What a title you might say. Yeah, me too. However, I’m just getting a promise fulfilled to my mother lo these many years after I made it. When I was about sixteen and started writing stories, I always found myself at a loss for a title. My mother kept suggesting “Walpurgis Night” to me over and over. Why I never found out. It apparently was something that got stuck on her brain. She actually got me to promise I would write a story or something and name it with this title. Well, here it is, Mamma. Finally—sixty plus years after the promise was made.
Walpurgis Night is a German, Slavic and Scandinavian celebration of witches, saints, the end of winter and a duke’s mixture of things. No wonder I never could come up with a piece of work to match it. Then as I was thinking of what to write about for today’s blog, I thought back to my years of growing up in a small town of 2,000 and all the various things I did to pass time from childhood to adulthood. My life was a veritable duke’s mixture, so I thought at last I’d just use this title and be done with it.
Life in my little hometown of Okolona, Mississippi, was actually very uneventful and repetitious for most of its citizens. The days consisted of hard work putting in crops and gathering them, high school sports, church activities and women’s gossip clubs flying under such names as The Ladies Garden Club, The Missionary Society, The United Daughters of the Confederacy, etc. For most young people it was football, parties and church plus church related activities like summer Bible School or camp. I guess for such an assorted group of activities, why not Walpurgis as a name for Okolona living?
I was different and didn’t fit the Okolona pattern. My brother though fit the mold beautifully. He was an excellent dancer, always had a steady girl friend and considered himself a bit sporty and all around was thought as normal as apple pie. He tried out for sports but had so many sprains and charley horses that he finally gave such things up to become a vivid part of the cheering section in life.
Not me. According to my mother, I was always up to something. Usually my father was my cohort. He was, as I have mentioned in previous blogs, an unusual guy but everybody loved him. He too was always up to something. My mother and my brother constituted the normal in life and my father and I went for the totally esoteric.
For example, Everette (my father) got a machine to make disk recordings. He recorded everyone and everything he could. He even tried to use his contraption to make a radio station in the neighborhood. I have in my possession some of his disks. One such recording is of my playing the piano and my brother Paul singing.
Yes, I tried piano lessons but it was apparent I was not a natural in that department. A broken wrist and later a fractured arm saw to that.
Then I wrote little plays and had the kids in the neighborhood perform them on the stage my father built in our garage, complete with two patchwork quilts as the curtains.
Two old-maid sisters lived across the street—Mattie and Minnie. Both were deaf. I loved visiting them and having to write out my messages to them. One of the sisters was a distributor of Watkins Products from house to house—mainly the blacks who were our close neighbors. Sometimes I went with her as I was interested in how a deaf person could sell products. I really got to know very well the art of door-to-door cold selling.
Downtown they had a snow cone stand. I got the woman to give me the empty bottles from the concentrate she used. I then decided I would try to ape Watkins products. They had a tonic and so I in a big wash pot out in back of our house made up a stew of cherry roots and other things and bottled it with the name of “Fitzgerald’s Happy Tonic.” I even made up my own labels and glued them on the bottles. I also sent off for some formulas on how to make cold cream and the like. I was going great guns. I then, in direct competition with Miss Minnie across the street, went into selling “Fitzgerald Products.”
My Happy Tonic was a rip roaring success. I charged twenty-five cents a bottle for it, whereas Miss Minnie’s Watkin Tonic cost fifty cents. People even knocked on our back door asking for it. My mother was appalled. My father simply curious. The local constable (Sam Watson) one day came and knocked on the door and put an end to my Happy Tonic. It turned out it had fermented and was a cheap bottle of hooch for a quarter—and in those days prohibition had not been repealed in Mississippi and selling alcohol was strictly taboo. My cold cream and other products ceased business because the constable explained to my mother that I had to have a license to manufacture.
It didn’t matter. I then got my father and a wonderful black guy across the street (Johnny White) to build me a small building on the back of our property. I stocked it with all sorts of products which I got from a regional wholesaler and named it “The Pee Wee Grocery.” This enterprise lasted until a coal oil heater was accidentally left on overnight and the place burned down. So much for the Pee Wee Grocery empire.
By this time I was sixteen and my thoughts were turning to what in the world was I going to do in life. I know that each summer my mother’s brother Homer and his family would come from Detroit, Michigan. He had a son Dick who was my age and a much younger child Jimmie. I started going back with them to Detroit every summer and that took care of a lot of those “Walpurgis” doings of mine.
Uncle Homer was a great guy. He was almost as accommodating as my father. Anything I wanted to do or say was just fine with him. I felt very comfortable around him and he made sure I was always part of any conversation. He just had a way with him. My grandmother said he was her favorite child. I can certainly see why.
Then my mother’s younger sister Ripple would blow in like a brisk breeze from goodness knows where telling all about her latest entrepreneurial activity. She once formed a training course with Dale Carnegie and his niece Josephine in Miami. She even invited me to live with her for the summer. I really began to hit the big time. Aunt Ripple bought me a suit and took me to my first night club. She was like a movie star to me. She dressed beautifully and was as my mother said, “a trash mover”—whatever that meant. I think it was a compliment meaning she didn’t let any grass grow under her feet.
So there it is. My Walpurgis diary of growing up in Okolona. Many of my activities have shown up in my writing. I do want to thank Okolona for providing me with such a diverse and rich background to grow up in. After I graduated from high school, I took my show on the road—and after all these years, I’m still going strong. So, Mamma, here’s your title. Promise finally kept. Love, Jack.