Nearly every summer of my childhood my family loaded up up and drove to visit my mother’s relatives. It was a long drive, taking a full day. I knew then that I wanted to write and filled many a spiral notebook while sharing the backseat with my sister, writing nonsensical stories that, thankfully, will never see more than the inside of some storage boxes at my parents’ house. It bears repeating that everything that happens to a writer is research. We draw heavily on the things that occur in our young lives—much, I think, from the traumatic. Here’s a glimpse of a couple of things that may have influenced my words….
For the first ten years of my life I called mildew “old people smell.”
My mother’s side of the family hails from the piney woods of Louisiana. A heavy must hung in the shadows of their small clapboard homes so it was natural, I suppose, to equate the smell with our summer reunions. In their front rooms (what we called a living room at my house) photographs of dead relatives lined the walls. A sticky smell rose from old Folgers can spittoons, adding sweetness to the odor of mildew. One of my great aunts had a habit of dipping a twig from a sweet gum tree in a glass of Garrett snuff (all the water glasses in her house were repurposed snuff containers) and then parking the twig alongside her back teeth. With tiny lines of brown tobacco juice running down the creases on either side of her ancient chin, she’d grab me by the cheeks and say, “child you come here and sit next to me.” Then she’d pick up the bowl of purple hull peas she’d been hulling and sit back in her porch swing to tell me a story—usually about one of the dead relatives whose picture hung in the front room.
All my relatives were storytellers. Sitting together shelling peas, eating catfish or playing dominos was the Facebook Wall and blog of their time. Nearly every day when the men came home from work we’d crowd in around a picnic table, eating communally out of two or three split watermelon halves and listening to these sweet old folks reminisce and spit seeds.
When I was about nine, I made the mistake of mentioning I might have had a tick in my bellybutton during one of these gatherings. My uncles swiped the watermelons off the table in a blink and I was laid out on the table flat on my back like Isaac before Abraham’s blade. The old people surrounded me, muttering among themselves and shaking gray heads while they discussed what to do with me. One aunt, the one with the sweet gum twig in her mouth, offered to spit some snuff in my navel. Another used shaky hands to try and dab the glowing end of her filterless Camel on the tail of the offending tick. An uncle opened a wicked looking pocketknife I knew he used to castrate hogs. They all agreed on one thing; they had to get that tick out—all of it. Little Jimmy Joe somebody or other from over near Baton Rouge had taken an infection after his parents didn’t get a tick’s head out the year before—and he’d up and died. I lay there on my back, watching the lightning bugs begin to flash above me and prayed that my parents would take me back to Texas with real hospitals and doctors before I up and died like that poor kid Jimmy Joe. My sweet mother nixed the ideas involving fire, spit or pocketknives, but the event so traumatized me that I don't’ remember what they ended up doing. Maybe the little bug was just as terrified as I was and crawled back to the sassafras to escape all the gruesome talk.
To my young mind it was like living in the pages of To Kill A Mockingbird. I wasn’t old enough to read the book, but I’d seen the movie several times and there was a guy who looked an awful lot like Boo Radley living right down the tracks. My aunts and uncles told countless stories about human conflict, social injustice, hydrophobic dogs—and death. I have vivid memories of sitting at my mother’s knee, gnawing on a fried chicken leg while the old people around me told tales of those who had passed since our last reunion and the maladies (or tractor or murderer or war) that had killed them.
All day I heard stories of one cousin’s bravery on the Bataan Death March or the way another uncle had been shot in the head while climbing out of a trench—days after World War I was actually over. Then at night, I’d sleep in the room off the kitchen with more pictures of dead people on the walls and a great ticking clock that chimed every thirty minutes. My sister slept in the room with my parents. It’s obvious to me now that they loved her more. In the rare times I was able to drift off between the clangs of the big clock, I dreamed that it was me instead of my uncle climbing out of the trenches in World War I—and me getting shot in the head.
When I was around eight, my sweet old uncle who suffered from dementia shuffled into the clock and dead-people room and stood over my bed in the darkness. “Who are you?” He muttered, eyeing me from under humongous, wild eyebrows. “And why are you in my house?”
I quit going about the time I turned twelve. My mom and sister still went but I stayed home with my dad and worked. Digging postholes and moving rock was tougher than going to reunions, but I’d seen my first naked girl swimming in a nearby lake while I was fishing with some friends and I figured the chances I might see her again were slim if I spent a good part of my summer in Louisiana listening to stories about dead people. As I got older, I became aware of the two things that tend to turn a boy’s head away from matters of his childhood—gas fumes and perfumes. It would be years before I went back.
Shortly after I’d graduated high school, my mother reminded me that those folks wouldn’t be around forever. I was sure to miss all their stories once they were dead and gone. Even she couldn’t help but talk about death—but she was right. I did miss the people and the way they could string words together. I felt the guilt of a neglectful son as we pulled into the front yard of my great aunt’s house and parked on a carpet of decaying pine needles. A mockingbird sang in the sweet gum tree. It was sunny and the smell of sassafras and jasmine blew in from the railroad tracks. Maybe my youthful memories were skewed. Surely these kind old people shelling peas on the porch talked of other things besides cancer and war and death. I’d just been so young and scared of my own shadow that I could only remember the gruesome parts.
One of my uncles came out to greet us. I’d always liked him because he had good bird dogs and talked to me like I was a grownup even when I was a kid.
“Is that Lou’s son?” he asked taking me by both shoulders. “Lord a mercy, I haven’t seen you in years. You remind me of my brother. You wouldn’t remember him. Died of cancer when you were just a baby. You might know his boy though, he got half his foot blown off in Nam. Come on up to the porch and I'll tell you about it….”
Marc Cameron is a retired Chief Deputy US Marshal and 29-year law enforcement veteran. His short stories have appeared in BOYS’ LIFE Magazine and the Saturday Evening Post. He's published eleven novels, six of them Westerns.
TIME OF ATTACK fourth in his USA Today Bestselling Jericho Quinn Thriller series, is the newest release from Kensington February of 2014. DAY ZERO will hit the shelves February 2015.
Marc lives in Alaska with his beautiful bride and BMW motorcycle.
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