Chapter 52: Walter Steps In

Standard

October 23, 2018
The University of Maryland, McKeldin Library
College Park, MD

[Reposted from here.]

We all have that one friend who we know we can turn to, no matter what, no matter the time of day. The friend who knows us better than our spouses (sometimes). The friend who loves us for who we are, who accepts us, unconditionally.

There aren’t many people in our lives who fit that bill. If we are lucky, we’ve had this kind of friendship at least once.

This was Emmett’s closest friend. J. Walter Kehoe.  Although Emmett’s childhood friend, Paul Carter, remained close to Emmett, they drifted apart after Emmett moved to Pensacola in 1906, and his law/political career took off.

J. Walter Kehoe in 1917. Kehoe, Emmett’s law partner, also succeeded him in Congress. Source: Wikipedia.com

Paul and Emmett were always friends, whereas Walter started out as a mentor to Emmett, and remained close to Emmett until Emmett’s death (although the relationship with Walter became estranged at the end).

But this was more than a mentoring relationship. Emmett lived with the Kehoe family between 1906-1918, except for a two-year period, when Emmett was ‘baching it’ in a boarding house with friends (1909-1910). It was more like Emmett was a member of the Kehoe family. Indeed, Kehoe’s great-grandson Mike once told me in a telephone interview that his grandparents, Walter and Jennie Jenkins Kehoe, “thought the world of Emmett. That’s why they named their youngest son and my favorite uncle, for him.”

Walter and Emmett’s older brother, Cephas, were law partners in Marianna for several years before Walter was named States’ Attorney around 1902, and moved to Pensacola. (As luck would have it with Emmett, Cephas’ law practice now had an opening — and in two years, when Emmett graduated from Stetson University, he became Cephas’ junior law partner.) Walter, therefore, knew Emmett since boyhood; knew his character, his intelligence, his potential — Walter knew and saw the REAL Emmett Wilson — the Emmett Wilson pre-alcoholic disaster.

Emmett’s ‘home address’ is actually the Kehoe’s address. Also, that’s the Kehoe’s phone number. Emmett didn’t have his own, separate line. Source: Ancestry.com

As with any ‘family’ relationship, it was loving, frustrating,  agonizing, painful — but it was honest — and the relationship between Emmett and Walter was one of the few consistencies in Emmett’s life.

Even though I know Walter and Jennie Kehoe were good to Emmett — Emmett was always treated as if he was a member of the Kehoe family — Walter had political aspirations too, and knew that a partnership with the Wilsons (Cephas primarily, but if not with Cephas, then Emmett) would likely propel him into the United States Congress, which was Walter’s ultimate goal. Walter’s continued partnership with Cephas was preferred for obvious reasons: Emmett was a neophyte in 1906, when he moved to Pensacola, an alcoholic, and immature on several levels. But the idea then (as now, sometimes) was that with a consistent home, and maybe a good woman to make it happen, Emmett would straighten up, stop drinking (or at least curtail it), settle down, and everyone’s political/power dreams would be realized.

Walter and Jennie did their best to help Emmett settle down — they even went so far as to introduce Emmett to ‘suitable’ women, and at one point, pushed, er, encouraged him strongly, to ask one young woman from Columbus, Georgia they deemed suitable to marry him. This was no grand passion or true love story between Emmett and Miss Georgia. Perhaps if it was, Emmett may have capitulated. But Emmett was inconsistent. And Miss Georgia was canny enough to realize that Emmett was too much of a project, and not her type. Besides, her Anti-Saloon League President father would certainly not welcome Emmett into the family.

Walter’s role in Emmett’s life is interesting, starting with his conversation with Emmett during Jennings’ Inauguration. Stay tuned for more on their story.

 

 

Chapter 51: Inauguration Blues

Standard

January 7, 1901
The Leon Hotel
Tallahassee, Florida

The lobby of The Leon Hotel, Tallahassee, Florida; 1905-1910. Source: State Archives of Florida

Cephas and I met his friend and former law partner, Walter Kehoe, in the lobby of The Leon Hotel right before supper. Walter had come to Tallahassee ahead of us by a day or so. “Legal business with the Governor-elect,” he said mysteriously, as he shook hands with me, and exchanging a glance with Cephas, who smiled conspiratorially in response. “I’m glad you’re here, Emmett,” he said to me. “This is an important occasion, something you wouldn’t have wanted to miss.”

From the 1901 Jennings Inauguration Scrapbook, from the Florida State University archives. Cephas and Walter Kehoe were invited to participate in the inauguration festivities; Emmett likely stayed with his brother as they were reported to be at the Leon Hotel in the Tallahassee newspapers. Source: Florida State University Archives.

After we checked in, the three of us ate in the hotel dining room. And after dinner, Cephas and Walter walked outside to the porch to smoke cigars. I told them that I wanted to walk over to campus for a bit. Cephas said it was fine with him, but not to stay out too late.

“Remember, you’ve got a full day tomorrow. We’ll need to start early,” Cephas said.

“I haven’t forgotten,” I said.

Truthfully, I didn’t want to attend the events. I didn’t want to be seen by anyone I knew, but I couldn’t stay cooped up in the hotel with Cephas, feeling as if I were constantly under his thumb.  I had been feeling claustrophobic for the past few days, always being watched by family members or people who knew me in Marianna, planning my life for me since I wasn’t coming back to WFS.

Being in Tallahassee meant I could be anonymous for a little while.

I could lose myself in a crowd, I could walk around the town with less of a chance of being recognized.

By now, it was dusk; the city was full of visitors and crowded.  As I walked away from the hotel, I noticed that there were a lot more prostitutes hanging around than usual. Ceph didn’t say anything about not availing myself in that direction — I instinctively felt for my pocketbook — I knew I didn’t have much money with me; probably not enough for a prostitute —

It was six blocks from the Leon Hotel to the campus; I kept my head down, my face out of the light of street lamps. I wasn’t going to walk too near my old dormitory in case some of the fellows would be sitting on the front porch, smoking, playing checkers or chess, or just shooting the breeze.

The main WFS building, also known as College Hall. It was 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

As I neared College Hall, I noticed the entire building was lit up, and groups of people — faculty, students, alumni — all in formal dress. I was about 75 feet away from the arched entrance, in the shadows of the large oak trees nearby. I saw Dr. Murphree was hosting a gathering in honor of the inauguration in the parlors and the recitation rooms; there was quite a large crowd there. And in there, shaking hands with men in tuxedos, laughing and smoking cigars, one turned and I saw it was Paul Carter. Paul. I instinctively stepped behind the oak tree I was next to.

So. My friends were in there, hobnobbing with important looking people.

At that moment, I realized the irony of all of this: If I were truly honest, I’ve always been on the outside, on the periphery here at the Seminary, and on the periphery of my family. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to succeed, or to be accepted; I realized that I didn’t fit in anywhere.

And ironically, this understanding about myself felt simultaneously relieving and depressing at the same time. It felt true, and logical. But what was I supposed to do with this new knowledge? What if I never found the right place for myself? What if I never succeeded? What if I ended up just an obscure, unknown…a failure? I couldn’t tell anyone about this —

And then, knowing I had to keep this to myself: Would I always feel this lonely?

I felt for the silver flask down in my coat pocket. I took it out. If I took a small drink, no one would know, and I would feel some immediate relief.

But I had promised Ceph I wouldn’t drink anything while I was in Tallahassee, because I had to be above reproach, and circumspect about my behavior at all times. I could not take a chance on anything. “We’re all on display in Tallahassee,” Cephas told me while we were on the train this afternoon. “Act the part for it to be believable, and don’t take any stupid chances.”

I agreed to it.

But I was feeling the worst kind of tension and anxiety. I wanted relief, and knew I would get it almost instantly with a quick drink, but I knew I couldn’t take the chance here, on campus, even though I was standing in the shadows — so, I turned, and started to walk out from behind the massive oak, towards the sidewalk, away from College Hall.

 

Chapter 47: I cannot go home again

Standard

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 45: On Frank Jr.

Standard

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 42: The shape of a heart

Standard

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 36: News to me

Standard

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.

Chapter 16: The end and the beginning

Standard

I have to forget the sanitized, clinical image in my mind about Emmett spending his last days in a hospital bed. You should, too.

His last days weren’t tragically romantic. It wasn’t pretty, despite the fact Emmett was tended to in Pensacola Hospital, by the Sisters of Charity, nun-nurses hovering nearby in their stiff white coronets and black habits; angelic figures giving consolation to patients writhing, dying, in their hellish final days.

Emmett probably thought he was already in Hell, though, that last week of his life.

Emmett’s room was down this hallway. Taken at historic Pensacola Hospital a few years ago.

=====

End-stage alcoholism is nothing like what is portrayed in movies.

Attend a meeting in a psych ward sometime; you’ll see what it is like to really wrestle a demon that has hold of you by chemistry, the pitiful shaking, screaming, vomiting all at once by friends, loved ones, or strangers.

It’s not something you can just ‘get over’ or let go of; the disease absolutely has you, until YOU let go, absolutely.

It is too much for those who don’t know the person behind the alcohol; it is too much for those who do.

My friend Donna the Nephrologist once told me that when an alcoholic stops drinking, the human body tries to correct itself internally right away, to expel the ‘poison’ from the system, but the patient has become so used to living with booze in the system, that the damaged body cannot handle the transition, and so the patient often endures terrible delirum tremens — the last stage of alcohol withdrawal, with a mortality rate up to 37 percent if untreated.

Note that modern treatment of delirium tremens has a lower mortality rate; this table assumes the patient has access to medical help. Still, even with medical help, a 5% mortality rate is reported from DTs. Source: http://www.grepmed.com

That’s a 2018 statistic, by the way.  Mortality from delirium tremens was probably higher in Emmett’s day.

===

I didn’t want to make Emmett’s biography about him as an alcoholic, but the disease was the launching point into his life story.

We know that alcoholism is a family disease   but it also affects those in the alcoholic’s immediate circle — friends, coworkers, neighbors, and so forth. We don’t really think about how others (not just immediate family) have to adjust their lives, work around, enable, or whatever to ‘deal’ with an alcoholic’s illness.

Emmett’s friends and colleagues likely did that with him too. In fact, I’m sure they did. And, I know they went to great lengths to keep it out of the public eye.

And, there is the issue of alcoholism heredity. Several peer reviewed articles indicate that genes are responsible for about 50 percent of alcoholism in a family (I have many other resources; here’s one; here’s another); but addiction is a complicated science. Not everyone inherits the predisposition (Emmett had nine siblings), and some members of a family can be more susceptible.

This would set the framework for Emmett’s research:

  1.  Where and when the drinking problem started with Emmett?
  2.  Was Emmett’s family also alcoholic?
  3.  What is Emmett’s family story anyway?

The best place to begin was with Emmett’s obituary.

Next: Dissecting the obit.