Where does one begin when all he knows about someone is hearsay? I never knew my grandparents. For that matter, I never knew my father. He was a man of “few words” my mother would say when suggesting I was “just like him”. I don’t think she meant it as a compliment. I spent a week with him upon returning from a tour of duty overseas and found at the end of that week I understood less than I did at the beginning of the week. We travelled, the southern part of California and crossed into Nevada, spent a night in Las Vegas and then back to Sacramento and his beloved ranch. Well, not a real ranch but five acres on Ranch Avenue in Citrus Heights, California. He liked small things, he said. Little women, little houses, little cars and if judging by the way he lived, he was telling the truth. He even slept on the bottom of a bunk bed that could have been used in a previous life on a submarine. The man was over six feet tall and slept in a bed my thirty-five pound terrier would not have been comfortable in. He said it was all those years at sea. He had been a ships officer in the Merchant Marine sometime during his youth but like everything else about him, I had no idea what, where or when. He was a total mystery to everyone who knew him.
My grandfather, my fathers father, died in a mental institution I have been told, but again, like much of the information I have about my grandparents, is hearsay. His wife, my grandmother, left an even narrower trail leading nowhere. I have just one photo of her that depicts a diminutive, black-eyed Irish girl of about eighteen announcing convincingly where my fathers strikingly good looks came from. That’s it–nothing more. She died very young on the Fourth of July of some indeterminate year long before my birth. I cannot repeat this fact convincingly because I don’t have a clue who may have told me of her death. It’s just in there with the one or two other “facts” of which I have no basis. I did learn recently both my grandparents were buried together in a small East Texas town but I have forgotten its name.
My mothers’ mother died of cancer in 1937. More hearsay but I do not recall hearing a cross word sent in her direction. She must have been by definition, a saint. If not she was at the very least worshiped by her children.
And then there’s Pop. I met him once or maybe more than once. I vividly recall the time when my cousin and I spent the day in his cobblers shop on Main Street in downtown Jacksonville where we practiced buffing up old shoes and driving nails into derelict shoe carcasses long ago cast aside. The shop was huge to a five year old. If the truth were known, it could not have been larger than three hundred square feet. His living quarters were in the back behind a half wall and a dingy old door covered with black hand prints spreading like a tropical disease toward the center. His “residence” contained a small army cot on one wall and a radio on a three legged table next to it which was always playing softly. The bath, if it could be called that, was behind a partition and included a toilet, small shower and a wall hung sink. The floor was concrete and hadn’t been cleaned in a long, long time. In the middle of the room was a small table covered by an old oil cloth and two mismatched chairs. A half empty bottle of gin was on the table along with a wide brimmed hat and salt and pepper shakers. A small open cabinet contained an assortment of canned goods and hung wide eyed adjacent to a refrigerator holding among other things the coca cola my cousin and I coveted.
As I recall, Pop wasn’t a big man. He may have been five foot eight or ten and frail. His most distinguishing characteristic was his hair. It was a shock of white, thick and sat on his head like a small bale of cotton. He was nice to us but the word was he had not been much of a father and had left his “sainted” wife on a small farm to care for his mother and five children sometime during the midst of the depression. He made and sold illegal alcohol and was well known in the community to take a drink himself. One story I heard was of him trying to outrun the sheriff while making deliveries in a buckboard and overturning in a shallow stream. The sheriff arrived while he was searching the bottom of the stream for a pair of pearl handled revolvers which had been lost during the mishap.
In spite of his absence, I have been told that until her death, my grandmother defended him and begged her children to watch over him upon her death. “He is not a strong man”, she reportedly told her children, “but I love him–I always have and always will. He is your father.” While I was told they all promised their mother they would look in on him, the winds and the war blew them all across the world. The two boys joined the Marines and the Navy and found themselves in the South Pacific. The girls scattered along the coast of Florida trying to find their way and would only see one another occasionally or on Christmas when they all tried to get together. My mother and her older sister somehow managed to put together a little dab of cash and help Pop open his shoe shop. My mother had a love – hate relationship with her father. She hated him for what he had done to her mother and her siblings and especially for his drinking. The irony was that she died with a symbolic bottle of gin on her kitchen table. No matter how hard she tried, alcohol had the same hold on her as it did on her father.
The word on Main Street was Pop kept large sums of money hidden in the machinery in the shop. It was said he eschewed banks and would never again get caught with his life savings in a bank. “The crooked bastards had wiped him out during the depression,” he told someone, “and he would never trust them again.” One small dry cleaning shop owner just down the street had been quoted as saying it would be the death of him.
The front page of the home edition of the Jacksonville Times announced in bold letters on March 26, 1949: “LOCAL SHOP OWNER FOUND MURDERED”. “Bound hand and foot with twine to a bed post, Edward F. Brinkley, 67, was found slain in his living quarters…the body when discovered, lay on the concrete floor, the arms stretched above the head by the pull of the twine…the face showed signs of a severe beating. The murdered man found bound and beaten died of internal bleeding caused by a ruptured spleen and punctured lungs. Finger prints of a former employee were found at the crime scene and Marion McKay, 27, a Negro, is being sought as a suspect in the crime.
The killer was apprehended in Chicago after being traced first to his mother-in-laws house in South Carolina. After first denying the crime, he finally confessed and told police that he and Mr. Ed had been drinking the night of the murder. “Mr. Ed,” he said, “became agitated once he asked him for his pay for the prior weeks work which totaled around forty dollars.” According to McKay, Brinkley struck him first. Following the beating, he (McKay) found a cigar box containing a small amount of money and took what was rightfully his. He then left the shop thinking Mr. Brinkley would recover, packed a bag and took the 1:30 a.m. Greyhound to South Carolina. He was captured, convicted and served six years for first degree murder.
I often hear of families where parents and grandparents are disdained or ignored. The younger generation has little time for these “old fogies” and their antiquated way of thinking, curious habits and old fashioned morality. I understand and as I look back, I’m not sure I did all I could have done to show my parents that in spite of our differences, I loved them and did not want them to come to any harm. The tragedy of Pops death and the very paucity of knowledge I have about my other grandparents has always haunted me. I think one of the things that would give me the greatest pleasure at this time in my life would be to be able to sit briefly with my parents and grandparents and just talk. I was blessed to do that recently with two of my grandchildren and I am so thankful.