The Soul Captain Chronicles
A Memoir by Bobby Matherne Next
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The Master of our Destiny,
Captain of our Soul —
With eyes upon the map
Hands on the control —
Will not cut us any slack
Unless that's what
We've come here for.
One night my Soul Captain came to me while I was asleep. "Awake!" he said, startling me. I sat up immediately, wide awake. I had never heard a voice so commanding. He was dressed in a white uniform with gold buttons and wore a captain's hat, looking as if he had just stepped from the bridge on his way to the Captain's Reception for an elegant cruise ship. In a way he had — it was a Captain's Reception, and I was the invited guest. Not that I knew all this at that moment.
"Who are you?" I asked bewildered.
"You can call me Captain," he said, and I took it from his tone of voice when he said Captain that it was to be capitalized.
"And why are you here?"
"I've come to take you on a journey," he said, "a journey of remembering your life."
"But I already remember my life," I protested.
"Not any more, you don't. From this moment on, for the entire journey, you will forget everything you think you remember about your life, and you will observe it like it was happening for the first time."
"You gotta be kidding," I said, "I remember everything about my . . . life . . . I'm . . ." My voice tapered off as suddenly I found that I couldn't remember anything, not my name, what I was doing in this bed, this house, where I was born, who my parents were . . . absolutely nothing. Only that I had been awakened by this strange Captain guy a few moments ago. That's how far back my memory went. It was as if my memory machine had slipped a cog in its gears and was spinning freely, and while it spun, no memories popped out. I tried as hard as I could and I couldn't remember where I was from. I even talked a bit to the Captain, asking him questions just to hear the sound of my voice hoping that maybe an accent in my own voice would give me a clue as to where I was from, but I quickly realized that even my ear for accents had also slipped a cog.
"Come with me," the Captain said, reaching for my hand. As he pulled me up from my sitting position in the bed, the world melted away and when it re-formed I was in a different bedroom. A young man and woman were sleeping in a bed against the wall. The bed was high off the floor, and I noticed a chamber pot under the bed. The windows were open, and a breeze was blowing open the gauzy curtains. I listened carefully and could hear this constant low humming sound. What is that noise? I asked.
"That is the attic fan," he said. "Your mother and father are in the bed asleep."
"Where am I?"
"You might better ask, 'When am I?' Look in the baby bed by the wall."
I hadn't noticed it before, but there was this baby bed with varnished end panels and rails. I walked over and looked into the basket and saw this infant lying on its stomach, sound asleep, a light sheet over its lower body. "That's me?" I asked suddenly recalling what the Captain had said.
"Yes, that's you at one-year-old."
"Wow!" I said, and stood over the bed looking at this peaceful little boy that was me, sleeping soundly, oblivious to the world around him. He seemed to have only light reddish hair thinly laying on his head. Suddenly a loud clanking sound like a drum roll on a small bell filled my ears. "What's that?"
"That's their alarm clock, I believe your dad is about to get up for work. It's 5 AM. He has to be at the alcohol plant for his 7 to 3 shift today. They're stirring now, so I need to tell you that they will not be able to see or hear either of us. We will only be able to observe them."
My mom awoke first, reaching over to turn off the loud clanking before her child awoke. She kissed my dad and got up, and walked through the next room which was the kitchen, opened the door and walked outside to a little wooden shack. "Look, they have an outhouse," I said, surprised. Looking around the kitchen I saw a calendar on the wall. It was a church calendar with a scene of a Madonna holding the Christ Child and the words "Our Lady of Prompt Succor" written across the bottom of the picture. I looked at the month, it was July 1941. "Nineteen-forty-one!" I exclaimed, "I must have been born a year earlier, and in July!"
"Yes, you were," the Soul Captain replied. "As we go on, you'll be able to piece together more of your life."
"My mother came back into the kitchen and yelled "Buster! Time to get up! You'll be late for work!" I could see my father sit up on the corner of the bed with his white boxer shorts on. He held the chamber pot up between his legs and urinated into it, placing the lid back on it and sliding it back under the bed. He got up, pulled a white T-shirt over his head, then donned his gray khaki pants and matching work shirt. "Annette, you got the coffee ready?" he said in a low voice as he buttoned his shirt and look down at the child in the baby bed. He walked into the kitchen saying, "Bobby is still asleep."
"Yes, the coffee's fixed. Here's a cup for you, the rest is in the Thermos already. Bobby'll sleep late, we stayed up last night after you went to bed while I was reading to him."
"Give me some potted meat today instead of lunch meat." Mom was fixing his lunch. She wrapped up four slices of white bread in wax paper. Added two cans of potted meat and an apple to his black lunch kit. It was a painted tin container with a rectangular base and an arch-shaped top on hinges that ran the length of the base. I watched as she filled the kit. She put the sandwiches, meat cans, and apple in the bottom, and in the open top she laid a Thermos bottle filled with coffee and lowered a bracket which kept the Thermos in place as she closed the lid and secured the latch. She lifted it by the handle and gave it to my dad. "Kinda heavy today, huh?" he said as he jiggled it up and down. He and Annette walked back into the bedroom, and he leaned down to kiss little Bobby on the forehead gently. "He's growing up just fine."
"Yes, he is, and he may have a little sister or brother to play with soon, I'm a few days late with my period this month."
"Let's hope it's another boy," Buster said, hugging her and giving her a great big kiss. "That makes it even more important that we get the house finished soon, doesn't it?"
"Be quiet or you'll wake up Hilda and Slim in the front room," she said. "Yes, we'll need a separate bedroom for Bobby and the baby when it grows up. I was talking to your sister yesterday. She said Slim wants them to stay here after we move to Avenue F."
"That's great! It's tough with them crowded into one room with Evelyn and her baby sister."
They walked back through the kitchen, and he left through the back door, giving her another hug and a kiss, then walked down the wooden steps letting the screen door slam behind him. Captain and I followed him down the skinny concrete walkway between the two buildings all the way to the front sidewalk. I expected to see Buster get into a car, but there were no cars in front of the row of houses. Instead he turned right and walked towards the corner. Across the street was a new red brick schoolhouse. It was a long, rectangular structure with a flat roof. The rightmost section seemed to be a two-story tall room, an auditorium or something, because of the large expanse of glass windows that allowed you to see through the building. Lots of green grass surrounded the building which took up a complete block. To the right was a large copse of live oak trees and on the corner was a caretaker's house. "That must be where I will go to school, huh?"
"Yes," the Captain replied, "that will be your elementary school." We walked with Buster to the end of the block and I noticed the street signs read Avenue E and the main street was Fourth Street. Buster kept walking across the street into a grassy pathway which led past some old shacks.
"Where's he going? I thought he was taking a bus or something."
"There are no buses. He will walk to work along the Mississippi River levee about five miles to the alcohol plant."
Suddenly I recalled what my dad had said about the house being built on Avenue F — that must be the next street over. But in which direction? "Can we go see the house being built on Avenue F?"
"Sure, let's go."
We turned right at Fourth Street, and I noticed that the building on the corner was LeFort's Grocery. "Wait, can we take a look in the window?" We stopped and I pressed my face against the glass. There were rectangular glass display cases with wooden frames, an ornate silver looking cash register, and two large glass jars with "Jack's Cookies - 2 Cents" in large red letters written on them. The cookies were large crumbly cookies and filled up half of the jars. We continued our walk and I noticed to the distance on my left a Lumber Yard with a funny looking name, as best I could make it out it was Yzarbal or something like that. Then along the way, I noticed a new building, modern looking, a rectangular box with an all glass front, from floor to ceiling. It hadn't opened yet apparently because the lettering was just being finished on the glass. It read "Itzkovich Fur" and I could see the outlines of the rest of the word "niture" — it was going to be a furniture company. We came to another street sign that said Avenue F and we turned right. We passed a few houses on the right and noticed some gas pumps and a white stucco building with the words "Paul's Motors" on it on the left. Across the street from Paul's Motors was a pile of lumber and some floor joists resting on concrete block pillars about two feet high. Here was my childhood home apparently in the process of being built. Two black men were talking and we listened in.
"You got yo'sef a big job here, yah. How much the man paying yo for this house?"
"Three hundred dollars. And de man's buying all de material. Gonna take us about 3 months to finish dis here house."
"You doin dis all by yo'sef?"
"No, just the framing part. De man comes over after work and helps me with the big stuff. He works shift work, so sometimes he helps during the day, sometimes in the afternoon, and somtimes in the morning. He's a hard worker and learns fast. He can wop a hammer with de best of 'em."
"He must be rich to pay you $300 cash!"
"No, he works at Publicker at Nine Mile Point, and walks back and forth to work everyday, so he ain't rich, no way," the carpenter said. "I heared him telling his brother-in-law dat he got a settlement from some packing company he worked for, some back wages dat de gov'mint made dem pay him. Dat's how he gots de money to build dis house. Now stop yo jabberin and help me get this stack of 2X4s up on the floor deck or you ain't gonna get your two bucks for today."
I looked over at Soul Captain, and he said, "It's time to move on. Next stop is 1951." I wasn't ready to go. I wanted to know what the house would look like, to see little Bobby making his first steps, to watch them move into the new house when it was done, to see whether the baby was a little girl or a boy. As I was wondering these things, the scene faded away.
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