My dad used to say he came from Alabama with a banjo on his knee, but he wasn't from Alabama at all. His parents came to Texas from Alabama, yes, Decatur, Alabama, and before that from North Carolina, over in the swampy area along the Tar River, but my dad was not born in Alabama and as far as a banjo goes, I never knew my dad to play any musical instrument except a comb, which he used play by putting a piece of toilet paper over his rubber comb and then humming into it--making a sound like a kazoo. My dad did love music, however, and he and my mother had been great dancers during the Jazz Age when they were newlyweds--my mother was 16 and my dad 20 when they got married--my brother was born a year later when my mother was 17. My dad was a stone Fats Waller fan and he had several Fats Waller records, his favorite being "Your Feet's Too Big"--"...can't stand you 'cause your feet's too big...." "I mean, your peddle extremities are colossal..."--and when I was a cub in my baby bed, my dad used to roll his Edison record player over by me and play Fats Waller at me. It got to where I would put my lips together and make a sound that to my dad sounded like I was following Fats's music note-for-note. "Look, honey, our little wolfie boy is making out like he's playin' a trumpet--he's gonna be a musician." My dad was prescient.
So scratch my dad coming from Alabama with a banjo on his knees.
Yeah, his parents came from Alabama in a covered wagon near the end of the 19th Century. His father was a building contractor. He would come to a little burg and find out they wanted say a school built and he would contract to build it for them. Then he'd go out in the town and hire up a crew and they would build a fine sturdy schoolhouse, finishing all of them by topping them off with a special cupola, one of his own architectural inventions, on their roofs. One time when we'd been on vacation to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, my dad drove back up Highway 80--now I80--it ran from New York City to L.A., cutting across New Jersey and then winding its way down through the Smokies and onto a flat southwestern route that came into Texas on its eastern border coming west from Shreveport, Louisiana, and entering Texas at Texarkana (a two-state city--Texas and Arkansas. Bob Wills had a hit with "She's my Texarkana baby do I love her lordy-lawd, her pappy came from Texas and her ma from Arkansas...." There's a Charles Parker, Jr., recording--I can't remember which one, but in one of his solos, Parker works in the melody line from "Texarkana Baby"--just suddenly blows it out, the line, "She's my Texarkana baby...." Ironically, my second wife was born in Texarkana--so I had a Texarkana Baby--and quite a little package she was, too--the best of my wives, though I was too luststruck and like my dad a sucker for teasing women to see it.
And on that drive back from that Arkansas spa (Eureka Springs was like Hot Springs--a spa with bathhouses around the spring of "curing waters") once we got into East Texas, my dad drove to all the little Texas towns along Highway 80 where his dad had built a school. Five of them before we got back to Dallas--and they all had that special cupola sitting proudly on their roofs.
My dad's dad built the first high school in my hometown, in 1910--yes, it had that cupola on top of it--but in 1924, they built a new high school on the same grounds with the old high school, which they turned into a ward (Central Ward) school, an elementary school. My father, my mother, my brother and I all attended that school, my dad and mom as a high schoolers, and my brother and me as elementary graders. There was one desk in that school that had all three of our names and one of our initials carved into it--my dad's carved name up under the ink well; my brother's just under dad's; and then my name down below my brother's. My mom's name--her's was on there, too, but by my dad's name as just plain "MC," though my brother and I knew those were mother's maiden name initials.
Plus the cornerstone of that old school, now long since demolished, had my grandfather's name as the builder on it. I used to show it to kids and tell 'em that guy was my grandfather, but they all said I was full of shit because the last name wasn't spelled the same as my last name--there again due to my father. The real family name ended with an "n," but after my dad got out of high school, got married and became a father, he started adding an "e" to the end of the name--saying it meant "esquire"--my dad wanted to be a lawyer at one time, you see, and that's how lawyers and judges and bankers signed their names, you know, with "esq." So my dad gave his family name an extra letter and that meant my family name was unique within my father's family, to the point that some of his family disowned him.
My dad constantly smiled and he loved to laugh. He had 5 brothers and two sisters and they were a close wild family, with the old matriarch ruling the roost with her iron crutch--I was scared to death of my dad's mother. His father had died in late 1920s and the mother had taken over the castle after his death--she ruled the big family estate with the gardens and the gazebos and the big lawn I loved to roll all over as a kid with an iron hand and she did use a crutch, though I think it was made of wood and not iron.
When my dad's mother died, I was eight years old. The family wanted all her grandsons to be pallbearers and since I was one of the grandsons, I was designated to be a pallbearer, with my brother and 4 of my cousins--6 of us. The matriarch was a big woman; she weighed probably 300 lbs when she died. The coffin was a big mahogany job, really beautiful; even I as a kid marveled at that coffin's beautiful wood finish, all highly polished with silver handles and our family coat of arms emblazoned on the lid. The coffin with her in it must have weighed 500 lbs. My brother and my cousins were big dudes, college dudes by then, so they had no trouble with that weight and bulk. They decided to put me on the front right; my cousin, the US Navy nutjob, a short guy, was put on the front left pairing me with him because of our shortness.
My dad's family were Methodists and the Saint Paul's Methodist Church in my hometown was a big Italian Renaissance-looking building with a dome and a huge marble facade with great wood doors and a steep set of concrete steps, more than 15, leading up to those doors from the street.
All through the long dull funeral I was excited. I was going to be a pallbearer. I was going to be on stage--the whole city seemed to be at the funeral. So the funeral ended and we pallbearers went up and they showed me how to grab onto the silver handle up at my end and then we picked up the coffin on a 1-2-3 heave-ho command and up came the coffin, no big deal, and we started bearing this big woman's dead-weight body and her heavy mahogany final resting case up the long church aisle and finally out the big wood doors and onto the porch high above the concrete steps leading down to the street where the hearse was already backed up with it's back door hanging wide open. We started down those steps. Whoaaaa. I suddenly felt a sudden shift in weight to the front of the coffin--mine and my nutjob cousin's end. Besides being a nutjob--the US Navy declared him too psychologically troubled and discharged him from the Navy after he went nuts on a submarine and they had to return to their Connecticut home port and put my cousin in the brig--but anyway, besides being a nutjob, he was also a chain smoker, and soon I heard him huffing and puffing and wheezing, and I took a step down before I was supposed to and when I did, I heard my nutjob cousin say, "Oh holy shit!" and then the big coffin tilted toward me. It was coming over on me. So I did what any eight-year-old would have done in this situation, I dropped my end of the coffin and ran like hell back up the steps. The coffin broke loose and shot down the rest of those steps like a bobsled going down a bobsled run, racing down those high steps to crash into the back of that hearse. When it hit the hearse, the lid popped open and there sat the matriarch taking her last look back at her bumbling grandsons as the chaos thickened amidst screams and "Look outs!" and more "Oh holy shits" "And god-damn son of bitch kid why did you let go of your end, you little snot."
When we got home, my dad had a ball going over and over that incident. For the rest of his life he told that story on me over and over. "Mother looked good when she popped up out of that thing, didn't she? I never saw her looking better. There was even a damn smile on her face."
My dad. He yucked it up all the time. Always a joke. Always a trick. Always a deceit that turned into a trick. It was all topped off by a great guffaw of laughter.
My dad's specialty was glass. He loved glass. His first business was a glass and paint business. My dad one year won a trip to Pittsburgh from the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company and we all went to Pittsburgh and went through the factory there and saw all this glass being made--and wow, my dad was in hog heaven. He loved glass. When later he was in New York City, he bought a mirror formula off a Belgian guy, and when he got back home, he started making mirrors. My dad's mirrors became famous all across Texas. My dad's silvering process resulted in the purest mirrors imaginable. The silvering process was a mixture of lead, zinc, tin, and silver that my dad would cook up in his little "hot pot" as he called it, a very hot ceramic pot in which he melted and refined these metals. Then he would take a piece of heavy glass, like a half-inch thick piece of plate glass and paint that metallic mixture on one side of that glass and soon the mirror started evolving out of that glass, the thicker the silvering the deeper and clearer the mirror effect. My dad once put huge mirrors in the Corsicana, Texas, home of Audie Murphy (the most decorated soldier in WWII and later a movie actor--his life story in which he stared was called To Hell and Back)--that was my dad's proudest hour--and the photo of my dad standing with Audie in his house in front of my dad's biggest mirror was his favorite photo and he framed it and it sat on his dresser until he died. The big mirror he made for Audie was at least 7 feet tall and 5 feet wide and it had a huge handmade in Holland gold frame around it and an Eagle in a rosette at its top. Audie Murphy was killed in a plane crash right after my dad put these fabulous mirrors in his house.
One thing that scared my dad to faintness was when someone dropped and broke one of his mirrors or broke it while it was still hanging--you know, cracked it. He said he sensed his mirrors's pain and death same as if they were humans; they were like his art, you see.
When my dad was in his fifties, he started having blackouts--my dad would be in his shop and would suddenly wake up and it would be several hours later and he didn't remember anything. Customers would tell him they came into his shop and found him asleep and tried to wake him--by ringing his counter bell--and when they couldn't wake up they'd just leave. They knew he wasn't dead because as one woman said, "He was snoring to beat sixty." He went to his doctor and found out he had an irregular heartbeat. He was hearty big man, about 6 foot, but with a strong muscular upper body--my dad's arms were like what the rasslers call pythons. The doc told my dad he had to go on a diet and lose a lot of weight or he could be subject to a heart attack.
After this, my dad lost a lot of weight, really looked good, but he was never the same psychologically after that. It made him very depressed.
One thing that cheered him up was when I married my second wife. And boy did my dad love women, the younger the better. He looked like a movie star all his life, and even in his fifties he still had a sharp handsome profile with a sweet beautiful face and deep black eyes and women did flock to him and flirt with him and, yes, I'm pretty certain he cheated on my mother though I do know, too, that he really loved my mother--I mean she saved his ass since she had a bottom-line mentality where my dad and money were never meant to be in the same place at the same time. My dad liked really young girls, too, like teenage girls at his church. My mother warned him all the time he shouldn't be teasing those young girls--he loved giving them chewing gum and telling them little jokey stories--"Those young girls are gonna be your downfall one day," she would trumpet at him on the ride back home from church.
And then along came my second wife and our marriage. My wife had just turned 18 and she was one wild beauty, she was, part Choctaw, Mexican, and Welsh in her bloodline and with a body that could sink ships--42D bosom when she was 11. Another thing, she had the same name as my mother. My dad the first time he met her came up out of his depression and once again became the life of the party, in this case, the wedding. Oh he fawned over my pretty, sexy wife. He took me aside and said, "Son, she's wonderful. You take care of her, or I'll have your hide."
After we married, we left Dallas and moved to New Orleans.
My dad had always loved New Orleans. He had a cousin of his from New Orleans who had married an Italian dude and who was a great cook and when we'd go to New Orleans when I was a kid you looked forward to the wonderful food that woman used to serve, from spaghetti and meatballs to filet gumbos and roast beef a la Tujac's (an old New Orleans restaurant in the Vieux Carre whose roast beef was world renown) and oh how we ate and drank chicory coffee, too, my dad's favorite coffee--and to this day it is still my favorite coffee, especially Luzanne--though French Market is good, too.
So that July Fourth after our January wedding, we were finally settled in New Orleans, had good jobs, making money, enjoying the wonderful Crescent City, and one night we got a call from dad and he said he and mom were driving down to New Orleans in their brand new Mercury. My dad loved Cadillacs--and growing up we had first a great big forest green Cadillac Fleetwood in the early fifties; then dad bought a cool two-tone grey Coupe de Ville when I was in high school; and finally, my dad's finest Caddy, he came home one night driving a yellow Coupe de Ville convertible. The only thing that embarrassed me about these great cars (the Fleetwood was air-conditioned--the first air-conditioned car I was ever in) was my dad always kept a hand drawn "For Sale by Owner" sign in their windows. When I used one of them, I always hid that damn for sale sign--once throwing it the hell out of the car into a ditch. The next day, my dad had another for sale sign back in its window. He said it was because he didn't want people to think he really could afford driving Cadillacs. I remember the last time I talked to him on the phone--about their coming to New Orleans, and I teased him about the Mercury. He simply said, "Mercury was Hermes and I always like Hermes better than Mercury--besides, son, this damn Mercury cost me a Cadillac price, you can depend on that."
And one day, they showed up at our apartment, and a great apartment it was, too, on Dumaine right before you got to Decatur, in an old bordello with white plastered columns and buttresses and cupids and angels and a huge stone fountain (dry) in its courtyard surrounded by banana trees that when you pulled their barks down--banana tree barks peel off in huge slabs--you'd find thousands of cockroaches swarming under them. Cockroaches and New Orleans go together. Our neighbor when we lived in the old "Walk on the Wild Side" apartment on Chartres (where they filmed a part of that movie) said her husband once hung a seersucker suit up to dry after he had washed it (drip-dry suits--how many people remember drip-dry clothes?) and when they came back after being out all night, the cockroaches had devoured half of that suit--I had never heard of cockroaches eating cloth, but hey, them New Orleans cockroaches did.
And my dad parked the new Merc on Dumaine and came up and my dad was wearing his famous yellow corduroy jacket that he loved and his Stetson hat he called his "showboat" hat and he was in the best of spirits back like his old self back in New Orleans the city he so loved and which he hadn't seen in probably 15 years. And we had a great time together; even my mother was fun.
My wife and I took them over to Pensacola, Florida, passing through Alabama as we went, and we booked into the San Carlos Hotel and it was the first time my parents had ever been to Florida and they were thrilled, jumping, joyously mafficking, eating like pigs, and enjoying those wonderful white sand beaches that used to be in Pensacola--I don't know about now since I haven't been back to Pensacola now in decades--wouldn't know it if I saw it. I got my Jaguar worked on in Pensacola one time; they actually had a licensed Jaguar mechanic from England there because as he said, the officers at the Pensacola Navy Base loved Jaguars so there were a lot of Jaguars in Pensacola. (My dad loved Caddies, I loved Jaguars, and my brother loved Mercedes--the bigger the better.)
So my dad didn't come from Alabama with a banjo on his knee but instead he was born in Wills Point in the Free State of Van Zandt, which is a town in northeast Texas near Grand Saline (named Grand Saline because it sits over one of the largest salt mines in the USA--I've been in that salt mine and while there I picked up a cube of salt in its crystalline state. I kept it for years and used to carry it around in my pockets and take it out and lick it occasionally. That salt cube lasted me for about 5 years until one day my mother threw it out because she said it was nasty looking, though it really wasn't--salt is clear and crystally beautiful in its mined state--and that salt cavern--whooo, solid glass walls of salt).
My dad, once you pinned him to the wall on where he was born, would run get his birth certificate and show you it declared he was born in the Free State of Van Zandt. What does that mean? Well, at the start of the Civil War, Texas had a choice to succeed from the Union and join the Confederacy or stay in the Union. The state was divided pretty evenly with the East Texans wanting to be Confederates and the Western part of Texas wanting to stay in the Union. Even the governor, old General Sam Houston, was against succession but he was booed and hissed in the Texas statehouse when he proposed staying in the Union and as a result of East Texas and South Texas being the most populated areas of Texas, Texas succeeded from the Union and joined the Confederacy. When the war ended and Texas rejoined the Union--not Van Zandt, where these farmin' white racists who depended on blacks to pick their cotton crops decided they weren't rejoining the Union and instead they declared themselves a Free State, an independent nation, in order to keep from ending slavery. My dad, not a racist at all (though I know, to blacks, all white folks are racists) loved black people and especially black women better than he loved white folks--I know that for sure--and my mom would tell you the same thing if she could--and my mom was a crusading liberal who as head of a school district lunch room program created an integrated staff, even making a black woman head of one of her white school's lunchrooms, a woman who became her best friend in her last years of life--still my dad was so proud of being born in the Free State of Van Zandt. Life was so comical to my dad he used his Free State status as one of the slats in his sense of humor--he knew that the Free State of Van Zandt was really never allowed to exist, though his birth certificate really did say: "Place of Birth: Wills Point, Free State of Van Zandt" though it did have the State Seal of Texas on it, too.
So my parents visited me and my young wife in New Orleans and they had a ball. Their last night there we took them to Ruggerio's Restaurant on Decatur--my wife and I were well known there--and my dad ate a big steak and we had king crab legs, too, and special spaghetti with a green sauce made by Mrs. Ruggerio, and I'd never seen my dad happier, except he couldn't keep his eyes off my wife, one time telling her she was so pretty if he were younger he'd give me a run for my money.
They left early the next morning, intending to go over through Cajun country to Beaumont, Texas, my mother's hometown to visit with her sister. We took a photo of my dad standing by the new Mercury wearing his yellow corduroy jacket and sporting his Stetson. We gave them a big box of New Orleans-style canned goods and hot sauces and picadillies and such to take back with them and off they went up Decatur to finally turn left on Chartres and that's the last I saw of them.
It was late afternoon of the next day that my brother called and said mother and dad had been killed in a horrible highway wreck near Rusk, Texas (a state insane asylum was in Rusk and ironically my dad would say every time we passed it (and we used to visit Beaumont several times a year and Rusk was on the highway between Beaumont and Dallas) and everytime my dad would say, "Don't ever put me in that place; I'd rather be dead."
My parents had pulled off the highway into one of the Texas Highway Department's famous roadside parks--they had picnic tables, bar-b-cue pits, restrooms--cool places under big trees where it was a pleasure to stop for awhile while traveling those hot Texas roads. They ate their lunch and then got back in the new Merc and headed home. As my dad was pulling out of the roadside park he had to cross over into the far lane, as he did, coming over a hill, doing 88 miles per hour, came an empty 18-wheeler asphalt hauler who was heading back to his home base fast so he could haul another load for pay before nightfall. At the lawsuit we brought against the asphalt company, the truck driver said my dad never saw him coming--my dad was looking up the highway the opposite way--the truck driver slammed on his brakes but too late--he hit my mom and dad totally broadside. Crushed the new Merc like it was a beer can--I mean crumpled it up under that big Mac truck and trundled it several yards down the highway. The impact of the crash sent my mother flying out sideways about 20 feet leaving her dead in a ditch of dirty water and my dad, they said, went flying straight up in the air, 30 feet one witness said--"It was like he was a bird, flying, he was so high"--and he came down with a splat right in the middle of the highway. The splat blew his clothes off and left him naked. It even blew his shoes and socks off, too. My brother said he got there after they'd taken mom and dad into Rusk to put 'em on ice and took the wrecked Merc into the local wrecking yard but there was still plenty of evidence of the wreck. He said he just happened to walk over towards where mother had ended up when he looked down and saw my dad's Omega watch he was so proud of. It was still running perfectly and hadn't even been scratched. My brother put the watch on his wrist and didn't take it off until his dying day (as far as I know, my brother was buried with it on his wrist). Later somebody sent my mother's billfold to us when we were preparing for the funeral. They said they had found it when they stopped at that same roadside park to take a rest. It was still intact--I opened it up and there was a picture of me staring back at me. That gave me a chill. I sillily thought, "Hell, I'm an orphan now."
for The Daily Growler