DADDIES ARE FROM THE HEART
A nostalgic visit to a childhood in the Fifties.
I didn’t plan to grow up without a father. He left us, at his own hand, when I was little. Nor did I plan to be thrust into the role of “man of the house,” as appointed by towering blue-haired matriarchal old women in black dresses and lacquered high hairdos. In fact, I was terrified of the responsibility. I didn’t know what it meant, but I was certain I was not up to the task. What I DID want was a Daddy. Someone to whistle at me, play catch and tussle my hair. One to go fishing with, and ask advice and sometime just sit and hug.
My paternal grandfather in Montgomery was definitely not a candidate. As Highway Commissioner of the great state of Alabama, he cut an imposing figure although he was short in stature. Somehow, and probably not legally, he had custody of negro trustees from the colored prison who served as cooks, maids, laundresses, drivers and yard workers. For a year or so around age five, I was raised by them. No, grandfather Scott was a fiery, red-faced martinet. White linen suits, black Kentucky colonel string ties. States rights and white supremacy! A powerful presence to be sure, but not capable of a nurturing nature. “Children should be seen, and not heard,” was the order of the day (and probably his motto).
My maternal grandfather on the other hand, Howard Gibbs, better known to me as Papa, filled the void right off. Our times together were not very frequent, but rendered powerful memories. Papa was a business man in Mobile. A stockbroker and insurance man, a member of the Mobile Country Club and well respected in the community. Going to his house was exciting to me although Aunt Kitty (my step-grandmother) although pleasant, probably subscribed to the adage about children. They live at 1 Country Club Road in a ritzy section of the city known as Spring Hill. The house was always in perfect order and we children felt a little intimidated about even sitting on one of the antique chairs. I used to joke that they should put one of those felt-covered museum ropes over the entrance to the living room. Even with this atmosphere, it was a special place. We would always go for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I can still feel the excitement of opening Christmas presents on the prized oriental rug — a Gilbert Erector set, a chemistry set or a Great Houdini or Harry Blackstone magic set. One of my best presents was a fishing and scaling knife, proudly presented to me by Papa, much to the horror of my mother and aunt Kitty. Papa and I escaped into the back yard with my prized contraband and spent hours throwing it to stick point first into a tree. This simply time sharing with him became a fond and indelible memory.
Another much anticipated treat was to accompany him on his stocks, bonds and insurance route into towns in lower Mobile County such as Grand Bay and Bayou La Batre and Moss Point and Pascagoula in southern Mississippi. I loved to go to Mrs. Bill’s restaurant in Moss Point. The hamburgers were so delicious and I would ask Mrs. Bill what made them taste different. She always told me that she added two teaspoons of love to the meat. When I got older, she confided that there was sage in the hamburger. I have tried to duplicate this burger without success, although I have come close.
Another time, we stopped for lunch at a white-washed concrete block restaurant with a sandwich sign that boast “fresh fried chicken.” We went in, found a booth and ordered the prized and much touted chicken. After waiting forever, we asked where the restrooms were. They were “out back” so we went out into the heat to the little houses out back. We soon discovered the delay in our “fresh friend chicken!” Said chickens were being chased by a tiny little colored man wearing an apron and chef’s hat and brandishing a meat cleaver. We had to stifle our laughter. When we went back inside, Papa told the man that we had to get back on the road and would get a burger somewhere.
Holiday visits to Papa and Aunt Kitty’s were always greatly anticipated, especially Christmas. I have always been hot natured so in the winter I would keep the window open in my second floor room. One Christmas night there was a full moon and I could have sworn I saw Santa and his sleigh streaking across the heavens.
Papa did the best he could being a surrogate Daddy and I think he did quite well. He’d had two girls (my mother and my aunt) so received no training in the area of little boys. The very best time was when he’d take me fishing in the bayous of south Mobile County. He knew an old Cajun fellow named Leo who served as our guide and angling coach. On these adventures, I would ride the Greyhound bus from Fairhope on the eastern shore to Mobile and he’d pick me up at the yellow brick bus station on Government Street. For dinner he would always say “I have a surprise for you!” and it was always the same surprise — chili dogs at the Dew Drop Inn on Old Shell Road. It opened in 1924 and he first took me there in 1948 when I was five. It is indescribable delicious and when the first owner sold it he admonished the buyer — “Don’t change nothin’” They didn’t and the last time I went, it was still the same. I think some folks have a knack for “improving” themselves out of business.
One of the most exciting aspects of these fishing trips was that we had to get up before dawn, a concept very foreign to me, but nonetheless adventuresome. We would find a little Mom and Pop all night diner along the way and get a hearty breakfast. When we got to Coden near Bayou La Batre it would still be dark. Our friend Leo had already been out in his John boat and seined for live shrimp. Once in the boat the dawn would break and it was glorious! I vowed to get up before dawn more often but it didn’t happen often. The boat was equipped with an ancient and olive green 5 horse power Evinrude. When we got to the first likely spot, Leo would kill the motor and using oars wrapped in croaker (burlap) sacks, he’d stealthily row to our first location. We used long bamboo poles and small hooks. Leo was a man who was at one with nature. He wet his finger and hold it up to test the wind, gently turn his head and announce “let’s row over to near that rotten tree.” I think he could smell where the fish were hiding. I was taught how to skillfully run the barb through the abdomen so as to attach the shrimp without killing it. Maybe this was the secret because we never caught less that three dozen fish of all descriptions. There were red snapper, several kinds of trout, bream, and others. I even caught a small shark one time. When it got lighter, the big boy fishermen would emerge, with their sparkly bass boats and fancy spinning reels. However, they never seemed to have much luck. They’d see up pulling them in, crank up and race over to inquire about our secret methods. I always got a chuckle when Leo told them “white skrimps and cane poles!”
The crowning glory was my snagging of a two foot Spanish Mackerel! I was so excited I almost walked out on the water to bring him in. Leo wrapped him up in some newspaper for me and we put him in Aunt Kitty’s refrigerator, much to her chagrin. When Papa took me back down to the bus station to catch the last bus back to Fairhope it was pitch black dark and I was totally exhausted. Too wound up to nap, I unwrapped the newspaper and proudly showed my catch off to my somewhat startled seat mate. In fact, I showed the damn thing to every last poor soul on the bus. They were good sports about it though. Many years later I realized that the driver had left the overhead lights on for me to show off my coveted prize. I like men like that. He must have been a real Daddy too.