I don’t believe I’ve told you this story, but on the off chance I have, please don’t interrupt me, because I want to hear it again myself.
Tuscumbia, Alabama looked just like the town in which “To Kill a Mockingbird,” was filmed. The streets were wide enough for two sets of horse-drawn wagons to pass each other simultaneously. City streets were paved with bricks, lain in a basket weave pattern, and there were sidewalks with a grass border between the street curb and walk. The sidewalks, like the streets were wider than those today, and made of a material called exposed aggregate. It was a mixture of concrete and smooth pebbles about the size of your little fingernail. They were red, brown, beige, and yellow stones, called aggregate, that bonded the cement together. The workmen were very skilled, because they had to allow the cement time to set, but not all the way. After a sufficient period of time, known only to the superintendent, he would give an order, and the men would take hoses and wash a thin layer of unset concrete into the grass exposing the beautiful multicolored aggregate. That is a technique seldom seen today, now considered too costly and time consuming with few people skilled in its application. Time was not as important back then, and projects tended to move more slowly and deliberately. Those streets and walks, bordered by houses and spacious front yards adorned with huge live oaks, provided shade and a cool breeze, no matter the temperature. Everyone in those days walked and those sidewalks were often what we traveled on.
The houses were frame, with large front porches or veranda built on brick or wooden pilasters, their first floor three feet above the ground, providing a cool hiding place for children. Many a jar of pennies were buried there while playing pirate. The children, carefully drawing maps, marked them with an X so the jars could be relocated and retrieved. Often times the map was lost, and the location forgotten, but now a new game was afoot, “treasure hunt.”
Aunt Saleda and Uncle Julius lived on the lower end of 2nd Street, in what was known as a shotgun-duplex house. This was a working-class neighborhood, where every morning you saw men walking to work carrying their lunch boxes. Their backyard bordered on an alley where the trash cans were placed, and the trucks picked up the trash and hauled it away. All streets had alleys out back. Across this alley was the Keller Estate and mansion. Helen Keller fell victim to a disease at 19 months of age and lost her sight and hearing. She became famous as a deaf and blind girl who was taught language and to read and write by her special teacher, Annie Sullivan. Helen’s father, Captain Arthur Keller was a Captain in the Confederate Army, and the publisher of a newspaper. Helen became an activist on behalf of the disabled, and graduated from Radcliffe College of Harvard University, the first deaf and blind person to obtain a Bachelor of Arts. She worked for the American Foundation for the Blind, from 1924 until 1968 advocating on behalf of the disabled across the United States and in 35 countries. She also wrote several books. As children, Leroy and Thelma Kay Stiles, our cousins, and me and my little brother Steve, would go into the alley and try to glimpse her at the well, made famous in the movie about Helen and Annie, “The Miracle Worker.” It was at the well, Helen learned, her first word, “water.” Once or twice people in the Keller mansion would shoo us off the grounds. We didn’t tell our folks for fear of punishment.
A duplex is comprised of two houses joined together by a common wall, like an adjoining apartment is joined by a common wall. The difference is that with a shotgun house, all the rooms are stacked on each side, connected by a long hall on either side of the common wall. On the left side of the duplex lived Julius and Saleda. On the right side lived a Spanish American war veteran who lost a leg in that conflict. He wore a peg leg, like a pirate would wear. One day he died, just as a house further east came up for sale. Aunt Saleda told Julius she wanted to move, and surprisingly he agreed. It came to light, that they both meant to different places, and that led to the rest of the story.
(See part 4, next week, when a ghost and some children help Saleda get her house).