Christmas Day, 1900, The Wilson Home,
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.
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.
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.
Next to Walter is my brother, Cephas, recently re-elected State Senator for Jackson County.
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.
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.
“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….
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.
“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.