It was summer in Florida, the summer of 1958. Uncle Jimmy took me and my cousin swimming. It was literally a swamp and he was the only one willing to go in. Eventually he slipped and went under. He gulped some of the turgid water before being pulled out. It was a quiet ride home.
Uncle Jimmy was always home while his wife, the famous Aunt Mary, worked her shift at the local VA hospital. Of my mom’s sisters, Mary was the eldest of the four Irish daughters. She, like Jimmy, chain smoked Pall Malls, even though he had tuberculosis. Mary was tough; having lived through the depression and overseas wartime medical service in faraway places, but her hair was always long, silvery and wavy. In my memory I think of her like Lauren Bacall but Irish and lots of attitude. Each of the sisters were characters in their own ways but Aunt Mary’s reputation was as a savvy, skilled, battle ready dame not to be underestimated. All these qualities seemed at odds with her late in life choice of a mate.
That summer of ’58 Aunt Mary often walked eight blocks to her shifts at the hospital. With the family car keys at his disposal Uncle Jimmy would urge me toward the car by mid-day. Lake City was then a classic southern backwater town. Even before the Interstates made it easy, tourists and developers bypassed the town in a blink on their way to Tampa or Miami. We drove slowly past the grocery and the dry goods store, then turned just past the open air filling station – the places, common in the south even today, with car lifts outside so the work was done under the open sky (a marvel to me, a northern boy) -then circled around to the back alley. Without speaking Jimmy plucked the keys from the ignition, slammed the door and crossed the sandy back lot toward an unmarked building with an open doorway of still darkness. He seemed to assume that I would follow behind, and I did. Inside it took a bit to adjust to the dark. Worn wood and the scraped green paint of the walls suggested this dive was only the latest in a succession of sad establishments at that address. Immediately to the right inside the door was a bar that ran from the back wall all the way forward. The room however was bisected by a flimsy lattice-wood barrier. It was then it was explained to me that the front was for whites, the back for colored. Same dirty floor, same air smelling of stale beer and cigarettes, same bartender. If not for the ignorant injustice of that time and culture those visits may have spurred my awareness of the absurd. Once at “his place” at the bar Jimmy had his whiskey; for me “give the kid a coke”.
The sun was high in the sky on the day we cruised out of town on a back road. The windows were open and, because we were only two, I got to ride up front. At the wheel of his black four door Plymouth sedan was Uncle Jimmy. It was mostly a quiet ride. That year I was an impressionable 12 years old. I don’t remember Uncle Jimmy talking much and I wonder if that trait of his was part of my unease on this occasion.
The reason for our daytrip had not been revealed. Just a “come on Tommy, let’s go for a ride” and soon we were backing away from the simple three room house onto a street made of red clay. The streets were magical because the tires on passing cars made no sound and if you walked on them it was like some marvelous play-dough. Out on the road the sky was a bleached monolith without definition. I remember Jimmy (the adults called him that) wore an open sport shirt over a white cotton tee without sleeves, it’s a style sometimes referred to as a “wife-beater”. I wore a tee shirt, my bleach white legs sticking out from my first pair of shorts (Bermuda shorts) since infancy. We were way out in the country when he slowed our progress then turned to the left into a gravel lot and pulled to a stop. Through the dirty windshield I could see the building was low and mostly windowless with two screen doors that swung in and out. It fit, only vaguely, based on my experience, as a country store. The siding was white but weathered and peeling. Peering through the screen the place appeared dark and dusty. Once inside I saw the floorboards were worn and dirty and at one end of the room ran a long, high counter. We approached and on the far side was a burly unshaven man who clearly knew my uncle. They exchanged nods and gestures and some laugh-talk. It seems some beers or a bottle was shared knowingly. Me, I was lost.
Eventually the stranger pushed across the space between them a rifle. Next came a box of bullets. My mind began to swim yet Uncle Jimmy merely looked down at me and smiled. The gun man then turned away and went toward a back room. When he returned he was leading or prodding a young girl. More nods and man-talk propelled us out the doors into the brilliant light, across the hot gravel and back into the black Plymouth. Jimmy made a ham-handed introduction for the benefit of us kids. It was difficult to discern any emotion on her part and it was at that moment, that my mind began to retreat and for the first time I was aware of the ribbed upholstery on my bare legs.
Jimmy fired up the car and, with a dramatic driving flourish I had not noticed earlier, wheeled the car around behind the store and down a rough path that ended in an abandoned sandpit. It’s at this moment in the timeline of the day that my memory falters. I can remember my uncle as he proceeded to demonstrate how to mount beer cans on rocks as targets. He then walked back to the car, retrieved the gun, fumbled with the bolt action, took a stance and fired away. I’m sure we took turns with the rifle, because I remember the soreness in my shoulder from the recoil. What else happened that hot, dry afternoon seems trapped and unreachable. The keyboard seems unable to spell out the words.