You can hear the whistle blowin’


It was past midnight. Usually, I would be the only one awake – either secretly reading under the covers with a flashlight or writing in my diary. But we were staying overnight with my grandparents, Mammaw & Bampaw.

All the grownups (at 16, I considered myself one) were awake. Mammaw was in the kitchen finishing up her stellar fried chicken. She dabbed constantly at her eyes, while sniffing. The whole house smelled wonderfully of  fried chicken. She would then pack the chicken into shoeboxes lined with wax paper, filled with cornbread, potato salad and small plastic forks wrapped in paper napkins. This dreamy combo had always accompanied us on our trips.

Smoke rising around his head like in ‘40s movies, Bampaw was laying out endless games of solitaire on the breakfast room table, a cigarette dangling from his lower lip. He called out annoying questions to Mom, packing and repacking our luggage. Mom’s hair was up in rollers, her glasses were perched on her nose. She was muttering to herself, imitating the voices under her breath of Bampaw and of our garage mechanic who had suggested strongly we sell the second hand Cadillacs that now were parked outside.

It was November 1961. Next day – actually later today because it was after midnight – we were leaving for France. We were joining Dad, already there with the Alabama National Guard.

Mom had tried to accomplish more things on The Last Day than she could. She wanted to get the oil changed in both cars, the ’49 black Cadillac and the ‘52 white Cadillac, before we left. Her charming Southern Belle routine hid a practical mind like a steel trap that stalled when confronted with ‘60s male prejudice. Which, tonight, was the voice of the mechanic and her father.

In our household, Mom took care of the major house repairs, car maintenance, some yard maintenance, and finances – trained by Bampaw as a bookkeeper. She also typed Dad’s speeches and reports to medical journals. She had typed up a list of every thing that needed to be done before we left. It was 4 pages long, single spaced. At 6pm tonight, Bampaw was tired of hearing her say how “we hadn’t done X and hadn’t done Y”, so he ripped up the list.

Beside Mom, I was charged with packing the brothers’ toys and one fourth of my art supplies that I was allowed to transport to France. Mammaw had found me some rubber bands to put around my box of colored pencils. The damned Tinkertoys came in a large cardboard cylinder that was impossibly awkward to fit. I tried sitting on the trunk – success!

It was cold. There were slight breezes drifting through the old house. I felt that this was home. Mom and I had lived with my grandparents until I was 6 and Mom married my pediatrician, Dr. Ted Marrs.

Mammaw & Bampaw’s house was cozy and familiar. I knew every creak in every floorboard. The different smell of each room: talcum powder and Old Spice in Mammaw & Bampaw’s room, Jergen’s Lotion and Shalimar in the middle bedroom, Pledge and tobacco in the living room, mothballs and dust in the back bedroom. In the fall and winter the floor furnace chugged and wheezed, occasionally giving out a low moan. When I was small, Bampaw had gleefully scared me to death with tales of the furnace’s evil snatching of small children down to its dark depths. We were hearing it now, not turned off by Bampaw as he went to bed, but keeping us company.

The Marrs family lived across town in a series of rambling houses that were often under partial construction as the parents added another room – perennially. I came back to Mammaw & Bampaw’s to spend the night almost every other Friday, a pattern that kept me from fratricide, probably contributed to the actual existence of 3 younger brothers.

At ages 7 and 9, two of my brothers were rowdy, curious handfuls. Mom reasoned that if they were allowed to run around willy-nilly today then they would sleep straight through the night. Be not so much trouble on the train later today. Bampaw and I rolled eyes at this opinion. They were ALWAYS trouble. Cute as buttons when sleepy or asleep, they engineered countless escapades with PlayDoh, laundry piles or BandAids.

Over the course of an afternoon, they had managed to acquire several layers of leaves, mud, cobwebs, tar and even tiny stones. I was instructed to “supervise” their baths. I had to let out the bathwater and filled up the tub twice before the process was completed. I found one of Bampaw’s golf tees in Dodson’s ear. “THERE it is!” he crowed delightedly.

Mammaw dried one boy off and Bill dried himself with a few finishing touches by me.. Both had big brown eyes and wide, ready smiles. Dodson had straight blonde hair with many cowlicks, naturally falling into spikes that later on would be considered a boss punk style. His skin was a golden color, summer or winter. Bill had curly curly curly brown hair and eyelashes any woman would kill for. Already girls were swarming around. Bill habitually would try ANYTHING he thought to do: climb up on car hoods and jump off, climb up on fences and jump off, climb up on sheds and jump off, climb up trees and get stuck, scoot into culverts and get stuck, scoot into heating ducts and get stuck, etc.

A couple of years before, looking out the window, Mom noticed Bill walking home from school with a strange girl. Dalraida Elementary was only 2 blocks from our current house. The little girl was strolling beside him, obviously carrying both of their books and his jacket. As Mom met them at the door, the little girl introduced herself (the South, you know). Mom pointed to the girl’s load. Turning to Bill, she said “ What IS this, young man?” Bill smiled and shrugged. “She wanted to.” Bill did a lot of smiling and shrugging. He had once brought home 21 valentines … and there were only 12 girls in his class.

James Webb (J.W.- pronounced “Jay Dubyah”, Jim Dandy, James Grump) was already asleep in Mom’s bed. He’d just had his birthday. At age 2 he was a quiet boy, habitually humming or softly singing himself to sleep. Thank God. Brown-haired like 2 of his siblings, he had startling blue eyes and a slow sweet smile. He was the only truly nice kid Mom had. Until he became a teenager. But that’s another story.

I was the only girl, the oldest. I had been spoiled rotten before Mom married Dr. Marrs. Living with my grandparents and Mom, the only child of an extended family that reached across Alabama, I had had it made. I loved the company of adults, amazed them with my smartass comments. My art skill from age 2 amazed and distressed all my relatives. (“That looks just like you, Sam!” “Is my nose THAT big? Dammit!”)

Mammaw had spent the whole day with a clenched jaw. I kept hugging her, we’d both cry a little. We had moved away twice before – once to Florida and then to Texas. But this seemed a long long way away. I had never known her to stay up this late. I said I would write her every week (I did).

Mom and I cleared off the bed and dragged the luggage to the side door. We didn’t have to worry about getting up in time. Bampaw got up at 4:30am every morning. When I’d brushed my teeth and taken a leak, I came back to the middle bedroom. Mom was pulling the torn pieces of her list out of the trash. She looked up and muttered “Why does everything have to be SO hard?”

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