FUN! a boyhood
Allen Johnson, Jr.
This is the second edition of FUN! a boyhood. I have added a few things and made a few
corrections, but it is essentially the same book I wrote twenty years ago using wooden pencils and
yellow legal pads (editing being done with scissors and scotch tape). It is my first book—really more
of a booklet—and here‟s how it came about.
I had been looking through family papers and histories trying to find something about my much-
loved maternal grandfather‟s boyhood. I could find nothing. I knew nothing about him as a boy and
realized that it takes only a couple of generations for family memories to disappear. I wrote FUN! a
boyhood so that my descendents would be able to know what I was like as a boy. I also wanted to
memorialize what was an extraordinarily joyful time in my life along with some of the people—and
dogs—who gave me so much love and fun. I printed up a thousand or so copies, and when I moved
back to Birmingham, Alabama, they quickly sold out . . . bought by people who wanted to remember a
simpler time. Although this memoir is not great literature, I recommend it to anyone who wants to
know what it was like growing up in the thirties and forties. This is how it was back then . . .
I must have been about three. I awakened in a room that was sunny, in spite of the fact that the
morning sun was on the other side of the house. The walls were light yellow, and painted on one wall
was the orange outline of a sun with a smiling face peeking out from behind some clouds which, being
shaped like plump buttocks, were decidedly erotic. My awakening was made even more erotic by the
warm touch and rich smell of urine as I luxuriously wet the bed. An earlier less erotic memory
involves my being lifted from my crib, held on a table with a wire-mesh mask over my face, and given
ether. It had to do with opening boils on my left shin and right hand. (The right-hand scar was useful
later on for learning the difference between left and right.) The pain of the knife would have been
worse than the ether, but not much worse!
Ether, with its awful smell and sickening mental and physical effects, has been replaced, thank
God, by more humane anesthetics, but what happened to boils? As a boy in the 30s and early 40s,
people were forever getting boils, styes or carbuncles. Do these afflictions still occur only to be nipped
in the bud by antibiotics, or have they stopped happening for some other mysterious reason?
I was born into a large, white-painted, brick house surrounded by boxwoods, a sweeping yard, tall
oaks, pine and hickory trees, and a long drive of ripple bricks. The house, a mansion by Alabama
standards, was the only house fronting Cherokee Road, a country-suburban road on Shades Mountain
outside of Birmingham, Alabama. We were out in the undeveloped part of Mountain Brook,
the affluent suburb of Birmingham. Cherokee Road was a narrow concrete road and was badly heaved
and cracked (the cracks filled with tar). The only other house on Cherokee was my uncle's house,
another "mansion" well down the hill out of sight of our house and the road but accessible by a path
through the woods.
My paternal grandfather was one of the first Coca-Cola bottlers; both my dad and his older brother
went "into the business." My dad had flunked out of Lawrenceville prep school and out of Yale by
spending most of his time playing jazz piano. He was a superb rhythm (stride) piano player, good
enough to be professional, which is what he wanted. His Victorian father forbade this occupation,
however, and Dad gave in and opted for the good life of a Coca-Cola bottler.
(PHOTO: Home on Cherokee Road)
He was not a very involved businessman -- the family business talents skipped a generation,
landing—not on me but on my uncle's first son, Crawford III. My dad and uncle had the good sense to
hire a competent manager for the bottling operation, and the “plant” always made money. Good thing
too! Dad always lived on the outer limits of his income with the result that our family got the
reputation of being much richer than we actually were. We had the big house, four cars, four servants,
and later a yacht. Mother had good clothes, furs and jewels. In the way of children, I took these
aspects of life for granted, enjoyed them fully and ignored them when I felt like it.
Children were not allowed to interfere with our parents' elegant lifestyle. We were taken care of
first by a very loving Irish nurse named Norah and later by a prim and cold governess named Miss
Before Miss Koefrel, when I was about four, Mother hired a French governess so that we would
grow up bilingual. She lasted about a week. My mother told a story about what happened when I met
this woman. Apparently, she rattled off something in French, and I spoke up and said, "I'm sorry.
You'll have to come a little closer and speak a little louder!"
Another favorite family story my mother used to tell was about the time I was throwing a tantrum
and banging my head on the hardwood section of floor between the carpeted front hall and the library.
According to her, I paused to think, crawled onto the library carpet and continued my head-banging.
She said it was the first time she knew I was intelligent.
We had a wonderful golden retriever named "Co-co” (from Coca-Cola). Co-Co and I loved each
other. Once, when I was four or five, Mother found me sharing a lollipop with Co-Co. Being
protective, she called Dr. Alf Walker, our pediatrician and told him what had happened. Fortunately
Dr. Walker was down-to-earth and said, "Don't worry, honey. That dog‟s gonna be fine!"
I adored my mother. She probably never changed a diaper, and she never cooked a meal. In the
evenings, we were brought in for “visits” with Mother and Dad. Until we were old enough to feed
ourselves, we were fed in the breakfast room by Norah or Miss Koefrel, who also bathed us and put us
to bed. After I was in bed, Mother would come and tuck me in, a little ritual that she often performed
in an evening dress just before going out for a party. Our "visits" with our parents were orchestrated to
be perfect moments with "perfect" children. It also worked the other way, for I was sure that Mother
My father was less the demonstrative than Mother and didn't make much impact. Mainly, I
remember him giving me a hug or an occasional piggy-back ride when he came home from work.
The "we" I have been using includes my sister Caroline. She was four years older, winsome,
bright, skinny and full of energy. She had straight brown hair and was badly upstaged by me—the
golden-haired cherub. She was jealous of me, and this caused some conflict as we grew up. When we
got too old for a nurse, and Norah left, Caroline was badly hit. For some reason, there was always
antagonism between Caroline and Mother, so, when Norah left and was replaced by cold-fish Miss
Koefrel, Caroline was left high and dry as far as affection went.
I barely remember Norah. The first four years of my life are a sunny, happy blur. Only a few
times stand out. One such time was Ponte Vedra, Florida. There was a resort there called The Inn,
where we stayed in small, rustic, pine-paneled cottages right on the beach. Every year we spent several
weeks in these cottages. I had my first hot dog in Ponte Vedra on the beach. At that age, I had an
aptitude for joy. It was a source of joy to discover that one could eat outside. R. D. Burnett, one of my
father's friends, sat down in the sand with me and built a sand castle. It was a big discovery and a great
joy that a grown man could and would play in the sand with me. Most of all, I recall the delicious
feeling of crawling into a bed that was deeply scented by the sea air and pine paneling with the waves
crashing on the beach, and sun-fuddled and tired from play, slipping into sleep while my whole being
was saturated by the wonderful sounds and smells of the seashore.
Somewhere near the cottages there was a two-story, dark green archway that served as a gate to
the beach. I had a sinister nightmare about this archway, the memory of which haunted me for years. I
still hate arches.
Getting to Ponte Vedra involved an overnight train trip from Birmingham to Jacksonville. I
remember the excitement of having breakfast in the dining car, looking at palm trees and eating guava
jelly, which was to me, and still is, the distilled essence of the tropics.
On one of these trips I started to learn about the unfairness of life. I was in an upper berth, and for
some reason during the night, I unbuttoned the prickly green curtain and, sticking my head out, peaked
into the lower berth at Caroline and Miss Koefrel. I saw them finishing off the last of a whole box of
Whitman's chocolates. Until that moment, one or two pieces of candy had been the ultimate treat. I
had not known that anyone could ever eat a whole box of candy. To have been excluded from this
incredible, clandestine event was almost more than I could bear. I was astonished at the enormity of
the betrayal. Memories of disappointment, however, were far outweighed by memories of joy.
Descending from our rippled brick drive there were some sandstone steps surrounded by boxwoods and
a large bush with bright orange berries. These steps led down past the dog yard to a small play area.
One time when I was four or five, I was sitting on the steps with the warm sun baking me into my
surroundings. I had a small stone and was breaking open the bright orange berries to determine their
mystery. The colors of the berries, the bushes and the sandstone, the warmth of the sun and the
mystery in the berries suddenly flooded me with joy.
I loved mystery.
When I was taken for walks along Cherokee Road, there was a place in the woods where an old
tree stump resembled a crouching wolf. Although I knew a wolf would not crouch in the same spot
week after week, the woods were dim enough that I could never be sure the stump wasn‟t a wolf. This
always thrilled me. Other very early memories of Cherokee Road include a large snowstorm . . .
unusual for Alabama. There must've been six inches of snow on the road. Chains were put on the
station wagon, a rope was tied from the bumper to a large sled, and we were given a ride by being
towed down the road. The tires threw snow in my face. It was very cold, and I could hardly breathe. I
remember thinking: “This is supposed to be great fun, but it really isn't fun at all."
Christmas was a major production at our house. Before Christmas, our family evenings were spent
in the library. It was a cozy room: pine paneled, small, with a green carpet, linen drapes, a sofa
flanking a fireplace with an ornate, carved pine mantle, a leather-topped desk and a yellow-gold easy
chair with an ottoman, which my father favored. The library was decorated with evergreens on the
mantle or sometimes favorite Christmas cards. A string of red paper letters that said "Merry
Christmas” hung under the mantle. On the coffee table was a small gold-plated decoration in which the
heat from red candles caused four little angels to chase each other in a circle while small brass hanging
bars rang two little round bells.
The excitement began a week before Christmas when letters to Santa were sent up the chimney by a
roaring fire in the library fireplace. During one of these ceremonies, my parents had a hard time
because I insisted we should go outside and watch Santa and his reindeer swoop from the sky and
scoop up the letters as they popped from the chimney. I was beside myself with excitement over this
experiment. The same attitude led to a bloody nose one Christmas Eve when I fell down trying to
sneak downstairs with Caroline to see Santa Claus. Believing in miracles but wanting to get a good
direct look at them still strikes me as a good state of mind.
Unlike most families, our tree did not go up before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, there was no
tree. On Christmas morning, there it would be in full splendor—huge, always at least ten feet tall and
decorated with large outdoor lights and imported German ornaments of great beauty and intricacy.
Unlike most families, our tree did not go up before Christmas. On Christmas Eve, there was no tree.
On Christmas morning, there it would be in full splendor—huge, always at least ten feet tall and
decorated with large outdoor lights and imported German ornaments of great beauty and intricacy.
PHOTO: Mom, me, and Caroline
The tree with the display of our toys was set out in our large, formal living room. My presents
were to the right of the tree, Caroline‟s to the left.
Christmas Eve was the only night I was allowed to spend in Caroline's room. We hung up our
stockings over the little coal grate fireplace in the sitting room that adjoined my parents‟ room. There
was a board cut to the shape of the marble mantle. We hung our stockings on the two nails in this
board. Just the sight of this board was enough to generate excitement.
Going to sleep on Christmas Eve was almost impossible, but somehow, we finally drifted off to be
up at dawn, padding into our parents‟ darkened bedroom with our bulging stockings. After the
stockings had been thoroughly looted, Dad would go downstairs and light the fire in the living room,
light the tree, and go to the piano to play Jingle Bells. The enveloping fragrance of the tree unified all
of these events into a perfect moment. My parents, however, could never have staged such a
production without the help of servants.
Kindergarten happened at age five. There I met some of my lifelong friends. One was Francis
(Brother) Hare. I remember tripping Brother once when he was running at full tilt. He fell into a
remarkable double somersault. This fall was the first of the series of mishaps that Brother suffered
with me as we grew up together.
There were a few other memorable moments in kindergarten. I remember losing a wrestling
match to a very strong girl. There was a small scandal when a girl created wet sand for a sand castle by
urinating in the sandbox. Naps were exciting. There was a dark-haired little girl whose mat was next
to mine, her feet next to my head. This gave me wonderful, leisurely opportunities to examine and
admire her underpants. I started first grade at the Mountain Brooks School, but my career there was
interrupted by World War II.
One day shortly after Pearl Harbor, my dad showed up in an army uniform. I know now that he
had gone to an accelerated officer training school in Miami Beach. He was a captain. I was given a
diminutive matching uniform, and we were photographed together on our long, slate front porch.
It was a cute picture, the beginning of what was to be, for me, a happy war. Dad was sent to Fort
Benning in Columbus, Georgia. Mother, Caroline, Miss Koefrel, and I joined him there. We had one
side of a small duplex in a block of identical duplex houses. I'll never know how the five of us fit into
it. In addition to Miss Koefrel, our cook, Nettie, and chauffeur, Will, moved to Columbus and
probably got rooms in the colored section of town. Dad may have been the only officer in the U. S.
Army to show up at his post with a cook, chauffeur and governess!
Fort Benning was fun. Behind our row of duplexes, ran a narrow, paved alley where all the
children congregated and played in the long twilight of summer evenings. After living in the country,
it was a treat to be part of a neighborhood. Memories from there are sketchy:
PHOTO: Me and Dad
A large girl named Sue Moffett lived next door. Once she was beating up Caroline, but I stopped
her when I crept out of some bushes and bit her on the leg.
When I went to school the first day in Columbus, I felt very much an outsider as I approached the
playground. There was a little boy playing under a tree who said, "Hi, want to play Uncle Wiggily?"
His name was Emerson Schultz, and he became my friend.
At this time, my grandfather Shook in Birmingham, used to make me slingshots. They were very
well-constructed, hand-whittled from the fork of a tree limb and made up with good gum rubber,
waxed twine and leather. One afternoon, when I was being chased home by a bigger boy, I pulled out
my slingshot and shot a rock at the pavement in front of him to scare him off. It was a good shot, and
the rock went true, but it took a bounce and caught the boy in the center of the forehead. It scared me
badly. The boy went home crying with a bump on his forehead, and I learned in a flash that it is worse
to hurt someone else than to get hurt yourself. I also knew the rock could have hit him in the eye.
I discovered pocket knives and comic books at Fort Benning. A boy there had a streamlined,
wicked-looking pocket knife that I coveted. One day I went home with him after school, and he
revealed his treasure to me. He had a shoe box full of the same kind of knives. He very casually gave
me one. I was rich beyond measure.
Comic books played a big part in my childhood. Material wealth was measured in possessions
such as pocket knives, yo-yos and comic books. The first comic book I remember was a Porky Pig
comic. I was standing in the lobby of the officers club at Fort Benning, a few steps down from the pool
and patio area. The sun was flooding in where I stood, and, as I looked at the fundamental colors of the
Porky Pig comic rolled up in my hand, I knew a perfect moment.
I recall being fed Spam, mashed potatoes and boiled carrots. Spam was supposed to be a sacrifice,
but I liked it. Boiled carrots were another matter! Butter was scarce, and a bad-tasting substitute was
developed. It was called “margarine.” It came in a plastic bag. There was a little blister of orange color
on the bag which was kneaded into the white, lard-like margarine to make it yellow. It was good fun
kneading a bag of margarine, but not so much fun eating it.
Miss Koefrel became increasingly unhappy as the war progressed. Evidently her German heritage
made her feel isolated. She became hard for my parents to get along with, an impossible situation in
close living quarters, until finally she and my family parted ways. I did not regret her leaving, nor do I
have one single warm, happy memory of her.
Miss Koefrel‟s departure meant that some of the basics of child care fell on Nettie, our cook.
Nettie was a stern but kind middle-aged black woman with iron-gray hair and a face that reflected the
possibility of some Indian ancestor. I remember her much better than Miss Koefrel. It was Nettie who
gave me my basic training in honesty. Once, I was feigning a sore throat in order to stay home from
school. Nettie came upstairs and sat on the edge of my bed of imaginary pain and, to my horror, pinned
me with her penetrating birdlike look and said, "You don't have a sore throat, do you?" My squirming
denials only got me deeper into embarrassment and misery. When I finally owned up to a healthy
throat, Nettie told me, somewhat unnecessarily, that it was wrong to lie. After that day, I would
exaggerate a scratchy throat or a sore throat, but I never again just made one up!
Although Mother did not concern herself with mundane child-care, when the chips were down, she
Once I had bad food poisoning from a school lunch of creamed chicken in pastry shells. I had
violent nausea and diarrhea that took over a week to run its course. I was in mother's bed the entire
week, and she nursed me round the clock. Of course, the threat from food poisoning is dehydration. I
remember the burning thirst, drinking a few blessed sips of water, and throwing it up. Finally, I was
able to retain a sip of Coca-Cola. It is very difficult not to drink a lot when one is burning with thirst,
but one tiny sip at a time was all I could dare. It seemed very comforting and homey to be rescued by
I think my father was sent to some kind of Army training school in Indiana, and we went to visit
him. In any event, we were all in Indianapolis when I was seven, and Caroline was eleven. We were
in a big old hotel there, either checking in or out, when another unusual event took place. Mother and
Dad were in the lobby, and Caroline and I were at the newsstand. I was looking down at the comic
books, aware out of the corner of my eye of Caroline standing next to me. In the back of my mind
flitted a small impulse to whack Caroline across the rear end. I raised my hand stealthily, still
pretending to examine the comic books, and brought it down with a resounding whack across the
backside of a perfectly strange woman who must've weighed two hundred and fifty pounds. The
woman's outraged squawking brought Mother and Dad to the newsstand. When the woman saw they
were my parents, she told them I had hit her which, in fact, I had. Caroline, who had drifted off, came
up. Dad was saying soothing things to the woman and looking at me questioningly. Other people were
looking. I could feel myself blushing as I explained plainly that I had mistaken the woman for
Caroline, who probably weighed about ninety pounds. Never had the truth sounded less believable.
The woman was three times the size of Caroline. Still sputtering with anger, the woman said, "If he
was my son, I‟d spank him good." Much to their credit, Mother and Dad believed me and did no such
Dad was transferred to Maxton Field, a small Army base in Laurinburg, North Carolina. As is the
way of children, we took the move in stride.
In Laurinburg, we had a small brick house on a nice lot in a less crowded neighborhood. There
were fewer kids too, but next door, lived Paul (about my age) and Mamie (several years older). I recall
being discovered once in a closet with Mamie and a flashlight. We were both naked and checking out
the differences between us. We were caught too soon. I didn't get to the bottom of the problem, and it
would be a long time before I got a similar opportunity!
I got a BB gun in Laurinburg and shot a robin. I ran home horrified at what I had done. I never
shot another bird.
I also learned to ride a bicycle there. I remember the sense of freedom I got riding down the
sidewalk and even around the block.
The most important thing that happened to me at Laurinburg was Betty Beans. An old lady, Mrs.
Adams, lived on the opposite side of us from Paul and Mamie. She had a little, black, smooth-haired
terrier with tan markings called Betty Beans. As is often the way with dogs, Betty Beans struck up a
friendship with Caroline and me. Since she spent more and more time at our house, our neighbor
finally made it official and gave her to us. Betty Bean‟s life spanned my boyhood and we had great
We had spent almost a year in North Carolina when my dad's father died from a heart attack. My
dad was given a hardship discharge to return to Alabama to take charge of the family business. Thus, I
was able to return to my world on Cherokee Road. Home! I had been broadened some by my wartime
experiences and had learned a few things. I had learned that I didn't like to hurt people or animals, that
I could have great fun anywhere, but that while home is where the heart is, Home was really on
When we moved back to Birmingham, I acquired a guilt.
In Laurinburg, my neighbor, Paul, had a leather belt that I coveted. It had six or eight pockets with
flaps that fastened down and was decorated with artificial gems and silver studs. Back in Birmingham,
I had a wonderful little Dick Tracy cap gun. Made of nickel-plated cast metal, it could be concealed
neatly in the hand and would fire off a roll of caps with great precision. I told Paul that if he gave me
the belt, I would send him the gun when I got back to Birmingham. He gave me the belt, but (oh,
confession is good for the soul!) I never sent him the gun. It was more of a childish procrastination
than a desire to defraud, but it gave me a guilt, and I got no more pleasure from either the belt or the
Guilts were very intense matters but small in comparison to the joy of being home. Cherokee Road
(meaning our place on Cherokee Road) was presented to me as a boy as a perfect place to be. Having
transcended toddlerhood, I returned a boy, somewhat better equipped to explore my home, and found it
was, in fact, the best of all possible places. Life was a feast of fun, but a feast cannot be enjoyed alone,
so in the third grade, I joined into three friendships that were the cornerstones of my boyhood and have
lasted all my life.
In those days, grammar school went through the eighth grade. This system meant that a group of
kids spent eight years together. Teachers taught grades not subjects. Once in awhile, a new kid would
show up and be absorbed into the class or a "regular" would leave, but, for the most part, you knew
who you were going to be with from one year to the next. It was very comfortable. Everybody knew
every- body . . . well. If the bell rang out right now, and at fifty-two, I suddenly found myself sitting in
a classroom with my forty-odd old classmates, I think I would feel right at home! Mountain Brook
Grammar School contained our class which, in turn contained my friends.
John Terry was a wiry redhead with freckles. John Terry had it all. He was smart, strong and
superbly coordinated. A natural leader, he dominated the rest of us and had a possessive way with his
friends. It is probable he would have controlled my childhood had I not been so busy having fun.
Although John Terry and I were blood brothers with written pledges in a secret hiding place, I was
equally devoted to John Seals and Brother Hare.
John Seals was a mystery. Dark, lean with good-looking chiseled features, John was the athletic
equal of John Terry, when he could be bothered. Easily influenced at times and totally independent at
others, John could usually be counted on for an adventure, especially if it involved getting into trouble.
I always felt good when John was around . . . still do.
Brother Hare was a slender, handsome kid with brown hair and eyes and long, dark eyelashes,
Brother fell somewhere between John Terry and me in athletic ability. He was the most passionate of
us, hot tempered and funny. Things were never dull when Brother was around.
I sank back into my class at Mountain Brook School with hardly a ripple, and life assumed a
pattern. There was school, after-school (afternoons), evenings and, best of all, weekends.
School was a combination of tedium and fun. There were numerous ways to get through classroom
hours. One way was by drawing full-page air battles between U.S. and German or Jap (never Japanese
in those days) fighter planes. The planes were dropping bombs, blasting away with machine guns,
getting riddled with bullets and going down in flames. I didn‟t draw well, but it didn't matter.
Then there was drawing pencil mazes and very complex mousetraps that must have been Rube
Goldberg inspired. There was drawing forbidden swastikas on the ankle to be hidden under a sock and
there was passing notes to friends or girls—who were mainly useful for "crushes" or for teasing.
PHOTO: (Left to Right) Seals, me and Brother (Probably taken at the State Fair).
"Brother loves Sue Griffin" a note might read—coming all too close to the truth! If Brother got the
note, he would blush furiously. If it was intercepted by a girl, so much the better. Giggles and general
embarrassment all around would result!
Ah, Sue Griffin . . . a creature of incomparable beauty to be adored from afar! None of us was
immune to her heart-shaped face, milky skin, red lips and long black braids. Of course, one could not
spend all day gazing at Sue Griffin (though it was tempting). Sneaking looks at her, however, was
definitely a recreation that ranked right up with drawing fighter planes and mousetraps. If, by chance, I
stood next to her in a line waiting for lunch, there would be a terrible tightness in the throat and chest, a
numbness of the mouth and a general paralysis of the muscles of speech that produced an incoherent,
stuttering mumble when I tried to say something impressive. Many a night I went to sleep rescuing
Sue Griffin from burning buildings when, in truth, had I ever been next to her in a burning building, I
would have been too numb around the mouth to yell, “Fire!”
Other diversions were "talking," an activity made fun by the fact that it was forbidden, teasing girls,
playing under the desk with a toy car or pocket knife and more advanced forms of misbehavior like
shooting paper missiles with rubber bands. Somewhere in this business, we learned to read and write
and do basic arithmetic. I don't recall that part.
While I was having all this clandestine fun during school, my impression of girls was that they
were goodie-goodies. Always neat and scrubbed in little starched dresses and white socks, their
biggest vices seemed to be whispering to each other and giggling. Most of the time, they seemed to
pay prim attention to the teacher, get all the answers right and get good grades. Maybe they had their
own set of secret pastimes. I hope so; otherwise, I don't know how they stood the boredom.
As the suburb of Mountain Brook was developed for the professional and business people of
Birmingham, there were a few poor, farming families that hung on to small landholdings. The children
of these poor families found themselves in Mountain Brook School where they must have felt terribly
out of place. One such child was Ernest Spears. I liked Ernest. He was a big, slow-talking boy, twice
the size of the rest of us. At recess all of the boys in the class used to line up against Ernest in football.
I knew this was wrong. For some reason, even at an early age, I was able to sympathize with the
underdog. I remember acquiring another guilt when one day, Ernest, sensing my friendship, asked me
to play on his side . . . he and I against the rest. While I had an advanced social conscience, I had
insufficient courage. I refused.
Ernest came to one of my birthday parties once. He brought me a little hairbrush with a decal of
the Lone Ranger on it. I knew he was very poor, and this gift touched me. Of all the birthday gifts, I
have ever received, that gift is the only one that I remember.
The few farm boys in the class were big. I suspect they had missed some school or been held back.
One of them, Fred Tibbs, was rough and not friendly. We were afraid of him. In the class ahead of us,
there were also some rough boys and bullies. These boys were kept in line by the principal, Miss
Hanes, a diminutive woman with dark brown hair, a strong jaw, dark complexion, and a stare that could
pin you like two ice picks. The ultimate authority figure, Miss Hanes would, it was rumored, take the
real troublemakers to THE FURNACE ROOM for a "licking." Most of us never saw the furnace room.
We didn't need to. Its existence was enough. We would file pass the door to the furnace room on our
way to the lunchroom and shudder. Later, as an adult, I met Miss Hanes and found her a warm and
friendly woman with a nice twinkle and fond memories of our particular class. Obviously she had been
playing a role as scary-principal. She played it well!
There's only one thing worth noting about lunch, which was uniformly wholesome and
unappetizing. There was a delightful little, wizened woman with a harelip named Bill, who punched
the little white tickets called lunch cards. Bill was always happy, fun and friendly. Though her daily
contact with us was brief, over the span of her working life she must've brightened the lives of
thousands of kids. How many of us can say as much?
Sometimes I would be met after school by our chauffeur, Will, or my mother. I always got a surge
of pleasure when I saw it was Mother's car waiting. Many days I walked home with John Terry after
school. There we had endless touch football games in John Terry‟s backyard. John Terry always got
to pass the ball. He would throw beautiful spirals. I was a bad risk as a receiver and usually dropped
the ball, but, once in awhile, I would catch a long pass and briefly vindicate myself. No matter. My
enthusiasm and expectations of success were boundless.
I also was able to keep my bicycle in John Terry‟s garage, and this allowed for excursions to the
village for a soda or a milkshake at Gilchrist Drug Store or to some little girl's house in the often vain
hope of finding her out in the yard. Brother Hare lived across the street from John Terry on Canterbury
Road, and their neighborhood became mine after school.
Will usually picked me up at John Terry‟s at around 5:30 and brought me home. I'd go pounding
up the stairs from the garage and into the kitchen where Dovie (pronounced dove-ee) would be frying
"Hey, Dovie!" I'd shout. "Can I have a piece of chicken?"
"Hey, Bub, sure you can!"
Dovie, standing flat-footed and tired in old slippers tending wonderful things at the stove with her
graying hair pulled away from her coffee-with-cream colored, long, homely face, always had a warm
smile and a piece of chicken for me. Food always tasted better in the kitchen. In fact, it was from the
black folks that I learned to appreciate food.
After getting a piece of chicken and running to the library for a quick kiss from Mom and Dad, I
would get Betty Beans and dash up the stairs heading for my bedroom and my radio. There was
usually time for Jack Armstrong or sometimes Terry and the Pirates. I would kick off my shoes, get on
my bed with Betty Beans and be lost for a half hour in adventure. Then someone would call, "Dinner‟s
We ate dinner in the formal dining room by candlelight, which created warm reflections from wine-
red silk drapes, the Oriental rug, and the antique silver on the sideboard. I'm sure it was supposed to be
the perfect, peaceful setting for the family evening meal, but it wasn't . . . thanks to me. There were
two bad things I did compulsively. I kicked the table leg, and I kicked Caroline. It was hard to reach
Caroline on the other side of the big rectangular table, however, so mostly I kicked the table. My
parents‟ dinnertime conversation was punctuated continually with, “Don‟t kick the table!” I don‟t
know why they put up with it except that they were both gentle disciplinarians and probably got as
used to saying, “Don‟t kick,” as I got to kicking.
Will or Ed, the butler, served the food in silver bowls or on silver platters, counter clockwise
around the table starting with Mother. Since I sat on mother‟s left, this meant that I was in “starvation
corner,” the last to be served. Caroline and I had a small custom of making a “favorite bite.” A
favorite bite involved getting the best bits of everything and popping them all in together. Mother
would take a nice little neat serving of rice, butter it lightly, then a little dried up piece of meat or
chicken breast (never dark meat), a little helping of vegetables, and one little extra-brown biscuit.
Conversation was usually quiet and always pleasant. Back in the kitchen, things were going
Plates were heaped with food, and gravy or molasses was poured over everything. No dried-up
little brown biscuits there! Instead there was hoecake— biscuit dough slapped into an irregular mass an
inch or so thick and baked until it was golden on top and soft and fluffy in the middle. Having raided
the kitchen before dinner then eaten a big meal in the dining room, I often returned to the kitchen to
thank Dovie and get a piece of hoecake dripping with melted butter. Then I hung around and watched
the black folks eat. Their appreciation of the food was always expressed with lots of lip-smacking,
crooning, licking greasy fingers, and slurping of heavily sweetened and creamed coffee (out of the
saucer to cool it off). The whole business was always leavened with hilarity.
It was wonderful to watch black people jiving each other. They were never at a loss for a laugh.
They had to take their pleasure where they could find it, and boy were they were good at it. They had
to be. The hours were long (7:00 AM to 8:00 PM), and the work was boring. I‟m sure the situation
was made bearable by the fact that they could retreat to the servants‟ quarters over the garage for mid-
morning or afternoon naps. Meager wages were supplemented by taking food home from work (“totin‟
privileges”). All things considered, I suspect our servants had more fun out of one evening meal in the
kitchen than my parents had all day long.
Evenings at home were fun except for homework. Between dinner and bedtime was supposed to be
for homework. I recall sitting at a little desk in my room and staring in a trance at arithmetic problems.
I believe over the years of my boyhood that I even did some of these problems. I must have.
As the weekend approached, there was only one problem: who was going to come over to spend the
night? Any one of my friends was great. Sometimes John Terry came on Friday night, went home on
Saturday to be replaced by Hare who‟d stay over Saturday night. Or Seals might come for one night,
or any one of them might come for the whole weekend. Better still, two of them might come to spend
the night. Best of all, all three might come. This happening was called a spend-the-night-party, and it
usually resulted in rip-roaring games of tag, wrestling matches and games of hide-and-go-seek. After
we finally got tired, we stayed up even longer telling each other ghost stories.
PHOTO: John Terry spending the night.
Just as it was a must to have at least one friend for each night of the weekend, certain supplies were
also essential to a high level of fun. To have a good weekend, we needed plenty of BBs and/or
firecrackers, pocket knives, bull whips and comic books for rainy days. Rolls of caps and capguns
were needed as was other special equipment such as water pistols, yo-yos, toy mechanical cars and
chemistry sets for making noxious concoctions. We never did experiments that were described in the
instruction book, preferring to brew up our own creative combinations of poisonous-looking chemicals.
This equipment represented wealth. Having a dollar in your pocket was money. Having six cardboard
tubes of copper-coated BBs in your pocket dragging down your pants was wealth.
BB guns were fundamental boyhood equipment. They were made—and still are—by the Daisy
Company. Except for pump guns, they were of the old Winchester carbine design and were cocked by
a lever behind the trigger. They were accurate. We used to kill flies with them. They could break an
old bottle, put a nice dent in a tin can, make a satisfying whang when shot at a road sign or make a pine
cone jump at fifty feet. Power! They were great for contests. We would pick some difficult small
target—an acorn or a small pebble—and take turns blasting away at it until one of us hit it.
I must have had seven or eight BB guns over my boyhood. There was always an extra BB gun
around so that a friend wouldn‟t have to go unarmed. They were a bit of a bother to load. You twisted
the end of the muzzle to open the end of the loading tube where you poured in the BBs. They held
hundreds of BBs. BB guns were gravity fed. If you cocked a BB gun with the muzzle pointing down,
you would shoot nothing but a puff of air. Pump BB guns were nifty, but they were spring fed with a
spring-loaded magazine that was a pain in the neck to load. The magazine held fifty BBs that had to be
put in one at a time. We much preferred the carbine-style BB guns. The heft and chunking rattle of a
fully loaded BB gun gave a lift to the spirits. You were ready to blast away in the yard or the woods
for hours without reloading. One weekend John Terry and I roamed the night and shot out every light
bulb (the “burglar lights”) on the outside of the house. For some reason, there were only mild
repercussions from this bit of destructive behavior.
We had a yardman—a white country man by the name of Mr. Skelton—who used to whittle out
popguns for me. These were amazing little toys. There was some kind of sapling that had a pithy core.
A ten inch piece of this sapling with the core removed formed a tube. A fourteen inch piece of a
hardwood branch was whittled down to make a nine-and-a-half- inch plunger. The four and a half
unwhittled inches became the handle.
The ammunition was dogwood berries. They were slightly larger than the bore of the tube. You
would shove one into the end or the tube and then force it to the other end with the plunger that was
slightly shorter than the tube. A second berry was inserted into the tube, and when it was pushed
through, the air pressure built up between the two berries shooting the first with a loud pop and
No doubt popguns and slingshots served boys in the rural South before the days of BB guns. We
enjoyed the handmade shooters, but we were mechanized and seldom headed outdoors without a BB
gun dangling from the left hand ready to cock the Winchester-type lever with the right. It is a wonder
we didn‟t lose eyes. The biggest risks were bounce-backs. Once, from the balcony outside the upstairs
sitting-room, I stupidly shot a BB straight down onto the slate front porch. Naturally it came straight
back up. It hit just under my eyebrow of my aiming right eye, within a half inch of my eye! Another
time when I was shirtless, John Terry shot me in the breast bone. (The BB broke the skin but did not
penetrate.) Once he got a front tooth chipped by a BB from a BB pistol (a less powerful weapon).
Those are the only injuries I recall. God protects fools, drunks and boys!
Firecrackers were even more dangerous. We had plenty of „em! They ranged from the tiny lady
crackers, which were an inch long and as slender as a match stick and could be set off in someone‟s
back pocket to the cement covered silver cherry bombs which packed the punch of a small stick of
dynamite and which, unfortunately, could be set off under water. I say “unfortunately” because this
fact led John Seals and me to set one off in my toilet. The only question at that time was whether or
not to flush it. We didn‟t. There was no piece of toilet bowl left that was bigger than a hen‟s egg.
Good thing we didn‟t flush. A blasted toilet bowl was better than a burst pipe in the walls. Mom and
Dad came running up and, though it made a funny story later on, they were not amused at the time.
The maximum punishment was dealt out: John was sent home. A weekend without a friend! Awful!
Worse than any spanking! On the positive side, the trap in the toilet revealed several marbles, two lead
soldiers and a gold bracelet of Mother‟s that had been lost for years. I don‟t remember making that
“deposit,” but I must have.
The workhorse of firecrackers was the Chinese firecracker, a colored cardboard tube with a paper
fuse. These came in packets of fifty with their fuses braided together so that the whole pack could be
shot off like machine gun fire. We seldom squandered them like that. After all, they represented
wealth. We would unravel the packet and shoot them off as singles.
John Terry and I used to play on a clay bank about a quarter-of-a-mile down Cherokee Road.
There was a little cliff near the top, just high enough up to be scary. We had excavated two seats in
this cliff entirely by blasting with Chinese firecrackers.
The big house was ideal for games of which the servants, alas, were often the brunt. One such was
“sneak.” “Let‟s sneak,” I would say, and we would creep around the dim halls after a quarry—often
our little black maid, Dorothy—seeing how close we could get to her without being discovered.
Dorothy was too young to have the tolerance of the older servants and we did give her some bad
moments. Once we talked her into letting us tie her up with the tacit understanding that we would untie
her, but we didn‟t. I‟m afraid we left Dorothy in a dark closet for quite awhile. She almost quit over
Our teachers were mostly kind, hard working old maids. Miss Third-Grade Brown (as
distinguished from Miss Seventh-Grade Brown) was a tall, refined, well-powdered old lady who wore
long, flowing dresses, a pince-nez and a startling brown wig. In addition to the third grade, she also
taught music. I believe she was a very good music teacher. She had us singing some very intricate two
and three-part things like The Barcarolle, Sleep Kentucky Babe and Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal. I
enjoyed music class immensely, and I‟m sure Miss Brown is at least partly responsible for my lifelong
love of music.
Sometimes we had music programs for the parents. In one of these, a classmate, whose name was
Martin DeVore, came to my attention through the dubious distinction of singing “Rosalie” as a solo.
Martin had a beautiful soprano voice. I remember being impressed by the beauty and clarity of his solo
and realizing what a difficult thing “Rosalie “would be to live down. A good-looking, slender boy with
a pompadour haircut, Martin was probably the only boy in the class less athletic than I was. In fact,
nobody ever forgot “Rosalie,” but Martin was much too nice to pick on. Still, when his voice changed,
Martin refused to sing another note and, as far as I know, still won‟t!
Martin played with another group of kids, and he and I didn‟t become close friends until high
school and college. We did do some bike riding together, and I was impressed with how shiny he kept
his maroon Schwin. Martin‟s car still reflects his penchant for polishing things.
The fourth grade may have been the most fun year of my boyhood. To begin with, we had a fun
teacher. Miss Raines was a robust young woman with a ready laugh. She was a tall, large-boned
young woman with untamed brown hair and a plain, attractive face. She thought up fun things for us to
do in class and had fun herself doing them. Once in a while, she sat down at the piano and, singing
loudly, belted out something like Buttermilk Skies.
Miss Raines was also a disciplinarian. Misbehavers found themselves in front of the class arms
extended palms up with a heavy book on each hand, which quickly became painful enough to bring
tears to the eyes. Looking back, I think this punishment was too harsh, but it did not affect my feeling
for Miss Raines. I loved her. She was that wonderful rarity, a teacher who radiated warmth,
enthusiasm and fun. The Christmas festivities in her class made the last few days before vacation pure
pleasure. The fun was topped off by a rare Alabama snowfall just before school let out. I remember
waiting to be released from class and watching the big flakes come down outside. I was ready to burst
Our class did a Christmas music program in the little wood framed church in Mountain Brook
Village. It was thrilling. The carols were beautiful and difficult, but, thanks to Miss Brown, we were
up to the challenge. We were all excited over Christmas anyway, but on the night of the concert when
we were all assembled in our robes in the front of the candlelit church, I could barely get my breath. I
felt I was part of a supremely important event.
My early experience with girlfriends was none too successful. The interest was there, however.
Sometime during the fourth grade, Hare, Seals and I all took a shine to Patty Camp, a cute little
classmate with freckles. One Saturday, we made a joint excursion to her house. We each had the same
kind of rubber ball: a red and blue, air-filled ball called a bo-bo ball, and we were bouncing and tossing
them around. I think we were invited in for some lemonade. We must have made a devastatingly
suave impression with our bo-bo balls! At that age, safety-in-numbers was required when calling on a
It was sometime during the fourth grade that I made friends with a boy in the class ahead of me.
Walter Bouldin, who was called “Bouldie,” was a short, nice-looking, brunette boy whose speech could
barely keep up with his agile mind and imagination. I don‟t know how our friendship started, but
Bouldie quickly became another cornerstone of my boyhood.
He was extremely adept at making little clay men out of modeling clay. I could never get the
proportions right, but Bouldie‟s clay men—ranging from two to four inches in length—always looked
real and lifelike. The interesting thing about these clay men was what we did to them. Maybe all boys
have a sadistic streak in them. Bouldie and I certainly did! Fortunately we took it out on the little clay
men, bringing them to their doom in diverse and horrifying ways. Walter even had a little board about
ten inches square through which had been hammered about two hundred inch and a half nails. Clay
men drove toy cars off the second floor landing at my house. When the cars and men landed on the
spiked board, we reveled in the various forms of impalement that resulted.
We had a superhero clay man named “Lance,” who was carefully made. He wore a pistol belt.
Like all good superheroes, Lance survived everything. Between adventures, we kept him in a little red,
wooden box on cotton wool where he slept in suspended animation. Once Bouldie and I set up about
thirty feet of straight electric train track in the attic playroom. At the end of this track, we constructed a
half-completed bridge out of Erector Set girders. A dozen clay workers climbed on the bridge and
another dozen clay men clung to the engine. The engine, which was made to puff placidly around a
circular track, sprinted down the thirty feet of track and crashed into the bridge. The resulting carnage
was wonderful to behold and made even more fun by Bouldie‟s fiendish giggle!
Walter was precocious. While I was still deeply involved in comic books, Walter had graduated to
pulp science fiction magazines such as “Amazing Stories.” He knew about Ray Bradbury before
almost anyone had heard of him. Since Bouldie was steeped in space opera, he was able to tell really
exciting stories, and when we spent the night together (sometimes at my house, sometime at his), he
kept me up until the small hours telling these great stories. I used to tell stories to Hare, Seals and John
Terry late at night. My stories usually put them to sleep. It was considered a dirty trick to go to sleep
while the other guy was talking.
“Did you hear me?”
“ Uh . . .”
“You were asleep!”
“I was not!”
I remember being the accused many times in this exchange , drifting off in the middle of some
important midnight conversation in spite of heroic efforts to stay awake.
Life was fun, but it wasn‟t all fun. I was prone to having surgery. By the time I was ten, I had had
a hernia operation, my tonsils out and an infected thumbnail that—it being in the days before
antibiotics—required surgery. All these events involved some pain, but what was worse, ether. I grew
to hate and fear that noxious stuff. Still, there were pluses. Anything that required recuperation meant
individual attention from Mother who would read to me by the hour, unrestricted radio listening, extra
comic books, meals on a tray and an occasional treat from my grandfather Shook called “pitching.” He
would come to the end of the bed and pitch five or six little treats to me: a pack of Lifesavers, some
gum or several little toys.
All in all, being sick was a pretty good deal. After several days of it, however, I grew restless. The
hernia operation required several weeks in bed without sitting up, a surgical recovery procedure that
seems ludicrous today. At the end of that time, Mother and I were both ready to go crazy. Regardless,
these times were the times when Mother and I were the closest. It was her reading to me that first
showed me how much fun books could be. My favorites were The Wind in the Willows and a series by
Walter R. Brooks about a talking pig named Freddy. Come to think of it, The Wind in the Willows is
also about talking animals. Probably my mind had been prepared for this kind of thing by comic
books. I now think that the literary device of talking animals serves as a switch to open your mind to
the improbable and miraculous. Once your mind accepts talking animals, anything is possible!
One time when Mother was sitting at the foot of the bed reading to me, she grabbed my foot and
pretended to bite my toe. By mistake, she actually did bite it. I let out a howl of outrage, sat straight
up and looked at her in surprise. She was just as surprised as I was and started to laugh nervously.
Soon we were both helplessly convulsed. It was one of the best laughs I ever had with Mother.
My uncle, who lived down the hill from us, had two sons. The youngest, Fred, was born with a
major birth defect. None of his joints were completely developed. Fred was three years older than I.
The surgery I had as a boy was a fraction of what Fred had. By the time he was ten, Fred had had
major surgery on all of the joints of his arms and legs. None of these operations, as far as I could tell,
did him any good. Fred could walk with a cane and feed himself, but he needed help to dress or bathe.
His parents had hired a woman whose name was Katie Payne--known to all as “Payne” to take care of
Fred. Payne was a birdlike little woman with twinkling, bright blue eyes, a deep voice and wry sense
of humor. She loved kids and young people who, in turn, loved her right back. Since Fred and I had
become quite close, I spent a lot of time with Payne and grew very fond of her. She helped bring me
Fred was a child with dark skin, dark brown hair and brown eyes. He was almost pretty as a child.
He had courage. I remember Fred falling off his tricycle once onto the driveway. It banged him up
pretty good, but he didn‟t cry. Fred had a delightful sense of fun and the most infectious laugh I‟ve
Once in awhile, Mother and Dad took us to New York City. Such a trip was a huge adventure. We
arrived at the train station in Dad‟s car. Will and Ed brought the bags in the station wagon, and Ed
took Dad‟s car home.
A redcap loaded the bags onto a handcart with iron wheels, and I, bursting with excitement, ran
ahead into the station.
The Terminal Station in Birmingham was an exotic and marvelous place. Long pew-like wooden
benches were dwarfed by the huge domed space of the main waiting area. The light in the Terminal
was always silvery, being filtered through large, smoke-grayed windows and echoing through the
marble-columned space, could be heard the dry, tinny, sing-song announcements:
“Departing from track 10, the Silver Comet . . . all aboard for . . .” and the announcer would reel
off a list of mysterious towns and cities, all strung together so that you couldn‟t understand them.
Train names were romantic and wonderful: The Silver Comet, The Silver Star, The Silver Meteor,
The Birmingham Special, The City of Miami, The Southerner. . .
There was a newsstand in an alcove to the right of the gates. The alcove was dim and dingy, with
overhead lights hanging down in the gloom, and there, in front of the counter, stacked in wooden racks,
glowing with color and smelling of fresh printer‟s ink, was the ultimate selection of comic books. All
the best ones were there, from Donald Duck through Batman and Plastic Man. I usually had a dollar
and a quarter for a dozen comics . . . a dozen fifty-two page comics! Six hundred and twenty-four
pages of glorious color, fantasy and adventure. What a satisfying bulk to hold. Wealth!
Finally, all of us would go through the gate. A short walk to the right led us to stairs leading
underground into a dimly lit tunnel. Tiny chips of mica sparkled in the steps and the asphalt floor of the
tunnel. When we climbed the stairs to the track and emerged into the daylight on the platform, there
would be the train hissing and steaming in all its power and grimy, olive-green majesty.
Sometimes we emerged near the engine whose massive pistons, wheels, cow catcher, steaming
latent power and intricacy of valves, pipes and fittings could have been especially designed to awe and
fascinate a small boy. Engineers, masters of the behemoths, were made even more colorful by their
corded denim caps and bandannas and could usually be counted on to return a grin and a wave.
Often the Pullman cars were situated towards the end of the train. When we found our car, there
was always a yellow-orange box we stepped on to reach the bottom step of the Pullman car. Getting
aboard, all anticipation melted into pure satisfaction as I became part of the train.
A Pullman car smelled unlike any place else on earth. A combination of coal smoke, tobacco
smoke, disinfectant from the men‟s room, the cool metal of the car, the upholstery, the heating or air-
conditioning, all these things and more combined to envelop me.
Between reading comics and playing cards (“Hearts”) with Caroline, Mother and Dad on a
table set up in their compartment, I gazed out the window as the world unrolled before my eyes, a
different world than the one seen from an automobile.
You would find yourself looking into the backyard of a little rural shack at a black woman
stirring laundry with a stick in a black, iron pot, or as the train stopped, on the outskirts of a city, you
might find yourself peering into the tiny kitchen of some poor flat watching a family eat dinner. The
train rolled through the junk behind factories, through wild, beautiful swamps and across farm fields
and rivers. If you had a lower berth, you could wake in the night as the train pulled into some lonely
station and, pinching together the two metal tabs to raise the shade a few inches, you could peer
through the steam and yellow lights on the platform to watch some solitary trainman swinging his
lantern as he checked the train. Such a lonely scene would make you feel extra snug in your berth as
you drifted off to the rhythmic swaying and double click-clack of the wheels.
Everything about a train could have been designed to fascinate a boy. The little ladder you
needed for upper berth, the little green net hammock for clothing, the black ventilator nozzle that could
be twisted to direct the air, the small, round reading light which could be switched to be a mysterious,
glowing, blue night light, the way the porter rolled the extra blanket, all these things seemed made for
my particular enjoyment.
Most Pullman cars in those days were about two-thirds seats that converted to berths and one
third compartments and bedrooms. For those passengers who had berth, there was a ladies‟ room and a
men‟s room. The ladies, who required more privacy, had a door on their room. The men had a curtain.
Short of a football locker room, there were very few places more uncompromisingly masculine than the
men‟s room on a Pullman car. Pushing the curtain aside, you would see to the left a black leather seat
that ran the length of the room. Facing you between the windows were two shiny metal sinks for
washing and shaving, and to the right was another little sink for drinking water and the door to the
toilet. Flushing the toiled caused the metal bottom of the bowl to flip down revealing the rail bed
whisking by below (“Passengers will please refrain from flushing the toilet while the train is standing
in the station”). There was always a shiny brass spittoon and there were usually men in their
undershirts shaving and smoking cigars. All in all, it was a place a young boy felt barely qualified to
Then there were excursions to the dining car or the club car. On your way to the dining car, you
would be turned around by a little blue cardboard sign at the end of the car that read, “Dining car in
opposite direction.” Moving between cars was exciting. Pushing open the heavy door at the end of the
car, you were hit by a wave of noise that made talking impossible. Getting to the next car meant
crossing several shifting, sliding steel plates with nothing much to hold on to.
Dining cars were all different and yet all the same. There was always a steward, a white man in
a navy blue uniform, in charge of seating people. While waiting, you might get a peek into the stainless
steel kitchen which was a marvel of compactness and see the white uniformed cooks at work.
Sometimes you were seated with strangers, which was horrifying at first but usually proved interesting.
The food always had a kind of greasy, smoky taste, but it was usually good and sometimes excellent.
Rough roadbeds and sudden stops and starts meant there were a lot of spills, which meant frequent
changes of the white tablecloths. The black waiters accomplished this feat with amazing dexterity.
I remember one waiter whose job it was to provide room-service by taking trays of food to the
Pullman cars. He carried the laden trays balanced on a cloth ring on his head, leaving his hands free to
open the heavy doors between cars. As this waiter passed through the train, he kept his head perfectly
still, compensating for the lurching of the train by swinging his hips with the combined grace of a ballet
dancer and a broken field runner. It was a wonderful performance to watch.
On trains and everywhere else in those days, black people did the menial work. Porters and
waiters not only had hard work and long hours, but they had to be away from home for days at a time.
As a child, I took these realities for granted, but now I look back with great admiration for the black
people who did such hard jobs with skill and reliability and somehow managed to retain their warmth,
humanity and joy in life.
The wonderful thing about the club car was the platform at the end of it. Usually the door to the
platform was left unlocked, and you could stand out there on the little balcony and watch the rails spin
out under you into the distance. There was always a box of flares out there that looked intriguingly like
red sticks of dynamite. Each flare had a sharp steel spike on one end. They were lit and stuck into a
crosstie to signal other trains.
I think I first became aware of the relativity of motion on trains. Sometimes you would be in the
station staring out the window at another train that was stopped alongside. One of the trains would start
to move very smoothly, but there was no way to tell which train was moving. Very disorientating! Or
you might pass another train going at high speed in the opposite direction. The combined speed of the
two trains would be over one hundred miles an hour, and since they were often only a few feet apart,
the other train would blast past you in a breathtaking, whooshing blur.
Did other boys hold up one hand and—closing one eye—let it scythe down passing telephone
poles? I expect they did. Sometimes I picked out a leaf on a tree and, after examining it carefully as we
passed, I would think, “That leaf was just twenty feet away. I know it was there, but I could not touch
it. Now it is gone and I will never see it again.” These kinds of thoughts may have presaged a slight
philosophical bent. Certainly they indicated a budding awareness of the impermanent, transitory nature
On one particular trip to New York City, I had been allowed to take my two painted turtles,
General Macarthur and Admiral Nimitz, in a little tin traveling box that had water in one end and
gravel in the other. The three of us had completed the train trip and were safely ensconced in a room on
the fourteenth floor of the Savoy Plaza Hotel. I put the turtles‟ box on the windowsill to give them
some air and sunshine. While I was looking around the room, I happened to glance over and saw that
Admiral Nimitz had escaped and was marching in a determined, military manner towards oblivion! I
rushed to the window and stuck my hand out, and Admiral Nimitz fell two inches into my palm, thus
being cheated out of fourteen floor sky dive which would surely have been a world record for painted
I recall another amusing incident that happened in New York when I was a bit older.
Caroline—who was probably fourteen at the time—Mother and I were leaving the Savoy Plaza
Hotel to go to Penn Station. The bellman, who was carrying the luggage to the taxi, dropped Caroline‟s
suitcase full of lingerie, which popped open on the sidewalk. When she saw what had happened,
Caroline, with queenly aplomb, stepped over the bras and panties, and gazing with indifference into the
distance, she stepped into the cab, leaving Mother and me to gather up her underwear. As for the lesser
mortals left behind to engage in this undignified task, she knew us not!
New York City was simply another part of a world made especially for my enjoyment. One
highlight was the Museum of Natural History. There were stuffed animals in life-like postures placed
in beautiful, natural settings: a leopard beside a jungle pool, a fox in moonlit desert landscape… magic!
There were also enormous dinosaur skeletons. According to Mother, the first time they brought me to
see these skeletons, when I was about four, I looked up, and in a loud voice (I was almost a baritone) I
belted out the song “Oh, Daddy, I Want a Diamond Ring,” only I sang “Oh, Daddy, I want a dinosaur!”
Not a bad pun for a four-year-old!
New York City also offered me Schrafft‟s, the ultimate ice cream parlor;
F. A. O. Schwartz, the ultimate toy store and Tiffany‟s, where I had my policeman‟s badge polished.
I had persuaded Chief Tibbets of Mountain Brook to give me a badge, which I carried in my
wallet. When I was about seven, on a trip to New York City, Mother took me to Tiffany‟s to see the
Tiffany diamond and the other jewels. I had wandered down an aisle and seen a very distinguished, tall,
white-haired gentleman with a white, military mustache and a dark blue suit standing behind a counter.
I asked this man, whose name turned out to be Mr. Plunkett, if he would polish my badge for me, and
he graciously agreed. We struck up a friendship and for several years thereafter, whenever we went to
New York City, I would get Mother to take me by Tiffany‟s to say hello to Mr. Plunkett and get my
badge buffed up. I had a favorite great aunt named Aunt Tasta (short for Augusta) who heard about me
and Mr. Plunkett and wrote us up as a little human interest story, which she sent to the New Yorker
magazine where it appeared in print.
There were two other fabulous attractions in New York: The Central Park Zoo and Broadway.
At the zoo I marveled at the monkeys. I suppose most boys feel an affinity with monkeys whose ability
to defy gravity by leaping and swinging from branch to branch expresses so much freedom and fun.
(No doubt the monkey-boy kinship explains the popularity of Tarzan.) The squirrels in Central Park
were almost as much fun as the monkeys. Alabama squirrels were a standoffish lot, but the brazen New
York squirrels would take a peanut from your hand.
On one trip to the zoo, I saw and coveted a bird called a peach-faced parakeet whose compact
form contained such subtle rainbow colors. As anyone reading this would know by this time, I was a
well-indulged child, but my parents drew the line at furnishing me with a peach-faced parakeet. I‟m
sure this was one dream that was much more enjoyable for never having been realized.
If I was enthralled by the nature scenes at the Museum of Natural History, the experience of a
Broadway show was nothing less than ecstasy. Lord, going to the theater and creeping down to the
orchestra pit to talk to the musicians as they tuned up, sitting through the overture about to pop with
excitement and seeing the world transformed into color, music, dance, love and joy all wrapped up in a
happy ending was almost more than I could contain. Seeing and hearing Roy Bolger sing “Once in
Love with Amy” in Where‟s Charlie and Ethel Merman sing “Falling in Love is Wonderful” in Annie
Get Your Gun were high points in my life that have seldom been equaled. When the curtain went up, I
knew for sure that what was on the stage was the way life ought to be.
Then, of course, there was the train ride back home. Yes sir, life was a feast!
The war impinged very little on us as children, but when it did, it was usually fun.
We used to have paper drives and scrap metal drives at school. The odd numbered grades would
compete against the even numbered grades, and huge, fascinating piles of scrap metal grew in the
school yard in front of the school. When I showed up with a station wagon load of newspapers and
magazines, I was the hero-of-the-moment.
War created shortages other than paper and metal. One such was bubble gum, another form of
wealth. R. D. Burnett, my beach friend from toddlerhood, was a distributor of cigars and candies.
Once he gave me a whole carton of bubble gum. There must have been several hundred fragrant, pink
nuggets of Double Bubble, each twisted into its double wax paper wrapper. Gilding the lily, the inner
wrapper was a tiny comic strip! My popularity at school rose to new heights.
At recess, the boys were not allowed to play with the girls. We were, in fact, herded across a
little wooden bridge to a playground on the other side of the creek. I wonder now at the need for this
PHOTO: (Left to Right) Martin, me, John Terry, Stanley Erdreich and Wayne Brendel
There were two country boys who went through grammar school with us (Ernest Spears having
dropped out in the third grade). Both boys were older and bigger than the rest of us. Fred Tibbs was the
classic bully. Steve Fox who wore glasses and a leather jacket was a nice, soft-spoken boy who used to
protect us from Fred Tibbs. No doubt we owe a lot of the carefree fun we had to Steve. In true bully
fashion, Fred Tibbs selected the slender, non-athletic Martin DeVore to pick on. I guess this went on
for quite a while, in spite of Steve Fox, until finally, one day, Martin had enough and hit Fred in the
face. What made it more effective was that the hand Martin hit him with had a baseball in it! Evidently
Martin, who was “too nice to pick on”, was also not safe to pick on!
One of the dopier fads to sweep our grammar school was passing out. You would stand at the
top of an embankment on the playground take ten or twelve deep breaths, then holding the last one, a
friend would give you a bear hug from behind forcing still more oxygen into your blood, and out you
would go to tumble, unconscious, down the bank. This practice ranked in intelligence right along with
“frogging” which consisted of hitting a friend on the forearm muscle with the point of your middle
knuckle to create a little twitching muscle spasm called “a frog.”
Halloween was a real high point of the year. We were allowed to roam Mountain Brook without
adults and play trick or treat. There were several reliable grouches in John Terry‟s neighborhood who
didn‟t treat and who chased and threatened us to prevent “tricking.” Being chased added spice, and
naturally these grouches got more than their share of attention.
One year I asked Mom to get me a black cape. She had her dressmaker make one. My idea was that
I could use the cape to disappear. I put it to use that Halloween in one of the few times of my life that
fantasy became reality. One of the grouches was chasing me around the corner of his house. With my
heart hammering in my throat, I crouched in the deep shadow of a large clump of bushes under the
black folds of my cape. My pursuer ran right past almost stepping on me! The art of blending with the
environment stood me in good stead several times later on when I was doing things I shouldn‟t have
At one of these Halloween parties, probably around the fifth grade, we achieved a breakthrough.
I believe we had been to a Halloween party where the idea of kissing had been introduced by “spin the
bottle.” In any case, John Terry and I found ourselves wandering around the neighborhood at nine
o‟clock at night hand-in-hand with two classmates, Shirley Jaffe, a short, cute brunette, and Zoe Ann
Boulware, a tall, cute blonde. The trouble was that both of these girls liked John Terry. The situation
was saved, from my point of view, by the fact that John Terry insisted that the girls share their
affections with me. It was one of the most generous and magnanimous gestures of true friendship that I
can recall. We wandered around for a couple of hours pausing for long kisses, and, while I knew I was
second choice as far as both girls were concerned, I didn‟t mind in the least. Looking back, I‟m sure the
girls were showing me as much generosity as John Terry, although from a standpoint of enthusiasm, I
probably wasn‟t altogether unsatisfactory in my own right! We wound up in the bushes in Hare‟s yard
happily ignoring John Terry‟s mother who called from across the street, “John Terry, John Terry…”
over and over as we lingered over one last kiss.
Sexual matters were a mystery. When I was eight or nine, I was given a little sex manual called
“Growing Up,” which had an explicit picture of a little terrier sitting up. This didn‟t help. I‟d had dogs
and knew how they were constructed. Other than glimpses of Mother (who didn‟t count), my only
source of knowledge of female anatomy came from National Geographic pictures of black native
women in the wilds of Africa and pictures in my grandmother‟s art books of women named Venus and
Aphrodite. There was a well-worn, thumb-printed page in the encyclopedia on which, under
“mammary gland,” a disembodied breast floated enticingly. We theorized over how babies were made,
getting the facts wrong, but nobody really knew the whole story. Finally a little eight page, three by
five, black and white comic book about Blondie made everything perfectly clear. In eight pages with
very slim plot development, a mystery of erotic interest and confusion became a MYSTERY of
awesome excitement and power. It was too big to dwell on, however, and I was very busy having fun,
so, for the most part, I let it sink into my subconscious from where it would bother me only
Having a friend over for each night of the weekend sometimes required considerable scheming.
I might have Hare lined up for Friday night but have neglected the next night. So, when Hare went
home on Saturday morning, I would get on the phone and dial 21179 and get John Terry.
“Hey, J.T., wanna come spend the night?”
“What are you having for dinner?” John Terry would say, so I would go and ask.
“Mom says we‟re having pork chops.”
“Just a minute,” John Terry would say and I‟d hear him call “Mother, what are we having for
dinner?” Then, “Sorry, A.J., I can‟t come. We are having roast beef.” John Terry loved to come to my
house, but he loved roast beef more!
So, I‟d dial 23008. Seals
“Hey, Beals, wanna come spend the night?”
“I can‟t, Ollie. I‟ve gotta practice my violin.”
“Come on, Beals. You can do that now. Will can pick you up this afternoon.”
So John would ask his mother. “Mother says no, Ollie.”
“Let me speak to her, Beals.”
I‟d get her on the phone. “Please let John come over, Mrs. Seals. He can practice this morning
before he comes.”
“Well, Allen, I don‟t know…. John has homework…”
“Aw, come on, Mrs. Seals. I‟ll get him home Sunday in time to do his homework. Please.” I
begged and pleaded and used great logic and pathos.
Mrs. Seals, who was good-hearted, usually ran out of reasons why John couldn‟t come and, often
Mrs. Seals was a pianist who also gave piano lessons. She even had a go with me, and, though I
loved music, the piano was not what I wanted. Having not practiced, I would go over to the Seals‟
house for my lesson. My fingernails usually needed cutting (not to mention cleaning) and when their
clicking on the keys annoyed Mrs. Seals, she stopped the lesson and cut them. Finally, after several
months and very little progress, she called Mother.
“Hannie,” she said, “the only thing Allen is getting out of this is getting his fingernails cut!”
Mother, Mrs. Seals and I reached a mutually satisfactory understanding: no more piano lessons for me!
Once, when Seals was spending the night, he and I determined on an excursion to explore the
inside of my uncle‟s house. To put it another way, we broke in. The family was out of town and
creeping behind the boxwood, we achieved entry by sticking a small screwdriver through the screen
and popping the hook on the screen frame. Armed with considerable sneaking skills, we crept through
the house going through drawers and closets. We were certainly safe from prosecution, but what we
were doing was definitely grounds for getting into trouble.
We had forgotten about Bethel, my uncle‟s slightly stuffy, six-foot-two-inch, colored butler.
Bethel was not known for his sense of humor. We were upstairs poking around in the bedrooms when
we heard him coming up the front stairs. We retreated to the attic. He followed. We went through one
attic room into a room where electric trains were set up and hid behind the train table. Bethel sat down
to wait. We could peek through a hole in the wall and see him. Finally he got up to leave, but on
leaving the outer room, he locked the door.
With sinking heart I knew the game was up. He had us! Rushing from hiding, I called, “Bethel!
Bethel! It‟s me Allen!” Of course, Bethel reported this to my uncle who complained to my Dad who
took up the matter with me. I forget the punishment, but my parents‟ disapproval was memorable. I
think they were beginning to think that John was a bad influence on me when really he was more in the
role of willing accomplice.
One weekend I called 23648 and got Brother Hare over to spend the night. We were running
through the downstairs in one of our endless games of chase, and though I knew better than to run with
anything sharp, my right hand held two wicked, connected shark hooks that I found somewhere. Bother
lunged to catch me just as my right hand was on the backswing. The hook caught Brother at the base of
the pad of his right thumb. Horror! Dr. Frank Wilson came and cut off the barb of the hook with some
heavy wire cutters and extracted the hook. I, overcome with remorse, cried, hollered, and kicked up
quite a fuss while Brother bravely, never shed a tear.
Another time I attempted to detain Brother with a bull whip as he leapt from our front porch.
The whip was intended to wrap around him harmlessly but was ill-timed, and the tip caught him behind
the ear causing little damage but considerable pain. Another time, when we were at summer camp
together, Brother fell while chasing me across some desks and cut a great, grinning gash in this shin.
For some reason, Hare, whether pursuer or pursued, was always the victim. I suppose he‟s lucky to
have survived our friendship.
Once in a while, I was the victim. Bouldie was swinging a golf club in, of all places, the ladies‟
powder room at my house, and on the backswing, the club head caught me just under my right eye,
making a nice little cut that required a couple of stitches. Thinking back, I can‟t remember why in the
world we were swinging a golf club in the ladies‟ powder room!
I associate my boyhood summers with my grandparents and their home in the country. The
southern custom of referring to people according to family relationships (Brother Hare) carried into
Mother‟s family. Mother‟s brother, Pascal Shook, Jr., was known as “Brother,” her sister, Margaret
Gaines, was “Sister,” and strangely, their father (my grandfather), P.G. Shook, was known as “Uncle”.
My grandmother was called “Carrie”.
While our house was in the woods of a yet-to-be-developed suburb, Carrie and Uncle lived
further up Shades Mountain in the country. It was a question of life style. Our home was designed for
modern (1930s) living. Carrie and Uncle‟s home belonged more to the turn of the century rural south.
My grandfather and his brothers had bought a large tract of land on the mountain and put in a private
dirt road. Uncle was a successful business-man and a gentleman farmer. He had cows which meant
milk, butter, cream and homemade buttermilk, and horses, including a pony named “Eddie Cantor”
(with pony-cart). A large section of his land was devoted to pasture. After a mile of dusty dirt road that
ran past the pasture, you would come to my grandparents‟ weathered paved drive. It climbed past a
sweeping informal lawn to the rambling, ivy-covered, sandstone house on the brow of the hill. (I used
my grandparent‟s home for one of the settings of my novel, My Brother's Story.) Their home was one
of those houses that looked like it had grown into the Southern countryside. In back of the house,
overlooking the valley was the pavilion, a porch-like structure with a wood shingled roof, a dark red
linoleum floor, porch furniture, a chain-suspended porch swing, and a painted giraffe from a carousel.
The pavilion was the scene of family gatherings on long summer evenings.
When we arrived for a family dinner at Carrie and Uncle‟s, we usually found Uncle sitting in his
tall, upholstered rocker in the small library called “the morning room” and listening to the news from
the wooden console radio. My grandfather, a staunch Republican and conservative businessman, was
horrified by Roosevelt. He felt real concern over the socialistic changes of the New Deal. He was
interested in facts and never read a novel in his life. Once in a while he took me to a movie. Uncle was
a handsome, dignified man who usually wore a vest with his suits and kept a gold watch in his watch
pocket with a gold chain across the front of his vest. With dark brows contrasting with his white hair,
he was a fine looking man. So far, I could be describing a stern, Victorian patriarch, but, in fact, there
was nothing stern about Uncle. He was the kindest man I have ever known. He was very affectionate
and had the most delightful sense of humor and an irresistible, contagious chuckle.
Uncle loved to eat and ate like a European, piling up savory combinations of southern cooking on
the back of his fork which he kept in his left hand. Uncle and Carrie had a cook named Maggie
Maccadorie, a birdlike, tiny black woman who couldn‟t have weighed a hundred pounds. Maggie was
an artist who, up until about 1940, still cooked on a wood stove. In the tradition of most Southern
cooks, vegetables were overcooked with salt pork (“side meat”), and meats were well-done, seasoned
with lots of pepper, but somehow after several home-grown vegetables had appeared with corn
pudding, fried chicken, tomatoes and onions in oil and vinegar and homemade biscuits with country
butter, our plates began to resemble a work of art. Uncle ate with great gusto and appreciation for a
while until; finally, he would sigh and pause to make a joke. It was always the same joke, and it was
“I don‟t know why it is,” he‟d say, “but after you eat for about a half an hour, you start to lose
your appetite!” I loved the conversation at family dinners. I loved my grandfather‟s stories, Brother‟s
droll comments, Sister‟s warm appreciative laugh, and Carrie‟s patient, persistent, genealogical
comments. Genealogy was the glue that held these conversations together. Carrie often interrupted
Uncle to say, “P.G., wasn‟t Ann Smith one of the Jones out of Anniston?”
Then Mother would say, “No, that‟s a different branch of the Jones family. Ann‟s maiden name
was Jones, but her side of the family came from Chattanooga.”
“Really? Was she kin to Bertha Jones, the one who ran away to marry the French count?”
“Yes, first cousin. Remember crazy Aunt Lilly Jones? All those Joneses have a wild streak.” (In
those days, a shared family trait was called a “streak.”)
“They certainly do. That must be why Ann acts the way she does.”
After Ann Smith/Jones was all safely connected into the scheme of things, Uncle continued with
his story. Everybody knew everybody and who everybody was related to. It was all very comforting,
sitting on the pavilion in the twilight of a soft summer evening watching the lightning bugs and
listening to the grown-ups weave their conversation in which everyone was connected.
One of my grandfather‟s stories needs repeating. It was a practical joke that fooled a whole
My grandfather‟s father was an executive in the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. In those
days, T.C.I. had a private railroad car. Uncle talked his father into letting him and a group of his young
men friends use the railroad car to travel to the Alabama-Vanderbilt game in Nashville. Spirited young
men were known as “gay blades” in those days, and this particular group was certainly spirited. After
leaving Birmingham on the train and after a few drinks, they discovered that one of the group did a
pretty good impersonation of William Jennings Bryan who was a presidential candidate at that time.
When the train made a stop, they wired a message to the next town down the line that William Jennings
Bryan was going to make an unscheduled stop there and give a short speech. When the train pulled into
the next station, the whole town was there. They had closed all the stores and even closed the school.
The impersonator appeared on the platform at the end of the car in morning coat and top hat and
made a well-received campaign speech. Someone got wise. When the train pulled into the next station
there was another crowd waiting. This time, however, the speaker was greeted with eggs and rotten
tomatoes, which rained down on the private car forcing a hasty retreat from the platform. Worse than
this, when they got to Nashville, the F.B.I. was waiting. Uncle said one thing that saved them was the
fact that the train had gone through a thunder storm that had washed off most of the disreputable
looking eggs and tomatoes. They were able to give the F.B.I. agents a drink and convince them that it
had been a foolish prank that had gotten a bit out of hand. Alas, word of the whole thing did get back to
Uncle‟s father, Colonel Shook, who was so embarrassed he became ill and took to his bed for a week.
Whenever Uncle told this story, and I heard it a number of times, he always said with
considerable emotion that he never forgave himself for upsetting his father so much.
Spending the night at Carrie and Uncle‟s was always a bit disorientating. Fitting into the way
they lived was like slipping gently into the past. Uncle ate a huge breakfast, no lunch, and after
listening to the evening news, a light supper. He retired so early that sometimes it would barely be
dark. This schedule allowed him to be up for his early morning horseback ride and magnificent
breakfast before going to the office. Although Uncle‟s company had one of the first air conditioning
dealerships in the state, he didn‟t believe in it. Their house wasn‟t air-conditioned, and Uncle slept on a
sleeping porch, which was a room at the end of the house with solid windows on three walls, two beds
and a polished hardwood floor. When I crawled between the clean sheets on the bed next to Uncle‟s, it
seemed unlikely that I would ever get to sleep. With all the windows of the sleeping porch open to the
Alabama twilight, the noise from the cicadas would be everywhere. Then, as I began to dread lying in
the dark while Uncle slept, suddenly it would be morning, and I would find myself being boosted up on
to a huge horse for the morning ride. I didn‟t ride enough to be good at it, so when I rode with Uncle, it
was mainly an exercise in staying on. I managed with the help of a western saddle that had a saddle
horn for me to hang on to. In those days there were extensive bridle paths on which it was possible to
ride through the woods from Uncle‟s house all the way to Mountain Brook Country Club. If you did
that now, you would mostly be riding through yards and driveways.
Breakfast with Uncle was something of an event. The house was built on two levels. The breakfast
room was reached either by going down two steps and through the dining room or by going through a
dark, sloping passageway from the bedroom hall. Uncle kept his toaster right on the table in this sunny
little room. He always started his breakfast with a bowl of cereal garnished with fresh peaches or
berries over which he poured cream that was so thick it had to be helped from the pitcher with a spoon.
Then Maggie produced a platter of poached eggs and bacon and a steaming dish of grits and Uncle
started turning out hot toast, two slices at a time. Uncle would spear a bit of poached egg with his fork,
then cut a bite of toast and spread on some country butter on it. On top of the egg and toast on the back
of his fork would go grits and bacon and then, with obvious pleasure, Uncle ate the whole elaborate
bite. We were blissfully unaware of cholesterol then, and Uncle, who lived into his nineties, must have
been immune anyway.
Uncle had a black Dodge coupe with a running board. He kept this little car for years, but it
was always waxed and shiny and never showed any signs of wear and tear. After our substantial,
Southern breakfast, Uncle usually drove me home on his way to work. On the long stretch of private
dirt road that led to the highway, he let me ride on the running board. That ride was a big thrill.
Standing on the outside of the car at twenty miles an hour with the fragrant southern air bringing tears
to my eyes was as close to flying as I ever had come. I have other memories of my grandparents‟ home
that are not associated with summer: the shaggy, friendly front lawn that swept down from the house
and in the spring, became a sea of jonquils; seeing Carrie, a patrician-looking, white-haired, dignified
lady hoist the back of her dress to warm the back of her legs by the fire; the great boulder behind the
house that we used to love to climb and play on; the hidden cow path that was a tunnel through the
flowering shrubs; the butter churn on the screened back porch; Carrie‟s attic room, called “the old
room,” where she displayed her antiques, where the smell and atmosphere of the past were tangible;
Uncle sitting on his front porch in the evening shooting pebbles harmlessly at the squirrels with a
slingshot to keep them off the bird feeder, but really, I suspect, for the fun of seeing them scamper.
All these memories evoke a gentle sense of loss for a way of life that was, even then, slipping
away. I feel lucky to have experienced my grandparents‟ way of life. It gives me perspective on
modern living. We know longer refer to a “way of life.” We now say “lifestyle.” Does this change
mean that style has become too important and that substance has gone missing? Since this is a book
about fun, I don‟t think that it would be fair to grope here for answers to such questions. I‟ll return
instead to my boyhood summers, which were completely safe from philosophical concerns.
PHOTO: Carrie and Uncle‟s front steps
Summer meant going swimming at the Mountain Brook Club. The Club itself, like a stately,
white manor house tucked into many acres of grounds and golf course, was sedate, proper and always
vastly boring to me. It had a swimming pool, however, at the end of a flagstone path that led into a
little wooded valley, across a wooden footbridge over a creek and ascended the opposite hill with a
series of stone steps. The pool was on a sunny plateau at the top of this hill.
We usually changed into our bathing suits in the boy‟s locker room which was an awful, smelly,
damp place where the floors were absolutely slimy. Looking back I wonder why respectable club
members would allow their sons in such an unsanitary place. I was not a good swimmer or diver like
John Terry, but I was good underwater, and that‟s where I stayed, kicking off the sides into the cool
green depths, lying under the foot ledge at the deep end or on the bottom, coming up red-eyed from
chlorine to gasp some air only to kick back under in a long glide down to pick up a rock or a coin.
After hours of swimming, Mom would come to get me and whichever buddy I was with. When she got
to the pool, her problem was that I was seldom on the surface long enough for her to get my attention.
Actually I heard her calling and stayed under water even longer to postpone having to go home.
The opening days of summer vacation were an orgy of freedom: sleeping late; playing outside in
the Alabama heat and coming into the house to drink in the cold, air-conditioned air which smelled, felt
and tasted like spring water; swimming through the chill dimness to the kitchen to guzzle three or four
icy Coca-Colas and returning to the welcome, friendly heat outdoors to play until, flushed and
sweating, we once again sought air-conditioned refuge. Summer days were a study in contrasting
temperatures. Coming in felt like heaven until we began to get chilly; then going out felt like heaven,
another lesson in relativity.
Inevitably, however, after two or three weeks of total freedom, there would be periods of boredom,
which probably caused me to be even more of a pest than I normally was. I remember spending fifteen
or twenty minutes at a time tickling my little black and tan terrier with a broom straw, moving from
ears to nose to paws. I always found a ticklish spot as she twitched and shifted her position and tried
vainly to cover them all up. A dog passes time by sleeping. Maybe this is why they don‟t simply get up
and walk away from such torment. They keep hoping to get back to sleep. Anyway, you wouldn‟t think
a dog could scream, but after fifteen minutes of tickling, Betty Beans would suddenly sit up and scream
with frustration. This action says a lot for Betty Beans‟ humanity. She could have just as easily snapped
at her best friend-turned-tormentor. I certainly deserved it.
PHOTO: Me and Betty Beans
I can recall some fabulous summer thunderstorms in my home on Cherokee Road. The best
place to watch one was in the sun room, a cool room with a floor of green and tan marble squares,
white rattan furniture, and floor to ceiling windows. As the storm moved in, the sky became blacker
and blacker until the formal living room next to the sunroom was as dark as night, and in the cool, air-
conditioned dimness, as the first huge drops started to fall, the anticipation made me feel like I
shouldn‟t breathe. The sunroom was surrounded by tall oaks, pines, and hickories, and when the storm
broke, the trees heaved and tossed outside the windows in a wonderful fury of howling wind, great
ripping bolts of lightning, solid lashing sheets of rain, and booming, crashing thunder. . . magnificent
violence! When the worst of the wind and lightning was over, we stripped to our underpants and went
out to lie on the still warm bricks of the driveway in the pelting summer rain.
In addition to storm watching, the sun porch was the site of ping-pong tournaments. Ping-Pong
was, without a doubt, the most competitive experience of my boyhood. It was fast and furious and had
a way of involving the players intensely. A missed shot was cause for great anger displayed by bashing
a dent in the end of the table with your paddle or by slamming the ball wildly at your opponent.
We all got pretty good, but, as usual, John Terry was the best. He showed no mercy. Bouldie was
next best. Hare, Seals, and I were about equal. If you lost your confidence and got really mad from
losing, you would lose for the rest of the day. While I never really minded that I wasn‟t as strong or
coordinated as my friends in touch football and wrestling, I minded losing in ping-pong. It hurt. When I
won, I would gloat as much as the next guy, but somewhere in my experience with ping-pong I began
to acquire a dislike of intense competition that has lasted to the present. At some point I began to
realize that it was a no-win proposition. Since I lost a lot, it was easy to empathize when one of my
friends lost. Once I started to empathize, I not only felt bad when I lost but also when I won. From then
on intense competition was not as much fun. Sometimes there were light-hearted games, especially
with Seals who didn‟t take things too seriously at that time, but usually ping-pong left me a bit down.
Nonetheless, ping-pong was exciting, intense, and impossible to resist.
While I was having all this fun, Caroline was, in the way of girls, doing I know not what. As she
slowly reached adolescence, however, she again became a source of some amusement. She would have
a girlfriend over to spend the night (Del Cabaniss, Frances Sullivan, Anita Baker, Betsey Benners,
Genie Goodall or Missy Walthour), and they became the targets of serious harassment. Hare, Seals or
John Terry and I chased them madly through the house, and they, after much door slamming and
screaming, locked themselves in Caroline‟s room. We laid siege, picking the lock with a screwdriver,
pouring hot water under the door, and once blowing ammonia fumes under the door by reversing the
hose on the vacuum cleaner. It was messy and great fun!
There was no nook or cranny of the house on Cherokee Road into which we did not poke,
explore, or hide. I‟m sure Bouldie, Hare, Seals, and John Terry remember the house as well as I do. We
got into places in the foundation and under the eaves that had not been seen since the house was built.
When we ran out of nooks to explore, we‟d open an attic window and explore the roof. There was a
kind of wall around the perimeter of the roof which was a good thing because the front porch was up
one story up from the driveway, so when we were on the roof, we were actually four stories above the
Once, when I was on the roof, I decided to throw an old light bulb down to the rippled brick
drive because I knew it would make a lovely pop. The bulb sailed four flights down. Since the brass
end was heavier than the fragile glass, the bulb landed on the brass and didn‟t break. Instead, it
bounced and landed on the brass again. It did this four or five time and then rolled over on its side on
the bricks unbroken! I don‟t know what the odds of that happening are, but I suspect you‟d have to
throw thousands of bulbs before it happened again.
The only time I ever shot a dog with a BB gun was from the roof. Mother had a series of
neurotic poodles, the worst of whom was Beau. They all became over-protective of Mother and barked
when anyone entered the room. I found them loathsome and waged war on them, a fact which did little
to cure their neurotic tendencies. Once, when I was on the roof with my BB gun, I saw Beau way
down, near the garage. Since he was too far away for the BB to hurt him, and since he was facing
away, his shaven rear end presented an irresistible target. It was one of my better shots, catching Beau
about two inches above his powder puff tail. The really funny thing was that his hind legs started to run
before his front legs moved with the result that he almost ran out from under himself. Wonderful! Good
thing for the wall around the roof or surely I would have died laughing. Popping Beau in the rear end
was one of the high points in my life!
After three awful poodles, Mother struck a winner. Gamin was the best dog of any breed I have
ever known, and he changed my opinion of the whole breed.
He was a black miniature poodle but almost big enough to be a standard. He was well muscled,
game and fun-loving. He liked everybody and was the most athletic dog I have ever known. Couple all
these qualities with a keen intelligence and joy in learning, and you have a truly unusual creature.
Gamin loved to jump. With one snap of my fingers, he would jump onto a chair in the sun room
and, with a great leap, launch himself from there to the mantelpiece! He‟d jump into my arms on
command, and I taught him in an hour to jump a stick held two or three feet above the ground.
In the yard, I would pull down a branch from an oak tree, and he would grab the leafy tip
growling and jerking in a tug-of-war with the branch. Then I would release the branch, and Gamin, still
clamped on, would swing up with the limb, back legs dangling several feet from the ground, and hang
there growling, whining and jerking his body around in midair. It would stop passing cars, who must
have thought I had hung a dog from the tree. He did this until his gums bled. I finally stopped the
game for fear he would hurt himself.
There was another oak in our yard, and its trunk sloped up from the ground for the first three or
four feet. I had nailed a wire clamp to this tree and with a short ladder was able to clamp his tennis ball
to the tree ten feet off the ground. By giving him a thirty-foot running start, he was able to run up that
tree (the last six feet were vertical) and grab the tennis ball out of its clip. When he got the ball, he
pushed off from the tree and jumped to the ground letting out a great huff when he landed. I didn‟t dare
move the ball any higher for fear he‟d get hurt jumping down.
Gamin was stolen, and, boy, was that a loss for our family. I doubt I will ever see such a wonderful
Toys are not what they used to be. In the days before plastic, toys were often made of metal and
I had a pair of water guns that were memorable. These were red and made of cast metal. The gun
part was really a miniature stirrup pump. Pulling the trigger brought the barrel back and propelled a
powerful jet of water thirty feet or so. The top part of the gun was a torpedo-shaped reservoir that held
about a cup of water yielding fifteen or twenty good squirts. These pistols looked like space weapons.
They were heavy, well-made and satisfying to shoot.
I had another pair of pistols that were also red, made of lighter metal and even more ingenious.
There was a conical air chamber on the front of these guns that contained a rubber diaphragm, and
when the trigger was pulled, the gun shot a puff of air that went about fifteen feet. The mere sight of
any of these weapons was enough to send any of our dogs slinking for the hinterlands.
The ultimate toy was the yo-yo. It was a skill toy with which you could do a number of tricks. Yo-
yos were seasonal. As the sap rose in the trees and the buds formed, some mysterious inner impulse
moved boys to the five-and-ten-cent store to purchase the first yo-yo‟s of spring.
Duncan was the major maker of yo-yos, but there was another maker of equal quality called (I
think) Royal. There were yo-yos that were studded with rhinestones, but the basic yo-yo was painted a
bright color with a contrasting stripe. A step up from these were the varnished, natural wood models
which also had a bright color stripe. To have one of these highly polished beauties was to have power
in your pocket.
There were competitions in the boys‟ room, at recess and after school when we sought to
determine who could “rock the baby” or do “around the world” the most times, but really you were
competing against yourself. Reality notwithstanding, I always knew I was the best yo-yoer around. All
I needed was a bit more practice for my true genius to blossom.
Most of the yo-yo tricks were based on “hesitation” which happened when the yo-yo was
thrown down with a strong back-hand fling to spin in a loop at the end of the twisted string. If the
string was twisted too tight, the yo-yo came back without hesitating, carrying most of the energy with
which it was flung. Since you were tied to the yo-yo, there was nothing for it but to catch it. This felt
similar to catching a baseball bare-handed. Most of us went around with a sore hand and a sore middle
finger where the string cut in. You could wear a Band-Aid to protect your middle finger, but this dulled
your feel of the string, something no true artist would tolerate.
Yo-yos were beautiful to look at, pleasing to hold, portable, and relatively safe. They demanded
patience and coordination. They could be used alone or with friends, indoors or out. They were
confidence builders because a yo-yoer always felt he contained the seeds of greatness. They were in
fact, the ultimate toy. I don‟t recall ever seeing a girl yo-yo. Girls were always a mystery, but now I‟m
really starting to wonder. What in the world did they do?
As I write this, I‟m slowly coming to the conclusion that the girls I grew up with missed out on a
lot of fun. I believe they were overprotected. In the early years of grammar schools, girls were good for
teasing or worshiping, if they were beautiful, but inevitably, after spending years in school with the
same group of girls, some of them became friends. Many of them were such nice people. Martha
Hawkins, Gwen Gravlee and Knoxie Johnson were three such girls. Two girls with whom I felt a warm
friendship were Miriam Jackson who was always kind and interested and Ann House who was always
funny. Possibly if girls hadn‟t been expected to behave in girlish ways, they might have been bumming
around with us and sharing our adventures, and I might have had ten or twelve close buddies instead of
five. Actually, I suppose most girls wouldn‟t like BB guns and firecrackers! Girls are gentler, thank
heavens, and lack the violent streak that boys seem to enjoy. Still, I believe that if girls had not been
overprotected and separated, we would have become even better friends. As it was, girls joined us on
the occasional bike ride or walk to the village for a Coke, but there was not much else in the way of
non-school time with girls.
One little girl who joined our class in the fifth or sixth grade, Ginny Larkin, was a bit of an
exception to all this. She was a free spirit, very cute and funny and hung around with us in a very
natural way. She was just as much fun to have around as a boy. We all had a crush on her, but naturally
John Terry prevailed. Another theme I see running through my boyhood was the theme of John Terry
winning. The fact is, he always did win. It was not only that he was smart, coordinated and charismatic,
but also he was highly competitive and capable of disciplined effort towards a goal.
Back then, there was a method of teaching penmanship called the Palmer Method. It involved
using arm motion to make the letters, and one learned this by making pages and pages of connected
circles with old-fashioned pens that had to be dipped into inkwells. I could never even make the circles,
much less write that way. Lord knows how Martin, who curved his left hand over the page to write,
coped with the Palmer Method. John Terry? Well, John Terry mastered the Palmer Method and won a
national penmanship contest. We all coveted the prize: a beautiful Parker fountain pen. Hare and I
were a bit in awe of John Terry, but it was exciting just being around someone who was so good at
everything. The thing I liked the most about John Terry was his sense of humor. Something would
strike him as funny and he would laugh uncontrollably until the tears flowed. Getting him going was
one of the great pleasures of my boyhood.
PHOTO: (Left to Right) Miriam Jackson, Martin, Ginny Larkin, Lorraine Hicks, Shirley Jaffe, Ann
House (bottom), Zoe Anne Boulware (top).
The years flowed on in comfort, blending into each other with almost imperceptible change.
Miss Raines gave way to Miss Arnold, a stern brunette who, in addition to the fifth grade, had the
thankless job of teaching us the Palmer Method. Miss Arnold yielded to Miss West in the sixth grade.
She was a tall, striking young woman who wore navy blue skirts and starched white blouses and whose
favorite phrase was “settle down children.”She couldn‟t pronounce the letter “t” too well, and it
sounded like “sedda down, children.” Miss West needed to say this because she barely had control. We
used to roll up a pocket handkerchief in a way that made a tight little cylinder like a tiny football (you
could pull out one corner and it looked like a rat). We tossed one of these around the classroom while
Miss West was writing on the blackboard with her back to us. One time somebody threw it too high. I
made a desperate grab, but instead of catching it, I got caught.
“Allen! Leave the room!”
“I‟m sorry, Miss West, I just…”
“Stand in the hall!”
Standing in the hall was awful. One lived in fear of Miss Hanes coming by. There was a big
clock outside the sixth grade door, when Miss did come down the hall, I looked at it and made a
studied show of setting my watch. Ho hum . . . I just stepped out of class for a moment to set my
watch… was the desired effect. This charade became torturously embarrassing about the third time
Miss Hanes walked by.
Hare, who was affected with falling in love easily, developed a massive crush on Miss West. He
must not have been sent out of the room as many times as I was!
There was an event in the spring that almost equaled Christmas in the excitement it produced: the
State Fair. Birthday money (a dollar for every year of age), Christmas money . . . any extra money was
saved up for the State Fair. I could usually manage to accumulate twenty dollars or so which was a lot
of money in the days when coins were still made of silver. I squandered this money at the fair without a
qualm, which says something about my commitment to fun.
To enjoy a fair, you had to be young enough to lack good powers of discrimination. To an adult,
fairs are tawdry, dirty and dangerous. To a boy, fairs are exactly what they pretend to be . . . sheer
magic. It‟s very hard to peer through my adult dislike of fairs at what fun they were when I was ten
years old. Of course the smells, lights, noises, rides and availability of such indigestible foods as corn
dogs, candied apples dipped in crushed peanuts and cotton candy had something to do with it, but I
remember other more important highlights. There were shooting galleries where you could blast away
with a real 22 rifle at moving targets. My BB gunning had prepared me for this, and I could easily
knock over eighty or ninety little ducks and win won prizes. Once John Terry and I both won some
kind of bushy fox tails that had little value to anyone except perhaps the fox, but we valued them
highly. No one else had a fox tail. No doubt this is what made them seem important. Our fox tails set us
apart, gave us a certain distinction.
The favorite event at the fair was the bump cars, twenty or thirty little electric cars wrapped with
rubber bumpers that we drove around in an enclosure, ramming each other with wild abandon.
Bump cars got their power from wands that stuck up from the back and scraped along the metal
ceiling popping and sizzling with blue, electric sparks. They went just fast enough so that a head-on
collision with a friend‟s car gave both drivers a pretty good jerk. Sometimes you would get rammed
front, back and side in quick succession, and the feeling of being jounced around helplessly was
hilarious. The point was to give the other guy as much trouble as possible. Bump cars gave you a
feeling of power in a free-for-all, anything-goes situation. They were outrageous fun.
At one of the fairs, there was a side-show motorcycle act. Stands were set up around a huge steel
cylinder. The spectators stood around the edge looking down at the motorcycle riders riding in dizzying
circles around the inside surfaces of the cylinder. Centrifugal force kept the motorcycles up on the sides
of the cylinder, but the whole effect was death-defying. One of the riders had no legs which made his
performance doubly remarkable. I wonder what odd set of circumstances would cause a man with no
legs to consider a career riding a motorcycle around the inside of a cylinder. I suspect that one of the
circumstances may have been a serious motorcycle accident.
I grew up under the affectionate eye of Dovie Carter who was always ready to give “Bub” a
sample of whatever good things she was cooking. I used to hang around the kitchen watching her cook
and listening to the gospel music she always played on the little kitchen radio. She seldom ran me out.
Thinking back, I seem to remember a gospel program sponsored by the Smith and Gaston Funeral
I learned about cooking from Dovie, and I learned about patience and kindness from her too. Dovie
and I were fond of each other.
We also spent a lot of time with Will Walthall, our chauffeur, because he hauled us around. Will
also had great patience. Dad must have told him not to exceed thirty miles an hour with us in the car
because no matter how I begged or urged him into greater speed, Will sat there like Buddha keeping
the speedometer needle on a boring twenty-nine. Will had a good sense of humor and was the life of
the party when the servants gathered for dinner around the kitchen table. I remember two of our butlers
who were both taciturn young black men: Ed, tall, light-colored and handsome, and later, Robert, short,
dark-skinned with a thin moustache. Being a butler in our house would have been a really easy job had
it not been for me and my friends.
We did our share of building huts in the woods, but my friends and I also built huts in the house,
tipping over and pushing together heavy chairs and sofas to make the framework. The “hut” was then
floored with cushions and gaps in the walls and roof were plugged with other cushions from every
chair and sofa in the house. These furniture houses were elaborate and contained passageways and
chambers. It was fun to spend the night in one of these creations although it always felt strange, and
we never slept well. Did we reassemble the furnishings that had been so thoroughly pulled apart? We
did not. I suppose it is the nature of boys not to pick up after themselves unless they are taught to do
so. We were never taught. Once the fun part of a project was over, we were on to the next adventure.
Putting the furniture back was one of the more onerous jobs we left to the butler . . . first Ed and later
Worse than the furniture huts were the scuffed rugs. The carpets in our house had a nap that had to
be brushed in a certain direction with the carpet sweeper. After three or four boys had played chase and
wrestled around the house for four or five hours, the carpets looked disreputable in the extreme. A
couple of hours of Ed or Robert patiently pushing the carpet sweeper would put them right again. I hate
to think of the number of times Ed or Robert had to brush out those carpets. I prevented Ed and Robert
from leading lives of leisure, so it‟s little wonder that their attitude toward me was somewhat laconic.
What appalls me now is that I could make such messes and then just walk away, leaving them for
someone else to clean up. I don‟t know why this kind of spoiled behavior didn‟t totally ruin my
character. The fates paid me back later when, as a young man, I was forced to spend a couple of years
in the infantry where a very tough but lovable black sergeant nicknamed “Froggy” Rochelle was in
charge of my destiny. Froggy caused me to work very hard and do some extremely menial things.
PHOTO: Will Walthall
Radio was as reliable a source of fun as books and comic books. Sometimes we listened as a
family. After school and before dinner, I holed up in my room with Terry and the Pirates, Jack
Armstrong, Superman or The Lone Ranger. Sometimes Caroline and I listened to the radio in her
room, and sometimes I listened in my bedroom with a buddy. Some shows such as “Jack Benny,”
“Fibber McGee and Molly,” “Henry Aldrich,” and “Our Miss Brooks” were very much geared to
family listening. I would lie around on the other bed in Caroline‟s room listening to Jack Benny and it
was almost as if Don, Mary, Rochester and Dennis were a part of my family. I went so far into their
droll and light-hearted world that I felt completely at home with them. These shows were funny and,
above all, wholesome. They gave us a feeling that all was right with the world.
When one of my friends was over, we preferred the adventure shows: “Gangbusters,” “Sam
Spade” or better yet, “Inner Sanctum.” The scariest show ever produced for radio was a show called
I know that radio helped develop my love of music, especially the great popular songs. Caroline
and I shared this love and grew up learning the wartime songs. When we took a trip by car, we rode
along in the back seat singing “Paper Doll,” “Always,” “Chattanooga Choo Choo,” “Buttermilk Sky”
or “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week.” As Caroline grew up, she exposed me to the
music she was listening to. I recall being in her room and hearing her record of Artie Shaw‟s
“Stardust.” I knew I had heard a perfect thing.
At the age of four, I had wanted to play the violin. Dad actually found a small violin for me and I
had expected beautiful music to come out. One of my earliest memories is of the disappointment I felt
at the awful sounds that violin made. When, at the age of ten, I heard Artie Shaw‟s “Stardust”, I knew I
wanted to be a clarinet player. Clarinet is a hard instrument and after four or five lessons, I knew that I
would never offer any competition to Artie Shaw. It was not until my teens that I discovered the guitar,
an instrument for which I was suited, but in childhood, the only instrument I mastered was the nose
flute (a satisfying little gadget played with the nose and best suited to such musical pursuits as
signaling to a friend in the woods or calling a lost dog.)
Caroline also exposed me to a fascinating piece of music called “Heartaches” by the Ted Weems
Orchestra and a whistler named Elmo Tanner. It may be the only hit record ever made by a whistler. I
spent many hours trying to perfect a warbling whistle like Elmo Tanner‟s and got the technique down
pretty good. It was a matter of letting some air go into one cheek to cause the warble. Years later, I
discovered John Seals was a natural whistler. He could turn out amazingly high and musical notes of
great beauty and purity. I pointed out to him that he had a gift whereupon he clammed up, and I never
heard him whistle again.
There were three reasons to go downtown when I was a boy: one horrible, one boring and one
fun. Going to the dentist was horrible. Shopping for clothes was boring. Going to the movies was fun.
Dr. Wood was a skeletal, white-haired old man with a quiet voice and gentle hands, that he was
constantly scrubbing. I never feared Dr. Wood, but the experience of going to an old-fashioned dentist
merited considerable fear. His office was on the seventeenth floor of the Comer Building. Some of the
anxiety over going to Dr. Wood must have spilled over and made the elevators scary places. They were
glassed in, and you could see right down the shaft.
Sitting on the old oak and maroon leather furniture in the waiting room, breathing in the
medicinal smell, with nothing but National Geographics to look at, my dread built. It was usually
justified. I had always had cavities, and some were large. Most were filled without Novocain, and the
drill, which was run by little pulleys and cables, turned at low speed which prolonged the drilling and
maximized the pain.
The little glass bowl into which you spat was lined with ruby-red glass, presumably to disguise
the look of blood. When the cavity was finally drilled, they felt it was necessary to sterilize it with
alcohol. Mary Elizabeth, Dr. Wood‟s assistant, would dip a little ball of cotton in alcohol, swab it
around the cavity and then blow in a jet of cold air to dry it out! The human mind has a wonderful
ability to forget pain, but I can sure remember those moments when the air hit the alcohol.
After particularly bad sessions, we were rewarded with a little bead of mercury in a gelatin
capsule. I loved its weight and its ability to shatter into tiny speedy little balls that popped back
together when they touched each other. It would shine up a dime with a slick, oily, mirror surface. The
common and wonderfully apt name for this magical stuff was quicksilver. It was also a poison. I
wonder how much of it we absorbed.
Taking me shopping for clothes must have been a trial for Mother. Bored rigid, I complained and
wandered off. We always went to the boy‟s department at Blach‟s where there was one saving grace: a
Boy Scout counter where they sold bullwhips. Ah, the fascination of those whips! I wanted one so
badly I could taste it. Finally, one Christmas, one showed up under the tree. I became very adept with it
and learned to crack it like a mule skinner.
Going to the movies was considered a treat. We had a choice of theaters: the Alabama, the Ritz,
the Empire, the Lyric or the Melba. On the weekend, there was the Homewood, which was the
unsavory scene of Saturday afternoon matinees that usually include a serialized cliffhanger and western
I was never too wild about the Homewood. The place was a bit too seedy, and the Westerns were
unimaginative. The audience, mostly kids, was noisy and rowdy. The balcony, where the older kids
went to “neck” seemed a dim and dingy place for romance. As for the cliffhangers, you would have to
go every Saturday to follow what was happening, and we were never that regular. The Alabama
Theater was at the other end of the spectrum.
Large, ornate, with carpets, chandeliers, and a uniformed ticket taker, the Alabama also boasted
a huge, theater pipe organ that rose up mechanically to stage level. It was played between features by
Stanley Malotte. I now know that it took considerable virtuosity to master one of those huge theater
organs, but to me and my friends, Stanley Malotte‟s performance and the sing-along, with the words
projected on the screen was a boring delay before the cartoon.
Movies were intense experiences, and I couldn‟t tolerate too much emotion in them. Frankenstein
was too scary, and Dumbo and How Green was My Valley were too sad. My tastes ran to comedy.
Abbot and Costello and the Hope-Crosby Road pictures were my favorites. I also liked fantasies such
as Sinbad the Sailor, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur‟s Court and The Court Jester. The only
problem with one of these fun, colorful films was that on leaving the theater downtown Birmingham
seemed terribly grimy and drab. This feeling was part of an after-movie hangover I always got. A blah,
let-down which was the adjustment from color, joy and fantasy back to the real world.
Sometime in the seventh grade, I made another life-long buddy, White Gibson—also known as
Gibby, Hoot or Toad.
Gibby was a stocky, good-looking boy with a dry sense of humor. He knew quite young that he
wanted to be a doctor, and this sense of direction, plus some innate leadership qualities, made him
appear more mature than the rest of us. This impression was borne out once when I was spending the
night over at his house. I was just drifting off to sleep when Toad snapped on the bedside lamp to
reveal himself with his father‟s forty-five pistol. He had heard a noise and was ready to deal with it. I,
who had access to an arsenal of various BB and water guns, was greatly impressed by White having a
I assumed at the time that he was well beyond me in maturity. I think he did accidentally shoot a
hole through the ceiling and roof of his house, however, and since this is exactly what I would have
done had I had access to a forty-five pistol, I am forced to conclude that he was only slightly more
mature than I was.
White had lived in a different neighborhood than the rest of my friends and played with a different
group of kids. This is probably why I didn‟t really get to know him until around the seventh grade.
Once he and I became friends, he very quickly became a leader in our group. While he was fun-loving,
there was something steady about White, and we looked to him for leadership right through high school
and college. White‟s warmhearted and fun parents provided us with a safe haven in their basement den
where, as adolescents, we played poker and smoked without fear of adult intrusion. Just after the eighth
grade, White brought a boy who had just moved to town into our group. Walter Starke (Wally) also had
a great sense of humor and a lot of warmth, and, though he showed up on the scene at the end of my
boyhood, he became such a good friend that it is hard to believe he wasn‟t always there.
I have always had considerable curiosity about the dynamics of other people‟s families. Driving
through a small town in the evening hours, I find myself looking at the lighted windows of a house and
wondering what life was like within. What are other families like? Who are the people that live in this
house? How do they laugh and love and live with each other? What are families? Are they real? As I
caught a glimpse into a strange house, all these questions flitted across my mind and formed a mystery.
I believe this curiosity is why I read novels. A novel gives me a look into other people‟s lives
and helps to solve the mystery of what other people and other families are like.
As a child, you can be a “fly on the wall” in a friend‟s house. People don‟t think of children as
guests and don‟t bother to put on their best behavior around them. Children are more like pets (lacking
in critical abilities), so when a child visits, adults carry on with their normal family life.
I look back with interest on my visits to my friends‟ houses. Spending the night at Brother Hare‟s
was particularly interesting. For one thing, the Hares had peculiar sleep habits. Everybody wandered
during the night. The Hares had an attic fan that pulled quite a breeze in through the windows. Perhaps
the rumble of the fan and the breeze coming in made them restless. In any case, I would go to bed in
Brother‟s room in the bed next to his, but sometime during the night, he would require a change of
scene and wander into his parents‟ room. Since Sis was already there, Brother‟s arrival made sleeping
too crowded, so Mr. Hare would wander into Brother‟s room and get into the bed next to me. Later,
Brother might adjourn to Sis‟ room to complete the night. I never knew who I was going to wake up
One Thurberesque, nocturnal story about the Hares happened when Brother was eleven or twelve.
He woke in the middle of the night and heard a sound downstairs. Brother had a shotgun, and he got it
and crept in the dark to the top of the stairs. Putting on his most masculine baritone voice, he said, “I
hear you down there. I‟ve got a gun! If you don‟t get out of here, I‟m going to shoot you!”
He heard some thumping around, footsteps, a door open and close, and then silence. Sure he had
driven off the intruder, Brother went back to bed.
The next morning at breakfast the doorbell rang. It was Mrs. Hare‟s close friend, Mrs. Robinson, in
her nightgown looking rumpled. Unknown to Brother, she and Mrs. Hare had been to a party the night
before. Mrs. Robinson had had too much to drink and decided to spend the night at the Hare‟s house. It
was Mrs. Robinson who Brother heard fumbling around downstairs in the darkness. Hearing Brother
threaten to shoot and unable to collect her wits enough to identify herself, she became alarmed,
retreated from the house as instructed, and spent the night in the car!
A year or so after the war, Dad acquired his second yacht and in so doing afflicted me with a life-
long love of boating. Dad‟s boat was called the Car-Al II after Caroline and me. She was a sixty-five
foot Grebe power boat, all wood with two 200 horsepower General Motors diesels. She slept six and
carried a crew of three—a captain, a steward and a deckhand. She had a roomy deckhouse, used
mostly for eating breakfast and dinner, a pilot house, a spacious aft deck with rattan furniture where we
usually had lunch, a cockpit, a master stateroom and two smaller guest staterooms, each with over and
under berths. The guest staterooms could become one larger stateroom by folding back a connecting
door. The Car-Al II had beautiful lines, and her paint and varnish were always kept bright and shining.
PHOTO: Car-Al II.
A trip on the Car-Al II combined everything I loved most into one wonderful experience.
To begin with, a boat trip always started with a train ride to someplace in Florida where the boat
was, usually Miami. The train ride was made doubly exciting by my anticipation of the boat trip.
Stepping aboard the Car-Al II was really something. I have always been easily swayed by smells,
but the smell aboard a boat, a mixture of salt air, wood, bath soap, insect spray and diesel fuel, is heady
wine. When the engines were started, the lines were cast off and the boat began to slide away from the
dock, there would be a whiff of diesel exhaust, a smell that, even today, sends a thrill through me.
In those days the inland waterways of Florida were mostly wilderness. I and whichever buddy was
along would lie up on the bow, peer over at the porpoises playing the bow wave and watch the ever-
changing banks of the waterway. Swamp grass surrounded wild little hammocks where palms grew.
Herons waded amid the mangroves and clear brown creeks disappeared mysteriously into the thick
tropical growth. We might as well have been on the Amazon.
Seeing another boat was an event. We would run and get Lloyd‟s Registry, a blue volume that had
the names of all the yachts, who owned them, where they were from and even pictures of the owners‟
There were no modern, concrete marinas in those days. As often as not, we tied up at some rickety
wooden dock that had small grunts and snapper teaming around the pilings. It took me about three
minutes to find a rod and bait and be after them. Sometimes we headed into the Keys. Mother and Dad
were members of a little club on North Key Largo called the Key Largo Anglers Club. It was the only
thing on North Key Largo. The Anglers Club had wooden docks behind a breakwater, a rustic central
clubhouse with a large screened porch, a small dining room and few cottages. There were royal palms,
sea grapes and masses of hibiscus and bougainvillea. The atmosphere of the place was informal and
tropical. It was a little paradise tucked away in the middle of nowhere.
Sunburn was a threat. I spent hours fishing off the docks and, no matter how often I was warned,
I always managed to get some part of me sunburned.
I had Zoe Ann Boulware on my mind from time to time and, on one of these trips, I had someone
put her initials on my back with scotch tape. Everything else got tanned, and for months I had ZAB in
white across my back. This was all part of a pre-adolescent search for ways to be distinctive. I
remember tremendous satisfaction in looking in the mirror in the little head on the boat at my garish,
peroxide-blond crew-cut. With my suntan, my blond crew-cut and ZAB on my back, I felt extremely
important. One evening, after having dinner in the clubhouse, I wandered out on the front screen porch
to waste a few quarters in the slot machine (illegal and hence a rarity) and on the third try, hit the
jackpot . . . eighteen dollars worth of silver quarters, a goodly sum in the forties and a satisfying weight
in the toe of a sock. The manager of the Anglers Club needed the change and wanted to give me
eighteen dollars in paper money for my quarters. No sir! I was young, but I knew the difference
between several slips of paper and seventy-two silver quarters which would clink, fill the toe of a sock
and drag down one side of my pants.
From the Anglers Club, we often cruised further down to Marathon and tied up at Thompson‟s
Marina where there was a natural swimming pool enclosed in a circle of coral rocks. We could swim
around there with large, beautiful parrot fish.
PHOTO: (Left to Right) Brother, Seals and me on the bow of Car-Al II
Nights in the Keys were magical. Out of range of city lights, the skies were the blackest velvet.
We lay on our backs on the boat with the fragrant tropical breezes causing our boat to tug gently at her
lines and nudge her fenders and, watching the billions of stars in the velvet sky, watch one meteor after
another streak across the heavens. Often this display in the sky was mirrored in the water. Clearest
turquoise by day, the waters were jet black at night and filled with phosphorescence microorganisms
which would glow when the water was agitated. The abundant fish left trails of green fire as they swam
through the water so that it was easy to think of them as cool meteors, and think of the shooting stars as
heaven fish. Finally we would go below and climb into our bunks. There was no air-conditioning on
boats in those days, and we would always feel a bit stifled in our bunks, with sunburn feeling scratchy
on the sheets, but fatigue, salt air and the motion of the boat soon did their work, and we slept like the
One of these trips was aborted by appendicitis.
I remember I had a bad cough and on the train to Florida, every time I coughed I got a pain in the
stomach. John Terry was along and Mother and Dad had our cousins Floyd and Mary Alice (“Al”)
McGowin along as guests. Floyd was very nice, but Al was really special. She had wild, red hair and
twinkly eyes and was very funny with a warm boisterous laugh.
I have a memory of a night when there was phosphorescence in the water. John Terry and I were
in the cockpit leaning over the side dragging a mop through the water leaving trails of green fire. Every
time I pulled the mop my side hurt. Later that night I was sick and having a lot of abdominal pain. The
next day, as we cruised north, Mother and Dad got on the ship-to-shore phone to Dr. Alf Walker. This
time, Dr. Walker, being a good doctor, didn‟t tease Mother out of her concerns. He told her I probably
had appendicitis and to get me to a hospital as soon as possible. The nearest hospital proved to be at
Cocoa Beach where the telephone diagnosis was confirmed. There was a surgeon there who was
scheduled to leave later that afternoon for New York City. I—having already had a gracious plenty of
ether—was horrified at having my cruise diverted unceremoniously from the inland waterway to the
operating table. Ether was still the anesthetic of choice, but before getting the ether I was put under
with sodium pentothal, thank heavens, and experienced only the aftereffects which, in this case, were
I was whisked to the operating room, and after awhile, the surgeon came out with his mask still on
and told Mother and Dad I was fine. Shortly after that he left for the train to New York. They never
saw his face. (“Who was that masked man, anyway? Why, didn‟t you know? That was the Lone
Al and Floyd rode north on the train with this doctor, and later, Floyd said he never saw a man get
as drunk as this doctor got in the club car.
The ether aggravated my bronchitis, and I developed something called ether pneumonia, which
involved coughing, which in turn caused a lot of pain in the incision. Mother and Dad sat with me, but
the best nurse of all was Dad‟s captain, Captain Winther. He was a soft-spoken Norwegian, and he sat
by my bed by the hour holding my hand when I had to cough.
It was the early days of antibiotics, and I got over the ether pneumonia with daily injections of
penicillin in a suspension of beeswax. The needle was the diameter of a wooden match stick. It wasn‟t
much fun getting those penicillin shots, but they finally did the trick. Doctors and hospitals hurt, but
without them, there is every possibility I would not have been able to finish my fun boyhood. Medical
science and skills always seemed to be just one step ahead of whatever went wrong with me, a fact for
which I am duly grateful.
I suppose I could write on and on about my boyhood. I know there are lots of people who are
important in my memories that I haven‟t even mentioned. Already I can think of other highlights I wish
I had included, but enough is enough. I may have caught the flavor of my boyhood. Certainly writing
this has put me back in touch with the little boy who had such a knack for having fun. As men, we “put
aside childish things” when responsibilities crowd in and pile up. Recently, however, I have begun to
see this as a mistake. Last year I bought a yo-yo. One day it came off the string in the supermarket. It‟s
hard, at fifty-two, to maintain dignity chasing a yo-yo down the aisle. If, in fact, I‟m easing myself into
a second childhood, I hope its half as much fun as the first one. I now have my own boat, which Martin
calls the ultimate toy, so I think I may well be headed for another fun time.
I was born into exactly the right time to have a fun boyhood. There was innocence in the forties.
Walt Disney, Jack Benny, Irving Berlin, Fred Astaire, Norman Rockwell, Danny Kaye and all the other
wonderful creative people of the times gave us a vision of the way life ought to be. As a protected,
well-indulged child, I was able to live a boyhood that was in reality very close to the vision. Coming at
it the other way round, one reason that I had so much fun was that the vision surrounded me with
lightheartedness. I was no stranger to pain, having been carved on with some regularity, but pain is
easily forgotten when you have a capacity for fun and joy and a vision of how life ought to be.
For many, the forties was a time of great suffering and loss from the war, but we had a vision.
Now we have no war. Materially things have never been better, but we have no vision. In fact, as the
media become increasingly sophisticated technically, they try to sell us an increasingly negative vision
It is often said that the idealism of the forties was naïve. That‟s wrong. Idealism is healthy. A
joyful vision of life doesn‟t deny the existence of the negative; it gives us fun and up-lifting guidance
towards the positive. If we are to expect our youngsters not to look for joy in chemicals, we will have
to give them a vision of joy in life. Having successfully resisted my philosophical tendencies, I have
caved in at the end, but I don‟t intend to wallow. I‟ll just say that I don‟t buy this negative vision. I
intend to see if I can do it some damage. I have hauled out and loaded my old BB gun. A reader could
consider this little book to be the first BB I have shot. BBs aren‟t very effective but a negative vision of
life is, after all, nothing more than an empty tin can!
The real richness of my boyhood came from the people I grew up with.
Mother and Dad were able to expose me to such wonderful things as train travel and Broadway
shows while still giving me the freedom to have an adventurous boyhood. My family, including my
grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and the black people who helped bring me up gave me love and a
sense of security and belonging. My friends gave a sense of fun and adventure and the warmth of
Looking back on the people who meant so much to me, I am struck by how much kindness and
humor they all had. I‟m lucky enough still to have family members to whom I am close, and though we
are scattered geographically, I still have my childhood friends. We remain close as a group. The
telephone numbers have changed; we have changed, but not in essence. My friends are still there . . .
ready for a good talk, a laugh, an adventure… ready for fun.
Vero Beach, Florida
June 17, 1988
This little book had never had a professional edit. It was a mess! My thanks go to my expert
editors, Adele Brinkley (who shares many of my memories, by the way) and to my wife, Jill, for
helping me to spot and clear up many mistakes! (Jill, though not a professional editor, has a real feel
for good writing and an eye like a shark!)
Rereading the closing paragraphs of the book, I found the seventy-three-year-old me in complete
accord with the fifty-two-year-old me on the subject of the negativism in the modern world. I continue
to want to do my small part to turn this trend around. It is essential that we start to pay more attention
to the source of the joyful, beautiful and fun things in life. All of the books on my Web site are
pointing in this direction. By living in the present moment, it is possible to live a joyful, fun life. As a
boy, I did it. In fact, I now use myself as a boy as my role model. I‟m seventy-three going on nine!
Mercer Island, Washington
February 20, 2009