All Aboard

Union Station was a dark, grandiose, Gothic, high vaulted ceiling, floor- tiled palace. The building said that going on the train was a significant, impressive event. Smoke billowed and loud train whistles blew.

Pop Hiebel, Dad’s partner in Pineview Manor, Home for Handicapped Children, had brought his car to join Mammaw’s Chevy in carting the 7 suitcases, 2 large trunks and 2 smaller trunks to the station. We were carrying not only clothes but housewares (including the iron skillets!).

At the station, an obliging porter piled all our baggage onto a railroad cart. Amazed at the volume, he kept shaking his head and saying “Uhmm um. Uhmm um.” We bought Tootsie Rolls, Sugar Daddies and M&Ms at the news stand. I had already secreted away a supply of lemon drops from Mammaw. The boys were so excited that I was sent to the restroom with them, but nobody had to pee. Frowning J.W. had his thumb in his mouth and was humming loudly in self-defense. He did that a lot anyway.

On the platform, Pop Hiebel removed his cigarette from his mouth and graciously doffed his hat to Mom. She leaned her face over for him to give her a kiss on the cheek. He said to take care and give his regards to Ted, tell him to try not to disable too many airmen. I registered that they were actually called “Guardsmen” but had learned long ago never to contradict Pop.

Mammaw hugged me tight and long. We were both crying. Mom pointed, “Get the boys!!” Bill & Dodson were chasing each other at the end of the platform, whooping it up. Definitely not the proper behavior in public. I raced down the way, grabbing both their hands. Jerking their arms up straight, I whispered “Behave, both of you! Remember what Mom said. No running. Stay with us! That goes for the whole trip.” Mom had spent most of breakfast laying out to them the Rules of the Road. Grinning, they both nodded, already Pavlovianly trained in call-and-response. I was to repeat this constantly for the next year – on French roadsides, in Swiss alps, Roman ruins, Pompeiian alleys. “No running! Stay with us!”

Mom and Mammaw were murmuring together, J.W. standing close to Mom, like a wary puppy. Bampaw did his version of you-boys-obey-your-mother to Bill and Dodson. He then turned to the conductor, who looked ready to call all aboard. Bampaw pulled out a fiver and gestured to Mom, saying that this lady was his little girl and these hooligans were his treasured grandbabies. So he’d appreciate it if they were taken good care of. The conductor nodded solemnly, touched his cap, took the bill and “Yassuh.”

He then stood tall and called out “ALLL ABOOOARD!” We did a last round of hugs and scrambled on the train. In the car, the porter reversed one seat by releasing a catch and flipping the back of that seat over. Now the two seats faced each other. He smiled at Mom. “So you can keep better track of yore chillren.” Mom smiled in response and thanked him.

I took a window seat and pulled the window down. At this early hour, there were only a few people waiting to see the passengers off. Most all the folks were on the train. Mammaw and Bampaw were standing close together. They were accustomed to my Uncle Luther’s travels, he was in the Navy. But indeed Mom was their baby girl. They had argued with her long & hard about how crazy this trip was: pulling the children out of school, Ted was only going to be gone another 7 months, it was illegal, there was no place for us to live on the base, etc. etc.

But Mom was stubborn as the day is long. This was their ONE chance to see Europe! This was an adventure she was not going to miss. She just shook her head and said that she was going, come hell or high water (we experienced both in France). Bampaw finally had agreed to watch over our house, the renters and our cars.

Thin, dapper Bampaw put his arm around wide Mammaw’s shoulders. As the train began to ease out of the station, he lifted his hat high. Mammaw began waving her lace handkerchief. All of us on the train waved back, then Mom and the brothers settled into their seats. I continued to wave. They got smaller and smaller but continued to wave until the train went around the bend.

That was the last time I saw Mammaw. By spring the 6 of us were living in a 4 person trailer behind the squadron hospital at Dreux AFB, France. On Feb. 14th during a Jackson Hospital stay, Mammaw died. Now, many decades later, the taste of her fried chicken comes back to me.

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?”

Polly, the Prima Donna


In the late 1950s we inherited Polly the parrot from our Chesnut/Storey forebearers, thrived on attention and didn’t care whether it was amused, irate, admiring or hostile – just like Grandma Marrs. Polly craved an audience ALL the time and her ultimate punishment was to see that cloth cover coming down over her cage. Left alone? Oh no! From her covered perch, she’d moan “Boo hoo hoo. Poor Polly, poor poor Polly. Ooo Hoo hoo!” Cheez. It could break your heart. Totally convincing.

Polly was a Party Animal. She would run through her whole bag of tricks, hanging upside down with wings spread and laughing like Vincent Price, singing away. Sometimes she’d add a rhythmic head-ducking movement to her trilling. Why she seemed to follow a Bossa Nova beat was never clear, but we did play the radio a lot . . . Guests – warned to stay clear of possible chomping – were delighted and would hang out in the kitchen, laughing at her antics. My own friends would come to check in with her first when visiting.

Polly’s soprano was truly seductive and enchanting. She performed a full volume operatic rendition – complete with spread wings – of the Doxology: “PUHHRaise Goddd frommmm whomm all blessingssss flowww! Tra lah lah lah lah!.” Her dead ringer imitation of Auntie calling her dogs to supper had resulted in the miscalled dogs bewilderedly woofing around the screen porch while Polly cackled with glee. A real prankster.

Watching Polly perform, eye glittering madly, I felt real admiration for the bird. Deep in the midst of preteen angst, I was hot on the trail of Deep Meanings. Here was a creature stuck for decades in a cage, but determined to live the gay life – be at the center of whatever she could. A real inspiration. I was very impressed. Until my next turn to clean her cage . . .

Mom’s Persuasion Technique


It was fall of 1961. I was 16 years old. My life was ruined. Utterly completely ruined. Dad had been called to active duty with Alabama Air National Guard in response to the Berlin Wall crisis and sent to … France. Wha? France? The President had activated the entire Ala. Air National Guard and shipped them off to Dreux, France. Take THAT, you stinkin’ commies! We’ll show you!

Actually, it kinda made sense. The ‘Bama Guard was a reconnaissance unit. So they’d fly missions over Germany from Dreux, photographing any sneaky Russian troop movements like mad. By this time, Dad was the commander of the unit’s hospital – not a big wig yet, a medium large wig.

Dad being gone meant zip to me. We basically didn’t get along/ never had gotten along. So he was off somewhere? I didn’t care.

I did care about me. (I was 16.) I was now cookin’ with gas: was my school’s head writer for “Teen Topics” appearing every Friday in the Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, named Art Director of the “Scabbard” yearbook my sophomore year, cartoonist for “Stars and Bars” school newspaper, etc. etc. In my pond I was a big frog.

Most importantly, I had been discovered by…boys! Yes indeed. After a lifetime (actually 3 yrs.) of being a wallflower, no dates, decorator-only of school dances, I was finally the object of male interest (woo woo). This was of prime importance. There was one Special Boy I liked and he had asked me to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball in November! Life was finally beginning to take off! I glowed going to school every day.

Now, Mom announced that we were JOINING Dad in France! What? Dad had written Mom that there was an elementary school and an American high school at Dreux AFB. As part of serving the needs of overseas personnel in Europe, boarding schools had been set up throughout. They’d opened one of these institutions only one year before the Guard showed up, on the then-deactivated Dreux WW II base.

Mom and Dad figured that this might be the family’s only chance to SEE EUROPE! Despite the fact that it was ILLEGAL for Guard families to come to France (a crisis, who knew what the Russians might do next etc.), we were gonna go. My parents never shunned rule-breaking when pursuing pleasure. We were gonna go using tourist visas in order to get around the regulations.

Hey. Waitaminit. I had been asked to the Robert E. Lee High Harvest Ball! Get a grip, folks. Hold on. What’s really important here? My first real date! With even a boy I actually liked. On reflection, I decided the important thing was to remain calm. Reason was the way to go. Reason almost always worked with the parents.

I said – in response to the news – the trip to France sounded interesting. For Mom and the boys. I would stay with beloved Mammaw and Bampaw, our grandparents, here in Montgomery. I usually spent the night with them every other weekend. There was plenty of room there. I wasn’t interested in SEEING EUROPE. My sights were firmly fixed on Robert E. Lee High… and the Harvest Ball. Period.

One night as Mom and I washed, dried and put away the dishes, she brought up the Europe trip again. I remained adamant. Repeated the reasons I should stay. Drying her hands, Mom said we had to have a Talk – now. In her bedroom, door closed, we sat opposite each other. She looked me in the eye. Took my hand. (She NEVER looked me in the eye, much less took my hand.) She laid out what a great opportunity this was. What a Great Adventure. We would see the historic places, eat French cuisine, see all the famous paintings and sculptures I’d studied! This was a Wonderful Opportunity for an artist. My pout grew so large I resembled a Ubangi. I still …didn’t … want… to …go.

Mom sighed. The silence grew. She finally said “I NEED you to come.” I was speechless. Thunderstruck! Mom had said she NEEDED me. Actually said it. Verbally out loud. In real time.

Privately I knew how hard it was to manage all us kids, do the shopping, plan the meals, shop for the meals, manage the money, do the taxes, ferrying us around. We had Annie Mae to do the major cleaning & some meals now, but just giving three boys baths resembled a soggy 3 ring circus. We were constantly cleaning up spills, taking off their jammies and putting on all their clothes, then taking off the clothes to put on jammies. With one spill of chocolate milk, the kid had to be redressed again. Putting caps & jackets & shoes on/off … it was endless. Plus James Webb was only 2 – at the mobile-but-no-judgment stage. However, I hadn’t known until this very minute that Mom saw this noisy chaos as anything but the normal way of things.

She had always tried to project a calm, composed manner. Totally in control. An entire box of cereal secretly dumped on the clean laundry? Get the whisk broom. Hose left on overnight? Sweep the flood into the flower bed. Gate left open so the pedigreed Weimaraner got out? Take the leash and search the neighborhood. Don’t forget the flashlight. She was the One Who Knew What to Do. I was the one doing 60% of the doing. To my mind.

Suddenly it became clear to me. A lightbulb went on! She couldn’t manage without me. She had NEVER been able to manage without me. I could see that now. I HAD to go. As a romantic (if sarcastic) teenager, the poet in me suddenly saw myself as the Loyal Sidekick. I was Chingachgook or Robin the Boy Wonder, trekking through snowdrifts at Mom’s side. Together we would manage! (I could hear “Dixie” began playing slowly & softly as the soundtrack.)

“I guess I’ll go then” I said sullenly.

Mom smiled and dropped my hand. She turned to the pile of laundry on her bed.

“Fine” she said “Now go finish the dishes.”

Polly Wanna Cracker, a Finger, a Nose?


You’ve no doubt seen those movies where the unsuspecting family welcomes a hitchhiker, distant cousin or long lost college roommate into their cheery lives. Soon the audience sees the eye twitch that signals “Hi. I’m a homicidal maniac. Just give me a half hour and you’ll all be in freezer bags labeled ‘lunch’.”

Well, my family had seen the tell tale signals of Polly, the 75 year old parrot handed down from my great aunt Willie Belle Story Raines Roden to my grandparents and finally to us. Although we didn’t visit Auntie often, we had heard Polly would grab ya if she could. And there was her evil chuckle . . .

Once my grandparents had inherited the bird, it was obvious that a cunning devil spirit had arrived. B movies recycled on TV featured such creatures: fascinating, charming beauties who turned into Panther Ladies or Reptile Women intent on disemboweling you as you slept. Bright green Polly was lovely. She cocked her yellow head, cooed sweetly, and strutted with real grace. Her cage acrobatics were excellent too – a feathered Flying Wallenda!

Living in her cage in my grandparents’ kitchen, Polly soon found a source of major amusement: taunting my grandfather, Bampaw. Bampaw & Polly waged a roller coaster duel for years. He’d imitated a growling gorilla with bared fangs while poking her cage with a cane. She’d shriek and stretch out dagger talons to snag him. With false teeth protruding (his) and open beak bouncing (hers), you could almost see a family resemblance . . . They’d whip each other into frenzies. Hard to say if this was parrot abuse or grandad abuse – they seemed evenly matched.

Finally, Bampaw moved too slow while cleaning her cage bottom and Polly struck! She locked her jaws around the palm of his hand and wouldn’t let go. It took two people to get her off, with stitches, shots and a permanent scar for my grandpaw. Thereafter, he was more cautious. There was respect in his contempt. While spinning recipes for parrot stew, he’d declare that she was a tough ole bird – just like him.

When we inherited Polly, Mom laid down strict ground rules and located the bird in a safety zone in our kitchen corner. Present day friends have questioned the wisdom of bringing this convicted mutilater into a house with small children. At the time, there was no question. Polly was a relative, she’d been in our family since before Mom was born.

Everyone had weird kin – this was ALABAMA. Besides, Polly was much more entertaining than any of our other relatives and didn’t eat one tenth the amount of Aunt Ida Mae.