By Mickey Dunaway | Reprinted with Permission by Currents Magazine | Cornelius, NC
I have wanted to write this Moment in Time column for a while now. But the time was never good. Things changed.
This past August, my wife, Sandy, and I took a two-week trip to Alabama to visit relatives and search out the old memories—some almost three-quarters of a century old. We looked for connections in the tiny southwest Alabama town of Wilmer where I grew up, in my birthplace, of East Brewton some hundred miles to the northeast, and in the cemetery in the country town of Tignal, Georgia.
I grew up in a shotgun house at the end of a sandy dirt road in Wilmer. My father was a mechanic at a car dealership twenty-five miles away on Saint Louis Street in Mobile. His yearly vacation was always spent doing one thing—fishing. He would rouse us at 3:00 a.m. in the mornings of his vacation week. We would haul our wooden skiff with its seven horsepower Johnson outboard on the back about half an hour to the Escatawpa River that formed the boundary of Alabama and Mississippi.
Before the sun had risen, the family would cast off and run down that beautiful old familiar river. It is unique to this day with its deep, dark, tannin-stained drop-offs on its outer bends and sugar-white sandbars on the inner bends created as it wound its way toward the Gulf of Mexico.
False dawn would find us already anchored and tightline fishing each morning. My father’s rule was that if we weren’t fishing when the sun came up, we might as well have stayed in bed. We never stayed in bed. When the ice chest was full of bluegills and redbellies—usually about 2 p.m.—we would head back toward home and to the onerous task of cleaning our harvest. Mother would prepare supper, and we would be in bed early for a night of the mattress rolling and tossing to the waves of the Escatawpa. At 3:00 a.m., we would be at it again.
I wonder how many trips I have made on the Escatawpa River over the years. I am about turn 76, and I hope to make one more in a year or two. While the number of trips has faded into the recesses of my brain, I can tell you that we always had fish in our freezer.
Often in the Fall, when we had enough fish in our freezer, we would hold a fishfry-family-reunion under the vast water oak tree that shaded our house at the end of our sandy dirt road.
We lived in that little shotgun house until the summer of 1962, when we moved a bit closer to my father’s work in Mobile and my mother’s teaching job at the junior high in Semmes. That same Fall, I enrolled at Semmes High School, where I was the archetypal wide-eyed sophomore in his first year in high school. Semmes was a country town, a little bigger than Wilmer. Semmes High was a public school that provided this country boy with three high school years as close to expectations as a teenager could anticipate. They were filled with church, hunting and fishing, baseball and basketball, dating, homecoming dances, proms, and working hard enough in class to be accepted at Auburn in the Fall of 1965.
Soon after I graduated that spring, misfortune visited our family when my father contracted blood poisoning after routine gallbladder surgery and died after a month-long struggle.
I remember little of that month in the hospital or of his funeral. My friends and family kept me hopeful until hope was gone. I do remember a packed Wilmer First Baptist Church for his funeral. I don’t recall a word said on his behalf. However, as I walked out of the church behind my father’s casket, I experienced a moment in time as if preserved in Kodachrome. A moment that would help define me.
In the far back of that church, on the right side, stood a tall, thin, dignified black man that I knew as Mr. Slim. I knew him because he had worked with my father at the same car dealership. Both men had about the same tall, thin body type that led to both being known as Slim in the South. To me, he was always Mr. Slim because he and my father were good friends at a time when such things just did not happen in Alabama.
I passed Mr. Slim and nodded an unspoken thank you. In those few seconds, Mr. Slim’s sacred audacity to come to my father’s funeral was stamped on my cerebral cortex because he was the only black person in that church. He was my father’s friend, Mr. Slim.
I wish I could tell you Slim’s surname, but I can’t. However, I can tell you that his presence at that Moment in Time influenced me for the rest of my life.