in the December 2011 issue of The Southern Genealogists Exchange
NEIGHBORHOOD OF MEMORIES
J. G. Braddock Sr.
I’m glad I didn’t spend my childhood in an era when most of my memories would be of sitting around playing computer games on a hand-held gadget all day. Instead, my head runs over with enough memories of outdoor childhood escapades to fill a “Gone With the Wind” size book. Most were implanted there between the ages of four and nine while living in a neighborhood consisting of several blocks in the Springfield section of Jacksonville. The neighborhood was bounded on the north by 9th Street, the south by 7th Street, the east by Talleyrand Avenue, and the west by Lambert Street. Frequent fondling has kept these memories vivid in my mind for over seventy years .
My first memory of living in the neighborhood was a painful one. Soon after our family–my father Arnold, mother Blanche, brother Arnold Jr., nicknamed “Kayo,” and I–moved into it at 1904 Danese Street, my father became ill. Watching through a window as he entered an auto to be driven away to the hospital is still painfully seared in my mind. The date was April 13, 1935, four months before my fifth birthday. That was the last time I saw him. He died soon afterward of pneumonia.
Also living in the neighborhood in eight households were twenty-four school age and under cousins. They were offspring of my grandmother, Ola Wood Braddock, and her siblings. The fellowship Kayo and I knew with these kinfolks over the next five years went a long ways in soothing away much of the heartache we were experiencing over the loss of our father.
Ola’s sister, Ethel Kinsey, lived next door at the corner of 7th Street, a sandy, two-rut road. A widow, Ethel had three of her children still at home, Bill, Hank, and Laverne, who everyone knew as “Booster.” Many times, Ethel dragged Kayo and me into her house at meal time and sat us down with her brood to share their meager fare. Her generosity spilled over into her children, especially Bill, who was in his late teens. He periodically showed up at Ola’s on his bicycle bearing some kind of small gift for her and her old maid sister Willie Mae. One day, after getting a job at the King Edward cigar factory, he rolled up to Ola’s porch, where Kayo and I were sitting, and pulled out two cigars. He handed each of us one and offered us a nickel–big money to us–if we would smoke them. Kayo took several big puffs without showing ill effects before Ola came out and caught him. By that time, I had taken one puff, got sick as a dog, crawled into the house and under Ola’s bed, and emptied my guts. The language Ola used on Bill was the first profanity I ever heard coming from a woman’s mouth. Bill returned before the day was out, with cap in hand, and got her full forgiveness.
Booster Kinsey, being the oldest of the younger male cousins, which included Charlie Mainor, Buddy Harden, Kayo, and me, had appointed himself as our ringleader. My head would contain only half the childhood memories had it not been for Booster’s uncanny knack of dreaming up a new adventure almost every day. He authored my most exciting—and sometimes terrifying—memories. One of the terrifying ones occurred in a small clubhouse between Cousin Claud Mainor’s garage and back fence. One evening, we four underlings sat jammed into the clubhouse with our backs to the door, listening to Booster tell a ghost story called the “The 13th Step”—one I suspect he made up as he went along—while eerie shadows cast by a kerosene lamp danced all around us. A frightened look appeared on his face every few sentences, and he and asked in hushed tones, “Did y’all hear that?” “What, Booster? What?” “Footsteps.” “We didn’t hear nothin’.” Wide-eyed, we looked around uneasily. The sheer terror that froze on Booster’s face along about the twelfth step alone would have been sufficient for us to say, “Feet, help the body!” However, when he looked past us toward the door and yelled, “He’s at the door!!” the instinct of survival propelled the four of us, almost as one body, through the door. My next remembrance is of standing on Claud’s front porch, holding on to my brother and him holding on to me.
Most of the adventurous outings on which Booster led us were to the Wilson and Toomer Fertilizer Company’s dock at the foot of 8th Street on the St. Johns River. The dock consisted of two long piers running parallel outward from the shore with a cross-pier connecting their ends. Some days, some of the older cousins joined us, and as many as ten of us would be splashing around in the area between the piers. It is here that I learned to swim at the age of six by being thrown from the dock by Hank Kinsey.
The company kept a work raft in this area. Our favorite water sport was playing king-of-the-hill, using the raft as the hill. The last one on the raft without being pushed off was the king. One day, I made the mistake of putting my short pants—my only stitch of apparel—on the raft instead of the dock. The raft turned over numerous times during the game. Being the smallest, I never came close to being king. But I did lose my pants during one of the raft’s many rolls. After repeated dives failed to find them, I had the embarrassing experience of having to walk several blocks home wrapped in a fertilizer burlap bag.
Finding a small rowboat with two oars tied up to the dock one day gave Booster the inspiration for that day’s adventure. Imagining himself a junior Christopher Columbus, he proclaimed that we would row across the river and claim Arlington for the king. He appointed himself admiral and Charlie, Buddy, Kayo, and me as crewmen. Our task was to row. His was to give commands. Halfway across, as we neared a channel marker, the “Admiral” decided we would claim it instead of Arlington. As we reached it, he ordered, “You two Braddocks climb up the ladder and claim it!” Flattered that we were chosen for such an honor, we hurried up the ladder and loudly claimed the marker for the king. We looked down for the “Admiral’s” approval and saw the boat pulling away. “We’ll be back to pick you up tomorrow!” the “Admiral” shouted. Laughing as they watched our squalling and carrying on, they rowed off a short distance. After they had gotten their fill of pleasure from scaring the living daylights out of us—and a little bit of some other stuff—they returned and picked us up.
My relief at being back in the boat lasted only minutes. While making our way back to the dock, a large cargo ship passed within no more than a hundred feet. We could see the vessel’s large propeller churning away as the stern rumbled past us. Booster nonchalantly commented, “They tell me a big propeller like that can suck a boat into it and grind it into smithereens.” I looked at the monstrous propeller, which seemed to my panic-stricken eyes to be close enough to reach out and touch. I looked at the shore. A split-second determination told me I had a better chance of survival going for the shore. At least, drowning would be a far less painful death than being ground to pieces. I dived over the side and started swimming. It seemed like forever before I made it to where I was near a piling standing twenty or thirty feet off a beach we sometimes swam off near Wilson and Toomers. Totally exhausted and sure I had reached shallow water, I put my feet down to stand up. Down and down I went, gasping for air and sucking water. In my panic, I still had the, presence of mind to tell myself I had better close my mouth and start flailing away with my arms. Thankfully, I popped to the surface within a few strokes of the piling. I wrapped myself tightly around it and held on until the tide receded far enough that I could wade to shore.
Ethel’s three daughters were married. Bethea, and Leona lived in other neighborhoods. Mildred, the oldest, lived two blocks away, on 9th Street with her husband Marvin Harden, two sons, M. C. and Buddy, and daughter Betty Ruth. Kayo and I got an unforgettable hunting lesson one dark evening from M. C., who was in his teens, and some of his cronies. Anyone familiar with snipe hunting will know what I mean when I say we were left holding the bag in the middle of the thick, dark woods. M. C. became a standout football player known as “Hard Rock Harden” for Andrew Jackson High. He also played for Jacksonville Naval Air Station and the University of Florida. After a stint in the Navy, he started what has become one of the largest insurance firms in the Southeast, and he was a civic leader in Jacksonville. After serving in the Marine Corp during the Korean War, Buddy became a fireman with the Jacksonville Fire Department, attaining the rank of Captain.
Mainor, grandson of Ola’s sister, Ida, lived on Danese Street with his
wife, Anna Mae, and their three young daughters, Jeanette, Barbara, and
Vivian. Claud worked next door at Ambrosia Bakery, where he served as
chief baker. A thick stand of bamboo grew
between Claud’s garage and the bakery yard. When we had nothing else
to do, we would dive off the garage roof into it and ride it almost to
the ground until someone came out of the bakery and yelled at us.
Claud was player/manager of the Glen Myra Methodist Church baseball team. Cousins Tom and Clarence Mainor and Bill and Hank Kinsey played on the team. Charlie Mainor, Buddy Harden, Kayo and I were-self appointed batboys. As we four batboys were heading for the practice field one spring day, several cases of empty beer bottles stacked behind a beer joint caught Charlie’s eye. He had a sudden brainstorm that set in motion an escapade that almost got us killed. We drained what few drops remained in each bottles into one bottle until we filled it. We found a fairly new bottle cap and popped it on the bottle. When we arrived at practice, Charlie announced that we had found an unopened bottle of beer. We were immediately swarmed by most of the players, each anxiously awaiting his turn to take a swig. After they had drained the bottle dry, Charlie—for reasons I’ll never understand—gleefully announced where the bottle’s contents came from. He had just as well busted open a hornet’s nest. Had they not all begin retching, giving us time to make our escape, I believe they would have done us bodily harm. We never got to be batboys again because we were afraid to show up.
Claud’s father, Matt Mainor, and siblings lived in the next block, on Thelma Street. Matt’s wife Eldridge, mother of Claud and eight of his siblings, died soon after we moved into the neighborhood. My young eyes viewed the Mainors as a remarkable family because after the death of their mother, the four older children still at home–Tom, Clarence, Mae and, Mamie, assumed the role of fairly strict parents to the four younger ones–Charlie, Jackie, Betty Jean, and Ray–ranging from a seven year old down through an infant, each day while Matt worked as a truck driver to support his large brood. They did an excellent job as surrogate parents. All the Mainor children grew into fine adults. Tom and Clarence served in the military during World War II. Charlie won the Silver Star for bravery in Korea. Another remarkable thing about them was that anytime my brother and I were in their yard playing with Charlie at lunch time, they insisted we join the eight of them for lunch. When I remember the character of the Mainors and of so many other of my kinfolk, I think perhaps that is why I never felt we were poor back then, even though we would have been classified as being far below the poverty line by today’s standards. I gladly confess that remembrances of times at the Mainor house colored my life with a permanent, sweet-tasting dye.
Eldridge’s widowed mother, Ida Parnell, lived two blocks away on 9th Street. Ida’s other children were all grown and lived outside the neighborhood.
Grandma Ola and her old maid sister, Willie Mae, lived in a two room house on Buckman Street, the second house from 7th Street. My brother and I lived with them for most of the next four years after our father died. A good cook, Ola—that’s what we called her—spoiled us royally, turning the weekly WPA box of groceries into doughnuts, apple turnovers, French-fried potatoes—Irish and sweet—bacon sandwiches, and crackling bread. She also stuffed us with blackberry cobblers with real dumplings made from berries we picked.
On rainy days and days our cousins gang had nothing going, Kayo and I hunted doddle bugs in the soft sand under Ola’s house using the well proven routine of stirring their cone-shaped holes with a broom straw and saying over and over, “Doodle bug, doodle bug, come out; your house is on fire.” We actually caught one once.
A tall wild cherry tree grew in Ola’s yard. After Charlie Mainor, Kayo, and I spent a good two hours wending our way through its limbs as thick as quills on a porcupine’s back filling oatmeal boxes strung from our shoulders with small, ripe berries, Charlie suggested we make wine with them. Although we thought wine-making was something only grownups could do, we followed his instructions to crush the berries in a canning jar, add water and sugar, stir it good, screw the lid on tight, and bury it in the ground for aging. After an hour of playing in the woods, Kayo asked if it had aged yet. With a serious expression on his face, Charlie informed us that it took a long time for wine to properly age. Another hour later we got the same answer. When we asked again sometime later, we earnestly studied Charlie’s face as he pondered our question with the studious air of a Gallo. His affirmative pronouncement sent us racing back to the burial site. We clawed the jar from its crypt and each took a long swig, draining the final drop of fully aged “wine.” We swore among ourselves and to our young friends that it had tasted like real wine, although none of us had tasted real wine, and it had made us stagger around. Although we never admitted it, the stuff didn’t taste that great.
Ola’s brother, Ed Wood, lived in an identical house across the yard with his wife, Annette, and six twelve years old and under children: Amy, Wanda, Evelyn, Agnes, and infant twins Boots and Buddy. We seldom made them our playmates lest we run the risk of being called “sissies” by our male cousins for playing with girls. Buddy grew up to serve in the Army and was killed in battle in Korea.
My father’s brother, Eddie Braddock, and his wife Margie, lived on Lambert Street, one block from Ola’s, house. Their daughter, JoAnn, was born a year after my family arrived in the neighborhood. Uncle Eddie became like a father to Kayo and me after our father’s death. We stayed at his house as much as at Ola’s. He was an excellent role model for learning how to be a real man. He and Margie sent Kayo off to his first day of school. When he came home, I asked what part of school he liked best. He said recess. I asked what recess was. He refused to tell me, no matter how hard I begged. It was not until they sent me off to my first day of school the next year that I finally learned what recess was. It became my favorite part of school too.
In addition to the river, several attractions to us kids conducive to generating cherished memories were in the neighborhood and surrounding area. A railroad side-track running parallel to 7th Street for many blocks provided us several activities. We spent many hours seeing who could walk one of its rails the furthest without falling off, putting pennies on a rail for steam locomotives backing cars down it to mash paper thin, yelling for the brakemen to throw us a piece of the chalk they used to write on boxcars, and fighting over it when they occasionally did. We also played on tops of strings of boxcars occasionally left standing on the side track. I was doing all these things by the time I was six years old.
A large clearing beyond the track provided an ideal game playing area when no daring adventures were afoot. My first encounters with football, baseball, and half-rubber—a game played with half a sponge rubber ball and a broomstick—were in this clearing. We also played such games as red-rover, and pop-the whip in it. As the youngest and smallest, I invariably ended up at the end of the pop-the-whip line and came close a few times to being the first person to go in orbit when the whip was popped.
The wide expanse of woods lying beyond the track made an ideal place for playing cops and robbers, shooting sling shots and BB guns, and picking blackberries. Another delicacy besides blackberries, at least to us kids, was sour grass, a tangy, chewable weed that grew in abundance in the woods and along the track. Seldom were we seen without a stalk of it sticking from our jaws.
It should be obvious from some of our above mentioned escapades that we never had adult supervision in them. This should be even more obvious from games we played with knives and ice picks. Two of those games were “baseball” and mumbly-peg. “Baseball” was played using a two blade pocket knife with its large blade open all the way and its small blade open half way. We played the game on a back door step or a wooden bench. Two guys would play against each other. The one at bat would stick the small blade into the wood far enough that it didn’t fall over. He then placed his finger under the back-end of the handle and, with a quick motion, flipped the knife up and forward. How the knife landed determined how the batter did. Upright with the small blade stuck in the wood and the back-end of the handle touching the wood was a single. Upright with both blades touching the wood was a double. Upright with only the large blade stuck in the wood was a triple. Upright with only the small blade stuck in the wood was a homerun. If the knife did not land upright, it was an out. A single advanced all men on base one base. A double advanced them two. After three outs, the other player came to bat.
As dangerous as “baseball” was, it was a sissy game compared to the version of mumbly-peg we played using a kitchen knife or ice pick. The object of the game was to be the first player to complete a series of flipping the instrument from various places on the anatomy and successfully sticking it in the ground. With each successful flip, you moved to the next place. If you missed, it became the next players turn. Starting with the left foot, you flipped the knife from each toe, then the top of the foot, then the knee, then the hip, then each finger, then the elbow, and then the shoulder. The flip was made from each of these spots by placing the point on the appropriate spot and a finger on the top of the handle and flipping it downward, trying to stick it in the ground. The next three moves were made differently. From the chin and the nose, the point of the instrument was held between the finger and thumb upside-down and the handle was swung back and forth until the handle reached high enough that when you let go, the blade would go point downward and stick in the ground. The move required for the midway point of the game, the top of the head, was dangerously different. The instrument was laid flat on the top of the head with the point to the back. The hand was then laid across the blade, with the thumb on the point and the little finger barely touching the butt of the handle. With the head leaned forward and the hand pressing down extremely hard, the hand was moved quickly forward, sliding the blade across the top of the head until the point came almost to the forehead. Then the thumb side of the palm was turned quickly downward with force enough to send the point straight enough and with enough velocity to stick in the ground. After this move was successfully completed, you continued down the other side of the body, starting with the shoulder and ending at the toes. The first one to successfully reach the last toe and stick the instrument in the ground was the winner. The winner received the honor of driving a matchstick into the dirt with the handle of the instrument with as many licks as the number of moves by which the loser lost. Then, everyone got to watch the loser root the peg out of the ground with his teeth.
Some Saturdays we skated or walked sixteen blocks to the Capitol Theater, on Main Street near the corner of 8th Street, for the matinee. One of us paid ten cents for a ticket to get in and then went up to the men’s restroom on the second floor, climbed the ladder to the skylight, and unlocked it. The rest of us went up to the third floor porch of the apartment building next door, stepped over onto the Capitol’s roof, and into the theater through the skylight. After watching a chapter picture, two or three cartoons, the newsreel, and a western, we received a free drink and a candy bar as we filed out the door—all on one ten cent ticket.
Our memory making of pleasant adventures came to an abrupt end when I was nine when Kayo and I were placed in an orphanage, which was on a farm in Loretto, Florida, sixteen miles away from the neighborhood and light years away from enjoyable times. The only pleasant memory I have from our year and a half there occurred when Buddy Harden and Charlie Mainor unexpectedly showed up one Saturday on a bicycle. They had pedaled and towed each other 16 miles, one way, from the old neighborhood to the farm. We were ecstatic with joy when they were allowed to visit with us for a short while.
Kayo and I would never have had all these memorable adventures had we not learned to lie. Each evening, after we had squeezed as much adventure as we could out of the day and walked into Ola or Eddie’s house, invariably the first words out of their mouths would be, “You boys didn’t get into anything you shouldn’t have today, did you?’ Just as invariably, our response would be, “No Ma’am” or “No Sir.” My masterpiece of deceit was explaining away coming home wrapped in a fertilizer sack the day I lost my pants playing king-of-the-hill on a raft—a ferocious dog grabbed me by the seat of my pants, and I was able to escape only by tearing out of them and running for my life.
With very, very few exceptions, all these kinfolks to whom I owe so much for instilling in my young mind the attitude that life is meant for making happy memories are now gone. I hope the above recalling of just a few of the many they helped make will serve as a fitting tribute to them.