DOWN A SANDY DIRT ROAD
If our dirt road had a name, I never knew it. And 70 years later, to use Google Earth to find its name diminishes the memories of when it was best left nameless.
It was not an Emmylou red-clay dirt road, although there were plenty of those all around us. Our dirt road was distinct precisely because it was nothing special. Unpaved. Rarely muddy since it was fashioned from the primordial Gulf of Mexico’s sandy bottom.
Our road was seldom scraped by a motor grader, maybe because of its sandiness. Perhaps because we were a short sideroad off highway 98. Maybe because it was a day’s walk from the Mississippi line that the county road crew could conveniently forget us. Not much reason to. And truth be told, the few folks who lived on our dirt road were country people who accepted their place in life with few complaints. Perhaps our dirt road’s anonymity was its most important trait, and none wanted to disturb this condition that country people cherished so much and is almost impossible to find these days.
My earliest memories of that road are fuzzy at best. I know we lived in a tiny shotgun house whose front faced the sandy road and the back faced U.S. 98 several hundred yards away down a briar-infested sagebrush hill. I remember the family fish fries as a preschool urchin, mostly because I inherited a photograph somewhere along the way. The seminal event that places my memory in that red shingle-sided house with the tin roof was the day when Daddy was shot by Cousin Sonny. Daddy’s recuperation was long and hard, and he lost his right arm below the elbow and job as a mechanic at McConnell Pontiac in Mobile. I can pin my age only because we moved to Brewton, where we had the support of relatives, and we could live with Granddaddy and Granny Dunaway, and I attended first grade at W.S. Neal across the road. Granddaddy ran a little store on the same property as his house and sold candy and cokes to Neal students as they were coming and going to school. I never knew the tragedy that Mother and Daddy must have experienced during that year. I was living in Grandaddy’s house! I think I got a BB gun for Christmas, and every day on the way home from school, Granddaddy would sneak me a candy bar.
At some point between the first and second grade, we moved back to our sandy dirt road and to the red shingled house with the tin roof. I have no idea if Mother and Daddy owned the house or rented it.
I remember rain on that tin roof and how cold it was in the winter with no insulation in the walls or ceiling. In the morning, we would put our day’s jeans on a chair in front of the space heater in the living room and jump into them when they were a few degrees from bursting into flames. Once in, one had to stand perfectly straight, and it was several minutes before you sit down and put on your shoes. I don’t recall if we had another space heater in the house or not. What seems quaint and oh-so-redneck now, seemed perfectly normal back on that sandy dirt road.
Our house was at the end of the road. Across from us was the farmhouse of Granny and Granddaddy Mac. The McAdams were not blood kin, but they might as well have been. They treated me like I was theirs. I picked up pecans for spending money, and Granny Mac was always there for me with a leftover biscuit just waiting for me to poke a hole in the side and fill it with syrup and down it with a glass of cold raw milk. I warmly remember that she was always there to soothe perceived wrongs done to me by my brother, Bill.
About a hundred yards up the road on the left lived my Aunt Doobie (or maybe it was Dubie) and my Uncle Elmo McAdams—yep, same McAdams clan. Doobie was my Daddy’s youngest sister. Her given name was Gloria, but I only ever knew her as Aunt Doobie. I did a little research into her nickname, and all anyone knew was that Granddadddy Dunaway called her that. That was enough. Rather like my nickname on our sandy dirt road. I was Doodle to everybody. It might have been Aunt Doobie who gave me that moniker— now that I think about it.
Elmo worked at Brookley Field, a huge Air Force base that supported multiple aircraft maintenance and repairs. A large employer, Brookley’s civilian personnel knocked off every day at 4:00, and Aunt Doobie had supper ready when Mo got home about 5:15. Often, I ate my first supper every day at Aunt Doobie’s house. Then when Daddy got home an hour later, I was ready to eat all over again. My double supper was the worst kept secret on our sandy dirt road. After all, I was a growing boy.
Across the road and behind Grandaddy Mac’s house were woods where, not yet in middle school, I learned to hunt squirrels and rabbits with my first shotgun—a .410-gauge single barrel. Sweet little gun.
We moved from our sandy dirt road when I began high school as a sophomore at Semmes High School, and though we geographically were still in the country where we now lived in Fairview, I missed the footprints I left daily on our sandy dirt road. Most of all, I missed those suppers at Aunt Doobie’s house.
These days that sandy dirt road is a memory and maybe a metaphor, too. Back then, it was as natural as life could be for a country boy. Life was boundless. Times were frequently tough. Fortunately for me, my family—biological and adoptive—made sure I never knew it.