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

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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.