My Time Machine

May 30, 2013 | By | Comments (5)
Rick Bragg

Illustration by Jack Unruh

They say we Southerners live in the past. That, they say, is our problem; the past is dead, Faulkner or no Faulkner.

I guess I could try to explain, to tell them that for us memory is not an inventory, not a catalog of events, but a time machine. It lifts us off the dull treadmill of grown-up responsibilities to a time of adventure and wonder. The past is not dead, and so the dead are never really gone. We resurrect them, daily, for one more story, one more buck dance or ball game, or one more cast into the cool water. I could try to explain this, but instead I think I’ll take a boat ride.

I recently suffered through two weeks of agony from a kidney stone, cursing the air around me. Prescription drugs finally dulled the pain, and I drifted. I could have gone anywhere in that pleasant fog, but found myself on a floating house in the middle of the vast, brown Coosa River near the Alabama-Georgia line, waiting as my Aunt Edna tied an orange life jacket around my chest. I was 7 or 8 years old, and if she did not hurry my girl cousins would catch every crappie on the Alabama side.

“I got to go,” I pleaded.

“What you got to do,” she said, “is stand still.”

It was a homemade boat. A great, towering box of a thing that Aunt Edna and Uncle Charlie and other kin built in the yard. They worked their shifts at the army base in Anniston, and then worked another shift on this, drills whirring, welding rods arcing blue flame into the night. Back then, every man welded, every man could run a wire, and Aunt Edna could outwork most of them.

“What is it?” I asked, between pulls on a Nehi orange.

“It’s a houseboat, dummy,” said my cousin Linda, who was prone to say what she thought.

When it was finally done, the vessel had an enclosed main cabin with chairs, a table, and a gas stove. It had a second deck up high, where you could see the entire world, but I was deemed too mentally unsound to go up there once they dragged the boat off dry land. Once in the water, we discovered one structural flaw. It was so tall it was bad to hang up under bridges. I sometimes wondered if they asked me along just so it would ride a little lower in the water. But I have had less noble purposes in this life than ballast.

We fished all day and sometimes all night on the backwater, always for crappie. Aunt Edna would fry them in iron skillets and save the hot grease for the best hush puppies I have ever had, not a daub of plain meal but a hoecake-like disk redolent with green onion, white onion, and Cheddar cheese. Once, I came into the main cabin to see her standing over a skillet of frying quail. We ate it with biscuits and gravy, right in the middle of a river.

But the best of it was the ride. I would find a place in the sun and just watch the banks glide by. Now and then, Uncle Charlie would shout to the old men fishing from the banks.

“Got the time?”

“Alabamer time?” the old men would ask. “Or Georgie time?”

They have passed on, of course—Charlie, Edna, even Linda. The houseboat is in ruin.

But they are not gone.

Nobody is, on Alabama time.


  1. Linda Hagerman Waldron

    My past shapes my present. I also grew up along a river, though some would call it a stream. Thanks for tugging on my heart strings!

    June 4, 2013 at 10:20 am
  2. Rick McClendon

    Momma always said, “dreams are what life is all about”. I can’t imagine life without them or my past.

    June 4, 2013 at 8:47 am
  3. Virginia Dixon

    Thanks for sharing.

    June 4, 2013 at 8:46 am
  4. Rob Long

    Rick Bragg ranks with Proust and old Mr. Bill himself when transporting a soul back in time.

    June 4, 2013 at 8:08 am
  5. Frances Simmons Hughes

    Rick, I love your essays, and especially this one! It is so true that “They are not gone.”! As long as we remember them and tell stories about them, they are not gone. Thank you!

    May 31, 2013 at 8:04 am

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