I was seven when I first visited Alabama. I rode over there with my half-uncle Ward. We left El Dorado so early that we were easing eastward on 82 before I woke up good. There were four or five donuts in a grease-stained sack between us. When I reached for one, Uncle Ward said, “There is some coffee in the thermos there if you want a cup.” I poured myself some in the silver lid and dipped the donut into it. That helped me wake up. I did not care for coffee unless it saturated a donut.
It was a bright blue morning and the traffic was light. I loved the Burma-Shave signs along the road, but seldom got the jokes. Ward tried his best to explain this one to me, “If these signs--blur and bounce around--you’d better park--and walk to town,” but he couldn’t. He never understood my questions. Ward’s Dodge was Fluid Drive, a nearly new ’46 model, maroon with maroon seat covers. He taught me how to shift gears in that Dodge. You didn’t have to keep the clutch in when you were stopped at a light but you did have to clutch it to change gears. It had a good radio in it, too, and a clock. Ward was going along at about 60. He said that was a mile a minute! My hair was blowing back and Ward wore his straw hat with the feather in the band pulled down tight, bending his ears out. He looked like a leprechaun. He asked me to roll him a cigarette. I tried to do so but made a big mess of it, so he waited to smoke until we pulled into a place with an EAT sign and rolled his own in the lot under a Chinaberry. He took pains to brush the tobacco out of the car. Since it was new he wanted to keep it clean. We went into the Eat place and Ward asked a rosy-cheeked lady to fill his thermos and he bought us a couple of bags of peanuts. Card tables circled the pot-bellied stove with people eating hamburgers and drinking Cokes and RCs at each. One lady complained that the pickles in her hamburger were store-bought. She said she would bring the proprietor, a plump man in too-small coveralls, some good pickles she had put up last year.
When we drove away from the Eat place, Ward said, “Danny, now my brother Futrell is rich and famous. An author, you know. Use manners at the table and don’t talk unless they ask you something. And don’t complain about the heat. It’s that gulf influence.”
“I have seen stuff about manners and all in the movies, Uncle Ward. I know how to act. Am I kin to him?” He mumbled some words about avuncular genetics breaking down because Futrell was his half-brother on his daddy’s side and he himself was my half-uncle on the distaff, but I lost the explanation. It was worse than trying to figure out a Burma-Shave joke. I was so hungry when we got to Catalpa Place, Futrell’s ostentatious home in Pell City, I did not want to talk at the table anyway. All “Uncle” Futrell wanted to do the whole time we were out there was sit on a quilt in the back yard and read to us from scribbling on a yellow pad. A week of that was enough. He read dramatically from a novel he was writing about gangsters that talked like college professors. I lost the story every time he got going on descriptions. I now know, after having grown up and read as much of his stuff as I could stand, that he was afflicted with chronic digressivitus, a condition probably brought on by 100 degree heat, horse flies and that gulf influence.