Songs and Stories -- Stories and Songs
Storytelling Spans the Years
SONGS AND STORIES -- STORIES AND SONGS
As far back as I can remember, songs and stories have been a big part of my life. When I was a kid, my mom said I was a storyteller. She meant I told lies. But on my dad’s side I’m from a story-telling family. So now I don’t tell lies. I tell stories.
When dad was home, he’d lay down with us at night and tell us bedtime stories. Part of the fun was waiting for him to fall asleep before we did. But one my favorites was about him and his brother Stephen fishing golf balls out of Taylor Creek.
Every day after school he and his brother Stephen caddied at the St. Lucie Club on the shores of Taylor Creek. Winter sunshine in Florida brought lots of out of town folks who had homes in St. Lucie Village, the oldest part of St. Lucie County, and they fished and golfed and boated in the balmy weather.
At night, dad and Stephen would hike down to Taylor Creek to retrieve golf balls lost during the day. Next day they’d sell them back to the golfers.
Every night an old bull alligator waited for them. He lurked on the bank across the creek where they could see his red eyes gleaming. Stephen would slap a board on the water further down the creek, the alligator would slide down the muddy bank and come drifting over to check out the noise, and dad would sneak into the creek behind him and try to find the golf balls. He used his toes feeling in the mud. Stephen would toss in dead fish to lure the gator further away and dad would keep squishing around in that mud til he found several balls.
Then off they’d dash for home, the alligator racing along behind them. They’d drop a chicken neck or bait fish and he’d stop to eat while they got home safely. Kind of like Hansel and Gretel in reverse.
Grandad’s stories were older. He’d come to Florida when he was 10 with his family to homestead on South Hutch. They lived in a houseboat and built a cook tent on shore. His stories usually included bears, indians and alligators, or sometimes painters, as he called panthers, with a hurricane or two thrown in. He and Billy Bowlegs, a Seminole boy he met one day on the island, were fishing guides together in their teens for lots of northerners who came down for the beautiful winter weather and the fishing. Grandad spoke a little Seminole and often visited their camps in the Everglades. When I was a kid, the Seminoles came to town Saturday mornings shopping or trading for goods.
Grandad only had a fourth grade education -- no schools in Florida when they arrived in 1886 -- but he played guitar; he called it a Hawaiian guitar tuned Spanish -- whatever that meant, and a mouth organ, that is, a harmonica.
Every afternoon when he’d finish knitting a cast net, he’d sit on his couch on the front porch, picking and singing. I bet he knew a million songs, like Bill Grogan’s Goat, and Down in the Diving Bell, plus some you’ve probably heard of like Oh Susanna and Casey Jones, and the Wreck of the old Southern 97.
Grandma didn’t let him in her bedroom, so he lived on that couch on the front porch. He’d pull out his big binoculars and watch all the ships going up and down the intercoastal, knew most of them and their owners by name. He’d been a port pilot during the war until he suffered a heart attack on board one ship while bringing it in. He lay on the deck and directed the ship to port safely, then never worked again as port pilot. I have his old binoculars and his spyglass. They’re both in old cracked leather cases and still work fine. The spyglass pulls out in 3 or 4 sections.
He custom knit cast nets for fishermen from all over; I still have one of his bait nets and his handmade shuttle, carved from a small ruler so he could measure the mesh as he knitted. He used linen twine. After a net was finished, he’d soak it in a bucket of turpentine to toughen the twine and drape it overhead on the back porch to dry. That’s one of the smells of my childhood, that turpentine. Cap’n Jennings’ linen nets were treasured up and down the coast, and Beanie Backus, a fairly well known Florida artist and a school chum of my dad’s, traded a painting for one of the last nets grandaddy knit.
One of my favorite Grandaddy stories is of a blackberry picking excursion while they still lived on the island. He reached for a blackberry that turned out to be the nose of a little bear cub. He lured the cub back to camp feeding him blackberries along the way, but unfortunately, mama bear got wind of his plan and came trundling along behind, growling that yodelly growl that mama bears are so good at. Grandad raced for the cook tent, skidded inside and hollered to his mama who was cooking fish at the time, “look out, there’s a big bear coming” with which grandma picked up the skillet, clanged it on mama bear’s backside and sent her howling out the other end of the tent.*
Storybooks kept me out of trouble when I was a kid. My brother was 3 years younger than I, a sickly child with asthma and various childhood illnesses which kept mama busy and up half the night with him, and no energy left over for a rapscallion like me. She’d wanted a cute, sweet little girly girl and instead got an active tomboy, a rebel.
My grandmother was a wise lady who taught me to read at age 4, saying, “Books will take you to imaginary places in your head and help you be a good, quiet little girl, which is what your mama needs you to be”. I learned to write my name in cursive and before I was five, had a library card.
When I visited my grandparents in Fort Pierce my world came to life in full color, like Dorothy when she landed in Oz. I was there for many vacations and any other time my mom needed to get rid of me. The result was I bonded with my grandmother instead of my mother, so when grandma died in 1948 I was only 13, and it traumatized me for many years. On the way to Ft. Pierce after they yanked me out of school and told me she was dead, I howled and cried, desolate, until mother told me to shut up, that was enough crying. After that I mourned in silence. I never cried again in front of my mother. Not ever.
Only later in life when I had the good fortune to be helped by an understanding psychologist did I get to say goodbye to my grandmother. But I still hear her deep contralto when I hear O Holy Night, the solo she sang at Christmastime in the First Presbyterian church there in Ft. Pierce.
Stories and songs = songs and stories. They’ve been with me all my life. Hey, maybe it’s time I learned to play a guitar.
*This story is included in Crackerboy, my tale of grandad’s early life and teen years. So far not published but I’m working on that. The photo in this article is the Jennings house, built when my grandparents married in 1902. The steel shingles are over 80 years old. Paint 'em and they last forever.