After thirty years’ absence, I was finally off to meet Pop for the first time since my parents’ divorce when I was three years old.
Flying to meet Pop was in itself an experience. He lives in the Florida Panhandle about halfway between Tallahassee and Pensacola. West, in fact, of a line that cuts off a little piece of the Panhandle from the rest of the state and sticks it into the Central Time Zone. It’s the “orphan child” part of Florida, the state that is itself the orphan child of the nation. The road bordering Pop’s property is, I kid you not, Back Woods Road. It’s vigilante justice, self-ruling Deliverance country. But I’ll get to that later…
I took a late flight out of SFO, kidding myself that I would get some sleep on the flight. As if. It’s not like sleep was going to be possible with such a momentous event in the making. The first leg of the journey was to Atlanta, and from there I’d catch a connection to Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, where Pop would pick me up. The flight was uneventful, if unrestful. Atlanta saw me sitting for two hours (again, a time I was planning to rest, as if) in wait for the connecting flight. When it came time to board, I was amused at the smallness of the plane. I’d only flown on jets prior, except for small twin-engine Cessna flights to scatter cremains over the ocean. This was one of those little planes with a row of single seats on one side of the aisle and a row of pairs of seats on the other. Eighteen in all. It was a small and friendly handful of passengers making the trip that morning, and I quickly found myself in conversation with a woman who worked for the state government and pointed out the landmark highlights of the capital as we descended. As we landed from the short flight, I realized the reason the plane was so small: Florida’s state capital doesn’t have an airport big enough for jets. What’s more, they didn’t even have return flights to Atlanta! The trip home meant catching the (only) morning flight south to Orlando on the same commuter plane, waiting for two hours, then catching a big plane up to Atlanta. It was quite the different experience for me. It was also my first experience with a tarmac airport instead of loading gates, aside from the regional one in Willits. It amused me that there were four “gates” in the airport, all of which were simply side-by-side numbered doors onto the tarmac from a solitary waiting area.
We had exchanged photographs by mail before this reunion, so I knew what to expect when looking for him. It helps that the crowds waiting for a passenger load of five are not vast. As I came in through Gate Whatever, I scanned the wide, low room that reminded me of a 1980’s bank lobby. No sign of him at first, so I started walking towards the main entrance on the other side of the room. Suddenly, I realize that this round thing sticking out from behind a concrete pillar was Pop’s belly, and he was trying not-so-hard to hide behind the column knowing full well that it couldn’t possibly conceal him. The sense of humor I’d gleaned from our phone conversations was alive and well in person. I’d been up for about thirty hours now, but that had no hampering effect on my own amusement. It was hilarious. I ran up to him and threw my arms around him in a strong embrace. He let me have a few seconds of hug before pulling away from a second one because “we don’t do that here.” I could tell he was getting embarrassed and left it.
Our plan as we had discussed it was to go to his “hootch” in Chason, about an hour away, and decide what to do with the week from there. He wanted to give me a tour of his home stomping grounds, an experience I was greatly looking forward to. When we got to the car, though, he popped off with “how about we go have breakfast with your aunt?” It was 11am or thereabouts, and I’d nibbled on the planes and at the airports over the past eleven hours of my journey, but of course I was excited for this moment.
Perhaps half an hour out, we crossed the state line into Alabama, and I realized he wasn’t going where I thought he was. One of his two surviving sisters lived in Brooksville, down near Tampa, which was completely the opposite direction. “Wait, when you said ‘breakfast’ you didn’t mean with Aunt Judy, did you?” He looked at me. “Naw, I thought this week would be a great opportunity for you to meet both your aunts. We’re heading up for breakfast with Tina.” In Michigan. And so it was that we immediately embarked on a transnational road trip, from the southernmost state to one bordering Canada.
The trip was a long and flat one, up I65 through Birmingham, Montgomery, Nashville, Louisville, Indianapolis. Then I69 up to the palm of Michigan. We rode and talked, talked and rode. One of the most touching moments for me was when Pop reached up to his truck’s visor and produced the Father’s Day card that I had sent him almost twenty-five years prior, when we had briefly been in contact. I had mailed it after our single phone call, and had never heard back again. At the time, I was fatherless and used to it, so while there was a bit of disappointment over that being the end of our communication it didn’t bother me as much as it could have. Back to status quo, in other words. The fact that he had saved the card and carried it with him everywhere welled up a new set of emotions for me. I had not expected him to exhibit that sort of sentiment.
Growing up without a consistent father figure in my life, the prospect of meeting Pop for the first time was exciting but at the same time had left me so unsure of what to expect. I had no point of reference for interacting with him or anyone as my father. This intensive close-quarters road trip was a great way to break the ice and really get to know each other. I was still emotionally drained, though, both from this experience and from Adam’s suicide less than two month earlier. And tired. So tired, from emotion and from the long journey. We must have eaten at some point during the day, but I don’t remember what or where.
Along the way I learned more about family. I learned more about Pop’s immediate family and my own direct relatives. I learned more about his wife and their lives, his work as a ditch and road grader for the Florida transportation district, what his childhood was like growing up. We talked lengthily about my own childhood and Ma. Eye-opening to me was to hear stories of his and Ma’s relationships – the exact stories I had heard growing up, but from a different perspective. Ma’s description of him is as a womanizing, angry, redneck asshole – labels to which he readily owns up, but hearing the stories from his side enlightened me to a different way of understanding than what I had grown up “knowing.” Ma’s telling of their separation, for example, was how Pop was always angry and screaming, and that she’d finally had enough when he shot her with a rubber band from across the room, they’d argued, and he threw his wedding ring at her and left. His parting words being, “you keep the kid, I’ll take the dog.” Hearing a different frame of reference from Pop, his remembrance of the event is actually identical but it’s the emotions and personal experience that change the telling. It was the early 1970’s, and the cultural hippie vibe of “free love” abounded. Pop was brought up with the belief that marriage is sacred and forever and that you don’t commit adultery. Ma, on the other hand, was a hippie. She wanted free love. She got free love. Pop didn’t like that, and they argued about it constantly. He was losing weight from the stress and had decided that if he ever lost enough weight that his wedding ring wouldn’t stay on, that would be the cue to call it quits. He loved to shoot rubber bands, almost unconsciously. If they were in his hand, he was playing with them, snapping them, shooting them. That fateful day, he’d shot one at Ma, and she didn’t like it. A screaming match soon commenced and moved out to the front yard. Pop was yelling and gesticulating wildly, and suddenly his ring launched off his thin finger and over Ma’s head. For him, it was now. He feels very strongly that a child shouldn’t be taken from his mother, and he had no intention of fighting her over me, despite (or maybe because of) her own mental instabilities. “You keep the kid, I’ll take the dog.” And he left. Same/same, right? Knowing full well that Ma as I remember her from my childhood was exactly how Pop described her, I could suddenly empathize with both of them. They simply weren’t right for each other, and I don’t think any less of either of them.
My name was also a subject for which he was able to offer me new insight. “Zann Cannon Goff” is pretty unusual. Unusual enough, in fact, that I went through a period of hating it when I was in middle school. I didn’t want to have a “weird hippie name” and decided I was going to change it. Ma said I could do whatever I want when I’m 18, but she wasn’t about to do the legal paperwork to change it for me while I was underage. I certainly had no feeling of connection to the Goff part of my name, but that wasn’t the driving force behind the desire to change. It was the Zann part. My chosen alternative name, so that people wouldn’t make fun of me anymore, was Gandalf. Just the one name. I practiced signing it over and over again in the inside covers of Ma’s books.
Zann, as Ma tells it, was the name of a guy my parents had met at a concert. About a year or two after Woodstock was a weeklong concert that was proted as “the next Woodstock”, though the Goose Lake Concert did not live up to expectations. Pop and Ma were there, camping out for the week with everybody else. Ma was seven months pregnant with me at the time, and the leading contenders for my name were Tom Jr. or Dallas if I came out a boy, and Kelsey Richelle if a girl (named for Ma’s childhood pet cow that she used to ride around the farm, until her parents served Kelseyburgers one night without telling her, instantaneously spawning her vegetarianism). At this Goose Lake event, being 1970, free love and free drugs abounded. Ma participated in a peyote-induced orgy, favoring this hippie flowerchild guy named Xan, who explained that the generations of males in his family were always named Alexander, and Xan was his diminutive for the name. Ma liked him, liked the name, and decided I would be Xan whether a boy or a girl. She spelled it Zann because the “nn” fits visually with the “ff” in my last name, and Pop had chosen “Cannon” because it looked and sounded good. Pop’s telling confirmed the story (and added to my understanding of his role as unwilling cuckold), except that he had deeper insight into his choice for my middle name: he felt “Zann” was too androgynous, so he gave me “Cannon” to give me strength.
We drove straight through the night (my second night awake), and arrived in Tina’s town at 7am after a continuous nineteen-hour drive. Both very tired now, we rolled into a rest stop to sponge-bathe in the sinks and clean ourselves up for breakfast before meeting up at a Denny’s-esque restaurant. Aunt Tina was there with her daughter – my cousin – of my own age. Tina had last seen me as an infant, but Lisa and I had never met. Sitting all together, the women tapped into subjects that Pop and I had not: Adam, being gay, and newly becoming a widower. I’ve always – my whole life – been more comfortable around women, especially in conversation. I don’t know “guy” conversation very well at all. Pop noted immediately after breakfast that he was glad to see me relax and open up at last, and for the rest of the trip we had much more openness and a closer connection because of it.
Breakfast in Michigan was necessarily short because of Tina having to work at 9 and Lisa having to head to school, but we got the most out of it. In fact, we’ve all been much closer and regularly interact with each other through social media. Getting back into the truck, Pop said, “so, are you ready for lunch with your other aunt?” Of course I knew by now that the only other aunt is in central Florida, and that couldn’t possibly mean that he was talking about lunch the same day. So, off we went, on our (again) overnight drive back to Florida.
We took a different route south than we had north. Columbus, Cincinnati, Lexington. Night was approaching as we reached Nashville, Tennessee, and there was a storm of extreme power that was further darkening the sky. Rain began falling, pouring, and intensified quickly to the point that we couldn’t see the windshield wipers on our truck. Seriously. Pop, well-seasoned on highway safety and precautions, pulled off the pavement in favor of driving along the shoulder until we could feel a paved exit under the tires, and we found our way to a motel for my first night of sleep in roughly sixty hours.
Morning was a bright new day, cloudless and clear even after the remarkable rain from the previous evening. We went to a local dig called Kountry Kitchen Kafe. Personally, I was horrified at the name and its abhorrent initials. In commenting on it to Pop, his response was, “it’s the South, Son. What did you expect?” I guess I expected a lot more similarity to the mindset I’d grown up with. I expected what I expect from the rest of the country. That underscores the trouble with expectations.
The restaurant was at the base of it like any familiar fast food joint, but with very Southern food. Things I hadn’t really thought of as fast food. Grits. Collards. I was telling Pop that I wanted to try grits because I’d never had them before. An audible gasp eminated from the kitchen. “What’s that I hear? Did I just hear you say you ain’t never had grits?!” “No ma’am, I have not.” “Collards?” “No ma’am.”
By now, the whole kitchen staff – I kid you not – had emerged from the back to marvel at this creature that had not eaten “real food” before. Pop explained that I was raised in California, and they all suddenly acted like I was some sort of freak of nature. The staff – all of them – were so jovial and welcoming and encouraging me to try everything. The apparent woman-in-charge was a round and jovial lady with the look, speech, and mannerisms of Butterfly McQueen in her role as Prissy. I wanted to curl up and let her nurture me with spoonsful of butter-laden grits until I fell asleep on her bosom. You wanted her to be your mom. Half an hour later, I was stuffed to capacity on Southern food that wasn’t even on the menu, after the staff’s insistence on cooking regional dishes for me that the restaurant didn’t even offer. It was a special and phenomenal breakfast.
That began the new food culture part of my trip.
Yet again in the truck, our sojourn to Tampa resumed. Having grown up in northern California, I’ve always been partial to oak woodlands, redwood forests, and steep mountains. Any landscape outside of that was not only unfamiliar, but actually unattractive to me. Kentucky and Tennesse changed my opinion in a single day. I have never seen such gorgeous landscape as I did asending out of Chattanooga an hour later. The (as-yet-to-develop) geology nerd in me was fascinated at the granites and limestones, and the different flora and topography. Continuing southward we passed through Atlanta (with my geology fascination now abated), ironically only 24 hours after I’d been sitting in that very airport while awaiting my flight to Tallahassee.
We reached Brooksville in time for an early afternoon lunch. This was a whole different scene from breakfast the day before. A much different social and physical landscape than the previous morning in Michigan. Lots of rundown houses, lots of musty damp mildew smell permeating from everything. Dogs on chains that were staked to the ground at the center of dirt circles worn bare from a lifetime spent confined to a sixteen-foot radius. This was not city life, or even suburban or Midwestern life. Interestingly, my maternal grandmother had spent her last years in this very town, mere blocks from my aunt, without either being aware of each other. Both sides of my parents’ families are split between the Tampa area and the Kalamazoo area, independently and quite coincidentally.
In any case, we didn’t eat from the few offerings. Given the foods I did eat while on this trip, there’s something to be said about the lack of appetite at this moment. More than just because of the fact of having eaten breakfast, which was hours past already. The feel of the house and cohabitants (I think some were cousins, others were not, but I lost track in the many introductions) was like something out of a John Waters movie. An early one. One with Edith Massey. At the time I was a little unsure of myself there, but in hindsight it was certainly an amusing and memorable experience.
Aunt Judy, et al., were exceptionally hospitable, Southernly hospitable, and we pored over photo albums for a couple of hours, delighting me with copies of photos I had known from childhood but that had been lost to me, and talking about the ubiquitous family tree. Before too long we had to leave the family to their Egg Lady. Pop wanted to make the trip back to his place more scenic than necessary so that we could continue to have our one-on-one time together, and since it was getting late in the afternoon we decided to put up for the night in town and get an early start with the daylight. We got a big double room in a recently-constructed roadside motel that felt really out of place given the complete lack of anything on the horizon that would make you think a motel would be relevant here, with a parking lot full of cars bearing anti-abortion bumper stickers that called for the death of anyone who isn’t pro life, and warning signs about gators posted around the marshy perimeter. We went into town to get some drinks and shoot pool at a dive bar he favored when he visited Aunt Judy. Pop was concerned that I might stand out in the crowd there, or perhaps it was his own struggle with internalized homophobia creating an unnecessary fear for me, but his fatherly instinct was to scram, so we left after one drink without playing pool. I hadn’t felt any discomfort myself, aside from that spawned by Pop’s own discomfort.
Pop really wanted to do something special for me. He tried to talk me into going in halves on an eightball of coke and then we could go to the truck stop and “break me in with a lot lizard.” “Lot lizard? What’s that?” It’s real. It’s a thing. Truckers are, by nature of their jobs, frequently lonely creatures with no home life for a sexual outlet. The women who make a living from others’ loneliness are apparently known as “lot lizards” among the trucker community if they frequent truck stop parking lots. Pop says it’s because, like lizards, they appear from nowhere, popping up from behind rocks when you shine a light into the shadows. Vivid mental picture, no?
We did not get an eightball. I did not get broken in by a lot lizard.
The next morning found us packing up the truck and heading gulfside. Pop was born in Port St. Joseph (“P-Joe” or “Port Joe” locally), south of the Apalachicola (“The Apalach”) National Forest, and he wanted to show me all around his childhood territory before heading back up through The Apalach towards Blountstown (“B-town”). B-town is the largest town, and county seat, of Calhoun County. The largest town, with a population of about 2500. What you’d call an “insular community.”
One of the most charming little towns we visited was a place called Carabelle, sandwiched between the Gulf and a portion of The Apalach known as Tate’s Hell. Just a cute little hamlet. Even the police department was cute: it’s a phone booth. Just an actual phone booth, painted with signage to point out its distinction as the “World’s Smallest Police Station.” When local residents call the police, it rings the payphone. If they’re lucky, the solitary cop car will happen to be parked there if they call.
After our twelve-second tour of downtown Carabelle, Pop started heading down a residential street, saying he wanted to show me something. We went to a tiny little cemetery, overgrown and dripping with Spanish moss. Pop opened the rusty wrought iron gate and kicked around the weeds for a minute until he found what he was looking for. A small headstone, simply engraved with “Baby Girl” and a date. Like Ma’s family and many at the time, infant mortality was much higher back then. Pop is one of five siblings, though I did not know there had been a sixth. The first, Baby Girl, succumbed to scarlet fever before she was Christened with a name. Pop knelt and wept openly for several minutes, for the older sister who never had a sibling. Wept for the pain it caused his parents.
We somberly left the cemetery, and pop said, “hey, Nnaz” (his nickname for me) “let’s go check out one more thing. Walking down the street, Pop told me how his own dad had grown up in a cottage on a barrier island just off Carabelle. Sometime in the 19-teens or twenties, a notable hurricane wiped out the island and Pop’s grandparents rebuilt in Carabelle. Up the street should be the house that Grandpop had grown up in, where he lived when Baby Girl met her fate. The house was there – a corner lot with a low chain link fence. It was a simple little cottage, what you’d call a Shotgun Cottage because the front and back doors open at the ends of the central hallway, with no interruption, and you could shoot a shotgun straight through. Do you suppose they call them that because somebody tested the theory? Regardless, it was two bedrooms on one side and a living room and kitchen on the other. Cute little thing, and it looked like it was still being maintained. After a lenthy story of the building of the house and the rundown of everybody who had ever lived in it, Pop tailed-off the story with the last he knew of it, when his dad had died a few years earlier. He thought it was likely still in the family, unless the good-for-nothing heir had sold it.
A curtain moved, so Pop decided to take a chance and knock. The door opened with a chain across it, and a timid older woman peered through. “What can I help you with?” Pop introduced us and briefly explained that his dad had built and grown up in this house and he wanted to show it to his son visiting from California. She was visibly skeptical, and asked more probing questions, which Pop later explained to me were a coy deception to mislead his story and see if he caught it. She asked if his dad (real name) stayed in contact with this brother (fake name), and that sort of thing. Pop caught on and went into Full Southern Mode with the family tree thing. He named the generations from the time the house was built, the relations to other local families, the intermarriages that led to this and that, who was whose cousin, and that there was this side of the cousin connection he was unclear on, etc. She was convinced and swung the door open graciously, introducing herself as Vivian, the cousin that fills Pop’s missing connection in the family tree, and our day suddenly took a new turn.
Vivian made sweet tea for us. My first sweet tea, and I immediately understood its appeal in this oppressively humid climate. Then we settled to the living room (after a brief tour of the house, showing us the couple of modifications she had made), and out came the photo albums. She and Pop went crazy going through them, recognizing family members and explaining to each other how they were related, filling in whole new branches of each others’ knowledge. Vivian reached the end of the last album and turned the final page, pulling out two loose photographs that were tucked in, almost as an afterthought. “These have been sitting in this album like this for near on thirty five years, I recon. Nobody in the family has ever been able to figure out who they are, but we know they’re family because they’re in the family album, so we’ve all just held onto them all these years.” She flipped one over to read the timestamp on the back. “Says here October seventeenth, nineteen hundred and seventy.” Facing me across the pitcher of tea was my very own baby photo, one of me fresh from the oven with the umbilical cord still attached. The other photo was Ma holding me in the hospital bed, the first-cradling photo. I was unexpectedly able to connect a new branch for Vivian. We left her my address to mail copies, but I’ve never received them. That’s fine. I know where they are, and like the extended family itself you just let it be and know it’s there if you ever want to track it down.
Our day had been very fulfilling after the four or five hours we spent in Vivian’s gracious and impromptu company. The food adventures continued when Pop was talking about how good the oysters are along the Gulf, and I mentioned I’d never had those, either. No! We went straight off to a seafood restaurant that’s locally renowned for its oysters. It was one of those places where people travel for miles to get to this dive in the middle of nowhere, because it’s the place for oysters. It’s one of those classy places where the men’s room has a condom dispenser filled with French ticklers. I bought one as a fifty-cent souvenir.
It was quite pretty, the restaurant, sitting at the mouth of Apalachicola Bay. Our waitress was young, probably recently out of high school, and reminded me of girls during my high school years in Willits in the late 1980’s, right down to the acid-washed jeans and extreme hair feathering. Pop told her we wanted to get somma them there ersters they’re so famous for, and mentioned I’d never had them before. “You ain’t never had ersters before?!” “Nope.” (Pop,) “He’s visiting from California…” “Oh! You’re from Californ?! I ain’t never been to Californ before! I’s born here in Apalach, I ain’t never been anywhere outside a here.” And off she went to bring ersters, her exceptionally thin acid washed self whisping through the cigarette smoke to the kitchen.
I was not terribly adventurous. I had one. One oyster. And it was deep fried, so quite tolerable, but not enticing enough to make me want a second. I liked the beer-battered fried gator nuggets better.
One of the other local food favorites that worked great for me was peanuts. I swear, everywhere you go in Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, Florida… Peanuts. Roadside stands, even gas stations, would have giant cast iron cauldrons where they were boiling fresh peanuts. My favorite was a stand in Alabama called ‘Bama Nut, but I have a juvenile sense of humor so that’s probably why I liked it best. You gotta get ’em hot, and pop ’em out of the shell like edamame. (You know you’re from California when edamame is a better point of reference than boiled peanuts.) The best ones put a bit of cayenne in the boiling saltwater. Pop enthusiastically wanted me to try boiling peanuts myself back at home, so he mailed one of those yellow padded envelopes to me, filled with fresh peanuts loose in the pouch. When I returned home it was several days before I could get to the post office to pick up the package. The post office reeked when I walked into it. The whole place. The guy brings me this damp, moldy yellow envelope that is quite obviously the source of the entire building’s stench.
I did not boil peanuts back at home.
Our tour of the region continues with a drive through Tate’s Hell, with a detailed story of how it earned it’s name. Something about a guy lost in the forest for years, or something. It’s easy to find on Wikipedia if you’re curious. The road through The Apalach was long and straight. Exceptionally wide, too, as it’s one of the hurricane escape routes. It’s weird to be someplace so rural, so remote, surrounded by dense forest, and here you are driving along, a solitary car on a ten lane highway. We passed through the entirety of Hell without seeing another soul.
Coming to the north end of the forested area, we passed an enticing sign for a restaurant. In the dense, close darkness of the woods, a dirt road led off into the shadows. Nailed to a cypress at the marshy edge of the road was a cardboard sign with a single hand-painted word: “food →.”
We didn’t stop there. Instead, we ate at a greasy corner deli/gas station that Pop favored, perhaps because it was called Goff’s, and it was on Goff Street, but more likely because of all the fried things. This tiny town whose name I forget was hot and sunny, and it appeared the attempt to pave it had been a single try many many years earlier. The deli counter was huge, with many offerings that, frankly, scared me. No cotto salame here. No salami of any sort. Just varying themes of grease and body parts, but mostly grease. Squirrel and ‘possum and raccoon were options. Pop got a quart size styrofoam vat (quart was the “small” option) of pepper-pickled chicken hearts, and a quart of fried ones. I found seeming safety in the broccoli and cheese, and got my own styrofoam quart of that. When I popped the lid in the truck, things had settled. I poured the oil off the top, which reduced the volume by about a third, then did my best to pick out the bites I thought I might tolerate.
The now four-day road trip portion of our reunion was nearing a close. After days of driving through, seeing, and eating in eight different states, we were finally approaching Pop’s county. At last, I’d get to see his property and meet his wife. There were three more days of visiting to go, and still so much more to look forward to!