My parents would bus or fly me down south for the summer. The most fun I would have is when I would go by bus with my Aunt Bobby. There’s a clue to the first Alabama memory. They call women Bobby and Coon and those are just my aunts. Me they called Tin man and they called me that because I would pronounce the word as aunt instead of “aint”. When I was younger the neighborhood would swarm me and point to parts of their bodies and ask me what it was. They’d point to their behinds and I’d say buttocks or they’d point to their stomachs and I’d say abdomen, and they’d laugh and say you talk so proper you sound like a tin man.
My grandparents moved to Mobile in the early part of World War II. They were attracted to the city in order to take advantage of the new opportunities afforded to Black people to work brought on by the need for labor as the regular work force went off to fight. They settled in a neighborhood they called Plateau which is about a mile maybe two off the Mobile Bay. I could never understand why they called the place Plateau it’s low, but anyway my Grampa went to work for the Scott Paper Company and set about raising a family.
That brings to mind another Alabama memory the smell. Paper companies use sulfur in their processes and Plateau smelled like a mixture of swamp, rotten eggs, and three to four day old unwashed funk. I was actually supposed to be born in Mobile, but my mom couldn’t take the smell pregnant and they had to go to her home to have me. When I got older I could tell when I was in an Alabama state of mind when I could no longer smell it.
Mobile was a terrific place for a city kid. There was a man Mr. John Robinson, and you better say it all, he didn’t go for that nickname nonsense who built 12 foot fishing boats in a lot in the neighborhood who would tell you stories as he taught you to plane wood. We were taught how to handle guns like we were taught how to handle the wood planes and we would hunt rabbit and other small game. Well they would hunt the rabbit and small game I would shoot at them. Things are surprisingly hard to hit even with a shotgun. Fireworks are legal and they sold them to kids I probably spent full days trying to blow my digits off, But most of all we would fish.
To this day my Pops hates shrimp, crab, and most food that comes from the sea. When I’d ask him why he’d say son when I was growing up that’s all we ever ate. They really had the opportunity to make the bounty from the sea a major part of their meal plans. I actually can’t imagine how people go actually hungry on the bay. All it takes is a dead fish and access to the water and you can have as much crab as you want. My Grandma’s stand alone freezer was always packed with fresh fish. Someone was always going or coming back from fishing and for the most part you couldn’t give the fish away.
I lost my Grandfather in my 10th grade year, but I’m still blessed to have my Grandma with me and even in her advanced years she still loves to fish, but she can’t now. I spoke with her and she tells me that due to the BP disaster the fish and the shrimp and the crab are safe, at least from human consumption against the oil is a different matter. I can still remember catching my first fish with Grandfather about half a mile off the stern of the battleship Alabama. The natural resource that allowed my father and his siblings a university education is most likely gone.
I know I’m going back to Alabama, but now I have to wonder if I’ll ever be able to achieve an Alabama state of mind, and the prospect of that just makes me want to cry.