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My Last Days as Roy Rogers

Chapter 1


There were two seasons in life, the season of school and the season of no school.

All other happenings — Christmas, Thanksgiving, spring vacation — all were just short practice sessions leading to the real thing. I was appalled by those who cried on the last day when we were "let out" for the summer. My thinking was, Some genetic disorder must be the cause. It was usually Jenny Lou Harris. Her mother was the school librarian. That explained it.

Summer brought with it the cicada's whine, death to hundreds of lightning bugs that made up my Ball-jar lantern, weather so hot and filled with humidity that my sandals would mildew if left in the closet untended. Afternoon showers as if dumped from a bucket and minutes later bright sunshine to steam everything dry or at least bring it back to its original limp, soggy condition. The showers passed almost without notice, since I was in a perpetual state of damp anyway. As long as there was no streak lightning, we were free to roam in the downpour. Water rushing past in the street gutters would be frantically dammed with mud and sticks to make small wading pools. The more formal among us changed to swim suits for the afternoon rains. The rest of us made do with whatever we began the day in.

It was May and already hot as blue blazes, but Grandmother had explained that the weather never bothered us. Our family had been so long in Alabama, our blood had just naturally thinned out to accommodate itself to the situation. People like us did not suffer from the heat.

May always dawned with the hope, however faint, that we might pass through the whole summer in this way, unfettered by the changes that we knew must come in June when polio season began.

It began for me that June as I sat on the curb in front of my house making a mud dam while steam rose from the still-wet streets. It arrived in the person of Mary Leigh McKnight, my fellow fifth grader, expertly pedaling her Schwinn to a pinpoint stop in front of me.

Mary Leigh was my age but light-years beyond me. Holder of straight A's, wearer of pearly white lipstick, possessor of the ultimate status symbol, blond naturally curly hair, she was so far removed from me as to make comparison, not to mention competition, unthinkable. That's why Mary Leigh liked me.

Of course I blamed my lack of social skills on Mother. A person could not possibly get popular and sophisticated with a mother like mine. She cared too much about everything I did. On the other hand, Mary Leigh's mother let her ride all over town on her own. I knew there must be some correlation.

She poured out the latest. "Well, Tab, I guess you heard what they did."

"What who did?" I was putting the mud I had brought from the driveway in between the rocks and sticks. Water was still getting through.

"Don't tell me you don't know." Mary Leigh pulled the handlebars back and began circling as she talked.

"I said, I didn't know, Mary Leigh. I been busy making this dam, as you can see." I shaded my eyes against the sun to follow her circling. She glanced unseeing at my mud dam.

"Well, everybody in town is talking about it. I thought for sure you would know, since you love to go to the movies so much."

"I told you, Mary Leigh, I don't know! And if it's what I think you're gonna say, I don't want to hear about it."

"They closed all of them down for the summer again, that's what. You can't even go over to Huntsville and see one, because they closed them over there, too."

The pool had closed down last week. Poor Mary Leigh had pedaled her little legs off trying to be the first to tell that news to the few blocks of bungalows that made up our neighborhood.

The Crystal Plunge was the gathering spot for my older sister, Tina, and her myriad of junior high school friends. Fed by a natural spring, the water passed through several filters right into a large concrete rectangle. All of Bainbridge was very proud of our pool. Ice-cold water on the hottest of days. It worked great except for the occasional snake that happened to find its way through the filter system. Of course they were only water snakes. I was sure no self-respecting moccasin would venture near Tina.

Poor Tina had been pitiful over the pool's closing. Swim class at the Crystal Plunge was working on its annual water ballet. This year's theme was "Hawaiian Holiday." For weeks the sounds of "Sweet Leilani," and rhythmic splashing of feet filled the air around the Crystal Plunge. Now all was silent. After the last practice, Tina came home carrying her feather headdress like a wounded bird found by the roadside. She pinned it to the bulletin board on her side of our shared room. Afterward she threw herself across the bed, arm flung over eyes, mumbling something about the Fates and Esther Williams.

Mary Leigh had stopped her bike and was standing on the ground, pretending to adjust the mirror on her handlebars. Of course both of us knew she was only checking her lipstick to see if it was pearly enough. "Oh, it's no big deal," she said. "We don't have but one movie in town anyway and it shows the same picture all week."

"So what if we only have one movie, Mary Leigh. Don't forget we also got the cartoons, and newsreels, and serials, good stuff like that. A person can get a real education at the movies, you know."

Although steeped in the social graces, Mary Leigh was not as politically concerned as I. "Remember, Mary Leigh, that part of the newsreel they showed last week where the man with one arm biked all the way across the United States with his dog?" Mary Leigh didn't remember. I changed the subject.

"You want to help me make this dam? We can build one big enough for the both of us to wade in."

"No thanks. I don't want to take off my shoes and socks. Besides, I might get my new shorts dirty. Did you notice my new shorts?"

"Yeah, real nice, Mary Leigh."

She was smiling at herself in the handlebar mirror. "Well, see you later, Gal." That's what Mary Leigh called everybody, Gal. She said it made you sound more social. She stood on her bike pedals and pumped off down the street toward town. Red, white, and blue handlebar streamers flying in the wind. I watched her naturally curly hair bounce up and down until finally she was out of sight.

I dried my hands on my shorts and headed to the kitchen. Up the back steps, I let the screen door slam behind me. Of course she was always the first vent for my frustrations.

"Okay, Mother." I stood there with hands on hips, giving her my "mean" look. "Why did they close down the movies? Just explain that to me." I was tapping my foot on the linoleum floor. Then I raised my hand before she could give me some plausible explanation. "Hold it. Just hold it. Don't tell me. I know why."

"If you know, why did you ask me?"

"It's because they think we'll catch it at the movies, which is silly to me because they haven't closed Sunday school and we might catch it there, and they never close the doctor's office and that place is full of germs."

Mother smiled. "Would you like a nice glass of iced tea to cool off ?"

"I do everything they say to do, stay inside for spraying, wash my hands all the time, but they keep adding stuff on." I shook my head no to the iced tea, then plopped down in a chair at the kitchen table and started balancing the salt and pepper shakers on top of the sugar bowl.

Whenever I came inside in the summer, I always ended up in the kitchen. The chair on the left side of the table was mine. Just as you had a bed, you had a chair at the kitchen table. Mine was by the window overlooking the common driveways between our house and the McMillans' house next door. The breeze from the attic fan danced the window curtains and began to dry my wet clothes.

Mother was busying herself with some sort of cooking that involved large mounds of flour. She was not "to the stove born," so the end product of her labors was sometimes a surprise to us all. To add to her lack of skill was the fact that the stove was as old as the house and sat on an uneven floor. All her dishes cooked up lopsided. We pretended not to notice.

Custom intended that all meals consist of at least one or two meats, three or four vegetables, and hot bread washed down by gallons of iced tea. All of this was followed by an occasional — I might even say a rare — dessert. Often our father would forget himself. "What's for dessert?" We would turn our heads to her and smile in anticipation.

"What's for dessert? What's for dessert? The twins have an ear infection, Charles junior got poison ivy, Tab skinned her knee so badly it took me an hour to stop the bleeding, and Tina spilled nail polish all over the coffee table."

He would quickly pick up the sugar bowl. "Nothing like a little sweet taste to finish the meal," he said as he downed a teaspoonful of sugar and passed the bowl on to the next one of us. We would dip our teaspoon into the bowl and give extra sugar to our iced tea glass or take it straight. Sort of like Holy Communion. We were absolved of our dessert sin.

In addition to the cooking, there was Mama's maid problem. Suddenly I realized Estelle was missing. "Where's Estelle, Mama? I thought she was always here by now."

"Estelle won't be coming in today." Mother looked resigned as she cranked out more flour. Estelle was the fourth maid we had had that year. In Bainbridge if you had a maid, it didn't mean you were rich. It only meant that the maid could get a good meal in the middle of the day and take home a little, very little, money at the end of the week. Not much cash money was involved because there was not much cash money to be had. Still and all, maids and Mama just didn't seem to get along.

"Did Estelle quit on you, Mama? That's the fourth maid."

"No! Estelle did not quit on me. We just had a mutual understanding and . . . and she left."

"Grandmama says maids quit on you 'cause you're from the North and don't know how to talk to them. She says you're gonna use up all the maids in town before long." Grandmother, my father's mother, had lived in Bainbridge since the time of the caveman, as far as I could tell. In my eyes she was Mohammed or the Mountain or both and must be deferred to in all matters. Mother, on the other hand, was not such an easy convert.

She gave me one of her looks. The one where her eyes were half-closed and her mouth was a perfectly straight line across her face. "Tennessee is not exactly up north, Tab. Your grandmother exaggerates, as usual. Besides, we had servants when I was growing up. Did I ever tell you about the Indian cook we had? He was a real Indian. He belonged to one of the Cherokee tribes in the Smokies."

"You told me before, Mama, a million times, but that doesn't count."

"I don't know why it doesn't count. It's all the same. I simply tried to write out a list of duties that Estelle would be responsible for each day and she got huffy and left."

"Remember the time Para Lee worked for us and you tried to teach her to make a corn souffle and it turned out so terrible and she got huffy and left? She said the only time the Lord wanted corn to rise up was when you popped it? Remember?"

Mother didn't like to be reminded of her maid problem. She glared at me from the flour bin. "All I did was post a simple list of duties, now what's the matter with that?"

"Estelle got huffy 'cause she couldn't read the list," I said.

Mama's cheeks burned red. "How was I supposed to know that?" She looked at me suspiciously. "How did you know that, Tab?"

"Well, Grandmother says "

"Oh, never mind what your grandmother says. That's all I ever hear around here, what your grandmother says. Let's get back to the subject at hand. Who told you the movies were closing?"

"Mary Leigh. She rode by on her bike just now. Her mother lets her ride all over the place on her bike, you know."

"Like Paul Revere spreading the news."

"Like who?"

"Oh, never mind, go ahead."

"Well, that's all there is to it. They closed the movies all over this part of Alabama and nobody has any say about it. Why do they keep closing all the places that are good and none of the places I hate?"

Mother was smiling now as she poured milk into a bowl that was, I hoped, the beginnings of a cake. "Maybe if you're lucky, they'll start closing some of the places you hate. There has been some talk of closing the whole town down."

"What does that mean, close the town down? You can't close down a whole town." Not that I cared at this point. Everything of any meaning had already gone by the wayside.

"Oh, it's just talk that gets started every summer when the polio comes. If things get really bad, they'll close down all the places where more than a few people gather." She walked over and raised the window by the kitchen table higher. Another hour or so and the house would be closed against the heat of the day. This week's advice concerning polio said that you must be careful not to get too hot. If you did, you might catch it. Next week another surefire safeguard would be in vogue. Mother went back to stirring her bowl. "I phoned Cora Johnson this morning. Her Jimmy came down with it last Wednesday." She stood shaking her head as she stirred. "He ate a banana the night before he got sick. Now Cora is telling everybody who'll listen that the bananas gave it to him. Something about they came from Mexico."

I gagged. "Mama! You let me eat two this morning! You told me bananas were good for"

"I did and they are. Bananas weren't the cause, sweetheart. Cora, Mrs. Johnson, is just trying to make some sense out of it. The paper said the count is already up to one hundred and ten people and it's just barely into June."

She took salt and pepper from the cabinet above the counter and added it to her brew. Pepper did not portend a sweet after-dinner delicacy, but you never knew.

Life in Bainbridge was to Mother like dropping Tallulah Bankhead down in the middle of the Amazon rain forest. Mother had been born and raised in very comfortable circumstances in the city, educated to be a classical musician, and was on her way up north to study when love struck. Fifteen years and five children later, Mother and Bainbridge still did not live as one.

Mother could not get it through her head that baking a good cake for the missionary circle was more important than spending an afternoon reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer to us as we huddled in a circle around her rocking chair on the screened porch. Or that visiting Great-Aunt Lizzie on the tenth anniversary of her husband's passing was more important than putting her feet up and reading the editorials in the Birmingham News. In a town filled to overflowing with her husband's relatives, she was besieged from all sides but undaunted.

Grandmother Rutland, on the other hand, was just as determined to have her see the light of accommodation, and I, brainwashed from the time I was old enough to take Grandmother Rutland's hand and walk up the steps of the First Methodist Church of Bainbridge, I was her willing accomplice. Me and Grandmother must, would, lead Mother into the path of righteous Bainbridge culture no matter how long it took.

You take my name, for instanceTabitha Goodloe Rutland. It was a perfect example of Mother's and Grandmother's turn of mind. The Tabitha was Mother's idea. She thought it sounded pretty off the southern tongue. The Goodloe was from Grandmother's side of the family. Grandmother said that Great-Great Uncle Preston Goodloe died the death of a wonderful military hero up at the Battle of Shiloh during the War. Mother, being less than reverent when it came to family folklore, said that more than likely he died of a large case of Jack Daniel's at home in bed. I didn't mention her theory to Grandmother.

Now she was squishing what appeared to be dough between her fingers and talking at the same time. "I sure do hate to see the movies close. I was looking forward to seeing that new picture with Lana Turner that's coming next week." She brushed a straggle of hair off of her forehead with a floury hand. "Well, look at it this way, Tab, after what happened last week, you and your friends might not be allowed back in the movie anyway."

"That was not my fault, Mama." I bristled. "I told you that. It was all Miss Blankenship's fault. She should have known we weren't ready to serve our fellow man." That was not true in the strictest sense, but then, why burden Mother with the actual facts of the story. She wouldn't have believed it was all Maudie May's doing anyway.

"What are you talking about?" Mother said, too busy consulting the Ladies Help League Fifth Anniversary Edition of Fascinating Foods of Bainbridge to pay real attention to me.

"That's what Miss Blankenship called it. Serving out fellow man," I said.

"Miss Blankenship means well. You girls will just have to bear with her."

She reached down in the cuppord and got out — a frying pan?

Excerpted from My Last Days as Roy Rogers © Copyright 2012 by Pat Cunningham Devoto. Reprinted with permission by Time Warner Books. All rights reserved.

My Last Days as Roy Rogers
by by Pat Cunningham Devoto

  • paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
  • ISBN-10: 0446675644
  • ISBN-13: 9780446675642