May 29, 1904
No one met me at the depot in Chipley when my train pulled in right before 11 am, but I didn’t expect anyone to on a Sunday morning. Most everyone around here is in church at this time. The few who are milling around are here because they have to be – station employees, hack drivers, hotel staff. Only one or two other people got off the train with me at Chipley. They quickly went on their way. I stood on the platform and watched the train leave, headed west for Pensacola and beyond.
I was in town to visit with my father, the day before I started work with Cephas. He didn’t come to my graduation, because he couldn’t get away; at least that’s what my stepmother had written to me in a letter that was waiting for me when I got to Cephas’. But they would be so pleased if I cold come for a visit, even if only for the day….
When the train left, I crossed the tracks, then turned right onto Sixth Street. I had a satchel in my hand: It contained my diploma and my certificate of admission to the Florida Bar, my debate medal, a book, and a case file. Ceph had given me the file to read on the train, to prepare ahead of time, as tomorrow, Monday, would be my first day on the job as his partner. I tried to look through it on the way to Chipley, but I was so anxious about seeing Father that I put it aside and stared out the window for the 20 mile trip.
I walked about five blocks down Sixth Street, until I saw the familiar white picket fence marking the edge of my father’s property, on the left side of the road.
I could see my father’s carriage in the back yard; it was parked on the left side of the house, next to the entrance to his home office. That’s where it was usually situated when he was not out on rounds. My father’s white horse, when not at the livery stable, was in the back yard contently cropping grass under one of the trees.
I paused beside a tree near the edge of my father’s property. I felt my stomach tense up a little bit. I took a deep breath to calm my nerves; my hands felt clammy as I held my satchel. It was a mild, comfortable day for late May, but I began to sweat. I took my handkerchief out of my suit pocket and wiped my brow quickly, I calmed myself. I looked around — it was too late and too much out in the open to take a quick drink from the flask packed in my satchel. And I’d promised Ceph I wouldn’t…
Then, I heard men’s voices and laughter — I looked around the tree, and saw my father and two other men seated on the front porch of the house, in rocking chairs.
The two men had their backs to me, but I recognized one of them as our old family friend, Walter Kehoe. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I could hear Walter’s loud, boisterous Irish laugh again, which made me relax, and smile in spite of myself.
I walked up the sidewalk. My father looked up from his guests, as I paused at the bottom of the steps of the front porch.
“Hello, Father,” I said, the men turning as I spoke
“Well, Emmett,” Father said, nodding at me. “I was just telling these gentlemen you were on your way for a visit.”
“Emmett!” Kehoe said loudly and with great pleasure, as he stood up to clasp my hand, then embrace me briefly. Walter has long treated me as a son or brother, and that is what I have come to feel for him as well — and we haven’t seen each other for months.
“Let me look at you!” Walter said, standing back, and regarding me with great pride — “I swear Emmett has gotten taller, if that’s even possible. Perhaps it is just that you’ve lost weight with all the late night studying and hard work you’ve been doing these several months.”
“Come have a seat,” Father said, nodding at the empty rocker next to him. “Emmett, this is Mr. Frank Mayes, owner and publisher of The Pensacola Journal. He is traveling with Walter, attending circuit court hearings. Mr. Mayes, this is my son Emmett.”
Mayes had remained seated, smoking comfortably, observing everything.
I didn’t know what it was, but even though I met him briefly few years ago when I was clerking at Cephas’ office — the interaction took only about two minutes — Mayes struck an off-chord with me. There was something about him I couldn’t put my finger on. Maybe it was the smooth arrogance as he was dismissive to Cephas, and to everyone else during that first meeting? He struck me as oddly alien — his dark features conveying shadiness and suspicion.
Mayes was shorter than Father, Walter or myself — perhaps that’s why he remained seated? The image of my stepmother’s annoying Rhode Island Red rooster came to mind — and I involuntarily smiled. Mayes, like Mother Kate’s rooster, was prideful, sinister, and not to be trusted. Indeed, as I stood thinking about that rooster at the moment, I could see Mayes scanning my face, trying to read my expression. If he only knew….
“We’ve met once before, I think,” Mayes said, extending his hand to me. “I never forget a face.”
I nodded, as I shook his manicured hand. “Mr. Mayes.”
“Please, call me Frank,” he said easily, shifting in the rocking chair.
Walter was the State’s Attorney for the First Judicial Circuit (which included Escambia County). Circuit court sessions were in progress here in Washington County, and would begin in Marianna for Jackson County on Monday, June 13. Walter always paid a call to Father whenever he was in town; Father considered Walter a member of the family; Mayes happened to be with him and asked to come along, to meet the man Walter spoke so fondly of for many years.
I sat down, and Father regarded me for a moment.
“How was the trip from Marianna? How are Cephas and the family?”
“It was good; they are doing well,” I said. I placed the satchel on my lap.
“Ah. Yes,” Mayes said. “Your brother Cephas will be heading to St. Louis for the Democratic National Convention soon, will he not?”
Cephas had beaten Mayes in the runoff for the selection of the Democratic National Convention delegates several weeks earlier. It was well known that Mayes had expected to win, and had presumed as much as he carried the westernmost counties easily believing that he could ride on the reputation of his position with The Pensacola Journal, as it was the most important paper in West Florida.
It might have worked, had Mayes been a regular visitor to the counties beyond of Escambia and Santa Rosa. As a result, he gave the impression of a disconnected outsider, compared to Ceph, who was always interacting with the people in Washington, Jackson, and surrounding counties. Most of the third congressional district was comprised of rural populations who knew (and trusted) my brother; and as a result, the Wilson name meant something in the rural counties. Cephas was one of them, Mayes was not; and Mayes realized this too late.
“You know, you could have beaten him easily if you’d put time into cultivating the locals. But your mistake was thinking The Pensacola Journal was more influential than it was, and you tried to win on that aspect alone,” I said.
Mayes, surprised by my comment, widened his eyes at me. I sat back in the rocking chair, crossed my legs. Father was watching me curiously; Walter offered me a cigar, which I declined.
“Really,” Mayes said after a few moments. “And what other observations do you have?”
“You presented yourself to the rural populations as someone superior to them — and that did not go over well with rural folks. That — plus, the fact that you’re an outsider, which came across regularly during the campaign, though you might not have intended to do so,” I said.
“Emmett has always been honest and forthright, sometimes to a fault,” Father said, looking at me with a curious expression. I don’t know if he could tell how much I detested Frank Mayes; Walter knew, though, and was giving me wary looks across the porch. I told the truth, though; I felt perfectly comfortable at that moment.
“No, Dr. Wilson, I appreciate honest feedback. It’s useful,” Mayes said, still watching me with a expression I could not read.
I knew that Frank Mayes took his defeat at the hands of my brother personally. Cephas also told me that that Mayes remembers every slight and never let them go. Walter would advise that Mayes was the kind of person you need to watch your back about…
Mayes interrupted my thoughts: “I imagine Cephas is loath to step away from his many business and legal responsibilities to attend the Convention,” a touch of sarcasm in his voice.
Before I could respond, Walter said:
“Not at all. I’m certain the firm will be in excellent hands. Our Emmett was the valedictorian of the 1904 Law Class of Stetson — and he’s Ceph’s new law partner.”
Mayes raised his eyebrows, and regarded me a moment with curiosity. “Congratulations, young Emmett,” he said.
“I understand you received top honors for the university’s debating society,” Father said, deftly changing the subject. I nodded, and brought out the gold medal I had won. The men passed it around.
“Will you show us your diploma, Emmett?” Father asked.
“Of course.” I pulled it out of my satchel. I hadn’t wanted to bring it up unless he did; I felt funny about it. Not that I wasn’t proud or didn’t want to show it to him, but I didn’t want to seem as if I were bragging, or, desperate to get his approval… though there is nothing more I wanted in the world than to have his approval.
I handed the diploma to my father. He unrolled it, and looked at it a few moments.
“Lula plans to have it framed,” I said, as Father examined the diploma.
Kehoe nodded. “Rightly so. You’ll want to display this in your office.”
Father continued to look at it for a few moments, then he passed it to Walter, who spent several minutes marveling at it. Walter passed it to Mayes, who studied it quietly, then passed it back to me with a nod.
Father looked at me, and nodded. “You’ve done well, Emmett. We’re proud of you.”
“Thank you,” I said, a little roughly. I fumbled about re-rolling the diploma and arranging it back into my satchel. I didn’t want Father to see how much his words meant to me; it has been so long since I’d heard anything like that from him directed just to me, and in front of others…
I looked up at the sound of a woman’s voice calling my name from the street. It was Mother Kate, who was walking briskly up the sidewalk, with my stepsisters Lucile and John trailing behind her. She had a smile as she approached the house.
I set my satchel next to my chair and stood up as Mother Kate swept onto the porch.
“Emmett, I’m so glad to see you,” she said, as she reached for and took both of my hands in hers. She stood a moment, and smiled at me. She didn’t kiss my cheek; she knows I’m uncomfortable with that kind of thing, but the affection in her eyes was enough. I smiled at my stepmother.
My stepsisters, Lucile and Miss John, walked up the porch steps behind their mother.
“Hello Emmett,” Lucile said. She shook my hand.
Lucile’s younger sister, Miss John, just gave me her flat smile and nodded at me. I’ve always had a distant relationship with my stepsisters. Miss John was christened Catherine Caroline Jordan, but Mother Kate legally changed her name to John within a few weeks after the untimely death of her first husband, as a way to keep her deceased husband’s name always on her lips. Miss John has always been a quiet, aloof girl; after all these years I can’t say that I really know her.
The girls proceeded into the house. Mother Kate stood before Father, myself, and our guests, and removed her gloves.
“Please have a seat, gentlemen, and enjoy your visit. Dinner should be ready shortly, and I’ll call you when it’s ready.”
“Thank you, my dear,” Father said.
Mother Kate turned to give me one last smile before she went into the house.
As we sat back down, Father asked Walter about the cases heard at the recent circuit court term in Vernon (which was the Washington County seat in 1904). Walter discussed a few of the more important cases — but there was nothing really distinguishing about any of them.
“Certainly, there must have been some interesting cases on the docket, to bring you all the way out here, Mr. Mayes,” Father said.
“It’s not so much the cases heard in court as it is to witness the growth the progressive democratic movement,” Mayes said, smoothly. “The people are tired of the elites making the decisions governing this state, and the time has come for new points of view, those that truly represent the majority of the good people of this state, most of whom are serious, hard-working folk who are neither rich nor endowed with power or property. It is time to turn the power over the progressives.”
Father shook his head. He was of the older generation, used to things we way they were. He was definitely not a progressive.
“And what say you, young Emmett?” Mayes said, smoothly, turning to me as I was listening to the talk. “Are you a progressive or a reactionary?“
“The reactionary leadership has not done badly for Florida, but the reactionaries oppose the principle of true democracy; which is to bring the power of the government to the hands of the people, not to give it to the elites, who do not necessarily represent the vast population of our country.”
“But we need the educated, the property owners, those who understand what it means to manage vast sums and assets, in a position of leadership for our country. The average person cannot possibly comprehend this,” Father said.
“They could if they were given the chance,” I said. “Not every U.S. president has owned a lot of property, nor has been wealthy, nor has had an extensive education. For example, there are many congressmen and judges, for instance, who are self-educated, and have done well for themselves.”
Mayes eyed me with surprise. “I was of the opinion that you and your brother Cephas held with very similar political points of view.”
“I respect the fact that my brother and others in my family are of different opinions, but I believe also in the spirit of intelligent discussion and debate of the issues from both sides,” I said. “Growing up in this house, our family had many spirited discussions and debates. We can all sit at the same table, have different views on the same issues, and yet still come together and appreciate the good we see on both sides. We need that same kind of dialog on the state and national level,” I said, looking over at my Father, who nodded agreement. “We can agree to disagree; it is what we do with the new ideas and information we exchange in that dialog is what matters.”
“Hm,” Mayes said. “I did not expect that from you, young Emmett.”
This man — this stranger to my Father’s home — somehow, I swallowed my irritation at the sheer arrogance of calling me “young Emmett” in my own family’s home, and responded cooly:
“With all due respect, Mr. Mayes, you don’t know me. Perhaps you should withhold judgment until you do.”
“Touche,” Kehoe said, with a smile.
The screen door opened; my stepmother poked her head around the door.
“Dinner’s ready, gentlemen.”
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