The movie FOREST GUMP put my birthplace on the national scene a few decades ago. In 1957, I was born in a doctor’s office in Bayou La Batre; a seaport town in Alabama; but grew up a few miles away. There had been French, German, English, and a Cherokee Indian Princess in the woodpile. As is common, my childhood was a mixed bag of good and bad experiences over which I had little control. To know who I am is to know from whom I came.
My dad had grown up with empty pockets in the Bayou at a time when fist fighting was recreational. They walked to the center of town on Saturday nights, paired off, and fought it out often with bare knuckles. With dotted eyes, they were all friends the next day and were just as willing to fight for their opponents’ honor as their own. There was no law enforcement at all save the weekly State Trooper drive through. It is amazing how cautiously people treat each other in such a social environment. The people of the Bayou were exceptionally friendly and always willing hands and in general were just one insult away from giving anyone the fistfight their insult had requested. Like a drag race, fights began at the drop of a hat and were over quickly. Attitude adjustments were readily available and taught respect, equality, and a healthy sense of caution.
After dad had a disabling heart attack, I began employment at Mobile International Speedway, the local half mile asphalt racetrack, at the ripe old age of ten years. I picked up trash, cleaned 41 toilets, and swept the track with a push broom every week in addition to mowing grass and other maintenance. I had the run of the facility for about five years and was in the pit around some of racing’s greats including Donnie and Bobbie Allison, Red Farmer, and David Pearson. I worked 36 hours a week during school and 48 hours per week at summer break.
The talking heads condemn work at such an early age, but work was perfect for me and I maintained excellent school grades. I would have been lost without work- work was my sport of choice and served as good reason to be away from home.
Dad had a touch of a drinking problem through my teenage years. Every few weeks he would get obnoxiously drunk and would wreak havoc on the home life. We fought regularly. I rarely dared having friends over for fear they would walk into an episode. A few years after I finished high school, he gave up alcohol and was a perfect saint for the balance of his life. Later as an elderly semi paralyzed man, and only a shadow of his former self, he was still one insult away from a fight. As are most fathers to their children, he was my life’s biggest influence. A decade after his death, I miss him sorely.
My mother was a straight “A” student throughout school but the academic scholarship she proudly won at graduation did not include any money for tuition. She went to work until kids came along and was a proper mother. It is the nature of mothers to be protective of their children and the nature of boys to shun protection.
As is generally true of any seaport town, Bayou La Batre had a thriving boatbuilding and repair industry in addition to its shrimping, fishing, crabbing, and oystering businesses. My mother’s father was an innovator and had founded the steel hull shipbuilding business in the Gulf Coast Region. Shipbuilding was, and still is, in my blood.
In the Deep South’s climate, shipyard work tests one’s endurance in every way, but shipyard work would become my source of income from age 15. While supporting myself as a laborer in the shipyard, I bought a used 1970 Mustang and had freedom at last- freedom to drag race and freedom to date. Intensely focused, I won math honors at Theodore High School in 1975 and was college bound.
College proved a boring disappointment for me. Electrical engineering did not offer the thrills and challenges that I had hoped. In many courses, except for test days, I skipped every class, and did very well. It added to the challenge. After my sophomore year and with scholarships, I had one foot precariously on the top of the heap. Then, an unthinkable thing occurred.
I passed out, presumably from food poisoning, and suffered a traumatic head injury. I cracked the back of my head. The roughly yearlong trauma rendered me unable to learn and unable to function in any rational sense. My acquired ego hit rock bottom. I could not even reason out that my first time ever string of failures were a result of the trauma. Many whom I had called close friends celebrated my failures as their own personal victories. I was rumored to be an alcoholic and a drug addict. Only Hell could have been worse.
I never acquired a taste for alcohol or drugs. I prefer sobriety, and my only addictions are coffee, aspirin, and nicotine.
A few years later, I returned to college with a few “F’s” on my otherwise good transcript. With my ego deflated and with no self-esteem, I was even better than before and even attended class regularly, but was treated rudely by engineering instructors. They apparently sensed my boredom and my quiet but growing lack of respect.
I was completely self-taught in college. After all, books entirely cover the subjects of engineering. I never took notes. I learned to avoid asking questions. Time spent in class was time wasted. Upon my return, I had done as well as I pleased.
As a college senior very near graduation, I accepted a job in the digital engineering field for about six years and aggressively earned my pay. I had learned at an early age what needed doing and how to get it done.
Despite coercion from my employer and the university department chairperson, with only two quarter-hours remaining, I refused to complete degree requirements, a choice I am still satisfied with. I would rather have my money back.
Demons have always been at the door; rumors again abound; “Surely he must have some debilitating fear, or perhaps he’s just crazy, or maybe there is a woman to blame.” They cannot understand how I could reject something they wish they had. I still enjoy the pressures of learning and am entertaining thoughts of a self-paced online degree in math followed by physics. I may well be crazy. Money is a limiting issue.
Since my engineering employment, I have learned refrigeration, and have built houses and yachts. I count myself competent and productive in many trades and fields especially those founded in mathematics.
Although now old, ugly, and out of shape, I am most alive when doing things I do not know how to do. Always after a challenge, my most recent and now nearly decade long endeavor is writing. For me, writing is the flip- side of the engineering coin. Writing is that skill I am least competent at, but has afforded me the challenge of a lifetime. In the tradition of my dad’s instinctive willingness to fight, I fight to bury dead beliefs with written reason.