Going to Bogalusa

As a boy, each year I got to celebrate Christmas twice.

Three times if you count our Methodist church Christmas Eve program where the boys put on bathrobes and fake whiskers to be shepherds and wise men and such, and the girls, even the mean ones, were transformed into angels in white bedsheets and cardboard wings. As someone read the Christmas story, Mary and Joseph (played by a favored girl and a favored boy) looked reverently at the infant Jesus (played by a light bulb), glowing from a makeshift manger.

I always wanted to be Joseph because all he did was sit. No lines to learn, no songs to sing. Just sit. I was good at sitting.

Then on Christmas morning my brother and I waited impatiently for my mother’s mother and brother — Grandma Jessie and Uncle Buck — to come out for the present opening. They lived in town. We didn’t.

Once they arrived, finally, we got to see what Santa brought us.

Then, while my friends in town were playing together with their new toys, we would pack up, say goodbye to Grandma and Uncle, and head for Slapout.

In the heart of Elmore County, Alabama.

Three hours away.

Slapout was where Grandma Minnie, Daddy’s mother, the widowed matriarch of the Jackson clan, held court.

And where she hosted my second (or third) Christmas.

There, Daddy, his siblings and their families gathered to drink eggnog and eat a Christmas dinner consisting of overcooked “green ham,” a dried-out turkey and an assortment of indifferently prepared vegetables. (Note: “Dinner” was the midday meal. Supper was evening. Just like in the Bible. “Last Supper,” not “Last Dinner.” Got it?)

Before, during and after this “feast” they would fuss, fight and sometimes go home early and mad. Later, when I realized that Jackson family feuds were the best show in town, I came to enjoy these gatherings, but as a boy, no.

As a boy, I wanted to go to Bogalusa.

Now when I say Bogalusa, I do not mean the town in Louisiana, to which I have never been nor ever wanted to go.

My Bogalusa was where Jackson men went when they had about as much of their wives, children and sisters as they could stand, or when the liquor was running low, or, usually, both. When that occurred, one of them, usually my father, would stand up and announce, “It is time to go to Bogalusa.” With that, the men would rise and follow Daddy out to a car and speed away. The women and children were left behind.

When the men returned for supper they would be in high spirits, which did not set well with the abandoned women, though the men were beyond caring.

This was such a regular occurrence that I assumed a Christmas trip to Bogalusa had always been part of the Slapout holiday celebration.

So it came to pass that after the Christmas dinner of my 12th year, after food was consumed and naps were taken, the men collected themselves and prepared to set out.

It was then that Grandma Minnie announced that she was going with them.

After listening all those years about Bogalusa, she decided to see that wonderful place for herself.

Now Grandma Minnie was a happy mixture of Bohemian impulses and Victorian proprietary. An artist who could paint a still life in a heartbeat but had trouble with the human form, she never left home without her hat and gloves, never smoked on the street, and insisted on taking the first sip of beer from every bottle or can because “the first sip is the coldest and the best.”

She had buried a husband and raised six children, all of whom went to college and a few even graduated. She believed Sputnik was fake and “rasslin” was real, that FDR was a great president and that Republicans had ruined “Ike.”

Firm in her authority, if she wanted to go to Bogalusa, the men would have no choice but to take her.

Which was a problem because the Bogalusa of her imagination did not exist.

Bogalusa was the men’s code name for a honky tonk on Lake Jordan, about 10 miles away.

It never closed. Not even on Christmas Day.

With no way to say no, they took her – hat, gloves and all.

When they drove into the gravel parking lot, Grandma Minnie began to have doubts. Nothing about the place looked like the establishment she assumed Bogalusa would be. It was a weathered plywood building, with beer advertisements nailed on the walls in no particular order, covering holes and cracks which were in no particular order either.

Hesitantly she got out of the car. Her feet had hardly touched the ground than the door of the place flew open and out rolled two men, fighting and cussing and trying to inflict as much bodily harm on each other as they could.

“Take me home,” Grandma Minnie hissed as she got back in the car.

They did.

It was a quiet ride back to Slapout.

When they arrived, Grandma Minnie refused to discuss the incident with the women who stayed behind. Years passed before Daddy told Mama what happened.

Come the next Christmas, after dinner and nap, when the men headed for the door, one of the women asked, “Where are you going?” One of the men replied, “Not to Bogalusa.”

Grandma Minnie sat, satisfied.

Harvey H. (“Hardy”) Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University and an occasional contributor to The Star. He can be reached at hjackson@cableone.net.