Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Stray Cat

 first place winner in nonfiction  in the Alabama Writers’ Conclave writing contest,  July 2017.

He was not our cat, and so far as I knew he didn’t belong to anyone on our block. My mother warned me not to play with him. “It’s a stray,” she said.” We don’t need it hanging around here.” But she had no idea the impact he would make on me.  Am I the only person in the world whose character was altered by a stray cat?

In my earliest memories, we lived in a white two-story house on 23rd Street, then a dirt road near downtown Birmingham, which faced 11th Avenue North. Whenever I went outside into the yard, the cat would come to me. We became friends, the cat and I, though I don’t recall if I ever gave him a name. Or maybe I don’t recall after all these years, more than seventy of them, the name that I did give him. But I do remember his color.  He was brindled gray, almost black, with streaks of lighter gray. I say “he”, but I had no idea the gender of the cat.  Because I was a boy, I suppose I assigned to him the male category on the theory I would not have been playing with a girl at that stage of my life.

Somehow, in lugging the cat around the yard like a baby, his feet pointed skyward, I dropped him, and watched in puzzlement as he flipped in mid-air, landing on his feet. I thought he had performed an amazing trick and wondered if he could do it again. I lifted him up, thinking of all the times I had fallen in all kinds of awkward moves, yet the cat fell gracefully the second time, just as he had done the first.

The wheels in my little brain began to turn, like perhaps that of a scientist as he begins to formulate a new procedure to test an idea. I knew I was onto something important and wanted to test it, to check it out. They say that curiosity killed the cat, but in this case it was my curiosity and not the cat’s that came close to doing the job.

I carried the cat to the small landing on the rear wooden stairwell that led up to the first and second floors of the house.  My family occupied the first level of the house and another family lived upstairs.  I looked down from the landing perhaps five feet to the ground. Holding the cat at arms’ length upside down, I extended my arms beyond the bannister and dropped him. Amazingly, he twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was spell-bound.  That was not something boys could do. Although I had never heard the term “scientific experiment,” that was the method that quickly went through my mind as I considered the possibilities.

I scrambled down the stairs and out into the back yard. He was a little reluctant to let me pick him up, but after a short time of running around in the yard, I guess he tired of the game and plopped down, which allowed me to scoop him up, and this time I took him up to the porch on the first level, approximately fifteen feet high. He was not happy as I extended my arms over the bannister, holding him out in mid-air, belly high, struggling to prevent his flipping over, but I held tight the wrestling cat as he clawed me, and then I let him go. I watched in fascination as he once again twisted in mid-air and landed on his feet. I was completely mystified that he could do such a thing.  And then I looked up at the porch above, another ten feet higher, wondering if I should try that. Hmm. Yes, I should!

I dashed down the stairs into the fenced yard and, after a few minutes of chasing, it became quite clear I would not take the cat to the higher level.  He would not let me touch him, and each time I got too close to him, he moved away and out of reach. I wondered why he was now so wary of me. He had never acted that way before.  But after a little while of coaxing him and whispering to him, he finally let me come close again but was too wary to allow me to pick him up.   Finally, after a long time of being really nice to him, he relaxed and let me come close again, and when he seemed to trust me, I grabbed him up and trooped up those steps, all the way to the second level which must have been at least twenty-five feet high. As I carried him up the steps, he became testy with me, twisting in my arms and struggling to get loose. But I held on, determined to complete my experiment. When I got into position, I looked down. It was a long way, I could see that, and the cat, who was essentially upside down, could sense it too. Somehow, I was so curious about the cat’s unique ability to land on its feet that I was willing to suffer the pain he was inflicting on me as he scrambled in my arms, clawing me like a demon, as I held him over the void.  And then I dropped him, or attempted to drop him, as he clawed my sleeves struggling to hold on to me before I shook him off and he fell free.

In the same instant he fell, he twisted in mid-air for a landing on his feet as I watched from the porch to see exactly how he did it. He landed hard and crouched on his belly. My curiosity was still not satisfied, but then something happened that overcame my curiosity, and that is probably the reason I have remembered this event so vividly and for so long.

I watched the cat from the upper porch as he crouched in the place he landed, as if he were stunned. I worried then that he might have been hurt. And then, still in that crouching position, he slowly turned his head and looked up to me with an unblinking gaze. There in his gaze, in his eyes, was a message of reproof, and in that instant both he and I knew I had done wrong, that I had intentionally hurt him.  He slowly rose onto his legs, slowly turned his head away from me and toward the wooden fence, and then with a running jump, he leaped atop the fence and paused, his body turned away from me.  He then looked back over his shoulder and up at me still standing there high on the porch, and he locked his eyes on mine in a gaze that carried silent meaning, that spoke of his disappointment in me for breaching the trust he had given me, that reproached me for hurting him. I felt helpless in that moment, wanted to run down to the fence and hold him in my arms, to make amends, to make him love me again.  And then, just as I was about to scramble down the stairs and run to him, he broke the gaze and looked back to the front. I watched as he leaped from the fence down to the roadway on the other side. I ran down the stairs to the fence and between the slats I saw him slink down the road, down toward the railroad a block to the south.  I waited for him in the yard for days to come back and play with me.  I wondered where he had gone, and after a week it became clear to me that he would never come back.  I never saw my friend again.

I’ve wondered all these years how I could have been so cruel to a small animal. Curiosity I think is the answer, and the inability at my young age to appreciate the consequences of my own acts, yet once I saw the aftermath of what I had done, how he looked at me as if to say I trusted you and you hurt me,  I was heart-sick.

When and how does a child begin to feel pain for someone else when always before he felt pain only for himself?  Was that the event that made me become the kind of person I have become? I believe the lesson I learned that day, that personal encounter with my own cruelty that I  turned on the cat I loved, was more effective in teaching me the importance of feeling empathy for others than years of abstract lessons in church and Sunday School. Not a single word passed between the cat and me, yet the cat managed with a searing gaze, to make me feel the injustice I had done, the injury I had caused, the trust I had breached.  It was a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

Train Town

I was born in the small town of Hodges, Alabama on March 9, 1939, near the end of the Great Depression. It was a Train Town, founded by the Illinois Central Railroad in 1907 and then, years later, the railroad murdered the town it had founded.   Not directly, of course, and with intention to kill the town. No, no, I’m sure no prosecuting attorney would take that case for murder.  But nonetheless the town was first established by the Illinois Central Railroad and then the Railroad killed it.

The Hodges post office originally had been located on Alabama Highway 187 a couple of miles south from the site of the present town. Then, in  1906-7, the Illinois Central Railroad built its railroad through Franklin County for a line from Corinth, Mississippi to Haleyville, Alabama and which was to be a part of the Chicago to Miami route.

In the early days of the train industry, steam engines needed water at intervals along their routes.  The site that is now the Town of Hodges was located at such an interval.  The Illinois Central built a lake that is shown on the 1936 USGS map as “Railroad Pond” and which became known as Hodges Lake.  The ICR also built a water tower which pulled water from the lake and stored it in the water tower for use by the steam engines.  And because the steam engines would stop to take on water, the local citizens could see that the site might become a passenger stop as well.

As a consequence, in 1907, the owners of the land around the site of the railroad stop laid out and subdivided the land into lots, which subdivision plats also reflected the location of the railroad line.  And the town sprang up.  The first train went through on July 17, 1907.  By then a few buildings had been built and the town was taking shape. As the years passed by, the town prospered and grew.  People shopped.   There was a small train depot where passengers would disembark, and a small hotel for overnight guests, and a water tower that towered over the town. The Town of Hodges was a small beehive of activity.   That’s how I remember the place from my childhood and even into my adolescence

Perhaps because I was born across the road from the tracks and my earliest days were filled with the sounds of huffing, puffing, clanging and thundering steam engines and the sharp sounds of their whistles, I’ve always loved trains and love them still. My parents moved their small family comprised of the two of them, me, and my little brother Eddie to Birmingham when I was about four years old.   I grew up in Birmingham on the northside of town and always lived within one block of the railroad tracks.  I played on the tracks, and I learned to walk their rails.  Trains are in my blood. Today, I live within one block of the main rail lines through Birmingham. Sometimes, there are three trains going in different directions as I watch from my balcony. I love it, the screeching, the banging, the rumbling, the thunder they make.

I remember one day in the early fifties when I was a boy, perhaps twelve years old, I was shocked to see on the tracks coming toward me something I’d never seen before. It looked like a sleek space ship coming down the tracks, or some kind of modern machine I’d never before imagined.  I learned it was a diesel engine.  At that time, I had a Brownie Hawkeye camera and I spent much of my days after that waiting at the tracks for another diesel that I might photograph.  Steam engines were then too mundane for my limited film supply.  It seems now as I look back that I never had much vision.  I should have been making photographs of the steam locomotives that would soon be abandoned and left to rust  in train graveyards instead of the new diesel engines that would soon be commonplace.

And what became commonplace to me in Birmingham in the fifties also became commonplace in Hodges. Because diesel engines had no need to stop in Hodges to take on water, the passenger trains deleted Hodges as a place to stop. Thereafter, the trains blew straight through the small town.  A number of horrible accidents occurred at the road that crossed the tracks in the town and people were killed.  By the mid-fifties, when the trains no longer stopped in Hodges, and then for years afterward, the train traffic through Hodges declined. Hodges too went into a slow decline as the rail traffic declined, businesses began drying up, and the migration to the major urban areas accelerated.   Ultimately, the Illinois Central Railroad ceased rail service altogether in 1988.  In turn, the railroad company tore down the water tower and pulled up the rails.  Most of the landmarks of Hodges are gone now, the depot, the hotel, the water tower, the railroad tracks, all gone, and not a trace of where they had once stood.  The town survives, but only a shell of what it had been.

I recently read a memoir by Clifton L. Taulbert entitled Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored, a warm remembrance of his extended family and his early life in a small town in the Delta of Mississippi, and then I read the follow up memoir entitled The Last Train North, the story of his trip north from the Delta when he graduated high school to St. Louis where he would join distant relatives and find his fortune.  It was on the Illinois Central Railroad that he travelled north as did literally thousands of other African Americans joining the great migration from the Delta, to St. Louis, to Cleveland, to Chicago and to Detroit.

When I read The Last Train North I was struck by the parallel between the Mississippi Delta and the Alabama hill country, and how each was served by the Illinois Central Railroad in transporting the poor African Americans from the Delta and the poor white people from the hills of North Alabama to points north and how that migration of whites and blacks alike split families apart. My father moved his small family to Birmingham, but two of his brothers made their way to Detroit, a small example of the white migration north, and now I have first cousins in Michigan I’ve never met.  I was also struck by the negative impact of the discontinuance of railroad passenger service to the Delta, in the same manner as it had impacted Hodges, Alabama.

Today, Hodges is inhabited by about two hundred people, some of whom are my relatives. The commercial section of town is one block long, comprised of one story, non-descript buildings along either side of a wide street of asphalt. Wide? When I was a boy, it was narrow with cars parked on both sides at 45 degree angles, leaving barely enough room for two cars to maneuver past each other in the middle. But today, why would anyone park a car along the street except perhaps to take a photo, for the town appears to be totally empty and so far as I know not a single tenant remains. A ghost town, biding its time, waiting to be discovered by Hollywood.

All that remains as evidence that Hodges had once been a railroad town is “Depot Street,” the street on which the railroad depot once stood. That and the USGS maps, where the former railroad beds can be seen extending mile after mile along tree lines and fields, looking much like a boundary or a  border.

Hodges was located on the southern border of Franklin County in the northwest Alabama hill country, far to the south of Russellville, the County seat. At the time of my birth, my mother and father lived in a shack on Alabama Highway 187 as it approached Hodges from the south and was only about a half mile from the center of town. Our shack was about a hundred yards from the house of my maternal great grandparents, Myra Bobo and Eddie Downs.  When my mother gave birth, it was my great grandmother, Myra Bobo Downs who was called into service and pulled me into this world.  That fact is supported by family lore and my own birth certificate.

The shack into which I was born has long since been torn down but as a small boy my parents would point it out to me as we passed by on our way to visit Mama and Papa Downs. While I remember Mama Downs with much affection, for she lived a long life, I have almost no recollection of my great grandfather, Eddie Downs, for whom my younger brother Eddie is named.

Their home still remains, though it looks nothing like I remember. It was, in my memory, a neat one story wood frame house with a large front porch.  Today, it is two story house and there is nothing about it to remind me of the house I visited as a child and on into my early adulthood, not even the railroad tracks across the road or the narrow underpass beneath the tracks that would accommodate only one vehicle at a time. All the railroad landmarks within my memory near Mama Downs’ homeplace, the hotel, the depot, the water tower, the underpass, the railroad tracks, all have been torn down, pulled up, graded over, obliterated. There is nothing left to suggest to anyone that the railroad ever passed through Hodges, Alabama, except for “Depot Street” and Hodges Lake, but then the lake is just a lake and only those who know the history would suspect that it was built by a railroad.

While I have never lived in Hodges except for the first few years of my life, I’ve had the opportunity on many occasions to visit and witness the town as it evolved over the course of my seventy plus years from a vibrant little town to a proud community that remembers better days.  And when I do visit and look down the empty street and past  the  empty buildings, something comes over me and I’m filled with some sense of regret or guilt or responsibility or some passion I don’t understand that somehow calls me back to my old homeplace, the town of my birth, Hodges, Alabama.