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

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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

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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

Chapter 4: Strategy

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I have a fool-proof information gathering strategy that has been tremendously successful in every single research project:

  • Isolate the topic
  • Search all easily/readily available information via basic search engines
  • Read everything (this can take weeks)
  • Journal during the search/reading time
  • Reflect on the information
  • Organize the information
  • Consult with a research librarian/archivist

Note that writing up the research is nowhere to be found at this stage. (It would be almost a year before I felt like I had enough information to write about one small part of Emmett’s life.) My goal in the early days of any project is to get all the information available on the topic. THEN read it, THEN journal/reflect, THEN organize it. For the record: Journaling is something I’ve always done on works-in-progress, to capture impressions, clarifications, feelings, ideas, and so forth during the lifetime of the project.

When I look back over the notes about Emmett in May 2013, I’m amazed at how naive I sounded; how “taken” I was with this man who seemed to have died pathetically, how “noble yet misunderstood” I felt Emmett was at the time of his death.

An entry for May 6, 2013:

“…it it possible to fall in love with a research subject? But one has to accept the subject as he or she is, warts and all. (Emmett) was no saint, no monk. He was a human being who lived his life in his time in the way he knew how to do it, and how it was modeled before him.”

As I look back through my handwritten pages, I wondered if I’d  really fallen in love with Emmett — it wasn’t uncommon — or if it was more that I was trying to see the best of the man I knew nothing about, instead of trying to see information I had as just data at this point.  Regardless, I had to step back from the edge of the admiration abyss as I dug up data about Emmett’s life. I was anxious to find data, good or bad, exciting or disappointing.

The research auto pilot filter kicked on automatically at that point — I knew what I had to do next.

Spreadsheet Prozac

Data has always calmed me; I literally feel my blood pressure drop a few points when I look at research spreadsheets.

I use a basic spreadsheet program to organize all of the data items I’ve found about Emmett over his lifetime. Information is organized by date, summary of item found in the contemporary media, my notes on that media, and the location of the clip, link, article, or resource.

Within the first few days of starting Emmett’s research, I created basic spreadsheets, charting out everything I could find about Emmett Wilson in his lifetime. (I later added entries for family members, close friends and business associates within the same spreadsheets, for context and background. Today, that spreadsheet is hundreds of pages long.)

This was extremely helpful, because many of the clips and articles I found were not in chronological order.

Eventually, Emmett’s spreadsheets became a valuable time-line in which I was able to reconstruct his career, charting the ups and downs — the downs in Emmett’s life became easily predictable.  The spreadsheet definitely made it easy to construct Emmett’s story fact-by-fact — but that astringent approach was distasteful to me:

This was a man’s life — who was I to ‘sum it up’ so neatly in a spreadsheet? The hubris of the idea….

…and then, there was this entry in my notes, also on May 6, 2013:

Yeah, I’m a nerd. I transcribe all of my handwritten notes. It makes them searchable.

“I think I’m afraid I won’t like some of the information I find out about him. That may be true. But it is still his information, not mine, and regardless, I accept him and his life’s story to tell without reservation….I don’t have or need to like it at all. I just need to accept.”

Which I did — with the help of some fine research archivists and librarians.

Next: Family connection

 

The Gold Medal

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Source: The Stetson Collegiate, January 30, 1904.

The thin gold medal, looped with a blue silk ribbon laying across my palm was inscribed: “1st place, Interdepartmental Speech Competition.” The obverse: “Stetson University, 1904.”

I coveted this medal because last year I was the runner up to my best friend Paul Carter. I never placed first in any competition with Paul —  be it academic, athletic, romantic — I was always second.

It’s a beautiful medal. I strove to win this medal. It was my own holy Grail. If I won, I reasoned, it might fill the hole in my soul that constantly nags at me to be beat Paul. To be number one.

Only now, as I hold the medal in my hand, I realize:

The hole in my soul is still there.

This holy medal isn’t enough.

And,

Nothing may ever be enough.

I close my hand over the medal for a moment; I drop it in the wastebasket.