Chapter 3 – Florida

Shortly after Buddy’s birth, we moved back to Chattahoochee for a short time so Mama could help care for Pop after he’d suffered a stroke. Pop hadn’t been the easiest man to live with, much less try to take care of and it seemed as though his stroke made life more difficult not only for him, but for those who really loved him. Both he and Mama were stubborn, strong willed individuals, but Mama was the only member of his family who could and would stand up to him.

Their battle of wills could start over the smallest perceived infraction.  One day Pop demanded a bowl of soup, so Mama went into the kitchen to warm it for him. Almost as soon as she got the soup out of the cabinet, he yelled at her for being so slow and lazy, telling her that she was taking far too long– she should know how hungry he was and that he didn’t want to wait for Hell to freeze over waiting for something as simple as a bowl of soup. Mama was standing at the kitchen counter, a can opener in one hand, a can of soup in the other and fire flashing from her hazel eyes. I have to admit that I thought she was being very fair and calm about it.  She gave him a simple choice — the can of soup or the can opener between his eyes. To Mama, it didn’t make any difference, one way or another he was going to shut up. Chalk one up for Mama’s side.

At the time, Little Mama worked as an LPN at the Florida State Hospital. When she wasn’t working she cared for Pop and Mama and Daddy would pile all of us kids into the car and head for anywhere. I can remember Daddy taking us all to Torreya State Park on one occasion. Now that’s a place of beauty.  Overlooking the Apalachicola River, the park is the home of the Torreya tree, a rare tree that only grows along the bluffs of the Apalachicola River.

Daddy pulled into the parking lot and as we got out of the car the others took off as if they didn’t have a care in the world.  As I exited the car, however, I came face to face with the biggest, ugliest, meanest looking animal I have ever seen in my entire life. Standing in front of me, head lowered, glaring directly at me and snorting, was an enormous wild boar. That monster must have been at least twice as tall as I was, ten times my weight, and his sparse coarse hair (if you can call it hair) stuck out all over his thick, flesh colored skin at odd angles. This was also the first time I had ever seen tusks on any creature and his were very long, very pointed, and aimed right at me. Needles to say, I froze in my tracks.

“Come on Susan, let’s go,” said Daddy, gently pulling on my hand.

“No, Daddy,” I answered, not letting my eyes leave those of that boar for one second as I drew closer to Daddy’s side.

Seeing the source of my distress he said, “Aw, come on, Suzie Q, it won’t hurt ya.”

Gripping his hand even tighter, I dug my fingernails into his palm, stood my ground and shook my head.

My whole body was quivering as he lifted me by the hand he’d been holding and sat me safely on his shoulder. Still staring at that boar, I did feel a bit safer, because I knew that as long as I was on Daddy’s shoulders, nothing could hurt me.

I’ve since found out that during that time in that part of the south, the system to manage livestock was open range, meaning that the farmers didn’t have to pen their stock in. This was simply one boar that had wondered away from where he belonged and happened to end up face to face with me.  It really doesn’t matter though, I still don’t like boars.

Facing the tree-lined bluffs of the Apalachicola River at the Torreya State Park is the Gregory House, an old southern mansion that had been moved from the opposite shore of the river. My older sisters had said that one day they were going to be Southern Belles and live in that house. Fat chance, Bobbie was about as graceful as a baby elephant, Sissie was far too timid to be any kind of belle, Norma Jean’s round face would not have looked natural in one of those long flowing antebellum gowns and Harriette and I were just too rough and tumble to ever be seen drinking mint julep, fanning ourselves, and batting our lashes at anyone while looking out from below the lace brim of a fancy bonnet.  All in all, we girls were about as far from Southern Belle material as any person could get, but that was okay, we could still wander through the Gregory House and dream.

The moss hanging from the trees surrounding the Gregory House give it an otherworldly appearance.  While I’ve always found Spanish moss to be intriguing, Little Mama said it was brought over by Spaniards and that southerners “just never could get rid of that bug filled mess” (actually, I remember her referring to it as “that damned bug infested mess”). I don’t know how true her history of Spanish moss is, but to this day it continues to amaze me that something that looks so dead could be so alive and resist all efforts to kill it.

It was during the time that Mama was caring for Pop that the Army Corps of Engineers began the construction of a dam in Chattahoochee. One reason the Jim Woodruff Dam was constructed was to prevent the flooding caused by the merging of the Flint and Chattahoochee rivers. Daddy drove a truck that hauled rock to the construction site. It took tons and tons of rock to mix the concrete for that dam.  The result of that dam was that the woods and farm land north of the Apalachicola River were no longer flooded because a lake was formed. That lake would be named Lake Seminole. 

While Daddy worked, Mama continued to care for us.  She regularly did our wash in an old wringer washer, and washing clothes for eight people was a full-time job, especially when one is still a baby. We tried to help her as best as we could, but only managed to cause more trouble than we were worth. I remember trying to guide a bed-sheet through the wringer, certain that I could do it right (after all, I’d seen Mama do it a million times). My fingers got tangled in the sheet which then got caught in the wringer and my right arm was pulled through to above the elbow. The rollers continued turning, trying to wring the life out of my arm and the sheet.  The wringer washers at that time didn’t have the quick release on them like the later models did that were used to disengage the rollers in the event of something (like a kid’s arm or woman’s neck scarf) getting jammed. I screamed at the top of my lungs while Mama tried frantically to pull the sheet out in a frantic tug of war with an unyielding machine. After what seems like hours, but was probably just a couple of minutes, she pulled the plug on that possessed hunk of metal and Daddy took a sledgehammer to the rollers to break them apart (while my arm was still caught in the middle). Since then my right arm has remained somewhat crooked and has always ached before a rain, but it wasn’t until almost thirty years later that an x-ray following another injury to the same arm revealed an old break at the elbow.

The winter we were in Chattahoochee I developed an ear infection that no one but Pop noticed. I had been leaning my head to one side and tugging at my ear. He sat me next to the wood stove in the front room in an attempt to ease my pain. I covered my ears and held my head as if it were going to explode. The warmth of the stove felt very good for a little while, but it also forced the infection to the surface. As I sat next to the wood stove and screamed, my left eardrum ruptured, allowing the infection to drain. Relieved of the pain, I slept like a baby that night. The resulting scar tissue and hole were just two more things that wouldn’t be discovered until many years later.

None of us realized it at that time, but that visit would be the last time any of us would ever see Pop alive. He died in 1955 while we were living on Chicago’s North side.  But then again, that’s another chapter.

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