RobWiddowson

Author of Heaven's Tale

We Found Paradise in Perdido Bay

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At the time of the accident, my Dad was being recalled into the Navy.  He’d served from 1944 to 1947 as a dentist in the Philippines.  Now Truman wanted to get into the Korean Peninsula fight.  Dad was re-upped and assigned to a small naval air base Barin Field in Foley, Alabama, just over the line from Pensicola Florida.  Right after the accident, he took the train to Washington DC and got a special deferment from the Secretary of the Navy for one year.  Now he could wait until June 1953.

In the meantime, I had recovered quickly, but the damage to my face was massive.  The entire right side of my face was paralyzed: I couldn’t close my eye, so my mother had to put drops in it as I slept to keep it moist.  I drooled, and my speech slurred.  The scars shone red and thick.  A broad-brush ‘W’ adorned my chin.

For the next two months, I convalesced, spending a lot of time with my mother.  At one point they took me to see a child psychologist.  He administered a battery of tests including IQ which turned out to be 165.  A flurry of conferences and meetings took place with school principle, doctors, my mother to decide my future.  In the end, they decided I should start in first grade on a normal schedule.

 

My Dad went to Alabama first.  He flew to Foley in June.  He found a house for us, and my mother followed, driving herself to Foley, a five-day trip.  We had been left with the grandparents for a month, and finally, they took us to Logan Airport.  We got on a plane with propellers.  The stewardesses made a big fuss over us because we travelled alone.  Our parents picked us up in Mobile about 9 hours later and drove to our new house — Paradise.

The house had been an Officer’s Club for the Confederacy during the Civil War – three stories, 17 rooms, three stairways, and an enclosed, screened veranda around three sides.  Two hundred feet from the from of the house sat a beautiful, white sandy beach, and then the clear waters of the Gulf of Mexico, actually Perdido Bay of the Gulf.  The village was called Josephine, population 34.  We had one house to our left – a dentist family from Barin Field just like us — and on the right an elderly couple who had lived here all their lives.  The rest of the residents were hardscrabble poor white families who lived inland about 11/2 mile and picked pecans in season.  About a mile down the coast was a small bayou that had a general store.  It was a natural paradise.

I still remember the moment clearly when we stood on the beach the next morning.  My mom was constantly warning us about the water – undertow, jellyfish, etc – being alarmist and with good reason: we couldn’t swim.  We could all dogpaddle a little 5, 6, 7 vlcsnap-error958years.  My Dad stood bare-chested and serious.  He said that he would teach us to swim, and not only that.  We would spend so much time in the water that we would become like fishes ourselves.  In fact, he said, and he looked straight out across Perdido Bay, about 2 miles, “Before we leave here, we’ll swim all the way across the Bay to the other side – all of us.”

We laughed, but he did teach us.  He had been a swimmer at Tufts in the late 30s, so I learned an old fashioned version of the crawl. He worked with us for hours, showed us all the strokes.  He showed us how to handle ourselves in the water.  And sure enough, soon we were water-skiing and water-boarding.  Sometimes when it was really hot, my Mom and Dad would wake us suddenly in the middle of the night, turning on the light andvlcsnap-error626 shouting for a Wild Indian Fire Drill. We’d leap out of bed, and the 5 of us would race around the house whooping and howling until Dad went out the front door racing straight to the water and diving in with an enormous splash.  The rest of us were right behind whooping, screaming, and being happy.

Dad would test us sometimes.  They often had cocktail parties out on the end of the dock which was covered and had benches and tables for seating.  One afternoon, a party well in progress, he came up behind me, picked me up, and suddenly heaved me as far out to sea as he could.  I knew exactly what to do.  I floated and bobbed and took off my tennis shoes, tied them and flung them over my neck.  Then I slowly frog-kicked over to the dock.  He helped me up the ladder.  “That’s how it is in life: you never know what’s going to happen next.”

 

We went to school in Foley.  I think we started late, like in January.  School was dirt poor and segregated, only white kids.  My sister Caryl and I started in the same multi-grade classroom – 1st and 2nd grades.  I learned how to play marbles and how to go barefoot.  There was a movie theatre than mom took us to a few times – whites only.  I remember a water fountain split in two, one side for whites, one side for blacks.  My mother had a black maid to help her most of the time we lived in Josephine. I don’t remember how she traveled every day.  A few times, I drove with my mom to pick her up.  She lived in a grove of pine trees on a dirt road about a mile outside Foley.  Folks out there lived mostly in tar-paper shacks; nobody had electricity or running water.  The south at its meanest.

So I didn’t see many black people.  On vacations and holidays, Mom would drive us to the base where they had a big swimming pool.  The children would frolic, and the wives would gossip.  Mostly we frolicked by playing a game of ‘Tag’ in the pool.  I worked on holding my breath.  Soon I could avoid most tags by swimming to the bottom and staying down till ‘It’ had to go up for air.  I was truly becoming a fish.

My friend from school was Tommy Aiken, one of the poor white folks that picked pecans.   Several times, mom allowed me to walk the ¾ mile to Tommy’s house on a knoll by a pecan orchard.  I remember clearly his house; I thought it was so cool.  He didn’t have doors, only blankets hanging in the doorways.  The windows had no frames, they were just square holes in the walls.  The first time I went there, a rooster was in the house.  Every few minutes, he’d fly to the window, stop and look around, then fly to the ground outside.  Then he’d walk around to the doorway, peep under the blanket, and slip back into the house.  I tried to help them pick pecans once, but it was really hard.  I think the nuts stuck to the tree and were hard to pull off.  I remember that it was brutal, unpleasant work.  They were really poor.  It was a family of seven and I only saw one bed – a single.  It must have been hell in the freezing, winter rains.

On the other hand, we were blessed.  My Dad was exempt from overseas duty, Barin Field was small and just a training base for pilots – give them a place to practice before landing on aircraft carriers. Mom and Dad partied every weekend.  And we travelled. We did a lot of local sightseeing and visiting – the beaches at Gulf Shores, the old Fort at the mouth of Mobile bay, Pensacola. The family took two memorable trips: one to Daytona Beach, Florida where we exulted in our new fish-like skills.  We – 6, 7, & 8 years — body-surfed in 15-foot waves, swam among Portuguese man-o-wars, and generally stretched our wings on what was one of the biggest, most beautiful beaches ever.  Cars drove up and down the beach, but sometimes they’d get to close to the edge or the tide would come in.  Then everyone on the beach would come try to push it out before the ocean claimed it.  I remember it as a happy trip, lots of picnics along river banks and nights in motels.  My mom would make these grab-bags.  They were shopping backs full of enough toys, games, and puzzle books to keep us occupied for the entire trip.  She’d say, “OK.  In 30 minutes, we take out another prize.”  We fidget, then we’d close our eyes and reach into our bag.  You could feel around and try to find one you wanted.  We’d do that sometimes twice a day on long trips.

I also remember grab-bags on the trip to Monterrey Mexico where we stayed in cabins and motels all the way across Mississippi, Louisiana, down through Texas, and into the mountains around Monterrey.  I remember that we visited a place high in the mountains called Horsetail Falls.  We drove to a parking lot then we took burros on a rocky trail through the woods.  We stayed in a stately old colonial hotel in the city.

Life at Perdido Bay still waxed idyllic. The wildlife teemed – dolphins swam with us nearly every time we took out the boat.  Down at the mouth of the bay was a buoy where my Dad would tie up and we’d fish for catfish.  He had a little trawl for shrimp.  We’d get so much that, after my Mom filled the freezer with shrimp, we’d use them for bait.  Dolphins always came and played around the boat, – 16 foot with a 25 hp motor– jumping the bow and generally carrying on.  When we water-skied, they’d run right along beside you, then shoot up and cut across the wake, sometimes jumping the waves.  Everywhere vlcsnap-error576teemed birds, snakes, alligators.  At the closed (western) end of the bay was the general store at the entrance to a bayou, actually the mouth of a swampy creek.  Sometimes we’d waterski a little ways up the bayou, but one afternoon, a sailor who was here to party skied directly under a snake hanging from a low-lying branch.  The General Store also had an enormous slide into the water — a full two stories.  When you hit, you shot out so fast that you skipped across the water like a stone.

 

I forget the name of the Hurricane, but it was a Category 4.  It caught up with us in the schoolbus on the way home from school; they’d let us out early.  The old woman who ran the post office in Josephine also drove the school bus into Foley every day.  After the Aikens, we were the last ones about another ¾ mile.  The wind was howling on the paved road out of town, but when we turned onto those red-clay dirt farm roads, the bus started spontaneously sliding all over the road.  Somehow she managed to get the Aiken kids home.  I remember watching their parents trying to help them up the hill but the wind was too strong to climb against and they kept falling back.  A few hundred yards down the road, the bus slid into a red-clay mud hole and bogged.  The driver decided that we had to walk, so we gathered up our things –my sister Caryl. and I.  The bus was shaking and sliding around.

I went first.  As I stepped down from the bus, my foot was spun out from underneath me and I was rolling down the side of the highway pretty fast.  I couldn’t stop; the wind had the momentum. I rolled a long way then accidentally wedged against a little ridge.  I held on as tight as I could, and when my sister arrived, I got in front of her.  Soon the old lady arrived, crawling on hands and knees frantically.  She led us into the woods on the side of the road and found a big old gnarly tree that had a hollow among the roots.  Caryl and I crawled in first, then she lay on top us for shelter.   We hunkered there for about 3 hours until we felt like we could safely walk to the house.  It was still slippery and dangerous.

 

One afternoon, our dog, Queenie, began barking crazily and wouldn’t stop.  When we investigated an enormous rattlesnake sat coiled in the front yard, right in front of the door.  Dad grabbed his 12-guage, and blew its head off.  It stood 7 feet long, and I think we ate it.  I also had the single-action .22 that Dad had given me at the Farm.  He’d wanted me to learn about guns so on my 5th birthday, he bought this sweet .22.  At the farm, we had a target range set up.  I had a stump and a stand to help me hold up the barrel.  Soon I also had a target range set up in Josephine, facing out to sea.  I don’t know who came up with the idea, but the next thing I knew, I had the application form for the NRA.  At that time, you became a member by entering targets that you had shot.  You had to earn a certain minimum score for each of several positions: standing, sitting, kneeling, prone. Targets had to be verified by witnesses and signed.  So I practiced and eventually became the youngest member of the NRA – 8 years old.  I used to like to shoot squirrels.  The old man next door had a smoker and he loved to smoke squirrel.  We all loved to eat it too.  He also smoked fish.  I still remember the taste.

 

In June, after we’d been there about 8 months, I woke up one morning with swelling on the right side of my face and a fever. My parents figured it was mumps, put me to bed in quarantine. But for the next few days, my face continued to swell, and the fever soared.  By now, I was really sick.  Dad gathered a bunch of his physician friends from the base, and they pondered what to do.  At one point, my Dad – staring at my face – said Hey what’s that?  He saw a black line, like a splinter, in the skin over the swelling.  He fetched a pair of tweezers and began trying to work the splinter out.  He worked and worked, and it really hurt.  But then he said, Oh my God in a tone that made me lay quietly while he worked. After about a minute, he told me to hold on tight and then he yanked, and the pain level zoomed off the scale.  I screamed, but then Dad said, It’s OK sport.  I got it. With that he held up a piece of glass – windshield glass – in triangle form, about ½ at the base and more than an inch tall.  It had somehow been sealed off for two years, but now, on the anniversary of the accident, it had finally worked its way to the surface where my body had been trying to reject it like I had a giant infection. The swelling and fever started going down immediately and, the next morning, my face was back to its normal disfigured self.  Exactly one year later – to the day – the same thing occurred.  This time my dad knew what to look for, and sure enough, another piece of windshield glass had worked its way out to the surface.  This piece had about half the size if the first.  I began to wonder if this would become an annual ritual, a kind of modern-day stigmata, but it never happened again.

 

My mother always encouraged us to be active.  One day I found a huge nest of blackberry vines, filled with ripe lush berries. I picked a lot.  When I brought them home, my Mom took me into the kitchen, showed me the recipe for blackberry cobbler on the side of the Bisquick box, and showed me how to bake.  In about 2 hours, we had an enormous, delicious cobbler.  Then my mother said that any time I wanted to do it again, I could just go ahead.  For weeks, we ate cobbler every day – trust me.

At Perdido Bay, I learned I could draw.  It was painstaking and I had to start with a picture and only cartoons at first, but I could make a very good likeness.

 

Many times, the house would fill for entire weekends.  10 or 15 revelers from the base would come out for a weekend of recreation – very heavy drinking the rule of thumb. Dad and his friends were all doctors and amphetamines were not criminalized, so they did speed, too.  They came in tablet form – bennies or uppers One of our steady guests turned out to be the catholic priest for the base, Father Jim MacDonald Father Mac.  Besides being a priest, he was a hard-drinking, handsome, charming Irish rogue.

 

We all loved Father Mac.  At age 7, I served my first mass with him.  This was in the days when the priest spoke Latin and the Alter Boy responded to him also in Latin as a stand-in for the congregation.  Every Latin word had to be memorized and then, when the time came,

clearly spoken:

Introibo, ad altere dei.  Agnus dei,

At that same Mass, my sister Caryl received her first Communion.  A prominent photo in our house after was taken that day with Father Mac behind and the two of us dressed in our uniforms in front.  Mac spent a lot of time with us. When he stayed at the house overnight, he had some priestly duties to perform.  They set up one of the bedrooms just for him.  They arranged a small alter with the votive candles and some cushions to kneel on.  It turns out that priests have a whole set of daily prayers that they have to make; every day is different.  So Father Mac had his little alter room where he could say his prayers, then go out and carouse on the end of the pier with the rest of them.

I don’t remember the feeling from the adults from back then, but I believe that my sisters and I felt privileged to live there.  We had a sense of how beautiful it was.  We’d been immersed similarly in the New Hampshire woods, and we felt that too.

 

Suddenly, my Dad’s tour of duty was up.  We stated packing, and one morning, my Dad woke us early.  He marched us downstairs for a small bowl of cereal, then led us out to the beach.  It was time.  He’d promised us two years ago that we would swim across the Bay.  So we marched to the end of the dock, dove in and started swimming.  My Dad and Mom alternated running the boat alongside in case we needed any help.  We stayed together and took our time.  Lots of times, I lay on my back just propelling forward slowly like a frog.  We used a lot of sidestroke.  And we joked around and encouraged one another.  I don’t know how long we were in the water, maybe 2-3 hours, but all of a sudden, we could see the bottom, and we’d made it.  We stood on the shore looking back at the distant house for a long time.  Then we quietly piled back in the boat and headed back across to finish packing.  That week, the Foley newspaper had a little blurb in the “News from Josephine” section all about us and our swim.  That clipping was also a staple of my mom’s mementos.

 

 

 

 

 

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