May 18, 2014, about 6 a.m.,
Leaving Montgomery, Alabama
I have a lot to think about on my way to Pensacola. It’s good to be out and about, especially since I don’t have a specific date or time with the person I’m meeting, but I wasn’t been able to sleep much the night before.
The drive is 164 miles; two hours and 39 minutes, according to the car’s GPS: Down I-65, then to U.S. Route 29. As I near the Alabama-Florida state line, I see the signs for Flomaton and Century. I remember reading about both towns in Emmett’s old hometown paper, The Pensacola Journal and that Emmett visited Century once during his campaign in 1912. I’m not enticed to stop; at least, not unless I uncover some cache of Emmett Wilson memorabilia hidden there in future research adventures.
But today is a special adventure, and that’s where I want to be keep my focus. This is something I’ve looked forward to ever since I found Emmett. I don’t want to be distracted from it.
My stomach rumbles — I had breakfast, but more coffee than anything to eat. The result is that I’m wired and edgy. I’m driving safely, but I’ve never been this far away from home by myself, and it is a highway I’m unfamiliar with.
The air conditioner is cranked up — the air outside is already heavy and uncomfortable in the early morning. Steam is rising from the dew on the grass alongside the road as the sun hits it.
I’m trying not to speed, but for months, I’ve felt impatient about the need to be here, today. For so long, it seems, I’ve felt as if I was missing something being so far away from my research subject. It doesn’t matter that I have done a lot of the work thanks to technology.
The sense of impatience is something I know well; it is my main character defect among many defects. I want to get to an answer to a question, a solution to a problem, the final research in my hands yesterday.
And I realize: I’m anxious about the need for personal interaction with a dead guy.
I laugh out loud at the idea. I ease my foot off the accelerator.
I think back to my meeting with Jule yesterday, and our conversation about Emmett and Julian. Jule wasn’t able to tell me if she thought the twins were close, although certainly several of the other Wilson siblings were.
We talked about the census records from the 1860s and the Wilson family genealogy that said Emmett and Julian’s father’s family were wealthy property owners and slave holders before the Civil War.
Jule believed that although the Wilsons never regained anything like the pre-Civil War wealth, they seemed to be economically comfortable, at least. But she did think it was odd, the mention in the genealogy that the younger children had to help pay for the older children’s college education — in essence, the entire family would chip in.
It was a great visit — some questions were answered, but there were still many left to figure out:
- Why did Emmett seem to have a lot of opportunities given to him that the other Wilson children did not, and several do-overs, considering he didn’t handle them so well?
- What was the relationship between Emmett and his family, especially between the twins?
- Did the Wilsons knowingly cover up Emmett’s alcoholism?
And Jule offered the most thought-provoking question at the end: She’d had the impression from her father that Emmett never was able to find real happiness — but was there ever a point when Emmett might have happy, when he might have been able live his life and not try to escape it through booze?
I remember saying to her, “I wish we knew.”
Before I left Jule at her apartment, I promise to make as much progress on the book as I can, and along the way, send copies of clips, articles and other items about the Wilson family when I find them.
She tells me that I’m a blessing to her, and that she has no idea what I mean to her at this point in her life. I feel my face flush; I have no words.
As she walks with me to the elevator in her apartment building as we say goodbye, she turns to me, and takes both of my hands into hers.
She presses my hands. Her sharp blue eyes look directly into mine.
I love you, she says.
I love you too, I say to her.
As I step onto the elevator, she smiles warmly at me; raises her hand in a wave.
“Come see me again.”
The gas gauge on my car chimes — 25 miles to empty.
There’s a sign on the road ahead — next stop is Cantonment, Florida — not that far from Pensacola.
Yeah, I’m anxious and impatient. But first things first, as we say in the program.
I pull off Highway 29 onto Old Chemstrand Road — a gas station and a Winn Dixie — fuel and nourishment await before the next stop.
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