Chapter 47: I cannot go home again

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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 46: What we call fortuitous

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December 28, 1900, 7:30 pm
Chipley, Florida

“About done in there, Emmett?”

Wade Hampton Blake. Source: findagrave.com

Blake stuck his head around the door of the depot’s back office, where I sat at the telegraph, finishing the report for today’s telegraph messages. The key had been silent for the past 15 minutes or so, a blessing at the end of a busy, 12-hour long shift.

“Yes. Ticket receipts are in the safe, and the mail sorted for delivery. The only issue of note is that several parcels that were due to Mr. Wiselogel are delayed out of Jacksonville,” I said, nodding at the schedule on the clipboard hanging near the station manager’s window. “Mr. Wiselogel knows to expect delivery tomorrow on the Fast Mail.”

Blake nodded, as he scanned the various reports I’d finished and stacked neatly on the edge of the desk. “Well,” he said, as he looked over the papers, then back at me. “I’m going to miss having you around to run the office. No one is more attentive to detail and thorough on the job as you are. Your kid brother’s good — but not the professional you are. Don’t tell him I said that, though.”

Walker and his sister Katie Wilson Meade, in front of the Washington Monument, July 4, 1908. Photo was taken by their first cousin, Lizzie Meade.

I shrugged. My younger brother, Walker, was taking over for me after I left tomorrow with Paul to head back to West Florida Seminary. Walker was also accurate and a good worker — I ought to know, because I trained him. “I’m sure he’ll do a good job, Blake. Besides, I have other plans for the future. Not that I don’t appreciate working here.”

Blake smiled at me. “If I had the opportunity to go to college, I’d have taken it, too.”

I stood up, stretched, and rubbed my eyes. I had been at work since 6 am. I was tired and hungry; I really didn’t want to go home, because the house was still in upheaval since Frank’s arrival three days ago.

I wanted to stay busy and out of the house, away from the drama and tension. I can’t stand either; I wanted to be at work for as long as possible, and to return home only to sleep until the next shift. If I stayed out of the way, appearing only for meals and sleep, I could ease my way through the rest of the Christmas break before I headed back to Tallahassee. Besides: Managing the depot for the past three days meant I had earned a small amount towards my room and board at school for this next semester. Small, but better than nothing.

Blake, sensing my discomfort with the tension at home, had tactfully asked if I wouldn’t mind taking a few more shifts at the telegraph key while I was staying in Chipley, claiming he hadn’t had a break since the holidays.

He was only one of three people in town who knew about Frank; and I knew he would not talk about it to anyone. The only thing Blake had said to me about the incident with Frank was to ask if everything was OK. He didn’t pry. I said it was, nothing more. Blake knew to leave it alone.

I went over to the coat rack to get my jacket. Blake looked over at the paperwork on the desk while I pulled on my coat on and took my hat from the peg on the wall.

“See you tomorrow,” Blake said, as I opened the office door to the waiting room to leave the depot.

“Yeah. See you tomorrow.”

===

It was a clear, cold night. Chipley doesn’t have street lights in the way that larger cities like Tallahassee do, but it isn’t a dark walk home from the depot. Businesses across from the depot and along Railroad Street, are well lit, and people still at work even at this hour, the lamp lights from inside the second floor law firms and other business offices casting illumination onto the downtown streets.

As I walked along 6th Street towards home, I looked up at the sky. The stars were out. A first quarter Moon hung crisply in the darkness.

A 1998 photo of comet Giacobini-Zinner, which was reported to have been seen in the skies over North American in the last week of December, 1900. Source: Gary W. Cronk’s Cometography; photo copyright 1998 by Michael Jager

Suddenly, I saw a star — a meteor!— shoot quickly across the sky — it was so bright, so quick, and — so suddenly gone. 

My sister Katie — if she was here with me to witness it — would have said it was fortuitous, and an omen. How lucky we were to see it — the luck of witnessing such a phenomenon held deep meaning, she’d say — that the universe was trying to send me an important message.

I studied the sky again. What message would the universe be trying to send me? I knew there would be no trail of the burned-out meteor; no clue that whatever it was that sped through the sky that night even existed.

The moment made me feel a sense of dread, which I tried to dismiss. I’m not superstitious; it was chilly that evening, and so I quickened my pace towards the house.

===

I walked up the path to the front porch of Father’s house. There was only a small parlor light on, which did not cast much illumination onto the broad, wide porch. I knew my stepmother was home, as was Frank; Frank was being cared for in the rear of the house, in Father’s old infirmary.

As I mounted the steps, I didn’t notice that someone else was on the porch, waiting.

“Emmett,” the voice said, from the shadows.

Dr. Francis C. Wilson, Emmett’s father, smoking a pipe, taking it easy in the back yard, @ 1895, Chipley, Florida. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Meade Howard.

It was my Father, sitting by himself, in the easy chair next to the window, smoking his pipe, alone.

“Father,” I said, as I turned to him. “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“Quite all right,” Father said, puffing his pipe in the shadows. I could smell the smoke of the tobacco he used: Tangy, a hint of cloves. It had a comforting scent.

I knew that my father liked to sit by himself to think, at the end of a long day with patients in his office, and at house calls, and I turned to go into the house. “I’ll see you at dinner, Father,” I said.

“Emmett, just a moment. I’d like to talk to you.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.  I sat down in the chair opposite him; there was a table in between the two chairs. On the table was an ashtray with a pipe rest, an unlit oil lamp, a book, and a letter.

He puffed his pipe and put it on the pipe rest. He sat there for a few moments, not looking at me, not saying anything. He didn’t seem angry or upset; just tired. My father and I rarely had one-on-one private conversations. When we did, it was usually about something significant; ominous. I couldn’t help but have a sense of unease.

“How was your day?” Father asked.

“All right. Busy up until the last hour.”

“You’ve been on duty at the depot since early this morning. You were out before the rest of the house was up.”

“Yes,” I said.  I was never one for a lot of small talk; even this little bit of an exchange made me uncomfortable. I shifted about in my seat giving away my feelings of unease, but Father didn’t seem to notice, there in the shadows where we sat. He seemed distracted.

“Emmett, I’ve spoken to everyone else in the family about the situation with Frank and what lies ahead for our family, and of course, you need to know. The situation is critical. Frank’s not in good health, and yet, it is up to him to decide for himself what he will do.”

“I don’t understand. You’re his doctor.”

Father nodded. There was a fumbling about as he reached for his pipe, and placed it in his mouth again, settling back into the chair.

“His liver seems seriously damaged. But I don’t know the extent of the damage. Earlier today, Dr. McKinnon came in over from Marianna to examine him, at my request …” Father took a deep drag from the long pipe; the tobacco in the pipe bowl glowing bright orange, fading back and forth with his puffing.

“It’s not good, Emmett. McKinnon thinks the damage to Frank’s liver could be fatal without proper treatment. He needs to go to a hospital.”

I looked out at the front yard at that moment. A neighbor walked by at that moment and said hello to Father and me. “Nice evening,” he called to us. I looked over at Father, who projected nothing about this crisis in his body language or expression — so like Father. Even when Mother died…I wondered how Father was able to do that, convey tranquility, steadiness, when facing stress and calamity.  Father hid everything so well.…

“This is going to be tough on the family, but it is tougher on Frank. I’m not just talking about the surgery and the recovery. The real struggle has to do with his addiction. Frank has to stop drinking, absolutely, or he will certainly die within the next five or 10 years.”

“Five or 10 years? I asked. “But any sane man facing that kind of outcome would surely stop….”

“The drink habit affects every organ of a man’s body, including the brain, which makes the drunkard desire liquor above all things. They are, essentially, insane, Emmett. The only cure for survival is to stop, completely.” Father shook his head sadly. “We’ve tried sedating Frank some of the time, hoping that he would give up drinking, ease out of it.  But the only one who can get Frank to stop is himself. That, or die,” Father said, quietly.

“You said he would have to go to the hospital,” I said. “That means taking Frank to Mobile or New Orleans….”

Tuoro Hospital in New Orleans is the best option. The doctors there know how to treat him. In fact, tomorrow, when you go to the depot, I will give you a message to send by telegraph to New Orleans, to a doctor there, alerting him that I will be bringing Frank in a few days, as soon as he can stand the trip.”

“Yes, Father,” I said.

New Orleans — this was a three-day trip by train, and an expensive, lengthy stay away from Chipley for Father. He would not see patients during that time, nor would he run his pharmacy.  Someone would have to be hired to help out, run his pharmacy. This was going to be very expensive; a definite setback, after all the problems Father had had in the past two years, building his office, only to lose it in the Great Fire, then to rebuild it just this past September. And I leave in two days for Tallahassee….

The main WFS building, 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

…at that moment I knew, with a sick dread, that I was not going back to Tallahassee.

I looked up at my Father, who had been watching me carefully, in the low light of the porch. I swallowed, and turned away.

“I’m sorry, Emmett. We cannot afford to pay your tuition another year,” Father said. “But it is just as well, since you have a good head on your shoulders. The pharmacy is going well, and we’ll have some money coming in there. I’ve long had you in mind as running the store, ideally as an eventual partner or owner.” 

NO! I thought to myself. Not that. Anything but that….

Father continued: ” I hadn’t though of you taking over quite so soon, but there is no time like the present — so, all you’d need to do is step in, learn on the job.”

No. No more. I couldn’t stand it. I took a deep breath.

“Father. I appreciate your offer, but I don’t want to run the pharmacy. I don’t want to go into business.”

Father tapped the bowl of his pipe into the ashtray on the table.  He sat back and regarded me, in the darkness. I couldn’t read his expression; however, I couldn’t tell as if he was angry, or disappointed.

“But Emmett. We’ve talked about this before; you’ve never said anything to the contrary. And in fact, that was part of our agreement with your going to college, that the formal instruction would be helpful for you in setting up a business…”

Albert Murphree, president of WFS; one of Emmett’s professors. Source: https://president.fsu.edu/president/past-presidents/albert-murphree/

“Yes,” I interrupted Father, “but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I realize that my real interest is in law. It’s all I’ve been thinking about; I’ve even talked to Professor Murphree about the subjects I’ve been taking, which he tells me will be a fine foundation for law studies one day…”

Father watched me in silence, evaluating me, it seemed, as I spoke. “I see,” he said after awhile. “And how long have you known this?”

“ I think — I think I’ve always known,” I said. “It’s just something I’ve been feeling for a long time, just simmering away deep down. Even in Tallahassee, I was always thinking about the law — that’s why I joined the debate club. Just the ideas,” I said, sitting forward, “I can’t explain it, but I wasn’t happy at school. I was glad, grateful, but it all felt wrong to me.”

“And you want to be a lawyer?”

“Eventually, I want to be a judge, like Grandfather,” I said, breathlessly. “Honestly, Father, it’s all I’ve really ever wanted to do,” I ended.  I was scared, but relieved — it was out there, finally.

“Your grandfather would feel complimented, to be sure,” Father said. “But you don’t have to go to law school. You can do as Cephas did, working as a law clerk for several years, then sit for the bar….”

“I don’t want to do it the way Cephas has. I want to be better. I’m going to be better than him,” I said, in an excited, emphatic rush, that I know my father has never seen about me; he drew back and looked at me with a surprised expression.

“All right,” Father said after several minutes in silence.

“What? All right? You’re all right with this?” I could not believe what I was hearing.

Father nodded, cupping the bowl of his pipe in his hand, watching me carefully.

“Yes, son. But I want it clear: If you want this, you have to get it completely on your own. We will not finance another term at college for you. You’ll be on your own.”

He saw my downcast expression. “No help at all?”

“Let me finish, son. I’m not being hard on you here; but you have to understand that we gave you tuition to study at the university for the purpose of going into our family business, and you’ve decided you don’t want to do it. That was our agreement. And you aren’t upholding your end of the agreement. We are not wealthy, and we cannot be wasteful with resources. If you wish to attend law school, you’ll have to find your own way.”

I continued to sit in silence. 

“Therefore, son, you will need to get out in the world and work a while in an actual business. We will need your help around here, and I can use you at the pharmacy.”

“But Father…I don’t want.…”

“Then you can work at the depot. Or maybe ask around, see if one of the local lawyers needs a clerk. But if you cannot contribute to the expenses in some way, you’ll have to leave.”

“I have no other choices,” I said, tightly.

“That’s where you’re wrong, Emmett. You have many choices before you. But have to plan for both the long and the short term. Long term, you know that you want to go to law school. Short term, you have to find a way to finance that, plan for whatever it takes to get in. I know you, Emmett. I also know you’ve been given a lot of opportunities. These things that are happening — it seems like they are bad, but you have to remember that events are not simply ‘good’ or ‘bad’; it is what we make of them.

“You’re a lot like Frank in this regard, you know,” Father said, looking at me as he puffed his pipe.”

“What do you mean?” I said, angrily — fearfully. Had Father found my hidden bottle of booze in the boy’s bedroom?

“Only that, like Frank, only you can decide what you want to do with this new opportunity that has come your way. Frank can choose to work hard to change his life. And you can too.”

I excused myself, and left my father sitting on the front porch.

===

When the realization of what happened came to me, as I went into the house and paused in the foyer — I felt as if I were dying inside. I took a deep breath.  At least I did not lose my composure in front of my father.

I was not going to lose my composure in front of my family.

I was not going to lose composure.

I was not going to lose composure.

I took another deep breath.

At that moment, my stepmother came out of the kitchen.

“Oh, good, Emmett. You’re here. Supper will be ready in a few minutes.”

I nodded at her, as she passed by me, and into the dining room.

I could hear the muffled sounds of my family in the dining room, next to the foyer; my stepsisters moving about, dishes and silverware clinking, murmuring of conversation, Mother Kate, my stepsisters in conversation. Frank would not be at the table, of course….

I could feel…Oh God. What I was feeling? It was overwhelming me, the shame, the sorrow, the anger, the frustration, the tightness in my chest. My face felt hot…

Stop it.

Calm down. I don’t know how to deal with these things that I feel so strongly, when they come over me… Stop it. But I cannot stop it. Alien, illogical, disordered things that are Feelings. They have no organization to them; best to ignore them.

But they will not be ignored tonight.

I think, drown them. I thought of my flask, now empty, hidden behind the books in my room. Dammit. Even if I could get to it, what would be the use?

I stood for only a moment on that porch, not knowing what to do.

And then, all I knew was that I had to get out of there.

Chapter 44: To be someone else

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December 25, 1900, 6:35 pm,
P&A Train Depot, Chipley, Florida

May 21, 1898 edition of The Chipley Banner. The story about the fire takes up most of the third page of the issue. Source: ChroniclingAmerica.gov

The Chipley train depot is a long, gray-and-brown, rectangular wooden building that looks very much like the other Pensacola & Atlantic stations along the line. There’s nothing remarkable about it other than the fact it has been rebuilt a few times; it was one of the casualties of the Great Fire of 1898 which burned down most of the business district.

The depot has a waiting room outfitted with benches, a spittoon with lots of stains on the wall and flour around it; and a coal-burning stove in one corner. There’s two entrances: A passenger entrance on the front side of the depot facing the tracks, and another for freight and packages, which has scales and other equipment to load large loads, barrels, bales of hay, and so forth. The outhouse is further away behind the depot; a vile thing that you can smell even from a distance, especially if the day is hot and there is a breeze blowing in a certain direction. Inside is not much better; in Winter, the atmosphere is hot and stale because the coal stove in the waiting room gives off fumes.

Wade Hampton Blake. Source: findagrave.com

Wade Hampton Blake was at the ticket window when Paul and I walked into the depot. Blake is a tall man, with dark eyes and hair and a touch of gray at the temples.

He is only two years older than Paul and me, but he is sharp; smart beyond his years. He trained Julian and me to manage the station when we were 13; he taught us both Morse Code and telegraphy. Blake is specific, focused, no nonsense. I’ve always liked him because he doesn’t bother with a lot of small talk or inconsequential topics.

===

Julian and I were hired together to work at this depot; our first real jobs. Working for the P&A appealed to me because it offered a chance to earn regular employment at a decent wage in rural Florida, where, unless you owned a successful farm or business (or were a lawyer like Cephas), regular work and good pay are inconsistent at best. But most valuable to me was I saw  it as my ticket out of Chipley; to go somewhere important, to be someone important.

To be someone else.

My brother and I started out sweeping floors, bringing in coal for the waiting room stove. We helped passengers with their baggage on and off the train. We loaded parcels and other deliveries onto carts. We politely answered the same question 200 times a day: “What time is the next train?” even when the schedule was neatly written on the huge, prominent chalkboard in the waiting room, and you could clearly hear the whistle of the next train only about five miles down the track, as it was coming into the Chipley station.

It didn’t matter that our older brothers Meade and Frank, who were well known conductors on the L&N line got the jobs for us, or that Grandfather had once been the president of the Pensacola & Montgomery Railroad after the War for several years. Blake made it known to Julian and me the first day that we had to prove ourselves worthy, or we’d be out lickety-split; that there was plenty of others who could and would come in and do our jobs.

Kate Langley Jordan Wilson, or Mother Kate.

Julian and I would work anywhere between 12 and 16 hour days, without complaining — well, Julian and I complained to each other, but we knew enough to keep it to ourselves, and to never say or act any way ungrateful about working for the railroad outside of home. Even around Mother Kate — who would occasionally say something about how tired we looked after a long shift — Julian and I would never complain about the work or the long hours. We didn’t want to chance her repeating our comments to someone outside the family.

Within a year, we were both promoted. Julian went to live with my brother Meade and his wife in Pensacola, to train in baggage and parcel management, and I was to train as assistant manager of the Chipley depot. I soon proved myself so responsible, that I was trained to be a ‘brass pounder,’ a telegrapher, which was the most important job of all at any depot. When I say that it was considered the most important job in the depot, I am not exaggerating: Telegraphers were responsible for ensuring signals were correct up and down the line, especially if there were last-minute track changes, or emergencies. A telegrapher was partially responsible for the safety of the travelers and the trains.  An incorrect message about an incoming train, or, perhaps, a weather advisory affecting schedules on down the line could mean accidents on the railroad — death. That never happened to me on my watch.

A telegraph machine in the holdings of the Chipley Historical Society museum. Photo courtesy of Dorothy Odom.

I enjoyed decoding the dots and dashes of the Morse language. It made sense. It was orderly, logical, unemotional, precise. It was easy and felt second-nature; Blake once told me he’d never had someone pick it up so easily under his tutelage as I did, nor so accurately.

The responsibility and importance of holding down the telegraph key was glamorous and exciting — the smooth, brisk tapping, clicking of the key as messages in Morse code pulsed via electricity through the wire, from Marianna, from Montgomery, from Louisville, and from thousands of miles away from big cities like Chicago or New York

Holding down the key at the station, as we called it, came easily to me. Once I became proficient, I could recognize who was on the other end of the telegraph, even though I had never met the other telegrapher, and he was a thousand miles away. Some brass pounders wrote streamlined, elegant messages; others were more clumsy, less accurate with their coding. It got to the point that I would hear the tapping of the code in my dreams; or in nature, as I walked across the country lanes and wooded paths around Washington County on my days off. My life as a telegrapher was solitary but respected, because I was accurate, and paid attention to detail.

After I became expert at sending and receiving wires, I was eventually sent out to manage small, rural train stations up and down the P&A line by myself. I’d be gone for a week, maybe two or three weeks at a time; often serving as night manager, which meant I’d be on duty, alone, from 8 pm until 8 am the next day. I was paid well, given room and board at mediocre hash houses.  And when one worked out of town, there were liberties after hours — I mostly behaved myself, as I did not want bad behavior reported back to either the manager, my brothers, or my father, but I did what other young men did on their own: Have a few drinks, enjoy a few of the girls who would hang out at the depot for that purpose. I kept my mouth shut. I did my job well without complaining, I earned good money, and I followed directions. I think my Father was proud of me, and my work.

===

Blake glances up as Paul and I pushed open the double doors of the empty depot, and wishes us a Merry Christmas.

“Anything I can do for you?”

“No. Just stopping by to see if anything was going on over the wires,” I said.

“Nope, no news,” Blake responds briskly. “How has your holiday been so far?”

“Fine,” I said.

The regular train schedule for the L&N. Source: The Chipley Banner, July 24, 1897. ChroniclingAmerica.gov

“Number two mail train due in a few minutes,” Blake said, consulting the clock over the doorway in the waiting room. “You’re welcome to stick around.”

We nod, glancing around the empty waiting room. We walk over to the benches where there were several out-of-town newspapers. Paul offers me another cigarette, which I decline.

“Say, Emmett,” Blake called out of the ticket window. “You wouldn’t have any free time this week to hold down the key for a shift or two? We’re kind of short handed.”

I hesitated. “Can’t you get some of the younger boys to come in?”

“I could, but I’d prefer to have someone on hand who’s accurate. I can raise your money a little bit,” Blake adds.

I shrug. “Sure. I’m in town only through the week though, as we’re headed back to Tallahassee for school.”

“Suits me,” Blake said. “Sure appreciate it, Emmett.”

“You sure you want back in the saddle again for a few days?” Paul asks.

“I can use the money. It will be nice to be a little bit ahead when we start back to school in a few weeks.”

Paul nods, then points out an article in one of the papers about Walter Kehoe and a case he had been working on before Christmas. We talk about it for a few minutes until we hear the whistle of the P&A eastbound from Pensacola, about two miles outside of town. Soon, we’d feel the rumble of the train as it pulled into the station, vibrating the wooden building slightly; the engine full of steam and power, slowing as the brakes squeal and creak to a slow stop, then the hissing of the engine as it vents one last blast of steam.

We both stand as the train pulls in; Paul puts the paper down, and we amble to the open doors of the station. We stand outside slightly to the right of the doorway, so as not to block the passengers who have business in the depot with Blake. There weren’t many people detraining; mostly businessmen with small satchels and carpetbags, who stood about looking for the nearest hotel— which is the only hotel in Chipley — the Central Hotel right across the street. There were only a few women deboarding the train, who were met at the station by family members in wagons and buggies.

We watch the small group of new arrivals walk about, get their bearings, and head toward their destinations. There wasn’t anything else going on here, so we began walking towards the corner of 6th and Railroad Streets, for home.

We had gone only about half a block, when I hear someone behind us yelling.

“Emmett! Emmett!”

Paul and I turn to see Blake rushing to the end of the depot sidewalk gesturing anxiously towards us. Paul and I glanced at each other, then walk quickly back to the depot.

“Emmett! Quickly,” Blake said.

We follow Blake around to the side of the depot, which is not visible to the street or to passengers boarding or detraining, and there, a train conductor and a porter are holding up a man between them — my brother, Frank — barely conscious.

“Frank!” I said, anxiously. I go over to take my brother off of the porter’s shoulder and Frank leans heavily on me. I can barely hold him, so Paul, the porter, and the conductor help me ease Frank on to a bench, and where we lay him down.

“What happened?” I ask, panicky, looking at my brother’s face. Frank only gives me a glazed expression. He is very pale, listless, his head wobbling.

“Frank!” I yell at him. “Talk to me!”

At which point Frank passes out.

“What happened?” I try not to sound panicked, but the hell is scared out of me. “What is wrong with him?”

“Well, son, it’s simple. He’s obviously drunk himself to incapacitation,” the porter replies with a smirk.

Blake narrowed his eyes at the porter. “This looks like more than a simple drunk to me.”

“Well, that’s what we got. He smells like a brewery, or worse.”

Blake turns to Paul. “Do you think you could get help? I can’t leave the depot and you two can’t get Frank to the house in this state.”

Paul nods. “Emmett, I’ll get your Father. I’ll be right back.” We watched as Paul ran, his lanky body disappearing down 6th Street. I knew he would run the entire six blocks to my Father’s house.

I crouch back down, to get a closer look at my brother in the lamplight of the depot. Frank did, indeed, give off a foul, revolting smell. I involuntarily turned my head aside for a second, but turned back to my brother.  His clothing — his conductor’s uniform — had oily stains on it, and his white shirt was dingy. I cannot believe this is my polished and professional older brother, a man so proud of his longtime status with the P&A; a man who  worked his way up from a luggage handler to one of the main conductors on the railroad; a man who holds a position of prominence in local Pensacola politics. 

I reach into his coat pocket, took out his pocketbook. I open it. There is Frank’s railroad identification; a letter addressed to him from Mae McKinnon; an IOU for $150 at Moog’s, a liquor distributor in Pensacola. I frown — the debt is equivalent to several months’ wages. It is not like him to borrow that much, or to borrow from anyone, and from a liquor distributor? 

Source: The Chipley Banner, March 31, 1900. From ChroniclingAmerica.gov

The conductor crouches down next to me, and looks at Frank a few moments. I say to him, “I can’t believe this is Frank. How long has he been like this?”

“I don’t know,” the conductor said.

Frank was pale, and an odd yellowish color. I didn’t know what I was looking at, what was wrong with Frank, but I sense he is dying. I touch his hand, which had fallen down from the bench where he lay. It felt clammy, cold. I panic.

“Oh my God, Frank,” I say to my unconscious brother.

Blake pats me on the shoulder. “Your father will be here soon.”

The two men who had brought him to the bench shifted uncomfortably. I look up at them; my expression unsettles them, because they look away. These two men were people my brother had worked with for several years on the L&N. I know they all know each other fairly well, and now, it was as if they didn’t want to know Frank.

And the train whistle sounds at that moment. 

“We’ve got to go,” the conductor says to the porter. They both turn without saying anything else, and head back to the train.

“Wait,” I say, standing up, and going to them. ”Can’t you tell me anything about how this came to be? Frank’s not a drunk. He’s not. I know him.”

“Sorry, kid, but I don’t think you know your brother as well as you think you do,” the conductor said. I stood watching them board the train. The whistle shrieks again, and the train rumbles off, headed East, toward Marianna.

Blake is still crouched next to my unconscious brother. In the distance, we hear the telegraph clicking. 

“I’m sorry, Emmett. I’ve got to answer that,” Blake said, standing up quickly. “Paul should be back shortly. Excuse me.”

I crouch next to Frank as he lay on the bench, in the fading light of this Christmas evening, waiting for my Father and my friend to come back, and not knowing what else to do. I take Frank’s cold hand in mine. 

For the second time in two days, I weep.

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. My other brother Frank, who works for the M. & M. Railroad, isn’t here; he told Father he had to work over the holidays.

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 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 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 30: When Times Get Tough

Standard

December 22, 1900
The L&N Train Depot, Chipley

The #22 L&N train pulled into the Chipley station a few minutes before 1 pm; it was a mild day for late December, about 55 degrees, an overcast, milky white sky.

Chipley is a nice town, but it has never really felt like home to me.

Even as a youngster, I had this idea I wanted to be somewhere more exciting, more interesting, more anonymous. Everyone knows you. If you are new, it will be only a matter of a few hours before you are old news, that’s how efficient the grapevine is in town.

My father, taking it easy in the back yard, in 1895, Chipley, Florida

My family is particularly well known since my Father has treated at least one member of every family in Washington County in his almost 20 years of practicing medicine. I was two when our family moved here; most of the townspeople have known me all my life.

They watched me at my Mother’s funeral; they watched me play shortstop for the town’s baseball team; they watched me work in the telegraph office of the railroad depot when I was 15; they watched me court a few of the local girls — and watched nothing ever come of it.

Paul Carter, as photographed in the 1900 West Florida Seminary yearbook, The Argo.

I sighed as I stepped off the train onto the depot platform, with my suitcase and satchel in my hands. I stopped for a moment to wait for my best friend, Paul Carter, who was stuck behind a few large passengers carrying bags and parcels.

I walked over to the depot; the double doors to the waiting room were propped open, people milling about, purchasing tickets, securing wraps around shoulders, clutching bags, preparing to make their way to the platform to board the train.

I saw Bailey, the station manager, counting out change and issuing tickets to departing customers at the window. He’d started out at the station with my older brothers, Frank Jr. and Meade, who worked their way up the line with the L&N railroad and were now in various positions of authority as conductors and managers. Bailey later trained me and my twin brother, Julian, who recently was promoted to assistant baggage handler in Pensacola.

Bailey trained me on the telegraph when I was 15, and to eventually manage a train station, something I did often up and down the L&N line during the two years I was saving money to go to West Florida Seminary. Back in the day, I figured Bailey would be out of here in a few years, off to run a larger train station somewhere in an exciting city, far away from here.

But no, Bailey was still here, still running the station, still looking the same.

Paul stepped up next to me, with his own bags in his hands. He’d followed my gaze; he’d read my mind.

“Nothing changes much around here, does it?”

I shook my head.

Paul gave a tight lipped smile. “It’s only for a week, Emmett. Then, we’ll be back to the fun and excitement of life in Tallahassee, for the next semester. Buck up, pal. It’s also Christmas. There’ll be company in from out of town, good food, and a chance to unwind before the upcoming exams. You might enjoy it, in spite of yourself.”

He made me laugh. “Yeah. All right.”

We walked away from the depot; Paul’s family lived on 5th Street, only a block and a half away from mine, on 6th Street.  I paused at the corner of South Railroad and 6th; Paul stopped too, inquiringly.

“Going home directly?” Paul asked.

“No. I’m going to stop off at my father’s office to say hello. I haven’t seen his new office. He moved in a few months ago, right after I left for school.”

“All right. I’ll catch up with you tomorrow.”

We shook hands, and Paul walked off towards 5th Street.

I looked up at the new brick store buildings now lining the block. Two years ago, the Great Fire of 1898 almost completely wiped out downtown Chipley: Over 30 buildings and businesses burned down, my father’s office included.

All parts of this article here from The Chipley Banner, May 21, 1898, page 3 via ChroniclingAmerica.gov. The article is extensive; click on the link to view all of the businesses listed in the original article.

I remembered that day clearly: Me and my brothers were startled in the middle of the dinner by ringing church bells, shouts of fire, and by my stepmother, Kate Jordan Wilson, frantically jumping out of her seat at the dining room table, telling us to hurry, and to get to town.

My brothers and I ran all the way, and were part of the bucket brigade to put out the fire.

We worked for hours; dozens of men and boys, side-by-side, black and white, passing buckets of water, feeling the intense heat blasts when one or two of the buildings that could not be saved fell in massive showers of sparks, clouds of smoke. I’ll never forget how hard we all worked, mostly trying to contain the fire so that it would not spread to other buildings, or to close by homes.

Finally, the fire was finally under control, and we all cheered and shouted with relief. Incredibly, no one was killed.

But our relief turned to despair rather quickly –  as the smoke cleared, we looked around, it was revealed to all of us the terrible reality that most stores, businesses, livelihoods were in ashes.

I remember Julian and myself looking around for our Father, and finding him, finally, looking at the space where his new office had been, on the second floor of a building that had an ice cream parlor on the first floor.

He was standing in a shirt that had been hastily tucked into his pants, his suspenders down around his hips. Father had soot on his face, on his shirt; in his hair. His beard appeared singed in some places. He was staring at the scorched brick and timbers on the ground where the building had been.

He saw something glinting in the ash and debris that had been his store – he went over to it; took a handkerchief out of his pocket and picked it up – a silver metal scalpel. It was still hot to the touch, but Father didn’t seem to feel the heat. He wrapped it in the handkerchief, put it in his pocket. He didn’t say anything to us, or to anyone, but started walking home.

Father had just moved his office out of the house – something he’d wanted to do for years especially after my mother’s death – into a separate office in town. It made him feel like he was moving up, successful, prominent. But he’d lost all of his equipment, drugs, even medical books and records in the Great Fire. Like a lot of folks, he’d have to start over. There was no insurance, so this was a big financial blow to our family.

But now, as I gaze around, I couldn’t tell that there had been a fire. The town had recovered quickly; everyone had pulled together to help each other rebuild. For all that everyone here is in each other’s business, when times get tough, everyone in Chipley pitches in to help each other out. I know that Father and other merchants could not have recovered or rebuilt so quickly otherwise.

I look up at the second floor, where Father’s office is located. There’s a light on; he’s there. He’s always there, though. Looking after everyone else in town, regardless of whether he has an office or not.

I open the door to the second floor; I head upstairs to see my Father.

Next: Emmett’s home