The front of this establishment was a store not far from the home in which I was reared. On a recent trip home, I was surprised to see it is still standing.
O Holy Night! The stars are brightly shining,
It is the night of the dear Saviour’s birth.
Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.
Fall on your knees! Oh, hear the angel voices!
O night divine, the night when Christ was born;
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
O night, O Holy Night , O night divine!
Known to most as Coach Allen, Papa Allen or Papa Lou to the fortunate that knew him outside school and church, and his wife, Trice, were close family friends. I was too young to have had him as an instructor. By the time I matriculated through the public school system, he was finishing his educational career at the local private school. My memories of Papa Allen center around both the church and the kitchen table in our home on Strawberry Street.
Attending First Methodist, we usually sat several rows back on the left hand side right behind Mr. and Mrs. Allen. When called upon, he always spoke the most amazing prayers. They were beautifully ornate without being pretentious. I always felt that surely the Lord couldn’t help but answer prayers so thoughtfully composed and elegantly delivered. I know now that the Lord cares only that the words come from our hearts, but his words seemed to always come from a humble heart and thoughtful mind, a rare combination even within church walls.
If I didn’t know better, given the amount of time he spent in our home one might think something untoward had gone on between my mother and Papa Lou. If, indeed, he indulged any unhealthy appetites on North Strawberry Street, it all happened in mother’s kitchen. Like most southern kitchens ours was the center of activity, always with something baked sitting on the counter and a fresh pot of coffee on. Whenever he made a run into town from his home out Range Line Road, he always found an excuse to stop in for a visit.
Like all of our friends, he would let himself in the back door, heading straight to the kitchen looking for the day’s treat and some good company. You see, Papa Allen was a diabetic, but he knew mother would let him cheat on his diet, or so he thought. Unbeknownst to him, mother and Mrs. Trice had been in cahoots for years. She always called mom to let her know how his blood sugar was that day so, if necessary, she could hide the sweets.
Whether it was over a piece of caramel cake or cheese and crackers, Papa Allen spent plenty of time in his chair at the south end of our kitchen table drinking black coffee sweetened with saccharin from a bottle he always had in the pocket of his sport coat and participating in one of the other great southern activities, storytelling. The number or length of those stories seemed directly correlated to his appetite, “June, cut me off another smidge of that pie, just enough to finish off my coffee.” And then another tale would start, sometimes tall and other times taller, it seemed in some way reimbursement for the hospitality. Praying or storytelling, he was a master southern linguist with impeccable timing and always captivating content. The oyster story is classic Papa Allen from his youth.
Oysters Come to Marengo County
On a family trip to Mobile father had eaten oysters for the first time, had thoroughly enjoyed them and was determined to have them again. This was difficult in a time when few country folk owned automobiles. Living a good day’s train ride up from the coast and long before refrigerated shipping, father’s prospects for fresh oyster stew seemed slim. But father was persistent and finally managed to locate a seafood house that arranged to have a barrel shipped upstate on the train. One day word came that the oysters were finally arriving. Father ordered him and Brother Bill to hitch up the wagon; they were going to the train station to retrieve their Mobile Bay delicacies.
The oysters arrived intact and still cool, having been packed in alternating layers of ice and moss. Once back at home they unpacked the barrel and took the oysters into the kitchen where mother proceeded to demonstrate to their cook, Miss Margaret, how to use the short dull knives they had picked up in Mobile to shuck the oysters. Placing the insides in a clean bowl and leaving Miss Margaret to her duties, mother went on about hers.
After an hour or so, mother came back to check on Miss Margaret’s shucking progress and found her over the sink scrubbing the mud and moss off the last of the oyster shells, placing them with the others that had been cleaned, dried, polished and lined up on the countertop alongside the empty oyster bowl. When asked how things were going, a bewildered Miss Margaret replied, “Missy, I dun’ cleaned ‘dem oysters and th’owed da’ guts to da’ hogs, but fo’ God, I don’t see how you gon’ cook ‘em tender.”
I think for most of us the list of formative characters during those highly impressionable schoolyard days is fairly populated by teachers. These are a few, among many, from my years in Demopolis that quickly ascend that list: Emmie Mays, Bernquetta Johnson, Mrs. Nixon, Kayte Melton, Mary Rinehart, Lynn Johnson, Roger Franklin and Terry Sprinkle. When I ask myself why Mr. Sprinkle and these other fine educators are so readily remembered, the answer is clear. They required that I do more than just get by in their classroom, suggested excellence as a life philosophy, and at times reinforced these notions in ways that were plainly understood, long-lasting and, as needed, with situational gravity. Terry Sprinkle was no exception.
I can still hear his words and see that experience laden smile on the first day of freshmen biology, “Terry Sprinkle’s rule #1…life is not fair. I don’t ever want to hear the words, ‘but that’s not fair Mr. Sprinkle!’ Let it be known that I never told you life is fair.” He was true to his word. The first time the class as a group scored poorly on an exam, he announced he was not going to curve the results. Amongst all the whining, the words “that’s not fair, Coach Sprinkle” just didn’t fly. With a grin and raised brow, he held up a single index finger as reminder of rule #1. Good, old-fashioned hard work was the order of the day, better preparing us for life than we could comprehend.
I recall having heard an idea that the influence of seminal people in our lives is evident for up to four generations. If it ain’t true it ought to be. I believe that period may actually be longer. The bearing conveyed upon our young malleable personas is so weaved into the fabric of our character that it becomes prospective ink for the manuscripts of those whose lives we edit or partly edit post-publication. This idea of continued generational influence both comforts and sobers me. I am burdened by the potential of my sanctioned influence and comforted by the generations, present and future, blessed by the classroom presence of excellent educators like Terry Sprinkle, gone but never forgotten.
I have attended too many funerals of late. Too many good people have gone before their time, like Coach Sprinkle. It’s just not right to have them taken from us with so much life to live. It is not fair. But we all know what Coach had to say about that.
Another great antebellum home just a couple of blocks from my childhood home and still open to the public. Bluff Hall sits high on the white bluffs overlooking the Tombigbee River in Demopolis, Alabama. It was one of the inspirations for the play written by Lillian Hellman and filmed for the big screen in 1941, The Little Foxes starring Bette Davis.