Monthly Archives: March 2017

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Twelve

Previously in this book: Nebraskan Hal Neely traveled with big bands during the Depression, served his country during World War II and entered the music industry working both for Allied Record Manufacturing and infamous producer Syd Nathan. Italics indicate the following chapter is in Neely’s exact words from his memoirs.

After getting King’s pressing business for Allied in 1949, I was in Cincinnati on a regular basis. All the staff and employees treated me as if I were one of them. I’d reassess Syd’s operations for him. They were obsolete and needed to be rebuilt with new, more modern equipment much of which could be built in King’s own machine shop. King was “hot.” Good deal all around.
I was now very active in Allied government production and supervised its recording schedules in five New York studios and on Riker’s Island where the Army had a production facility. I commuted between New York, Hollywood, Washington DC and Cincinnati. It was hectic but rewarding. I loved my job, even the travel. It reminded me of my old band days, different town each day.
Jim O’Hagan died in January of 1950. It happened suddenly with no warning, and I was promoted to vice president and board member. Mary and I moved back into our house in Woodland Hills, California.
In 1952 I was spending most of my time in the East. Mary rented our house, put her little red MG Roadster in storage, and moved to New York. We rented a nice one-bedroom apartment on the East Side at 72nd St. and Second Avenue. Very nice. Mary would help out at the plant each day. We bought an Olds 88 convertible, parked it in a garage on the corner and drove to work each day. Also in 1952 the Army asked me to reconstruct my old 16-piece show band for a concert for 6,000 American and British troops at Wiesbaden Germany Army Air Base. I wore my captain’s uniform.
Union problems developed at the Allied plant. Allied decided to get out of the state of New York and move its business to New Jersey where it built a new plant. I would be the manager. I moved my office back to Hollywood. Mary and I drove back to California, spending a week in Cincinnati seeing Syd and my brother Sam and his wife Hazel who now lived in Dayton. We moved back into our house in Woodland Hills. I began a lucky and happy time. We and some friends went up to Lake Arrowhead and the mountains above San Bernardino over a long weekend. Our son was to be conceived there.
April 26, 1956, Mary went into labor. I cut it pretty close and got there late that evening. A neighbor picked me up at the plane. We took Mary to the hospital about 7 a.m. She and John Wayne’s wife had the same doctor and were both in labor at the same time. Both of us had sons. Mildred Stone, Mary’s mother from Lyons, came out to stay with Mary for as long as necessary. I was under great pressure to get the new plant operational and still take care of my sales duties. I only got home on several weekends and then back to Jersey.
Eventually we decided to move the family to Newark, New Jersey. Mary shipped her MG to the East Coast, and I found us an apartment in a nice section of Newark. She, our son, and I were on an American flight to New York, changing planes in Chicago. The Chicago airport ground crew went on a “sit down” for some gripe. We sat in the airport for about four hours with everyone else. American was able to get us a flight, but it was going to the Newark airport and not LaGuardia. What the hell. We took it. We got in very late that night and took a cab to the apartment which I had rented.
Mary walked in and said, “No way! I want a house.”
Friends of ours, Sid Bart and his wife, lived in a beautiful upscale closed enclave called Smoke Rise in the wooded hills of northern Jersey, close to the village of Mahwah. It was 40 miles from Manhattan.
We found a small house on a hillside, surrounded by trees and a beautiful lawn. It was two stories, two bedrooms, big basement and a huge screened-in back porch. In the back were flowers and a small spring-fed pond. Mary fell in love with it at first sight. We took out a mortgage and moved in. Mary found a nice widow lady to babysit our son, and we joined the country club. I was lucky again and had a good life.

Grandma’s Bedroom, Part Three

(Author’s Note: The boy was in Grandma’s bedroom when she died in a fire. Now he has to sleep in the room where Grandma died. He remained under the control of his parents, living at home and working for his father. When he was a middle-aged man, his father had a stroke.)
“Your husband had a major stroke but I think he’ll survive. He will require constant care,” the doctor explained.
I put my arm around Mom. “We can do that, can’t we, Mom?” My grip tightened around her frail shoulders. “It’s the least we can do for Dad after all he’s done for us.”
“I suppose so.” She glanced at me and then the doctor. “Yes, I suppose we must.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. Nothing bad’s happened. Just a little stroke.” I plastered a smile on my face. “Dad will get his reward while he’s still on this earth. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Mom had that scared, little animal look in her eyes, just before she usually said something incredibly stupid. This time she couldn’t make anything come out.
“Of course, you can have home care. We have a practical nurse team that will help you out. Someone will come out every day,” the doctor explained.
It turned out to be the same nurse every day. Exactly at six o’clock every evening she knocked on the door. I had just come in from a plumbing job smelling none too nice so I just looked inside my parents’ bedroom.
The nurse smiled at me like I was an old friend called out, “Hello, Eddie.”
How she knew my name I couldn’t figure out. Even our customers just referred to me as George’s son. One afternoon she came out into the hall to give me a hug and acted like my smell did not bother her at all. The caress felt familiar. Her scent brought back pleasant feelings. I could not place them. That would require emotions I had not used in years. When it was time for her to leave, I walked the nurse to the door. It seemed to be the right thing to do.
She smiled and pulled out her business card. “My name is Floey. If anything comes up call me at home.”
I noticed she had dimples. After that I made an effort to come home about five so I could take a shower before she arrived. I joined them in my father’s room. Most of the time Floey was chatting cheerfully with my mother.
“I’ve been thinking,” I began, “my bedroom is bigger than this one and has much more light. The front window is huge and lets in so much sun.”
Mom’s eyes widened. “Oh no. That’s your room.”
“You and Dad need it more than me.” I tried to say it sympathetically but failed.
“Oh, that would be so much better for your husband’s recovery,” Floey said as she stood, came to my side and patted my shoulder. “That’s so nice of you.”
“No, no,” Mom weakly repeated.
“Nonsense,” Floey said. “I can have someone in here tomorrow to change out the furniture and move your husband.” The nurse gave me a hug.
Again I smelled her cologne which was like an inviting door to happier times in days long ago.
“You have such a wonderful son,” she told my mother.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said as I walked her to the door. She waited for a response but I remained soundless. “We used to go to school together,” she explained. “You wrote those wonderfully sad stories.”
I laughed, ducking my head. “Don’t say that too loud. My parents always hated my stories.”
“I can’t believe that.” A shadow crossed Floey’s face before she smiled again. “And I had you and your father come by my house to fix leaks all the time.”
For the first time in years a genuine smile broke out on my face. “And you gave me a hug every time.” After a pause I added, “And you gave me a hug one day in school. After the class laughed at my story. Thank you. I should have said something back then, but I was so upset that day.”
“I know. I understood.”
As I remained in the front door and watched her drive away I felt emotions I had not felt since grandma died, and I didn’t know what to do with them. Just as grandma’s bedroom reeked of desolation, Floey’s scent spoke of contentment.
One night as we sat by Dad’s bedside, I asked, “Mom, don’t you think Floey is nice?
“Yes, she is so sweet to your father.” She giggled nervously. “You think she’s nice too, don’t you?”
“Yes, everything is nice now.” Again I found myself having a hard time sounding sincere. “Like you’ve always said. Everything is so nice. Nice nurse. Nice house.”
Floey came every day of the week. That was not normal, but was comforting because we did not have to get used to someone else on weekends. One Sunday afternoon while Floey tended to my father, she told me that the clinic’s financial office somehow had deleted from its file my father’s Social Security and Medicare information.
“Do you have that somewhere?” she asked my mother.
I knew exactly where they kept their important papers. In a drawer of a desk in the hallway. “I know.” I was up and out the door as I heard my mother behind me.
“No! Let me get it! You might get lost,” she sputtered.
“Get lost? Oh, ma’am, you say the funniest things!” Floey said with a giggle.
Opening the drawer, I saw the Social Security and Medicare cards on top of a large envelope from the lawyer’s office. My mother’s protest, as silly as it was, echoed in my mind. Every time I had opened the desk drawer, she was by my side and had nervously pointed to whatever we were looking for. She always slammed the drawer shut as soon as my hands pulled out. That odor which had haunted me all those years returned.
Opening the envelope I saw my grandmother’s Last Will and Testament. I scanned it quickly. Then I saw what my mother hid from me.
“I leave all my earthly possessions, including my home, to my loving grandson, Edward….”
Dad said the house was his, and I should be grateful he was letting me stay in it. The odor intensified as my thoughts coalesced around the frightening truth. The hulking figure in my dream was my father. He had pretended to be some awful intruder when he came through the window. Grandma struggled. The lamp caught her on fire. Dad killed his own mother so he could have her house, but the guilt kept him from wanting to sleep in her bedroom. My mother knew all the time but she made me think I was the crazy one for having all those nightmares.
I walked back to Grandma’s bedroom with the insurance cards in one hand and the will in the other. Floey took the cards.
“I’ll return these tomorrow after I make photocopies for the office,” she chirped. When I did not reply, she mumbled, “I suppose I should go now.” She gathered her things.
My habit was to escort Floey to the door. I just stood there staring at my mother as Floey left. Mom’s eyes widened with fear.
I waved the will in her face. “Why did you keep this from me?” Each word exploded with anger and frustration.
“I don’t know what that is.”
“Yes, you do.” I thrust it so close it almost touched her nose. “It’s the will. This house belongs to me.”
“Oh, you can’t believe anything you read,” she replied, trying to sound nonchalant.
“Why did you let Dad kill Grandma?”
Animal-like fear enter her eyes and I waited for a fraught irrational explanation.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t know your father then. You’re being a silly little boy. You always have been. I didn’t even know your grandmother. I think that nurse is putting ideas in your head. She’s the one who wants this house. I never liked this house. I….” Her voice trailed off as her eyes filled with tears.
Mom’s expansive absurdity was no longer tolerable; in fact, it enraged me. All my life was spent trying to make sense of what she said and to find logical responses. There was no intelligence in her eyes. Never had been.
“You know you can be charged with being an accessory to murder?” I watched her mouth open. “Don’t bother. I don’t want to hear anything else stupid from you.” My attention moved on to my father who was snoring.
Moving to his side of the bed, I closed his mouth with one hand and pinched his nostrils shut with my fingers. His head twitched and his eyes opened. Yes, inside that inanimate body still lived a brain. He knew what was going on. Removing my hands from his face, I held the will before his face.
“You know what this is, don’t you, Dad? This is Grandma’s will. This is my house, not yours.”
Tears filled his eyes. He knew he was totally helpless, no way to lash out in anger. He expected me to unleash the same kind of violence on him that he had used to torture us. For the first time in his life he experienced fear. His cheeks flushed.
“Now what am I going to do with the two of you?” I asked in a voice one would use with a naughty child.
Before I answered my own question, I heard the front door open.
“I left something here, I think,” Floey said as she entered Grandma’s bedroom. She stopped short when she saw the three of us, each paralyzed by our own unique form of despair. “Ah, there you are.” She took me by the hand and led me out to the porch. “Now there, doesn’t it feel better in the fresh air?’
“Did you know?” I could not say any more.
“I know you are the most tortured man I have ever known. And, whatever caused it, you don’t deserve it.”
The wicked smell finally went away, never to return. For the first time since Grandma died I cried. I could not stop crying. Floey took me in her arms. I had not felt so protected since the days when Grandma hugged me. Just feeling safe made me cry even more.
“You don’t have to live in this house, you know,” she whispered. After caressing my back for a while, she continued. “I have loved you since we were children. You don’t have to love me. I just want you to be happy.”
I did not know what to say. Just cry. Nothing came from my mouth. After a moment I recognized her fragrance.
Jasmine or lilacs.
Love–warm, safe and free from anger and hatred—surrounded me.

Toby Chapter Twelve

Previously in novel: Farm boy Harley Sadler made good on his promise to his in-laws to make Billie the star of his traveling tent show. Along the way he also helped out farmers stung by the Depression and was approached by politicians to run for the Texas Legislature. At the same time Billie began to sink into alcoholism.

Harley pulled his little Chevy coupe into a downtown alley leading to the back door of the First State Bank. It was dark, far away from the lamppost-lit main street, which, at this hour of the early morning, was deserted. No one wanted to take any chances that prying eyes could spy a prosperous businessman entering the bank for a game of poker.
Sam and Harley sat in the inky black shadows of the alley waiting for a second floor shutter to blink at them. They flashed their headlights, and the blinds unperceptively shook, a final signal all was clear. They sneaked from their car, slipped through the recently unlocked back door and felt their way up the dark back stairwell.
Once they were on the second floor, Harley and Sam noticed one door down the hall was ajar, letting a dim light seep out. As they walked closer, Harley could detect a low grumbling of raspy male voices. When he opened the door a low chorus of greetings barely ruffled the silent conspiracy of illegal gambling. A pall of cigarette smoke provided the final layer of impropriety.
“Well, it’s about time. We was about to give up on you.” The speaker wore an impressive suede leather jacket and blue serge slacks. Any casual observer would have taken him as one of the local bankers. But his burnt tan line across the middle of his forehead revealed him as a prosperous rancher, equally wealthy to any lawyer or banker.
“Never write me off,” Harley said with an impish grin as he sat next to the suede coat rancher. “Wherever there’s a poke game Harley Sadler’s sure to be in it!”
Patiently waiting to be dealt in, Harley explained, “No, the reason I was late was because I was approached to run for the legislature.”
“Toby in the Ledge!” the rancher guffawed as he examined his cards. On his right hand, he sported a pinky ring of white gold and a diamond large enough to turn any new bride pea-green with envy.
“Enough about the Ledge, gentlemen,” Sam announced. “Let’s play some poker. I’ve been waiting for this all evening.”
The dealer was the only man at the table except for Harley and Sam who was not a rancher. He was a banker. They were in his building. And if anyone needed quick money to continue in the game he was the man who supplied the loan at an interest rate as illegal as the game itself.
“So you think that’s what folks would think?” Harley asked as he studied his cards. “It was Toby running for the legislature?”
“You can’t blame them,” another rancher at the table piped up. “All they know about you is that you’re Toby.”
“Aww, don’t pay attention to him,” the banker said. “Of course, they’d know it was Harley. Harley and Toby, that is.”
Across town in the hotel room, Billie stretched out on a bed, and Sue collapsed in an easy chair, pouring each of them a shot of whiskey.
“Well, Billie, here’s to your cold.”
She reached over to take the glass. “Thanks.” As she gurgled it she tried to say, “It’s getting worse every minute.” Billie swallowed hard and paused to consider her thoughts. “I don’t really mind if Harley plays poker.”
“Who said you did?” Sue asked. “The man knows how to win, and—more important—when to quit.”
“No,” Billie replied, furrowing her brow. “I mean I don’t mind being left alone like this when he plays poker. I know he does it to raise money for the show.”
“And we’ll need lots of it for that show in Dallas.” She shook her head and muttered, “A serious drama about the Alamo.”
“We’ve never done anything like it.” Billie’s tone betrayed her feelings about the financially risky venture.
“I hope Harley knows what he’s doing,” Sue replied.
“Harley always knows what he’s doing.”
“Like running for the legislature?” Sue was beginning to sound like a state district attorney.
“Oh. That.” Billie extended her glass. “I want more.”
“Sure.” Sue filled it. After pouring herself more, she leaned back to study her glass. “I’ve always wanted to ask you something.”
“What’s that?”
“What do you think about Harley giving away all your money?” Her voice was soft and serious.
“Not all of it.”
“Close enough.”
“Well.” She paused for another sip of whiskey. “The way I look at it, it wouldn’t be Harley if he didn’t help folks out. I love him just the way he is.”

Cancer Chronicles


We were sitting on the bedroom floor looking into the bathroom. I set the time on my camera then jumped back to hug Janet and smile before the shutter clicked.
I should have taken time to shave and shove my hair out of my eyes, but I looked kinda like the dog, Shag Nasty. Janet didn’t seem to mind.
I think I like this picture so much because all three of us were young, happy and didn’t have the faintest idea about what was ahead for us.
A few years later, Shag developed a tumor. After the operation to have it removed, he felt like a puppy again. When he was about fifteen the tumor came back. Not only was he deaf and blind, Shag could not stand on his own. His quality of life was not good. We hated to let him go, but Janet and I decided ending his pain was best.
When Janet had gone through the chemotherapy, double mastectomy and radiation, she felt better too and thought she was given a few more years. But the cancer just spread to her brain. More radiation was planned but the doctor said the mass was growing so fast her chances surviving were non-existent. He recommended transferring Janet to Hospice and putting her on medication to relax her body and let her go. Thank God I didn’t have to make a decision to pull a plug. Agreeing to Hospice was bad enough.
I’m the only one left in the picture and this is the lesson I learned from Janet and Shag Nasty: enjoy life to the fullest for as long as you have it. And when it’s time to leave, just relax and let go.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Three

(Previously in the novel: Private Adam Christy guides President and Mrs. Lincoln down the backstairs to the basement where they will spend the rest of the war. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton claims he can end the war faster that way.)

Large, rusty iron traps clanged against each other in Gabby Zook’s big rough hands as he lumbered down the hall of the Executive Mansion basement, muttering to himself.
“Got to find the rats; can’t have rats in the White House. Not around the president and his lady. No, that wouldn’t be proper. No, it wouldn’t be right to have rats in the White House, not when there’s a war going on; not when no war’s going on, either. Rats in the White House aren’t proper any time.”
Sticking his gray-haired head in the door of the main kitchen, Gabby asked, “Seen any rats in here, Miss Phebe?”
“No, sir, Mr. Gabby.” A tall, dark brown young woman looked up from the massive cast-iron stove set into the left wall.” She flashed a toothy, friendly grin. “We keep those critters chased out of here.”
“Yeah, we chop them up and feed them to the white folks upstairs,” said a short, slender, caramel-colored man in his thirties as he walked up with a basket of carrots, tomatoes, and onions.
“The president eats rats?” Gabby’s eyes widened.
“Oh, Neal, don’t tease Mr. Gabby.” Phebe lightly slapped the shoulder of her companion in the kitchen and laughed.
“What does rat taste like?” Gabby said, his eyes squinted in curiosity.
“Chicken.” Neal smiled broadly.
“Mr. Gabby, Neal is pulling your leg.” Phebe shook her head in amusement. “Now, you pay him no mind. No white folks eat rat in the White House, or any other house.” She glanced at Neal. “Tell him straight that folks don’t eat rat.”
“That’s right, Mr. Gabby,” Neal said. “Nobody eats rats, unless they’re real hungry and don’t have nothing else to eat.”
“And there’s plenty of good stuff to eat in the White House.” Gabby nodded.
“Plenty of good stuff here, Mr. Gabby,” Neal said, putting the basket filled with vegetables on a rough chopping block table next to the stove. He looked at Phebe. “Are they eating here before they return to the Soldiers’ Home tonight?”
“Nope,” she replied, pulling the bunch of carrots from the basket. “So we’re just cooking for the staff. Mr. McManus has a taste for pork chops.”
Neal is in love, Gabby told himself as he watched the black man look at Phebe. Yep, he had seen people fall in love many times in the close to fifty years he had been on this earth, and it was easy to tell when a man was smitten. Gabby prided himself on observing people’s eyes, which told him much, and he recognized the extra attention Neal paid to Phebe’s form, her hair, the way her slender hands moved quickly and efficiently to peel and dice the carrots. He knew the young man was trying to hide his infatuation, but the eyes never lie, especially when there was a smart brain behind them. Yes, young Neal was smart. Gabby could always tell a smart person because he himself was smart. Not too many people knew that, but deep in his heart, Gabby knew he was smart.
“Aw, don’t I have time for a nice cup of hot, black coffee before I go get the white folks’ chops?” Neal sat on the edge of the chopping block table.
“You keep talking like that, and Mrs. Lincoln’s likely to chop your head off.”
“Well, I wouldn’t want the queen to order a beheading.” Neal stood.
“Mrs. Lincoln is a queen?” Gabby’s face scrunched up in befuddlement.
“She thinks she is,” Neal said with a snigger.
“How can she be a queen if Mr. Lincoln is president?” Gabby tried to sort this out. “For Mrs. Lincoln to be a queen, Mr. Lincoln would have to be a king, and he’s not a king because he was elected, and kings aren’t elected, they’re just born that way.”
“That’s right, Mr. Gabby,” Neal agreed, “just like you’re just born the way you are.”
“Neal,” Phebe said, shaking her head in mild rebuke.
“But you called her a queen…”
“Neal was joking.” Phebe stopped chopping and turned to Gabby. “Mrs. Lincoln is not a queen. Nobody thinks she’s a queen. And Mrs. Lincoln would be hopping mad if anybody was fool enough to call her a queen to her face.”
“Oh,” Gabby said, subdued because he felt he may have made her mad at him. He liked Phebe very much and would not do anything to keep her from being his friend.
“Neal likes to joke. He’s a big joker. If he says something that doesn’t sound right, like folks eating rats or Mrs. Lincoln being a queen, you have to tell yourself, why, that joker Neal is telling another one of his tales, and you just laugh at it.”
“Yes, ma’am, Miss Phebe,” Gabby said. “I’m sorry.”
“You didn’t do anything to be sorry for,” Neal offered.
“And, land of Goshen, don’t call me ma’am,” Phebe said, a bit irritated. “I’m just a n****r who works in the kitchen.”
“You’re not on a plantation anymore.” Neal wrinkled his brow. “You don’t have to call yourself that name anymore.”
“That’s what I am.” Phebe resumed her chopping, concentrating her gaze on the rough wood table.
“Mr. Gabby,” Neal said with a smile. “You and me got to teach this young lady a lesson about herself, don’t you think?”
“This isn’t a joke, is it?” Gabby eyed him carefully. “You really want me to help?”
“No joke. I want your help.”
“Well, I’ve done a lot of thinking about this all my life.” Gabby cleared his throat and stepped forward hesitantly. “I think it’s all kind of silly.”
“What’s kind of silly, Mr. Gabby?” Phebe looked up and forced a smile.
“That name. N****r.” Gabby spoke the dreaded epithet with so much innocence that the two young African-Americans standing before him relaxed, their eyes widening slightly, willing to take in what the man with the rat traps was about to say.
“It’s a lazy way of saying Negro, which means black. I don’t know why people have to be lazy in the way they say words, but they are, and there’s nothing we can do about it, but it still doesn’t make it right.”
“No, it doesn’t,” Neal interjected.
“Even if they did say it right, it still wouldn’t be right. No, it still wouldn’t be right; do you want to know why it wouldn’t be right? Well, I’ll tell you why it still wouldn’t be right. It still wouldn’t be right because you’re not black.”
“Not black,” Neal blankly repeated.
“Black is absence of all color, of all light. And you have color in your skin, so you can’t be black.” Gabby extended his hand to touch Neal’s face. “Now you, Neal, you’re more of—of coffee with a whole caboodle of milk in it.” He squinted as he lightly poked the freckles on the young man’s cheeks. “With little speckles of nutmeg floating on top. Although I don’t know why there’d be speckles of nutmeg in coffee. You put nutmeg on eggnog, and you’re definitely not eggnog.”
“Yeah, I’d rather be coffee than eggnog any day of the week.”
Gabby turned his attention to Phebe, who took a small step back, but that did not stop him from laying his full palm against her tender, smooth cheek.
“And you’re deep, rich coffee without a drop of anything else in it. No milk, no nutmeg, nothing but pure, dark coffee.” He slowly pulled his hand away, his eyes filled with child-like curiosity. “Your family doesn’t have any white people in it, does it?”
“What?” Phebe shook her head.
“Oh, Mama told me and Cordie all about slavery. Cordie’s my sister. Mama told us how bad slavery is.”
“So you think you know all about it?” Cynicism licked the edges of Neal’s question.
“Oh no.” Gabby vigorously wagged his head. “I don’t know everything about anything. Nobody knows everything about anything. The smart man is the man who knows he doesn’t know everything. Socrates said that. Or was it Plato?”
“So what do you know about slavery?” Neal crossed his arms over his chest.
“Mama said plantation white people would make babies with slaves anytime they wanted, because they were the white people, and they thought they could make the black slaves do anything they want.” Gabby looked at Phebe again. “It looks like no white people came into your family’s cabin.” He then studied Neal. “You got a whole bunch of white people in you.”
“Now, there’s no need to be nasty.” Neal laughed.
“You’re joking now, aren’t you?” Gabby asked.
“Yeah, I’m joking.”
“Mr. Gabby,” Phebe said as she cleared her throat. “I think I saw some rats this morning across the hall in the furnace room.”
“And there’s rat shit in the billiards room,” Neal added.
“That’s very funny.” Gabby laughed.
“What’s funny about rat shit?” Neal asked.
“What a joker you are.” Gabby laughed again.
“Mr. Gabby, Neal isn’t joking this time. There really are rat droppings in the billiards room. That means there are rats in there.”
“Oh.” Gabby stopped laughing, turned abruptly, and left the kitchen, going directly to the furnace room.

James Brown’s Favorite Uncle The Hal Neely Story Chapter Eleven

Previously in the book: Midwesterner Hal Neely tore up the big band circuit, joined the Army during World II, got his degrees from USC and launched himself into the record industry where he met loud and crude producer Syd Nathan.

Shortly after their initial meeting, Nathan hired Neely to update King’s dilapidated factory. The first phase was changing from the 78 RPM format to 45 RPM. The old format was still popular in the hillbilly and R&B markets because many of the customers still used hand-cranked players which only used 78 RPM. However, Nathan wanted to convert to the new format not only because it would give him additional sales but would also give him access to placing hits on the pop charts.10
Forty-fives were becoming the state-of-the-art in sound fidelity and the preferred choice of those buyers who had money to spend on them. Hence, music released on 45 RPMs had a better chance to place on the popular charts.
Evolving technology notwithstanding, there was the ultimate financial decision to move to the smaller 45s. RCA Victor introduced 45s on seven-inch vinyl discs which could hold as much sound as the 12-inch 78 RPMs.11 Less material—lower cost, another factor that the always penurious Nathan surely considered.
In December of 1950 King Records produced “Sixty Minute Man” by Billy Ward and His Dominoes. It became the first crossover hit from the rhythm and blues charts to Billboard’s pop charts. What ensured the success of “Sixty Minute Man” was the outrage spawned by the suggestive lyrics. Many radio stations around the country refused to play it, making it the biggest R&B hit of 1951 and probably the biggest R&B record of the first half of the 1950s. It sold mostly to white teenagers who were in their Rebel Without a Cause phase. It also reached No. 17 on the pop charts. Critics said “Sixty Minute Man” went too far with its lyrics about a “mighty, mighty man” known as “lovin’ Dan” with “kissing,” “teasing,” “squeezing,” and “blowing my top.”12
This success actually occurred on the Federal label which King had just created to act as a subsidiary for mostly R&B, jazz, and blues artists discovered by King’s newest artist representative, Ralph Bass. Bass originally worked for Black and White Records during the time of Jack McVea’s hit “Open the Door, Richard.”
Bass, born in 1911 in New York, was a white man of mixed Jewish-Italian ancestry who said he blurred the ethnic line with ease.13 He described himself as a “jive-talking wheeler-dealer, half artist and half con artist.” He was the key operator at Federal Records from 1951 to 1958. Besides Black and White Records, Bass worked with other labels such as Bop, Portrait and Savoy.
“Look, babe, I am in black music,” Bass said in a 1984 interview. “Being white, I had a lot to overcome to gain the confidence of blacks so they would accept me as being for real, not just a jive cat who was gonna take advantage of them. I had to learn the language all over again. I didn’t really become a different person, but I acclimated myself to what was happening with blacks in the South.”
Bass was introduced to Syd Nathan by Ben Bart of the booking agency Universal Attractions.
“I wanted to quit Savoy so bad, but I couldn’t afford to,” Bass said. Nathan offered him a generous financial deal, so Bass moved to Cincinnati. “I was going from the frying pan into the fire.”14
After the success of the Dominoes, Bass acquired Hank Ballard and the Midnighters, a Detroit vocal group discovered by King’s Detroit branch manager, Jim Wilson. Bass and his group recorded several songs in 1952 and 1953 which received mediocre reception. However, in 1954, within days of release “Work with Me, Annie” went to No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, mostly because, like “Sixty Minute Man,” it had so-called “dirty leerics.”15
“Annie, please don’t cheat
Give me all my meat
Oh, ooooooh, weeeee
So good to me
Work with me, Annie…”16
Ballard and the Midnighters followed up their success within three months with “Annie Had A Baby.”17
“Now I know, and it’s understood
That’s what happens when the gettin’ gets good
Annie had a baby…”18
King followed up these hits with other songs with sexual innuendo, such as “Keep On Churnin’” by Wynonie Harris, “Big Ten Inch Record” by Bullmoose Jackson and “My Ding-a-ling” by Dave Bartholomew. Eventually King compiled all the records together in one album called “Risky Blues.” Despite the financial success of these records, King came under attack in an editorial called “A Warning to the Music Business” in none other than Billboard Magazine.19
“What are we talking about? We’re talking about rock ‘n roll, about ‘hug’ and ‘squeeze’ and kindred euphemisms which are attempting a total breakdown of all reticence about sex. In the past such material was common enough but restricted to special places and out-and-out barrelhouses. Today’s ‘leerics’ are offered as standard popular music for general consumption by teenagers. Our teenagers are already setting something of a record in delinquency with this raw material idiom to smell up the environment still more.”20
The Billboard editorial unleashed a torrent of other criticisms, such as comments by Los Angeles disc jockey Peter Potter who said, “All rhythm and blues records are dirty and as bad for kids as dope.”
Another disc jockey, Zeke Manners, opined that Potter’s comments were extreme but did discount the modern music as a fad. “The R&B following is limited to teenagers, white as well as colored, and to listeners that are musically immature. I don’t even say that it does any harm, but it is merely a passing craze with the kids of all races. And what do kids buy? Nothing but rhythm and blues records.”21
In reaction to the editorial and comments by disc jockeys, John S. Kelly, vice president and general manager of King, submitted the following letter for the next issue of Billboard Magazine:
We know that we are not without guilt in having in the past allowed some double-entendre tunes to reach the public, but I can assure you there will be no repetition. Several months ago we took definite steps to eliminate the possibility of objectionable material being recorded by or for our A&R (artist and repetoire) men on our three labels, King, Federal and Deluxe, by writing to them as follows:
‘We do not need dirt or smut to write a song. Imagination, newness of ideas, hard work to generate original new sounds, lyrics, and tunes will do the job all the time. This is just a reminder that we will never relent again and allow any off-color lyrics. If any of you record such material you, yourself, will have to pay for that part of the session that will be thrown out because of improper lyrics. Our policy is definitely established and that policy is to reject a tune if, in our opinion, it is unsuitable for the teenage group, who today are heavy buyers of R&B, as well as pop releases. We know that at times there will be a difference of opinion as to whether a given word or phrase measures up to our good intentions, but I believe you will agree that we in this company are sincerely trying to abolish the objectionable songs.’”22
Ralph Bass, in a 1994 interview, said he never recalled receiving a copy of the memo. “I was in Los Angeles, living there again and running the branch office. All of a sudden, white kids were buying black records for the first time.” A television interviewer wanted Bass to come on his show to talk to a politician, a woman with her 11-year-old daughter and the head of the PTA. “So I got on the show and I said, ‘Look, when it comes to something where white people don’t understand the language used, they immediately think in the worst terms. They don’t think in humorous terms, they just think it’s nasty.” Bass asked the little girl if she liked “Work With Me Annie” and she said yes because she “liked the beat.”23
King’s Detroit branch manager Jim Wilson, who had brought Hank Ballard to King’s attention in the first place, said he “believed that (dirty lyric) music helped younger whites to pass up some of the prejudices held by their parents.”24
Music historians pointed out King vice president Kelley was clever in his statement to leave an escape clause for the company which would excuse an occasional slip-up. His exemptions left the door open for King to release the often-controversial lyrics of hits by James Brown who was just about to hit the national scene. 25


10 Powers, Brian, History of King Records, Public Library of Cincinnati.
11 History of the Gramophone Record,
12 Powers, Brian, History of King Records, Public Library of Cincinnati.
13 King of the Queen City, 87.
14 Ibid., 88.
15 Powers, Brian, History of King Records, Public Library of Cincinnati.
16 King of the Queen City, 92-93.
17 Powers, Brian, History of King Records, Public Library of Cincinnati.
18 Ibid.
19 Ibid.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 King of the Queen City, 91.
24 Brian Powers.
25 Ibid.

(Author’s note: This chapter contains my research. Chapters in italics are in Mr. Neely’s own words and may not conform to what I found.)

Grandma’s Bedroom, Part Two

(Author’s Note: The boy was in Grandma’s bedroom when she died in a fire. Now he has to sleep in the room where Grandma died.)

Each night the stench kept me awake until my numb brain passed out from the fatigue of the day. I awoke the next morning, hoping, praying that the odor would fade. My nostrils flared. Nothing changed.
As much as I tried to convince my parents I could not sleep in that room, they said, “No, you have to. It’s what Grandma would have wanted.”
“Please come in here.” Pulling on Mom’s arm, I strained to drag her into the room. Smell it. It stinks. If you realized how much it stinks you’d understand.”
“”I’ve got house cleaning,” she replied. “I’m too busy for your foolishness.” She was so adamant about staying out of the room that she asserted it was time I learned to clean it myself. “It’s not that hard,” she said. “Just a little sweeping, and dusting. A mop every now and then.”
Dad, on the other hand, willingly marched into the room, sniffed a couple of times with his head held high and proclaimed, “I don’t smell a damned thing.” He wagged a finger in my face. “Don’t you know most boys would give their eye teeth for a room like this all to themselves?”
I didn’t mention it again. I began sweeping, dusting and changing the sheets. When Mom walked past the door, I always managed a smile. Although in my sleep I began having nightmares. . Bad dreams. The fiery ball. A hulking figure silhouetted against the flames. Each episode ended with a scream. I jumped from bed and ran to the door. Mom would stop me and hold me until the terrified gaze left my eyes and I awoke.
“Go on to bed now,” she whispered. “It’s over, and there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Do about what?”
“The nightmare, of course.”
She never asked what the dream was about. I think she knew but did not want to talk about it. I knew better than to talk to Dad about the nightmares. I knew better than to talk to Dad about anything. Over the years the fiery ball began to take a shape. I realized it was not a ball but more an elongated shape. I no longer was afraid of it. I felt sorry for it. I think I loved it. The hulking figure kept me from the thing I loved. Frustration and anger welled up inside like I was going to explode.
In high school I discovered if I wrote about the fire, the pain, the anger and death, the nightmares were less frequent but still bad. I learned how to write different stories but basically they were about the same images. Perhaps I should have written something happy and funny but never did. When I read my stories aloud in class, the students laughed.
The teacher told them, “Eddie’s sharing something very personal. It takes a lot of courage for someone to expose his soul like that. Only a true writer can do that. Never laugh at true talent.”
After class one girl gave me a quick hug. She smelled of something from the past. Flowers. Exactly which kind I couldn’t remember. She smiled. She had dimples. Before I could say anything, she moved on through the crowded hall. I was so upset by being laughed at, I didn’t ask her name. Eventually I noticed she always sat a seat or two away from me in the cafeteria and found some reason to ask me for the salt or something.
My English teacher said I had a knack for fiction. She called my parents to come to school for a conference. As I sat there I could not help but smile when she told showed them my papers and encouraged them to send me off to a good university to study writing.
“Mind your own damned business,” Dad growled at her. “College is for rich kids, and we’re poor as snot. Besides I need him in the plumbing business. I’m gettin’ older and can’t crawl around under houses like I used to.”
After we returned home Dad got in my face to scowl at me. “Don’t you ever write stories like that again. And get those ideas of college out of your head.”
“I always thought it would be fun to crawl around under houses,” Mom said with a smile as she nodded. “You never know what you’ll find down there. You’re lucky. Your dad would never let me help him with his work.” She shrugged. “Women aren’t good at any work like that. Oh well.”
Dad still scared me, even though I was grown up enough to take care of myself. I looked down and shuffled my feet. “What if I want to set up on my own—you know, get married?”
Mom laughed, but it sounded more like a meadowlark’s song. ”Oh, George, he thinks he wants to get married! Isn’t that sweet?”
Getting back in my face, Dad sneered. “And what woman would want to marry a man with that nasty scar on his face and who screams like a little girl in his sleep?”
Maybe if Grandma had lived, she would have given me the confidence to tell Dad off.
“I’m going to do what I want to,” I should have said. “Even if it took me ten years going to get through college part-time I was going to become a writer. And there was nothing he could do about it!”
But Grandma was not there. And the smell in my bedroom doomed me to say nothing. Bowing my head I submitted to his demands and after high school I joined him in the plumbing business. I went under houses, crawling through muddy sludge to fix plumbing.
Years went by. Customers took me aside and confided that I was a better plumber than my father ever could be. If I could not be a writer, at least I was a good plumber. I never did marry. I did notice that there was a young woman who called us to fix a pipe every few months. She always gave me a hug when we finished. Maybe she liked me. I never found out for sure. How could I marry a girl if I could not make myself look into her eyes?
After a while, my hair turned gray. My knees began to ache when I knelt to fix pipes. Notions of love, marriage and having children faded away. Once in a while, lying in my bed waiting to drift into numb slumber, I remembered what Grandma said about laughing.
“There should always be something to chuckle about. Or else what’s the use of living?”
Even her advice lost its charm. Dreams faded away also. Only once in a while, when a full moon shown through the bedroom window, did the images return. One night I actually saw the looming figure heave Grandma’s burning body through the window.
I reflexively sat up, leaned forward and strained to make out the features on the man’s face. It was my father. Ever angry. Ever filled with hate. All the frustration of not living the life he thought he deserved. It was in his face, lit by the fire. I ran for Grandma, but he pulled me back. I remembered now. The stench of his unbathed body. He pulled me away. He kept me from saving Grandma’s life. Now I knew. The bedroom stench was not the kerosene-fed fire. It was not the new coat of paint. It was my father. It was vestiges of human excrement he refused to bathe away. The testament of his hate and violence.
At that moment, a scream jolted me from my dream. I ran to my parents’ bedroom. Mom stood over Dad who was sprawled on the floor.
“Do something, Eddie! Do something! I don’t know what to do! I don’t know what to do!”
I turned and with deliberation walked to the telephone and called for an ambulance. Here it was almost thirty years later, and an ambulance came to the house again. This time I remembered every detail. My father was still breathing as the attendants loaded him on a stretcher. Mom collapsed in hysteria. And I was completely indifferent to the pain and hysteria. Cold. There was a god. He finally brought down his terrible sword of vengeance. Mom and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. We sat in the emergency waiting room. We stood when the doctor came out.
“Your husband had a major stroke but I think he’ll survive. He will require constant care,” he explained.
I put my arm around Mom. “We can do that, can’t we, Mom?” My grip tightened around her frail shoulders. “It’s the least we can do for Dad after all he’s done for us.”
“I suppose so.” She glanced at me and then the doctor. “Yes, I suppose we must.”
“Don’t worry, Mom. Nothing bad’s happened. Just a little stroke.” I plastered a smile on my face. “Dad will get his reward while he’s still on this earth. Isn’t that wonderful?”
Mom had that scared, little animal look in her eyes, just before she usually said something incredibly stupid. This time she couldn’t make anything come out.
“Of course, you can have home care. We have a practical nurse team that will help you out. Someone will come out every day,” the doctor explained.

Toby Chapter Eleven

(Previously in the novel: Harley Sadler’s traveling show chugs along in West Texas during the Great Depression, helping as many cash-strapped farmers as possible.)

Only a few fans lingered outside the tent waiting for the performers to emerge. Finally Billie, Harley and the others ambled out, and the faithful few rushed them for autographs and to shake hands. Harley beamed with each encounter. As the last one left, he turned to Sam.
“Good audience tonight, don’t you think?”
Before he could reply, a large rotund man with a sweaty red face stepped out of the shadows and approached them with a big smile and an extended hand.
“Excuse me, Mr. Sadler, I hate to bother you, but I have a question for you.”
“Call me Harley.” He shook the man’s hand vigorously.
“Thanks. I’m Burford Jones from Sweet water.”
“I thought you looked familiar.” He reached out for Billie to join him. “Honey, we had homefolk in the audience tonight.”
“How nice to meet you, Mr. Jones.” Billie smiled and extended her hand.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Now what can we do for you, Burford?” Harley asked.
“”Well, Harley, I’m from the Democratic Party in Sweetwater, and the boys think you’d be the perfect candidate for the state legislature next year.”
Billie exploded in laughter. No demure, ladylike laugh, but a full throated boisterous guffaw, which coming from any other lady could have been interpreted as rude and boorish.
“Don’t laugh, Mama.” Gloria elbowed her mother to straighten her up. “I think Daddy would be wonderful for the job.”
“Well, I don’t know.” Harley wrinkled his brow.
“Have you ever given thought to anything like this before?” Burford asked.
“No, he hasn’t,” Billie answered for him.
Burford focused on his prey. “Harley?”
“No, I guess not.” He glanced at his wife. “At least not now. We’re taking a show to Dallas for the Texas Centennial celebration.”
“Great!” Burford beamed. “That’d work into the campaign.”
“Harley said no.” Billie spoke in a tone that could end any conversation.
“Billie’s right,” Harley conceded. “Maybe some other time.”
“I’ll keep you to that.” Burford shook his hand and nodded curtly to Billie. “Ma’am.”
After he walked away, Harley leaned into Billie to whisper, “You weren’t very nice to the man, dear.”
“Oh, I don’t care.” She tried to smile. “I could just see you being on the road with the show and the rest of the time in Austin.”
He put his arm around her. “You’d come with me.”
“But we have a home in Sweetwater.” She paused, shaking off the idea. “Anyway, it’s going to be wonderful to rest tonight with the whole family.”
Gloria came up on Billie’s other side. “But, Mama, don’t you remember? Louise and I are spending the night together.”
“And Sam and I got to go to a –ah—game,” Harley interrupted with a nervous cough. “You know, to try to get some investors for the Siege of the Alamo in Dallas.”
Billie turned to her mother Lou. “Mama, will you sit up and talk with me?”
“Oh no, dear,” she replied with a stifled yawn. “I’ve got to go straight to bed.”
Sue stepped closer and put her arm around Billie’s shoulders which seemed to slump more with each rejection. “I tell what. Why don’t we have some girl talk? We can have our own little party.”
“Thank you, Sue,” Billie replied with a smile. “I’d like that.”
“We’d better hurry up, Harley,” Sam said. “That group of cattlemen gets antsy if they have to wait too long.”
Harley smiled at Billie. “We’ll try to make it a short evening, dear.”
“Harley,” Lou said stepping up to her son-in-law. “Go ahead and drop me off at the hotel. Billie pokes along too slow.
He looked down and shuffled his feet in a classic maneuver all his fans recognized but they all knew it didn’t work.
“Mama Lou, I’d love to, but we’re already late—“
“Please,” Lou used her best pathetic old woman voice. Billie and Gloria rolled their eyes each time she resorted to it.
“Oh, all right.” Harley could not resist his mother-in-law. After all, she was the first in Billie’s family who accepted the runaway wedding.
Harley kissed Billie on the lips. “Good night, dear!”
Billie hardly reacted, but Gloria ran to him and practically jumped into his arms. “Good night Daddy.” She smiled mischievously. “Do you worship and adore me?”
“I worship and adore you,” he whispered as he snuggled her neck.
Billie watched as Harley. Lou and Sam disappeared into the shadows. Hearing the engine of his car rev, she knew she would not see him until morning and she would have to endure another long, dark and lonely evening by herself.
Faye put her arms around the girls’ shoulders. “Well, come on, girls.”
“Yes!” Louise’s eyes twinkled. “Daddy made sure the café kept open late so we can have banana splits.”
“Oh good,” Gloria chimed in.
“Behave, Gloria.” Billie tried to sound like a strict disciplinarian but she knew she was not very good at it.
“Don’t I always?” Gloria laughed it off.
“Of course she does,” Faye added in defense of the girls.
“And we’re going to be good too, Faye.” Sue could not disguise the sarcasm in her voice.
“Yes, Sue.” Faye narrowed her eyes. “I’d like to have a nice long talk with you someday.”
The girls pulled her forward.
“Come on, Mama,” Louise insisted. “We gotta go.”
After they walked away, Billie turned to Sue and frowned. “What do you think Faye wants to talk to you about?”
“Nothing important,” she replied with a wink, “I’m sure.”
Billie knew very well what Faye want to say to Sue. She was going to tell her not to give her any booze. Everyone in the tent show gossiped about her. Billie was sure of it. Except for Sue. She seemed to understand.
“After we get back into town,” Billie said softly as she slid into the front seat of Sue’s car, “let’s go by the drug store. I feel a cold coming on.”

Cancer Chronicles


I found another picture I took of my wife Janet the first year we were married 44 years ago. She was in the kitchen. I think this one was posed instead of me catching her in the act of cooking. She usually didn’t dress up to make dinner.
Everything she cooked was delicious; however, it usually was a full afternoon operation. She concentrated on one dish at a time. When she had one done, she moved on to the next. Janet preferred casseroles where everything went into the same pot at the same time. She appreciated when I helped out on my days’ off. My mother had died of pancreatic cancer when I was 14 so I had to learn to cook early. Sometimes I even sent her in the other room and told her to read or watch television while I surprised her with something special.
She had her degree in journalism like I did but half a century ago newspapers didn’t like to hire couples unless they were willing to buy the business. Besides that, the only job a woman could get was on the women’s page writing about weddings. Janet hated that; she wanted to be on the police beat. A few years later she found out about probation officers, got her master’s degree in criminal justice and was happily employed for the 30 years or so.
When she retired she went back to cooking and was good at it again. This time she liked to wrap rice topped by chicken or fish, then green pepper, tomato and onion in aluminum foil. She slid it into the oven at a low temperature, sat down and read a book. She also had a way with Alfredo sauce over just about anything. These dishes created smaller individual portions and healthier meals.
I learned her recipes and I now cook them for my son and me. He’s a corrections officer, following in his mother’s footsteps. If I could get him to cook like his mother I’d have it made.
But instead I think about how cancer can affect every aspect of your life if you let it. Pancreatic cancer took my mother and I had to learn to cook. Breast cancer took my wife and I returned to the kitchen. I would gladly have cooked all the time if I could have Janet back, but that’s not possible. At least I can cook for our son who looks so much like his mother.

Lincoln in the Basement Chapter Two

Previously in the book, Secretary of Stanton has ordered President Lincoln to the Executive Mansion basement.

Before Stanton could reply, a tousle-headed boy of ten with a strangely impish round face slammed a bedroom door on the right and ran through the glass doors, but stopped short when he saw Stanton and the private. His dark eyes appraised the soldier.
“I know a boodle of soldiers,” the boy said. “You’re only a private, ain’t you?”
“I haven’t been in the army long.” Adam shuffled his feet.
Stanton cleared his throat. “We don’t have much time, Mr. Lincoln.”
“I used to play with a lieutenant,” the boy said. “Lieutenant Elmer Ellsworth. Of course, he got killed.”
Grabbing the boy’s shoulders, Stanton turned the boy toward the president.
“You can’t push me around!” Wrestling away from Stanton’s grip, the boy spun around, yanked the pharaoh beard, and stuck out his tongue. “I’m the president’s son!”
“Now, Tad,” Lincoln said soothingly as he enveloped the boy in his arms, “you know we taught you better manners than that.”
“I say some people get what they deserve,” Mrs. Lincoln said with a sniff.
“Molly,” Lincoln said, looking at his wife, “don’t make this more difficult.”
“Take the boy to Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay.” Stanton leaned into Lincoln. “Tell them to take Tad out to supper and don’t return for two hours.” He nodded at Adam. “Private Christy will be just out of sight behind the door, so don’t say anything more.”
Tad looked up inquisitively at his father. “Papa, why do you let him talk to you like that?”
“Hush, Tad.” Lincoln smiled. “Let’s go talk to Mr. Nicolay and Mr. Hay.” Taking him by the hand, Lincoln went into the waiting room.
Following, Adam watched as Lincoln first glanced to the last door on the left, the secretaries’ bedroom, and found it empty. He then turned to the last door on the right, where both young men hovered around the desk. The private stole a quick look the president’s two secretaries before stepping behind the door. He was not impressed. One was about his age, twenty-two, and the other was somewhat older, perhaps thirty. But they were probably Nancy-boys in their French zouave baggy and pegged pants, their dark hair neatly trimmed and contrasting starkly with their smooth, alabaster faces. Women were drawn to pretty men in high-fashion clothes with clear, bland complexions, but it was Adam’s experience that the ladies were disappointed when the dandies were more interested in themselves.
“Mr. Nicolay, Mr. Hay,” Lincoln announced as he presented his son to them, “I have a favor to ask of you.”
“Yes, sir?” Nicolay replied with a slight Bavarian accent.
Not even American, but some intruder from Germany—a suspect nation at best, Adam thought as he listened to Lincoln explain his supper request for the boy. Absently he stroked his rough cheek, mottled by a minor case of small pox when he was twelve years old. His brow furrowed as he remembered how women rarely were drawn to his ruddy, irregular face, his thick, unruly red hair, and his homespun clothes.
“Take him to the Willard,” Lincoln said. “I’ve an account there. Let him have anything he wants for supper.”
“Even pie and cake and ice cream?” Tad asked. “No vegetables?”
“If you wish.”
“Are you sure Madame will approve?” Hay asked, uncertainty tingeing his voice, which was moderately higher pitched than Nicolay’s baritone.
“Mrs. Lincoln won’t mind, I assure you.”
Adam could not resist the temptation of seeing the young men’s faces to judge their response to this unusual presidential request. If they seemed too concerned, the secretaries might prove to be trouble later. He slightly cocked his head to peer through the door. Tad was giving Lincoln a bear hug.
“I love you, Papa.”
“And I love you, Tad.” Lincoln wrapped his long arms around the boy, tangling his fingers in the curly brown locks. “Don’t forget. Your papa loves you very much.”
“I can’t breathe.”
Laughing, Lincoln released Tad, turned him around, and pushed him toward the two secretaries who looked, in the private’s estimation, less than enthusiastic with their chore of supervising the rambunctious child, now jumping up and down, giggling, and pulling at their silk cravats. Lincoln quickly excused himself and walked through the waiting room. He looked over his shoulder and smiled slightly. “Come, Private Christy, for I fear the daggers shooting from Mrs. Lincoln’s eyes may have dealt a fatal blow in Mr. Stanton’s breast.”
When they entered the vestibule, Stanton sighed deeply and headed for the glass door to the hallway. “Finally. This has taken entirely too long.”
The small group walked down the hall to a door on the right leading to the service stairs. As they descended the narrow stairs, Mrs. Lincoln leaned into her husband.
“I still don’t know what this is about.”
“I’m not certain myself.” Lincoln placed his massive, bony hand on her rounded shoulder and said, “I think it has to do with General McClellan’s reinstatement as Army of the Potomac commander.”
“The stairs aren’t a proper place to discuss national policy,” Stanton said before directing his attention to the descending steps.
“Are they a proper place to carry out the abduction of an American president?” Mrs. Lincoln asked, her voice barely under control.
“Molly, I don’t think it’s proper to discuss anything on the back stairs.”
As they reached the first floor landing, all conversation ended; the only noise was the crackling of their footsteps on the straw mats covering the stairwell steps. Adam, hating a void, had a violent urge to speak but, with a will he was unaware he possessed, remained silent. His mind went back ten years to when he was twelve, to his family’s dark, cramped dining room in Steubenville, Ohio. Slowly the sensations came back to him. He remembered feeling warm, almost uncomfortable, with small beads of perspiration forming on his brow. School was out, it struck him, because he was relieved he would not have to tell his friends at school why he was crying. It was June. Of course.
“Wait until the newspapers hear this,” Mrs. Lincoln hissed.
“Hush,” Lincoln whispered.
How could Adam have forgotten that? Two days after classes ended his mother had died of smallpox. Family members from Ohio and nearby areas of Indiana and Pennsylvania had gathered for a large breakfast before a noon funeral. Adam remembered not being hungry at all as he had stared at a full plate of fried eggs, pork sausage, and blueberry muffins.
“Mother’s favorite,” he had mumbled.
“What?” Cora, his mother’s oldest sister, said.
“Blueberry muffins. Mother always said she could make a meal of blueberry muffins and fresh-churned butter.”
His father had coughed nervously, Adam remembered.
Aunt Cora, much stouter than his fragile mother, sniffed and spoke in a loud, bold voice. “I think we should just eat our breakfast and not speak.”
Adam felt his neck burn with embarrassment and guilt. After all, if he had not come down with smallpox, his mother would not have died. He looked around the table, first at his father, hoping he would tell Aunt Cora to be quiet, then at the others around the table, but found no comforting eyes meeting his. During the next half hour, he was intensely aware of muffled chewing, the soft slurping of coffee, and the muted clicking of cups and scratching of knives and forks against china plates. All of this now flooded his mind as the crackling of the straw mats broke the stillness. Adam’s back muscles flexed in agony.
For, ever since he was twelve years old, silence had sounded like death.