When I was just six years old, living in Fairhope, Alabama, a man knocked at our front door. My father, John Smith, peered through the curtains in the living room to get a peek at who was outside. Immediately, he let go of the curtains, turned to my mom, Jane, and said in his New York accent, “Janey, maybe it’s best you two should play downstairs.” Without hesitating, Ma picked me up and we hurried downstairs, closing the door behind us. I didn’t know what was going on, but something wasn’t right. There were no toys downstairs. No video games, no television. Nothing. It was just a dingy basement. I wasn’t even allowed to go down there by myself and all of a sudden it’s playtime in the basement? I didn’t think so.
Ma looked nervous, pacing around the basement. While she was distracted, I quietly made my way up the stairs and peeked under the closed door. I could see two pairs of shoes. One of them belonged to Pop and the other to whoever was just knocking at the door. I could barely make out some words of their muffled conversation through the door. I heard things like, “How did you find . . . “ and “You never should have . . . “ and “Word in the Village is . . .” Some were said by Pop, some by the other man. There was a scuffle and a thud.
The noise got my mom’s attention and she looked up towards the door and saw me crouched at the top stair. “James Lincoln Smith!” she yelled in a whisper. I knew she was serious because she used my full name. Quickly I made my way back down the stairs and into her trembling arms. She held me tight until Pop opened the door and allowed us back inside.
“What’s going on, Pop?” I asked curiously.
“It’s nothin’ to worry about,” he replied. “Just some yahoo tryin’ a sell a magazine subscription. Guess the heat must of got to him ‘cause he just passed right out.”
“That must of been the thud then, huh?” asked Ma, also in her New York accent.
“Yeah, that was the thud alright,” confirmed Pop.
About an hour later, the two men in grey suits came by the house. I’d seen them there a few times. Smitty and Johnson I think were their names. They didn’t come by often, but they seemed nice enough. And they always brought me a new toy, so I liked them just fine. They didn’t stay long. They never do. And that was the last of it.
When I was sixteen years old, just entering my Junior year at St. Michael Catholic School here in Fairhope, we were all given a project at the start of the school year. We were to talk to our parents and put together a family tree with a minimum of three generations included, and we didn’t count as one of the generations. It sounds easy enough. Many kids get this kind of a project at some point in their academic career. But this one wasn’t going to be easy for me.
We never talked about our family history. Ma and Pop both swore they were born and raised right here in Fairhope, but there were things that always seemed a bit suspicious. Their New York accents were the number one reason to second guess their southern upbringing. Alabama isn’t really known to be a melting pot of immigration from around the country or around the world and their New York accents stood out like a cactus in a cotton field. Most folks who moved to Alabama generally came from Georgia or Mississippi. A lot of people would leave Alabama seeking a little more adventure and excitement. They’d head south to the sunny beaches of Florida, or north to Jersey, Mass or New York, and some would head out west to golden California. But that traffic didn’t usually flow the other direction. Alabamians don’t have a reputation for being unwelcoming, though our state flag (a giant red “X” on a white background) might give that impression. Folks from more liberal states looking for a little more southern conservatism tend to end up in Texas or Louisiana or Tennessee. Those looking to retire head to Florida. No, Alabama isn’t usually the first choice for relocation no matter where you’re coming from or heading to.
If my folks were originally from New York, it didn’t really make sense why they’d choose to move to Alabama. New Yorkers in particular are one group southerners don’t particularly care for. In fact, there’s a saying down here: “Yankees are like hemorrhoids: Pain in the butt when they come down and always a relief when they go back up.”
I never knew my grandparents and neither of my folks ever talked about them. Pop always said I should have heard their accents if I thought his was bad, but that was the extent of it. Being born and raised here in Fairhope, I had a little New York gruff mixed with a little ‘Bama twang when I spoke. I used to get teased somethin’ fierce growin’ up for the funny way I talked. I guess folks had grown accustomed to it, cause that stopped right around high school. I do suppose being quarterback of the high school varsity football team had something to do with that. Go Cardinals!
I decided to go to my mom first. Both my parents were pretty tight-lipped about it, but I thought if either of them would divulge any information, I had a better shot with Ma.
“How was school today, James?” she asked as I walked through the door.
“Oh, nothing too exciting,” I tried not to make a big deal of the project.
“First day as a Junior and that’s all you got?” she pressed.
“All right, all right. Geeze, Ma. We were given a project. Somethin’ you and Pop could help me with.”
“Oh yeah? I hope it ain’t math. You know your Pop and me, we ain’t too good at that math stuff. Or English for that matter.”
“No no. It’s nothing like that. I have to put together a Family Tree,” I said and watched her face noticeably drop.
“Well, that’s a fun little project they gotcha doin’ there, huh? We should wait for your father to get home to put all those pieces together for ya.”
“I see,” I said deflated because I knew what was coming next.
That night at dinner, as I suspected, Pop wasn’t too keen on the whole Family Tree project. “What do they need that information for?” he asked suspiciously. “Our family ain’t nobody’s business but our own. And you can tell them your old man said so.” And then we ate and Pop talked about his day at work and that was the end of it.
I knew I couldn’t go to my teachers with that. I sent away for one of those DNA kits you can order online that trace your genealogy. The problem is, unless your family also has DNA on record, you just get a generic analysis of your ethnicity. The odd thing was, I had a lot of family with DNA in some kind of database. I found out about uncles and aunts I’d never heard about. Grandparents on both sides of the family. Great grandparents. It turned out that one of my great cousins was apparently Lou Gehrig, first baseman for the New York Yankees. All our history traced back to New York. I was so excited at what I discovered and got to work on my Family Tree project for school. I didn’t tell my parents what I found. I figured they had their reasons for keeping it from me and we could talk about that later. More importantly, I couldn’t wait to tell everyone at school about my cousin Lou.
But when I got to school the next day, our regular teacher, Mrs. Jennings wasn’t in class. We had a substitute, an ugly, mean looking man named Mr. Wright. He was so ugly his face could turn sweet milk sour. Anyway, Mr. Wright told us our projects were postponed on account of Mrs. Jennings’ absence and then we were dismissed early.
Needless to say, Ma was surprised to see me home before my usual time. I told her what happened at school and that I was disappointed because I wanted to tell the kids about Lou Gehrig and the rest of what I found out. Ma dropped the glass she was cleaning in the sink and it shattered. She looked at me like I’ve only seen her do once before.
“Who told you about Lou Gerhig?” she asked, shaking.
“Ma, what’s wrong?”
“Who told you?!” she barked, clearly upset.
I told her about the DNA test I took and showed her the results I got in the mail. She pulled out her phone. She looked terrified.
“Johnny, you betta get home right away. James found out about New York and had a substitute at school today,” she informed my father of the situation.
Next thing I knew, we were both packing suitcases in a hurry. We grabbed what we could and slipped out the back door where Pop was waiting for us. As we shut the door, we heard the front door being kicked in forcefully and several men running into the house. We left before they saw us and we sped off down the street.
Pop got on the phone and informed whoever was on the other line that we’d been found. I assume he was asked how it happened because I overheard him explain my Family Tree project and how I sent for a DNA test unbeknownst to him and that’s how they musta found out. They agreed on a meeting place and Pop hung up.
“Did I do somethin’ wrong, Pop?” I asked, still not knowing what was going on.
“No, James. But it’s time you knew tha truth. Your Ma and me, we’re from New York, but I suppose you figured that one out. We saw some shady stuff in our tough neighborhood and testified against some real goon-type characters. They put us in witness protection so them gangstas would never find us. That’s how we ended up here in this God-forsaken, slow-movin’, Andy Griffith-lovin’ hole in Alabama. Other than one close call, we’ve been able to stay off the radar for almost twenty years.”
“The magazine guy?” I asked.
“The who?” asked Pop.
“The guy who tried to sell you the magazines, had a heat stroke and passed out. That guy?”
“You remember that?” asked Ma.
“Barely, but it makes sense now that I know what I know. So what happens now?”
“Now, those guys in suits find us a safer place to live, not in Alabama,” Pop informed me.
“I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean for this to happen,” I lowered my head.
“Hey, chin up, James. I’ve been wantin’ this to happen for a while now,” said Pop.
“You have?” I asked, surprised he wasn’t sore at me.
“I can’t wait to get out of Alabama. No offense, but it ain’t my style,” he said.
“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I agreed.