The book tells the story of illegal activity by officials in power who operated under the guise of protecting the country.
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"Great news, son!"
That night in 1954 when Daddy walked in the door with a big smile on his face, nobody had any idea how relieved I felt. While he was away in the federal prison they called a hospital, smiles at our house had been rare, and since he'd come home we'd barely shared a couple of feeble ones. Tonight's wasn't one of those big beaming smiles from the past, but it was genuine, and in itself that was a blessing.
He waved a couple of red tickets under my nose. "Tomorrow's labor Day, y'know, and it's the Blakely Lions' last game of the season. Get your work done early, so we can start making up for all the baseball we've missed."
Mother looked up from her desk. "All he has to do is cut the grass."
"I'll get up real early," I said. "It won't take long."
"That's my boy," Daddy said. "And after the game, what d'you say we stop at Charlie's for some oysters on the half shell?"
"You bet!" I actually felt excited again. Watching baseball and eating oysters were the two most fun things Daddy and I used to do together, and memories of those good times still glowed through the gloom of everything that had happened.
It was no use inviting mother, who didn't care for minor-league baseball or oysters, but she smiled her approval. Daddy laid an arm around my shoulders, and I felt the stored-up tension in my body ease. I grinned as our eyes met, not yet used to being as tall as he.
"It'll be like old times, son," he said. "Guaranteed."
Was such a thing possible? Were we back on solid ground, sharing the happy things we used to share? Had I gotten back the father I'd lost?
I dropped off into a sound sleep that night, hopeful that better days were ahead.
I woke at dawn refreshed, though as I pulled on my shorts I could tell the day would be a good old Georgia scorcher. Pushing our lawn-mower back and forth over the dewy grass gave me plenty of time to reflect. Maybe I could finally stop hanging my head and look people in the eye again.
Daddy enjoyed the baseball game as much as I did, and as we sat in the stands eating boiled peanuts and commenting on both teams' players, I didn't see a soul whispering behind their hands or even pointing our way. When a great play was made Daddy didn't spring up to yell encouragement the way he used to, but he seemed to enjoy himself.
As for me, I felt reborn.
In a close-run extra inning that brought us all to our feet, the lions won, and as the stands emptied, Daddy turned cheerful eyes to me. "All right, son, you ready for those oysters?"
"Bet I can eat a peck."
He laughed and walked with me out to our Ford as if nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened. I was glad to walk beside him again proud of the courage he'd shown through his terrible ordeal. Gosh, it felt good to hold my head high after a year and a half of humiliation and loneliness. I welcomed the happy moment for the blessing it was.
Charleston Jones' oyster bar was one of two in town, Daddy's and my favorite hangouts, and both were always crowded after a baseball game. Called Charlie by some, the proprietor was a former Lions pitcher who'd married a local girl and set up in business in Blakely when his ball-playing days ended. Baseball fans and friends liked to come by, eat oysters on the half-shell, and rehash the game.
Daddy had always loved holding forth at Charlie's, laughing and joking with everybody in the place. A big full-of-life man, he never sought center stage, yet center stage was invariably what he got. People loved being in his company. They'd give him the spotlight and come away feeling better for it every time.
We found two empty stools at the counter and ordered our first dozen oysters, my mouth purely watering for those succulent morsels fresh from Apalachicola Bay. Humid Georgia air wafted through the screens that stood in for windows; lazy fans turned overhead. Charlie's wife walked around with a flyswatter, nailing an invader now and again.
While Charlie reached into a big #10 washtub of oysters, wiped his knife on his apron, and began shucking left-handed, I kept an anxious eye on Daddy. Since his release from prison he'd often seemed subdued and distracted, but when I saw him looking around with the familiar twinkle in his eye, I rested easy. He nodded and smiled to the other patrons like his old jovial self.
A local character called Pete reached out a bony paw. "I tell you what, Doc; it sure is great to have you back!"
Daddy's face lit up. "Pete, you old scoundrel. Mighty glad to be back, too."
Pete looked me over. "This no-count scarecrow ain't little Doc, is it?" "Yes sirree," Daddy said. "Gonna make a sure-enough doctor out of him, so he can take over and let me retire."
"Now, Doc, don't you talk about retiring." Pete shook his head. "We need you 'round here. I already like to died while you was gone."
"Is that so?" Daddy's face showed real concern.
"I wouldn't lie to you, took the pneumonia, and ain't nobody like you for the pneumonia. I told the old lady, if Doc Wall was here I'd of got well overnight."
Daddy laughed and slapped him on the back. "Come on, you can lay off the soft soap now you're on your feet again."
I was hungrily watching Charlie. He had over a dozen glistening oysters shucked and arranged on Bakelite trays that had jostled so many shells they'd lost all their shine.
Pete said, "Yep, I'm doing right fair now. But like I told you, when we needed us a good doctor, you was gone, and that hurt me awful bad."
Daddy was lining up bottles of hot sauce in readiness for the oysters. "Well, Pete, in a few more years your worries will be over. When this boy finishes medical school you'll have you a fine doctor for sure."
Pete jabbed a gentle punch at my arm. "All right, boy, get on with it!"
I grinned half-heartedly. In the wake of our troubles my high school grades had sunk so low I had few hopes of getting into medical school. If I couldn't, it would crush Daddy, so I kept my doubts to myself. He'd already had enough disappointment to last a lifetime.
Charlie set two trays of oysters on the counter in front of us, and Daddy helped himself to saltines, ready to consume with gusto.
"Y'all take it easy," Pete said as we settled down to enjoy our briny feast. "See you around."
"You bet." Daddy tucked a paper napkin over his tie. "Now then, son, let's see who can eat the hottest oyster tonight."
By the time we were done, we'd put away four dozen apiece. Daddy was home, the good old days were back.
For the first sixteen years of my life, wherever Doctor W. H. Wall went, I was likely to be right by his side. His shadow — little Doc. That's what folks called me, and I loved both the name and the association. Hundreds of times he carried me along when he drove out in the country to make house calls. Every family greeted him like a savior.
Sometimes I followed him inside to wait in the front room; sometimes I hung around the porch or the yard talking to the kids if they weren't too shy, maybe playing with the family dog or just wait in the car listening to WWl and Bugling Sam Decomel in New Orleans. I had to limit the use of the car radio for fear I would kill the battery. Daddy was very attentive to the condition of his car and always kept it in perfect working order.
After he'd done his best for the patient and we got back in our car to leave, whoever waved goodbye always beamed gratitude and relief. But the most memorable times were when we'd pull up outside a crossroads store.
"Come on, son," Daddy would say. "Let's go politick a little and chew the fat." anybody in the neighborhood who saw his car heading for the store would drop what they were doing to hustle down there too.
No more than five years old when I first tagged along, I was puzzled about that fat, for I never saw anybody chew any. Soon I learned it was just a saying. To Daddy, chew the fat meant listen to whatever the other fellows wanted to say, then tell them what he thought.
As soon as we walked into the store he'd say, "all right, son, have you some crackers and Vienna sausage," or sometimes "Have you some crackers and hoop cheese." Then he'd ask, "What kind of bellywash you want?" — his name for soda pop. I'd take an r. C. Cola, sometimes a Coke.
So he'd set me up with my snack, then do what he'd promised — chew the fat with the storekeeper and politick with the folks crowding in to unload their troubles, swap jokes, or just shake his hand. Watching him in that setting was watching a people person to the nth degree. The folks of early County knew it and responded in kind.
One stunt he loved to perform always mystified his onlookers. "All right, now," he'd say, "I'm taking bets." He would go behind the counter, lean both arms on it, and scan the spectators' faces.
Then, with all the gravity of a conjuror: "Watch carefully, now, because I'm fixin to cut a one-pound piece off this wheel of cheese. Not almost one pound, not a little over a pound. Exactly one pound. Any bets I can't do it?"
Somebody would always wager a nickel or a dime — in the rural South these were poverty days. Daddy would flex his wrists, shoot his cuffs, take up the cutter, and reduce that wheel of cheese by precisely one pound — not half an ounce more, not half an ounce less.
The onlookers always shook their heads. "Ain't that the derndest thing? Doc, how in tarnation you do that? You ain't missed it by a hair!"
Daddy would just laugh and tell them to keep their money. As a youngster back in the family store at Wall's Crossing he'd done the identical thing a hundred times, and he knew he'd never fail.
The way those folks treated him, you'd have thought the President had stopped by. Wide-eyed children gaped as if he were Santy Claus. Bursting with pride, I ate my country-store picnic and basked in their admiration for Daddy, adding my own for the easy way he joked and smiled, the way he listened and dealt patiently with their various woes. He had a good word for every person there, because he truly cared about each one — that was plain to see, and in my own young eyes, Daddy was the next thing to God.
Those were magical times, being little Doc, heir apparent to Blakely's beloved Doctor Wall, before the bubble burst and the troubles came. Afterward, those long months while Daddy was in prison left a hole in my soul, and the only thing that kept me going was praying that hole could get patched up and life could get back to normal. Just sixteen years old when they sent him away, I clung to that desperate hope with all the strength of a mature man.
Home from the oyster bar in the sweltering summer night, I had been asleep for a couple of hours, my bedroom dark as a cave, when heavy hands woke me up, ripping at my pajama pants.
"Hey, cut it out!" I hollered. "What's going on?" I bolted upright, trying to hang onto my pants.
Daddy's voice shook the walls. "You goddamn little mother-fucker — I'll show you! I'll give you what you deserve!" He went on jerking at my pajamas.
I couldn't believe what was happening, what I heard. Daddy never cursed or used such words — never.
"Whoa, Daddy!" I yelled. "Hold off!"
I kicked out to defend myself, while he went on cursing and tearing at my pants, pummeling me like a wild man. Still in the dark, we hollered and thrashed around as I struggled to beat him off. I scrambled to my knees, then got on my feet, desperate to get the bed between us. Nothing made sense.
He roared on. "Goddamn you, you little bastard! You mother-fucking son of a bitch!"
"Wait, Daddy! Wait! Hold on! What's this about?"
He just kept shouting and throwing wild punches. "Don't think you can fool me! I know the filthy things you and your mother got up to while I was gone! That S.o.B. isbell was right, you damn mother-fucker!"
"My god, Daddy, what're you talking about?"
"You can't hide it from me — I know all about it! Every night, going at it, you and her. I'll fix you! I'll fix you both!"
I hopped around dodging his blows, unable to believe the fury, the accusations, or the language spewing from his lips. A raging gorilla bursting into my room couldn't have shocked me more. Suddenly I was no longer a six-foot teenager but a terrified kid.
"Please, Daddy, listen! You've got everything all wrong!"
When I managed to switch on the bedside lamp I saw that although it was the middle of the night, he was still completely clothed. His distorted face confirmed what I already knew: my father was out of his mind.
"Mother!" I yelled. "Come quick, help me! Daddy's gone crazy!" "Crazy, huh?" He snatched up my baseball bat from the corner and lunged at me. "You little mother-fucker, I'll show you who's crazy! I'll beat you to death!"
I had picked up the desk chair to hold him off when mother, barefoot and in her nightgown, came running into my room.
"Henry, for God's sake!" She dragged at Daddy's suit coat with both hands. "What's come over you? Stop it! The boy hasn't done a thing!"
I scrambled on the floor for the jeans I'd tossed there at bedtime, while Daddy shook mother off and went on swinging wildly, cursing and screaming.
"Don't think you can fool me! I know what nasty doings you were up to while I was gone! Animals, low-lifes! A filthy little bastard, that's what he is!"
"My God, Henry, please!" mother pulled at his arm, struggling to draw him toward the door.
I simply could not believe what was happening. I had never known Daddy to use a foul word, never known him to lay a hand on me. How could he do all this and concoct such an evil fantasy of lies?
Mother's efforts seemed futile. She was crying, but she wouldn't stop pleading nor pulling at him. "Henry, you have to stop this! Leave him alone!"
When he drew back a fist to swing at her, I shouted, "Let him be, mother! Just turn loose and run, go call for help. I'll knock him down."
But she wouldn't abandon me to fight him on my own — she renewed her efforts to pull him away. I considered trying to get the bat away from him to use it myself, but that maniacal look on his face warned me off. All I could do was shelter behind my chair while Daddy thrashed and swore. When a hysterical urge to laugh rose up inside me, I knew letting it out might cost me my life.
At last mother got a better purchase on his arm. She spoke soothingly, urging him toward the hall.
"Henry, come on now. Listen, there's a phone call, one of your patients is in labor. You have to calm down! They need you."
Of course the phone hadn't rung. But her ruse seemed to work. The physician in Daddy was still alive, and he'd always put his patients' needs first. His arms dropped, then his shoulders, as the fury leached out of his face.
Mother went on encouraging, placating. "That's right, Henry. That's right. Come on, now." Her intuition — or inspiration — had short-circuited his mad rampage. "Hurry, now, this man who called, he says they need you right away."
I didn't know what she would tell him when they got to the phone, but seeing her handle this part, I figured she could manage that as well. The worst had passed.
after she coaxed him into the hall I stood there in a daze, half-naked, unable to make sense of a thing — our happy time together at the ball game, good oysters and fun at Charlie's place, falling asleep lulled by fresh hope, only to be catapulted into a life-or-death struggle with an insane stranger.
I was devastated. My idol had turned on me, accused me of unspeakable things, called me the filthiest of names. It was as if some demon had spouted foul words through my dearly loved daddy's lips. If anyone else had said those things to me, I'd have beaten him senseless. But this was my adored father.
Dear Lord in Heaven, what had happened to Doctor Wall and little Doc? What could I do? again, I wanted to run away, go tearing out into the night and just keep running, running, running till I collapsed.
But how could I leave mother to cope with such a mess? There was no way out, none at all.
I walked over and closed the door to the hall, sank down on the side of my bed, and gave way to shaking sobs. It was the bleakest hour of my life.
So great were the horror and pain of that night that for fifty years I couldn't tell a soul about it. I didn't even tell mother of his worst accusation, the vilest name he had hurled at me. I just told her he'd burst into my room suddenly in the dark and attacked me for no reason at all.
Thirty minutes later Daddy's voice reached me from the kitchen. "Son, can you come in here for a minute?" more bewilderment, because he sounded perfectly normal again.
Weak-kneed, I ventured out to find him and mother sitting at the kitchen table. The storm had obviously passed. As he sat there waiting for me, I saw him as a sick, worried old man. And Daddy was only fifty-two.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "From Healing to Hell"
Copyright © 2018 W. H. WALL, JR..
Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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