200 Alabama Bicentennial

Celebrating Alabama’s 200th birthday2017 2018 2019

Posted December 5, 2019

Webster

In Praise of Quieter Men

 

Webster

As I remember him.

And isn’t that the way it truly was?

If I remember him this way,

Then that’s the way it was

To me. 

 

Summer of ’62. I was almost 7.

 

Before there was air-conditioning….

 

There were always a few poles sticking out of the back of Webster’s old red Chevy. Actually, the truck probably belonged to my grandfather, but Webster was always the one driving it, and everyone in my family referred to it as Webster’s Red Truck. As far as I can tell, Webster had always worked for my grandfather and maybe my great-grandfather before him. Webster would be the one to turn the T-bone steaks on the grill if my grandfather got distracted, he’d carry the freshly cut tuberoses to the truck to sell downtown on Saturday mornings, he’d take the trash out back wherever trash was dumped in a small town back in 1962, and he would don a white serving jacket on evenings when my grandparents had company for dinner or Christmas, but my favorite job that Webster had was taking me, Litl’ ‘Cilla, fishing. 

I don’t remember Webster calling me Miss ‘Cilla, but he probably did a few times. What I remember about Webster’s words were there weren’t many of them. Webster and I just didn’t talk much, we didn’t need to. A man of few words is one of the things I liked most about Webster, but then I can’t remember anything I didn’t like about Webster. He remains in my heart, and in my first gold locket, as one of my most favorite people ever.

The farm was along the Old Opelika Road just before you got into town. Today the trip can take about 10 minutes if the traffic is not too bad, but my memory is that Webster never drove much faster than Christmas coming so it felt like the trip took us at least an hour to get to the farm - windows down, there was no air-conditioning in the truck, most cars weren’t even made with air-conditioning in those days. I just watched the houses and their front yards go by; I didn’t care if the trip took a whole hour. 

Granddaddy died when I was eight and my grandmother left that pretty, white house with the beautiful flowered gardens a year later. Yet in those short quick 8 years of my life visiting my grandparents I can tell you most details about every single room, window, door frame, staircase, basement, garage, back and front porches and especially the yards. There were five yards – the front yard, the side grassy yard mowed with soft grass and lined with puffy monkey grass surrounded by trees, the side garden where the tuberoses grew in rows, the back yard which seemed so deep and wide where we played most of the time, and the back 40 which wasn’t 40 acres at all, not even one, but it held a compost pile, the burn pile, a trash pile, extra sand and dirt for the gardens, plum trees, maybe some apple trees too, and random pines to produce pine straw for my grandmother’s flower beds.

Perhaps love enhances memory, clarified by mental re-visitation and childhood dreams, but the details of my grandparents’ home in my memory are almost endless. I remember the rosette soaps in the pink - almost mauve - bathroom upstairs, my grandmother’s sewing room with the windows wide open to the front, the wind in the windows flowing from the blooming tuberoses from the side garden, the path where my cousin Louis stepped into a hornets’ nest and almost died from an allergic reaction, my grandfather sipping (more like slurping) his hot coffee on the back porch, Christmas mornings and so much more…

In those days I was an early riser especially if I knew I was going fishing with Webster. I knew Webster was already at the house that morning because I’d seen his red truck in the driveway as I ran down the stairs. On the back porch I learned he was already in the deep back yard, the yard behind the swing set and the hornets’ nest, digging for worms in the compost pile. I ran as fast as strong skinny legs could carry a six-year-old girl, almost seven, to go help Webster dig up worms. I did not want to miss that part. Webster would hand me a small trowel so that I too could pick up worms and place them in our bucket. This was not my first time to get worms for fishing. By the time I was four he had shown me how to handle a worm gently and quickly so that it wouldn’t be hurt or had time to squiggle away.  

We’d shovel the worms into a metal pail and carry the pail, both dirt and worms, to the back of the truck. Before driving away Webster would nod to my grandfather, “Mornin’ Mr. John,” and then he’d go on into the kitchen and have a bite of breakfast with me. We didn’t linger long.

Looking back on those days it seemed like divide and conquer was a way of life with grandchildren. My older brother spent the day with my grandfather downtown at the old Dairyland Creamery where my grandfather made and sold gallons of ice cream. Not a bad place to spend a day with your grandfather, but I was sure glad I won being with Webster.

My little brother stayed home with my grandmother and the cook, Mary. I’m sure he had a very nice day, probably made banana pudding or cookies with Mary, but more than likely he had to be all cleaned and ironed and pressed to spend the day in town. So again, as the middle child I won the lottery getting to spend the day on the farm with Webster. Also, this wasn’t my only fishing trip; I had spent the day with Webster many times – on the farm, running errands, fishing, cutting flowers.

Before we got home some evenings, we’d pull up to the fillin’ station and Webster would hand me a nickel so I could go in and buy myself some candy. As I stared up in his heavy, kind, dark brown eyes which were rich and rheumy as warmed molasses, he’d say to me:

“You know Litl ‘Cilla I can’t go in there. You gotta go in there by yourself. Go on now and be a big girl.”

While he pumped the gas, I roamed around the little store with only two rows displaying items to purchase – Wonder Bread, Coca-Cola, RC, Orange Crush, grape cola, beer, peanut butter, chewing tobacco, cigarettes, and then candy. I didn’t need to look the candy over. I knew what I wanted. Bubblegum cigars! Yellow or pink or green! You could buy all three for a nickel! Or at least that’s how I remember it. Perhaps the balance was added to my grandfather’s account.

As I climbed in the truck, I showed Webster my bounty.

“You remembered to say thank you, didn’t ya?

Did you look him in the eyes?”

Proud of myself, I replied,

“Yes sir, I remembered”.

Webster had long, large calloused hands that were perfect for holding and hooking worms, but he didn’t hook the worms for me, he taught me how to do it. I can still see that first wiggly worm in his hand. He showed me how to hook it three times so that it would still wiggle and be the best fish bait. There were several ponds on the farm. Now I know they were baited but I didn’t know that then. We’d catch bass and brim and one pond was loaded with fat catfish.

Two things happened on those last few fishing trips. One was catching upwards of 35 catfish from the loaded pond. I’m sure Webster did most of the work, but I remember trying to clean them with his short, sharp paring knife. Mary cooked them up for supper that night and I was mighty pleased to bring home supper for my brothers and me. 

The second strong memory with Webster was the time we stopped by a sugar cane mill on the way home. Actually, it was practically across the street from the farm. We drove the red truck down a short dirt road. A small wooden shed was on the left and out back was a mule walking slowly in circles around a raised vat. A long pole was attached to the mule to turn something inside the vat designed to crush and squeeze sugar cane to extract the juice out of the thick cane.

Sitting on the porch were two men who it quickly became obvious were Webster’s friends. They were just visiting each other, maybe one oversaw the mule, or they took turns making sure the cane was feeding into the crusher. They were kind, merry men, having a nice peaceful afternoon, chewing chaw, taking sips from bottles wrapped in brown paper sacks, talking, laughing gently as friends do. They all said hello to Webster and tipped their hats and said hello to me, Litl’ Miss. They probably knew I was my grandfather’s grandchild. In Opelika, as in most small towns in the ‘60s, most everyone knew one another, maybe not by name but by face or association.

Webster got me a drink of water from an old tin water cooler and propped me up on the top of the concrete vat where the sugar cane was being smashed into syrup.

“Now, don’t fall in.”

“I won’t,” fully confident that I was safe.

“Joe there will pull you out if you fall in.”

Joe was the man standing in the vat making sure the cane was going through the crusher and being sure the juice was dripping into a large bucket.

I was a world class daydreamer in those days so there’s no way to know how long I sat happily on the edge of that vat of sugar cane, but I know that I was mesmerized and happy and content to stay all afternoon. It was almost dusk as we arrived back at my grandparents’ house and right before I hopped out of the truck, Webster had something he wanted to say.

“It’d probably be best if you didn’t mention stopping by the mill.”

That’s all he had to say.

“Yes sir,” I replied.  

If not mentioning the sugar cane mill was important enough for Webster to ask, then it was certainly important enough to me to keep my mouth closed. I never thought about this request again until I was grown, and now I realize he asked me probably because of the sips from the bottle in a brown paper sack, but I was too young to know that then. I trusted Webster in every way I knew how - with our secret and with my life - and I know now so did my grandfather.   

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