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.

Chapter 41: For once, I feel at ease

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Christmas Day, 1900, The Wilson Home,
Chipley, Florida

Have you ever seen pictures of seated royalty on their thrones? The ones featuring a king, with princes and other members of the royal family seated around a central authority figure in descending order of power?

If you stood Father’s front yard that afternoon, and saw how the male members of my family were seated on the porch, you’d understand who was in power in our family — and — to a certain degree, West Florida politics.

A.E. Maxwell, who also went by “Emmett;” our Emmett’s role model & hero. Photo taken about 1900. Source: FloridaMemory.com

In the center is my grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, whom friends called ‘Emmett’. He sits in a wicker easy chair, a toddy next to him on a table, and his cane hooked over the arm of his chair. Grandfather Maxwell is tall, but he has become stooped in old age, and lack of regular exercise over the years has put weight on his frame.

Grandfather Maxwell is listening thoughtfully, with his chin in his hand, in a posture I recognize from his days on the Florida Supreme Court bench, to Walter Kehoe talking about the Florida House election this coming January.

Although Walter had campaigned hard for the Florida House seat — and won — he resigned soon after the election when Governor William D. Bloxham asked him to serve as State’s Attorney upon the death of John H. McKinne, the previous State’s Attorney. Walter, who has long eyed a congressional seat at the U.S. House of Representatives, sas this as an opportunity that would eventually lead to that higher office later on.

The Weekly Tallahassean, November 22, 1900. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

My Father is seated on Grandfather’s right, holding a whiskey in his right hand. Father occasionally glances at Grandfather Maxwell with a look of concern; he murmurs something to Grandfather now and then, to gain assurance that he is comfortable. Although my Mother had been deceased for almost 10 years, the relationship between Grandfather Maxwell and my Father remains unchanged: Close, respectful. Father does not have the same relationship with his current father-in-law, the Rev. Thomas E. Langley; nor does he try to develop it into anything more than what it is: Distant, but polite. 

Father, Grandfather, Walter.

Triumvirate.

Next to Walter is my brother, Cephas, recently re-elected State Senator for Jackson County. 

The Weekly Tallahassean, October 4, 1900. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Ceph sits quietly, one leg crossed over the other, in another wicker easy chair on the porch, a drink in his hand, also listening to Walter, occasionally nodding at some point or the other. When Father isn’t looking at Grandfather Maxwell, he will glance over at Cephas, admiringly. Father does this unconsciously. And sometimes, when I see Father doing this, I have to look away. I desperately want Father to look at me like that: With utter pride.

My brother Percy, a physician, who apprenticed with my Father before attending medical school in Mobile, sits on my Father’s right; my brother Meade, a conductor with the P&A division of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, is on Cephas’ right. They, like my Father, also are involved in county politics, serving as election clerks, and on local Democratic executive committees — they are foot soldiers in state politics, as Cephas would says; not anything to be dismissed, because all political work eventually paves the way to important connections and positions.

Percy lives in Sneads, a small community north of Chipley, with his wife Bonnie; Meade lives in Pensacola with his wife, Carrie.

On the outermost periphery of the family circle is me, my twin brother Julian, and our oldest brother, Max.  Julian and I sit on the porch steps. Max is closer to the men in the semi-circle, but seated on a footstool, next to Meade. The older men don’t expect those of us on the periphery to say anything, because we are rarely asked to contribute.

Augustus Maxwell Wilson, oldest son of Dr. F.C. and Elizabeth Wilson. Source: Florida Memory.com

Max’s rightful place should be next to Father, or Walter, particularly as Max was a second-term state representative for Calhoun County. But Max’s position on the porch during family gatherings depends on whether he is in or out of favor with my Father — and on this day, he’s out. Father’s problem with Max is his inconsistency. Max is a good fellow but comes across as directionless — except for one thing: Max has spent his life trying to please Father. So, instead of finding a line of work he truly enjoys, he’s become a ‘chaser of rainbows,’ according to my brothers. Max also drinks heavily and has more of a reputation as a drinker instead anything else, which I know troubles Father to no end. Today, Max is seated on the footstool, mostly ignored. I think he knows it, but Max is playing the game, pretending not to notice being on the outside.

“Any progress on the new primary election law, Walter?” Father asked.

“Mostly talk right now, nothing definite,” Walter said. “No one will ever publicly say that they were against the Democratic process, but should the primaries be turned over to the general electorate, most of the party leaders who enjoyed the perks of office would be out.”

“The masses favor it, and no man who enjoys his current place in Democratic leadership would dare come out and gainsay them,” Father said.

“And yet, the country masses are fools,” Cephas said. “They would elect some uncultured bumpkin to do their bidding. Another Abraham Lincoln,” he added, shaking his head with contempt.”

“The masses may seem foolish on the outside, but it would be wrong to discount them,” Father said, glancing over at Grandfather, who sits in silence, his arms crossed, his faced bowed, listening.

“And how does one convince the masses that the current system is acceptable?” Meade asked. “The electors are not fools. They know how candidates are made — bought, actually,”  he said, as a bottle of Irish whiskey is passed to him by Walter. Meade refills his glass, and passes the bottle to back to Walter.

“Ah,” Walter said, as he pours a generous helping of the whiskey into his own glass. “That is the key, is it not? The language we propose to use in the bill will be cunning enough….”

“And the legislature will still refuse it,” Grandfather said, quietly. “Pity.”

At that moment, footsteps were heard coming from the side yard; it was Paul Carter, who had cut through our adjoining back yards, to join the group on the porch.

The men all greeted my best friend with friendly words, handshakes. Two of my brothers stood up to shake his hand; even Cephas rose partially out of his seat for Paul.  My Grandfather clasped Paul’s hand, giving him a kind look.

“Have a seat over with Emmett,” Father said to Paul, nodding over at me on the porch step. As Paul sat next to me, he nods. “Merry Christmas.” 

“The same to you,” I reply.

Paul fiddles with his shoelaces as we listened to the men talk alternatively about saving their current positions of power, keeping the election out of the hands of the unwashed masses, protecting the status quo.

I watch as Paul shakes his head, a frown on his face, as he listens. Then, he blurts: “This is insanity.” He stands up, and faces my family on the porch.

“What is it?” Grandfather asks, quietly.

“You must be kidding — the current system can’t last forever, this committee process of selecting the candidates for election in Florida. It is insanity, and you know it,”  Paul said.

There was an uncomfortable silence on the porch, as my brothers moved in their seats, looking away from Paul. But Meade asks,“What do you mean?” 

“It will change, all of it,” Paul said firmly, looking first at Meade, then at the rest of the men on the porch. “People — the general voting public — will soon understand what the definition of a dictator is, and they will come to see that this committee selection process in Florida is nothing short of that — take a look at what is happening in Europe,” Paul said. “Take a look at our own history, if you will. When the general voting public understands that their leadership resembles that of King George, that it is for the wealthy and privileged, and not the everyday man, that it is not truly representative of our nation’s populace, there will be a turnover. And, it will happen. You ought to prepare for that eventuality. Make the change part of your platform, or prepare to lose your place.”

No one spoke for a few moments. The silence grew uncomfortably. Paul shook his head at them.

“Let me ask everyone,” Paul said. “Do you believe in democracy for all, or only when it is convenient for you and your family’s personal interests?”

Cephas put his drink down on the table and stood up to face Paul. “What the hell? Of course not,” he retorts. “Of course I  believe in democracy for everyone; we all do,” as my brothers nodded slightly, but not looking at Paul.

Minnie was a trailblazer for professional women. She knew she had to keep her cool even in the face of cads, whereas I would have just told them where to go.

“How about for women who own businesses and have to pay taxes just like menfolk, like Walter’s sisters?” Paul added, nodding over at Walter, who is listening to the exchange with a frown. “Don’t they deserve to have a say about how their tax dollars are spent? It’s the same dollar, by the way, not a male dollar or female dollar. I’ll bet your sister Minnie would agree,” he added.

Cephas sighs. “I see your point, Paul and I agree with it to a certain extent, but…”

“But nothing, Ceph. Democracy is either for all, or it is not. Some of the changes coming may not exactly be popular with the stand-patters, such as yourself. That’s not progressive democracy. Some of our politicians are mostly paying lip service to it.” At that, Walter shifts uncomfortably in his seat.  “Whether you truly support a progressive democratic platform or not remains to be seen. I’m afraid you are part of the problem, though, Ceph; you are looking after your own comfort, not policies that work for the greater good.”

“That’s easy for someone like you to say,” Max retorts. “You have money, position, you aren’t dependent on anyone…”

“I could lose all of that at any moment, just like anyone else,” he said, quietly. The sorrowful image of Paul’s face when he was cleaning out his father’s office flashed in my mind. I can tell Paul is also thinking of his father….

From The Chipley Banner, January 14, 1899, page 3. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

Walter raises his eyebrow, with a little look of surprise at Paul, then he looks at me. Percy and Meade have shocked looks on their faces, they turn to look at Father, who is simpassive, and then at Cephas, scowling.

But Grandfather Maxwell has a quiet, wry smile on his face.

“Spoken like a true statesman,” Grandfather Maxwell says quietly, nodding at Paul. “Your father would be proud of you.”

The tension of the moment quickly abates. Paul clears his voice, pulls the sleeves of his suit coat. “Excuse me,” he says. “I apologize if I was rude and overspoke. I’ll take my leave.”

The men on the porch, still stunned by Paul’s outburst, murmur their goodbyes and wishes for a Merry Christmas to Paul as he turns and walks down the sidewalk, towards town.

“Excuse me,” I say to my Father and Grandfather, who nod their permission for me to leave.

I start down the porch steps, and catch up with Paul, who was already halfway down the block walking at an easy, comfortable pace despite the tension back on my Father’s porch. We continue in silence to the corner of 6th and Railroad Streets, then stop at the corner and looked around. All we can see are the closed-up shops, but there are a few men further down the street near the depot, walking about. There is no traffic, everyone was somewhere else.

Paul pulls his silver case out of his coat pocket, and offers me a cigarette. We both take one, and take turns lighting our cigarettes from his lucifer.

I take a deep draw, and exhale, blowing a long stream of cigarette smoke upward into the dark blue sky.

“I can’t believe what you did back there, and what you said in front of everyone. You had Cephas speechless for a change,” I say, with a chuckle.

Paul chuckled too. “Tell you the truth, Em, I’m a little stunned myself at what came out of me in front of your Grandfather, and Kehoe, too. But I am sincere about every single thing I said. Change is coming in our political environment. We have to coexist with it, or we lose the chance to make a real difference for our citizenry. You believe that, don’t you?”

“Yes; of course I do. But I never would have said it like that in front of them.”

“Well, why not? You either truly support democracy or you don’t. We certainly debated it back at the Seminary in often enough.”

“Well…” I hesitate.

“Well what?”

“I don’t know; I would have offended pretty much everyone on the porch.”

“Come on. It’s the truth. How is the truth offensive? It’s just the truth. I doubt seriously you and I, and your Grandfather, are the only ones who think this, by the way. For instance, Cephas. He knows what’s going on elsewhere in the country, in other state legislatures. He must know it is only a matter of time before United States Senators will be elected instead of appointed. For God’s sake, Kehoe’s on the damn committee looking into the change.”

I say nothing as we start to walk down the empty sidewalk. 

“So, what it is that you believe, Emmett?”

“All I know, all I’ve learned from Cephas, from watching my brothers, from listening to Kehoe and even to my Grandfather, is that I have to succeed, to avoid failure, to make it to the top, and to do that, I have to play this political game. So, it doesn’t matter, really, what I feel, or think, does it?  How is it that I’m supposed to speak up for what it is I truly believe in, when in fact, the route to success in our chosen profession is to live a lie the entire time to get to where it is we want to be? How is that logical?”

“I don’t know. But it’s not always like that.”

“I just…. I wish I didn’t care. I hate the games playing,” I take a last deep drag off of my cigarette, exhaled the smoke, and throw the butt into the rutted dirt road.

“You know, I don’t think it is completely like that,” Paul said. “I agree that the road to the judiciary is like playing a game. But it is that way with most goals we set for ourselves. And I really don’t think you have to check your integrity at the door. I know my Father never did when he was on the bench; even his friends used to tell me that he was one of the most trusted lawyers in West Florida. It took him a long time to get to where he was, though, because he didn’t sell out to the factions and he didn’t play games.”

“I remember,” I said.

“I know that you want to get to where you’re going fast,” Paul adds. “You’ll get there. But not tomorrow. Maybe not for a few years, and that’s just being logical. I think you know this already.”

“Well. It’s all probably moot anyway.”

“What do you mean?” Paul asked.

“Father has this idea I’m going to work for him in the pharmacy as soon as I’m done at the Seminary. The idea of working for Father day in and day out here in Chipley…” I shook my head. “I can’t do it, Paul. I can barely stand being here for the Christmas break much less the idea of living here permanently. I’ll go out of my mind.”

“How did he come to that decision?”

“I don’t know. But he told me, in front of Walter, that it was an ideal situation, and he’s pleased. And for the first time, I feel like I have my Father’s approval.”

“Emmett, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve done what other people have told you what to do. Where to work, because they think it is a good opportunity for you. What to study, because they think it would be useful for you. What to think, even…”

“Now wait a minute…”

“You do what a lot of other people — mostly your family — say, because they have your best interests at heart. But, I don’t think they really know you, or what you want, or what makes you happy.”

“They think I can be happy once I get settled down and become successful.”

“Look, Em, I can see you as a lawyer. You definitely have the intelligence and mindset for it. Your Father may not be thrilled about it at first, but you’ll eventually have his support. I know your Grandfather would approve. Cephas would; certainly Walter. You won’t be alone, you know.”

“Father would think that I’ve wasted time and money.”

“What if you went all the way through, for four years at the Seminary, then figured out you wanted to go to law school? Think of all the money you would have spent on a degree that you really didn’t want.”

“True,” I said.

“I take it you’ve decided what you want to do.”

“Yes. Finish out the Sophomore year — and transfer to Stetson.”

He nods. “We’ll be there together, you know. We’ll have a grand time.”

I grin at Paul. “We will.”

I chuck him on the shoulder as we walk toward the Chipley depot.

For the first time since I’ve been home, I feel at ease.

Chapter 40: Awesomeness and Context (Walking in Emmett’s Footsteps, part 2 )

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May 18, 2014, 11:40 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

Clearly, I am in the presence of awesomeness.

I can’t describe it, but  as I walk around historic downtown Pensacola with Jacki Wilson, retracing Emmett Wilson’s everyday steps, I am aware and humbled by her true awesomeness.

The awesome Jacki Wilson showing me the old houses in historic Pensacola. Photo by the author.

For the record, my relationship with Jacki grew mostly from lengthy email messages on a variety of Emmett and Pensacola topics; messages that were back and forth for several months. That can be an awkward way to start friendships, but as I walk with her, I feel accepted and totally at ease, just as one would a friend I’d known for years. What comes out in our hanging-out together is an appreciation for history and mystery, and a love of obscure facts that tell the deep story of people long gone.

And in fact, she’s introducing me as her friend and a fellow researcher as we walk about in Pensacola.

It’s humbling. In this moment I realize how precious this dual gift of acceptance and friendship really is — and I receive it thanks to the man who was pretty much shunned the last year of his life. How ironic. Yet how gratifying.

The other thing you have to really admire about Jacki is her access. EVERYONE knows here in this, downtown and historic Pensacola. She knows where to go.

Plus, she has a BADGE. That badge is power. But the lady wearing it is graceful and easy with such access. I tell this to Jacki, who beams at me.

“Yeah, well,” Jacki says with a laugh. “I enjoy my work.”

Jacki inviting me into historic Seville Tower, once known as the American Bank Building. Emmett’s office was on the top floor. Photo by the author.

Before I know it, we are in front of a tall pink building. Seville Tower, once known as the American National Bank Building, constructed in 1909. This is where Emmett had a law office with his partner, J. Walter Kehoe, on the 7th floor.

As you walk through the doors, there is a giant antique bookcase on the left hand wall. I wonder if Emmett ever saw this. Photo by the author.

Jacki says the building is on the National Historic Register, so it is mostly unchanged — and that goes also for the claustraphobically small elevator. Once upon a time, there was an elevator operator for this thing, Jacki says. Imagine how tight it was back in the day!

As we ascend to the 7th floor, I’m a bit hesitant as it is a law firm, we weren’t really coming with any advance  notice, and people were working, but Jacki is not a woman to be dissuaded for any historical fact-finding mission! That badge, you know, lends lost of authority.

(O.K. To be clear, her ‘badge’ is her Pensacola Historical Society nametag, but it has clout in this town. I digress.)

Looking out of Emmett's office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB. He used to work on the third floor of the one across the street.

Looking out of what may have been Emmett’s office on the 7th floor of the original ANBB to the old Customs House, where Emmett’s office was on the third floor. Today it is an art gallery and cultural events are held there. Photo by the author.

The doors to the elevator open to a law firm. The receptionist did not seem at all inconvenienced when Jacki explained out mission — she was very nice and let us take a look out of different windows of the office to see what Emmett may have seen back in the day — namely, his other old office building, which was (and is) right across the street.

Back in Emmett’s day, the building across the street was called the Customs House. It housed the post office, and several federal offices, which were located on the third floor. Emmett was the assistant district attorney for several years; so, his office was on the third floor of the Customs House.

The background about Emmett as the assistant D.A., I tell Jacki, was that he was the youngest D.A. in the country at the time. Also, when Emmett was named to the position, a lot of people were surprised because a) Emmett didn’t seek the job outright and b) he had little experience.

Emmett appointed acting U.S. District Attorney, until Fred Cubberly would come along in 1908. The photo is Emmett’s law school graduation photo. Source: PEN, September 7, 1907.

As we walked across the street to the Customs House, Jacki nodded her understanding, adding that not much seems to have changed in 100 years in political partisanship.

The Customs House is now an art museum. But when Emmett was a congressman in 1913, it had needed a lot of repairs. He lobbied for (and got) a $30K appropriation for the improvements. Today, that would be about $630,000. The improvements needed then were cosmetic (wall repair, painting, light fixtures, sidewalk). Unfortunately, something happened before the repairs were finished: The appropriations, somehow, never materialized, and the local party bosses (and community) blamed it on Emmett’s incompetency and/or ineffectiveness.

Editor Frank Mayes (and other political bosses) came to believe Emmett didn’t care enough about this project to see it through. Source: The Pensacola Journal, Oct 1914.

The Customs House today.

The Customs House today. Photo by the author.

Regardless, it looks as if the people of Pensacola care a lot about this historic building, because it is in excellent condition today.

One of the things I talked with Jacki about was the fact that there WAS a chance for Emmett to turn his image of incompetency around re the Customs House appropriation mess. In fact, Emmett did follow up on the issue. A mistake was definitely made somewhere in the bureaucratic document shuffling that is Washington, D.C. But in Pensacola, the only thing people understood was that Emmett said one thing, but something else happened:

The Montgomery Advertiser, October 27, 1914. Source: GenealogyBank.com

 

“But he didn’t. Or, he couldn’t,” Jacki said.

I think the political machinery was too much; that Emmett might have sold his soul, so to speak, for quick gain, to make something of himself so that he would be independent, or to feel good about himself, to feel fulfilled — and of course, I’m just guessing here at this point, I tell Jacki, as we walk along the sidewalks toward a diner for lunch.  “There’s a scrapbook that he willed to a friend, that somebody got, kept, treasured for a little while anyway. I just wish I could find it.”

Maybe you will, Jacki said. I hope so, anyway.

Lunch with the most awesome Jacki Wilson after the grand tour of historic Pensacola!

 

I hope so too.

But for now, I treasure one of the best gifts of Emmett’s research, and that is of friendship.

 

Chapter 39: Walking in Emmett’s footsteps, part 1

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May 18, 2014, 10:45 a.m. Pensacola Historic District

It wasn’t hard to find the parking lot behind the old City Hall building in downtown Pensacola. Even if my van’s GPS decided to conk out, one wouldn’t get lost. The darn thing is a hulking example of beige Spanish architecture. It’s pretty, unique. You can’t miss it.

The Old City Hall, now the T.T. Wentworth Museum. Source: historicpensacola.org

Speaking of unique, I’m meeting the head archivist of the Pensacola Historical Society for a walkabout of Emmett’s old haunts this morning: His old offices; the park he probably walked through; the site of the old theatre where he watched vaudeville or maybe a picture show; the place where he filled prescriptions or bought shoelaces when his broke; the place where he probably ate, or argued with friends, or laughed, or cried in private, perhaps.

I really can’t wait — this woman is truly one of a kind. She and I have been emailing each other for months about my research. She’s been patient, helpful, and wonderfully interested in what I’m doing, though I admit having a hard time accepting the last part — I mean, Emmett as a research topic is odd and obscure.

But Jacki Wilson loves the obscure and unique. She’s someone who gets what it is like to track down disparate mysterious pieces of what seems to be disconnected information. She is also someone who understands these pieces are often connected and lead to greater understanding of who we are today, and where we’re going.

Historic Pensacola Village

The first thing Jacki and I did, after we met, was to visit the Pensacola National Register Historic District — a group of 27 properties in all — and to tour several that were specific to 1890-1920, several, Jacki said, were certainly homes that Emmett likely would have visited, because they belonged to prominent Pensacolians. And at a minimum, she said, I’d get an understanding of the decor, the home environment, the economic scale of which Emmett was accustomed. He was, after all, moving in high society circles up to the point that he was a U.S. Congressman, so that made perfect sense.

She’d reminded me in an earlier email that even though Emmett was their congressman, there was absolutely nothing of significance in their holdings about him. So, Jacki’s interested in Emmett too. She reminded me that Emmett’s grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, was hugely important in Pensacola — it seems strange to her that given the connection the archive has nothing on Emmett.

A sitting room. Photo by the author.

A quiet corner inside another Victorian sitting room. Photo by the author

One example of a Victorian bedroom. Photo by the author.

Another bedroom in one of the Pensacola houses. Photo by the author.

Calling cards on a vestibule table in one of the houses. EW would have left his card, too. And no, his wasn’t in this pile. Photo by the author.

Another house — this one Jacki said was rumored to be haunted, by not by Emmett. Photo by the author.

We walked over to the original 1832 Christ Church on 405 South Adams Street, which is still in the Pensacola National Register Historic District. Jacki tells me that this would be church that Emmett’s mother, Elizabeth Maxwell Wilson and his grandfather, Augustus Emmett Maxwell, would have attended when they lived in Pensacola. The ‘newer’ Christ Church — the one Emmett attended — and was buried from — was built in 1903 and is located at 18 West Wright Street.

Side view of Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside Old Christ Church. Photo by the author.

Inside old Christ Church. Somehow we set off the alarm when we were walking around in here — but we didn’t get in trouble because Jacki Wilson is a historian superhero and knows everyone who has anything to do with historic facilities in Pensacola.  Photo by the author.

Next, we walked towards the business district. Jacki points out two sites of significance: the Blount Building where Emmett’s uncle Evelyn Maxwell worked. Jacki and I had had an email conversation about Emmett’s uncle and grandfather; both were and still are much revered in Pensacola history. She wasn’t surprised that Emmett’s family had paved the way for him more than a few times; that seemed natural then as now for established family to help those on the way up.

Uncle Evelyn gave Emmett his first job when when he moved to Pensacola in 1906 after he’d was either fired or ‘invited’ to quit from his ‘dream job’ in Sterling, Illinois,” I tell Jacki, as we look at the building from across the street. I can — and do — point out Evelyn Maxwell’s old office window on the corner, four floors up.

The Blount Building, about 1909. Source: Floridamemory.com

Blount building today. Source: Wikipedia.

“An interesting thing about Emmett — he had a lot of opportunities given to him, literally, that he didn’t seem to have to work too hard for — and it seems like he just never was able to launch successfully,” I say to Jacki.

Maybe that was the problem, Jacki says. Maybe something about him was never developed; maybe that held him back all his life.

“And maybe that was really what was at the heart of who he was, something broken that he never got over.”

Maybe there was a broken heart involved, she says, as we walk along the sidewalk towards a giant pink building that was the tallest structure in West Florida during Emmett’s time.

 

 

Chapter 38: No One Will Ever Know This

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December 22, 1900
The Dr. F.C. Wilson House, 6th Street, Chipley

When I reached the house, I was out of breath. The air was sharp and cold; I could see my breath as I exhaled.

Dr. F.C. Wilson’s house, about 1895. Photographer unknown. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

I stopped on the top porch step, and took in a few slow, deep breaths. I turned to look out onto the street as one or two horses and wagons went by at a slow, steady pace; the horses snorting and the hardware making a clinking-jingling sound with the animal’s movements. The sun was sinking in the late afternoon sky, a sapphire blue, but with orange, pink, and purple clouds streaking the sky. The beauty of the sunset combined calmed me somewhat, though I was still agitated by Father’s words.

As I stood in the sunset on my Father’s porch, I reasoned with myself: I’d long wanted his approval. I didn’t even think I had his attention for years.

But hearing Father proclaim my role in the family business in front of Walter was a revelation: Father’s approval meant I could join the inner circle of my family. I would be included with my older brothers and their discussions.

I would accepted. Unconditionally.

I felt pressure inside my chest and reflexively, I put my hand there. God.

I didn’t want to work for Father. I didn’t want to live in Chipley. I’d realized this past semester while at West Florida Seminary, that I didn’t belong there, and I didn’t belong here, in Chipley anymore. What I really wanted to do was study law. So, I had to get to law school, somehow. I had no idea how to do that; I didn’t have money, and I for sure wasn’t old enough yet.

My family had already chipped in a lot for me to go to West Florida Seminary; even my younger brothers brothers had to contribute, so the idea of me trying again somewhere else on the family’s budget was out of the question. 

From the Wilson family genealogy, courtesy of the family of John Evans Wilson.

I had to become independent; someone important. Without obligation to anyone, including Father. And I didn’t know what to do about it.

I shook my head, frustrated.

I turned and opened the front door.

“Hello?” I called into the house. “Mother Kate?”

There was no answer in the house; but the light was on in the entryway, the coal fireplace was glowing.

From the back of the house, in the kitchen, I heard pots and pans rattling about and the clatter of metal spoons on porcelain dishes. I walked through the foyer, down the hall and pushed open the kitchen door.

“Hello?” I said, sticking my head around the door as I opened it.

A large Negro woman wrapped in a white apron and red and white checked dress turned around, quickly; startled, but her expression changed to a warm, welcoming smile and outstretched hands.

“Why, hello Mistah Emmett,” she said, coming over to me, gently taking my chilled hand in both of her large, warm hands. “We’ve been expecting you! Welcome home.”

“Hello Esther. Is Mother Kate around?”

“Naw suh, no one’s home right now; they’re all in town getting things for the big dinner this week, and finishing up a little shopping.” Esther looked at the clock on the wall over the icebox. “She should be home soon, though. Why don’t you put your things in the boy’s room, settle in?”

“All right.”

“Hongry?” She asked.

I nodded. The kitchen was full of good smells and was warm, welcoming. As I turned to walk out of kitchen, I asked, “Is that chocolate cake I smell?”

Esther grinned back at me broadly over he shoulder. “Sho is. Still your favorite?”

“Sho is,” I said, smiling back at her. She nodded at me, satisfied, and turned back to her stove, managing the chaos of dinner for our large family over the steaming pots and pans, and clattering about with spoons and serving platters.

My brother Walker’s room — where all the boys slept when they visited Father — was next to the kitchen; I put my bags on the bottom bunk bed. I’d be sharing the room with Walker, my youngest brother, who attended Chipley High School; still living at home.

I stood still to listen for a moment — I could only hear Esther singing hymns as she cooked. No one else was here.

I took the flask out of my coat pocket and drank the little bit that was left. I didn’t care if my breath smelled slightly like whiskey at that point. The little bit warmed my mouth, but that was it. Nothing. I didn’t feel the lightening of spirit that usually accompanied a drink — probably because it was only a mouthful. That wouldn’t do while I was here. I would need more. But for now, I needed to hide my flask. I examined the bookshelf on the wall behind the door to the room, but thought that was an obvious place. I opened the closet, and felt the ledge over the door frame — it was dusty. Perfect. I placed my flask safely on the shelf and closed the closet door.

I sat on the bed, closed my eyes. I felt anxious and stressed —  if I could only find another way to get that lightening of spirit —

I opened my eyes. I remembered.

I walked to the hallway, and paused, listening. I didn’t hear anything except Esther, still singing in the kitchen. I walked down the hallway to the parlor, and turned right. I slid open the pocket doors that led to the parlor. No one here.

The parlor was chilly without a fire in the hearth; there was a tree in a stand in the far left corner of the room, near the window facing the street. It looked forlorn without ornaments, which were in boxes next to the tree, stacked on the floor. The scent of cedar filled the room. It was probably cut just and nailed onto its x-shaped stand this morning.

I quietly closed the parlor doors, and walked back to the center hallway. I glanced towards the bedrooms on the other side. The doors were closed. I turned left, and walked towards the end of the hallway. I didn’t think anyone was in the room, but I knocked softly anyway.

No answer.

I carefully turned the opened the door. It was dark, quiet. I sighed with relief.

I pushed the light switch button and closed the door.

I was in Father’s office; rather, his old home office. He still maintained his home office in the event of emergencies, for patients that needed to see him late at night or who could not get to his office downtown. It was fully stocked, of course. That was Father’s way: Always prepared for any contingency. It felt odd being in here; Father’s office was clean, but had the feeling of disuse.

Father kept his medical supplies, including whiskey, which he was licensed to prescribe for medicinal purposes in a locked closet.

I went over to the desk, and opened the drawer. There it was, the key to the medicine closet, on a red ribbon. I took the key out, and went over to the closet door.

As I slipped the key into the lock, and turned it, the hinges creaked slightly as I opened the door. I reached up and pulled the string that turned on the closet light.

Aha!

A full shelf of Irish whiskey. I breathed out in relief. Thank God. I reached up to take a bottle….

“Emmett?”

I froze. I turned.

Mother Kate. She stood looking around the door of Father’s office.

“Emmett, are you all right?”

“Yes, I’m sorry, Mother Kate, but I have a terrible headache. I’ve had one all day, and I can’t seem to get rid of it. I know Father has a supply of headache powders, and I was looking for them.”

“Oh, of course, Emmett. You poor dear. I’m sorry. Let me get that for you. It’s over here, in this other cabinet,” she said, motioning to me.

“Thank you,” I said, hoping I sounded grateful, and not scared out of my wits.

I turned the light off in the closet and closed the door, while Mother Kate opened a cabinet and took out a Bromo-Seltzer box. From it, she withdrew a paper wrapper with a headache powder dosage in it. I relocked the closet door and handed the key to Mother Kate, who slid it in her pocket.

“Let me mix this up for you, all right?”

She waited for me to precede her out of Father’s office, then she turned out the light, and closed Father’s office door behind us.

She bustled off to the kitchen, with me in her wake. I think I covered myself adequately, as Mother Kate had me sit down at the kitchen table. Mother Kate might mention it to Father, though. I don’t believe Father would think anything of it, especially as I had turned down the drink in his office. As she put the headache powder in a glass, added water, and stirred it briskly, I thought, how in the world am I going to get to Father’s whiskey? All I need is just a bit, just enough to give me relief from my constant anxiety — at that moment, I unconsciously rubbed my forehead.

“Here you are, Emmett,” Mother Kate said.

I took it gratefully, drank it quickly. She nodded, with a tight, efficient smile.

“Better?” She asked.

I nodded. “Thank you.”

“Now. I know it isn’t quite suppertime, but I am going to fix you something to eat.  You’re tired, you’ve been working hard, and the train ride in from Tallahassee means you haven’t had a decent meal yet.”

(L to R): Lucille, Kate (“Mother Kate”), and Catherine Caroline (late known as Miss John) Jordan. Source: Lucy Gray

I nodded, not saying anything. Mother Kate was in charge here. She was the kind of person who swooped in on a problem to solve it, regardless of what it was, or if the person wanted help, and mostly by feeding it well.

Esther handed Mother Kate a dish upon which she spooned potatoes, roast chicken, and lima beans, in heaping amounts. The dinner rolls had just come out of the oven; Mother Kate took one off the cooling rack, and placed it on the plate alongside the vegetables. It all smelled delicious; I realized that I truly was hungry, and grateful for her solicitousness.

She put the plate before me, then poured a glass of milk from the pitcher in the kitchen safe without asking me if I wanted it, and finally, handed me a fork from the cutlery drawer. I thanked her, and started eating.

She smiled at me. “If you don’t mind, I’ll go into the dining room and set the table for supper in there. You know you are welcome to join us at the regular hour if you are still hungry, or if you just want to sit with everyone if you are full. But I think you might ought to take a nap after you eat. You look worn out, Emmett.”

“Thank you,” I said, in between bites. Mother Kate nodded, turned, and left.

The room was warm, with good smells, and comforting; no talking was necessary. I could sit there and think, and just eat my supper. I preferred eating in the kitchen over the formal dining room anyway. The comfort of the kitchen was allaying my feelings of tension and anxiety, but I knew it would only be temporary — God, if I could only just relax, be at peace — I was so tired of being anxious and tense all the time. I felt my eyes stinging — this would not do. I wiped them as surreptitiously as I could with the napkin.

“Want some more chicken, Mistah Emmett?” I nodded. She put a chicken breast and a drumstick on my plate.

I nodded my thanks to her.

“Ah’s mighty proud of you, Mistah Emmett,” Esther said, gently, patting me on the shoulder. “Ah know your Momma is shore proud of you too, watchin’ down on you as she is from up in Heaven.”

I swallowed hard. My eyes filled again briefly, I quickly blinked the moisture away. I nodded, and didn’t look up at her; rather I continued to eat busily.

Esther headed out of the kitchen to help Mother Kate out in the dining room.

When she left, I wiped my face with my napkin. I took a deep breath. I drank the entire glass of milk in front of me. I was full, and felt better, thanks to Esther’s cooking. The wave of sadness that had come over me was fading.  I wiped my mouth; got up and went to the cabinet and took down a small white plate. I took a knife and carved a medium slice of chocolate cake, and took it back to the table.

Maybe it was the combination of the good meal and the Bromo-Seltzer, but I noticed I felt better. I picked up my plates and put them in the sink.

I stepped out of the back door of the kitchen, down the steps, to the yard in the rear, to get a breath of fresh air. Mother Kate kept chickens and turkeys in a pen, like everyone else did in the neighborhood. Also, a small shed which provided shelter for a cow, which was grazing in the back yard.

Along the side of the house, near the back porch, were several rose bushes. I walked over to them, touched their leaves with my fingertips; felt their waxiness, their slightly jagged edges.

As I studied the bushes, all still healthy and green even in December, I noticed one of them had a small rosebud, the only bud on all five of the bushes; a late bloomer. It was dark red, and if the weather was warm enough tomorrow, it would probably open up. I went over to it, touched it. Maybe I’m a late bloomer too, I thought. 

These were my Mother’s rosebushes.

I remember that after she died — almost 10 years ago — no one took care of them. No one seemed to want to, or had the heart to do it. So, the rosebushes became misshapen. Aphids took over, as did weeds, choking and destroying the garden my Mother tended and loved so much.

When Mother died, it was as if the life force had been sucked out of our family. And our family was dying, or so it seemed.

But Mother Kate had come along. Father married her after a decent interval, and began to set things even. 

She’d said it was a shame to let these beautiful bushes go, that they needed love and attention, as we all did, and while she would never presume to take our Mother’s place, it wasn’t right that something my Mother loved should not be cared for —

So she took care of my Mother’s rose bushes. And they became beautiful again.

I like Mother Kate. She’s a good stepmother. She truly cares for our family, and even though ours is a large one, she goes out of her way to connect to all of us, on an individual level, now and then.

For instance, she sent me small packages while I was in Tallahassee, which usually included a few local newspapers, a novel or two, some cookies, a pair of socks, a few dollars, and a letter from one of my sisters. She’s doing things for me that my own mother would do if she were still alive.

But she isn’t my Mother.

I heard voices around the front of the house; family members were arriving. I don’t want anyone finding me out here, tears streaming down my face, as I held my breath, so that no one would hear me sob. No one else will ever know this.

I miss my Mother.

Chapter 37: Coffee and a selfie

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May 18, 2014, 8:45 a.m. Pensacola

The female GPS voice crisply announces “Destination,” as I pull up slowly along North G Street, in the St. John’s Coalition neighborhood in Pensacola.  I feel my stomach know up with anxiety. It’s not logical; there’s no reason for anxiety, but it is what I feel.

St. John’s Cemetery is on my left. I see the green and white gatehouse at the intersection of West Belmont and North G. The gatehouse looks to have been built around the early 1900s, so the driveway is not as wide as a modern one would be. I drive slowly through, taking the structure in, looking up and around. The structure is solid; at least 100 years old.

Emmett drove through this back then, I realize. As I do today.

I stop about 50 feet away from the gatehouse, on the right hand side of the road. Up ahead, parked on the other side is another van, but the side doors are open and a lady with a little girl are sitting on the side, feet on the ground. The lady nods politely at me as she hands the little girl a sippy cup.  I wave, leaving my car in idle as I pull out my map and get my bearings.

Emmett’s close by, I realize, as I check the burial grid provided by St. John’s Cemetery:

Section 3, Space 3, Lot 15, in St. John’s Cemetery. That’s Emmett.

Well, here goes, I think, as I pick up my coffee cup, grab my bag.

I take a deep breath — I wonder — hope — there will be some kind of psychic pull, or jolt, or spiritual event when I get to Emmett’s plot. I psyche myself for it —

I open the car door —

and whatever I was trying to psyche for myself evaporates immediately.

Wheeeeee wheeeeeee bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

Buzz buzz buzzzzzz wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee

The annoying, ear-piercing sound of a weed whacker nearby.

I look towards at the van, and from around the back comes a man who has to be the groundskeeper.

Dust, dead grass, and small gravel bits fly around his feet as he weed whacks the dried brown turf next to the cemetery driveway. The lady must have gotten his attention, said something, because he suddenly glances up at me, smiles sheepishly in apology, and switches off the weed whacker.

He then walks toward the rear of his van and pulls out other quieter equipment, shears or something, and heads off in another part of the cemetery, to take care of something else.

As I walk along an access row, I scan the stones around me —  I’m actually above row three — I turn right.

This is the old part of the cemetery. Most of the stones around me are worn down by acid rain, dates barely recognizable, especially so with the flat grave markers, the ones that are the length of a plot. Some stones have broken edges, likely from riding mowers, and many are stained or covered with lichens, although the grounds look well tended.

Perhaps the families are long gone, and there’s no one to consider these old stones, or to repair them anymore.

The gatehouse is in the background, to the left. Note how old the stones are in this section. Photo by the author.

I see a faded plastic bouquet at the grave of a woman who died in the 1950s. And down further is a shrub someone decorated as a Christmas tree once upon a time. There’s a few ornaments still stuck to the branches, a silver glass ornament is on the ground underneath, still there even in May, I marvel….

I look at my map, and suddenly realize where I am.

Section Three.

And here he is, on my right.

Here he is. Photo by the author.

I take the bouquet of supermarket roses out of my bag; remove the cellophane and lay them atop Emmett’s grave.

I take a white plastic rosary out of my pocket — I don’t know why I’m doing that, though, he wasn’t Catholic, but it feels right — and I place it on his stone.

“Hi, Emmett. I’m here,” I say.

I try to clear my mind, to think nothing, but just to feel, to sense — I don’t know — anything? Maybe Emmett trying to talk to me? To send me a sign? But I can’t quiet the thoughts for very long. Mostly I just stand there, looking at his plot, wondering about his funeral, who kept the plot up, if anyone else brought him flowers.

As I look about Emmett, I realize this was supposed to be Meade Wilson’s family plot, and they probably didn’t expect to have to inter Emmett here when they purchased it.  Emmett’s brother, Meade, was buried here in 1914; he died also a young man, but of tuberculosis. Meade and Carrie are buried to the left of Emmett’s plot.

Meade and his wife Carrie. They had three children; two sons who are not buried here. The plot is large; perhaps they had planned everyone to be buried here at one time. Photo by the author.

There is an empty space next to Emmett. Above Emmett is Meade and Carrie’s daughter, who died in 1900 of scarlet fever.

Emmett’s niece, located directly above Emmett. Photo by the author.

The ground is covered with sand and weeds; I scrape some of the sand away from Emmett’s grave to discover a concrete slab atop his plot. I’m intrigued by the sand and the slab — then I realize that the area floods during hurricane season.

Weeds. Sand. The finality of the slab atop his plot.

I realize no one has been here to see him in decades. He’s been forgotten.

Well, at least, not by me.

I sit down in front of his stone, and I start to talk to him.

I drink my coffee, I tell him a joke; I take a selfie with him.

Selfie with Emmett. Photo by the author.

It is the start of a beautiful friendship.

 

Chapter 36: News to me

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December 22, 1900
Dr. Francis C. Wilson’s Office, Downtown Chipley

Continued from here.

===

I climbed the stairs and paused at the top; my heart was pounding.  I closed my eyes, and counted to ten; rubbed the center of my chest. Touched the liquor flask hidden in my coat pocket. After a few moments, I was calm. 

As I walked down the hall, I noticed three other offices in the second-floor hallway; an insurance broker, two lawyers. Father’s office was in the front of the building overlooking the street.

I heard male voices in spirited conversation inside; one was Father’s. I hesitated; my hand on the door knob. Get a grip, I told myself. 

I took a breath, then opened the door.

It was a two-room office, simple but well appointed. The room had a small settee and a desk with a lamp, and a file cabinet behind the desk. There was a small plant on top of the file cabinet next to the window. A nurse was seated at desk; she glanced up from the papers in front of her.  She recognized me.

“Good afternoon, Emmett. How are you?”

“Fine, Miss Tharpe.”

She stood up. “Would you like to see your father? I’ll let him know you are here.”

“Is he in with a patient?”

“No. Just a moment.” She knocked gently on the door, then opened it, excusing herself.

“Dr. Wilson, one of your sons is here to see you.”

“Thank you, Tharpe. Send him in.” 

The nurse stood aside as I passed through, then closed the door behind me.

“Well, Emmett. Here you are. How was your trip from Tallahassee?” Father stood up and shook hands with me.

“Fine, thank you.”

A photo of Dr. Wilson on call in front of the W.O. Butler House. Chipley, Florida, 1911

Father is tall, stately, dignified. He has a calm, noble bearing; always unflappable, impassive, regardless of what’s happening, regardless of emergency, when all Hell is breaking out around him. If I had one word to describe him, it would be consistent. I think that’s why he has such a large, loyal patient base. He knows how to put people at ease. He’s always been that way with everyone. But me.

I’ve always thought Father resembled his old commander, Robert E. Lee:  Father is bald on top with a fringe of white hair circling his head from ear-to-ear, with white mustaches and a beard. Father served loyally under Lee at Appomattox. Indeed, Father venerated Lee as a personal hero, unconsciously modeling himself after the old general, who had had a reputation of being unflappable in the face of danger and distress.

A friendly, jovial, Irish voice blurted out behind me: “Well, Emmett, it is good to see you!”

Father nodded cordially at his friend, who stood beaming at me, his hand outstretched to take mine.

A young J. Walter Kehoe, 1899, as photographed from the Bench and Bar of the State of Florida. Source: Florida Memory

“Hello Walter,” I said, clasping his hand. 

Walter Kehoe is my brother Cephas’ law partner in Marianna and a long-time family friend, although it has been several months since I’ve seen him. 

Walter is one of the most important lawyers and politicians in West Florida; he is also Cephas’ closest, most trusted friend. Walter often refers to me as his younger brother though we are not related at all. Regardless of the fact he is always busy, and involved in serious and important issues, Walter has always taken time to talk to me about everyday things. I’ve never asked him for advice or help with anything, but I know that if I ever needed it, he would be there for me, no questions asked. 

Walter’s bio from the biographical information provided by U.S. Congressional Archive. Note the fact a special act of the Florida State Legislature was necessary to allow him to practice law because of his youth.

Walter is truly brilliant. Even Cephas is in awe of Walter’s intelligence, which is saying something, because Cephas is often too busy thinking about himself. Don’t get me wrong: Cephas is very smart, too. But with Walter, the brilliance is innate; his practice of the law feels completely natural, comfortable, and effortless. The other thing about Walter is that he wants to become a U.S. Congressman. And it will probably happen. “He may not be very quick about it, and he can be irritatingly deliberate,” Ceph once told me, “but if he wants something, he doesn’t let anything stand in the way.”

Father gestures at me. “Have a seat, Emmett. Care for something to drink?”  Father and Walter both had half glasses of Irish whiskey on the desk.

“No, thank you,” I said.

Father nodded; gives me a brief smile of approval. I involuntarily exhale — I didn’t realize I was holding my breath. I quickly glance over at Walter; he pretends to study his glass of whiskey instead of observing the dynamic between Father and me, but I know he was watching. Walter doesn’t miss much.

“How long will you be in Chipley?” I ask Walter.

“I’m heading back this evening. Ceph has been busy doling out political favors this week, and not getting much done in the way of law,” he answered with a chuckle; Dr. Wilson gave his rare, tense smile in his white beard, nodding with satisfaction. Ceph had just been nominated for a second term as Florida state senator, and had been traveling the circuit this week.

Cephas Love Wilson in top hat; Lula Wilson below his right shoulder, 1906. Source: http://www.floridamemory.com/items/show/143975

In Father’s eyes, Cephas could do no wrong. With all of his political experience and connections, I think my brother would also be a good U.S. Congressman, but Cephas doesn’t want to leave Florida. Besides, Cephas has a reputation as a philanderer. I think that my sister-in-law, Lula, who has been publicly embarrassed by his antics more than once has put her foot down about Cephas going to Washington. 

“How is Minnie’s stenography business? I understand she’s quite successful and busy these days,”  Father asked. 

“Fine. She’s busier than ever, and is even thinking about a turn at the bar herself, one of these days.” Now it was Walter’s turn to be proud. His sister Minnie had written a bill – a unique piece of legislation – to secure regular compensation for court stenographers, and to enable counsel to have the services of a stenographer in serious cases other than capital ones (which had been a problem in Florida courts).  This was remarkable for a woman who was not a lawyer. 

Minnie was a trailblazer for professional women. She knew she had to keep her cool even in the face of cads, whereas I would have just told them where to go.

Minnie was smart, driven, progressive, and was keen on making her own way in the world, without being dependent on a husband, or father. Minnie was carving out a career slowly, surely, and against all odds. Everyone was in awe of her; encouraging her, but not really coming right out and supporting her. The idea of a woman lawyer was still too odd, foreign; it had the taste of Yankee corruption, although that was the furthest thing you could think of to describe Minnie. She was a lady; she was aggressive, but not obnoxious about it. We were all watching to see if she would make it or not. I secretly hoped she would; if Minnie could make it, against those odds, I knew I could too.

“And what about you, Emmett?” Walter said, kindly, changing the subject. “How is school?”

“Fine.”

“Staying busy with lessons, or are there too many female distractions?”

I blushed and looked away from both of them and fidgeted with the button on my jacket sleeve. “No, no distractions,” I said, a little uncomfortably. Both Father and Walter chuckled.

“Too busy with schoolwork, are you?”

“Yes. Busier than I expected. But I like it very much.”

Father nodded. “We expect big things from Emmett once he graduates from school. He has a lot of intelligence; he’s a quick learner and thoughtful. I think he’d do well running a pharmacy for me, once he’s out of school,” he added.

I look up quickly, surprised: First at the unaccustomed praise coming from Father, publicly like that – and then, I felt my stomach plummet when I realized what he said.

“Oh, you are pursuing a business degree?” Walter asked, interested.

“F.C.” stood for “Freshman Class — Classical Studies” and “S.C.” stood for “Sophomore Class — Classical Studies.” The end result after four years with this curriculum at WFS was the Bachelor of Arts degree. Source: FSU Digital Repository

“Well…” I started, glancing first at Father, then Walter, still a bit in shock at Father’s comment.

There was a quick knock at the door, followed by Nurse Tharpe opening it. 

“Excuse me, gentlemen. A patient is here to see you, Dr. Wilson, and it seems serious. Can you see him?”

Father stood up, reached over to the coat rack to put his suit jacket on to receive the patient. “Yes, Tharpe. Give us just a minute here, please.”

“Yes, doctor,” Tharpe said, closing the door behind her.

“I’m sorry Walter,” Father said.

“No need to apologize, Frank,” Walter said, as he shook Father’s hand. “We’ll be on our way.”

“Please give my regards to Jennie; we’ll see you on Christmas Day for dinner and festivities,” Father said, as he buttoned his jacket.

“Indeed you will,” Walter said, warmly. “Come, Emmett,” he said, as we moved to the door. “We can walk and talk as I head over to the station to wait for the next train out.”

“Goodbye, Father,” I said, before I walked out with Walter.

Father nodded, and turned back to his desk to prepare for the incoming patient.

 

Walter and I exited the building, and we walked together, without speaking, toward the depot. He paused for a moment on the corner.

“Emmett, would you like to stop off at the hotel dining room for coffee or something to eat before you head home? I’ll bet you didn’t eat lunch on the train, and if you did, it wasn’t much of a meal.”

“No thank you. I’m fine,” I said.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?”

“No,” I said.

“Your father’s mentioning that you are going to work for him, in his pharmacy. That was news to you, wasn’t it?”

I turned slightly away. “I don’t know, “I said, careful not to look Walter in the face.

“I’m sorry, Emmett. I don’t mean to pry.”

I didn’t say anything; instead, I stood on the corner, fidgeting with the clasp on my satchel to camouflage the embarrassment and irritation that I could not hide in my expressions. I can’t hide anything from Walter. I look up at him, exasperated.

“I don’t want to work for my father.”

“All right. Well, do you know what you want to do?”

“I want to get out of Chipley,” I said.

Walter nods. “And do what?”

At that moment, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to tell Walter everything on my mind at that; I didn’t want to expose myself as vulnerable. I looked away for a moment.

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather not talk about it right now, Walter. I’m just beat after the trip from Tallahassee. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll head on home.”

“All right, Emmett,” Walter says, kindly. “I’ll see you in a few days.”

He pats me on the arm, then crosses the street towards the Central Hotel, to get something to eat, then to wait for the evening train to Marianna.

At that moment, I just wanted to get away, to be by myself.

I walked as quickly as I could up 6th Street, almost running the five blocks towards home.