I think my oldest sister was married before I was born, to my brother-in-law Jack who fought in Korea. All of my sisters married sons of Atco Mill workers, except for my youngest sister Wylene, the little social climber, who went off to college and married a Porterdale boy.
Not only did I defy family tradition by being born in a hospital -- and not just any hospital, but the hospital in Rome, Georgia, the little hospital in Cartersville being thought not good enough for such an important undertaking -- but I further broke rank by coming out, to everyone’s delight, a male child. Legend has it that when I was old enough for the task, my sisters took me, over my father’s protest that it was a waste of money, to Olin Mills to be photographed, and that when they brought the package home to see which ones they could persuade him to buy, he maintained that this was the prettiest baby he’d ever seen, bought the whole package and ordered more. He called me “Churchill,” a name in the news at the time, because of my fat cheeks and double chins.
And I hear you saying, “Why don’t you show us one of these pictures, Cutie Pie?” and I detect a little sarcasm there, but I’ve chosen to include here another, more telling photograph of my infant self. I first saw this photograph when it appeared in my senior class yearbook, it having resided for the intervening seventeen years with the woman who took it, a Union County lady, who at the time of the picture was a Southern Baptist Missionary staying in our house -- people were all the time staying at my father’s house for indefinite periods, kind of like the way other people’s kids stay at my house now -- waiting to go to Africa, I think.
The foot in the photograph is an appendage of my father, of course. In the background teenaged girls are squealing “Daddy! Don’t let that baby suck your toes,” at the same time laughing, knowing full well Wallace will do as he pleases, while Mary Jo Gray just happens to be there with a camera, no doubt plotting a practical joke whose punch line won’t fall for almost two decades.
I don’t remember Ms. Gray taking this photograph; it’s lost in a blur of many photo ops presented to the young male scion. In my earliest concrete memory, I’m three or four and my nephew, David, is correspondingly two or three. I remember this incident not because of the psychic impression it imprinted at the time, but because the story was repeated with such regularity I was never allowed to forget it.
It is springtime and David and I are standing in the freshly plowed vegetable garden behind my house, our parents and my 14-year-old sister Wylene at the other end of the row, all of us in search of earthworms for fishing. My eighteen month superiority in age made me much better at locating worms than David, but I was afraid to touch them, while David would probably have eaten one had I suggested it. They looked a lot like snakes and we were, after all, standing in the only kind of garden I’d ever seen -- and as a matter of fact it did have an apple tree -- where, I well knew from a steady diet of biblical indoctrination, Satan was want to take the form of a serpent to try to trick me into doing something I and all of my progeny would regret. The earliest dream I can recall is of wandering in a beautiful garden when I am confronted by Satan, and when I say Satan I’m not talking about some glib Mephistopheles in evening attire, I mean the naked red devil, replete with horns, tail and pitchfork. I am very afraid and yell for my sister Wylene who then appears, banishing Satan, who is as afraid of her as I of him.
Anyway, I got around this worm touching problem by saying, “Here’s one David! You get it. I can’t see it,” logic David didn’t question, but which the other worm seekers thought was hysterical, and, as I mentioned, never let me forget it.
My wife, in her less charitable moments, maintains that this little episode is a metaphor for my life in general, that I always want somebody else to do the dirty work, and in my less argumentative moments -- which she will assure you are rare --I have to concede the accuracy of this perception. I am prone to offer ideas and suggestions for which I am, depending on one’s viewpoint, either too lazy or simply disinclined to do the dirty work of working out the details needed to actually implement the idea. The fact that my wife, a Virgo, is splendid at working out details and practical problem solving, for some reason does not incline her to the see the symbiotic beauty of such a collaboration.