Chapter 48: She Wore a White Ribbon

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January 12, 2020
Chevy Chase, Maryland

I’ve been thinking deeply about this new article on Emmett’s mother that I located during one of my regular database re-check activities two days ago, and wishing I’d been able to find it at the start of Emmett Wilson’s research project.

But then, the ancient hard-copy newspaper (The Pensacola News from 1891) was unaccessible to everyday researchers because of its frailty, and, it takes time to scan precious pages into a database without destroying the artifact.

Better late than never, though.

Without further ado, here’s what I found:

Source: The Pensacola News, from June 26, 1891, via Newspapers.com

If you’ve been following the Emmett Wilson story so far, then you’ll remember a few earlier posts I wrote about the death of Emmett’s mother, and its impact on Emmett and his family. Also, this news item supports/confirms much of the first-person narrative of Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson’s death as told by Emmett’s older sister, Katie Wilson Meade.

With the info from those earlier posts in mind, I’d like to focus on several new things that enlighten our understanding of Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson.

In 2016, I wrote about Katie Wilson Meade’s reflections on the death of her mother, that she had stopped by the drug store for a soft drink. The Pensacola News article from 1891 confirms this, stating the ‘drink threw her into convulsions….’ 

The soda isn’t identified, but it most likely was a fountain version of Coca-Cola or something similar, and it wouldn’t have been bottled, but mixed by a soda jerk behind a counter. [Coca-Cola wasn’t bottled until 1894, at the Biedenharn Candy Company in Vicksburg, Mississippi.] Was there something wrong with Elizabeth’s drink? We don’t know, because there isn’t any information that the drink was the problem. Or, that anyone examined the components of the soda.

…which caused a hemorrhage of the brain.’ A brain hemorrhage is also known as a stroke. Could the drink have caused the stroke? Maybe; but another explanation could be that Elizabeth had undiagnosed high blood pressure. Katie makes no mention of problems with her mother’s health leading up to this event, but Elizabeth herself may have brushed off the symptoms (headache, stiff neck, numbness, and so forth), or perhaps had no symptoms. We know it came on suddenly, without warning, as the paper reported that Elizabeth appeared to be ‘in perfect health’ leading up to the stroke.

The Horns’ residence was Katherine and Richard Carey Horne‘s home, which was located over their business, adjacent to the drug store. [Katherine and Richard’s daughter, Mary Baltzell Horne, was a lifelong friend of Emmett Wilson; Mary would later wed Emmett’s best friend, Paul Carter in 1912.]

This section indicates that all Wilson children, except Max, were present at their mother’s death. Imagine Emmett and his twin brother Julian, bewildered eight-year-olds, holding their mother’s warm but lifeless hand, perhaps thinking ‘she might wake up,’ and yet everyone is saying goodbye. No one was prepared for this; no one knew how to handle it. Perhaps the young fellows were told to ‘be men’ now since their father would need them. Oy.

One final item of note from the article is this:

Elizabeth was a member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. That means she went to meetings; she read the literature about the problems of booze on individuals and families; she wore a white ribbon in support of abstinence from alcohol.

Source: ebay.com

I found out that members of the WCTU also had a White Ribbon Recruit ceremony, where members would bring their babies to dedicate them to the cause of temperance. At the ceremony, the parent-sponsors would pledge to help their children lead a life free of alcohol; a white ribbon was also tied around the baby’s wrist at the ceremony. I wonder if Elizabeth brought any of her children to such a ceremony, and if she took that pledge to help her children live sober lives.

===

Elizabeth Wilson may not have drank alcohol, but the men in her family did. That’s a fact; also, there is documentation that alcohol was a problem (for at least) the Wilson side of the family. Was booze a problem for the Maxwells? I’m not sure; but a letter from A.E. Maxwell’s son, Judge Evelyn C. Maxwell to a historian relates the story about how A.E. Maxwell loved toddies and during the Civil War regularly carried his own private trunk of sugar (a rare commodity) wherever he went to ensure he had his favorite drink whenever possible.

Could that be indicative of a drinking problem for Elizabeth’s father? Maybe.

Did Elizabeth understand that some of the men in her life were using alcohol as a means to escape discomfort, unease in their lives? Did she understand that drinking to avoid the demons in people lives was futile, because everyone has a demon of some sort on their backs, and drinking only made it worse?

Did Elizabeth see and understand Emmett’s demon before anyone else ever did, and she was, in fact, modeling how to live with that demon, not run from it, but to own it, because acknowledging it was the first step to being free of it?

And perhaps, this is the main reason why Emmett never really got over the loss of his mother during his brief life?

I wish we knew for sure.

 

Chapter 47: I cannot go home again

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December 28, 1900, 8 pm
Chipley, Florida

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895, 6th Street, Chipley, Florida. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

I have to get out of here. This is not my home. I don’t think it really ever was….

I walked through the vestibule, to the hallway, and opened the kitchen door.

In the kitchen, Esther glanced up at me and smiled, as she replaced a lid back on a simmering pot. She said something to me — I didn’t know what — but I muttered that I’d be back later, as I walked quickly through toward the back door.

She called out to me, but I didn’t answer her, closing the back door quickly behind me, as I sped down the back porch stairs, the screen door slamming behind me, and out into the yard.

I walked through the tall grass, stumbling over a few small shrubs, in the darkness towards the back yard, through the bushes along our the property line and crossing into the neighbors yard, and out onto the street behind our house — 5th Street — then I turned right, walking quickly down about a block, then turned right again to 6th Street.

I was a block away from my Father’s house.

I turned and looked back in the darkness — I could see the lights of the house in the distance.

I walked away from the house, from the town, down the dirt road. I just started walking. I walked faster.

I started to run.

If I ran, I could run away from the pressure that was creeping up my chest, the agonizing thoughts clouding my mind; I could beat this down, this feeling that was starting to choke me, bubbling up in my throat.

If I ran, and kept on going, I would tire myself out. I would be too tired to weep, to feel the anger and desire to destroy something or someone, to fuck someone, too tired to do anything to clear my head, to get these God awful feelings out of my system. I could sleep these feelings off, like I sleep off the fuzzy, buzzing, slightly nauseous sensations after a good drinking spree….Anything.

I would do ANYTHING to shut these DAMN feelings off…anything.

God.

Shut them off. Shut up. Shut up.

I kept running. I didn’t see where I was going along the darkened road; the moon was out; I didn’t choose where to go, I just knew I had to get the hell away from that house.

And away from myself, if I could.

I ran faster.

I heard nothing but the sound of my feet pacing quickly along the dirt road.

I ran until I couldn’t go anymore, and I was exhausted, spent; my side hurt and my feet hurt from running in my leather shoes; my shirt buttons undone here and there. My collar had come undone. I was sweating in the chill of the night.

Up ahead, there was a tree next to the road, an old oak tree, gnarled and twisted from years of dealing with hurricanes and storms and God knows what over the years.

Still alive, still defiant to all that nature had thrown against it, ugly, but alive. It had been suckered too, that tree, I thought. I was out of breath, my side cramped, my knees aching. I ambled up to it, I rested my hand against the tree, bent over, to catch my breath, to ease the pain in my side.

Several minutes went by as I stood there, panting; my breathing began to slow down, even out. The ache in my side was easing; I wiped the sweat of my brow off with my jacket sleeve. I looked about me; I realized I was on the old Orange Hill Road, about three or four miles out of Chipley.

I was at the driveway of my childhood home.

The house and property that were given to Elizabeth by her father, Judge Augustus Emmett Maxwell, in 1884. This is the original Wilson house on what is known as old Orange Hill Road today. Source: Elizabeth Meade Howard

The home of my childhood; the house my Father and Mother had built when they had moved back to the U.S., after they had lived in British Honduras for 10 years. 

My Father had the house built for my Mother, on 60 or so acres that Grandfather Maxwell gave her. Mother loved it; it was her first house of her own during her married life that she did not have to share with other family members. 

As I stood looking at the house, I realized I didn’t plan to come out here.

I didn’t want to come out here.

I never came out this way unless I could help it. I didn’t have a reason to come out here, ever.

And yet, here I was.

I looked up at the tree, dark, hulking in the moonlight. The old oak tree sat at the top of the long driveway that led to the house. I touched the tree, my flat palm on the trunk. It was solid. But twisted, dark. I peered into the darkness, down the driveway where the house stood. I could see a few pinpoints of light in the distance; lights in windows.

Another family lived there now. 

But no one was nearby; I am quite alone.

I leaned on the trunk of the tree.

I felt the emotions bubble back up again, warring with each other to get out first: Shame; humiliation, embarrassment, frustration, anxiety, want, emptiness, loneliness, awkwardness,

Mother….

This time, I didn’t push the feelings down, stifle them as I had been so used to doing all my life. I just felt them wash over me…overwhelm me. I knelt, next to that tree, under the weight, the avalanche of the pent-up feelings I didn’t know were there…. I buried my face in the crook of my arm as I sat under that tree.

 

 

Chapter 46: What we call fortuitous

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December 28, 1900, 7:30 pm
Chipley, Florida

“About done in there, Emmett?”

Wade Hampton Blake. Source: findagrave.com

Blake stuck his head around the door of the depot’s back office, where I sat at the telegraph, finishing the report for today’s telegraph messages. The key had been silent for the past 15 minutes or so, a blessing at the end of a busy, 12-hour long shift.

“Yes. Ticket receipts are in the safe, and the mail sorted for delivery. The only issue of note is that several parcels that were due to Mr. Wiselogel are delayed out of Jacksonville,” I said, nodding at the schedule on the clipboard hanging near the station manager’s window. “Mr. Wiselogel knows to expect delivery tomorrow on the Fast Mail.”

Blake nodded, as he scanned the various reports I’d finished and stacked neatly on the edge of the desk. “Well,” he said, as he looked over the papers, then back at me. “I’m going to miss having you around to run the office. No one is more attentive to detail and thorough on the job as you are. Your kid brother’s good — but not the professional you are. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”

Walker and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

I shrugged. My younger brother, Walker, was taking over for me after I left tomorrow with Paul to head back to West Florida Seminary. Walker was also accurate and a good worker — I ought to know, because I trained him. “I’m sure he’ll do a good job, Blake. Besides, I have other plans for the future. Not that I don’t appreciate working here.”

Blake smiled at me. “If I had the opportunity to go to college, I’d have taken it, too.”

I stood up, stretched, and rubbed my eyes. I had been at work since 6 am. I was tired and hungry; I really didn’t want to go home, because the house was still in upheaval since Frank’s arrival three days ago.

I wanted to stay busy and out of the house, away from the drama and tension. I can’t stand either; I wanted to be at work for as long as possible, and to return home only to sleep until the next shift. If I stayed out of the way, appearing only for meals and sleep, I could ease my way through the rest of the Christmas break before I headed back to Tallahassee. Besides: Managing the depot for the past three days meant I had earned a small amount towards my room and board at school for this next semester. Small, but better than nothing.

Blake, sensing my discomfort with the tension at home, had tactfully asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a few more shifts at the telegraph key while I was staying in Chipley, claiming he hadn’t had a break since the holidays.

He was only one of three people in town who knew about Frank; and I knew he would not talk about it to anyone. The only thing Blake had said to me about the incident with Frank was to ask if everything was OK. He didn’t pry. I said it was, nothing more. Blake knew to leave it alone.

I went over to the coat rack to get my jacket. Blake looked over at the paperwork on the desk while I pulled on my coat on and took my hat from the peg on the wall.

“See you tomorrow,” Blake said, as I opened the office door to the waiting room to leave the depot.

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

===

It was a clear, cold night. Chipley doesn’t have street lights in the way that larger cities like Tallahassee do, but it isn’t a dark walk home from the depot. Businesses across from the depot and along Railroad Street, are well lit, and people still at work even at this hour, the lamp lights from inside the second floor law firms and other business offices casting illumination onto the downtown streets.

As I walked along 6th Street towards home, I looked up at the sky. The stars were out. A first quarter Moon hung crisply in the darkness.

A 1998 photo of comet Giacobini-Zinner, which was reported to have been seen in the skies over North American in the last week of December, 1900. Source: Gary W. Cronk’s Cometography; photo copyright 1998 by Michael Jager

Suddenly, I saw a star — a meteor!— shoot quickly across the sky — it was so bright, so quick, and — so suddenly gone. 

My sister Katie — if she was here with me to witness it — would have said it was fortuitous, and an omen. How lucky we were to see it — the luck of witnessing such a phenomenon held deep meaning, she’d say — that the universe was trying to send me an important message.

I studied the sky again. What message would the universe be trying to send me? I knew there would be no trail of the burned-out meteor; no clue that whatever it was that sped through the sky that night even existed.

The moment made me feel a sense of dread, which I tried to dismiss. I’m not superstitious; it was chilly that evening, and so I quickened my pace towards the house.

===

I walked up the path to the front porch of Father’s house. There was only a small parlor light on, which did not cast much illumination onto the broad, wide porch. I knew my stepmother was home, as was Frank; Frank was being cared for in the rear of the house, in Father’s old infirmary.

As I mounted the steps, I didn’t notice that someone else was on the porch, waiting.

“Emmett,” the voice said, from the shadows.

Dr. Francis C. Wilson, Emmett’s father, smoking a pipe, taking it easy in the back yard, @ 1895, Chipley, Florida. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

It was my Father, sitting by himself, in the easy chair next to the window, smoking his pipe, alone.

“Father,” I said, as I turned to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“Quite all right,” Father said, puffing his pipe in the shadows. I could smell the smoke of the tobacco he used: Tangy, a hint of cloves. It had a comforting scent.

I knew that my father liked to sit by himself to think, at the end of a long day with patients in his office, and at house calls, and I turned to go into the house. “I’ll see you at dinner, Father,” I said.

“Emmett, just a moment. I’d like to talk to you.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.  I sat down in the chair opposite him; there was a table in between the two chairs. On the table was an ashtray with a pipe rest, an unlit oil lamp, a book, and a letter.

He puffed his pipe and put it on the pipe rest. He sat there for a few moments, not looking at me, not saying anything. He didn’t seem angry or upset; just tired. My father and I rarely had one-on-one private conversations. When we did, it was usually about something significant; ominous. I couldn’t help but have a sense of unease.

“How was your day?” Father asked.

“All right. Busy up until the last hour.”

“You’ve been on duty at the depot since early this morning. You were out before the rest of the house was up.”

“Yes,” I said.  I was never one for a lot of small talk; even this little bit of an exchange made me uncomfortable. I shifted about in my seat giving away my feelings of unease, but Father didn’t seem to notice, there in the shadows where we sat. He seemed distracted.

“Emmett, I’ve spoken to everyone else in the family about the situation with Frank and what lies ahead for our family, and of course, you need to know. The situation is critical. Frank’s not in good health, and yet, it is up to him to decide for himself what he will do.”

“I don’t understand. You’re his doctor.”

Father nodded. There was a fumbling about as he reached for his pipe, and placed it in his mouth again, settling back into the chair.

“His liver seems seriously damaged. But I don’t know the extent of the damage. Earlier today, Dr. McKinnon came in over from Marianna to examine him, at my request …” Father took a deep drag from the long pipe; the tobacco in the pipe bowl glowing bright orange, fading back and forth with his puffing.

“It’s not good, Emmett. McKinnon thinks the damage to Frank’s liver could be fatal without proper treatment. He needs to go to a hospital.”

I looked out at the front yard at that moment. A neighbor walked by at that moment and said hello to Father and me. “Nice evening,” he called to us. I looked over at Father, who projected nothing about this crisis in his body language or expression — so like Father. Even when Mother died…I wondered how Father was able to do that, convey tranquility, steadiness, when facing stress and calamity.  Father hid everything so well.…

“This is going to be tough on the family, but it is tougher on Frank. I’m not just talking about the surgery and the recovery. The real struggle has to do with his addiction. Frank has to stop drinking, absolutely, or he will certainly die within the next five or 10 years.”

“Five or 10 years? I asked. “But any sane man facing that kind of outcome would surely stop….”

“The drink habit affects every organ of a man’s body, including the brain, which makes the drunkard desire liquor above all things. They are, essentially, insane, Emmett. The only cure for survival is to stop, completely.” Father shook his head sadly. “We’ve tried sedating Frank some of the time, hoping that he would give up drinking, ease out of it.  But the only one who can get Frank to stop is himself. That, or die,” Father said, quietly.

“You said he would have to go to the hospital,” I said. “That means taking Frank to Mobile or New Orleans….”

Tuoro Hospital in New Orleans is the best option. The doctors there know how to treat him. In fact, tomorrow, when you go to the depot, I will give you a message to send by telegraph to New Orleans, to a doctor there, alerting him that I will be bringing Frank in a few days, as soon as he can stand the trip.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.

New Orleans — this was a three-day trip by train, and an expensive, lengthy stay away from Chipley for Father. He would not see patients during that time, nor would he run his pharmacy.  Someone would have to be hired to help out, run his pharmacy. This was going to be very expensive; a definite setback, after all the problems Father had had in the past two years, building his office, only to lose it in the Great Fire, then to rebuild it just this past September. And I leave in two days for Tallahassee….

The main WFS building, constructed in 1891; it was then replaced by Westcott Hall in 1909. Source: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory, http://floridamemory.com/items/show/11572

…at that moment I knew, with a sick dread, that I was not going back to Tallahassee.

I looked up at my Father, who had been watching me carefully, in the low light of the porch. I swallowed, and turned away.

“I’m sorry, Emmett. We cannot afford to pay your tuition another year,” Father said. “But it is just as well, since you have a good head on your shoulders. The pharmacy is going well, and we’ll have some money coming in there. I’ve long had you in mind as running the store, ideally as an eventual partner or owner.” 

NO! I thought to myself. Not that. Anything but that….

Father continued: ” I hadn’t though of you taking over quite so soon, but there is no time like the present — so, all you’d need to do is step in, learn on the job.”

No. No more. I couldn’t stand it. I took a deep breath.

“Father. I appreciate your offer, but I don’t want to run the pharmacy. I don’t want to go into business.”

Father tapped the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray on the table.  He sat back and regarded me, in the darkness. I couldn’t read his expression; however, I couldn’t tell as if he was angry, or disappointed.

“But Emmett. We’ve talked about this before; you’ve never said anything to the contrary. And in fact, that was part of our agreement with your going to college, that the formal instruction would be helpful for you in setting up a business…”

Albert Murphree, president of WFS; one of Emmett’s professors. Source: https://president.fsu.edu/president/past-presidents/albert-murphree/

“Yes,” I interrupted Father, “but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that my real interest is in law. It’s all I’ve been thinking about; I’ve even talked to Professor Murphree about the subjects I’ve been taking, which he tells me will be a fine foundation for law studies one day…”

Father watched me in silence, evaluating me, it seemed, as I spoke. “I see,” he said after awhile. “And how long have you known this?”

“ I think — I think I’ve always known,” I said. “It’s just something I’ve been feeling for a long time, just simmering away deep down. Even in Tallahassee, I was always thinking about the law — that’s why I joined the debate club. Just the ideas,” I said, sitting forward, “I can’t explain it, but I wasn’t happy at school. I was glad, grateful, but it all felt wrong to me.”

“And you want to be a lawyer?”

“Eventually, I want to be a judge, like Grandfather,” I said, breathlessly. “Honestly, Father, it’s all I’ve really ever wanted to do,” I ended.  I was scared, but relieved — it was out there, finally.

“Your grandfather would feel complimented, to be sure,” Father said. “But you don’t have to go to law school. You can do as Cephas did, working as a law clerk for several years, then sit for the bar….”

“I don’t want to do it the way Cephas has. I want to be better. I’m going to be better than him,” I said, in an excited, emphatic rush, that I know my father has never seen about me; he drew back and looked at me with a surprised expression.

“All right,” Father said after several minutes in silence.

“What? All right? You’re all right with this?” I could not believe what I was hearing.

Father nodded, cupping the bowl of his pipe in his hand, watching me carefully.

“Yes, son. But I want it clear: If you want this, you have to get it completely on your own. We will not finance another term at college for you. You’ll be on your own.”

He saw my downcast expression. “No help at all?”

“Let me finish, son. I’m not being hard on you here; but you have to understand that we gave you tuition to study at the university for the purpose of going into our family business, and you’ve decided you don’t want to do it. That was our agreement. And you aren’t upholding your end of the agreement. We are not wealthy, and we cannot be wasteful with resources. If you wish to attend law school, you’ll have to find your own way.”

I continued to sit in silence. 

“Therefore, son, you will need to get out in the world and work a while in an actual business. We will need your help around here, and I can use you at the pharmacy.”

“But Father…I don’t want.…”

“Then you can work at the depot. Or maybe ask around, see if one of the local lawyers needs a clerk. But if you cannot contribute to the expenses in some way, you’ll have to leave.”

“I have no other choices,” I said, tightly.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Emmett. You have many choices before you. But have to plan for both the long and the short term. Long term, you know that you want to go to law school. Short term, you have to find a way to finance that, plan for whatever it takes to get in. I know you, Emmett. I also know you’ve been given a lot of opportunities. These things that are happening — it seems like they are bad, but you have to remember that events are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is what we make of them.

“You’re a lot like Frank in this regard, you know,” Father said, looking at me as he puffed his pipe.”

“What do you mean?” I said, angrily — fearfully. Had Father found my hidden bottle of booze in the boy’s bedroom?

“Only that, like Frank, only you can decide what you want to do with this new opportunity that has come your way. Frank can choose to work hard to change his life. And you can too.”

I excused myself, and left my father sitting on the front porch.

===

When the realization of what happened came to me, as I went into the house and paused in the foyer — I felt as if I were dying inside. I took a deep breath.  At least I did not lose my composure in front of my father.

I was not going to lose my composure in front of my family.

I was not going to lose composure.

I was not going to lose composure.

I took another deep breath.

At that moment, my stepmother came out of the kitchen.

“Oh, good, Emmett. You’re here. Supper will be ready in a few minutes.”

I nodded at her, as she passed by me, and into the dining room.

I could hear the muffled sounds of my family in the dining room, next to the foyer; my stepsisters moving about, dishes and silverware clinking, murmuring of conversation, Mother Kate, my stepsisters in conversation. Frank would not be at the table, of course….

I could feel…Oh God. What I was feeling? It was overwhelming me, the shame, the sorrow, the anger, the frustration, the tightness in my chest. My face felt hot…

Stop it.

Calm down. I don’t know how to deal with these things that I feel so strongly, when they come over me… Stop it. But I cannot stop it. Alien, illogical, disordered things that are Feelings. They have no organization to them; best to ignore them.

But they will not be ignored tonight.

I think, drown them. I thought of my flask, now empty, hidden behind the books in my room. Dammit. Even if I could get to it, what would be the use?

I stood for only a moment on that porch, not knowing what to do.

And then, all I knew was that I had to get out of there.

Chapter 45: On Frank Jr.

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October 21, 2014
McKeldin Library Research Carrel

University of Maryland Campus, College Park

Francis C. Wilson Jr. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Sometimes when I hit a dead end in the Emmett Wilson research trek, I try a side-road, namely, I stop looking directly for Emmett and instead dig around for information about his siblings. I figure with nine brothers and sisters, the odds of my finding Wilson descendants were good.

And maybe, I’d find out more about Francis Childria Wilson, Jr.’s story.

===

I’ve been intrigued by a comment I’d received during a phone conversation with Walker Wilson’s grandson, Jim Milligan, who had kindly sent me a copy of his family’s genealogy; namely, that alcohol was a ‘problem’ for many of the Wilson siblings.

Some of the extensive side research I’ve conducted while working on my own sobriety has shown me that alcoholic tendencies run in families. It is, statistically, more likely someone will be alcoholic if one or both parents are alcoholic. I don’t know if Emmett’s parents drank extensively; but booze was a familial presence, at least in the medicinal sense.

Source: The Washington Examiner, 1912.

I’ve mentioned the booze issue with older brother Max, and with Jim’s grandfather, Walker in previous posts. Cephas doesn’t seem to have had a problem; nor did Emmett’s twin, Julian. Still,  it wouldn’t be much of a stretch if Emmett’s other siblings had problems with alcohol. It is possible that Emmett’s older brother, Frank, was also an alcoholic.

===

So, here’s what I know about Frank Jr.:

  • He was a lifelong railroader. Frank was one of the two older brothers who helped Emmett get a job with the railroad when Emmett was a teenager.
  • He loved fishing. As a kid, he would skip church to go fishing; in fact, he loved it so much that he eventually had a boat in Pensacola, and he would take his brothers out for a day of angling in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • He was a character. You might remember an earlier post where Frank actually asked his sister Katie to accompany him on his honeymoon — Katie wasn’t exactly sure if Frank was kidding. Perhaps, though it was because
  • He and Katie were always close. I have copies of several letters written by Frank to Katie (courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard), in which he you can tell he cherishes his sister.
  • Frank and Emmett were likely estranged at the time of Emmett’s death. 

There’s a clue that Frank Jr. might have had a problem with alcohol; namely this:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers.

Research on liver abscess indicates alcohol abuse is a factor. (There are several resources about it; I have several, but here are a few: here, and another is here.)  According to a timetable I built on Frank based on biographical information, he was ill frequently leading up to his collapse during Christmas, 1900. There are clues in the articles I gathered that indicate most of Frank’s illness issues were tied to alcohol.

Like Emmett, maybe Frank knew he had a problem, but didn’t know how to stop. The difference between Emmett and Frank is that Frank truly hit bottom, during Christmas, 1900. He almost died as a result of his illness — and whether or not Frank had as ‘bad’ an alcohol problem as Emmett, one thing we know for certain: Frank had to have been told that if he continued to drink after treatment, he’d kill himself.

And that seems to have been enough for Frank.

May McKinnon Wilson. Source: Bell Photograph Collection, University of West Florida Archives

Another reason I don’t think Frank drank again after hitting bottom had to do with his very strong willed wife, May McKinnon Wilson. May (pronounced with a short ‘a’, according Douglas Gillis, a direct descendant of the McKinnon family), was someone who loved with all her heart, who knew her own mind, and had unshakable faith in that which she decided to believe in.

May McKinnon Wilson was nobody’s fool. And she knew what she was getting when she married Frank Jr.

===

Frank and May were married October 24, 1901 in Marianna. They lived in several different places along the railroad line (Florala, Alabama; Pensacola) as Frank worked for the L&N all his life.

They had only one child, Mary Elizabeth Wilson.

Frank and May’s only child, Mary Elizabeth was five months old when she died on June 1, 1904. “A precious angel.”Source: Findagrave.com

Frank and May are buried in Marianna — and so, I reached out to my most awesome source for anything related to Jackson County, Florida history — the most awesome Sue Tindel, former court clerk of Jackson County, Florida and local historian. She put me in touch with one of her great-grand nephews, Douglas Gillis. He was kind enough to share a few anecdotes.

Here’s one Aunt May story:

I once asked Douglas if he knew if Aunt May was a strong temperance supporter; he said he didn’t, but he recalled “…Aunt May, my grandmother (a Jehovah’s witness) and Auntie [another relative] would only have a touch of wine around the holiday’s family gatherings (for medicinal purposes). So it could very well be [that Aunt May was a temperance supporter.].”

In some of the correspondence I’ve read from Frank to his sister, Katie Wilson Meade (generously shared with me by Elizabeth Meade Howard, Katie’s granddaughter), you can tell that Frank loved his family. He remembered birthdays. He caught up with his brothers and sisters with regular letters, mostly filled with humorous anecdotes. He sent amusing gifts to his siblings now and then ‘just because’. He loved his job working as a conductor for the railroad, and stayed until he absolutely had to retire. He loved to take family and friends to go fishing in his beloved boat, the “May.”

Frank took his brother-in-law fishing, along with a friend. From The Pensacola Journal, August 6, 1912. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

I often wonder what Emmett thought about Frank; a fun-loving, family-loving big-brother who appeared to live a life of gratitude and appreciation for what he had.

Despite his fun-loving nature, Frank had his share of hardships, but appears to have been the one to model how important it was to see things through to the end, without the distraction of booze. What’s more, Emmett had to have witnessed that the choice to drink or not drink, to live or die, was in Frank’s hands, and that Frank made the choice to live without a filter of liquor to ease life’s difficulties.

I sometimes wonder, having witnessed how close Frank came to dying at his own hands, why that didn’t stay with Emmett over the years, as he was faced with the choice to drink or die in 1914.

And I supposed that may have had something to do with Frank’s estrangement from Emmett in May, 1918.

 

Chapter 44: To be someone else

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December 25, 1900, 6:35 pm,
P&A Train Depot, Chipley, Florida

May 21, 1898 edition of The Chipley Banner. The story about the fire takes up most of the third page of the issue. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

The Chipley train depot is a long, gray-and-brown, rectangular wooden building that looks very much like the other Pensacola & Atlantic stations along the line. There’s nothing remarkable about it other than the fact it has been rebuilt a few times; it was one of the casualties of the Great Fire of 1898 which burned down most of the business district.

The depot has a waiting room outfitted with benches, a spittoon with lots of stains on the wall and flour around it; and a coal-burning stove in one corner. There’s two entrances: A passenger entrance on the front side of the depot facing the tracks, and another for freight and packages, which has scales and other equipment to load large loads, barrels, bales of hay, and so forth. The outhouse is further away behind the depot; a vile thing that you can smell even from a distance, especially if the day is hot and there is a breeze blowing in a certain direction. Inside is not much better; in Winter, the atmosphere is hot and stale because the coal stove in the waiting room gives off fumes.

Wade Hampton Blake. Source: findagrave.com

Wade Hampton Blake was at the ticket window when Paul and I walked into the depot. Blake is a tall man, with dark eyes and hair and a touch of gray at the temples.

He is only two years older than Paul and me, but he is sharp; smart beyond his years. He trained Julian and me to manage the station when we were 13; he taught us both Morse Code and telegraphy. Blake is specific, focused, no nonsense. I’ve always liked him because he doesn’t bother with a lot of small talk or inconsequential topics.

===

Julian and I were hired together to work at this depot; our first real jobs. Working for the P&A appealed to me because it offered a chance to earn regular employment at a decent wage in rural Florida, where, unless you owned a successful farm or business (or were a lawyer like Cephas), regular work and good pay are inconsistent at best. But most valuable to me was I saw  it as my ticket out of Chipley; to go somewhere important, to be someone important.

To be someone else.

My brother and I started out sweeping floors, bringing in coal for the waiting room stove. We helped passengers with their baggage on and off the train. We loaded parcels and other deliveries onto carts. We politely answered the same question 200 times a day: “What time is the next train?” even when the schedule was neatly written on the huge, prominent chalkboard in the waiting room, and you could clearly hear the whistle of the next train only about five miles down the track, as it was coming into the Chipley station.

It didn’t matter that our older brothers Meade and Frank, who were well known conductors on the L&N line got the jobs for us, or that Grandfather had once been the president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad after the War for several years. Blake made it known to Julian and me the first day that we had to prove ourselves worthy, or we’d be out lickety-split; that there was plenty of others who could and would come in and do our jobs.

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson, or Mother Kate.

Julian and I would work anywhere between 12 and 16 hour days, without complaining — well, Julian and I complained to each other, but we knew enough to keep it to ourselves, and to never say or act any way ungrateful about working for the railroad outside of home. Even around Mother Kate — who would occasionally say something about how tired we looked after a long shift — Julian and I would never complain about the work or the long hours. We didn’t want to chance her repeating our comments to someone outside the family.

Within a year, we were both promoted. Julian went to live with my brother Meade and his wife in Pensacola, to train in baggage and parcel management, and I was to train as assistant manager of the Chipley depot. I soon proved myself so responsible, that I was trained to be a ‘brass pounder,’ a telegrapher, which was the most important job of all at any depot. When I say that it was considered the most important job in the depot, I am not exaggerating: Telegraphers were responsible for ensuring signals were correct up and down the line, especially if there were last-minute track changes, or emergencies. A telegrapher was partially responsible for the safety of the travelers and the trains.  An incorrect message about an incoming train, or, perhaps, a weather advisory affecting schedules on down the line could mean accidents on the railroad — death. That never happened to me on my watch.

A telegraph machine in the holdings of the Chipley Historical Society museum. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Odom.

I enjoyed decoding the dots and dashes of the Morse language. It made sense. It was orderly, logical, unemotional, precise. It was easy and felt second-nature; Blake once told me he’d never had someone pick it up so easily under his tutelage as I did, nor so accurately.

The responsibility and importance of holding down the telegraph key was glamorous and exciting — the smooth, brisk tapping, clicking of the key as messages in Morse code pulsed via electricity through the wire, from Marianna, from Montgomery, from Louisville, and from thousands of miles away from big cities like Chicago or New York

Holding down the key at the station, as we called it, came easily to me. Once I became proficient, I could recognize who was on the other end of the telegraph, even though I had never met the other telegrapher, and he was a thousand miles away. Some brass pounders wrote streamlined, elegant messages; others were more clumsy, less accurate with their coding. It got to the point that I would hear the tapping of the code in my dreams; or in nature, as I walked across the country lanes and wooded paths around Washington County on my days off. My life as a telegrapher was solitary but respected, because I was accurate, and paid attention to detail.

After I became expert at sending and receiving wires, I was eventually sent out to manage small, rural train stations up and down the P&A line by myself. I’d be gone for a week, maybe two or three weeks at a time; often serving as night manager, which meant I’d be on duty, alone, from 8 pm until 8 am the next day. I was paid well, given room and board at mediocre hash houses.  And when one worked out of town, there were liberties after hours — I mostly behaved myself, as I did not want bad behavior reported back to either the manager, my brothers, or my father, but I did what other young men did on their own: Have a few drinks, enjoy a few of the girls who would hang out at the depot for that purpose. I kept my mouth shut. I did my job well without complaining, I earned good money, and I followed directions. I think my Father was proud of me, and my work.

===

Blake glances up as Paul and I pushed open the double doors of the empty depot, and wishes us a Merry Christmas.

“Anything I can do for you?”

“No. Just stopping by to see if anything was going on over the wires,” I said.

“Nope, no news,” Blake responds briskly. “How has your holiday been so far?”

“Fine,” I said.

The regular train schedule for the L&N. Source: The Chipley Banner, July 24, 1897. ChroniclingAmerica.gov

“Number two mail train due in a few minutes,” Blake said, consulting the clock over the doorway in the waiting room. “You’re welcome to stick around.”

We nod, glancing around the empty waiting room. We walk over to the benches where there were several out-of-town newspapers. Paul offers me another cigarette, which I decline.

“Say, Emmett,” Blake called out of the ticket window. “You wouldn’t have any free time this week to hold down the key for a shift or two? We’re kind of short handed.”

I hesitated. “Can’t you get some of the younger boys to come in?”

“I could, but I’d prefer to have someone on hand who’s accurate. I can raise your money a little bit,” Blake adds.

I shrug. “Sure. I’m in town only through the week though, as we’re headed back to Tallahassee for school.”

“Suits me,” Blake said. “Sure appreciate it, Emmett.”

“You sure you want back in the saddle again for a few days?” Paul asks.

“I can use the money. It will be nice to be a little bit ahead when we start back to school in a few weeks.”

Paul nods, then points out an article in one of the papers about Walter Kehoe and a case he had been working on before Christmas. We talk about it for a few minutes until we hear the whistle of the P&A eastbound from Pensacola, about two miles outside of town. Soon, we’d feel the rumble of the train as it pulled into the station, vibrating the wooden building slightly; the engine full of steam and power, slowing as the brakes squeal and creak to a slow stop, then the hissing of the engine as it vents one last blast of steam.

We both stand as the train pulls in; Paul puts the paper down, and we amble to the open doors of the station. We stand outside slightly to the right of the doorway, so as not to block the passengers who have business in the depot with Blake. There weren’t many people detraining; mostly businessmen with small satchels and carpetbags, who stood about looking for the nearest hotel— which is the only hotel in Chipley — the Central Hotel right across the street. There were only a few women deboarding the train, who were met at the station by family members in wagons and buggies.

We watch the small group of new arrivals walk about, get their bearings, and head toward their destinations. There wasn’t anything else going on here, so we began walking towards the corner of 6th and Railroad Streets, for home.

We had gone only about half a block, when I hear someone behind us yelling.

“Emmett! Emmett!”

Paul and I turn to see Blake rushing to the end of the depot sidewalk gesturing anxiously towards us. Paul and I glanced at each other, then walk quickly back to the depot.

“Emmett! Quickly,” Blake said.

We follow Blake around to the side of the depot, which is not visible to the street or to passengers boarding or detraining, and there, a train conductor and a porter are holding up a man between them — my brother, Frank — barely conscious.

“Frank!” I said, anxiously. I go over to take my brother off of the porter’s shoulder and Frank leans heavily on me. I can barely hold him, so Paul, the porter, and the conductor help me ease Frank on to a bench, and where we lay him down.

“What happened?” I ask, panicky, looking at my brother’s face. Frank only gives me a glazed expression. He is very pale, listless, his head wobbling.

“Frank!” I yell at him. “Talk to me!”

At which point Frank passes out.

“What happened?” I try not to sound panicked, but the hell is scared out of me. “What is wrong with him?”

“Well, son, it’s simple. He’s obviously drunk himself to incapacitation,” the porter replies with a smirk.

Blake narrowed his eyes at the porter. “This looks like more than a simple drunk to me.”

“Well, that’s what we got. He smells like a brewery, or worse.”

Blake turns to Paul. “Do you think you could get help? I can’t leave the depot and you two can’t get Frank to the house in this state.”

Paul nods. “Emmett, I’ll get your Father. I’ll be right back.” We watched as Paul ran, his lanky body disappearing down 6th Street. I knew he would run the entire six blocks to my Father’s house.

I crouch back down, to get a closer look at my brother in the lamplight of the depot. Frank did, indeed, give off a foul, revolting smell. I involuntarily turned my head aside for a second, but turned back to my brother.  His clothing — his conductor’s uniform — had oily stains on it, and his white shirt was dingy. I cannot believe this is my polished and professional older brother, a man so proud of his longtime status with the P&A; a man who  worked his way up from a luggage handler to one of the main conductors on the railroad; a man who holds a position of prominence in local Pensacola politics. 

I reach into his coat pocket, took out his pocketbook. I open it. There is Frank’s railroad identification; a letter addressed to him from Mae McKinnon; an IOU for $150 at Moog’s, a liquor distributor in Pensacola. I frown — the debt is equivalent to several months’ wages. It is not like him to borrow that much, or to borrow from anyone, and from a liquor distributor? 

Source: The Chipley Banner, March 31, 1900. From ChroniclingAmerica.gov

The conductor crouches down next to me, and looks at Frank a few moments. I say to him, “I can’t believe this is Frank. How long has he been like this?”

“I don’t know,” the conductor said.

Frank was pale, and an odd yellowish color. I didn’t know what I was looking at, what was wrong with Frank, but I sense he is dying. I touch his hand, which had fallen down from the bench where he lay. It felt clammy, cold. I panic.

“Oh my God, Frank,” I say to my unconscious brother.

Blake pats me on the shoulder. “Your father will be here soon.”

The two men who had brought him to the bench shifted uncomfortably. I look up at them; my expression unsettles them, because they look away. These two men were people my brother had worked with for several years on the L&N. I know they all know each other fairly well, and now, it was as if they didn’t want to know Frank.

And the train whistle sounds at that moment. 

“We’ve got to go,” the conductor says to the porter. They both turn without saying anything else, and head back to the train.

“Wait,” I say, standing up, and going to them. ”Can’t you tell me anything about how this came to be? Frank’s not a drunk. He’s not. I know him.”

“Sorry, kid, but I don’t think you know your brother as well as you think you do,” the conductor said. I stood watching them board the train. The whistle shrieks again, and the train rumbles off, headed East, toward Marianna.

Blake is still crouched next to my unconscious brother. In the distance, we hear the telegraph clicking. 

“I’m sorry, Emmett. I’ve got to answer that,” Blake said, standing up quickly. “Paul should be back shortly. Excuse me.”

I crouch next to Frank as he lay on the bench, in the fading light of this Christmas evening, waiting for my Father and my friend to come back, and not knowing what else to do. I take Frank’s cold hand in mine. 

For the second time in two days, I weep.

Chapter 43: Detour Unusual

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February 7, 2015
The American University Library, Washington, D.C.

One small screenshot of one page. Emmett’s entire timeline is well over 5,000 items long. Timelines created by the author.

 

For the record, I have documented everything you can imagine about Emmett, including family members and close friends of Emmett, receipts or documents mentioning Emmett, schools in which he was enrolled, clubs he attended, and so forth.

I like my data organized, chronological, structured. But most of the time, research data doesn’t come to you that way. So, you have to devise a sense of order for it to make sense; to tell a story.

Example: One day I found Emmett’s funeral record; the next day an article mentioning him playing a baseball game for the Chipley, Florida local team. Totally out of order.

But, if I strung them together on a timeline, I would basically have his life story in front of me, and this would help me write his story.

===

At this point, three years into Emmett’s research, I have a large chunk of Emmett’s life mapped out, except for some gap years; namely 1901 to 1902 and 1905 to 1907. The missing information for those years bothers me, because these are his early adult formative years, when he’s out of college and supposedly building his visibility for a political career. During these gap years, Emmett seems to just drop out sight. For a man who seemed to be hung up on ambition, to disappear during these very important formative years was strange.

From the 1899-1900 college catalog of The Seminary West of the Suwannee (better known as West Florida Seminary). Source: FSU Digital Repository

I think, well, maybe Emmett just had his nose to the grindstone in 1900-1901; laying low, studying hard, then maybe graduating.

The West Florida Seminary (late known as Florida State College, then Florida State University) catalog for 1900-1901 — released January, 1901. By now, Emmett is both Freshman and Sophomore. But this catalog is only for January of 1901. Source: FSU archives

He might have studied hard, but he didn’t graduate with his WFS class.

He isn’t in the 1901-1902 catalog.  In fact, he only finished half of his sophomore year (1900-1901) at West Florida Seminary (now Florida State University); not returning to Tallahassee with his best friend, Paul Carter, when school started at the end of January.

Although it is possible, I doubt he flunked out. I believe something else happened — something probably stood in the way of his completing his studies. The archivists at FSU tell me that contemporary media might have a clue. I jump on it right away.

====

I’m anxious as I pace back and forth in front of Bender Library on the campus of The American University in Washington, D.C. The doors will be open in a few minutes; I have faculty privileges at the university, so I plan to sit in front of a microfilm reader for hours, with the 1898-1903 microfilm of The Chipley Banner, graciously obtained for me via library loan from the University of West Florida.

Microfilm: It’s reel time consuming! One of several reels received via InterLIbrary Loan. Thanks so much to the archivists and librarians at UWF, AU, and U of Maryland for their help. Photo by the author.

I have no idea what I will find, if anything, because there are literally hundreds of unindexed pages to read through on the film. I’m well caffeinated; I have healthy snacks, and I’m looking forward to hours of losing myself in the old newspapers. There’s really no other way to gather the information I need to tell Emmett’s story without tediously reading every single microfilm page I can find. None of pages on the microfilm have been scanned anywhere yet. I think about filming myself doing this to show my research students what it really is like to seek hard-to-find data, since so many seem to want to give up if they don’t see it on the first three or four hits via Google.

===

OK. Two hours into the search, and I find something interesting:

From The Chipley Banner, December 29, 1900. Frank Wilson is Emmett’s older brother, who lives in Pensacola, and is a conductor with the M&M Railroad, later with the L&N Railroad.

What’s interesting about this is that Frank wasn’t present for Christmas with the rest of the Wilson brothers. He reportedly had to work;

And then, a few hours later, there’s this item:

From The Chipley Banner, January 19, 1901. Frank with an ‘abscess of the liver.’ The Wilson family genealogy mentions alcoholism among several of Emmett’s brothers. An ‘operation’ of this sort would have been serious in 1900.

Emmett’s family may have been comfortable, but they definitely were not wealthy. A trip to New Orleans for a stay at a hospital, and for Dr. Wilson to accompany his son the entire time was costly for the family. Dr. Wilson had to suspend his practice while he was gone, in addition to expenses for both Wilson and his son. Dr. Wilson and Frank were gone for several weeks.

If the Wilsons were supporting Emmett in college (very likely), this would definitely be a reason to delay his return to WFS to continue his studies.

From The Chipley Banner, February 16, 1901.

A little backstory:  Frank would later wed May McKinnon of Marianna. In 1900, Frank and May were not yet married, but they probably already knew each other:

U.S. Census page from 1900 via Ancestry.com: May McKinnon is single in 1900, and a telegraph operator (probably at the same railroad where Frank worked).

I wrote about Frank and May in an earlier EmmettWilson.com post; the family members who knew May indicated to me that she would have had a positive influence on Frank regarding cessation of his drinking. In fact, the New Orleans episode may have frightened Frank enough to stop drinking.

And then, I find this gold nugget:

From the February 23, 1901 edition of The Chipley Banner. One door closed for Emmett and another opened elsewhere.

As I think about this article, less than two months after Emmett returned home from WFS, perhaps it was a culmination of things that kept Emmett from returning to finish his sophomore year. Deep down, Emmett probably wanted to be a lawyer from the get-go, finding this out only after being in college and studying something he really didn’t like.

And instead of having to tell his father that he didn’t want to go back to school (after the family spent all that money for his tuition), Frank turns up ill, and that keeps Emmett from going back to school.

And, as that door closed on Emmett, another one opens up with the clerkship at D.J. Jones’ law office.

===

Finding these items in the film during my visit to Bender Library fuels me onward. I can’t wait to see what else is on the reel.

 

Chapter 42: The shape of a heart

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May 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Fort Morgan, Alabama

The crisp breeze off the Gulf of Mexico buffets me a little as I walk westward along the beach towards the old fort. The surf is comforting, but I watch my step as I walk along the edge of the warm water, because jellyfish have been plentiful along the beach this spring.

I’m alone; there is no one else here, either. It’s uncharacteristic, I think, for both myself and this popular spot along Alabama’s coast. Today is gorgeous: A bright blue sky, comfortable temperature, perfect for teenagers to skip class, or grownups to call in sick at work. I remember then that I did, in fact, decide to take today off because I’ve been working pretty much nonstop, every single day since April of last year, the day I ‘met’ Emmett Wilson.

I crouch down to watch the bubbles that pop up after the wave recedes; the bubbles that follow tiny crabs burrowing back down into the sand. I notice an interesting little shell. I pick it up; I turn it over in my hand, trace the edges with my finger. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone in the distance, walking towards me. As he gets closer, I can’t hear footsteps over the sound of the surf. It’s a tall man in a dark suit, black leather shoes, completely dressed in almost funeral attire on a beach. That alone should make me feel afraid, but I’m not. But there is something really weird about this —

He stops about a foot and a half away from me. I look up at the man’s face…

…Emmett.

He hold out his hand. He wants the shell. And then he says…

“Hey girl! Wanna take a walk?”

I start a bit, as my friend Elizabeth nudges me.

“Daydreaming?”

I laugh. “Yeah, I guess I zoned out for a little bit.”

“I don’t blame you,” she said, pulling her beach towel more snugly around her shoulders as she stood up. “You’ve been working nonstop on this Emmett project since you’ve been here. You gotta be wiped out.”

Elizabeth and I have been friends for decades. She’s the lovely, calm, easygoing one, who always seems to have it together, and I’m the dysfunctional kook who needed a drink to feel whole. Somehow, we compliment each other, enjoy each other’s company, are always there for each other even though we live about 1,000 miles apart.

She knew I would be in Pensacola for a few days, so she invited me to her family’s beach house in Fort Morgan to sit on the beach and decompress, to catch up, to reconnect.

The view from the back porch of Elizabeth’s beach house. I’m gonna walk down that road and right onto the sand in about five minutes. Photo by the author.

This is the place where we can both recharge our psychic batteries. Elizabeth knows me well; we’ve seen each other go through job crap, personal crap, spiritual crap — and yet, here we are, four decades after we first became friends in Sr. Mary Clarissa Rose’s typing class at St. Joseph High School. Picture it: Five desks across by six rows of desks in a cinderblock 1960s school. All the desks have Underwood manual typewriters on them. The room is loud with the clacking of typewriter keys against paper and platen; hands in proper position arched properly, students focused, intent on increasing words per minute to earn the nun’s approval.

The old St. Joseph High School in Jackson, Miss. The red arrow points to the typing classroom. Source: stjoebruins.com

This went on five days a week, nonstop. It was mind-numbing.

One day, as the class was deep into typing mode, I reached into my sweater pocket, quietly winding the stem on the side of the toy. I turned around and caught Elizabeth’s eye — she looked at me questioningly. I opened my hand slightly and showed her the toy. Elizabeth gaped at me, then stifled a laugh.

It looked sort-of like this. Image source: amazon.com

I surreptitiously bent down as if to tie my shoe, and let it loose.

The result was laughter, excitement, welcome distraction as students moved their feet out of the way of the hopping chick moving randomly under desks, down the aisles, towards the front of the class. No one tried to stop it.

Except Sr. Clarissa.

She swooped down one row of desks, then another to catch it. Although the tiny toy was fast and unpredictable in its movements, the nun was agile, used to herding errant and nonconforming teenagers for several decades. Sr. Clarissa swooped down upon the little toy and held as high as she could for all to see (she was 4′ 11″ and everyone was taller than she was, including me).

“Whose is this? Whose is this?” She repeatedly shouted to the now-silent classroom.

No one answered. I dared not respond; I knew Elizabeth would never rat me out, but she was damn near choking on stifled laughter behind me. Sr. Clarissa gave everyone in the class a dirty look, then ordered us to continue typing.

Sr. Clarissa kept the chick in her desk drawer for the rest of the school year — after I’d received my final grade in the typing class and knew I was safe from her holy wrath.

“You know that plastic wind-up chick I had in Sr. Clarissa’s class?”

“Yeah?”

“I found it the other day in a box of stuff from high school. Damn thing still works.”

Elizabeth snorts with laughter. “Sr. Charisma was so pissed.”

“And it was the start of a great friendship.”

“Yeah.”

===

The thing about our friendship is that we feel comfortable telling each other anything, and we can listen to each other without judgment. I’ve always felt completely at ease around Elizabeth; I’ve never felt that kind of trust with very many people in my life. Her friendship is one of the most precious things in my life.

She knew me before, during, and after my drinking career, and she’s one of the few friends still around. And she’s never judged me for any of that.

And because we are completely honest with each other, I’ve told her everything that I’ve learned about Emmett Wilson so far, and the research itself. Elizabeth is curious why Emmett fascinates me.

“It’s the whole mystery of him,” I tell her. I’ve told Elizabeth how I came across Emmett in the first place, completely unknown to me; how we are distantly related. “Why is this story important to tell? I’m still in the artifact-information gathering stage, so I honestly don’t know him very well yet. Eventually, I’ll just put everything in front of me, and try to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of his story. Maybe then I’ll know what’s at the heart of the story.”

“Do you have a crush on him?” Elizabeth asks me.

I laugh. “Yeah. A crush on a dead man. It’s kind of a one-way relationship.”

“Yes, but you know, he did kinda reach out to you. Maybe it isn’t as one way as you think.”

“I’m skeptical, but I will remain open minded,” I say, as we continue walking along the beach.

And then, we stop and admire the small shells at our feet. One of them catches my eye. I pick it up…

…and it is remarkably like the one that Emmett seemed to reach for in my dream.

“Oh, that’s pretty,” Elizabeth says, looking at the shell in my hand. “It looks like a heart.”

 

I still have it.