Sunday, June 20, 2021

MR. SPRAGUE AND THE SUPERTEST CARNIVAL

 

05-22-2021

November, 1958. Thonotosassa, Florida

Our new home on Fowler Avenue was screened by two tall, wide stands of Australian pines on either side of an oyster shell driveway, blocking most of the view from the road. If you didn't know where to turn you could miss it. The small white wooden rental house rested on top of a hill in front of a ten-acre orange grove. Two spreading jacaranda trees framed the circular drive in front of the house. Large avocado trees grew at each of the four corners of our new home. Grapefruit trees crowded the backyard, abutting the rows of wide, spreading orange trees. A lime tree, a prehistoric-looking sago palm, and red hibiscus shrubs filled the side yards. To a nine-year old boy, it was a one-acre Eden of citrus trees and other unidentifiable growing things.

Prices were higher in Florida. We'd paid twenty dollars a month rent in Texas. Our little house on the hill cost forty-five dollars a month, a princely sum at the time, even for Eden.

Daddy had rented a U-Haul trailer in Texarkana that was filled with every scrap of our belongings. We left nothing behind in Texas. We weren't going back. Looking back, I don't know how our old car did it, towing that heavy trailer a thousand miles, protecting Mama, Daddy, and three boys aged nine, five and two. Our parents were both twenty-nine years old.

I don't know how Mama and Daddy unloaded all our furniture, beds, boxes of clothing, cookware, and everything else by themselves, but somehow they did it. That night we slept in our own beds, in a strange house, listening to strange noises, homesick for the family left behind.

 

Then we were introduced that night to the Florida palmetto bug, also known as the giant armor-plated cockroach.

I woke in the middle of the night with the need to relieve my bladder. The house was pitch dark. Barefoot, I made my way to the bathroom, my feet crunching on something. It never occurred to me that I was crushing cockroaches. I'd never seen a cockroach in Texas. My hands outstretched in the dark, I felt for the open bathroom door frame, reached around for the light switch, and flipped it on.

I screamed! The linoleum floor was carpeted in cockroaches, hundreds, perhaps thousands of alien brown creatures two to three inches long, long antenna feelers flicking, frozen in place by the bright bathroom light. I screamed again, and the roaches scattered, disappearing into their wall hiding places in seconds.

My mother was the first one up, freaking out, having no idea why her son was screaming, entering the small dining room adjacent to the bathroom just in time to see the last exodus of cockroaches disappear. She screamed.

Daddy was the next one up, dashing into the dining room in his boxers, ready to confront intruders, but all he saw were Mama and me. Except for the dozen or so I had crushed underfoot in the dark, the scary roaches were gone. My mother told Daddy she couldn't live in a house infested with giant cockroaches. He promised to take care of it.

My brothers, Dan and Tom, slept through it.

The next day, Arthur Wetherington, the owner, drove up in his old pickup truck to meet his new tenants. Daddy had gone to work. Mama was polite and gracious asking about the cockroaches. Mr. Wetherington told us that the roaches were called palmetto bugs, and mostly lived in orange groves, but the house had been vacant for a few months, giving the nasty-smelling bugs, roaches, whatever one chose to call them, an opportunity to colonize the rental house.

Someone at work told Daddy how to fumigate our house and get rid of the roaches. Friday night we closed all the windows and opened all the cabinet doors and dresser drawers. Daddy put two Holiday foggers in the house, switched them on, and hurried out the door. Insecticide gas filled the little house. We couldn't return for several hours, until the poison gas had dissipated.

We went to the Fun-Lan drive-in on Hillsborough Avenue for the evening, a huge treat. Hotdogs and popcorn. Looking back, it seemed like Daddy was trying to make up for all the recent disruption we'd endured.

We were home by eleven. Daddy went in first, opening windows and doors, turning on a fan, airing out the place, hitting the lights. He cussed.

Mama went in behind him. She cussed. My brothers and I stayed outside, in no hurry to enter. Mama was sweeping with a broom in the living room, cussing at every stroke. I stood on the front porch and looked inside.

For a moment I wondered how all those dry leaves had gotten in our house, then realized they were dead roaches Mama was sweeping up, not leaves. The floor was completely covered with dead roaches. The ''roach bomb,'' as we called it, worked. We could get up during the night to use the bathroom without fear of treading on roaches.

Every month or so, after Mama complained of seeing another cockroach, we would repeat the process.

Gasoline was plentiful and cheap in the 1950's. ''Gas wars'' were common. Gas stations across the street from each other would post prices a few cents per gallon cheaper than their competitor, who would then lower his prices a few pennies less. A famous photograph in the Tampa Tribune showed two signs in front of a gas station — ''Kerosene —19.9 cents per gallon,'' and ''Gasoline —18.9 cents per gallon.'' That photo was published in newspapers and magazines nationwide. Kerosene was typically a cheaper petroleum product, used in space heaters and paint brush cleanup (not to mention diesel and jet fuel), and for gasoline to cost less than kerosene was unusual and newsworthy.

An independent gas company, Supertest, had the cheapest gasoline prices, always undercutting the name brand oil companies. That's where Daddy bought his gas. The nearest Supertest station was on Fowler Avenue, two miles west of our house, on the way to Temple Terrace or Tampa. Daddy would always pull into the Supertest on Friday nights, to fill his gas tank, on our way to buy groceries at the Kwik Chek grocery store.

Mr. Sprague owned the combination gas station and little store. A tall, thin man wearing a fishing cap and smoking a pipe, even around the gas pumps, Mr. Sprague looked like the artist, Norman Rockwell.

His little store was fascinating to my brothers and me. It wasn't like a 7-Eleven or cookie cutter convenience store. It was old, like Mr. Sprague. Additions had been built on over time. Although he sold sodas and other typical store items, Mr. Sprague's emphasis was on fishing. You walk into his crowded little store the first things you see are fishing lures painted with eyes and colors like little fish, with treble hooks attached. There were dozens of different fishing lures, silver ''Johnson spoons,'' colorful plastic worms, tables with boxes of small to large lead weights, hooks of every size from tiny to humongous, hooks big enough to tackle the biggest fishes. Corks and floats of every description. Rods and reels. Rolls of monofilament fishing line. Minnow buckets. Fish knives.

 

Photos of fishermen and their catches hung on the walls alongside taxidermy largemouth bass frozen in time with the inherent message, ''You, too, can catch a lunker.'' Fishing paradise to a nine-year old boy.

Around the side of the store outside Mr. Sprague lined up several small fishing boats on trailers for sale. Every week, while Mr. Sprague filled the car tank with gasoline, Daddy would roll a cigarette and talk with the old man, his eyes cutting over toward the unobtainable fishing boats.

''Service stations'' in the 1950's and 1960's were unlike the impersonal behemoths we have today. On TV I see little old ladies at modern gas pumps filling their tanks. That didn't happen in the Fifties. You pull up to the pump, ask for a fill-up or a couple dollars’ worth, the attendant pumps your gas, washes your windshield with a spray bottle, a squeegee and a clean rag, opens your hood, and checks your oil. Tire pressure low? Got that. Full service. Mr. Sprague personally dealt with every customer, most of whom considered him like a kindly uncle.

The old man took an especial liking to my father and our small family. He told us about the Supertest carnival, in Tampa, with rides, ponies, wild animals and concession stands, for Supertest customers only. For every dollar of gas purchased, the attendant would give you four Supertest tickets, redeemable for rides at the carnival. Mr. Sprague gave Daddy an entire roll of twenty-five cent tickets to encourage him to take us to the carnival. We boys begged to go, but Daddy did things in his own time. He wasn't ready to take us to the Supertest carnival.

Meanwhile, Mr. Sprague talked up the joys of Florida freshwater fishing, particularly Lake Panasoffkee, an hour's drive north of Tampa, near Bushnell. Mr. Sprague closed his store every Wednesday morning until noon so he could be out on the lake fishing before dawn. It was a large lake, and you needed a fishing boat to cover the expanse of water. Daddy couldn't afford to buy a boat, but Mr. Sprague convinced him he could rent a boat and ''kicker'' — that's what fishermen called small outboard motors — from Jim Veal at the Pana Vista Lodge at a very reasonable price. Mr. Sprague outfitted us with all the necessary gear we'd need.

''Pay me five dollars a week,'' he said, ''You're good customers.''

In later years, when Daddy had his own nice boat, he and Mama would spend the weekend in a rental cabin on the lake. Long after Mr. Sprague had passed on, I realized that the old man must have contacted Jim Veal and smoothed our way in those early days. We always got special treatment. That was the way he was.

Daddy took off a rare Saturday from work. Mama cooked us a very early breakfast. She wasn't going. She couldn't swim, and no way was she going out in a boat that would surely capsize if she got in it, life jacket or not.

''You boys have a good time,'' she said. ''Bring me back some fish.''

We did. Not a boatful, but plenty for a Saturday night fish fry with grits, hush puppies, and Cole slaw, and leftovers enough for another meal.

It was a great day for us all. We were on the water before sunrise. Daddy enjoyed teaching Dan and Tom to fish, just as he had taught me. Everyone caught fish. The lake was beautiful, and we spent more time cruising and exploring than fishing, the four of us lost in our own worlds. Panasoffkee means "Valley of Water" in the language of the early Indians who lived in the area beginning in the early 1800’s. Lake Panasoffkee is a somewhat shallow, true spring-fed lake that covers about 4450 acres, even now famous for its bountiful fishing.

 

Daddy took us up the Withlacoochee River, which flowed out of the lake, to a railroad trestle over the river. A freight train passed overhead, whistle blasting. I baited a hook with a large earthworm, dropped it deep in the middle of the river, and almost immediately hooked the fish of the day, a fat catfish over two feet long. That was the last fish caught.

That fishing trip was the first we went on together, the first of many. Our trips to Lake Panasoffkee instilled a love for fishing in my brothers that never cooled off.

Mike Henry convinced Daddy to take the family to the Supertest Carnival on a Saturday night. He was a young man who worked with my father at Booker, newly-married to his teenage wife, Clara, who loved the Supertest Carnival, having visited it since she was a little girl. Since Daddy had the roll of free ride tickets, Mike and Clara volunteered to guide us around the little carnival.

The first thing we saw, approaching the Supertest Carnival on North Dale Mabry Highway, was the Ferris wheel turning, lit up with strings of colored lights. The first thing we heard was the loud carnival music blasting from the merry-go-round, children squealing with joy, riding the painted carousel horses going up and down, round and round. The first things we smelled were the wafting blends of frying corn dogs, swirls of pink cotton candy, red syrup-dipped candy apples, and fresh, hot popcorn.

Clara wanted to ride the Ferris wheel. Her husband, Mike, refused. He said he didn't like carnival rides.

''Come on, boys,'' Clara said, grabbing Dan and me by our shoulders, leading us to the waiting line. ''Ride with me.''

We both looked to Mama and Daddy, holding Tom, standing off to the side. Daddy nodded. We boarded the Ferris wheel, Clara sitting in the middle. The attendant slammed shut the safety bar and rotated us into the air, then loaded the next passengers.

The metal seat squeaked and groaned as we rocked higher and higher into the sky. I looked at the safety bar locked into a steel slot and was alarmed to see the bolt holding the bar had worn almost halfway through. I suppressed the urge to panic, afraid to say anything, fearful that Clara and Dan might panic, too, as we fell out of the sky.

Nothing happened. The Ferris wheel, fully loaded, spun through the sky. It was the highest I had ever been. I dared look at my companions. Dan's and Clara's expressions, like mine, combined fear and joy. As the rickety Ferris wheel picked up speed all three of us screamed. Whooshing around at ground level, I glimpsed Mama, Daddy, Tom and Mike watching us fly by. I risked a quick wave and little Tom, grinning, returned it.

The Ferris wheel finally stopped with our seat at the pinnacle. Tampa's scattered lights were bright and beautiful contrasted against the black sky. Yellow headlights and red taillights of slow-moving cars snaked along Dale Mabry Highway. A passenger jet landed at the nearby airport. I could have stared at the panoramic scene forever, but in scant moments we were rotated around to the landing and disembarked.

Mama rode with Tom on the merry-go-round, balancing him on a horse. He was delighted. Dan and I mounted nearby steeds, as did Clara, big kid that she was.

Clara wanted to see the monkeys, which turned out to be several scraggly chimpanzees in a small stinking steel cage, humanlike hands held out through the bars begging for peanuts. The only thing separating the chimps in their cage and the carnival goers was a low wire fence about three feet in front that could be easily stepped over. Several teenage boys and girls on a cheap date crowded around the front of the chimp cage, teasing them. One obnoxious boy held out a peanut, acted like he was going to throw it, then would pull back, shell the peanut, and eat it himself, frustrating the big male chimpanzee, who grimaced and growled.

His next trick was spitting on the male chimp, then laughing as the chimp cringed and wiped off his face.

Finally the big chimp had enough, retreating to the back of the cage, screaming louder and louder as he sucked in and built up a mouthful of spit and snot, then racing to the front of the cage, where he launched a huge yellow-green snot hocker through the cage bars. The glob of slime flew through the air and hit the teen bully square in the face, nose and mouth. The boy screamed, trying to wipe the thick chimp snot off his face.

The big ape hooted and howled in delight, bouncing up and down on his fists and feet. The human onlookers backed away from the cage, getting out of his range in case the chimp reloaded with ape snot, everyone laughing and pointing at the teenagers scurrying away, humiliated.

I wanted to ride the Shetland ponies, so that's where we went next. I was disappointed at the sad condition the ponies were in. They had walked in a circle so long the path was over a foot deep. The ponies' hooves were split and splayed and in desperate need of a blacksmith or veterinarian.

Two ponies were swaybacked, obviously old and barely able to keep up with the others, even at the plodding slow pace. Dan and I sat on our mounts, Shetland pintos, mine with splotches of black and white, Dan's with brown and white splotches, our feet in the stirrups, hanging on like the ponies might suddenly break loose and gallop to the highway. Daddy put Tom on a ride and walked the circular path beside him, making sure he didn't fall off. Tom wanted to ride again, and started crying when Daddy said it was time to go.

Clara made sure we rode every ride together. Why not? Daddy's roll of tickets was free. Mike seemed bored and angry, barely talking, as he followed us around from ride to ride, humoring his wife.

It was time to go. We headed back out toward the concession stand. The rides were free, but not the food. Daddy bought corn dogs and put mustard on each one for us. We were exhausted. Tom was asleep, his head on Mama's shoulder. Clara hugged everyone, promising we would do it again soon.

Soon turned out to be months before we returned to the Supertest Carnival. On the way home Mama and Daddy discussed Mike's odd behavior. He had seemed angry with Clara, hardly talking.

''He was jealous,'' Daddy said.

''Jealous?''

''Did you notice how he acted when Clara got on the Ferris wheel with the boys?'' Daddy said.

''How could he be jealous of two little boys?''

''That's how he is, jealous of everybody.''

A few evenings later Daddy took us to the Supertest gas station after supper. Mr. Sprague led Daddy around behind the store. I followed. He pointed out a beat-up wooden fishing boat on a trailer with one flat tire. Mr. Sprague pointed out the damage, a couple of holes in the side, peeling paint, a damaged bench seat.

''It's a good boat,'' he said, walking around the boat and trailer. ''Needs some work. I don't have the time or inclination to do it. I'll fix the tire.''

''How much?'' Daddy asked.

''Like I said, it needs some work. Right now it's just taking up space I need. You want to tackle it, you got a trailer hitch, come get it Saturday. Deal?''

''Deal.''

They shook hands.

''Mama, Mama, we got a boat!'' I jumped out of the car and ran to the front porch, Mama standing there, holding her ever-present broom. I couldn't wait to tell her.

Saturday finally came. Daddy worked half a day at Booker. I was sitting on a thick bed of dried brown needles inside the stand of tall Australian pines in the front yard overlooking Fowler Avenue. I could see out but no one passing by could see me. I often sat inside the shaded stand of trees waiting for the postman, the breezes whispering through the fragrant pine needles, lulling me. Sometimes I'd doze off until I heard Mama calling me. Today I was anxiously awaiting Daddy's return with our boat.

Finally Daddy arrived, turning into the driveway, climbing the hill, towing the beat-up boat on its trailer. I ran alongside the boat and trailer as Daddy made a circle, then backed the trailer beside the house.

It looked worse in daylight, paint faded and peeling. Mama stood on the front porch, unsmiling. She stared. Daddy unhitched the trailer and parked the car under a shady jacaranda tree.

''It'll look a lot better sanded down and with a fresh coat of paint,'' Daddy said.

Mama said nothing. I could tell she wasn't sold on this project.

Uncle Rufus arrived a couple hours later to examine the boat. He was the expert. He gave it his seal of approval. He loaned Daddy his electric drill sander along with a few cans of wood putty and some tools. He made some suggestions, sat on the front porch and drank iced tea with us for awhile, then returned to Dade City.

Rufus Norman was one of my favorite people. He was seven years older than Daddy. He spoke matter-of-factly to even young children, like they were adults. When summer came, he went swimming with us at Reese's Beach on the north side of Lake Thonotosassa on a Sunday afternoon. He stayed close by me in the waist-deep water.

''Can you swim, son?'' he asked, noticing that I was just splashing around in the water.

''No, sir,'' I said.

''This is a good time to learn,'' he said.

He taught me how to swim.

He taught me to hold my breath, eyes open, then duck under the water until I needed to come up for air. He taught me how to float on my back, how to paddle, and to swim out to deeper water and back. Soon I was swimming so well you'd think I'd been swimming all my life.

It took weeks to get the boat ready for painting. Daddy was too tired after work, so the boat repairs took up a couple of spare hours on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. Daddy used the drill sander, but gave me a block of wood and sandpaper to smooth out hard to reach places. Dan and Tom wanted to help, too, but they were too young to do much. Daddy fixed up sanding blocks for them, too, and showed the boys how to use them. They soon got bored. He taught me how to clean out the holes in the wood, fill and smooth the wood putty with a putty knife and sandpaper, how to seal the cracks.

Finally it was time to paint. Daddy and Rufus had turned the boat bottom up on saw horses in preparation. Daddy bought a can of high gloss dark green marine enamel to cover the wood inside and out. Daddy did most of the work, but he let us spread some paint on the boat (and ourselves). Mama wasn't happy about that. Marine enamel didn't wash off very well.

Daddy let the paint dry a week between first and second coats. Meanwhile he painted the boat trailer white. When all was done, the boat mounted on the trailer, aluminum registration numbers affixed to the sides, it looked brand-new. Daddy was pleased. Even Mama thought it was pretty. We couldn't wait to try it out, but Daddy said no, he had to work this Saturday, it would be another week before we could go to Lake Panasoffkee.

It must have been four a.m. when we sat down to breakfast the following Saturday. Dan, Tom and I were excited about going fishing in our own boat, at last. I'm sure Daddy was excited, too, but he didn't let it show. He tried to convince Mama to go, but she adamantly refused to get in a boat.

''It will be nice having the house to myself for once,'' she said.

Pana Vista Lodge and boat ramp was already busy with all manner of boats being launched when we arrived before dawn, from small aluminum Jon boats to expensive fiberglass fishing boats sporting pairs of powerful outboard motors.

Our small ten horsepower rented kicker served us just fine.

We had a great day on the water. Water birds flew overhead. Turtles sunning themselves on heavy tree limbs fallen into the water dove off the limbs like synchronized swimmers at our approach. Large fish rolled below the surface, inhaling bugs.

The fish were biting.

Everyone caught fish, little fish, bream and bluegills, speckled perch, and bigger fish, catfish and largemouth bass. On the way home Daddy stopped at Mr. Sprague's gas station. He'd promised Mr. Sprague he would show him the boat when he finished repairing it. He wanted to show the old man our catch, too.

Mr. Sprague was suitably impressed. He walked around the boat and trailer and smiled. ''You want to sell it you let me know,” he said.

Daddy offered him some fish instead.


Despite his jealous streak, Mike and Clara stayed married, raising two boys. At Booker, Mike graduated from the shipping department to the sales counter up front. They remained our friends, and I remember Clara inviting us to her parents' house in East Tampa for a dinner one night. They had Muscadine grapes growing in their backyard, which suitably impressed my brothers and me.

The decrepit Supertest Carnival finally closed a few years after our first visit there, following another serious incident with the chimpanzees. A female chimp broke out of her cage after being teased, jumped the low fence, bit off the thumb of a nine-year old girl, raced up an electric pole, touched a live wire, was electrocuted, and fell to the ground, her black fur smoking, next to a crowd of horrified onlookers. That spelled the carnival's end.

In the 1970's, I purposely drove by the site of the old carnival on North Dale Mabry Highway. The front area had been converted to a Pontiac dealership, but at the closed off rear I could see the old merry-go-round amid tall weeds and bushes taking over the site.

Closing my eyes I thought I could hear the carnival music blaring, smell the food, and see the old Ferris wheel spinning, delighting screaming children one more time, under their parents’ watchful gazes.

 

Mr. Sprague continued to operate his Supertest gas station, along with his fishing tackle business and convenience store. I was the one in my family most interested in fishing, and Mr. Sprague would answer my questions along with selecting special lures for me to try.

''Try out this one for me and let me know how it does,'' he would say.

His boat business expanded, taking over more of his property. People would bring their boats and trailers for sale on consignment, and Mr. Sprague would collect a sales commission. He made a good deal on an outboard motor for Daddy, so he didn't have to rent one each time we went fishing.

He blamed his failing health on decades of smoking his ever-present tobacco pipe. A woman he had lived with for years began filling in for him more and more. He left everything to her, and she ran the place for a time until she sold the property and bought another store in Thonotosassa.

Daddy took off work to attend Mr. Sprague's funeral. Mr. Sprague was an Army veteran. Daddy said the funeral procession to the cemetery, Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell, near Lake Panasoffkee, consisted mostly of several dozen fishermen towing their boats and trailers behind cars and trucks, in a show of respect toward an old man who'd spent a lifetime helping and serving others.

 

Travelling back in time over six decades past, remembering people and events I thought were long forgotten, I keep returning to thoughts of my father and some of the things he taught me. Besides teaching my brothers and me how to fish, he taught us how to hunt and shoot safely. In fourth grade he taught me how to do long division when my impatient teacher couldn't. When I got into a fight at school that resulted in buttons torn off my new shirt, he taught me to sew with needle and thread, and how to shine my scuffed-up shoes.

He taught me to keep my word — ''A man is only as good as his word,'' he said. He taught me that any man who hit a woman wasn't a man. He taught me to defend the weak from bullies.

He taught me much more, many things that I vow to remember, foremost among them, how to be a man.

Charlie

 

 

 


 

Sunday, May 23, 2021

DADDY AND THE WASH HOUSE

 April 29, 2021

 The first nine years of my life, during the 1950's, we lived in rural East Texas, near Redwater, a bump in the road on Highway 67 fifteen miles west of Texarkana. Cow pastures, creeks, and thick forests filled with wildlife defined the geography. We had electricity and butane gas, but no running water.


In my earliest memory of my mother, I was standing on the back porch steps watching her draw water from the well, filling a bucket, and carrying it back to our house, her body tilted sideways from the weight. She would fill a dipper with the cool fresh water, hold it up to me to drink, then take her drink, sighing with pleasure. Even in the blistering summer heat, Perrier couldn't compare to the Texas spring water from our well.

No running water meant no indoor plumbing, no showers, and learning how to use the outhouse, a tiny wooden shack positioned over a pit to catch bodily waste. A chamber pot next to the bed would be emptied and cleaned early each morning. My grandparents and their youngest four children lived nearby. My uncle Junior had not yet joined the U. S. Army. Patsy Ann and Alice were teens. Cherry was the youngest, and so close to my age, she and I were like Siamese twins.

Cherry was Memaw's youngest daughter, my aunt, fourteen months younger than I was. We grew up like big brother and baby sister rather than nephew and aunt. Memaw told me years later when she and Cherry came home from the hospital, I was fascinated by the baby, reaching out to touch her cheek. Memaw told me to say ''baby,'' but I couldn't pronounce it, saying ''bieby,'' instead. That's what I called Cherry growing up, ''Bieby,'' except when friends came over, then it was Cherry.

Every Saturday night, Memaw would heat pans of water, filling a galvanized metal wash tub on the back porch for the family baths, drawing more water from the well, heating it on the stove, then adding it to the cooling water in the washtub.

Looking back, the Saturday night baths must have begun in order from oldest to youngest, since my grandfather, Bebaw, the dirtiest, was always first, and Cherry and I were always last. By the time Memaw lifted us up and put us in the tub, the water was cool and milky white from the homemade lye soap. I loved the feel of that last pan of hot water pouring into the wash tub, heating the cool bath water.


Memaw would take her bath after everyone else. My lone surviving aunt, Alice Walker, recalled those Saturday night baths. When she became a teenager, she would draw and heat water for her own tub bath.

Saturday mornings Bebaw drove us to Texarkana for grocery shopping at the Piggly Wiggly, then exploring the ''dime stores,'' S. H. Kress, Newberry's, and other places, until Memaw gathered us up when it was time to go home. When Bebaw let them go with us, Alice and Pat would often take off to the Paramount movie theater, pay a dime each, and spend two hours or more in the air conditioning. She vividly remembers the excitement of ''The Greatest Show on Earth.''

Saturday afternoons my mother and Memaw gathered both families' dirty laundry to go to the wash house in Wake Village, another bump in the road in Bowie County. Mr. and Mrs. Roller owned the wash house. The Rollers spoke with an accent, Europeans, German or Dutch, I later presumed. They were cheerful, friendly people, strong, who would help my mother and Memaw with the wash. Not a ''laundromat,'' the wash house had old-fashioned upright tubs with attached pairs of rollers cranked by hand, to squeeze out the water.


Back home the damp laundry would be hung on outdoor clothes lines with wooden pins. Cherry and I loved running and chasing each other through the lanes formed from bedsheets and clothing. Nothing smelled cleaner than sheets dried in the sunny breezes.

Life moved on. 1958 was the worst year of my short life. The job market in East Texas dried up after the government military arms factories fell victim to a respite of peace. Daddy's older brother, Rufus Norman, Grandma Norman, and other kin were making new lives in Florida, in the Tampa area and in Dade City, where Mama and Daddy had met years before. We moved. I left all those important to me behind, sadly waving goodbye from the front porch, Bebaw crying like a baby.

Daddy got the only job he could find, a laborer at Booker and Company, wholesale hardware and building materials. Business was booming, and they were paying a dollar an hour, work all the hours you want unloading boxcars, no overtime. Daddy worked eighty hours in six days, off Sunday. Recover.

Mama always cooked and served breakfast by 5:30 in the morning, so Daddy could be at work by six. Fifteen miles to Booker. Daddy worked hard physical labor, and Mama's breakfasts fueled him and the family. Daddy grew up as a Georgia farm boy, and Mama's cooking reflected that, what he liked to eat. Two fried eggs, over easy, grits and butter, biscuits, syrup--''Grandma's Molasses,'' please, and slices of fried bacon. Sausage patties instead of bacon some mornings, or slices of fried ham. Sometimes she'd fix a bowl of ''thickening'' milk gravy for the hot biscuits. Hot coffee from a percolator. When Daddy sped off in the darkness to work, his belly was full.

For forty-five dollars a month, we rented a small two-bedroom white house on a hill next to an orange grove on Fowler Avenue near Highway 301 in Thonotosassa. We had running water, a bathroom, and a bathtub. We were moving up in the world. No washing machine, though. Mr. Wetherington, the owner, gave Daddy directions to the nearest ''wash house,'' as we continued to call it, a laundromat on Nebraska Avenue in Tampa, eight or ten miles away.

Sunday morning. The sound and smell of bacon frying woke me from a deep sleep. My brothers Dan and Tom were fast asleep. I sat at the table. Daddy was already eating. Mama put a full plate in front of me, scrambled eggs rather than fried. I hadn't progressed to fried eggs yet.

''You gotta work, Daddy?'' I asked.

We'd hardly seen him the past week, coming and going, breakfast and supper, go to bed early, leave early.

''Nah,'' he said. ''I'm going to the wash house. Wanna go?''

''Sure.''

To go anywhere with my father was a treat.

Some of my fondest, earliest memories of my father in Texas were waiting out by the highway for Daddy to come home from work at Lone Star Ordnance Plant. I loved watching the red sun settle in the West. That meant that Daddy would be home soon. He'd park in the front yard, I'd run to his car door, he'd pick me up and carry me to the porch, where Mama would be waiting. I must have been around three years old. Mama was not yet pregnant with my brother, Dan.

Supper would be waiting.

Daddy always came home with a pocketful of quarters he'd won playing checkers against his coworkers during lunch at Lone Star. The Normans were mean checker players, and being the youngest son, he'd been tutored from his birth in the skills of checkers competition by his older brothers, sisters, and father.

 
After his father, Robert Franklin Norman, died of an aneurism at age fifty, it was hard times for Daddy's family. They had lived on a peanut farm in Moultrie, Georgia, for generations, but with his father gone they couldn't keep it up. There was no money coming in. His mother was sickly, there were two younger daughters, Thelma and Eloise, at home. The older children had families of their own, and his older brother Rufus took care of their mother.

World War Two was winding down. Daddy convinced his mother to sign the papers saying he was old enough to join the Army, and soon he went from Basic Training at Fort Benning to carrying a Browning Automatic Rifle (B.A.R.) in the Philippines.

Army pay for a Private was seventy dollars a month. Soldiers could sign an ''allotment'' and send part of their pay home to their families. Daddy sent his entire pay home each month. Years later my Uncle Rufus told me that money had fed their family.

All Daddy needed was a checkerboard and a quarter. When the other soldiers drew their pay, Daddy borrowed his first quarter from a friend, pulled out his checkerboard, and proceeded to fill his pockets with quarters. Years later, in Texas, he'd take one quarter to work at Lone Star, play checkers during his lunch hour, and come home with another pocketful of quarters. After supper Daddy would drive us to the general store on the highway to Dallas and buy us nickel cups of ice cream we'd eat with little wooden spoons.

Years later, after he made promotions from laborer at Booker, to assistant foreman, to foreman, to warehouse manager, he gave up the checkerboard. It would have been unseemly to take his workers' hard-earned money. He always kept a supply of quarters handy for the Sunday morning trip to the wash house, though.

Mama had sorted all our laundry into four loads, heaped in a metal wash tub. Daddy hefted the tub into the car trunk, and we were gone. West on Fowler Avenue several miles to Nebraska Avenue, south on Nebraska a few miles to the Comfort Motor Court, overnight space rentals for campers, motor homes and trailers. The ''washateria,'' as some called it, was next to the vehicle entrance, a large room with one wall lined with washing machines and another with dryers. Open daily, six a.m.

That first Sunday, a man was unlocking the front door as we drove up. Daddy liked being first. The man held the door open as Daddy carried in the tub and bundles of wash. Introductions were made. They shook hands. Daddy put bundles of laundry and Tide into four washers, inserted quarters, and sat down in a chair next to me.

The man, John Krapil, spoke with a strong German accent, ''Austrian,'' he would say, not German. He hated Germans. Over time, the next ten years or so that Daddy did our laundry every Sunday morning, we learned a lot about Mr. Krapil. He had fled Austria with the clothes on his back after the Nazis confiscated his ski resort in the Alps during World War II. He came to America, chose Tampa for a new start, and opened his motor court and laundromat. He had a chrome metal device attached to his belt that held quarters, dimes, and nickels. He would make change for those customers with only paper money. Daddy always brought his own change.

Mr. Krapil was some years older than my father, perhaps fifty or so. He liked to talk, and Daddy was a good listener. He had a red Coca Cola machine that dispensed those small glass bottles of Cokes for a dime, ice cold. Soda in glass bottles is long gone now, we live in Plastic World.

After he'd talked for awhile, mostly about the beauties and wonders of Austria, he'd say, ''Ah, I've worked up a thirst. Won't you join me?'' He would click three dimes out of his change device, insert them in the Coke machine, push the handle three times, and pop the caps off with the metal opener attached to the machine. He would pass sodas to Daddy and me, hold his out like a salute, take a big swig, and say a satisfied, ''Ah!'' Those drinks were cold!

One Sunday Daddy tried to reciprocate, to buy the sodas, but Mr. Krapil was adamant. ''You're my guests and friends. You're in my house. It is my pleasure.''

Daddy didn't take charity. He was a prideful man. But we drank Mr. Krapil's sodas every week, like a ritual. Daddy told me once, ''John was once a wealthy man. He lost everything but his life. Now he has fought back. He's not a rich man any more, but it gives him pleasure to drink sodas with us. If he came to our house we would drink iced tea with him.''

''Is he coming to our house, Daddy?''

''No.''

''Why not?''

He looked at me and smiled. ''I don't like company, except family.''

Years later, after I'd gotten the grocery store bagboy job in Temple Terrace and stopped going to the wash house with Daddy, I was surprised to see John Krapil in the checkout lane. He was delighted to see me. He hadn't seen me for awhile. He lived in Temple Terrace, which was another great surprise to me. He told me where he lived and invited me to stop by anytime. I never did, but I drove by his house out of curiosity. He had a large, sprawling house on an oak-shaded lot. He was rich after all. Those quarters added up.

Daddy still went to the wash house early Sunday morning — that was 1967 — we didn't move to the North Grovewood house with a washer and dryer until 1969.

Daddy only washed our clothes. He didn't spend scarce money on dryers. We'd get home early, and Mama would hang the wet wash on the clotheslines to dry before getting us ready for Sunday School and church. She'd drive her three boys to West Thonotosassa Baptist Church in Thonotosassa. It was years later when I discovered there was an East Thonotosassa on the other side of the lake.

We'd get home by noon and find Daddy conked out, snoring on the couch. Mama would have prepared most of the Sunday dinner already, and soon we'd eat the best meal of the week: fried chicken, or pork chops, or pot roast, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, fried okra in season, other vegetables, corn bread, and iced tea.

We'd often watch the wrestling matches on TV, then Daddy would load us in the car for a fast ride to Dade City, about thirty-three miles north on 301, to visit Grandma Norman and Rufus. Daddy's younger sister, Thelma, her husband, Johnny Davis, and their children, Donna and Danny, lived on the way, and we'd stop in to say hello before proceeding to Grandma's.

Dade City was a gathering point for the Normans. Any of Daddy's brothers and sisters were liable to be there on any particular Sunday. Daddy would always come after Sunday dinner was put away. Country people always fed any guests who showed up during a meal, no matter how little they had, and always shared everything. I remember one lean Sunday Mama had cooked five pork chops for the meal. An unexpected visitor came to the door just as we sat down for Sunday dinner. A place was made for him. Mama put her pork chop on the visitor's plate. When he objected, she told him she wasn't very hungry.

Daddy would never invite us to anyone's house near mealtime. It was just common courtesy, not to burden family in the same financial struggles we were in, although I recall a memorable exception one Sunday.

Daddy's older sister, Frankie Lee, and her husband, Ed Hatchell, had arrived at Grandma's towing Ed's fishing boat. Aunt Frankie Lee was several years older than her baby brother, Gene, and had always doted on him. They came to spend a week fishing the area lakes. Uncle Ed tried to get Daddy to take off work to go fishing with him, but Daddy couldn't miss work.

''All right,''' Uncle Ed said, ''Let's go right now. There's plenty of light left, and if we're lucky, we'll have a fish fry.''

On that Sunday afternoon at Grandma Norman's house a long time ago fishing was on the agenda. Rufus directed us to an out-of-the-way lake that few people knew about. There were four of us, Rufus, Uncle Ed Hatchell, Daddy and me. Uncle Ed had enough fishing tackle, rods and reels, for all of us.

I already knew how to fish. I must have been no more than four years old when Daddy took me fishing in Texas the first time. We went to a small lake a few miles from our house. He had a bait-casting rod, it was called, and showed me how to swing the rod back, then forward, flinging the lure far out in the water. Theoretically.

First, I learned the definition of backlash. A backlash results when the fisherman flings the lure too hard, the reel spins too fast, and yards of fishing line spin and spool off the reel like a rat's nest. After several frustrating attempts, I got the hang of it, and learned to fish.

As a child, though, I liked Bebaw's low-tech approach. First, he'd go to Robert Smith's house. A hunchback, Robert Smith terrified me, although years later my aunt, Alice Walker, told me he was a nice man. Robert Smith grew and harvested bamboo cane fishing poles, and you'd think Bebaw was buying a car or a horse the way he examined the cane fishing poles before deciding on three for himself, Memaw, and me. Attach a fishing line to the tip, a hook, lead sinker, and cork to the end of the line, dig a can full of earthworms from the garden, and let the party begin. Most all fish love earthworms, and we rarely struck out.

There were no earthworms available that sunny afternoon in Dade City. No matter. Uncle Ed had a tackle box full of lures guaranteed to fool the smartest of fish. There was a houseful of women and children counting on us to provide a fish fry.

Uncle Ed caught the first fish, and I caught the last. He told me, ''We're not leaving till you catch a fish.'' I'd hooked several — that lake was a fish paradise — but somehow each one shook loose. Finally I landed a nice one, and we headed for home.

Rufus had made the biggest steel frying pan I'd ever seen. I wished I had watched him make it. He said he'd made it expressly for family fish fries, and that day was the test. It passed, wonderfully. Rufus did the fish frying, and Grandma made the hushpuppies. We sat at tables outside, and someone went to the store for a bag of ice for the tea.

There was plenty of food left over. I'm sure Jesus would have loved Grandma's hush puppies as much as we did, if he'd had them instead of loaves that day he fed the multitudes.

Rufus knew every body of water in the surrounding counties. This was the late 1950's, and Florida alligator hunting was still legal. Rufus could build anything, and he built an airboat in his backyard, ordered an air-cooled airplane engine from Piper Aircraft in Dallas, and hunted gators with it at night after work. When we first moved back to Florida, Daddy had no money, and Rufus offered to take Daddy with him gator hunting. They could make a week's pay in one night collecting alligator skins and selling the meat. Daddy was skeptical, but he had a family to feed. Okay.

Rufus had a powerful spotlight he'd shine along the lake or river bank, looking for reflecting gator eyes. Rufus operated the airboat while Daddy shined the spotlight.

''Gene, you can tell how big a gator is by how far apart its eyes are, one inch per foot. If you see two eyes six inches apart, that gator is six feet long,'' Rufus said. ''We don't touch six-footers. We want a twelve-footer.''

Twelve-footer? Daddy wasn't sure what he'd gotten himself into, but he trusted his older brother.

Finally Daddy spotted a massive alligator, its eyes easily twelve inches apart. Rufus eased the airboat toward the shore, then took a harpoon he'd made with three large steel prongs at the end of a heavy pole, like a giant frog gig, and waited until they were almost on top of the gator, blinded by the bright spotlight.

Rufus told Daddy, ''I'll spear the gator and pull its head into the boat.''

Into the boat?

''You take that hatchet and chop hard behind the gator's head,'' Rufus said. He pointed to a straightened-out wire clothes hanger. ''Chop down to the backbone, then run that wire down its spine. That will paralyze the gator. Got it?''

No, but Daddy did it anyway. He couldn't disappoint his brother, and he really needed the money.

That wasn't the only gator harvested that night, but none were as big as the first one. But it was Daddy's first and last gator hunt. Daddy asked Rufus, ''You have a shotgun. Why don't you just shoot the gators with the twelve gauge, get it over with quick, instead of pulling them into the boat with you?''

Rufus grinned at Daddy. ''It's more sporting my way. Give the gator a fighting chance.''

In years to come Daddy would repeat that story to family members.

''My brother's crazy,'' he would say. ''What sane person spears a thrashing twelve-foot alligator and hauls it into the boat with him? I wanted to jump out of that airboat, but I was afraid there would be more gators waiting for me in the water.''

Daddy never told those stories to nonfamily members.

Rufus actually did his part to protect alligators. He had a large shallow box of sand in the sun by his garage covering a couple dozen unhatched alligator eggs. He told us he'd happened upon a large gator nest that had been raided by an animal, probably a raccoon, the night before. Torn egg shells, perhaps a dozen, were scattered. Rufus figured the raccoon would return that night to finish off the gator eggs, so he dug up the remaining eggs and took them home to hatch.

Every year after gator season closed Rufus would sell that airboat and start on a new one. There was a waiting list for his airboats. People told him he should form an airboat factory and get rich. He wasn't interested. He liked his life the way it was.

Sundays came and went. Daddy went to the wash house early every Sunday morning, and I usually accompanied him. My parents were usually in bed asleep by nine p.m., and I would turn down the volume on our little TV, watching the weekend late shows. My favorite late night TV shows were ''The Twilight Zone'' and ''The Outer Limits.'' On Saturday nights they had the late monster movies, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, and Bela Lugosi starred as Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and Dracula. My favorite science fiction movie was ''The Day The Earth Stood Still'' starring Michael Rennie. What were those words the robot uttered?

I would sometimes doze off, then wake sometime later, the test pattern with the Indian chief on the TV, or if it was really late, ''snow'' filled the screen. I'd turn off the TV and tiptoe to bed.

A new preacher, Brother Hansen, made his rounds visiting throughout the area, encouraging folks to try out his church, Harney Baptist, a few miles south on 301. We went. Mama liked it. I liked it, too. Several of my classmates from Thonotosassa Elementary attended, and I liked Pam Harden, who was friendly with me. We were happy children. Pam had an older sister, Priscilla, and a little brother, Jamesy. No father. No one talked about it. Mama and Pam's mother became friends. We joined the church. Daddy didn't go. He'd rather sleep on his couch than sleep in a church pew, he said.

We missed a couple of Sundays, on vacation to Texas, and we were still unpacking the car when Brother Hansen drove up the hill in his old car. It was the first time Daddy had been home when the preacher visited, and Brother Hansen zeroed in on him. Daddy was polite, but didn't invite him in. Let a preacher in the door, he'd say, you can't get him to leave until you feed him. He'd just driven nonstop from Texarkana to Thonotosassa, a thousand miles in twenty hours, and all he wanted to do was unload the car and go to sleep for twelve hours. He didn't care to listen to a preacher on his only day of rest. Every now and then, perhaps once a year, Mama would convince him to go with us, but every time he swore it would be his last.

The subject was off limits. I speculated in my head that Daddy had had a church-related traumatic experience or some conflict with a preacher in his youth, that caused him to avoid church, but Daddy never talked about it. When I got married in 1971 in the big Temple Terrace United Methodist Church, I was relieved when he stood next to my mother.

After Daddy died in 1985, I began regularly corresponding with my Aunt Frankie Lee Hatchell in North Carolina. She was the living expert on the Normans, along with her brother, Rufus, and I asked her about why Daddy didn't like preachers or churches.

She told me that nothing in his past indicated any preacher conflicts. Their father, my grandfather, besides raising peanuts and working at Swifts, was a local church leader, and all the Normans attended. Grandpa was a music teacher also, and sang with a gospel group. All the children were active in church-related functions.

We never solved the puzzle of why Daddy wouldn't go to church.

Thinking about those times reminded me of something that happened at the wash house one Sunday morning that I have never forgotten.

Daddy liked timing it so that we arrived at the wash house just as John unlocked the front door, first one inside. There were certain washers he preferred for some indiscernible reason, and if by chance someone got inside and beat him to his favorite washers, he'd wait until their loads had finished, then he would load his wash in the machines. That's just the way he was. He knew what he wanted without compromise.

One morning a young mother with three children under four years old staggered through the front door carrying a heavy load of laundry. We'd heard the bad muffler on the junker car she was driving before she parked beside our car in front of the wash house. She carried more threadbare wash inside, then brought the crying children in. On a folding table she lined up mostly dimes and nickels, then John came over, exchanging the small change into quarters. She separated the quarters to see how many machines she would need. We watched without staring, looking everywhere except at her, seeing everything. John left for his office in back.

Mr. Krapil had a vending machine for small boxes of detergent. It was obvious that the young woman didn't have the money for soap powder. She stood there, not knowing what to do.

Mama bought the big economy-sized boxes of Tide that usually lasted Daddy two or three weeks. The box sitting by the washtub was over half full. Daddy nudged me, looking at the box of Tide, and glancing toward the perplexed young woman. He didn't have to tell me. He would never approach her himself. I didn't want to do it, either, but I took the box of Tide to her. She turned and looked at me, saying nothing. I held out the box.

''We have plenty,'' I said, '' You're welcome to use what you need.''

She stared at me for a few moments. I stared back. She had a fading bruise on her left cheek. Even at ten years old, I knew what that meant. Perhaps Daddy had already seen the marks.

She glanced toward Daddy, nodded, and smiled at me, embarrassed, then took the box. ''Thanks.'' She filled a cup of detergent for each machine, then handed the box back to me.

''You're welcome,'' I said, and went back to sit down next to Daddy. The young woman changed the squalling baby's diaper.

Our wash was finished. Daddy emptied the clean clothes from the machines into the tub, piled high. We were ready to leave. Daddy pulled out the loose change from his khaki pants pocket, three or four dollars, and handed it to me, nodding. I took the change and stacked it next to the baby on the table. Daddy took out his old wallet and removed three wrinkled dollar bills, all the money he had. He handed them to me.

The woman was tending to the older child, her back to me. She hadn't noticed me the first time, but she sensed me behind her now as I put the quarters on top of the dollar bills. Daddy was already going out the door, carrying the heavy tub of wet laundry. I hurried after him.

We never talked about it, what happened that early Sunday morning at the wash house, but I thought about it. Had Daddy gone to church instead of the wash house that day, he couldn't have helped that poor woman and her children.

The Lord works in mysterious ways, I learned.

Years came and went. Daddy advanced at Booker. Warehouse manager in Tampa, then manager over branches in Fort Myers, Orlando, and Jacksonville. He oversaw the building and opening of a new branch in Miami. Company station wagon, raises, and bonuses. After years of scrimping and saving, we bought a house on North Grovewood Avenue in 1969. It had a utility room with a washer and dryer. Now Mama could wash a load of dirty clothes when she felt like it, not save them up all week.

Daddy never returned to the wash house.