down in a minute,” he would say. Then turning to the stairs he would shout across the maracas something that I could not understand that could have sounded like “¡Oye, Juanito! Ven aquí! Tu amiguito esté aquí.” Then he ignored me as he returned to his newspaper. In a few minutes I would see the white seaman’s cap sail down the staircase with my friend suspended underneath.

Despite his friendly demeanor, Johnny’s father frightened me a little, as did all of the unfamiliar Dads in the neighborhood. His mother I did not know at all since she never spoke to me. Thus, I was never invited to sample any of the dishes she always seemed to be preparing in the back room of the apartment. Not until I had moved on from Birdville and out to the swamps on the Bay and had deserted my Spanish-speaking friend did I even taste “Mexican food.”

My first taste of Mexico came from Mrs. Adams, known behind her back as “Mrs. Atom Bomb” for her volatile temperament, who was my desperate sixth grade teacher at South Brookley Elementary School, and who was the unlikely source of my initiation into Latino cuisine. She opened a small tin can of tamales and warmed them in an electric skillet she had set up next to the cloakroom door during an otherwise forgettable social studies unit on Central America. It was my first and only taste of Mexico for many years. Her culinary experiment unfortunately missed the mark as I and my classmates were put off by the nondescript taste of the greasy pork blobs held together with translucent corn husks and masa glue. I looked at the faces of my peers and saw there the same repulsion that I felt. Nevertheless, I knew better than to hold my nose as I had done to impress Mary Louise Thompson of the long platinum hair when Mrs. Adams had read the story of Lazarus in our morning Bible reading a few weeks earlier. “Sammy Mat’son, meet me in the cloakroom!” She had demanded. My penance: to stand alone, banished for an hour after a severe chastisement for irreverence.  I was unimpressed by the food, not only by its taste but also by its unhappy association with the nearby closet.

On the other hand I was very much impressed by the appliance she had brought to school for the occasion. I had never seen such a device before nor had Juan, I suspected. I wished he were there to see it. The skillet was manufactured by General Electric whose motto—“Progress is our most important product”—was emblazoned just below the trademark. From the demonstration I concluded that if tamales were all a Mexican chiquito had to eat, it was no wonder why he was starving. It was also clear to me why he surely and earnestly longed to emigrate northward across the river to find real food such as I enjoyed.

For a long time afterward I thought of Johnny’s nameless cousins whenever I was admonished by Mother to eat everything on my plate. “Remember all of the starving children who are going to bed hungry tonight while you throw away food.” Thus, I internalized the lesson of nonsensical consumption on behalf of the huddled and hungry masses of the world. I learned to feel a sense of global obligation whenever I sat at table, one I discharged faithfully with “Please pass the mashed potatoes and the gravy” and by manfully cleaning my plate.

It would be necessary for me to abandon the South and migrate west before I could really taste the flavor of “Tex Mex” and fall in love with chili peppers. During my college years, however, I subsisted on Tuesday night enchiladas at El Chico Mexican Restaurant. What is more, summers—while I was in college—were spent in Texas, too, where I received basic training in extreme “southern” cooking, that is, cuisine that came from south of the Rio Grande. The city of San Antonio was where my palate acquired its affinity (at five for a dollar) for the crisp, delicious melded flavors of meat, corn tortilla and greenery. I crunched contentedly and  I audibly blessed the unknown genius who invented the taco. I thanked God for my good fortune to happen on the crispy Mexican sandwich at last. In the Alamo City one can not escape the scent of Latin spice, but in Mobile in my youth we did not know of such “ethnic” or “immigrant” cuisine, Mexican, Chinese or even Italian.

I have reflected on the oft-asked question: what does it mean to say “I am an American?”   Almost all of the people I meet are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants. Only some have come to North America earlier than others; only some under more affluent or respectable circumstances than others.

The “Mexicans” and other Spanish-speaking Mesoamericans, as well as Middle Eastern speakers of Arabic or Farsi surged to our republic at the end of the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century it was merely different peoples: the Irish, and the Italians, and other Middle Europeans. A century earlier the British and the Spanish and the French came to the “New World”—and Africans. Some immigrants came willingly; some were compelled. From the first European colonization of North American until the trade in human life was outlawed in the United States in 1802, twelve and a half million persons were forced to immigrate to this continent as slaves, 10.7 million surviving the journey.

“El Flacho” a.k.a Sammy, Johnny’s amigo. Family photo ca.1953

By whatever means we came or whenever was the day, none found a welcome from the “others” who had preceded him. I have read of the resentment of the Irish Catholics who dared to settle in Protestant New England.   I have heard of the scorn of freed men in the hearts of their former masters during the “Reconstruction” of the South. The first inhabitants of America who had themselves immigrated here ten to twenty thousand years earlier did not welcome the avaricious “white” men and apparently for good reason. Inevitably it seems we resent those who come late to the party. We congregate with “our kind” and divide the world into “us” and “them” and in the process miss out on so much, I fear. The thought saddens me and I wish for all, the same innocent friendship I knew in Johnny, joyfully ignorant of our irrelevant respective and divergent patrimonies.

In the succeeding post next week I will examine why the human compulsion to tribe is both natural and immoral. Until then, I offer this sweet comradeship that many would disdain: my first friend was, most likely, an alien but also a most kind human child, who befriended me without condition.

The intangible gift received by the skinny kid (pictured above), now a man grown old, he will forever treasure just as surely as if he still held his friend’s hat in his very hands.

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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 the heart of Mobile's Bienville Square stands an ornate wrought iron fountain. Photo credit:Karen Warren; www.thisgirltravels.dreamhosters.com

In the heart of Mobile’s Bienville Square stands an ornate wrought iron fountain. Photo credit:Karen Warren; http://www.thisgirltravels.dreamhosters.com

Empathy lies at the root of all morality; so I have heard and so have I observed. I heard it first in stories about the Rabbi Jesus in Sunday School. He said it plainly: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I recall, my Dad, the teacher of three rowdy boys, kneeling backward in the front seat of our automobile while Steve Garner, Dean Cooper and I squirmed in the backseat, more or less captive for the thirty minute lesson. He would be surprised to learn that I also remember what he had to say: how a bystander in the story that Jesus told squirmed, too, and defensively inquired, “Who is my neighbor?” when the interlocutor was confronted by such an uncompromising imperative from the itinerant preacher from Nazareth. But it is not only from hearing that I have become convinced; I have found that my recognizing or overlooking my humanity reflected in another—whether neighbor, stranger or enemy—is the key or the lock to how moral will be my actions toward them.

There are aspects of the Alabama home of my youth of which I am proud. There are many recollections of the 1950s and 60s that bring me joy. There are memories of the ancestral South that warm my heart. The polite and genteel manner of folk toward each other, their passion for spirituality, our respect for a precious legacy as stewards of the land, the comfortable and languid speech that savors the delicious taste of words even as you utter them. One image shames me, however; one that is an indelible picture will forever pain me. I close my eyes and still see painted there on the floor of the city bus a filth-besmirched pale green line. You see, I was not permitted behind that line, nor were the others allowed to sit at the front.

A Magical Bus Ride

Once, when I was a fledgling flitting from one playmate’s nest to another on Flamingo Drive among the gray clapboard-sided duplexes of the “Birdville” projects, I rode wide-eyed with Mother downtown on the city bus. It was an awe-filling adventure to hear the “whoosh” of the brakes and the “whack” of the door opening near the smiling driver clad in a white short-sleeved shirt with black tie and smart blue cap, to smell the clouds of black diesel smoke leaving an atmospheric, nearly invisible trail behind us. We disembarked at Bienville Square, it dark and cool with deep refreshing green shade—really almost black in contrast to the blazing morning sun—with darkness spilled out in irregular puddles under the ancient oaks that were planted well before the War Between the States, or the “Civil War,” as Yankees like to call that same conflict of a century before. We ate at Woolworth’s lunch counter seeing only pale faces—like mine—reflecting back from the mirror behind the waitress. I glanced up from my sandwich just in time to see a chocolate face under a white paper cap peer out from the kitchen. He looked at me, then crooked his head out the slot to sing, “Order up! Miss Betty!” wiping a diadem of sweat drops from his forehead. “How does that Hersey-bar man keep from melting?” I mused silently.

We crossed the square past the fountain to buy some salted peanuts at the Planters Store then moved to a park bench between the wrought iron fence next to the azaleas and the ancient and ornate fountain that splashed noisily and blue. I saw a woman with skin the color of cocoa hurry by in a starched gray uniform. “Maid,” I thought, then turned again to the greedy squirrels. When we had exhausted all the peanuts, the riot of tails that surrounded us dispersed to reassemble around another benefactor, and we gathered ourselves with our packages and walked back across the street. At the corner we circumnavigated a knot of people that gathered around a slightly frightening creature with a bushy head.

He was jet black: black skin, almost gun-barrel blue-black, black hair, black clothes. His hair was electrified, here tangled, there matted, everywhere standing up and out. His eyes rolled in a wide voodoo evil eye, flashing maniacal conjunctivae the color of café au lait. His clothes were worn shiny and black with bus diesel smut and street grime. He gripped an ancient banjo that he strummed while he danced a bare-foot shuffle on the pavement with a soft whisper slide and a clap of the sole.   I was surprised to glimpse the pink of his palms and the inside of his mouth when he placed a light bulb in his mouth and crunched down just before Mother dragged me around the corner and out of sight the degrading spectacle.

“Momma, who was that man?” I asked.

“He is nobody. You don’t need to concern yourself none, honey,” she replied, distracted.

Our World Was Separate

Ours was a separate world, I remind myself. We did not concern ourselves with what the dark-skinned cooks did in the kitchen or where the maids were going, since we had no maid or cook—black or white. I glanced sidewise out the corner of my eye—it is rude to stare I was taught—at the black man in the red uniform who operated the elevator at Gayfer’s Department Store. He wore white gloves, a red cap and a deferential attitude. “Mornin’ Ma’am. . . . How are y’all young man? . . . Third floor . . . shoes, suitcases and housewares . . . . watch your step.” We did not trouble ourselves over where he went at night or what he thought. He was just there to serve us. Nor did we did trouble ourselves with the concerns of the black stevedores on the docks of Mobile Bay whose backs glistened in the sunshine like proud muscular horses as they unloaded boxes and crates from ships laden with the goods of the world. They were not our people nor were their concerns ours. We had our own concerns.

1943 Colored Waiting Room sign Photo credit: americanhistory.si.edu

1943 Colored Waiting Room sign Photo credit: americanhistory.si.edu

Yet, I was fascinated by the forbidden fountains that advertised “colored” water. However, I was doomed to disappointment, since the water that shot up arched only in a clear parabola before it splashed against the porcelain, just like the “white” water.   The people who came and went from the “Colored” bathroom, on the other hand, were indeed colored: cinnamon, cocoa, chocolate, coal, tar, toasted, caramelized and burned dark; young men and old and boys with dark curly hair; black, brown and gray. I wanted to rub my thumb against their arms to see if the color would rub off, like charcoal or chalk. I watched intently. But I saw none among them who I reckoned to look like me: pale, fair with white-blond hair or green eyes. “Pink and green are colors, too, aren’t they?” I thought.

I rode on the bus and looked back at the little brown boy just my age who sat in the wide seat at the rear of the bus on the other side of the pale green line. I secretly wanted to ride there and look out of the rear window, watching where we had gone. But then I began to wonder if he ever wanted to ride up front by the driver and see where we were going? I began to feel sorry for us both.

But I was frightened at the difference and distance between us. As I grew to be a teenager, I became even more frightened at the demands I heard them make, and the men who shouted them in the streets. I was frightened and frustrated because I suspected that their banners listed just demands, that I was on the wrong side of the line, and that I had no real voice to answer or any real courage to speak up or the wisdom to understand what was happening.   Dr. Martin Luther King was in Birmingham leading the protest. He was arrested. He must have been doing something illegal, I thought, because law-abiding citizens don’t get arrested. He wrote a letter answering the criticism of some prominent clergymen, as well as my tacit indictment. But I did not read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” until forty years later. Yet in it he writes of me as if we had been corresponding. In his letter he speaks with sadness, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate,” he wrote of me, “who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice. . . . Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is more bewildering than outright rejection.”

I See Myself Reflected

I am a moral person, I protest. Often these days I don’t even notice the color of a person’s skin, I treat everybody with respect, and I am relieved not to live in a world with official but unjust walls of discrimination. But, too, I am shamed still that I stood by with lukewarm acceptance and thus defended an immoral status quo by my inertia and by my fears. I finally see myself reflected in the eyes of those I once feared.

There are many things that I remember proudly from my youth. But that line I wish I could forget. But I cannot. I meet it again and again even today in subtle and ugly ways, in others and in myself. And then I see in my imagination myself sitting in the back of the bus, looking were we—the brown boy and I—have been. We are sitting together on the same bus, sitting on the same seat, sitting behind the pale green line, and looking out the same window, together. Like a pair of sons of the South, brothers really—what we actually are.

Family photo of Sammy's mother, Audrey, at about age five with unidentified friend in Dothan, Alabama.

Family photo of Sammy’s mother, Audrey, at about age five with unidentified friend in Dothan, Alabama.

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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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