[Excerpted from my as-yet-to-be-named memoirs (a lifetime’s work in progress) recalling the day we moved from Grayson, Alabama (in the middle of the Bankhead National Forest) to Century, Florida (on the Alabama/Florida State line) in 1957. A friend posted photos of the local azaleas on Facebook today, inspiring this recollection…]
I rolled up my little brown quilt on the last day of the fifth six-weeks of First Grade, took my all-As report card, and said goodbye to Miss Olena and phonics forever. I’d like to think that Mama picked me up that afternoon, but if she did, I don’t remember it. Daddy had preceded us south a few days before our departure, and she was probably too busy attending to last-minute duties. And so it was that, by early the next morning, we were on the road in our navy blue ’54 Ford, Mama, Mimi and me, to spend the weekend in Birmingham with Grandmama and Granddaddy before driving the arduous six hours to Century. Even the main highways, in those days, were only one lane in each direction, and our route south on U.S. 31 was no exception. With actual farm tractors, considerable eighteen-wheeler traffic and rolling hills that made passing a rarity, the trip from Birmingham – past the domed capitol in Montgomery and around the squares of towns with mellifluous names like Georgiana and Castleberry – would not be speedy.
At last, it was the day we had anticipated for months, and all three of us were anxious and excited when we turned down Granddaddy’s winding driveway to head for our new home. Anxious, because none of us, not even Mama, had ever been where we were going – and we were going there to live; and excited because it was a new adventure, with new people to meet, new teachers, new preachers, and new opportunities. I was still depressed about leaving my entire seven years of life behind, but I had the promise of a return visit in my pocket, and was beginning to warm to the idea of living in a real town with other children and a school within walking distance. For her part, Mama, the sun worshiper, was elated that we would only be an hour from Pensacola Beach, and Mimi, well, Mimi just wanted to be out of the car. “Are we there yet” was rarely more overused, or more annoying, though I admit I was weary, too, and silently appreciated her persistence.
Finally, though, she got the answer she was hoping for. We were crossing the Florida State line, which was the cue for Mama to turn left onto Route 4 and slow the car to look for the Alger-Sullivan Lumber Company sign on the right pointing to the turn-off. Once we found it and made the turn, she slowed even more – the better to take it all in – as we passed a few modest homes before coming to a cypress swamp on our left and some ancient frame structures on our right trying nobly to hide their neglect behind gnarly oaks so old and majestic they had undoubtedly shaded the Confederacy, all wearing thick shawls of Spanish moss with fringe hanging down to the ground. Then, as the swamp gave way to solid earth, and the road divided just ahead, we found ourselves in Wonderland. It was the first day of April and massive old azaleas in every direction were singing the Hallelujah Chorus. Everywhere we looked were great waves of blooms, each bank of color trying to outdo the next as they sang silently to angels in the afternoon sun.
“Look for Daddy’s jeep,” Mama said. “He said it would be easy to spot.”
Daddy’s jeep was always easy to spot. It was an old WWII surplus vehicle he had bought when he moved to Grayson because it would take him anywhere in the woods he needed to go, and he had painted it bright yellow both to alert the hidden moonshiners that he wasn’t a revenuer coming to get them, as well as to make it easy to find among the trees. It also made it easy to find that day, but we were so mesmerized by the astonishing floral display that we missed it the first time around, and had to go the full length of the boulevard, past the office, commissary and an impressive row of tall, verandaed Victorian homes with azaleas overspilling their lawns, before turning around to pass them all again. The houses were all identical in form, but there was whimsy afoot because the one nearest the mill, with the most luxuriant gardens, was painted bright orange. The next one had been painted bright green, and the third, bright blue. With the vibrant houses shining in the light and the mounds of flowers wherever you turned, it was a visual feast that has rarely been equaled in my experience. In a word, Century, on the day we arrived, was beautiful.
Once beyond the blue house, we passed the community club house on our right and then, as we came to the first side street, the windshield filled with the most impressive sight of all. It was a gleaming mansion that dwarfed all the others, and, we would eventually learn, the only house in town allowed to be white. It looked for all the world like a square, two-tiered wedding cake surrounded with trellises, columns and pink-icing flowers climbing the walls and effusively mounded on every side. One of the most impressive homes I had ever seen, it said “old money” without shouting, and was a perfectly executed study in ostentatious restraint, if there can be such a thing. We would come to know it as the Hauss’s house, but in that moment we only knew it as a visual tour de force, and even Mama’s jaw dropped as we moved slowly closer.
“There!” I shouted, a little too loudly, “There it is.”
“Where?” Mama asked, her mind returning to the task at hand.
“Right there! Right over there,” I said, pointing down the side street.
Daddy had said he would park the jeep in front of our new house, so Mama turned right and we were soon pulled up at our front gate.
It was on a street with seven houses built for the superintendent class – mill foremen, logging superintendents, and such – and, while not as grand or large as those we had passed on the main boulevard, they were spacious enough and well beyond anything that had been supplied by the mill to the employees we had left behind in Grayson. All the houses were painted gray. In fact, except for the three colorful ones we had passed on the boulevard and the white confection, every one of the 40, or so, Alger houses, street after street, were painted the same color. Mr. Hauss, I was later told, had acquired a quantity of surplus battleship paint from the Navy after WWII, which accounted for it, though I always had the sense that it suited him to paint them gray, regardless. It provided just enough contrast, even on cloudy days, to set off his sparkling showplace in the center.
There was a lot of movement in those days between Grayson and Century, as Mr. Clancy had called upon some of his best men to relocate to his newly-acquired mill and mill-town, and there were others, being replaced, who were moving on to new jobs in new places. By and large, this worked out for everyone, but the timing wasn’t always perfect and we were caught in a situation where the house we were supposed to move into – the green one – was still occupied. But then, due to the sad but timely demise of the widow McGee, we were given her house on the side street to use until ours was ready.
Daddy was there to greet us as we emerged from the car, and when he saw the look on Mama’s face, started in right away reminding her that the house was only temporary. She understood, of course, but it was a real come-down from our simple but elegant Grayson house on the hill, and I don’t think she was well pleased. The recently-departed Mrs. McGee had lived there for over fifty years, and while all her furnishings had been removed, everything was still in its original 1902 condition, including the kitchen and the bathroom. The rooms were relatively spacious, the ceilings very high, and every wall was paneled in dusty green bead-board, but the house was absolutely plain. I was excited to find that the single light bulb hanging in the center of the living room had a string pull long enough for even me to reach – Mrs. McGee had been very short – but my new powers of incandescence only lasted until Daddy tied a knot in it.
The rest of the day was spent moving furniture around and getting the house ready for living, but my mind was already on the day ahead, my first day of Florida school. I was confident it would go well. After all, I had been going to school for almost a whole year and thought I knew what it was all about. Miss Olena had made me her teacher’s pet, and I was fairly sure I could maintain that standing with my new teacher, whomever she might be. It never even occurred to me that I might need my scared-proof clothes.
The next morning at eight, Daddy and I headed out, hand in hand. I had my spiffy, Mama-made naptime quilt with tassels of bright orange yarn under my arm, Daddy had my lunch box, and we were both in an upbeat mood. The grammar school was only a block and a half away, past a row of foremen’s houses on the left (smaller than the superintendent houses, but bigger than the line workers’) and the nearly identical side-by-side Baptist and Methodist churches on the right, and we were there in minutes. Out of all the buildings in Century, the school was the most dilapidated, but a new, modern Century Elementary was already under construction two blocks away, so repainting the old one, or even patching the holes in the roof, had been forestalled.
Our first stop, the principal’s office, was also my first indication that this school might be different than I imagined. In Moulton, the principal was a jiggly, jolly old lady with severe elephantitis in her right arm who ruled through kindness; O. H. Hinson was different. To begin with, he was a man, which was my first surprise, and from the set of his chin and his permanent scowl, ruling through kindness seemed unlikely to be his accustomed technique. He was Ichabod Crane without the hat, completely bald, tall, lanky and humorless. I knew him for ten years and I don’t think I ever saw him smile except once, at his daughter’s piano recital. This was going to be interesting.
Our next stop – Mr. Hinson, Daddy and me – was at the classroom door of Mrs. Monk, my new teacher. More Mama’s age than Miss Olena’s, she was as tart a woman as one might ever hope to meet – Jane Hathaway of the “Beverly Hillbillies,” only brunette and bitter. It was hard not to notice her unhappiness. The principal made introductions, and the adults all shook hands, then Daddy gave me a kiss goodbye and left me to fend for myself on Planet X.
The next sign that things might not go as well as I’d hoped was when Mrs. Monk asked me about my little quilt.
“What is that under your arm, Tommy?” she asked.
“My mat. For naptime. My Mama made it,” I said proudly.
“Naptime!” she exclaimed. “We don’t do naptime in Florida.” Her nose seemed to be rising ever so slightly. “Just throw it over there in the corner,” she motioned dismissively with the top of her head toward the back of the classroom. “You can take it back home with you when you leave. You won’t be needing that here!”
“Now, where to seat you,” she said to herself. “I know, yes, that’s perfect.”
Then, to me, “Here, Tommy, let’s put you here, between Pam and Emily.”
“Class,” she said in an elevated voice, “this is Tommy Wilson. He just moved here from Alabama, and will be joining us from now on. Let’s make him feel welcome.”
“Tommy,” she said, turning to me, “this is Pam Wood, and this is Emily Hitchcock. Since they haven’t been able to learn how to stop talking in class, I’m going to put you between them, and we’ll see how that works.”
‘Uh-oh,’ I thought to myself. But that was only the beginning.
The rest of the day, at least until recess, is a blur, though I quickly realized that my position between Pam and Emily was going to be a problem. Just because I was in the middle didn’t mean they were going to stop talking, and every time they did, I got a sidelong scowl from Mrs. Monk.
Reading was also interesting since I had no trouble taking my turn in spite of not having learned the lesson in advance. Florida first-graders were taught to memorize a weekly list of new words so they could then read all about Tom, Dick and Harry. But memorization was completely unnecessary with my phonics skills, which made Mrs. Monk look somewhat superfluous. (Why any other system but phonics would be used in the classroom is beyond me. There is simply no contest.)
Finally, after lunch, recess arrived and I was happy for the relief, but it didn’t last long. I expected Drop the Handkerchief, or maybe Mother May I, but they didn’t pussyfoot around in Century. There were swing sets and slides beside the school for the girls and a sandlot across the street next to the churches for the boys, who made a beeline for it with a duffel-bag full of bats. I only vaguely knew what baseball was, and had never even been near a ball or a bat, so I assessed the situation and decided the better part of reason would be to head for the swings and play with the girls.
This, however, only lasted for about ten minutes, until Mrs. Monk came out and saw me. She immediately launched into an impassioned lecture about which side of the street I was supposed to be playing on.
“But Mrs. Monk, I don’t know how to play baseball,” I pled.
“Then it’s high time you learned, young man,” she said. “Now get yourself over there and play baseball like you’re supposed to. I don’t want to ever catch you over here by the swings again!”
And so, my heart in my mouth, I reluctantly walked across the street.
“Mike, put him on your team,” she shouted. It would be the last time he ever did it willingly. For the next several years, school day in and school day out, the boys would choose up sides, and my name, without a single exception, was always the last one called. It happened at least a thousand times. There was no animus in it, and I did understand. I was simply terrible at baseball, but that didn’t make it any easier to bear. I really tried, over the years, to get it right, but never could throw a ball worth a damn, and nothing frightens me more, even now, than a loose round airborne object headed in my direction. I wanted to be better, and gave it all I could. It just wasn’t in my genes.
Mrs. Monk seemed to like me less and less as the days dragged by. My phonics skills didn’t help, but from my point of view, it was mostly due to Pam and Emily, who never stopped talking to each other, or to me, and it was impossible to avoid being in the middle of it since, let’s face it, I was in the middle. Finally, one day, she’d had enough, and stood me in the corner. I was horrified. Nothing even remotely like that had ever happened to me in my life, and I protested the injustice. It was Papa’s apples all over again, and I was not going to have any of it. It was hardly my fault that she couldn’t stop them from talking.
My stubborn streak surprised her, I think, and soon I was tearfully walking the million miles from my classroom to the Principal’s office. I made no bones about why I was there and was defiant in my insistence that it wasn’t my fault. Mr. Hinson calmed me down and returned me to class, but I cried all the way home that day. It was definitely the lowest I had ever felt in my life. I was miserable. I’m not sure what happened next, exactly, but the best I can figure Mama must have called Daddy when I got home and told him about my misery because the next thing I knew, he had me by the hand and we were walking at top speed back to the school. It was the most angry I ever saw him get at anyone outside our family. He was red-faced and fully intent on telling Mr. Hinson a thing or two, and he wanted me moved out of Mrs. Monk’s class and into the other section of first-graders.
He told me to wait outside while he went into the principal’s office, and when he emerged a few minutes later he was a much calmer man. Mr. Hinson must have explained that I was in the more advanced of the two classes, and it would make no sense to move me. After all, he must have said, it was only a few weeks until the term was over, and it would all be behind us. And, he prevailed, because I wasn’t moved, though Daddy explained as we walked back home that he thought things would get better and Mr. Hinson was going to speak to Mrs. Monk about moving me out from between Emily and Pam.
She did so the next day, which solved the talking issue, but the baseball routine continued, even as it had for generations. I learned, soon enough, to take the daily humiliation in stride, since there was nothing else to be done. The game was a quasi-religion in Century – even the people who didn’t go to church would never miss a Little League game – and if I was going to live there, I would just have to deal with it. Scared-proof clothes were my new school uniform.
© April, 2018 by George Thomas Wilson. All rights reserved.