If leaving Dayton was deliverance for Mother and Daddy, it was another thing entirely for us children—at least for Francois and me. For with the exception of the brief, traumatizing few weeks that we lived in Orange, Texas, I had never known a home other than Dayton and our house on the Cleveland Highway. And from my seven-year-old’s perspective, it was as good a home as anyone could want. Everyone and everything that mattered was there or within easy reach—or at least I thought so.
If you walked out of our front yard to the highway and turned right, or north, you would reach Papa’s house after about a hundred yards, then Cap Kelley’s house and his little store, then Uncle Sam Broussard’s house and then St. Joseph the Worker Church, our church, where we went every Sunday morning without fail and Mother sang in the choir and Mr. Warren St. Julian sold ice cream cones after mass.
Beyond the church was Diane Paul’s house—Diane was a first-grade classmate of mine and I was supposed to marry her when we were grown up and old enough to get married. And beyond Diane’s house was “the overpass,” where the highway rose to cross over a set of railroad tracks and which marked the limit of the world as I knew it in that direction. Beyond the overpass lay…I didn’t know what, but who needed to know?
If you walked out of our yard and went left, or south, you quickly passed the Blue Gables, a honky-tonk for white folks that had blue neon lights around the edges of the roof and an illuminated sign that contained a mysterious word—“RENDEZVOUS”—and then you were headed toward downtown Dayton. That’s where all the stores were—Remke’s or the QP for groceries, Mansfield’s or McGinty’s for drugs, Friedman’s for hardware and dry goods. Mother shopped mainly at Remke’s and Mansfield’s; Grandpa used to say he “traded” at Friedman’s, and all the adults in our family seemed to be on especially good terms with Sol and Esther Friedman, the owners.
Downtown was where the white schools were and where it seemed most of the white people lived. It also was where “the shop” was—Grandpa’s big, red, corrugated tin-covered blacksmith shop, with its rear wall only a few yards away from the Southern Pacific Railroad tracks. Grandpa seemed to be the only colored person in Dayton with a business downtown—except for the very brief period when Mother opened a small café across the street from Grandpa’s shop.
If you kept going south past downtown you’d end up at Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house—after passing Black Jack’s tavern and Colbert Elementary and Colbert High, the colored schools, and Grandma’s church, Pleasant Hill Baptist, and a lot of houses and farm fields owned by colored people with names like Luke Walker, Gil Booth, Obie Jackson and Alfred Deaver.
If you turned left when you got downtown, you’d be headed east toward Liberty, where Aunt Stella, Grandpa’s oldest sister, and her husband, Uncle Luther Wells, lived and ran Wells Mortuary, and where we would occasionally go to the Chevrolet dealership—Mearns Chevrolet—when something on the car needed fixing. There was a streetlight next to Mearns that attracted bugs of enormous size and number. (Mother used to tell the story of how I, a notorious daydreamer, was inspired one day to muse, “Dem bugs sho was big in Yibitty.” I was about six years old before I could correctly pronounce the letter L.)
East of Liberty was Ames, where Grandpa had grown up and where his father, Sylvester “Big Papa,” and three of his six siblings—Edward (“Timme”), Frances, and Magdalene (“Mac”) still lived. By the time I came along Big Papa was a shrunken little man who looked to me somewhat like the cartoon character Popeye and who seemed always to sit stiffly upright in a chair and talk in a barely audible voice when we went to visit him. But in his younger days he had been a formidable character. Born Sylvester Sostain Paul in 1864 in Verdunville, St. Mary’s Parish, Louisiana, he decided early on that cutting cane was not the way he wanted to live his life. So at age 14 he apprenticed himself to an old German blacksmith in Franklin, Louisiana. After learning the trade, he opened his own shop near St. Martinville. Eventually, he made his way to Texas--first to Orange and then to the Liberty area, where he and a cousin, Terrance Trahan, each bought several large tracts of land, and helped create the settlement called Ames. In 1894 he married Epheme Pradier. And for reasons that family members and others have speculated about endlessly, somewhere along the way from Verdunville to Ames he changed his surname. Sylvester Paul became Sylvester Wickliff.
Uncle Timme, a tall, barrel-chested man, farmed and ran a Gulf gas station on Highway 90 and had a small factory where he made the sweetest, most delicious cane syrup in the world. He was the only person I knew who seemed to have fingers as big and thick as Grandpa’s. Aunt Frances always seemed to me so pretty but also so terribly fragile. Aunt Mac seemed just the opposite: strong and feisty and robust and opinionated. I liked her.
Ames was where the black Catholic cemetery was, hidden way back in the woods, and where what seemed to me the biggest church in the world—Our Mother of Mercy—stood near the railroad tracks.
If you turned right when you got to downtown Dayton you would go west toward Houston, passing along the way the liquor store just beyond the Liberty County line where Mother would go periodically to buy a bottle of Mogen David wine for Papa, and the roadside curio shop where I once threw such a fit that Daddy bought me a little plaster cow that I coveted. I promptly became terrified of it when we got it home and, to shut me up, someone hid it behind the piano. A short time later, Francois, unaware, shoved the piano to the wall and smashed it to bits.
Houston was where Mother’s sister Cecilia (“Nannan,” we called her, because she was Francois’ godmother) lived in a neighborhood called Pleasantville with her husband Uncle Robert Melonson and our cousins Wanda and Wayne and Gary. Another of Mother’s sisters, Aunt Georgia, and her husband, Uncle Dewey Collette, lived in another neighborhood called Third Ward.
Houston was where Mother once drove with all of us children in the car to pick up Daddy when he was working at “the SP shop,” the Southern Pacific Railroad roundhouse. I remember seeing the giant train engines and worrying that Daddy might get crushed by one of them and being relieved when he finally walked out and got into the car and was alive and healthy.
And Houston was where every once in a very great while we would go downtown, where the tallest buildings in the world stood and where there was a five-and-dime store—Kress, I think—where they had a lunch counter and those tanks with red and yellow beverages in them and I wished mother would buy me some but she never did.
Yes, everything that mattered was either in Dayton or close to it. Everybody, too.
I could roll out of bed in the morning and, within a few minutes, meet up with my cousin Sam Brown and our friends Willie Kelly and “Hap” Thompson and half a dozen more. I remember one morning after a heavy rain we went wading in the roadside drainage ditches and caught dozens of crawfish, which we carried back to my house and took turns crushing in the driveway with Francois’ bike and being surprised that the stuff that spurted out of them was yellow. Daddy came home that day and was furious—whether about the yellow mess all over the driveway or about our wanton destruction of helpless creatures I don’t remember.
If I wasn’t playing with friends, I could walk down to Papa’s house and see him or one of my uncles. I especially liked Uncle Frank. He taught me how to make a bow for shooting arrows, although I never really got good at it. When we got a dog, a German Shepherd, Frank named it: Spiegel. Spiegel couldn’t have been with us more than a few weeks before he was killed by a truck on the highway.
I remember once watching Frank eat a plate of rice and beans. To this day, I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone eat with as much obvious enjoyment as Frank ate that meal.
And he taught me words. Frank was the first person I ever heard use the word “tolerate.” “I’ll not tolerate that behavior,” he told me one day, sounding very arch and proper. I don’t recall what the behavior was, but I did remember the word, and even had a tolerable understanding of its meaning.
I learned another big word from Frank as well: “telesweer.” That’s the way it would have been spelled if it had actually been a word, but it wasn’t. It was what I heard when Frank would sing the first line of a Nat “King” Cole tune of that time: “They tried to tell us we’re too young.” But I heard “They tried to telesweer too young” and wondered what it meant. I thought it must have been something exciting, because adults always seemed to be telling us kids that we were too young to do one thing or another—stay up late, hear a certain song, go to a show—and they were always the things that seemed most exciting.
There was an old man in Dayton, a ragpicker named Mr. Sipp, who pushed a big two-wheeled cart in front of him all around town. If you honked your car horn at him as you passed, he would shout out, “Go ‘head! You got your gas and lube and your steerin’ wheel in your hand!” Every time we would drive past Mr. Sipp, we children would beg Mother or Daddy to punch the car horn. They almost always refused.
I learned many years later that Mr. Sipp had been born a slave and that he had cuts and markings on his ears that indicated who had owned him.
And then there was Parrain. His real name was William “Bud” Bryant, but we called him Parrain—“godfather” in Louisiana Creole French—because he was Grandma’s godfather and that’s what she called him. He and his wife, Miss Rosa, lived next door to Grandpa and Grandma at the end of a dead-end road on the south end of Dayton. Years later, when I read Alice Walker’s novel “The Color Purple,” I thought she surely must have modeled her characters “Mister” and “Celie” after Parrain and Miss Rosa.
Parrain was the brother of “Grandma Lucy,” the woman who raised Ida after her own mother, Leana “Lit” Day, died. Parrain had what surely must have been one of the most well-traveled houses in the world. When he found himself squeezed off his own property in the nearby community of Five Mile Settlement, Grandma invited him to move his little three-room house to her property in Dayton. He did, and he and Miss Rosa remained there for several decades. Then, at some point in the late 1950s, Parrain had a falling-out with Grandma and Grandpa. I’m told it stemmed from Grandpa’s rebuking him one day for the high-handed, threatening way he habitually spoke to Miss Rosa. So he had his house moved back to Five Mile Settlement, to a piece of land owned by a relative of his. After a few years there, he had the house moved back to Dayton, to a spot about half a mile from Grandma’s and Grandpa’s. After he died in the early 1960s, Grandma invited Miss Rosa to return to her place, which she—and the house—did. The house remained in that spot until Miss Rosa died in 1983. It finally was moved to a spot behind Grandma’s and Grandpa’s house, where it now serves as a storage shed.
Parrain already was very old when I first met him. He was of middling height, dark-skinned and, in my recollection, always wore dark pants, a long-sleeved dress shirt and suspenders. Daddy tells me he always wore a necktie. He carried a walking stick everywhere he went, but I never knew him to go anywhere but around his own house. That’s where we kids would find him when we would go to visit Grandma and Grandpa.
“How’s your little health?” he would invariably greet us. He always called Francois “Transfuh” and Karen “Caroline.” My name must have been too simple to be mangled or, more likely, played with by this clever old man. He referred to his front porch as “the gallery”—he pronounced it “gal-ry,” leaving out the middle syllable—and he liked nothing better than to sit there and regale us children with tall tales and pseudoknowledge.
The land where his and our grandparents’ houses sat is at the top of a hill. The hill slopes down for about 100 yards to a swampy area, wetlands that are part of the Trinity River bottom. The bottom used to be heavily wooded and dense with brush—a genuine thicket. And Parrain delighted in telling us about the “wild man” who lived down in the bottom.
I had no concept then of what a wild man might be or do, but he sounded pretty scary—and that’s just what Parrain wanted. I lived for years thinking there really was a wild man—a crazy, savage, beast of a man with tattered clothing and untamed hair—living down “under the hill” and waiting to wreak havoc on me and those I loved if we didn’t keep a careful eye out for him.
I’m sure Parrain had never been closer to an airplane than the ones we occasionally saw fly over that rural part of Texas—cropdusters, mostly. But he knew exactly how to fly one and he told us.
“If you want to go to St. Louis, you le-e-e-e-an this way,” he would say, tilting his upper body to one side. “And if you want to go to New York, you le-e-e-e-an that way,” and he would shift in another direction.
Parrain contrived one day to show us how to catch a bird. He took a wooden crate, flipped it bottom up in his bare front yard, and propped one end up with a stick to which he had attached a long string. He sprinkled a little chicken feed on the ground around and under the crate and then we sat on the gallery, waiting for some hapless sparrow or bluejay or mockingbird to walk under the crate and be trapped when we yanked the stick out. And we waited. And waited. And waited. It seemed a good idea at the time.
But the person who mattered most to me in Dayton was Grandpa, Socrates “Sprig” Wycliff. I loved the man and I loved being in his presence. I loved his mannerisms and I loved the manliness of him. There was nothing he did that didn’t intrigue me.
It is hard for me now to separate my perceptions of him before we left Dayton from my perceptions afterwards, the ones I acquired while spending summers with him and Grandma and working with him in the shop. But it doesn’t really matter much. He was the same Grandpa all the time.
“The shop”—his shop—was a wonderland to me. It must have measured 30 feet across the front and about twice that from front to back. It was bisected down the middle by a series of posts about 10 feet tall. On the post nearest the front hung a green Dr. Pepper clock with the 10, the 2 and the 4 highlighted. Those were the times of day the company advertised were good to have a Dr. Pepper.
One side—the side west of the posts—was a storage area. The bare ground over there was covered with odd pieces of pipe, angle-iron and other types of metal, and wood in various sizes and shapes. The lighting was dim at best and, to an outsider, the space looked disorderly. But Grandpa seemed to know, down to the smallest piece, exactly what he had there and precisely where it could be found.
The other side of the shop, the east side, was the main working area. It contained the forge, where Grandpa would heat metal objects—plow points, mower blades, rods, all types of implements—and the anvil, where he would hammer the fiery hot metal pieces to sharpen or reshape them. Right next to the front door was an arc welding machine and tanks of acetylene and oxygen, which Grandpa used to join pieces of metal together or cut them into pieces, as the task required.
Farther back in the shop were a bandsaw, which always filled me with fear, even when I was much older, and a huge mechanical hammer, which fascinated me. Grandpa used these tools very infrequently. Sometimes when he was away briefly, I would flick the switch and turn the hammer on just to watch the big drive belt go whirring over the wheels that drove the machine. Occasionally I would even go so far as to put my foot on the lever that engaged the belt and made the hammer go up and down. What power!
Scattered throughout this business side of the shop—hanging from nails hammered into posts, propped against walls or simply “hung up on the ground,” as Grandpa liked to joke—were tools of every size, shape and description: wrenches, tongs, chisels, screwdrivers, hammers, measuring devices. Some of them he used every day; some he used almost never. And yet, when he needed a tool, he always seemed to know just where to find it.
At the very back of the shop was a rolltop desk that didn’t seem to get much use. About the only thing I can remember about it was the pads of invoice sheets imprinted with the words “S. Wycliff and Son.”
For a young boy, the shop was a place of mystery and wonder and excitement. I loved going there to watch Grandpa work and, later on, to work with him. A few years ago, while on vacation with my wife in the upper peninsula of Michigan, we came across a blacksmith shop on Mackinac Island. I walked into the building and was immediately swept away in a tsunami of nostalgia. The smell of coal burning in the forge took me back to the days when I would watch as Grandpa, bespectacled, sweating and clad in his work “uniform” of blue bib overalls over a long-sleeved shirt, would push a piece of cold metal into the coals of his forge and then, a little while later, pull the same piece out, glowing red-hot. Gripping the metal with tongs held in his left hand, he would whirl and place it on the anvil. Then, his lips pursed in concentration, he would begin pounding it with his hammer, a five-pound sledge that he had made for himself. As the metal cooled and reverted to normal color, its shape would be changed under the pressure of Grandpa’s hammer blows and taps.
Reflecting on this observation years later, I recognized a principle that I have observed in numerous contexts. It isn’t the amount of raw strength one brings to a task that matters; it’s the technique one employs in using the strength one has. Grandpa was no muscle man—far from it, he actually was pretty skinny. But he knew how to use the muscle he had and could wield his sledge like an artist wields a brush.
He was an artisan who took immense pride in his work. When a new customer would come and ask him whether he could fix some broken piece of equipment, he would say, “I’ll fix it, or I’ll fix it so nobody else can fix it.”
As interesting to me as Grandpa’s smithing was his talking and that of the men, black and white, who would come by the shop just for conversation. Sprig’s shop was a gathering place, and the discussions would range from the weather—always a concern in an agricultural area—to the great political issues of the day. And I was struck by the fact that Grandpa seemed to speak so freely with the white men who came there. There was no submissive “yes, sir” or “no, sir” as I heard many other black men say routinely when they talked to white men.
I later discerned a lesson in that: Even a black man could enjoy a certain freedom if he had a unique skill or ability that white folks needed. Grandpa was the only blacksmith in that area at that time, and so he was in something of a commanding position. Later on, I saw the same thing demonstrated by Archie Summers, the black cook at the Albert Pick motel restaurant in Terre Haute, Indiana, where I worked as a dishwasher the summer before I started college. “If I don’t work, nobody works,” Archie used to say. And he was right.
Grandpa was a blacksmith, but he was more than that. He also farmed the twelve acres on which he and Grandma lived south of Dayton, and he raised livestock there as well—cattle, sheep, chickens. During summertime, he would contract with people who wanted fields mowed to do the mowing in return for the hay. So during our teenage years, Francois and I often spent summer days aboard Grandpa’s little orange Allis-Chalmers tractor mowing fields and lots for people around Dayton, and then took turns sitting atop a big rake to collect the hay into piles. Grandpa, who would have been spending his time at the shop, would come after the raking was done and we would all load the hay onto a trailer, which we would pull behind the tractor to Grandpa and Grandma’s house and empty into the barn.
When I go to Texas now for summer visits I wonder how we survived, working as hard as we did in the incinerator that was Texas in summertime. More important, how did Grandpa survive? The man worked harder than anyone I have seen either before or since, and he would get up each morning and do it again. Amazing!
But Grandpa wasn’t an all-work-and-no-play guy. He had his enthusiasms and took his pleasures. None of those pleasures was greater than professional wrestling.
Every Friday night, one of the Houston stations would telecast wrestling matches from the City Auditorium in downtown Houston. And Grandpa would always be in his ringside seat: a blue plastic-covered rocker-recliner in the room where he and Grandma kept the television. Grandma’s younger brother, Uncle Clarence Brown, would drive over from his house on the north end of town to join Grandpa in watching the show. And they were a pair to watch!
The names of the wrestlers became familiar to all of us: Gorgeous George; Bull Curry; Danny Savage; Lou Thesz, Dick and Jerry Kozak; Dory Dixon, the rare black wrestler; El Medico, a masked Mexican; Pepper Gomez, small but mighty; Rito Romero, a Mexican lightweight and a favorite of ours; Duke Keomuka, an Asian who was one of the first to learn and apply the excruciatingly painful stomach claw, which meant certain defeat for any opponent who fell victim to it.
I can still hear Grandpa cheering, coaching, exhorting, lamenting, deploring as he watched the eternal, cosmic conflict between good and evil acted out within the ring at the City Auditorium, while a feckless referee—either Otto Coose or Marvin Jones—struggled to keep some semblance of order and enforce some sort of fairness, and Paul Bosch, the announcer, narrated the proceedings.
“Hit him!” Grandpa would shout when a good guy would win a momentary advantage over his dastardly opponent. “Hit him!”
A few seconds later, of course, the tables would turn as the bad guy pulled some object from his wrestling trunks and used it to blind the hero, or clobber him into senselessness.
“I told you to hit him!” Grandpa would wail, the pain in his voice almost palpable, as this disastrous turn of events was acted out.
Somehow, week after week, year after year, the good guys never seemed to figure out that you just couldn’t play fair with the baddies, that you had to hit and hit and hit until all the fight was knocked out of them and, maybe most important, you couldn’t expect the referees to do their jobs and enforce fairness and justice. Might as well expect Barney Fife of Mayberry to pacify Tombstone.
Besides the wrestling matches, Grandpa watched several other TV shows along with Grandma and Aunt Willie. He especially looked forward to “Lassie.” And while I may get my race card pulled for admitting it, we all enjoyed “Amos and Andy.”
Grandpa also liked to hunt, and the raccoons that invaded his corn patch annually provided him with a reason to do it. On the best such occasions, he would invite his cousin, Darrell “Son” Trahan, over from Ames to join him. Darrell would show up toward sundown with two or three hounds and a friend or two, and they and Grandpa would disappear into the thicket “under the hill.” The dogs would bray; Darrell would urge them on with an exhortation of “Go on ahead!” and the hunters would follow them through the soggy bottomland in search of “coons.” I was lucky enough to go along with them once or twice. Grandpa carried his shotgun and I toted a single-shot .22 rifle. I don’t recall that we bagged anything on those trips. But for me, the excitement lay in being there, in the presence of these manly men doing a manly thing.
Yes, being with Grandpa was what I would miss most in leaving Dayton.
But Mother and Daddy had made their decision and there was no appeal from it. We may have been trading “down south,” Texas, for “up south,” Kentucky, rather than for one of the more glamorous venues that so many other migrating black folks went to--places like New York, Chicago, Seattle or Los Angeles. But what mattered for us was the same thing that mattered to other black migrants before us: The end of our trek promised opportunity, while staying in place meant…staying in our place, the subordinate station reserved for black folks in the South. And so we went.