I was born in a very small town called Hunter’s Station in Alabama. Nowadays this bump in the road is part of Montgomery, Alabama. At the age of 4, my family moved to Okolona, Mississippi, where I lived through graduating from high school.
My world was this mini-cosmos of 2,000. I was taught in school mainly by a couple of coaches and a ton of old-maid schoolteachers. (Married teachers didn’t come along until I was in middle school.) You can imagine growing up in the south where segregation was the order of the day and such slogans as “The South Shall Rise Again”” and “Okolona, the Little City that Does Big Things” provided our local mission statement in life. Mix segregation, those sayings and all those old maids together and you’ve got the classic formula for a built-in narrow mind. Yankees were still thought of as the enemy and all of us lollygagged our way through the Southern Experience.
Well—that’s not exactly true. There were exceptions to the rule of lollygagging: My father, my aunt and I. We were thought of as the three oddballs in the family. My mother, my siblings and all my friends were true “Southern Grit.”
I dreamed from the fourth grade on of escaping this tight little paradise and this in itself made me an oddball. I was supposed to say that Okolona was Paradise Found. My father dreamed of escaping too but unfortunately he got married and that did that in. My Aunt Nanny Lou , whom I introduced you to in the last blog, became a poet and total eccentric and managed to escape the confines of her upbringing in a rather flamboyant manner. She began going to spas and fancy watering holes where the rich and unconventional held forth. She plied them with her poetry readings and they loved and subsidized her. The town though wasn’t too sorry to see her go.
My father who was like his sister in so many ways just didn’t know how to fight his confinement in Okolona. He was always on the lookout for some mental escape route. One day he finally found them via two magazine ads. One was for a Charles Atlas Home Fitness Course; the other was for The Cortina Academy’s Teach Yourself Spanish at Home Course. He bought both and divided his spare moments equally between them.
Over time his physique and fitness was the talk of the town. He loved showing off his ability to lift things and physically excel. He had a problem though. He belonged to a club with one member. Nobody else was as fit as Everette Fitzgerald. He even did trapeze exhibitions for my friends and me.
All the while he studied Spanish. My father was an orphan and had been raised by various kinfolks. They didn’t educate him but instead hired him out to pay his keep. By the time he was ten, he was working as a callboy at the local railroad station. By the time he was 13, he was working full time at the railroad. (He kept this up until he had a stroke in his sixties and retired.)
Everette had a great mind even though he had not had any chance at an education. He therefore put all his mental energies into memorizing those Cortina 12-inch Spanish records and the books that accompanied them. He ended up being the only person speaking Spanish in Okolona.
Being that he had no local audience, he used my sister, my brother and me. He would not talk to us in English from the time we were born. My name wasn’t Jack, it was Pedro; my brother’s name wasn’t Paul but Pablo, and my sister wasn’t Dorothy but Bonita. When each of us started school, he ordered off for some children’s books and we had to study them with him. I was the only one who didn’t bond with Spanish. I could understand it but I would not speak it. Pablo and Bonita were really good at it. My mother and my grandmother (who lived with us) thought we were all crazy.
My father created his own little world and it worked for many years. He too took up writing poetry and became an eccentric himself. One of his hobbies was collecting church bulletins and at the time of his death, he had nearly 11,000 of them. He wasn’t overly religious at all—even though he went to the Methodist church every Sunday. He said he went to church and collected those bulletins because he was interested in what confused people.
So, you see, authors are lucky if they have a lot about which to write. I have always felt blessed in this regard.