I was born February 27, 1953 on an Ash Wednesday, in Bay Minette, Alabama, delivered by Dr. Sherman, the only White doctor in town who treated Black folks.
The first twelve years of my life were spent in the tiny rural Black town of Latham, Alabama, population at the time about one hundred twenty people. It rests quietly, at least I hope so, between Bay Minette and Tensaw, Alabama. The nearest large town of any repute being Mobile.
Latham was so out of the way, you could literally pass right by it and never know that beyond the thick grove of trees that lined Highway Thirty-nine was a town. As a child I remember sitting in the back seat of the family car, a black and white Ford Fairlane with ‘fish tails’, fearing that my mother, who sped along at dizzying speeds of sixty miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone, with complete disregard for Baldwin County’s infamous ‘WHITE’ sheriff, would pass up the broken down gray fence and dirt road that marked its existence.
Indeed, it was my job to serve as lookout for that fence. I held my head out of the backseat window on the driver’s side like a giant chocolate lab and let the wind whip my hair into funny shapes on the top of my head. In those days, the sky was a clear shade of pale blue that sparkled like clear water in the hot Alabama sun. When I spotted our town’s marker, I’d yell out ‘fence!’
The entire length of Latham’s main road was unpaved. In addition, the road had a ten inch ditch running along its right side, and on that same side leading up from the ditch was a steep embankment that was covered with a thick grove of tall Pine trees.
As a child, I remember riding along this road at night being truly terrified. The road seemed dark and desolate – far removed from anywhere and anything – its only source of light coming from the car.
At any moment, I expected some monstrous creature to leap out at us from among those tall dark trees. I could feel it lurking in there, waiting for an opportunity to smash in the car’s window and rip me from the safety and security of my family. I could hear it screaming in anger because it couldn’t get to me!
My mother and I, along with the rest of the kids, would drive along this road during the daytime for about a mile or so, before encountering any signs of life. The first house along this road belonged to the Goose Lady. I never knew her name, only that she raised geese and guinea hens, which she sold to a butcher in Bay Minette.
Another mile or so in, and we came to our turnoff. Mom would take a left turn off the hard packed black dirt road, which had, at his point, turned into bright red soft clay. This turn took us past the Williams’ house to a second dirt road which lead to our house.
This second road was legendary for its treacherousness. It sloped down at a steep forty-five degree angle, and on each side of it, water – or so I had assumed — had gouged out foot-deep potholes in which were lodged heavy tree branches sharpened into pikes. It took a good ten minutes to traverse its quarter mile distance. And my mother demanded total silence in the car as we inched our way down. No one even dared breathe hard, let alone wiggle around, until we were at the bottom.
At the bottom of this horror, where it leveled off, was our house. In stark contrast the ground around our house was not black or red or dusty like the previous two roads, but white. A pristine white that was hard packed and swept beautifully clean each day. (Yes, we swept the dirt yard clean everyday!)
It occurred to me that something was odd about this road situation. But at that tender young age, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what it was that bothered me nor did I waste much time trying to figure out exactly what it was.
I thought our father had taken the time to landscape the area around our house but had seriously neglected the roads leading to our house.
And I assure you, that the road on the opposite end – where it picked up again as it ran past our house was as equally bad as the first two.
At the point where our yard ended, and the road picked up again, was a certain death trap for cars. The road became a lethal mix of silt and gravel called a sand bed.
Cars, horses, people, anything and everything going through it had to slow its pace down and creep gingerly along. If you treaded lightly on the gravel, you could maintain your balance. If not, the silt beneath the gravel grabbed at your tires or feet, causing you to sink down. Car tires would just spin, spin, spin! People or animals always lost their balance and fell, which on one occasion saved my life.
(It never occurred to me, until I was describing this road for the book, that perhaps my father had deliberately configured these traps to protect our home.)