Carrying albert home, p.1
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       Carrying Albert Home, p.1

           Homer Hickam
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Carrying Albert Home


  Dedication

  to FRANK WEIMANN,

  who understood this story before I did

  Contents

  Dedication

  Introduction to the Journey

  PART I

  How the Journey Began

  During which Elsie and Homer decide to take Albert home, the rooster signs on, Homer gets a glimmer of how much trouble he’s in, Elsie dances alone, and Homer and Albert rob a bank.

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  PART II

  How Elsie Became a Radical

  During which John Steinbeck has a cameo, Homer is the victim of mistaken identity, and Elsie and Albert fight a dubious battle.

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  PART III

  How Elsie Rode the Thunder Road, Homer Wrote a Poem, and Albert Transcended Reality

  During which Elsie transports illegal booze, Homer meets a mad poet and his mistress, and we begin to understand Albert might be a symbol of something greater than himself.

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  PART IV

  How Homer Learned the Lessons of Baseball and Elsie the Nurse

  During which Homer and Albert play baseball, Elsie becomes a nurse, and awful lessons are learned.

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  PART V

  How Elsie Came to Love the Beach and Homer and Albert Joined the Coast Guard

  During which Elsie discovers where she truly belongs and Homer and Albert fight a terrible and bloody battle against smugglers and other riffraff of the sea.

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  PART VI

  How Albert Flew

  During which Homer finds Georgia, Elsie trains as a pilot without a seat belt, and a disheartened Homer and a jubilant Albert take to the skies.

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37

  PART VII

  How Homer and Elsie Saved a Movie and Albert Played a Crocodile

  During which Homer is again mistaken for someone else, Elsie sees her husband through starry eyes, and Albert, with artistic license, acts his little heart out as a celluloid croc.

  Chapter 38

  Chapter 39

  PART VIII

  How Homer, Elsie, and Albert Endured a Hurricane, a Real One as Well as the One in Their Hearts

  During which Ernest Hemingway has a cameo, Elsie is both enchanted and worried about nearly everything, including Albert, and Homer faces a hurricane’s wrath.

  Chapter 40

  Chapter 41

  Chapter 42

  PART IX

  How Albert Was Finally Carried Home

  During which Elsie must make an awful decision, Homer doesn’t know how to help her but does, Buddy Ebsen has a cameo, Albert is carried home, and the journey ends but, in a way, never does.

  Chapter 43

  Chapter 44

  Epilogue

  A Further Postscript

  Acknowledgments

  Photographs Pertaining to the Journey

  About the Author

  Also by Homer Hickam

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  Introduction to the Journey

  UNTIL MY MOTHER TOLD ME ABOUT ALBERT, I NEVER knew she and my father had undertaken an adventurous and dangerous journey to carry him home. I didn’t know how they came to be married or what shaped them to become the people I knew. I also didn’t know that my mother carried in her heart an unquenchable love for a man who became a famous Hollywood actor or that my father met that man after battling a mighty hurricane, not only in the tropics but in his soul. The story of Albert taught me these and many other things, not only about my parents but the life they gave me to live, and the lives we all live, even when we don’t understand why.

  The journey my parents took was in 1935, the sixth year of the Great Depression. At that time, a little more than one thousand people lived in Coalwood and, like my future parents, most of them were young marrieds who had grown up in the coalfields. Every day, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them, the men got up and went to work in the mine where they tore at the raw coal with drills, explosives, picks, and shovels while the roof above them groaned and cracked and sometimes fell. Death happened often enough that a certain melancholy existed between the young men and women of the little West Virginia town when they made their daily farewells. Yet, for the company dollar and a company house, those farewells were made and the men trudged off to join the long line of miners, lunch buckets swinging and boots plodding, all heading for the deep, dark underground.

  While their men toiled in the mine, the women of Coalwood were tasked with keeping their assigned company houses clean of the never-ending dust. Chuffing coal trains rumbled down tracks placed within feet of the houses, throwing up dense clouds of choking ebony powder that filtered inside no matter how tightly doors and windows were shut against it. Coalwood’s people breathed dust with every breath and saw it rise in a gray mist when they walked the streets. It blossomed from their pillows when their tired heads were laid down and rose in a sparkling cloud when blankets were pushed aside after sleep. Each morning, the women got up and fought the dust, then got up the next day and fought it again after they’d sent their husbands to the mine to create more of it.

  Raising the children was also left to the wives. This was at a time when scarlet fever, measles, influenza, typhus, and unidentified fevers routinely swept through the coalfields, killing weak and strong children alike. There were few families untouched by the loss of a child. The daily uncertainty for their husbands and children took its toll. Not too many years had to pass before the natural innocent sweetness of a young West Virginia girl was replaced by the tough, hard shell that characterized a woman of the coalfields.

  This was the world as it was lived by Homer and Elsie Hickam, my parents before they were my parents. It was a world Homer accepted. It was a world Elsie hated.

  But of course she did.

  She had, after all, spent time in Florida.

  Long after my parents made the journey that is told by this book, my brother Jim and I came along. Our childhoods were spent in Coalwood during the 1940s and ’50s, when the town was growing older and some comforts such as paved roads and telephones had crept in. There was even television and, without it, I might have never heard about Albert. On the day I first heard about him, I was lying on the rug in our living room watching a rerun of the Walt Disney series about Davy Crockett. The show had made the frontiersman just about the most popular man in the United States, even more popular than President Eisenhower. In fact, there was scarcely a boy in America who didn’t want to get one of Davy’s trademark coonskin caps, and that included me, although I never got one. Mom liked wild critters too much for that kind of cruel foolishness.

  My mom walked in the living room when Davy and his pal Georgie Russell were riding horseback through the forest across our twenty-one-inch black-and-white screen. Georgie was singing about Davy and how he was the king of the
wild frontier who’d killed hisself a b’ar when he was only three. It was a catchy tune and I, like millions of kids across the country, knew every word. After a moment of silent watching, Mom said, “I know him. He gave me Albert,” and then turned and walked back into the kitchen.

  I was focused on Davy and Georgie so it took a moment before Mom’s comment sank into my boyhood brain. When a commercial came on, I got up to look for her and found her in the kitchen. “Mom? Did you say you knew somebody in the Davy Crockett show?”

  “That fellow who was singing,” she said while spooning a dollop of grease into a frying pan. Based on the lumpy slurry in a nearby bowl, I suspected we were having her famous fried potato cakes for supper.

  “You mean Georgie Russell?” I asked.

  “No, Buddy Ebsen.”

  “Who’s Buddy Ebsen?”

  He’s the fellow who was singing on the television. He can dance better than he can sing and by a sight. I knew him in Florida when I lived with my rich Uncle Aubrey. When I married your father, Buddy sent me Albert as a wedding present.”

  I had never heard of Buddy or Albert but I had often heard of rich Uncle Aubrey. Mom always added the adjective rich to his name even though she said he’d lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. I’d seen a photograph of rich Uncle Aubrey. Round-faced, squinting into a bright sun while leaning on a golf club, rich Uncle Aubrey was wearing a newsboy “Great Gatsby” golf cap, a fancy sweater over an open-collared shirt, plus fours knickers, and brown and white saddle shoes. Behind him was a tiny aluminum trailer which apparently served as his home. It was my suspicion that rich Uncle Aubrey didn’t need much money to be rich.

  Seeking clarification, I asked, “So . . . you know Georgie Russell?”

  “If Buddy Ebsen is Georgie Russell, I surely do.”

  I stood there, my mouth open. Giddiness was near. I couldn’t wait to tell the other Coalwood boys that my mom knew Georgie Russell, just one step removed from knowing Davy Crockett himself. I would surely be envied!

  “Albert stayed with us a couple of years,” Mom went on. “When we lived in the other house up the street in front of the substation. Before you and your brother were born.”

  “Who’s Albert?” I asked.

  For a moment, my mother’s eyes softened. “I never told you about Albert?”

  “No, ma’am,” I said, just as I heard the commercial end and the sound of flintlock muskets booming away. Davy Crockett was back in action. I cocked an ear in its direction.

  Seeing the pull of the television, she waved me off. “I’ll tell you about him later. It’s kind of complicated. Your father and I . . . well, we carried him home. He was an alligator.”

  An alligator! I opened my mouth to ask more questions but she shook her head. “Later,” she said and got back to her potato cakes and I got back to Davy Crockett.

  Over the years, Mom would do as she promised and tell me about carrying Albert home. At her prodding, Dad would even occasionally tell his side of it, too. As the tales were told, usually out of order and sometimes different from the last time I’d heard them, they evolved into a lively but disconnected and surely mythical story of a young couple who, along with a special alligator (and for no apparent reason, a rooster), had the adventure of a lifetime while heading ever south beneath what I imagined was a landscape artist’s golden sun and a poet’s quicksilver moon.

  After Dad went off to run heaven’s coal mines and Mom followed to tell God how to manage the rest of His affairs, a quiet but persistent voice in my head kept telling me I should write the story of their journey down. When I heeded that whispering voice and began to put all the pieces of it together, I came to understand why. Like a beautiful flower unfurling to greet the dawn, an embedded truth was revealed. The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

  —HOMER HICKAM

  (the younger)

  PART I

  How the Journey Began

  1

  WHEN ELSIE CAME OUTSIDE INTO THE BACKYARD TO SEE why her husband was shouting her name, she saw Albert lying on his back in the grass, his little legs splayed apart and his head thrust backward. She was sure something awful had happened to him but when her alligator raised his head and smiled at her, she knew he was all right. The relief she felt was palpable and nearly overwhelming. After all, she loved Albert more than just about anything in the whole world. She knelt and scratched his belly while he waved his paws in delight and grinned his most toothsome grin.

  At just a little over two years old, Albert was over four feet long, which was big for his age according to a book Elsie had read about alligators. He was covered with a thick skin of exquisite olive-colored scales with yellow bands on his sides that the book said would disappear over time. Raised ridges rippled down his length, even to the tip of his tail, and his belly was soft and creamy. His expressive eyes were the color of gold but glowed a compelling red at night. His face was quite striking, his nostrils perfectly placed atop the tip of his snout to allow him to breathe while resting in the water, and an endearing overbite that presented rows of brilliantly white teeth. He was, Elsie believed, about the handsomest alligator there ever was.

  Of course, Albert was also smart, so smart he followed Elsie around the house like a dog and when she sat down, he crawled into her lap and let her pet him like a house cat. This was good because she was no longer able to have either a dog or a cat, due to Albert’s tendency to ambush them from under the bed or out of the little concrete pond her father had built for him. Albert had never actually eaten either a dog or a cat but he’d come close, enough so that both species had declared the Hickam house and yard off-limits for at least the next century.

  After smiling back at her “little boy,” as she liked to call him, Elsie took note of her husband, who had ceased yelling and was just looking at her with an expression that she interpreted as somewhat peevish. She could not help but also note that he was dressed in a rather peculiar fashion, which led her to ask, “Homer, where are your pants?”

  Homer did not answer her directly. Instead he said, “Me or that alligator.” Then he said it again, this time low and slow. “Me . . . or . . . that . . . alligator.”

  Elsie sighed. “What happened?”

  “I was sitting on the toilet doing my business when your alligator climbed out of the bathtub and grabbed my pants. If I hadn’t climbed out of them and run out here, he’d have surely killed me.”

  “I guess if Albert wanted to kill you, he’d have done it a long time ago. So what do you want me to do?”

  “Choose. Either me or him. That’s it.”

  There it was. How long, she wondered, had this been coming at her, at them both, at them all? Yet, she had no answer other than the one she gave. “I’ll think it over.”

  Homer was incredulous. “You’re going to think it over when it’s me or that alligator?”

  “Yes, Homer, that is exactly what I’m going to do,” Elsie said, then flipped Albert over and beckoned him to follow. “Come on, little boy. Mama’s got some nice chicken for you in the kitchen.”

  Homer watched in disbelief as Elsie led Albert inside the house. At the fence, Jack Rose, neighbor and fellow coal miner, approached and coughed politely. “You gonna catch cold, son,” he said. “Maybe you ought to go put on some pants.”

  Homer’s face turned crimson. “Did you hear?”

  “Everybody on this row likely heard.”

  Homer knew he was in for some terrible ribbing. Coal miners always liked to take a man down a notch and Homer being chased into the yard without his pants by Elsie’s alligator was going to make it easy for them. “Help me out, Jack,” he pleaded. “Don’t tell anybody about this.”

  “Okay,” Rose said, amiably, “but I can’t guarantee the missus.
He nodded over his shoulder to the window where Mrs. Rose stood with a big grin. Knowing he was doomed, Homer hung his head.

  That night, over supper, Homer paused over his brown beans and cornbread. “Have you thought it over yet? About me and Albert?”

  Elsie didn’t look at him. “Not yet.”

  Homer was clearly miserable. “I’m going to catch heck from the other miners about being chased outside without my pants.”

  Elsie still did not look at him. She was staring at her beans as if they were sending her a message. “I have a solution,” she said. “Quit the mine. Get out of that dirty old hole and let’s go live somewhere clean.”

  “I’m a coal miner, Elsie. It’s what I do.”

  She finally looked at him. “It’s not what I do.”

  All night long, Elsie slept with her back turned to Homer and the next morning, after fixing him breakfast and handing him his lunch bucket, she provided no kiss, or a wish that he might return home safely. Homer was certain he was the only Coalwood miner who went to work that day without some sort of well-wishing from his wife and that knowledge was a heavy weight to carry. On top of that, a miner named Collier Johns gave him the business about his excursion in the yard without his pants. Johns thought himself sly by asking, “Did Elsie’s alligator really scare you out of your pants, Homer?” This was followed by general laughing and slapping of the knees by the other miners on the shift. The correct and expected response from Homer should have been something funny or ribald but he said nothing, which took all the fun out of the ribbing and it subsided. The suspicion was that Homer had fallen ill, perhaps gravely so. Later, there was much discussion of this on the company store steps. The conclusion was that his illness was his wife, a peculiar girl who, though lovely, was the kind who could destroy a man by wanting more than he could provide.

  Two more days went by until Elsie walked outside into the yard, where Homer was sitting on a rusty chair he’d scrounged from the company junkyard. She stood before him and, after taking a deep breath, announced, “I will let Albert go.”

  Relieved, Homer said, “Wonderful. Thank you. We’ll put him in the creek. He’ll be fine there. Lots of minnows to eat and the occasional dog or cat trying to get a drink.”

 

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