My husband Larry had promised we would take a vacation as soon as he graduated from Texas Tech. So, although Larry’s class graduated in August 1968, Larry celebrated by keeping that promise to me. Rather than attend Tech’s graduation ceremony, we would vacation in Alabama and I would finally meet his mother’s relatives, including his dear grandmother, Mama, and his mother’s extended family.
The vacation was coming at just the right time. In addition to graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business, Larry had been accepted by the United States Air Force (USAF) for Officer Training School (OTS), which would be followed by pilot training. Larry’s life dream to be an officer and pilot in the USAF was set in motion to become reality.
At the same time, there was more exciting news. Larry and I had just learned I was pregnant. We were thrilled, though I privately worried about Larry’s potential deployment. However, with Larry by my side, I couldn’t dwell on this too much. One of the loveliest things about my husband was his unmasked excitement and unadulterated joy. When I raised concerns or verbalized anxiety, Larry’s typical response went like this, “It will all work out, Tyra. Don’t worry. It’ll work out.” As long as I was with Larry, I believed him.
Despite my worries, I couldn’t wait for our trip to Alabama. I longed to walk in the woods, pick wild plums, explore the forest and see where so many of the stories Larry had told me had taken place. The icing on the cake was scheduled for the end of our trip, crabbing at Mobile Bay.
Larry’s stories about his childhood in Alabama were filled with rich details. Larry’s grandmother, Mama, played an especially large part in his life. Mama and her husband, Papa, raised Larry until he was three years old, while his mother worked at a canning factory in Mobile during the week.
When Larry was three, his mother married Robert J. Hull. Chief Master Sergeant Hull adopted Larry and my husband’s life changed dramatically, because he began traveling the world as the son of an Air Force Non-Commissioned Officer. Papa Hull told me the first time he met him, Larry was a toddler—stripped down to his birthday suit with shoulder-length, blond curly hair.
Papa Hull described the story of their first meeting: “When Mama called Larry to lunch, he peeked out from behind a tall tree behind Mama and Papa’s tiny cottage. Larry must have seen me and his mother drive up in my car,” Papa Hull surmised, “and was deciding whether or not to come in for lunch. Finally, his wish to be with his mother was greater than his reluctance to be around a stranger.”
Touring Larry’s Childhood Stomping Grounds
When Larry and I visited Alabama, Mama cooked Larry’s favorites for breakfast: a platter of fried eggs, ham, grits, pancakes, maple syrup, biscuits and gravy, orange juice and milk. As soon as we finished eating, Larry grabbed my hand, “Come on, wait till you see the bullaces. Mama says the bushes are loaded with sweet dark purple grapes, only they’re really plums.”
Dressed in jeans, sneakers and long sleeves, so thorny bushes wouldn’t leave us bleeding and unknown plants wouldn’t prove to be poisonous, I traipsed after Larry, trying to step where he stepped. I couldn’t remember seeing him so excited, except when we learned I was pregnant.
Bullace patches were everywhere, and we filled a Winn Dixie shopping bag with the sweet, purple, juicy fruit. Larry found the best shade tree and gallantly spread out a small blanket he had secretly hidden. Always thoughtful, he made me feel like I was a princess in the forest. Larry had a way of turning everything into a special event and this picnic of bullaces was no different.
I was reminded of my grandparents’ grape arbor, planted on Nennie’s and PaPa’s farm. The arbor provided shade in the West Texas sun for me and my cousins. We’d sit under the arbor, eat grapes, tell stories and share family gossip.
As Larry told stories about staying with his grandparents, he suddenly grinned, winked at me and said, “Can you believe they called me the Wild Child when I lived here while mom worked in the cannery? Hard to believe I am going to be a daddy and a pilot and an officer in the USAF. How does that song go? Only in America?”
Crabbing at Mobile Bay
After spending time with Larry’s grandparents, we left for a weekend with his Uncle Orrin and Aunt Louise in Mobile. Larry had told me stories of going crabbing at Mobile Bay and I could tell his determination to take me crabbing was important to him. I looked forward to it. Coming from the West Texas sand hills, Larry’s stories of Alabama and his early childhood were like a different world to me. His stories meant a lot to me; God knows, he had listened to my childhood stories for hours.
Uncle Orrin and Aunt Louise had breakfast on the table when they woke us the morning after we arrived. Uncle Orrin was serious, “You’ll need a full belly. Crabbing in the hot sun is hard work. Your Aunt Louise packed sandwiches for lunch, but I usually get too busy to eat if the crabs are taking the bait.”
During breakfast, I learned Aunt Louise and Uncle Orrin had invited Larry’s mother’s only brother and his family to join us for our crab dinner that same evening. The menu was set: boiled crab, potato salad, potato chips, celery filled with blue cheese and chives and, finally, one of Aunt Louise’s homemade red velvet cakes with buttercream icing. Beer and sweet tea were on the menu as well.
I was a bit surprised. Uncle Orrin was a Pentecostal preacher in the hills by Citronelle, where Larry’s grandparents lived. He preached on the weekends and worked in the lumber mill during the week. My family were Baptists and drinking was not acceptable, according to the preachers I listened to when I was growing up.
After breakfast, we loaded up the pickup and headed for the popular Winn Dixie grocery store. “What do we need at the Winn Dixie?” I asked. “Chicken backs,” Larry and Uncle Orrin answered in unison.
“What are they for? I’ve never been crabbing and don’t know anything about it,” I said, showing my naiveté.
“You’ll get the hang of it,” Uncle Orrin said.
“And you’ll love it. It’s so easy and they taste so good,” Larry chimed in, as Uncle Orrin pulled into the store parking lot.
Larry and I stayed in the car while Uncle Orrin went inside and soon returned with two bags of chicken backs.
“They’ll go in the cooler in the back,” Larry explained.
I turned to look through the back window and noticed five or six plastic buckets with handles.
When we arrived at the bay, Uncle Orrin parked the pickup truck. He pulled a spool of heavy string from the glove box and pushed it in one of the pockets in his overalls. There’s more in the glove box if we run out he told Larry.
Between the three of us, we were able to carry all the necessary crabbing paraphernalia. Uncle Orrin chose one of the docks that was vacant. Once on the dock, Larry and Uncle Orrin set up shop.
“Watch this, Tyra,” Larry demonstrated. “Wrap the string around the top part of the chicken back, tie a double knot, like this, and you’re ready.”
Uncle Orrin and Larry dipped the buckets into the bay, filling them up about three quarters full.
“Sit down on the dock and get comfortable. Dangle the chicken back into the water and wait until you feel a full tug. Then, yank the chicken back out of the water. The crab will hang on for dear life. Then, drop him into the bucket of water and gently tap him on the inside of it, above the water line. If he doesn’t let go of the chicken, push him off with this stick. If that doesn’t work, bang him against the bucket kinda hard and he’ll let go. It’s that simple,” he grinned.
We spent the day crabbing. I didn’t realize I was getting so much sun and kept on crabbing, trying to keep up with Larry and Uncle Orrin. Uncle Orrin stayed with our gear while Larry and I broke for lunch under the porch of a beer stand, not far from the dock.
The afternoon sped by and it was time to go before I knew it. I was drawn to Uncle Orrin and appreciated how loving he was to me and Larry.
“Your Aunt Louise is going to be stomping mad if we get caught up in traffic on the way home, Uncle Orrin said. “She’s excited to have so much of her family together and I’ll take the brunt of it. Besides, Larry, your mother will give me what for, too.”
Once we got home, Uncle Orrin boiled our crab in a black pot hanging over a fire pit in the back yard. Having grown up in West Texas, I had no experience eating fresh crab. I remember thinking West Texas beef might become second to fresh crab and become my all-time favorite entrée.
That night I was mesmerized by the family stories I heard and I marveled at how different our family backgrounds were and yet, how similar. Family was paramount. Despite the fact that the places Larry and I had lived were so different, many of our values, our appreciation of family and our stories brought us even closer together.
I saw Uncle Orrin and Aunt Louise one more time after our visit to Alabama. They drove to West Texas to attend Larry’s first memorial service after he was killed in Vietnam and his remains were not recovered. They loved Larry so very much and he loved them back.
After our visit to Mobile and crabbing on the dock, I understood why Larry loved Otis Redding’s recording of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay.”