I was the type of kid who took things which were written on stop signs very seriously. I interpreted the scrawl as some kind of dire warning from some anonymous kid who knew him to watch out for him, to watch your step around him, not to trust him, to stay away from him. And so I did, for my entire life, except for just this once.
It was a hot summer evening and craving adventure and excitement, I had gone outside after supper to walk around my neighborhood. It was around eight o’clock in the evening and it was still somewhat light out. I had gotten as far from home as the driveway separating Diane Bailey’s house from Mrs. Pilgrims’ when I chanced upon Bic coming in the opposite direction. No one walked particularly fast in those days. He was wearing a white T-shirt and blue jeans and smoking a cigarette. He had a pack rolled up in his sleeve. To my knowledge, he had never seen me before. I think, to him, I was just another kid. He spoke first.
I think he knew the answer before he asked the question. That was the kind of question most kids liked. No doubt, I quickly replied in an affirmative manner before he had time to withdraw the invitation. “Okay….” I said. After all, he did say “fireworks”. This alone indicated to me that he probably had more than one firecracker to shoot off. The word did have an “s” on the end of it. I was really hoping he had a whole pack –of 16 firecrackers. That would have meant that I could spend considerable time hanging out with him, time enough perhaps to even establish a friendship. I wasn’t about to hold anything I had read about him on a stop sign against him. I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. The truth is, that even if I had known he was an escaped lunatic from an insane asylum, I would have still gone with him, because he said the magic word, “fireworks”. As I was about to find out, he actually was somewhat of a lunatic.
I followed him up the block toward my house and we cut across the street and took the shortcut across the vacant lot toward the Soda Shoppe. Then he unexpectedly turned into the alley and went around behind the Soda Shoppe, coincidentally, not far from the very corner with the stop sign where I had first learned of his existence.
One summer when we were both around nine or ten, my cousin Rusty was spending a couple of weeks with us. He was much stronger and tougher than I was, being of a stockier build and having survived a number of minor drubbings from his much older brother, Robin.
It was a typically hot summer afternoon and after lunch, Rusty and I rode our bikes down the street then turned right at the corner and headed aimlessly toward Solomon Park, a small circular park that neighborhood kids often used as a playground.
Along one side of this park were some bushes that at this time of the year sported garlands of bright orange berries that were ideal for throwing by the handful at other kids. These berries were hard enough to make it to the target, yet soft enough not to do any permanent damage. We both grabbed a handful and continued to reconnoiter the area.
We hadn’t gone too far when we spotted an older kid with red hair and freckles from the next block. I think his name was “Butch” or “Buddy”. I didn’t know him, but I suddenly seemed to recall at that particular moment, that he had been mean to me at some point in the not-too-far-distant past, and, I was feeling quite emboldened by the presence of my cousin from out of town and quickly decided then and there that right now would be the perfect time to avenge whatever slight may or may not have transpired.
Perhaps it was the expression on his white, freckled face– or the vague memory of an unkindness, or perhaps it was the color of his hair or his complexion, but something triggered an aggressive impulse within me to let him have a fistful of berries.
I let fly– and for a brief second, I was an eyewitness to some of the berries hitting him square in the face while others bounced harmlessly off his chest. I’m not sure if Rusty threw berries at him or not.
He immediately started running after us, and naturally, I sped up, rounded the corner and pedaled as hard as I could up 50th Street. I lost track of Rusty and that kid. I think Rusty may have ducked down the lane and headed back toward our house with the kid in pursuit.
At any rate, the kid was not running after me. I ditched my bicycle in some bushes and decided to proceed on foot as a diversionary tactic. After all, the kid who had thrown the berries at him was riding a bicycle. As I did so, I imagined him beating the crap out of Rusty somewhere. I knew I would be next. I hadn’t gone very far on foot when I noticed a large cardboard box in the alley next to The Victory Soda Shoppe– the kind of box that a refrigerator or some other large machine had been shipped in.
I quickly turned it up and over my head.
I was no longer out on the open. I was hiding in a cardboard box! Brilliant! I had a momentary sensation of safety standing there in the darkness out of the hot Georgia sun.
Then I realized I couldn’t see anything except my feet when I raised the box to move. For all I knew, Butch—or whatever his name was– could be standing right next to me.
Meanwhile, as I found out later, Rusty had made it home, stashed his bicycle next to the Magnolia Tree beside the house, run in the front door, and, breathing heavily, was now peering out the window through the venetian blinds.
He told me later, he thought that by now, that I was surely lying dead somewhere. He looked to the left and he looked to the right.
No red-headed bully– and no cousin.
Then slowly, gradually, almost imperceptibly at first, something across the street, to the left of a pine tree started to move.
It was a large cardboard box.
It seemed to have something– or someone inside. He watched it in fascination. At first, it would move five or six feet then stop and lift up a bit–then move five or six more feet then stop and lift up a bit. It was moving closer and closer to the house.
Then suddenly, out from under the box, sprang a skinny kid in short pants and a T shirt.
I made a mad dash for the front door and found Rusty safe inside. He looked relieved to see me. He was still breathing hard.
We had both survived.
Then, for the first time in my young life, I felt that it was just not me all alone against the world.
We drifted west through the Florida panhandle, and as it was now dark and we had had enough adventure for one day, it was decided that we would stop at a motel for the night. The plan was to camp out every other night, alternately staying in motels, hopefully one with a pool and a TV in every room.
When I was about six or seven, and Hughie or Hank weren’t around, I’d sometimes ride my bicycle over to my friend Allen’s house, usually on a Saturday afternoon or randomly during the summer vacations. Allen was a nice enough kid, but he was two and a half years younger than I was, and whenever possible, I preferred to play with kids my own age or a bit older. But I think Allen was mature for his age, and I was immature for mine, so it worked.
Allen lived on what was then the edge of town. There was a paved street in front of his house, but behind his house there were only a few scattered houses, the city was slowly but steadily encroaching on what was otherwise a large and ancient wooded area. Once, when I arrived at Allen’s he and a couple of other neighborhood boys were just getting ready to ride their bikes to The Big Oak. I joined them.
We went down to the corner and turned left. In fifty yards or so, Harmon Street suddenly turned to packed grass and dirt and ended at the edge of the woods amid a few scattered empty pint flasks of cheap whiskey, several paper cups and occasional used condom. Hank called them “Cunyuns”. We’d see them in the park when we went looking for duds. I wasn’t quite sure what “Cunyuns” were but I suspected it had something to do with what grownups did and was something “dirty”. In those days they used to sell them from vending machines in the bowling alley or in gas stations and although I couldn’t read, you could tell from the silhouettes of the curvacious female figures in the graphics on the vending machines that it wasn’t bubble gum they were selling.
Once, Hughie and I had seen a used one discarded on the street in front of our house and he had picked it up, put it in his mouth and began chewing on it. I still wasn’t sure what these little round rubber rings were, but I was old enough to know not to eat or chew on them. Hughie was 18 days younger than I was, so I guess he just didn’t know any better.
Anyway, passing a used condom at the end of the dirt street, we entered the woods. A narrow path snaked its way through thick underbrush and scrub Oak, past the occasional discarded Coke bottle, beer can or cigarette butt. The whooshing sound of an occasional passing car from Columbus Drive and the playful laughter of small children or their mothers chatting with neighbors in backyards while hanging clothes on the line to dry, gave way to different, more primitive sounds.
Crows called out to one another. “Four kids on bikes approaching from the North!!” The sound of a hundred thousand cicadas filled the air, which heated up quickly on a Saturday Georgia morning. Following the kid in front of you on a bike, meant trying not to get hit in the face as small branches snapped back while simultaneously not running into his rear tire with your front tire. It was all quite exciting. We passed foxholes, camouflaged refuges from which older kids sometimes heaved large clods of dirt at passing cyclists. Looking back now, after sixty years, I guess I was having fun, but was too young to know it.
There was little talking now, only furious peddling. Soon the path curved sharply to the left, dipped down into a ravine and peddling even harder now, we just as quickly rose up a root-encrusted embankment, the roots getting larger and larger until they disappeared into the trunk of “The Big Oak,” the gigantic tree of which Allen had spoken so reverently only a few minutes before. That moment seemed, to me, now, very distant.
We were no longer in that world….
It was a giant umbrella to the Summer sun. We respectfully leaned our bikes against its trunk and stood around looking at one another, drinking in the enormity of the situation. Here was a tree that looked to have already been standing proudly on this spot when Oglethorpe and the colonists arrived on the banks of the Savannah River only a couple of hundred years before. Its majestic, enormous trunk was a testament to the existence of a force greater than man or boy. About twelve feet from the ground, the lowest of its many strong gnarled black branches reached out to infinity from its center. Clearly, no one would ever climb this tree. It would have been disrespectful. An affront to Mother Nature.
Gradually, there began a long and steady breeze and an accompanying rushing sound like a million bb’s all running down the barrel of a giant Daisy air rifle at once. I looked up. Spanish moss festooned its many branches and strained furiously in the sun against a bright blue sky like a flag on a windy day and then slowly hung straight down again. The tree reminded me of a big strong black woman in a ragged gray dress.
Then all was quiet again, except for the sound of the cicadas high up and unseen in its branches. They threatened to deafen us all. It was hot and we all stood there breathing it all in. The rest of the day could only be downhill from here, so, without any conversation, and with Allen as our guide, we remounted our cycles and rode back to his house just in time to have his mother serve us a couple of hot dogs and some potato chips and Pepsi for lunch. They were a Pepsi family.
It was going to be a very good day.
Henry was the boy who lived next door to us when I was growing up, or so I thought.
I have photos of him at my first birthday party when he was around three. I found out years later that he actually lived in Macon, Georgia, a town about 165 miles away. The reality of the situation was that it was Henry’s grandparents who lived next door to us and Henry and his mother were only there visiting.
Sometimes his Dad, “Ed”, would be there, too. His dad was a handsome man with a great shock of thick black hair. He reminded me of Ted Williams, except Ed didn’t play baseball, or ever throw a ball of any kind around with Henry. And Ed didn’t seem to have a job much of the time. What he did have was a drinking problem. I liked him well enough, he left us alone, mostly, and when he was around, he used to take the two of us fishing.
Henry spent much of his early life at his grandparents’ house and when he got older, he spent the summers and the holidays there, too. Henry just always seemed to be around.
From an early age I was somewhat in awe of Henry. I was under the impression that he must be someone very special, because he had a newspaper comic strip named after himself, which I read faithfully. “Henry”, the only character in the strip was mute and when I say I “read” the comic strip, what I really mean is I looked at, and interpreted the pictures. I didn’t really learn how to actually read printed words until I was five or six.
Anyway, Henry looked just like the character in the comic strip and several years passed before I gradually came to realize that Henry was not the kid in the newspaper.
However, I was still impressed enough with Henry to go over to his house when my preferred playmate, Hughie, was not available and, besides, I was an only child and somewhat desperate.
Like me, Henry was an only child, and Henry, or “Hank” as he was now beginning to be called, was the only child I ever knew who acted the way he did. Hank smoked cigarettes and cussed from the time he was seven or eight. No one seemed to be particularly upset about it. A lot of people smoked and drank in those days.
Henry or Hank, like Huckleberry Finn, whose picture I had seen in a book, was often barefoot and seemed to be left in the care of his grandmother much of the time, but she was usually busy cooking, or hanging clothes on the clothesline behind the house to dry in the sun. I suppose Henry’s mother was working. But most mothers stayed home in those days and took care of their own children.
Henry’s grandmother was about as nice a person as I ever met, and she saw to it that Henry and I were fed a good solid lunch every time I was ever over there. No sandwiches or anything like that at Henry’s. Henry’s grandmother happily prepared wonderful midday meals for us including meat or fish, vegetables from her garden, real mashed potatoes and gravy, home-cooked biscuits, fresh-baked pies and sweet iced tea served in scalloped-edged aluminum- ware, topped off with little sprigs of mint from her garden. And she served it to us right there in her quiet sunlit-dappled kitchen on a white enamel table.
Henry’s grandmother also had a nice friendly dog named Sarah Punkin who lived on the back porch and in the yard. There was also a large fig tree in their yard from which Henry and his grandmother would sometimes gather figs, which she would place in a small basket and then Henry would go across the street and knock on doors in the neighborhood and sell them to neighbors to get a quarter, which was more than enough money to go to a movie or buy candy or soda or a slingshot or pea shooter or a balsa wood airplane or a comic book or any of the other things that a boy like Henry might need to make it through another hot Georgia afternoon.
Most of the time, though, Henry/Hank and I would go fishing in nearby Daffin Park. They kept a couple of bamboo poles with fishhooks and bobbers on them in the garage. We went fishing dozens of times. Henry always took along a bag of stale bread for bait and he would put a little piece on my hook for me. We were fishing for Bream, which were plentiful in the pond but we never caught anything. I told someone about this later and they said it was because we were using bread instead of worms. I think this caused me to lose some respect for Henry and as the years passed I saw less and less of him although it was fun to ride bikes over to the park the morning after the new year’s celebration, where we would fill a small paper bag with “duds”, firecrackers that had not exploded. If you had enough duds you could crack them open and fill a toothpaste tube with gunpowder and make your own dynamite. Or as Henry often did, you could just sit on the sidewalk in front of your house with a hammer and your paper bag full of duds and then place them one at a time on the sidewalk and hit them with the hammer.
Occasionally, after a big football game, Henry and I would ride our bikes over to the stadium the next morning when the place was empty and look under the bleachers for Pint Whiskeys. We would always find plenty of pint whiskey bottles with just a little whiskey left in the bottom. Drinking that made me feel like a man.
Henry also had a BB gun which he would use to shoot milk bottles or soda bottles in the lane behind his house. One summer day I looked out my bedroom window and Henry was standing in our driveway with his BB gun. Or maybe it was Hank. I talked to him briefly. It was during one of those periods when I was on the outs with him. I may have even told him to get off my property. And then he raised the BB gun and shot me in the chest the BB passing through the window screen. I played with him even less frequently after that.
By the time he was a teenager, Henry gradually began spending less time at his grandparents’. Or maybe I just stopped noticing he was there. By then, his father had turned yellow-orange and died from cirrhosis of the liver. I felt kind of sorry for Henry when that happened. Wasn’t there something someone could do? Why was he home and not in a hospital? One day I came home from school and was told that his grandfather died. A year or two later I got drafted and was gone for three years. By that time Henry was spending most of his time in Macon.
From time to time, though, Henry would return to visit his Grandmother and would park his cream-colored Corvette in front of her house. There was something about that Corvette that was joyless. It was the only Corvette I had ever seen that made me glad I didn’t own it. Gradually, I saw Henry less and less.
Then I saw Henry again years later, when I had just gotten out of the army and was hanging out down by the beach. I was glad to see him. We talked for a minute or two. I probably told him I had just gotten out of the army. Then he offered to sell me some pot. I didn’t smoke pot and was a little insulted that he assumed I did and that all I was to him was a potential customer. When he realized I wasn’t going to buy any, I saw his attention drift away to a bar near where we were standing and the next thing I knew he was inside, presumably trying to make a sale.
Once when I was back home from college visiting my parents, my father told me that Henry’s grandmother had fallen in the kitchen and she had called Henry up in Macon to come and help her up. Henry lived 165 miles away but he drove that cream-colored Corvette down to Savannah and in a couple of hours, helped her up off the kitchen floor. My father was mystified as to why Mrs. Draughon had not called him. After all, we lived right next door.
I told my father, “Mrs. Draughon is such a nice lady, I imagine she “just didn’t want to bother you”.
On a subsequent trip to visit my parents I was told Henry had died. I was shocked. He couldn’t have been more than 30 years old. He wasn’t murdered. He wasn’t killed in an automobile accident. He didn’t have some terrible disease. What was it, I wondered? My father didn’t know. I wasn’t about to ask his grandmother or his mother who was now living there full time, taking care of her own mother. I didn’t know anyone who knew him.
I never found out what happened to him and I guess I never will.
A few years later I was back from New York visiting my parents again for the holidays. My cousin was there. After dinner, my cousin and I went out to the driveway to play frisbee. The Frisbee sailed past me and landed near Henry’s house. The only person still living in the house at that time was Henry’s mother. I went over to pick up the Frisbee and stole a glance into the window of the room where so many years before Henry and I had spent many an afternoon reading comics and Ed’s Men’s magazines or watching The Andy Devine Show or Porter Wagoner and The Girls.
There in a chair not six feet away slumped Henry’s mother. She was drunk and I felt a strange mixture of sadness and pity as I looked at her. Her husband, her parents and her son and even the dog, Sarah Punkin, had all gone away and she was left old and all alone.
I had glommed onto Hughie on the very first day of kindergarten, when we were both four. I distinctly remember the exact moment when I first saw him. He was swinging upside-down by the backs of his bare knees from a wooden bar in a contraption called a “Jungle Jim”.
For a face, he wore a big white freckled one– with blue eyes topped off by a great big head of frizzy red hair. Douglas, the aged and frail African-American janitor in our school, called him “Carrot-Top”. Unlike me, Carrot-Top was very sturdy-looking and he impressed me as the kind of kid who clearly knew how to have a good time. Maybe he could even protect a “weakling” like me in a fight. I figured I could use a friend like Hughie. I decided right then and there that I was going to make myself into his friend.
It was a decision I would later come to regret.
By the time I was seven, I had advanced to the second grade, but school, for the most part, made me a little nervous. It wasn’t the teachers. I’d only had two teachers and they were both very nice. In fact, I’d say all my teachers for the first six years of school were nice. I think my discomfort had more to do with the other boys.
I was a skinny little kid and I was very afraid of getting beat up. Kids used to beat other kids up in those days, in some sort of primitive, ritualistic pecking-order kind of thing. Or maybe, it was because they just felt like it–or could do it and get away with it. We always played outside unless it was raining and besides, parents were never around.
Sometimes older boys would make their little brothers fight other kids to see who would win, or purely for the fun of it. Being outside one’s house was risky– and potentially dangerous.
Possibly, even fatal.
My next-door neighbor, Harry, who was four years older, regularly called me a “weakling” and had previously pitted his cousin, Robbie, who was my age, but bigger, against me in a fight.
It ended when I got a bloody nose.
So, in the first couple of yearsof school, I never walked–even though it was only five blocks away. That would have meant passing through neighborhoods where other kids lived. If those boys were anything like Hank and Harry, the two boys who lived on either side of me, anything was possible. So, I took the city bus to school.
I waited on the street corner, along with Miss Dotson, an old friend of my aunt, who, eight years later would be my homeroom teacher in high school.
Miss Dotson may have just been a tiny little dot of lady in a blue hat, and dark blue dress, and a fur coat with little beady-eyed foxes on it, but I knew she would never have let anyone beat me up. I felt safe with Miss Dotson.
In the first grade, my anxiety about school had been somewhat relieved when I discovered that I had been placed in the same classroom with “Hughie”, my old friend from kindergarten.
Hughie lived around the corner, on the next street over, and his house and all the other houses on his side of the street, faced South. On our side of the street the houses faced North. I think this may have been one of the reasons Hughie still lives in Savannah and I now live in Maine. Maine is about as far North as I could go and still be in the United States, if I walked out my front door and kept going.
One Sunday after church, I was playing in the lane that ran behind our houses. I had just discovered a canvas sack full of dead clams someone had thrown out when I discovered Hughie was playing a few houses away. I was glad to see my friend outside of kindergarten. I soon realized I could take a shortcut to his house, by merely walking down the lane and climbing through the opening in the brick fence which gave the garbage men access to the two metal trashcans that were permanently kept there. From that day on, and for the next ten years, until I was about 14, I went over to Hughie’s house every chance I could get. Uninvited. Once I set my sights on someone–or something–I’m relentless.
Hughie’s father was a doctor and was always gone and Hughie’s mother stayed at home to raise the family. The ten of them lived in a big sprawling house with an upstairs—aside from Hughie, there were five older brothers, a younger brother, his younger sister, and their Dachshund, “Crummy”. Someone told me Crummy was 21 years old. I was impressed by this and that she was old enough to vote.
Around the corner, back at my house, with no brothers and sisters, and both parents at work, it was just my grandmother and me most of the time.
But over at Hughie’s, there was always something fun going on. Someone was always going to a movie, or playing kickball in the driveway or going to buy firecrackers across the river in South Carolina or playing with the giant electric train layout up in the attic, or selling something door-to-door, or gathering up discarded Christmas trees and worn-out rubber tires to burn in Daffin Park on New Year’s Eve. There was non-stop excitement and adventure and a feeling of fun in the air. All the brothers over 16 had their own cars– or motor scooters and were coming and going from the place like drunks in a flophouse.
Hughie’s mother, “Glen”, presided over the tumultuous scene from her exalted position on the couch in front of the television, a container of cottage cheese constantly in hand. The big red door to the garage and the outside world, opened and shut about four hundred times each day. Two white-uniformed African-American “maids”, “Hattie” and “Noanee” took care of the laundry, household chores and seemed to regard all children, my harmless little self included , with an eye of suspicion. Probably with good reason.
When we were both about five or six, Hughie and I discovered to our temporary delight, that if you pushed a little silver button on the dashboard of the big black car in the garage, it would lurch forward over and over until it banged into the brick wall at the end of the garage. That was the first time I drove a car.
And his little sister was really cute. Hughie and his younger brother and sister and I used to play this game where we would close all the doors to the various bedrooms and set up card tables and drape blankets over them. They called it “Dark in the Hall”. There was something fascinating and vaguely exciting about that game that I didn’t fully understand, but I suspected, even then, it had something to do with his little sister. I quickly developed an impure interest in her. When I found out that she was adopted, I even tried to buy her from her mother, who along with one or two of her older brothers , laughed derisively at me. I was indignant that they didn’t take my offer seriously.
As I grew older, I continued to go over to Hughie’s on a regular basis. Sadly, I could count the number of times he was ever over at my house on one hand.
I remember one winter evening when he spent the night with us. Everyone wore pajamas to bed in those days. Hughie didn’t bring a pair, so my mother loaned him a pair of new ones which belonged to me. Apparently, what happened was that he climbed down out of the top bunk in the middle of the night to go down the hall to the bathroom. My father had just installed a new floor furnace in the hallway just outside the bathroom and when Hughie stepped on the hot grating with his bare feet, the contents of his bladder were released into his pajamas, ran down his legs and down deep into the core of the heating mechanism resulting in a most pungent smell that held us all prisoner for weeks after Hughie had long escaped back to the comfort of his own home.
On another occasion, I got a new sleeping bag for my birthday and in the early Fall, I invited Hughie to camp out with me in the back yard of my house. I had a small army surplus pup tent that accommodated two. Being a kid who was afraid of the dark, I secured a few candles which my mother kept in a drawer in the kitchen in case a hurricane caused the electricity to go out. Hurricanes were a regular feature of life in coastal Georgia in late Autumn. So, by the light of a candle, we propped ourselves up on one elbow and took turns telling each other ghost stories, like “The Monkey’s Paw”, and “Ray Renaldo”, until we both gradually dozed off.
Dawn was breaking when I suddenly awoke to the strange smell of smoldering goose down.
I sat quickly up. Our tent was filled with smoke. My sleeping bag looked like it had been blasted by a double-barreled shotgun full of incendiary buckshot. There was one large area of smoldering insulation about a foot across and thirty-five smaller spots burning slowly like cigarettes. We both quickly clambered out of the tent and as I backed out of my smoldering sleeping bag, I looked up just in time to see Hughie grab his blanket and head down the lane toward home without so much as a goodbye. I had a vague sense of abandonement. I remember thinking at the time that true “friends” don’t act like that. I suppose there was really nothing he could have done at that point but ask me if I was “okay”, or shoot the hose on me, but still, being abandoned at Dawn in a smoldering sleeping bag hurt more than the little spots of smoldering stuffing.
To his credit, though, Hughie did redeem himself a year or two later when my mother hired the two of us to assist in the preparation for a party she was giving at our house for some of my parents’ friends. Our first job was get the little Hibatchi on the back porch and fill it with charcoal, then get the fire going so she could cook some little pieces of meat on it to serve to her guests, some of whom had already arrived and were seated n the living room smoking and drinking as all adults seemed to do in those days.
While my mother was attending to the guests in the front of the house, Hughie and I brought the little Hibatchi into the kitchen and placed it on top of the electric range. I took out a box of matches from a drawer. Getting the charcoal briquettes to stay lit was proving to be a problem. I struck match after match and held them to the briquettes, but they wouldn’t stay lit. I supposed that was one of the reasons we were being paid to work the party. Getting a Hibatchi going wasn’t an easy task.
Just then I remembered my dad kept a glass gallon jug of mineral spirits out in the garage, and in no time flat I was back in the kitchen with the solution to our problem. While Hughie carefully poured a little of the mineral spirits from the glass jug onto the charcoal, I lit a match. It worked! Suddenly the charcoal burst into flame, but so did the jug of mineral spirits. Hughie, who had proven before that he was no fan of hot things immediately let go of the glass jug and it smashed to bits on the kitchen floor.
The floor was on fire and flames were climbing up the kitchen cabinets under the sink. While I stood there trying to think of what to do, Hughie took off his coat and using two hands beat out the flames with his coat. We were lucky the jug only had a little bit of mineral spirits in it. In less than 30 seconds, the flames were extinguished and the only real damage was the broken glass and some black marks on the floor and cabinet. We got a dustpan and a broom and swept up the broken glass and put it in a paper bag, but a brownish mark on the white linoleum floor would remain for years, a lasting reminder of Huey’s heroic actions that evening. Meanwhile in the living room, the party raged on.
But, mostly what Hughie and I did together was go to movies, hundreds of movies–often in the company of one or two of his older brothers. His mother would sometimes drop us off at the Avon Theatre around ten o’clock in the morning and pick us up again at around four of five in the afternoon. I generally had enough money to buy a box of popcorn on which I somehow managed to make it through the day in the darkened theatre. Once when I really got hungry I went around the half-empty theatre and picked up popcorn off the floor and put in my box. I must have been six or seven at the time.
When we got older, we were allowed to leave the theatre on our own and walk down Abercorn Street to his father’s office, which was several blocks away. On the way there we would stop and play on the graves in the Colonial Cemetery. Many of the early settlers of Savannah were buried there inside small brick houses that were fun to climb on. We picked up “grenades” from the magnolia trees and broke the stems off them, counted to three and then threw them at each other and passing cars full of “Germans”. Across from the cemetery was an apartment building around four stories tall. The front door was never locked. It was fun to go in there and climb up to the second or third floor and ring the doorbell and run. By the time the person, almost always an elderly woman, came to the door, we were usually down on the next floor and headed back out the door as they yelled at us. That was our idea of fun. We must have done that about ten or twelve times over a span of a couple of years, probably to the same apartment. I passed by there about thirty years later and tried the door. It was locked.
Once when I was nine or ten, I was over at Hughie’s. We climbed the steep stairs to the attic. Johnnie and Jerry, two of Hughie’s older brothers lived up there for a few years, before their older brothers eventually moved away, and relinquished their rooms on the ground floor. In contrast to the rest of the house, the upstairs was a dark, raw, unfinished space with a window at one end and one or two light bulbs hanging from the ceiling. For walls, unpainted Masonite® was nailed to the studs. You could barely standup straight unless you were a kid. Hughie’s mother didn’t venture up there. It smelled like a pair of old sneakers. Damp sneakers. It was the domain of the “big boys” and was sparsely furnished with a pair of mattresses on the floor, with no sheets, a beat-up table, an elaborate electric train layout at one end, that had seen better days, a Nazi helmet his Dad had brought home from the war, an assortment of men’s magazines with the covers ripped off them, various well-thumbed comic books and a couple of glass milk bottles for the brothers to pee in. It was my favorite part of the house.
One afternoon, Hughie and I were up there, and for no particular reason that I can recall, suddenly one of the brothers, Jerry–a few years older than me and who outweighed me by 50 pounds (everyone outweighed me by 50 pounds) put his hands around my neck , lifted me off the floor and held me against the wall. I wanted to tell him that it wasn’t “funny”—that he was actually hurting me. Time seemed to stop. I could see his freckled face quite clearly, his blue eyes evidenced no particular anger. But his grip was tight and I could neither breathe nor make a sound. The room became even darker, so that the stars came out– and I felt myself sliding slowly down the wall as I blacked out, his stubby white fingers and their freckled knuckles with the little red hairs sticking out of them still gripping my throat. How long I lay there on the floor I know not, but I awoke to the sound of laughter. His big brother was laughing loudly . Hughie was laughing less loudly. They were both actually laughing at me. “You wet your pants!!” said Hughie’s older brother.
This seemed incongruous, especially coming from a guy who peed in a milk bottle.
It was late in the afternoon of December 31, 1950, and the Sweetgum tree outside the red brick house stood a silent vigil, its grey branches robbed by the wind of their orange and yellow star-like leaves.
Inside the house, there was music playing and preparations were well underway for the arrival of my parents’ friends and various family relations who had been invited to the red brick house to ring in the new year. It being a Saturday, both of my parents would have left work early that day, as Saturday was only a half -workday. Although I can’t swear to it, because I was probably in the back of the house sitting on my Grandma’s bed, looking at some picture books, or on the floor playing with yellow and blue wooden blocks, I can easily imagine my mother and one of my mother’s friends, Hendree, shuttling back and forth between the kitchen, and the dining room with good things to eat, fresh from the oven. My father was, no doubt, standing in the dining room picking things off the various plates with his fingers, or seated in the living room, a drink of some kind in his hand, chatting amiably with one or two of the guests, or meeting them at the door, taking their coats and piling them on top of one another in the back bedroom.
There would have been a large table in the dining room with a white tablecloth, a small plate with Sweet Gherkins, and some type of cheese, cut into little cubes, either cheddar or Swiss, possibly both, and Ritz crackers or Triscuits to put them on. There was also a large china plate with boiled shrimp arranged upon it in a circle, a small clear glass bowl of cocktail sauce at its center. Each shrimp was impaled by a red, yellow or blue wooden toothpick. There would certainly have been a plate of Spanish olives, their little red pimento tongues sticking out impishly. A pinkish bowl of pimento cheese for the crackers and something hot, too—perhaps chicken wings, which had been broken in half with only the larger part served, so as to resemble little golden-brown drumsticks. And little hot dogs—“pigs in blankets,” I found out later they were called. On the marble sideboard in the dining room was a makeshift bar, containing bottles of blended Canadian Whiskey, Scotch, Gin, Vermouth, Rum, Cointreau, and a Sterling silver container of ice, with silver tongs, where men with real jobs made their own drinks and one for their women. An old school bell waited patiently on the mantle over the fireplace, ready to be rung by my father at the stroke of midnight. There was no radio or television set turned on for the seated guests to gather around to watch the ball drop, the assembled crowd relied solely on the men’s wristwatches or my father’s gold railroad pocket watch, which he had set precisely before leaving his job in the telegraph office at The Union Station. Wearing silly little pointed cardboard hats with elastic bands under their chins, men and women alike were left to their own devices and drank, smoked cigarettes, and spoke of mundane things in cheery voices and laughed loudly and often.
It was the laughter, I think, that drew me down the hall and into the crowded living room. Or perhaps I went looking for Teddy, our collie dog, and, to my way of thinking, my nearest relative. But up in the living room, I was, enjoying the attention of some of my parents’ friends—and for quite some time– before my grandmother eventually arrived to take me back to her room and put me to bed.
At least that’s the way I remember it. I found out decades later that my mother had a different version of the terrible thing that happened that night, but in my mind, the images and sequence of events are as clear as if they had just happened yesterday and not 65 years ago.
The way my mother remembered it, my grandmother had reluctantly left the peace and quiet of her bedroom in the back of the house and walked up the hall to the living room, not to fetch me off to bed, but to visit with her youngest son, Uncle Bill, who along with his wife Martha, were seated in the living room smoking and drinking. Although Uncle Bill and Martha lived nearby, they were infrequent visitors to our house. By all accounts, Bill was his mother’s favorite of her four children, but by my mother’s account, Uncle Bill was a scalawag, who cussed and drank too much and didn’t keep his promises to people. My grandmother would no doubt have preferred it had Uncle Bill visited her in her room as she was soft-spoken and not one given to enjoying loud parties. Noisemakers were on hand, and silly hats.
And this was to have been a loud party.
The way I remember it, my grandmother, a tall, thin woman, born on a farm at Indian Springs, who had been a good “horsewoman” in her youth, and I were headed back down the hall to her room when suddenly she slipped on a little blue throw rug with white fringe on it, that lay on the floor outside the middle bedroom.
As she grimaced with pain and clutched at the doorway in a vain attempt to stand back up again, my father put his hands under her arms, and my uncle Bill lifted her by her feet, and the two of them carried her down the hall, back to her room and gently placed her on the bed.
By the expressions on everyone’s faces and the dire tones of their verbal exchanges, I knew something was terribly wrong. Something that even my father with his white shirt and tie and shiny gold watch which kept perfect time, was never going to be able to make right again.
I stayed by her side, the party broke up, guests excused themselves and my Uncle Bill and Martha went on to another party while my father called his old friend, Dr. Beddinfield, who arrived shortly carrying his black bag and pronounced to those who remained, with drinks in hand, that she had “broken her hip”.
An ambulance arrived and two men I didn’t know took her away on a stretcher.
In three or four days, they brought her back. A metal contraption with little wheels on it called a “walker” had been obtained from a surgical supply house, and though, at my parents’ urging, she made several vain and futile attempts to use it, it was clear to her and to me and to everyone else that her heart just wasn’t in it, and she would never walk again. She would spend the rest of her life, the last twelve years of it, in her bed or in her wheelchair. A tall, thin, 63 year-old woman from the farm country, “the Belle of Butts County,” who had been a fine horsewoman in her youth and a suffragette as a young woman, was now reduced to what people referred to as a “cripple”—an object of pity. At the tender age of four, even I could tell she was terribly embarrassed by it all and never wanted anyone to see her. I don’t think she ever left the house again except under protest.
Until that final time.
When I started kindergarten the following year there was a dread epidemic of polio going around striking children and adults alike. No one seemed sure what was causing it, but it was deemed wise by those in authority that kindergarten children take a nap on the floor in the middle of the day. For this purpose, I carried to school, rolled up very nicely, and kept in the classroom for two years, a little pale blue throw rug upon which to lay my head. The very same little rug that my grandmother had slipped on.
Suffice it to say, I did not sleep very well.
Visiting Washington, 1949
I was three years old, and could walk and talk, and my grandmother was taking me to see Washington. Her oldest son, my “Uncle Bubba”, who, as she told me, “worked for the government”, lived with his family near Washington, in Alexandria, Virginia, and as I understood it, we would be staying with him prior to seeing Washington. This was the most exciting trip of my young life so far, and judging by all the excitement surrounding the trip, and all the care given to what I would be wearing, I knew it was an important one as well. I had never been to see Washington before.
We loaded our suitcases into the trunk of our black ’38 Studebaker and my mother drove my grandmother and me downtown, to the old Union Station, to catch the overnight train.
We got settled into our compartment in the Pullman car for the overnight trip to visit Washington and my grandmother and I were waving through the window to my mother outside on the platform. She was standing less than ten feet away and she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t hear her voice. I could see her lips moving, but couldn’t make out the words because of the thick glass window. She must have seen the confused look on my face because whatever she was trying to tell me, she said it over and over three or four times. I wondered what it was she was trying to tell me. Maybe it was, “Say hello to Washington for me!” I really don’t know.
Suddenly, it seemed as if the station, and the platform with my mother on it, and all the other people waving to me, in fact, the whole world all started to slowly and silently slide away to my left and though I pressed my face hard against the glass window, I couldn’t see my mother or any of them anymore.
Then it was suddenly bright light out, we were out of the station and out into the late afternoon Georgia sun. It was shining in warm through the glass where I had just seen my mother. Thousands of tiny specks of dust hung in the air that I hadn’t noticed before. I wondered if my grandmother could see them too. I thought about asking her, but then decided not to, just in case she said she couldn’t. She was very old and wore glasses and her eyesight wasn’t the best. Anyway, I didn’t want to bother her. She was sitting back on the seat now, her hands clasped in her lap. She looked a little worried, I thought. Perhaps she was nervous about seeing Washington. I turned my face away and looked back out the window.
There was no sound at first, but then, in a little while, I heard the creaking of the train car on the tracks and a couple of muted pops and snaps and felt my body weight shift slightly as we rounded a curve and began picking up speed. We passed houses with black people sitting on porches who smiled and waved at us. I smiled and waved back while “Mamaw” read her Bible.
As we passed, other people sat patiently behind the steering wheels of their cars, held back by flashing red lights and muted, clanging bells. The train went faster and faster, until looking out the window at the passing scene made me dizzy and so I shifted my attention onto something close by that didn’t move. It was a small glass window on the train that was different from any window I had ever looked through. It had what seemed to be a spider-web design in the glass. I wondered how the spider had done that.
I didn’t see any spider, so I touched it and felt the texture of the glass with my finger.
The next thing I remember, the cab was pulling away and my grandmother and I were standing in front of a row of tall houses that all looked alike. My uncle in his family lived in one of them. I don’t know how my grandmother knew which one was his, but she did, so we climbed the stairs and I pressed the doorbell, a little black button in the middle of a rectangular gold plate. I heard a bell ring on the other side of the glass door. My uncle’s wife, my Aunt Katherine, met us at the door and invited us inside. While she talked to my grandmother, and finished ironing some white shirts, my cousin Nancy and I sat at the kitchen table and drank a glass of milk and ate some oatmeal cookies from a red and white striped bag. Neither of our feet touched the floor. When we finished our cookies we were both kind of stuck there. I thought only horses ate oatmeal.
Later that day, while my grandmother waited for her son to come home from work, Nancy and I sat in a little room with a big wooden cabinet in it. Through a small glass window in the front of the cabinet, I could see a little freckle-faced boy inside. He walked funny and moved his mouth funny, but I liked him, anyway. I didn’t like his name, though. It had the word “Doody” in it. Whoever named him that wasn’t very nice. He was friends with a nice man in a cowboy outfit but there were other characters there that were mean, and there was a beautiful Indian princess and a clown that couldn’t talk with a box on his belt with a horn attached to it, and all he could do was blow the horn for “yes” or “no”. I felt sorry for the clown. The whole thing was very upsetting. But I liked the little freckle-faced boy who walked funny, even though he was a little strange.
The next morning we got up early. We were going to Mount Vernon. That was where George Washington lived. We had to take a boat to get there and the boat was loaded with lots of people who all seemed very happy and excited to be going.
My grandmother and I followed the crowd of people to the door of Washington’s house and were ushered inside. While some of the people went into different rooms, my grandmother and I stayed in this big main room with lots of pretty furniture, but no one was allowed to sit on any of it.
While we waited for George Washington to finish talking to the other guests, or whatever he was doing, my grandmother passed the time looking at his plates and dishes and silver trays. Meanwhile, I kept wondering where George Washington was, and why he hadn’t come out to greet us. I was getting a little annoyed. After all, we had come a long way to see him, and although he was an important person and the Father of His Country, according to my Grandmother, it still seemed just a little rude. I wasn’t used to seeing my grandmother treated like that.
Finally, after we had waited for what seemed like a very long time, my Grandmother and I left and went outside to get some fresh air. We walked around back of the house to see if he was out there. On the way we passed some cherry trees. I wondered if those were some of the cherry trees George Washington had cut down when he was a kid. As I was thinking about that we came to his tomb, a little house built into a hill with an iron gate on the front. I thought of looking for him in there, but it was locked. We walked around the grounds some more to pass the time. Finally, my grandmother got tired of waiting and we walked back down to the dock and took the ferry back to Alexandria.
I never did get to meet George Washington.
I guess we should have called.
If I had to guess, I’d say things went pretty well for me in life, at least for the first year or so. Mostly, I got to spend all my time with my mother, who, based on my perception of what other people seemed to think of her, must have been a pretty special person. I liked her fine, but it’s always nice when one’s own perceptions of someone– or something– are echoed and confirmed by others.
I’m not ashamed to admit it, but the truth is, I couldn’t walk until I was 11 months old, so I guess my mother was pretty much stuck with me until then. We spent most of our days together for those first eighteen months, at least when I wasn’t sleeping, which, to be honest, was probably about half the time.
Come to think of it, a lot happened in those first couple of years, not all of it good.
I was born in Florida, lived in Georgia and learned to walk in Mississippi. My father had driven me out there in the back seat of our 1938 Studebaker. My mother rode shotgun. My aunt, whose in-laws we were visiting, sat in the back seat with me. She was wearing a funny hat. She played “This Little Piggy Went To Market” on my toes the whole way across Lake Ponchatrain, which, if you must know, was more than a little annoying, but I liked my Aunt, so I put up with it. I even laughed repeatedly each time she pulled on my little toe when she got to the part where the little piggie went, “Wee Wee Wee all the way home.” Even then, I remember thinking that my Aunt should not have been discussing such things with me and that, at any rate, the little piggie should have been more in control of his bladder.
It was a long drive. We left home before the sun came up. My grandmother waved goodbye in her navy blue polka dot dress as our car backed down the driveway and slowly pulled away from the house. From the look on her face, I could tell we might be gone a right long time.
We were driving out to Mississippi to visit my father’s sister’s in-laws. Excuse me if I told you that already. They lived in a big mansion with four white columns in the front. And if you don’t believe me, that’s all right. I’ve got the pictures to prove it.
There was a big lawn out in front of the house. At least it seemed big to me. Everything seems big when you’re new in the world.
And that’s where I learned to walk. On that lawn. My mother gently lowered me from her arms down onto the grass. Then my father took about ten steps and turned around. Then he kneeled down with his arms outstretched to me. I liked getting that kind of attention from my father. Usually, he was busy working or busy doing something else.
He gave me a few words of encouragement. Okay, I don’t remember exactly what they were. It doesn’t matter. Use your imagination. The thing is, I already spoke English at the time. I’d been speaking the language for about half my life. It was no big deal, really. I’d been listening to people speaking English my whole life.
In fact, when I was about six months old, my parents took me to the Lucas Theatre in Savannah to see a movie. I don’t remember which movie it was, or even whether or not it starred Gregory Peck, but I do recall that when my father stepped away momentarily to buy tickets, and left my mother standing by the curb, out in front of the theatre, holding me in her arms, a policeman in a dark blue uniform rode up on a big chestnut-colored horse.
I had seen many things up until that point in my life that really impressed me, but this time, that policeman on that horse–well, that really made an impression on me.
No, I know what you’re thinking, it wasn’t the first time I noticed something and wanted to comment on it, but it was the first time I actually uttered an intelligible word.
I said “HORSE!”. Nothing more, nothing less. “HORSE! ”
I guess it could have been worse, I could’ve said, “PIG!!!”.