FS Who

Two stories in one, what a deal.  Do you ever get the feeling that someone is reading over your shoulder?  Who’s doing it?  Why?  Okay may it is coincidence.  When I write about my dreams, I want to claim ownership.  This happened so long ago but it seemes like it happened to me everytime I tried to write something wait, I’ll explain later…………

…..Waiting for the traffic light to change and there it was, I couldn’t believe it, not after all of these years.

A 1976 Ford Granada, painted maroon and yellow.  A car like that sticks out and there can be only one.  I was selling cars for Duval Ford back in 1977.  The boss had put a bonus on all of the ’76 model cars for incentive to move them out.  The last 1976 new car was a maroon Granada. At a sales meeting one morning, the sales manager asked for ideas to help move the car.

Someone suggested painting the top yellow, to make it enticing to a Florida State football fan.  I’ve always rooted for the Gators, so I was against it, but my opinion didn’t count.  Still, there was a five hundred dollar bonus on the car, even after a couple of months; it still sat on the showroom floor.  My rent was due, the wolf was at the door, that’s all of the incentive I needed.

I tried to keep one eye on that car everyday.  One day a guy walked up to it drooling and gasping, rubbing his hands all over it like it was Alladin’s Lamp.  The way his hands and fingers kept sticking to the car made me think of “Spiderman”.  We made our deal, but before he drove off, I asked him why he liked it so much.  He told me that he was an FSU fan and that after losing another game, he found it depressing when he tried to leave Doak Campbell Stadium.  It was so hard to find his car in the midst of the 70,000 plus cars.  He thought that this color would stick out much better and he wouldn’t have any problem finding it.

A few weeks after that, I sold a truck to a “Shriner” with an unusual trade in.  The boss had ran an ad on TV saying, “We’ll trade for anything.”  This “Shriner” having read the ad, brought in his camel to trade in on a car.  Yeah, we made the deal but my boss had told me that since it was my trade in, it was my responsibility to sell the camel or trade it for something more valuable.

Soon afterwards, here comes that maroon and yellow Granada.  I knew who it was right away, when I seen the car.  I wanted to run and hide, because I had already spent the money I made off of him, but on second thought, curiosity got the better of me.  You have to have the “go for it attitude” to sell cars and I did.  I opened the door, helped the guy out, shook his hand and asked him how the car was working out?  He said “not so good”.

He told me that at first, it was great.  Even though they lost, he could find his car but after a couple of weeks, every body was driving maroon and yellow cars and he was back to square one.  He even tried putting an orange Styrofoam cone on the radio antenna, so that he could pick his out.  The next week, FSU lost like 42 to nothing to an unranked team like usual.  When he left Doak Campbell stadium to find his car, there were  near 70,000 maroon and yellow cars that had an orange cone stuck on the end of the radio antenna.

That done it, he wanted to trade cars, find something unusual, so he wouldn’t have to face that problem anymore.  A light bulb went off in my head.  “Hey, I’ve got just the thing.”  I showed him the camel we had out back.  He was reluctant at first.  “What am I gonna do with a camel,” he asked.  Finally, after reminding him of his situation, I talked him into it.  The kicker was he would only said yes on the condition that I would ride with him on it to the next game on Saturday, which happened to be my weekend off.

Sitting seven feet high in the air, we paraded down Tennessee Avenue.  We past miles and miles of backed up game day traffic, finally arriving at the stadium in time for the pregame warm ups.  It was a great game, Florida won, beating FSU something like 50 to nothing. We joined the exodus of people leaving the stadium and low and behold, there were several hundred, maybe thousands of hump back camels as far as the eye could see.

Not to be deterred, my customer went from camel to camel, raising the tail and inspecting the rear end of each one.  After a couple minutes of disbelief, I just had to ask him, “What in the heck are you looking for?”  He said, “Not to worry, I’ll find him.”  I hollered out, “Find who?”  He answered, “On the way up here when we were wading through the traffic, I kept hearing people shout out, “Hey, Look at the two assholes on that camel.”

This story came back to me in my dream.  I got up in a hurry to write it down before I forgot it.  Just as soon as I finished writing and posting, I clicked onto Yahoo News and an eerie feeling ran up and down my spine when I saw the ad on top of the page.

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Singing River

“Singing River.”,       I’ve told you the story before, haven’t I?  If I remember correctly, I didn’t tell y’all the whole story.  Every one remembers the Pat Boone song “Running Bear and Little White Dove?”  About how White Dove, an Indian maiden who was also a princess of the Biloxi tribe.  White Dove fell in love and eloped with “Running Bear”, a young warrior from a warring neighboring tribe, the Pascagoulas.

 

The Biloxi tribe far out numbered the much smaller and weaker tribe of the Pascagoulas, and surrounded them on the banks of the now named Singing River, demanding the return of White Dove, or face their complete annihilation.  The larger tribe forced the other into the river at low tide and wouldn’t let them out until White Dove was returned.  She refused to leave Running Bear and his tribe didn’t want to show dishonor, so they stayed in the water and as the tide returned they began chanting their songs and praying to their maker.  After the ebb of the tide, there was not one of the Pascagoula tribe left alive.

 

To this day, the area between Gautier and Pascagoula is called, “Singing River.” It is said (and I have heard it many times) that when the wind blows at night, you can hear their chants and voices still, wailing in the wind especially when there are whitecaps.
.     The song was about this area and this is the scene of my story…… Allen, a high school chum and I both worked for the city of Jacksonville.  He worked for County Clerks Office and I worked for HUD. We both had dead end jobs and wanted to improve our standing and we would meet at lunchtime and go read the bulletin board about what new positions would be available and what qualifications you needed to have to get a job that paid more money.  We both figured that a Court Clerk would be obtainable, if we studied up some first.  We had been in Jr and Sr high school together for 6 years and knew each others mental aptitude, figuring that we could study together and hoping to get a promotion of over $250 a month.  We met at Hemming Park to eat bag lunches and to study every day for about 2 months.

Allen had got us a copy of the Court Clerk’s manual and we read it out loud, made spelling words and used plenty of high lighter.  Then I got hired by the Sheriff’s Office as a Corrections Officer first, no brainer for me, but Allen did take the test, passed it and was promoted.  He and I then go our separate ways,

After 2 years, I left, I ended up working for Carolina Tool for several years.  One day before I leave for Houston from Jax, I decided to call Allen’s Mom to see how he was doing.  She gave me his number and told me that he had moved to Gautier, Mississippi, 101 De la Pointe.  Before I go any further I need to clue y’all in a little something about French people. To us, they are cajuns and coon asses, but to them, they are French, superior to everyone else.  They can speak English without an accent, but choose not to, and love to drop French words somewhere in every sentence, just to remind you, that they are “French.” and you are not.

Since Gautier had its own exit on newly finished I-10, I decided to surprise Allen with a “drive thru.”  “Hurricane Allen,.” (no relation) had just blown through, devastating the countryside. Allen told me that he working as an Office Manager for a group of 7  prominent brothers and their families and their multiple businesses. The McVeys (full blooded Cajuns. They called them selves the “Black Irish.” (But they weren’t Irish).  They were into everything. One was a county judge, one was a contractor, one was a realtor another owned a car dealership and so on.

Since Hurricane Allen had torn up the area, they were the heart and sole of restoration effort.  They had a contract with the Federal Government and were paid to collect the debris from the wayside, then they sold it back to them as land fill.  Since one brother’s dealership supplied had the trucks and equipment, they leased them to the Feds.  They charged the Government by the pound to remove salvageable equipment and debris, then sold it as they saw fit.  They owned the salvage yard.  Even paper, cardboard, tin, trees etc.  They would mulch up the trees and sell them back to the gov’t as landfill.  Making money hand over fist.  Just as soon as I stopped in for a visit, they gave me an apartment, told me they had lots of stuff for me to do, then put me to work.  Allen told me not ask about money, it would be considered an insult.  I wanted to run, escape.  What have I gotten into?  Allen looked like he could use some help and some of the sons had beautiful daughters.

The picture up above is the Singing River, I took from my deck, the first morning I was there.  Darrel the car seller wanted me to build him an equipment barn, 35 X 60. My helper was Allen, who wasn’t much help.  Everyone else was too busy hauling in debris and scrap.  The McVeys kept stealing my helper, Allen was a gringo that spoke Spanish (like me), and they needed a translator for the guys at the salvage yard.  I told them my Spanish was a lot better than his, let him finish this damn building and let me be the interpreter.  We finally just built the “shell.”, good enough for what Darrel wanted, besides that he was already on to something “new” and needed our help.

Y’all have heard of “Bye La Batri.” (of Forrest Gump fame)? Bayou la Batrie.  That wasn’t too far, just the other side of “Tillman’s Corner”, right before you get to St. Elmo.  If I wanted to go fishing, all I had to do was show up at the dock and tell one of the Captains that it was his lucky day to take me fishing.  The McVeys owned all of the docks and sold fuel to the vessels at the pier on credit.

Almost every single afternoon, no matter what the job was, it could be “hands on” labor, white collar,(running the office) selling cars, hauling debris no matter what, at the end of the day, one of the brothers would show up with about 10 lbs of boiled crawfish and a couple of cases of Jax beer, put them all on the hood of the truck (no cooler) like a giant buffet and that would last until another brother showed up with 10 more lbs of crawfish and more beer. I got to practice being a real coon ass, by learning to suck the fat off the top of the head and chase it down with luke warm beer.

 

We all ate dinner together, about 8pm, almost every night at Granmi’mer’s house.  Coat and tie was mandatory.  We stood and held hands while we prayed, (them in latin), thankful for our blessings.  Dinner was set on a large mahogany table, 12 fine silver rimmed china plates and always an empty chair and plate at the head of the table for Granpe’ire, who had already passed.  Only family business was allowed to be spoken at the table.  Granmi’mer took an interest in me, felt like I was being interrogated by her, but I soon found out why.

 

The judge’s daughter and the realtor’s daughter (he later became a State Senator) were graduating from a girl’s finishing school in New Orleans.  I can’t remember the exact name of the school, but it was something with “Cross” in it (like Cross Pens). The school was having a gala event.  Large banquet held at the Fountain Bleu Hotel, being sponsored by French designers and they wanted the girls to walk the “runway.” showcasing their new designs.  All of this time, for the 3 months I’d been working, but never received any actual payola.  I typed payroll checks for a lot of people, but none for myself.  It was always “If you need anything, just take it.”  Sign for petty cash, drive any car off of the lot you want, charge the gas, free rent, no light bill, eat with us, go to the beach with us (Biloxi Beach is nice but there is a better one in Ocean Springs), what ever was happening, they made sure I went along.

 

One day the two daughters were together and they wanted to buy some weed.  They stopped a guy walking down the road and asked him where could they get some pot.  He took their money and walked up some steps at an apt complex, but before he got out of the car, he grabbed Carla’s necklace out of the car console.  Just about the time they started to holler at him about the necklace, he took off running.  Knowing that they had been stupid but not wanting to tell Mom and Dad, they came to me and told me what had happened.

 

We jumped into my truck and started cruising up and down the beach front and all of a sudden they started shouting, “There he is, that’s him.”  I drove right up in his face, he almost stuck out his thumb but realized too late that giving him a lift wasn’t what I had in mind.  I pushed the door open and knocked him down, before he could get up, I was on him, one fist full of shirt and the other knocking out teeth.  He screamed “It wasn’t me, you got the wrong guy”.  I almost believed him, he sounded so sincere.  I still had a good hold on him when I stood him up for the girls to get a better look.  That’s when I decided to pull off his shoe and out flutter a wad of money. I asked the girls what did they give him and they both said “3 tens”, that’s exactly what he had.  I let him taste some more knuckle sandwich and asked him what happened to the necklace? He said he didn’t get it, just about that time I grabbed his other shoe and guess what I found?  Yep, your right, the necklace that Granmi’mer had given Carla for her sixteenth birthday.

 

So this is why, I think that Grandmi’mer was taking an interest in me.  She asked me did I have I ever worn a tux?  How tall was I?  Do I know how to Waltz?  I told her “yes M’am, 1 step forward and two steps back, Mom made sure that I knew how, long ago.”.  Long story short, they wanted me to be Carla’s escort to the event.  The judge handed me an envelope with $3,000 dollars in it and told me that he “would consider it an honor,” if I would escort his daughter to her school graduation.  To me, the money was equal to about 3 months pay, which I had earned.  I should have known that there was more to it than that.  I told him sure “but only if I could wear my new Tony Llamas”, so they rented me a tux and had it tailored to fit down in the back (boot cut).

 

I’m pretty sure that they knew how crazy teenagers can get on graduation night and since they trusted me, and were around me everyday, wanted me to act as chaperone, which was cool, she was a lot younger than I and we were all family.  The event was held in the ball room of the Fountain Bleau Hotel, an iconic landmark.  We celebrated and danced on the ballroom floor.   We suffered through all of the awards, then the girls went behind the curtain to change for a “fashion show.”

 

Our dining tables were placed around the “Runway.”, what they called the “frow.”

Mine was at the very end. I had been drinking champagne from a crystal wine glass all through dinner.  When Carla walked out first, she was beautiful, one of the local Jewelers had offered necklaces and bracelets to compliment the designs; Darryl told me had bought $50,000 dollars worth himself.  I guess I had a little buzz going on when I stepped on one chair and then unto the runway, held my hand out to Carla and paraded her up and down the runway about 3 or 4 times.  When you have the spotlights on you and a spinning mirrored chandelier in your face, it’s easy to lose count.  We got a standing ovation, it wasn’t for me, no it was for her, she was really beautiful.  In front of her family and friends, this was her moment.

 

We all ended up on Bourbon St., Canal and Rampart, I got loaded (yeah, me the chaperone), we weren’t driving anywhere, our rooms were at the Fountain Bleu (about the 14th floor).  I tried to recreate the moment at Pat O’Brien’s after about three “Hurricanes”, by walking prissy on the bar, trying to imitate the girls.  I didn’t realize I was drawing attention from a crowd of gay guys, but the girls came to my rescue shooed the gay guys off and we walked through the French Quarter all night until the sun came up.  It was early evening when we finally made it back to Gautier.

The clouds were gathering, in the wind blowing towards us, I thought that I could hear chanting and the crying voices reverberating over the cresting waves.  I walked down the river bank to Grandmi’mers.  I saw the kitchen light on and knocked on the door.  When she answered, I said hello and I gave her the back the envelope (I knew where it came from all along).  I asked her, “What do I need money for?”·

Henry Mann and his Samurai Warriors

Suzuki jeeps were hot back in ’87.  My brother Gary was a salesman for Coggin on the Arlington Expressway.  I had retired from selling cars a few years before.  I called myself and entrepreneur.  I sold cars and boats in my front yard, built decks and gazebos, sometimes a portable building.  Gary would bring his work home with him, telling me about his “almost deals” that he couldn’t close out.  Me, big brother with all of the experience would oblige him and tell him what to do to make it work.  I had given up on car selling here in Jax.  Sell 20 to 25 cars and only make $2,500.  No way Jose.   Then,  I spent two years in San Antonio working at North Central Ford for the same guy that owned the Spurs, Red McCombs.

The economy must have been a lot better in Texas because when I sold 20 cars a month there, I earned around $8,000 a month, plus getting free tickets to the Spurs games and winning/ free trips to Cancun and Acapulco.  I ended up giving these trips to the Finance Manage and the Used Car Manger.  These were the people that helped me make it.

After we moved back to Jax.  I lost heart in the car business and started building decks and gazebos out of cypress.  At the end of the summer my business slowed down and with winter coming on, I got to worrying about Christmas for my four boys.

Gary and I were drinking coffee early one morning and he started coaxing me into going back to selling cars again.  He told me that the Suzuki Samurais were cheap and hot sellers.  The place he worked for was Coggin Suzuki on the Arlington Expressway.  They got plenty of traffic.  He also told me that since Coggin financed their cars through GMAC, they could get anybody financed, since they kissed the paper.

That sounded pretty good to me.  Here was an opportunity to go make some good Christmas money.  I asked my brother if he thought that his boss would hire me in the middle of the month, 10 days before Thanksgiving.  He asked me, “Are you kidding?  I’ve already told him about you.  He asks me every morning if you’re coming in today.

Since Gary had paved the way for me, I figured why not?  I had never even heard of a Suzuki Samurai but I knew they had  a used car lot full of GMAC repos.  GMAC will finance anybody on one of their “repos” with a down payment, driver’s license and insurance and oh yeah, a job.  I started licking my chops.

The boss man was Gary “K.”  Don’t ask me how to spell it, please. Kazcoski, Kaslowski, Kawasaki.  Gee, I just called him Mr. “K.”  He welcomed me to work and told me that he would appreciate it, if I could show the young men in his crew some pointers.

I told him the best way I knew was to lead by example and I walked out on the point.  As I stood on the point waiting for an “Up.”  I watched the young daredevils at Kona Skate Park, across the Arlington Expressway.  Some of those guys were pretty good.  I watched them get airborne, do flips and 360’s.

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My first morning went just as I planned.  I hustled, caught as many ups as I could.  By the end of the day, I had three deals in finance, all used cars.  With Coggin, they signed all the paperwork, dotted the “I’s” and crossed the “T’s”, took the trade-in and let them roll, burning gas, pending financial approval.  I was told not to worry about that.

“You just sell cars and we’ll get ’em financed.”

The Samurais were a little different.  I had to be shown how to work the convertible top a time or two and build up some product knowledge.  The sand dunes behind Regency were close by.  Every time I caught  a young Navy guy for an up, I would drive us to the gas station on the corner, buy two beers and put the top down.   We drove the back way into the dunes going down Mill Creek  Rd.  After a few minutes of whizzing up and down the dunes, I could tell that my strategy was working.  It was time to head to the Finance Office.

Just in case my buyer was still skeptical, there was a topless bar on the service road to the expressway.  I had been down there a time a two on test drives and had prepped the girls to help me close out my deals.  For every customer they helped me with, I would send the girl that helped me a $25.00, “Bird Dog Fee.”  The girls would come out to swoon over the potential buyer’s new jeep.

“Oh I like this, are you gonna come back and take me for a ride?”

I’d tell the gals thanks.  I’ll see you with another one as soon as I can.  After getting back to the dealership, it was just a matter of pointing the new buyer towards the Finance Office, done deal.

To say that Gary “K” was happy is putting it mildly.  He clapped me on the back and told me that he could see new enthusiasm spreading among the sales crew.  He asked me if I had any ideas that might help out.

I told the boss that we should “trick up” a few jeeps.  He agreed.  We started putting wood grain panels on the sides to make them look like the Old Woodys’.  Then we put on different colored tops, tan, silver, leopard skin, even denim.  Catlin Griffin on Main street wood add power windows and door locks, fancy tires and wheels we even had a few custom paint jobs to make them look like they came straight out of a a Miami Vice TV show.

The Jeeps came in with a $3,999.00 price tag from the factory.  Coggin would boost it another $2,500. with undercoating, dealer prep, an extra special wax job.  Once we started doing the add-ons with the extras from Catlin, the price soared to around $12 to $14,000.  They sold faster than ever.  Since Coggin “backed” the note, the extra profit was easily financeable.

Even with success, my daily routine was about the same.  I came to work, got a cup of coffee and assumed my position on the corner of the concrete apron, guarding the point looking out for unsuspecting buyers.  Across the way, the Kona skateboarders were hard at it, especially when they were getting some “air.”  They were amazing to watch sometimes.  Christmas was coming up it gave me and idea.

We got paid every week. Sometimes my pay checks were in the thousands, with Christmas coming up; I went over to Kona Skate Park to look for Christmas ideas, stocking stuffers or something.  I got sticker shock at first.  Guess what?  Skateboarding ain’t cheap.  I have four boys.  I can’t just buy one of them skating stuff and tell them to share.  So if bought one helmet, I had to buy four.  It was the same with the knee pads, the wrist pads, the elbow pads, not mention 4 pairs of “Sketchers.”  I decided to put the stuff on layaway, go earn some more money and come back and pick out the skateboards on the next payday.

My first paycheck at Coggin was around fifteen hundred dollars bring home.  I was pissed.  I was expecting much more.  I went to the girls in the office to find out why my check was short so much.  Oh, they said they were just looking out for me.  They didn’t want me to have to pay all that money in taxes one week and then the next week, have a zero check.  Oh, I got hot about that.  I know how it is.  The girls in payroll don’t make that much money, they type out the big checks for the good salesmen and the bad ones alike.  Maybe they figured that some of the guys don’t earn that much and are their friends. Maybe they were jealous and were just trying to even the playing field.

I got the attention of the Office Manager and told her that I want all the money I’ve got coming, every payday.  If I have to pay $400.00 a week into Social Security, then that’s what I pay.  I wanted my money, all of it.  Mad enough to chew nails, I had to get Gary “K” into the argument.

I told the boss, “If you think these Jeeps were hard enough to sell before my brother and I started working here, just wait and see how hard they are to sell when we go across town and start working for Pete Kirill.

That did the trick.  The next week I grossed around $3,800.  My bring home check was $2,700 and some change.  The way I looked at it I’m not interested in the gross, just in how much I take home each week.

Having a good feeling about my earning capacity, I started going by the skate park after work.  You could get a cheapo skateboard at K Mart for around twenty bucks.  Looking at the customized blank boards alone, the price was over a hundred bucks, twice that for a “Tony Hawk.”  Then you add the price of the axles, the polyester wheels, “the trucks,” and then the rails, the nose pad, mouthpiece and so on.  It wasn’t cheap,  times four.

I bit the bullet.  I gave them a deposit and made my order for the best of everything.  Heck it was just money.  Coggin was paying for it, not me.  My pockets looked like elephant ears when I went to work there and now I was paying close to four hundred dollars for a skate board, plus the safety equipment that went with it and oh yeah, don’t forget the math, because it was all times four.

The month of November was coming to a close.  Now that I had a goal, I was more inspired than ever.  I drove past the dealership late one evening.  I saw a couple of black kids eyeballing the Samurais through the windows.  They left big handprints on the glass in the dew.  I had seen their paw prints on the windows in the mornings.  I remember thinking that Spiderman must have paid us a visit.  That gave me and idea.  I started putting my business cards under the wiper blades of all the cars on the front row.

Within days this started to pay off.  We got a flurry of young black customers coming on the lot holding a business card, mine.   Gary K was amazed.  Almost every one of them had some money for a down payment, but not all of them had a job that would qualify them for finance.  I asked them where they got the money and they told me about their “boss.”  They worked and had jobs, just not on paper.  I told a few of them to, “Tell your boss to come see me.”

Early one morning I caught an up and introduced myself, “Hi, I’m Mike Frailey.”  My “Up” was in his late 30’s, early 40’s.  A well dressed, be speckled black man with balding hair.  He carried a brief case with a chain, cuffed to his wrist.  That really caught my attention.  He introduced himself to me as “Henry Mann.”

Business is business.  I don’t care if you are black, white or green.  Money talks and B.S., well B.S. walks and I don’t let any body walk until I’m sure they can’t buy a car.  I asked Mr. Mann what could I do for him, because he obviously came looking for me.

He asked me if there was somewhere we could go to talk.  I thought about the sand dunes behind Regency Square or the topless bar down the street but after looking at his well tailored pinstriped suit, his gold watch and cuff  links,  I nixed that idea.  I asked him to follow me.  I walked towards Gary K’s Office, it was empty.  I passed his secretary and asked her, “to hold all my calls please, I’m going to be in conference.”  I ushered Mr. Henry in and asked him to have a seat.  Then I shut the door and asked him what was it that I could help him with?

Mr. Henry told me that he employed a group of men, under the table.  They made good money.  As long as they worked for him, they represented him.  He wanted them to look nice, dress nice and drive a new car.  New cars were expensive, he said that he wanted something with a little flash and pizzazz, but he didn’t want to break the bank.

At first I thought he was interest in a couple of the little Suzuki cars.  They were new, cheap, got great mileage.  He said “No, he wanted Suzuki Samurais, the Jeep.”  Quickly adjusting my way of thinking I said, “Sure, why not?”  He described to me what he wanted.  He preferred vehicles with a lot of flash.  Leopard skin tops, Chrome chain steering wheel, power windows, locks, air conditioners, with stereos and cassette players, custom chrome spare tire covers, the whole nine yards.

“Wow, I told him, that one is gonna cost you some money.”  He said,   “Well, I drive a Jaguar, I’m not worried about the money and I don’t want just one, I want eight of them, all jade green.”  If you ever heard the saying “Jaw dropping,” well mine was on the floor.  At first, the devil on my right shoulder was thinking this guy is pulling my leg.  Then, the angel on my left shoulder started whispering, “What if he’s on the level?”  I had a pretty good idea where the money was coming from but feigned indifference.  After all, I’m here to sell cars.  Where they get there money from is their business.

What convinced me was when he opened up his briefcase and showed me stack after stack of hundred dollar bills.  Now we are definitely speaking the same language.

I knew off the top of my head that a fully loaded Samurai ran about “12 to 14 something,” list price.  At that figure there had to be around 5 to 7 thousand dollars mark up.  Plenty of profit.  I didn’t need a calculator to times uh, say at least 6,000 dollars profit times, then times 8 equals, uh hell, that equals a lot.  It was over a hundred thousand dollars grand total.   Then I had to add the 4% sales tax that we had at the time, title fee and tag fee.

I think the total was around a hundred and twelve thousand plus tax.  He offered a hundred thousand even.  That was a lot of money.  I believe I had to loosen my collar a couple of times.  I still had to get the boss’s okay on everything.  When I walked out of the office I could tell that Gary K was steamed at me for using his office.  Once I showed him the stacks of hundred dollar bills with the band still wrapped around them, I think he cooled off.

It took about an hour and a half to count all that money two or three times and close out our deal.  We bumped him up a little bit, you have to or they’ll back out.  Gary K came in, sat down and kept my mullet busy, while I went out on the lot to if I could find eight green jeeps that hadn’t been to the custom shop yet.   I still needed to get their serial numbers, fill out eight separate buyer’s orders, then fill out the odometer statement and the title applications.

The only stickler to the deal was we had to verify insurance.  I had to get Mr. Henry to give me the names of the drivers.  I needed to verify their licenses and get them insurance before they could drive the car off the lot.  After my conflict with the Office Manager and her clerks, I knew I couldn’t get paid until the paperwork was done.

My next chore was getting Mr. Henry to give me their names and addresses.  He knew their nicknames and street names but he said he didn’t know their legal names.   After a few minutes he came up with Robert Johnson, Ronnie Jackson, Richard Jefferson, aw heck I just started calling them “RJ.”  Every one of these guys lived in the projects.   Phoenix Ave.,  Brentwood, Blodgett Holmes, Emerson Arms, Durkeeville.  I started cruising the projects in a new Suzuki nights after work, trying to hunt the new owners down.   I wanted to hurry and close this deal before it went sour.  I wanted to get paid.  This just seemed too easy.  At first, no one was home, I would leave my card to no avail.  I realized that these addresses was where they “stayed,” not where they lived.

Maybe I look a lot like a cop, I thought.  I started leaving my tie in the car.  I got my brother Gary to ride out with me every night trying to find these guys.  I told Mr. Mann that I was having problems.  He would call these fellows on the pager and find out what corner they were on and tell them I was coming by in their new Suzuki Samurai.

That did the trick.  As luck would have it, none of them had a driver’s license.  Oh, they might be wearing a shoulder holster with a Glock or a Mac 10, but not a driver’s license.  I had to take a car load of these fellows down to the DMV to get their license.  It was easier in those days, not as much of a hassle as it is now.  Elizabeth Pendarvis was a family friend and she was a supervisor at the DMV underneath the Fuller Warren Bridge, she gave me a hand.  Some of the guys couldn’t read and needed to take the test orally.

Next was the insurance.  No body had insurance.  None of the guys wanted to give up any of their cash to get it either.  When they found out that they needed to make a down payment on the insurance, they went “MIA.”  I still had to chase these guys down on the corner to find them and tell them how important it was to get that insurance, then they could be riding in style.  I got one of my insurance friends that would come out on the lot to write new policies’ to ride with me. If I remember right, his name was David Gray.  Every time he wrote a new policy he would give me a fifth of liquor as a finder’s fee.  I didn’t drink at the time and would give the bottles of booze to the Used Car Manger or the Finance Manager.

For my motivation I kept watching the guys skating at Kona, thinking that all I had to do to get paid was to finalize these last few deals.  I got my brother to help me; I was scared to go out alone in a flashy car, wearing nice clothes, running the dark streets in the city projects.  Christmas was on the line.  I did what I had to do.

I just know those gals in the payroll office sure musta hated typing that check.  I told Gary K that if I didn’t get paid one hundred percent of everything I’ve got coming, I’m quitting.  He told me to calm done.  He said that his paycheck depended on the size of mine.  The more I make, the more he makes.

Then I heard that the Office Manager came up with the idea that it was too much money for one guy.  She came up with the plan to make Mr. Mann’s purchase a “fleet deal,” and to give me a $200 dollar commission per vehicle.  I was afraid that I might lose that big pay check.  It wouldn’t be the first time a salesman got pencil whipped out of his pay.

The last week of November 1987, my gross pay was over $14,000.   My bring home pay was in the neighborhood of $8,500.00.  Even so, I found out later that the office girls trying to be sneaky, withheld money anyway, making a $1500 dollar mistake conveniently in the company’s favor by over charging on the tag and title fees.    After I got my paycheck, I quit.

One morning a few weeks later, I was sitting at the kitchen table looking for the want ads in the newspaper and drinking coffee with my brother.  On the front page I read that Henry Mann had been arrested for dealing drugs.  It was the biggest crack cocaine bust in the history of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office at the time.  The story in the paper described how sophisticated an organization he had.  All of his men were rounded up and arrested for selling drugs.  The paper also mentioned they were all driving around in the projects in matching sporty new Suzuki Samurais.

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My boys had their greatest Christmas ever.  I have no idea what my gross pay was, but for the month I brought home close to $12 thousand dollars.  I started at Coggin Suzuki about 10 days before Thanksgiving and sold 22 cars that month.  My picture was in the paper, “Coggin Suzuki’s Salesman of the Month.”  I never did go back to selling cars after that.  Like those kids at the skate park, I just figured that I’d done my best and I would  just go out on top.

Lumber City Bootleggers

Sitting in a jail cell for 3 days in Hazelhurst.  Most of the time the only inhabitants were just me and my son.  I had plenty of time to think.  How did we get here?  More importantly, how am I going to get us out?

The only time we got to see anybody was when the trusty came by every evening and asked if we wanted anything from Burger King.  That was our only outside contact, except for one or two other prisoners that came and went.  As long as we had the money, we could eat.  If not, we had to do without.

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My granny had just passed away, only a few days before.  She and her twin sister had been residents of the Lyon’s County Nursing Home for the past 16 years.  We had celebrated her 100th birthday only a few years before.  Both she and her sisiter Anne Sue suffered from Alzheimer’s since before they ever took up residence.  Mom had 4 brothers and 3 sisters.  The ones that were still alive shared the responsibility of taking care of them, if not every day, every weekend.

Aunts Evelyn, Irma and Alice kept the trail to the nursing home wore out.  Meanwhile,  Uncle Ray’s wife, Aunt Jane worked at the  Hazelhurst Nursing Home, where Aunt Lena resided.  That is, until Aunt Lena and Aunt Jane both passed away.  Before she passed, Aunt Lena left Uncle Ray her property.  Instead of living in her old house, he put a new 14 by 70 mobile home next door.

Uncle Ray’s was a gathering place for visiting kinfolk.  Aunt Evelyn and her husband Bob, lived nearby in Alston.  When Granny’s 100th birthday came around the nursing home was packed full of family members that gathered from near and far for the celebration.

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Granny Sharpe passed away on a Friday.  By Saturday Uncle Ray’s yard was slam full of cars and trucks with out of town and out of state tags.  Granny was over a hundred years old when she passed.  She had eight children and plenty of offspring.  When we gathered, we celebrated her life.  It didn’t take long to run the local liquor store out of beer and booze.  Even the conveience store ran out of beer.

Back in those days, most of south Georgia was dry.  Some places had recently opened up to sell alcohol but there wasn’t any place opened to buy alcohol, on a Sunday.  To say that my Uncle Ray was tore up about his momma’s passing is putting it mildly.  He told me that if I would drive him in his Cadillac, he would take me to a bootleggers where we could buy more beer and booze.

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Uncle Ray knew everybody in the surrounding area.  He knew every trail and how to avoid the places where the cops would put their road blocks, a common practice in south Georgia.  When we left his house to re-up on the beverages, we left a houseful of people anxiously awaiting our return.  If Uncle Ray had an addiction, it was gambling.  We couldn’t pass a store with out him wanting to stop to get a scratch off ticket or if he saw a road sign with a number on it, he had to play that number on the three digit lotto, I forget what they call it, “pick three” I guess.  I wasn’t much of a gambler.  When we drove down highway 52, he had to get a ticket on 052 or 520.  When we got to 319, he just had to stop at the next store to play it, just in case.

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In those days the Amish community was in full force.  It seemed like everywhere we went, we would have to drive slow to go around a horse and buggy.  The driver would always have a beard so it was hard to recognize them.  Their buggies were always black, with a black cover.  Their horses were undistinguishable because they were usually solid brown, no blaze and no stockings.  Every buggy would have a large orange triangle on the back.  The same as used by farmers when moving their equipment on the highway.

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On this day we passed a black buggy heading in the same direction as us, we slowed, waved as we passed and proceeded along the river until we came to a place on the right that had a big white sign in the yard.  In large red letters on a white sign were painted the words “Madam Rubys.”  My guess, she was a gypsy fortune teller.  We had to hunt for a place to park because the yard was packed full of Cadillacs, big Buicks and Oldsmobiles and a few high dollar trucks.  I noticed a large sattelite dish in the side yard.

I felt a little uncomfortable when Uncle Ray said to me, “Get out, let’s stretch our legs.”  I felt even more so when we opened the screen door and entered the house.  It was dimly lit, smoke, loud music and voices came from everywhere and unless my eyes deceived me, all the occupants were black.

“Good Lord Ray, I thought, what have you got me into?”

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We were soon greeted by a large black woman with a big toothy smile.  Uncle Ray said, “Let me introduce you to your cousin Ruby.”  I could have been knocked over with a feather.  Is this a joke?

Ms. Ruby gave Uncle Ray a big hug then asked, “Who’s this Ray?”

He answered her with, “This is Christine’s boy, Mike.”

Hearing this Ms. Ruby smiled all the more, if that was possible.  She said “Lord have mercy, this is little Mike?  Child, I haven’t seen you in ages, not since you use to stay with me when your Mom sang on the radio.”   Now I can remember quite a ways back, but them days were news to me.

Uncle Ray filled me in later.  He said that mom and her sisters had a gospel quartet that sang on the radio in Vidalia after I was first born.  One of the songs she sung was “Take an Old Cold Tater and Wait,” with Little Jimmy Dickens way back in the day.  Jimmy’s wife was from Baxley.

Then he added, “Ms. Ruby is my second cousin.  We were all raised together, went to school together and even went to church together.  Her family lived on Daddy’s (my Grandpa’s) farm.”

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Ms. Ruby hugged my neck too and welcomed us in. Everyone in attendence already knew Uncle Ray but she made sure to introduce me to everyone.  There were several TV’s with football games playing on each one.  Several card games were going on, even a crap game.  I heard a noise in the back and looked out the window and saw a group of men ranting and raving at two roosters wearing gaffs, going at it, tooth and nail.

I heard someone say, “What’s up Ray, you got me a number?”

To this Uncle Ray replied, “I sure do, I got your number when I walked in the door.”

Uncle Ray focussed his attention back to Ruby and told her under his breath, that he “was looking for some alcohol, whatchu got?”

Ms. Ruby just laughed and said, “I shoulda known, the only time you come to see me is on Sunday when you want something to drink.  Well, you just gonna have to wait a few minutes, it’s on the way.”

It wasn’t long after that, while I was trying to watch a football game, being careful with my words so that I wouldn’t accidentally place a bet, I noticed that Amish guy with his horse and buggy pull in the yard and drive to the rear of the house.  At least I think it was the same guy.

It wasn’t long after that, Ms. Ruby came into the room with two 12 packs of tall Budweisers amd a fifth of Smirnoffs.  Uncle Ray played a couple hands of “Bid Whisk,” lost his money and needed my help to stand up.  It took a couple of minutes but we made it to the car.  I hadn’t been drinking yet that morning so I was okay to drive.

Ms. Ruby came out to the car and told me that, “She was sorry to hear about my Mom and my Granny passing and for to come back and see her sometime.”

As we made our way back to Uvalda, I had to slow down to pass that same Amish guy and his horse and buggy.  I waved but he didn’t return my wave.  Those Amish folks sure liked to keep to themselves.

When we got back to Aunt Lena’s old place the front yard was packed with even more cars and people.  Kids running everywhere, taking turns on the riding lawnmower where Aunt Lena used to raise dandelions and goats.

 

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I think everyone stayed up all night talking and laughing but me.  I fell out.  I got up at the crack of dawn to make coffee and survey the damage.  There was a mess everywhere.  I made my way around the house with plastic bags, emptying ashtrays, solo cups and picking up half empty beer cans.  My oldest son Michael was home on leave, he was an early riser too.  He helped me clean up.  The funeral was supposed to be at 2 pm.  That didn’t leave us much time, both of us were scheduled to be my granny’s pall bearers.

Rural Georgia doesn’t have door to door garbage service like they do in the big cities.  Instead, they have dumpsters spread out actoss the county.  After loading up four large trash bags of empty beer cans and liquor bottles in the back of my truck, Michael and I set out to find a garbage bin and take out the trash.

We drove in the direction Of Hazelhurst, thinking that there should be a dumpster before we reached the county line.  As we drove down the high way, I saw a sign that read, “Junction 319.”  I wondered if any of Uncle Ray’s numbers hit.  He might wake up rich if 319 came in.  I had to slow down to pass another black buggy.  I couldn’t tell if it was our bearded bootlegger or not, but they sure did favor.

Driving up to the county line I could tell that the dumpster was full, overloaded with trash spread out on the ground.  I kept going, crossing the Altamaha River Bridge.  From the top of the bridge, I spotted a dumpster next to the boat landing.  After braking and turning in to approach the boat landing I saw a sign that read, “Now entering Altamaha River Basin Game Preserve, No Alcoholic Beverages Allowed.”

Since we weren’t drinking, I didn’t pay that much attention to the sign.  I parked the truck.  My son and I walked down to the river.  I don’t know if it was just looking at all that water or what, but we were both ready to drain some of that coffee and stepped behind a tree to do so.

As we were leaving the boat ramp, I pulled the truck up to the dumpster and got out and started tossing the trash bags into the dumpster, also throwing in one or two loose cans that had been rolling around in the back of the truck.

No sooner did I do that, than a guy wearing a camouflage uniform stepped up out of the trash bin and hollers, “Stop, you’re under arrest.”  Then out of the woods came a swarm of  GWC deputies, including the Hazelhurst Sheriff.

I guess you can say it was a baited field.  As they handcuffed us and started searching the truck for contraband, they told us that a law had been passed six months before about bringing alcoholic beverages on state property.  That law had gone into effect, today.  We told them that we didn’t have any alcohol, we were just using the dumpster.  In response to that, they said that an empty beer can or liquor bottle represented an open container, in violation of the law.

My son Michael had been trying to quit smoking.  He tried smoking Sir Walter Raleigh pipe tobacco in a cigarette form.  He had heard aboard ship that the raunchy taste was a good way to quit smoking.  When The GWC officers found his cigarette butts in the ashtray, they wrote us up on a couple more charges.  Possesion of an illegal substance, introducing an illegal sunstance to state property.  We told them it was tobacco.  They told us they didn’t have a means to do a field test.  It had to be sent off to a lab.

I kept thinking they were joking with us, maybe this is a nightmare or something.  They took us to the county jail in Hazelhurst.  They just locked us up without reading us our rights, checking our pockets or removing our valuables.  We didn’t even get a phone call.

For three days we sat in that cell.  We didn’t see the first officer, except for head count around midnight.  The only other prisoners were trustees.  We didn’t get fed.  Usually, around dinner time, the trustees would come by and ask us if we wanted anything from Burger King.  If we had any money they would get it for us.

On the third day we were surprised by the arrival of a new prisoner.  He looked mighty familiar.  A tall fellow with a beard and wearing a suit of dark clothes.  At first our new companion didn’t talk much.  When the trustees came in to get the money for our supper, we gave them money for him too.  Afterwards Mr. Amish gave a long, lengthy prayer.  While we were eating, he told us that he had stopped at the same dumpster that we did by the river, searching for aluminum cans.  The same goon squad that accosted us, got him too.  He had a few smashed up beer cans in the back of his buggy.  When they searched his buggy further, they found unopened cans of beer and a couple jars of unlicensed booze.

Those Amish people must be tight with a quarter.  After we ate, an officer came in to take the Amish guy to be booked.  The jail wasn’t much bigger than a Cracker Jack box.  We could hear them talking as they finger printed him and took charge of his money.  That Skeezer.  He had hundreds of dollars on him.  I bought his meal because his clothers were threadbare and his boots were scuffed up, he looked broke.

My son and I were never officially booked.  We weren’t charged with a crime.  After seventy two hours, they let us go.  When we got home, everyone was upset with us.  The people that we had bribed to make a phone call, never did.  Our folks had no idea were we were at. We missed my Granny’s funeral.  They had to get someone else to step in to be pall bearers.

I try to avoid Hazelhurst these days.  When I have to cross the river, I take the back way through Lumber City on that old ricketity  bridge.  Even though I don’t stop, when I drive past my cousin Ruby’s, I honk the horn and wave.  When I see a three digit number on a gas sign or a highway marker, I think of my Uncle Ray.  The Amish have moved on from the Altamaha River Basin.  Except for family funerals, so have I.

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Dog Days of Summer

Oh the dog days of summer, so many years ago.  Watching the lightning strike at night takes me back.  The summers at my grandparents, the lessons learned and events that bring me here to where I am today.

Judging by the skies illuminating like a blinking caution light, makes me think the folks up around Brunswick must be “getting hammered.”  That’s what my granpa use to say about the folks in Waycross in the late summers of my youth, when we were watching the far off lightning streaking across the sky.

Summer nights during the rainy season we would all sit on the front porch and watch it rain.  For medicinal purposes my grandparents would sit and rock, taking turns sipping dandelion wine from a mason jar, that granny had put up last spring.  “Taste bitter,” I heard Granny say, to which Granpa replied, “Aw, it’s probabaly just the iron in the water.”

I remember watching her brew up a batch in a two gallon crock pot.  Dandelion blossoms, raisins, oranges, lemons and their peelings thrown in the mix.  My brothers and I had picked the dandelions special for her at Aunt Lena’s.

Granpa was a farmer, his whole life he’s been tilling the red Georgia clay.  His favorite saying was like a second breath.  “Lord knows we needed this rain.”  Everytime I heard him say it,  I wondered what in the heck does he mean by that.  I guessed it was because he wasn’t the one emptying all those pots and buckets and moving them around to catch the drippings every time it rained.

I remember some of those leaks were probably my fault.  Granny took the switch to me for cussing when Aunt Irma pinched me one day.  I shinnied up the drain pipe to the roof to get away from Granny.  I pulled off the wooden shingles that Grandpa had nailed over the tin, throwing them at who ever tried climb up to get me down.  That is until Granpa coaxed me into changing my mind, promising he would make granny put up her switch.

Soon after, Granny volunteered us to go stay with Aunt Lena over in Uvalda for a week or so.  Granny and Aunt Lena were second cousins.  Before she married Granpa, they were rivals for the same boys at the square dance.  I guess the animosity lingered on.  My cousins, Cindy and Linda were visiting and staying with her.  Granny must have been mad at Aunt Lena I suppose.  When we climbed into the back of Granpa’s old truck she didn’t kiss us good bye, rather she shooed us off like varmits with a motion of her broom, while she was sweeping the porch.

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Aunt Lena lived near downtown Uvalda, just across the bridge.  She had a 20 acre parcel, 10 acres on each side of the highway.  The land around her house now a lush green meadow, once produced large crops of Vidalia onions.  Her men folk long gone now, it just produced dandelions and provided a place for her goats to graze.

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The other side of the highway she let lie fallow and it had grown into a largely wooden thicket.  In the spring and summer she would rock on the porch and stare at the beauty of the lightening bugs and fireflies across the way.  So many, aw so many.  Their bio-luminescent glow would light up the woods like a bunch of fairies full of mischief.  Much better than watching TV.  Hundreds of thousands of the airborne beetles would remind us of the awesome power of Mother Nature.

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My cousins were glad to see us.  The more the merrier.  Cindy was my age, Linda a little older.  Linda was always large and in charge, she reminded me of Granny when she tried to boss us around.  All she had to do was squint her eyes at Cindy and scrunch up her nose to make her cry.

Sunrise usually meant that the goats had left us a mess on the porch.  Linda would see to it that it would be our job to draw water from the well to wash it off.  I had gotten use to the taste of Grandpa’s iron water but I never could get use to Aunt Lena’s.  I can still taste the sulphur.  Just thinking about it makes me want to spit.  The goats were all over the place, they came and went as they pleased.  Aunt Lena, even in her advanced years would milk them to make cheese.  We helped her turn the crank on her new churn until she turned her back to us and then we would be gone, off to play by the creek.

Goat’s cheese,  to me yuck.  I know people must have really liked it, because they would stop in to buy or barter for her product.  Folks on the way to the market in town would bring her greens from their garden or when they killed a hog, links of sausage or a cured ham. I wouldn’t even think of trying any of her cheese because all I could think of was the goat crap I had to wash off the porch every morning.

When it came time for a bath, Aunt Lena would hang up a sheet on the back porch for privacy.  Then she would heat water on her stove to fill the wash tub for my cousins to take a bath.  When it was mine and my brothers time to get clean behind the ears, the sheet would come down and we would bathe in the same water as the  girls. We were told that we didn’t have anything they hadn’t seen before and that  girls don’t get as dirty as boys, so the bath water was still clean.

We pretended not to mind so much, knowing that once we got our bath, Aunt Lena would tip the wash tub full of soapy water, over the edge of the porch to drain it.  Then the ground surface would pop up dozens of big earthworms trying gasp a breath of fresh air.  We would collect these worms and put them in an old bathtub we used for our worm bed, kept in the goat barn.

My brothers and I made a sign, “Worms for Sale.”  I nailed it to a tree by the road near the creek.  When the water wasn’t rushing past after all the rain, folks would fish off the bridge.  We made a lot of sales.  Just as soon as we had enough coins in our pocket to make a jingle, we would rush to the General Mercantile only a few blocks away, to fill our mouths full of candy and buy firecrackers.

My cousins, my brothers and I watched Aunt Lena brewing up a batch of dandelion wine, we wanted to help.  She told us to go across the street and pick the dandelions that  grew on the side of the road and just this side of the woods.  I asked her why not just get them from meadow behind her house.  She said that goats probably peed all over them and that always made the wine taste nasty.  Then she said  “I’m saving them for your granny.”

She had us gather the blossoms on a bright sunny day when the blooms were at their best.  Wanting to be helpful, we would grate lemons into what she called “zest,” the same with the oranges.  We watched her add cane sugar and raisins, then slice up the lemons and oranges to add to the mix, along with a packet of yeast.  After boiling the mix for a few hours, she would spread a cheesecloth over the top of the crock pot and put in a closet to ferment for a few days.  Once the concoction stopped bubbling, she strained the pot and poured the contents into mason jars and empty wine bottles.  She placed the jars and bottles on the shelf in her pantry without a lid to make sure the last bubbles of fermentation had escaped before she put on a lid.

Country people being thrifty, Aunt Lena added the left over squeezings to the mix when she made fruit cake.  It was delicious.  Aunt Lena would hold up the jars to the sunlight and tell us that, “The best parts of summer, are right here in this jar.”  Like works of art she would place the mason jars in the sill of the kitchen window, on display.

After two weeks of our lives without granny, Cindy and Linda went home to Jacksonville.  Soon after, Granpa showed up with is mules pulling the wagon behind.  He was coming to town to get supplies.  Granny told him to get a case of mason jars and for him to tell us boys to pick her some dandelions.

Hearing this my brothers and grabbed a bushel basket and started to head on across the street.  Aunt Lena hollered at us, “You boys listen here, there’s a lot more blooms in the field beside the house.”  I often wondered if Granny could taste the goat pee or just figured it was the iron in the water.

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Bringing my thoughts back to the present, after glancing up at the night sky, I thought to myself, “That storms getting closer.”  Judging by the color of the sky and the frequency of the lightning strikes, those folks in Fernadina must really “be getting hammered.”

 

Big Nickel

Staying at my grandpa’s in south Georgia was a whole ‘nother world.  In fact, I don’t think you can get there from her.  You got to go somewhere else first and start all over.  I remember as a kid not wanting to go but once there I didn’t want to leave.

The house needed paint, it always did.  I don’t think it was ever painted at all.  Yes, they had electricity on the pole next to the house, but not in it.  Kerosene lamps and a wood burning stove were kept company inside the house by an ice box, with the light green paint peeling and curling off from age..  An old black man would come by once a week with his mule and wagon, selling blocks of ice covered in sawdust for twenty five cents.  Grandpa musta been a big spender ’cause he always got two blocks and gave the man an extra nickel if he would carry them into the house.

Sunday afternoons we would crunch up one of those blocks and churn our own ice cream.  Granny would bring a bottle of vanilla extract on the porch to add to the mix.

Coming from Jacksonville my brothers and I would sit in the back of the car and make long faces.  Almost as if we were being sent to reform school.  Grandpa didn’t have a TV.  They would open the kitchen window, place the radio in the sill and plug it up the fourway outlet on the light pole.  The kerosene lamp on the kitchen table would light up the room and make our silhouettes  dance on the walls behind us, as we acted out the action scenes when we listened to Gunsmoke.  Pow, pow, pow!  Milton Berle and Jack Benny would make us laugh, they were so funny.  I always felt sorry for poor old Rochester.  When George told Gracie to say “Goodnight,” well, then it was time for us to hug and kiss everyone goodnight too and off to bed.

Every room in my grandparents house was filled beds, wall to wall, our mattress slid out from under Granny and Granpa’s bed.   Even the living room was filled with beds.  The kitchen table was a 10 foot long picnic table.  During meal times, to Granny’s chagrin, Grandpa would say that it was filled with “assholes and elbows.” The windows were almost always wide open, even in winter.  The screens were mostly missing in action and hadn’t been seen in years.  Granny had indoor plumbing alright, a hand pump mounted on the counter with a broken handle.  Grandpa kept telling Granny that he was gonna fix it one of these days, he added that she didn’t need to remind him every six months neither.

When it rained, every pot in the kitchen was put to use and a couple of buckets from the barn.  I remember everyone saying they sure like to listen to the sound of rain on a tin roof.  I  often wondered where all those people were when we needed an extra hand with those buckets and pots.

After supper, on nights when we weren’t listening to the radio, we gathered on the front porch.  Granny would nod and Grandpa would wave his pipe at anyone that went past the house while he and she rocked back and forth.  My brothers and I had already had our bath in the tub on the back porch, so we weren’t allowed off the swing.  We would twist and turn, pinching and slapping each other in the back of the head when no one was looking.  Granny always played like she was deaf, but I think that was just an act.  Without a glance backwards Granny would swing her switch if she heard the slightest commotion.  It didn’t matter to her if she got the right one or not, far as she was concerned, justice was served and well deserved.

Without much coaxing, Granpa would draw on his pipe and tell us a story, while Granny rocked back and forth at the same even pace for what seemed like hours at a time, ignoring us as she shelled her butter beans or snapped her green beans for tomorrows supper.

Granpa’s stories always started out like this “I remember one time, I won’t ever forget…….”  Then he’d tell us a tale like about the time his brother owned a gas station, got robbed by a man with an axe that killed him.  He told us how when the suspect was caught, he hitched up his mule and wagon and rode every day to the courthouse in Mt. Vernon to witness the goings on.  Then he told us about driving his model A truck down the road about 25 miles to Reidsville, to the state prison to watch the execution.  Granpa’s stories were always good, we didn’t want him to be interupted, we sat on the edge of the swing, all ears.  If someone drove by the house, on their to or back from town, we’d hear a loud “Ahh ooooga!”  Granpa would wave at them with his pipe in his hand, without drawing a breath or a never you mind, kept on with his story.

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When he got to the part when the warden hit the switch on the ‘lectric chair, Granpa would reach over to the light pole by the porch and jiggle the plug so that the outside light would blink off an on.  We felt like we were there with Grandpa on the front row, watching Uncle Wiley’s killer get his.

The cemetery was just down the street.  The Sharpe’s Family Cemetery been there since 1804.  My brothers and I helped with the clean up around the old graves, doing our part.  No one questioned why we did it or tried to duck out of it.  Kids being kids we would just have to read the names on every tombstone and check out the dates.  When Grandpa told us a story about this one or that one, we felt like we knew just who he was talking about.  After the clean up, members of the family would gather in the shade and we would eat fried chicken and potato salad with Granny’s fresh baked bread.  We would sit on Grandpa’s wagon to slice up a few watermelons for dessert, then we would leave the rinds laying in the wagon till he fed them to the pigs.

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“Eat the meat and pickle the rind, save the seeds to planting time.”  I think Grandpa had a rhyme for everything.

Granpa had a Model A truck but  I think he was too tight to spring for the gas.  The truck would hold three people up front if you squeezed together real tight.  He’d say “Aw it’s alright, everybody’s kin.”  I soon discovered the real reason he took the wagon as we followed the old clay wagon ruts to town.  If he chose the wagon instead of the truck, Granny wouldn’t go.

“Ma,” lived just down the road.  I suppose she was somebody’s ma, but she wasn’t any kin to us.  Just a neighbor that had gotten on up in her years.  Her man had died and the kids had been gone so long that no one even remembered what they looked like.

Ma would come up to the house every other day or so to chat and spit snuff, rocking with Granny and to help her shell peas.  When she left she’d take a bowl of peas or fresh cut okra, maybe a few ears of corn, ya see, Grandpa had this garden in a field next to the house.  This garden was for anyone in the family that needed fresh vegtables.  Corn, tomatoes, okra, butter beans, crowder peas, field peas, yellow neck squash, no charge, help yourself.  Neighbors like old Ma would come around and Granpa treated them like family too.  Ma would always say, “I’m gonna pay ya’ll for these veggies, I surely will.  I got that money that Daddy left me hid and when I dig it up, I’ll sure see to it that you get you yours.”

When we loaded up the wagon to ride to town, Granny would stay home, she didn’t want to make that long dusty trip in the hot sun, sitting on that hard bench seat.  We stopped at old Ma’s and she would come out wearing her Sunday bonnet and the floweredee apron she saved to wear for when company come over.  She would reach into the pockets of her apron and hand Grandpa the coupons she’d been saving that she got from the mailman.  All cut out and stacked, wrapped with a rubber band,  like they was worth a small fortune.  She would hand these to my gramps and say, “Here Mr. Groves, I want to pay my way.”  To my brothers and I this seemed just like real money.  Maybe she had one in there for a free pizza.  We didn’t stop to think that there wasn’t any place to get a pizza for 50 miles or more.

Ma would get us to help her load up straw baskets of clean laundry that we would drop off at the church.  She washed and folded laundry for half the congregation.  Anytime time you went past Ma’s house there was always a half dozen sheets on the clothesline, flapping in the wind.

Granpa always loaded a couple pitchforks full of hay into the back of  his wagon.  When Ma climbed aboard we gladly let her have our seat so that we could roll and toss around in the hay, chiggers be damned.

Granpa told us that he would pay us for our work when we got to town so that we could have some money to spend.  The only rule was, we could only spend it something to eat, like candy or shaved ice.  He didn’t want Granny to know he was spoiling us rotten.  When we got to town, Ma wanted to give me a “Yankee dime” for carrying her baskets of laundry to the church.  She said she knew they was heavy, when I looked at her pitiful face, she had snuff running down both corners of her mouth.  I looked at Granpa to see if it’s alright to take money from her, he grinned and nodded his okay.  I asked her just what was a “Yankee dime?”  Grandpa had just given me a “big nickel,” (a quarter) and I was eager for more.  When I held my hand out, palm up, she just bent over and hugged me and planted a big old kiss, right on my cheek.  I could feel the snuff smearing across my face.  Granpa started laughing, he could tell I was surprised.  I felt like I had been tricked.  So a kiss is a “Yankee dime.”  I got to remember that, I won’t fall for that again.

While we were at the market in Uvalda, Grandpa got his “ears lowered” and a quart of ‘shine.  I didn’t know exactly what it was for sure, the jar looked like it was filled with water to me.  I know it made Grandpa’s face real red and I don’t think it was from any after shave.  Ma got herself some sewing needles and thread and a few other things she was needing for the house, while me an my brothers spent our big nickels.  We got some peaches and a stick of sugarcane to gnaw on and a couple of firecrackers that we wanted to save for the fourth of July celebration at the cemetery.

We dropped ma off at her house.  He goats were on the porch and chickens sitting in the window sill.  I remember riding by one day, not too long after ma died.  I guess her kids finally came home.  There were holes all in the front yard and around the house where it looked like somebody had been digging.

Grandpa’s sister Lena Bell, would come over about once a week and remind us boys that when we got back to Jacksonville to tell anybody man we saw that was looking for a wife, that she had ten acres of good growing land and needed her a husband.  She would cackle like an old hen that had just layed an egg, laughing at her own jokes.  Grandpa excused her behaviour by saving that he reckoned that she lived by herself, way too long.

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Once in a while after a rain, Grandpa would take us down to the creek to look for arrowheads.  He told us there were lots of them when he was a boy.  We’d find one or two, just enough to make us want to come back and look for more.  While we were there Grandpa would pull out that jar he got from the barber shop from it’s hiding spot, take a swig or two and then put it back in the hollow tree for safe keeping.

Almost every night the chickens would raise enough fuss to wake the dead.  The possum’s would come up out of the woods from across the creek, looking for some eggs to suck on.  To our delight, Grandpa said he was gonna show us how to build a possum trap.  He made a wooden box, that was open on one end.  On the open end, he fixed a door that would slide up and down.  Then he cut a small hole in the center of the box, just big enough for a short piece of broom stick to slide up and down.  He run a string from the far end of the box to the door.  In the middle of the box he stuck the piece of broomstick in the hole.  The broom stick had a notch so that it rested on the edge of the box and propped the sliding door up in the open position with the string resting in a groove on top of the broom stick.

Granpa reached in his overall pocket and brought out two persimmons that he had got from the wild persimmon tree down by the creek, sliced them in half and placed them in the rear of the box.  Grandpa said, “There’s nothing an ole possum likes better than an inviting slice of a fresh cut persimmon.”

When we went to bed that night my brothers and I were so full of excitement that we could barely sleep.  Granny fixed grits and eggs for breakfast and just as soon as we cleared the table, she told us to go check on her chickens and gather some eggs.  Running just as fast as our feet could fly.  Oh boy, to our amazement the broom stick was down.  Something had crawled up inside there last night and sprung our trap.  From the sound of things, what ever it was, was still inside.

Not knowing exactly what to do, we hollered for Grandpa.  He was moving kinda slow this morning, he was standing on the front porch pulling his overall straps up over his bare shoulders.  He stopped in his tracks, it looked to me like he was picking at bed bugs or something.  If I didn’t know better, I would have said that Grandpa was dragging his feet on purpose.  He laughed when he walked up on us and asked who wants to volunteer to be the brave man that tangles with a wild opossum this morning?  Hearing that kinda changed things for us.  Will they bite us?  Grandpa told us not to worry, he would do the chore, and motioned us boys to move back out of the way.   Shoot , that made us crowd around him all the more.   When he slid the door open to that box trap he took a squint and then jerked his head back so fast we almost missed it.  He dropped the box and out came a black and white skunk with its tail high in the air.  It got every one of us too.

I guess ole skunks like persimmons too.

That was the day Mom came to get us.  School was starting back the next Monday.  We didn’t want to leave. I ran to Mom to give her a hug and to ask her if she wanted a “Yankee Dime.”  Mom took one whiff of us and said,  “Phew, y’all smell like you need a bath.”  We pointed at the tub on the back of the porch and told her that we just got one, Granny even poured a can of tomato juice over our heads.  On the way home she wanted to know all about it, just why in heaven’s name did we smell so bad.

I took the lead and started out with, “Oh Mom, you should have been there, I’ll always remember this time at Grandpa’s, I won’t never forget………….

 

The Evacuation and the USNS Upshur

Oct. 22nd through the 25th, 1962, three days that will live in infamy.  Here’s a part of the story I bet you didn’t know.

My Dad wrote the Evacuation letter, we knew it was coming but even so it was still a shock.  To be forced out of your homes and have your whole life change in just a matter of hours is something you will never be prepared for.

At 0800 hours my Mom, brothers and I with one suitcase loaded up on the Blue Bird bus.  Instead of going to school as was our morning routine, we were being taken to the docks, near where the PBYs berthed.

The day had finally come.  The Base Police had been issuing warnings for months that this day might come.  “Water Condition Bravo.”  NEGDEF was finally in effect.

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When we off loaded from the bus we joined a line that was forming at the docks.  We were told to board the USNS Upsher, a troop transport ship.  The bow of the ship opened up like a door to make it easier to load.  Boys 10 years of age an older were sent to berth in the aft hold.  The bunks were stacked to the ceiling, about 18 inches above each other.

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The women with small children and daughters of all ages were packed in the staterooms in the forward section.  Rooms that were meant for 2 to 4 people were packed with 10 or more.  The women folk leaned up against the bulkhead using their suitcases as room dividers.  They slept on mattresses rolled out on the deck.  In the daytime these mattresses were rolled up and used as couches to sit on.

Mom had my two younger brothers with her but after I paid her a short visit, I could see that she had her hands full.  I managed to get permission for my brother Gary who was 8, to go with me.  Our Dad was Mr. Frailey on base back in  GTMO but that didn’t cut us any slack on board the Upsher.

At first confusion ruled the day and we took advantage of it to roam the ship.  Then military order took effect and we were soon put in our place.  The red light over the head (bathroom) was on 24 hours a day, just in case you wanted to crawl out of your bunk you could find it in the dark.  The scuttlebutt or drinking fountain was near there just in case you got thirtsy.

The stairway leading down to our compartment is where the Petty Officer put his chair after we got caught a couple times trying to sneak out on deck after dark.  Gary and I hid in a lifeboat during the life boat/abandon ship drills, just so we could roam the deck after dark.  We might have got away with it if Gary hadn’t of been playing with the flare pistol.  Let’s just say it was an illuminating experience.

The first hundred miles after leaving port in GTMO, the ship headed due east, toward Puerto Rico, then it changed course northward heading homeward to the US of A.  The weather was nice the first day, I was wearing white shorts and a white T shirt.  In GTMO almost everyone wore light colored clothes, because of the heat. I remember it was so hot that I blistered my arm when I leaned up against a hand rail.   As we turned north though, I could feel the cold wind in the air.

The second day out after our life  boat drills, I noticed that the American flag was being flown upside down.  Even military brats know this is the sign for distress.  I scanned the horizon and there on our port bow were two gray frigates chasing us, shadowing our every move, one behind the other.

The two ships were flyin red flags. It was too great a distance to be able to make out the hammer and cycle until later in the afternoon when they got closer.  The Upsher was a troop transport ship.  No armaments.  Maybe a few hand guns among the ship’s crew but no defense against two frigates.  Not being familiar with the Russian Navy, I call them frigates.  They were too big to be destroyers.  Their radar was constantly rotating back and forth.  Their guns were covered by camolouged nets but you could tell what and where they were.

This caused concern among the passengers but there wasn’t anything we could do about it, not really.  The Navy personnel aboard ship kept an eye on them but maintained our course.  As time progressed the two Russian ships edged closer and closer.  The scuttlebutt aboard ship was that our Navy was busy with a blockade around Cuba, maybe they were too busy to worry about us.

We were in International Waters, might makes right.  The ship nearest to us kept sending us signals.  Me and the boys with us that could read morse code thought that they wanted us to heave to.   They removed the netting from their 5 inch guns. Our Captain refused, the closer they got to us, the more he would veer off course to the right to maintain a safe distance.  He didn’t want us to be boarded and he had the feeling the Russians wanted to take us hostage.

Gary and I kept getting into trouble doing stupid things that spoiled brats do.  For punishment we were told to help the cook in the galley.  One of our chores was to dump the garbage overboard, off the fan tail.  This gave us the opportunity to see the night sky and the ghostly silhouettes of what seemed to us to be two bullies that acted like they were spoiling for a fight.  Intimidation, that’s what is was, intimidation.  Ever hour they crept closer and closer until on the morning of the third day, they were only 500 yards off our bow.

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After the morning lifeboat drills, the boys from my baseball team usually stood on the bow, tossing a baseball back and forth, non chalantly playing catch.  On this morning there was a lot of jeering and hurling insults at the the Russian ships.  God only knows if they could hear us.  We lined up with our backs to the Russian ships and when one of the bigger boys hollered “GTMO Salute,”  we all dropped our drawers, bending over we gave them a full moon shot salute.  Then on the command “Ready Two,” we straightened up and fastened our pants.

I  brought my school notebook with me, I wanted to make some drawings.  After a few cartoons of making pictures showing Kruschev kissing an American bald eagle on the butt, I started making them into paper airplanes.  I tossed a couple over the side in the direction of our Russian nemesis.  This caused a stir amongst my buddies and soon we were all making drawings and airplanes.  We were too far away for the planes to make it, we were hanging over the side watching silently as they fell one by one into the sea, then a loud cheer arose as one that seemed destined for the drink, took a new life and rose with the air currents to new heights, gaining altitude before it dipped sharply and succumbed to the depths, bringing at a loud groan from the onlookers.

This groan however was soon replaced by a chorus of loud hurrays and everyone pointing to the rear of the ship.  I looked and saw coming towards us, out of the fog  a white American Coast Guard destroyer with the plugs removed from the mouth of it’s guns.

The Coast Guard ship edged it’s way between us and the two gray ships.  They dipped their ensign as a salute, then seemed to slowly disappear in the fog.  The day was saved.  Hurray for the US Coast Guard, they had our back.

After what seemed forever, we finally docked at Newport News.  The weather was a brisk 49 degrees.  I hadn’t experienced this kind of weather since ’59 and I was wearing shorts, a tee shirt and a pair of flip flops.

I was the first dependent to walk down the gangway, Mom and my brothers were right behind me.  A photogrpher from AP got a shot of us.  The next day it was across the front page of most every newspaper in America.

There to greet us was the American Red Cross and a crowd of about a thousand people.  The Navy Band played Stars and Stripes.  A nice lady gave me a red sweatshirt parka and a cup of hot chocolate.  Oh it was good to be home again.

I’ll never forget how good it felt to be an American that day, listening to the band playing Stars and Stripes as I walked down the gangway.  I will be forever grateful to the Red Cross for the warm clothes and nobody, I mean nobody better ever say any thing bad in front of me about the US Coast Guard.