An Expatriate Starts a Diary
December 1969. We were living on Crawford Street in the Oakes Field section of Nassau that year, next door to a big lumberyard and right around the corner from the offices of The Bahamas Handbook, whose staff I had joined as contributing editor. Our “bed sitter,” as the British style one-bedroom apartments, was on the crest of a low hill above the defunct Tropicana Club.
I was living the expatriate life in Nassau, next to a lumberyard. I had read that Ernest Hemingway scored his first major literary success at about age 26, when he was an expatriate and lived above a sawmill in Paris.
Lumberyard in Nassau, sawmill in Paris; close enough. It seemed a good omen.
For luck, I kept a well-thumbed paperback copy of Fiesta (the British title for The Sun Also Rises) on top of my spiral writing notebooks. When I sat down each evening to write, I had the accompaniment of Zed-NS Radio’s music and the Out Island personal announcements: “Arthur. Please meet the mailboat at Clarencetown…”
I opened a faded, weathered ledger with the legend “Cash Book” inscribed on the spine that I salvaged from one of the abandoned apartments on the club property. The hard covers had taken a beating but protected the blank pages. There was a brown-edged burn-hole beginning on page 29, fading to a scorch mark on page 34. I found the endurance of the battered and burned old book appealing, as if it had been saving those blank pages just for me. I was out of pages in the notebook I had been using for hunting notes; finding the old Cash Book seemed serendipitous. So as the last hours of the turbulent sixties ticked into history, I began to write…
Short season and a witch’s warning
My high school graduation year, 1961, was a short hunting season for me. I worked full-time, sometimes Saturdays when they had trouble keeping a weekend copy boy. I went to work at 6:30 a.m., got off at 2:30 p.m. and drove home. Went straight to bed and slept four or five hours. Got up to eat and fort up behind my little Remington portable typewriter in the living room to work on Sleeping Planet. I usually worked until midnight or one a.m. Before long I would hear Mama’s slippers on the stairs and she would come into the room blinking like a sleepy owl. ”Five o’clock still comes mighty early,” she would intone. It was my signal to come back from the twenty-fourth century to face the workaday world of the twentieth. I would go back to bed and she would wake me up to go to the city.
I lived my whole teenage life in that converted Florida garage apartment on a narrow macadam lane with only two houses between our front door and the ocean. Years later Earl said he thought our house was special because it had two kitchens and two living rooms and even two bathrooms, one each upstairs and down, something that never occurred to me. The only thing l thought special was its proximity to the beach. My grandmother was never happy with that house. It seemed to be falling apart half the time; my grandfather always engaged in a major upkeep project.
I was his indentured servant and hated it. I preferred to sit in the corner reading. One year he jacked the entire house up one section at a time and replaced the rotting foundation with poured concrete. I thought my shoulders would come out of their sockets hauling buckets of wet cement.
From age thirteen a lot of my reading involved national hunting and fishing magazines. I hated to see spring come because their pages filled with fishing stories. Fishing was okay if there was no hunting to do, but not important enough to read about. I had to make do with the gun-writer’s monthly columns until the fall issues.
Strange how badly I wanted to hunt. I had gone squirrel hunting with my grandfather exactly twice, once in Georgia and once in Florida. He just wasn’t interested in hunting anymore. I had no way of knowing my absent father’s Arkansas family was full of hunters and that my second brother, by his second wife, grew up in a hunting tradition unknown to me. I was strictly on my own in Florida.
The Wimers, across Palm Place, had the only unconverted garage apartment, a full two-car garage under their upstairs. Mr. Wimer used half of the garage for his fishing tackle and outboard motor, and a work bench with a vise. We went fishing with him a couple times before their divorce. He gave me an old khaki jacket with a plaid lining, my first outdoor coat, and pair of broken-down rubber boots with frayed white cotton lining. He let me use his vise to carve silhouette decoys from scrap plywood with my grandfather’s coping saw. I ran out of wood with just three decoys, so I painted them with left-over paint and nailed aluminum letters on them spelling out our address for a family Christmas present. The boots leaked. It only took one cold-weather trip to find the khaki jacket didn’t turn the wind no matter how outdoorsy it looked.
Once I was working, I bought a pair of new rubber boots for five dollars. They were nothing but a headache; my feet sweated and sealed them on and I could not get them off without help. It wasn’t the last money I wasted on hunting. I’m still wasting it here in the Bahamas. I didn’t have the courage to weather Daddy’s outrage and Mama’s woe-is-me attitude and ditch those boots. Fortunately nature intervened; my feet kept growing. Earl inherited them and never had trouble with them.
I had discovered a dimly lit Aladdin’s cave of treasures right across the street from the Jacksonville Journal that announced itself as a military surplus store, but stocked all manner of gear. I bought pair of lace-up knee-high rubber boots. All I had to do to get them off was loosen the laces. They cost a fourth of my weekly gross as copy boy, ten dollars. But they were worth it, and Daddy never saw the receipt. The same store had surplus olive-drab mosquito head nets to hide our faces from ducks, a buck apiece. Finally, the store had the first brand-new cotton camo jackets I ever saw, large enough to fit over our blue-denim jackets, five bucks apiece. I could hear Mama moan in my ear: “spending money like a drunk sailor.” But I outfitted us myself to the best of my limited knowledge — and limited funds.
I was a sickly teenager. I could barely get home from school before I fell asleep. The twin causes were anemia and an under-active thyroid. By the time I was a copy boy, both medical conditions were in remission from biweekly “liver shots” and daily thyroid pills. (Whatever those were.) I hated the shots, because they made my butt sore and it hurt to ride my scooter.
But the habit of afternoon sleep paid dividends when the ailments abated. I would drive home from work, go to bed and awaken refreshed in the evening to write my fiction. It was harder to sleep after I finished writing for the evening, with frequent awakenings that left me pretty tired for the alarm clock. But nothing like the previous bone-crushing fatigue. A quart of coffee a day proved a great restorative at my day job.
The reason for this burn spot in my new log about hunting is caprice. I decided to use this old ledger on a whim, after I found it under a stack of old Playboys and science-fiction magazines in a deserted house on this defunct Tropicana Club where we rent a bed-sitter. According to Albert Epp, a staff artist, it was once a very swinging club. I also ransacked this comfortable leatherette occasional chair in which I like to sit and write. It seemed a shame to let the wounded ledger go to waste. Suddenly it jelled that a hunting log was a good use for it. How the burn spot originated I have no idea, though its character suggests carelessness with cigarettes rather strongly. Beginning here on page 29, I will write around the burn holes…
The one part of my 1961 novel-writing that sticks in my mind is one afternoon toward the end of my too-short hunting season when I decided something had to come before Chapter One to set the story up. So I wrote a prologue about Mars. It was a cold, raw evening on Neptune Beach, so that was the sort of day it was in Rusted Plains, Mars where the mines were changing shifts.
Mama was fixing country-fried steaks and biscuits when I wrote the prologue; she had put a hex on my book after I read my original Chapter One aloud. She pronounced the book sold as of that moment — unless I changed Chapter One. I kept expecting her to drop her spatula and come stomping in to denounce me, but for once her second-sight failed. She never knew about the prologue until she saw it in print.
Mama is the seventh daughter of the seventh daughter, born with a caul (known as a “veil” in the Old South) which supposedly makes her a witch. Her mother ripped the caul away and destroyed it in superstitious fear instead of keeping it, as legend says you must if the witch is to reach her full adult powers. But the black midwife who delivered Mama, and who didn’t approve of crippling a natural-born witch, spilled the beans. I kept the prologue secret because I couldn’t take any chances with a witch’s hex while writing my first novel. There were already too many odds against you without that.