My father kidnapped me when I was 10 years old, seven years after my parents divorced. He bought a second-hand, 1931, A Model Ford and decided to test-drive it over the 366 miles from Jacksonville, where he lived, to Brown Sub (16 miles northwest outside Miami city limits), where I lived with my mother. He arrived in Brown Sub with no one knowing. On the pretext of an emergency involving Mother at work, Dad abducted me from school, put me in his car, and began to drive back to Jacksonville. On the way, Dad stopped, called his sister, Julius, in Jacksonville, and asked her to call my mother (Lylia) and tell her he was taking me to Jacksonville to live with his parents.
Each year for the next six years, I lived nine months of a year, September through May, with my paternal grandparents in Jacksonville where I attended public, segregated schools. I lived the other three months of a year, June, July, and August, with my mother in Brown Sub. My divided living arrangement resulted from a legal agreement made to keep Dad from being charged with the federal criminal offense of kidnapping and imprisoned. That was my first involvement with the “buckra” (law).
After the public uproar following the notorious crime of 1932, the abduction of the infant son of Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who flew the first solo, non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean, kidnapping became a serious federal crime (first-degree felony) with potentially a 30-year prison sentence. In Florida, parental kidnapping was a first-degree to a third-degree felony, depending on the facts involved in the crime.
In Jacksonville, I lived in my paternal grandparents’ three-bedroom, cottage home in “my room,” the rear bedroom perfectly located, across from the bathroom and the last room before the kitchen off the trellis-latticed back porch. My room! The room in which a teenage couple, Dad (at 19) and Mother (at 17) lived just after marriage, the room in which a midwife delivered their only child—Me!
My room!. The room in which I consciously met my family who introduced me to life-forces, to need, to pain, to joy, to weeping, to loneliness, to helplessness, and to completeness.
Mother and Dad went out for an evening, leaving me to the care of grandparents. Mama, Papa, and Great grandmother Silva (Mama’s mother) were sitting on the front porch in their rocking chairs. I was in my crib in my room; I wanted the warmth, the smell, and the milk of my mother, and I cried (as usual) to let her know. She did not appear; I cried louder. Papa grew impatient with my crying. He came into the room, picked me up from the crib, spanked me, placed me back into the crib, and left the room. My outcry arose in need, soared in fear, inflated in helplessness, intensified in pain, and extended my loneliness into my totality. The only time a family member struck me and last time I cried in fear, or in need, or for people occurred that night in that room, my room. That night in that room, my room, I was reborn.
Saturday in May, 6:30 in the morning, I awakened happily in my realm, a black demesne at 1545 West Fifth Street, a part of and (being a black community) apart from Jacksonville, Florida. I welcomed the day as a new day to be celebrated all day. I enjoyed being thirteen years old and living with my grandparents.
Papa and mama were up and about. Mama was building a fire in the wood stove in the kitchen to cook the traditional breakfast that she cooked each morning of every day, grits with butter and eggs or grits with butter and fish-roe or both. Mama respected my choice of not eating eggs.
Papa, a carpenter, was out fixing things (as every weekend)—the house, the fences, the chicken coup, or tending to the four, rented fields in which we grew corn, peas, beans, greens, watermelons, potatoes, sugarcane, and other foods.
Papa taught me things, basic carpentry: how to hammer nails straight without bending, measure things twice to cut or saw things evenly and such. On weekends and holidays, we mended fences, chopped firewood, fed chickens, gathered eggs, planted seeds in season, picked beans and peas, and shucked corn, and such. And on a day in December, we went into the woods past West Tenth Street and cut down a Red Cedar as a Christmas tree.
When not at work or not fixing things or not tending the fields, Papa sat in his rocking chair on the front porch (often with his mother-in-law) and greeted people (especially children) who walked past our house. Papa spoke to many people.
West Fifth Street, an unpaved dirt road without sidewalks, ran east and west, paralleling Kings Road on the north. At the west end, West Fifth Street looped south ninety degrees to end or to begin at Kings Road, depending on which way one was looking.
The houses on West Fifth Street faced north or south, depending on which side of the street a house was located. Our house was the first house or the last house on the north side of West Fifth Street near the corner of Kings Road, depending on which way one was traveling.
In our neighborhood of few automobiles, most people walked on West Fifth Street to and from Kings Road, a principal, brick-paved highway. Just about all the stores and offices were located on Kings Road.
Kings Road, Florida’s first highway, passed through the settlement of Cowford (Jacksonville) when built by the British as the “King’s Road” to connect St. Augustine to Colerain, Georgia.
Papa did not spend time at Stamp’s Fish Market on Kings Road, the community place where the neighborhood men socialized; they sat on old chairs and boxes in front of Stamp’s Fish Market and watched automobiles travel on Kings Road. The fish market consisted of two, separate, small wooden buildings: a rectangular glass-fronted space (the store) in which Mr. Stamp sold fresh seafood; and an insulated cubicle (the ice house) from which he sold blocks of ice for the home iceboxes and cold-closets in which people kept perishable foods.
Papa was a professional gambler at cards when he first met Mama in rural Georgia where she was a schoolteacher. After marriage and the birth of two of their three children, Felix (my father) and Julius (my aunt), and during Mama’s pregnancy with their third child, Huerta, Papa gave up gambling for life, as he promised Mama he would.
Mama taught Papa first how to sign his name and later how to read and write. A vivid vision I have of Mama is her smile whenever she saw Papa, after eating dinner and on his way to sit on the front porch, pick up a newspaper or a magazine to take with him, a newspaper or magazine that Mama had placed strategically to be easily seen and easily reachable.
Papa was just extraordinarily bright, “gifted.” He quickly learned any task that he put his mind to. His skills as a gambler and as a carpenter and his mastery of reading and writing without any formal education and his grasp of farming demonstrated his abilities. Mama believed that Papa, when a gambler who could not read or write, developed an enhanced capacity for numbers, memorization of odds, frequencies, and other mathematical manipulations. She also believed that Papa’s “exceptional, natural understanding” of numbers resulted in his “unfortunate natural proficiency” at cards.
Mama repeatedly told the story of Papa and a builder hired by Papa to build a three-bedroom house on a vacant property that Papa bought next to our house on West Fifth Street. The story the way Mama told it: After the builder built the house, he gave Papa an itemized bill for the final payment. Papa inspected the house by walking through and around it; he examined the bill; and without the use of paper or pencil, he told the builder the number of board feet of lumber invoiced but not used in the house’s construction by the builder.
Papa worked as a carpenter’s helper at the railroad yard outside the city limits of Jacksonville where the railroad company shed freight trains. Jim Crow labor practices prevent Papa from working as or receiving the wages of a carpenter. Customarily, because of racial discrimination, skilled Black tradesmen work as “helpers” to White tradesmen.
Me? Routinely, on a Saturday after breakfast when not helping Papa, I explored the land beyond West Tenth Street, a wilderness of trees, streams, and animal life, breezes, and smells, always exciting with unexpected and expected dramas happening in nature. While waiting for breakfast, I usually organized the weapons a lone explorer needed during the escapades of a day, my slingshot and my chinaberry gun. Papa made the chinaberry gun for me. The barrel was a hollow stem of bamboo. From a broom handle, Papa carved the decorated shaft that forced the chinaberry pellet from the bamboo barrel; he cut from a Coca Cola bottle the glass bottle’s neck fitted over the exit end of the bamboo barrel to increase the “pop” sound of a chinaberry when shot from the bamboo gun.
The only chinaberry tree on West Fifth Street grew in our front yard. The tree, very old and very large, shaded most of the front porch from the sun and seasonally yielded hundreds, maybe thousands of chinaberries from which I picked ammunition for my weapons. I stocked my waste- mounted ammunition bag with carefully selected chinaberries of just the right size to exert just the right pressure to shoot smoothly and straight from the bamboo barrel of the chinaberry gun.
I started this Saturday as I did every Saturday. I checked the status of breakfast, usually served shortly after 8:00 a.m. Cooking odors in the kitchen squeezed through the wire-weave of the screen door to the kitchen, swelled as smells, skyjacked the air of the back porch, and escaped through the open spaces of the wooden latticed back porch into the air in the backyard. Mama was cooking grits with butter and fish roe. The clock in the kitchen showed 7:45 a.m., time enough for me to select my chinaberry ammunition for the day.
As I started to climb the chinaberry tree, I heard Mama yell my name. I was stunned. Mama seldom raised her voice. I jumped to the ground, ran to the rear of the house, entered the back door, crossed the latticed back porch to the kitchen screen door, and looked into the kitchen. Mama and Papa faced each other; Papa was holding Mama’s right arm in his left hand; his right hand was clenched into a fist. Blue veins crisscrossed Papa’s face. Mama, strangely still and quiet, did not appear afraid.
Shocked and confused, I was temporarily paralyzed. They rarely argued. Mama called and referred to Papa as “Mr. Neals.” Papa called and referred to Mama as “Sissy” (a reference to how they met).
Papa hitting Mama! Unthinkable!
Shouting, “No Papa!” I opened the screen door and rushed into the kitchen. I grabbed Papa’s right wrist; he struggled but could not free himself from my grip. He stopped struggling, let go of Mama’s arm and left the kitchen and the house. In a quiet voice, Mama said to me, “Everything is alright; go back to playing; breakfast will be ready soon.”
Unthinkingly, I glanced at the kitchen clock. The clock hands pointed to 7:59 a.m. For the first time, I noticed how sinister the kitchen clock looked. The sharp points of the black, arrow-shaped clock hands rotated above the enclosed, white, round face of the clock relentlessly executing seconds trapped in a circle of time. Trembling, I left the kitchen and stood on the back porch, not knowing what I should do when a thought startled me:
I am stronger than Papa.
But that was impossible! No one was stronger than Papa. I thought of walking with Papa, how he held my hand in his strong hand when we walked from Mother’s house on Duval Street to his house on West Fifth Street or when we walked to Mr. Stamp’s Fish Market to buy fish and block ice. I felt “safe” with Papa. Everyone called him “Mr. Neals.” No one called him “Julius,” not even Mama. I felt “special” because I did not have to call him “Mr. Neals.” He was my grandfather; I called him “Papa.”
After breakfast, I returned to the front yard and climbed the chinaberry tree to my secret place where I would go to be alone and watch the street. High in the tree, I sat where four, large ranches joined and formed a space shaped like a hammock.
Occasionally, in late evenings, I sat in the tree hammock, observed West Fifth Street, and watched Papa working in the fields. I waited in the tree, staying with Papa as his shadow merged with nightfall and became a ghost in flight in the darkness in the air. Sometimes, after Papa left the fields, I remained in the chinaberry tree. Alone in the night, I watched moonlight stalk darkness between the rows of crops in the fields. Everything around me synchronized with my heartbeat. I became a drum in the night.
From the tree hammock, I watched Papa, a sad, tired, old man. He ramblingly, laboriously, and slowly hoed weeds in a field. With each stroke of the hoe, his shadow silhouetted clockwise across the furrows of the field, rising and falling grotesquely in the heat of a vibrant sun.
I am stronger than Papa.
A thirteen-year-old boy ran into the kitchen. Fourteen minutes later, a teenager stronger than Papa walked out. Fourteen minutes and lifetime changes occurred in me and in my life, in Papa and in his life, and in Mama and in her life. I struggled to understand what “growing old” was doing to Papa and what “growing up” was doing to me.
I was reborn for the second time.
I climbed down from the chinaberry tree for the last time. Throughout the following years, numerous times in many ways, I felt safe and special in life because of the man I called “Papa.”
Now I am “Papa to my only grandchild, my teenage grandson whom I call, “JK.” My grandson for whom I have not made a chinaberry gun; to whom I have not taught basic carpentry or how to drive nails straight without bending, measure twice to cut or to saw things evenly. Together we have not mended fences, chopped firewood, fed chickens, gathered eggs, planted seeds in season, picked beans and peas, or shucked corn. And together we have not walked hand-in-hand to a market to buy fish or ice. My grandson and I have not gone into a wood on a December day to fell a Christmas tree.
Fervently, I hope that my grandson has learned to “mind,” to “think,” to “drink without drowning and having drunk remember thirst.”
My grandson has my gene; he is autistic.
My grandson is a student at the university.
My grandson is stronger than I.
My grandson. I feel safe and special when he is with me, the old man whom he calls, “Papa.”
Felix Neals: Autistic. Veteran.; Idaho State University, B.S.. Washburn University School of Law, Kansas, J.D.. National Intercollegiate Oratory Champion. Who’s Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges, Degree of Special Distinction, Pi Kappa Delta. Finalist, Yale University Press Series Younger Poets.