MARK TWAIN FORUM BOOK REVIEWS: “My Daddy’s Blues: A Childhood Memoir from the Land of Huck & Jim” by Gregg Andrews

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My Daddy’s Blues: A Childhood Memoir from the Land of Huck & Jim. By Gregg Andrews. Independently published, 2019. Pp. 267. Softcover. $14.05. ISBN 1708971343.

Any child who grew up in a particular place during a particular era holds at least two versions of that period in his or her memory: the broad, historic narrative preserved in popular culture, media, and history books that is understood and more or less agreed upon by others who grew up during the same time, and the singular personal account experienced solely by that child. Others, such as family and friends, may share peripheral commonalities, but the child carries the precise, and sometimes fuzzy, record of events that belong only to him. Such is the basis for a memoir, a work that is ‘unique’ in the way Mark Twain explained the word in Following the Equator.

Dr. Gregg Andrews has written about the place known as Ilasco before, in Insane Sisters: Or, the Price Paid for Challenging a Company Town (reviewed for the Mark Twain Forum on 30 November 1999 by Mary Leah Christman) and City of Dust: A Cement Company Town in the Land of Tom Sawyer (also reviewed by Christmas for the Mark Twain Forum on 11 December 1996), both published by University of Missouri Press, Columbia. In his childhood memoir, Andrews provides necessary geographic context but rightfully focuses on the subject at hand: childhood.

Ilasco, nicknamed “Monkey Run,” is an unincorporated community on the south side of Hannibal. Originally a cement factory company town, the area took its name from the first letter of the components that comprise cement: iron, lime, aluminum, silica, carbon, and oxygen–not nearly as glamorous a way to come by a name as, oh, say the town to the north named for a Carthaginian general. But, what’s in a name?

Andrews has skillfully mined his birthplace once again, this time focusing the lens on his boyhood. Rummaging through family closets brimming with skeletons, he unashamedly describes a family history replete with drinking, carousing, violence, and poverty. How poor were they? Andrews was born in 1950, and their house had no bathroom until 1967, the year he graduated from high school.

However, woven among recollections of cruelty, drownings, crime, and other dangers, Andrews has conjured music, fishing, storytelling, and other simple pleasures that carried the day. He grew up poor, often worried, and sometimes afraid. But mainly, he grew up happy. He would later realize the 1950s and ’60s America depicted in popular culture had little to do with him. As he put it, “Mama was no June Cleaver . . . No, Mama dragged home from the shoe factory around four-thirty in the afternoon, already frazzled . . . Daddy, unlike Ward, dragged home all dusty, dirty, and done-in by a day’s work of blasting and busting up rock in the cement plant’s limestone quarries.”

Andrews’s family tree is brimming with scalawags and rapscallions. Readers should expect this when they encounter an early chapter titled, “Ring-Tailed Tooters, River Riff-Raff, and Shanty Boat Gypsies: Mama’s People.” Andrews, in addition to being an historian, is a singer-songwriter known as “Doctor G.” (His band is called “The Mudcats.”) He has enshrined many childhood memories in song, and excerpted lyrics set the tone for each chapter. Old black and white photos add to the nostalgia, the first-person storytelling becoming a murmured voice narrating the page-turning of a family album. The cast of characters is rich:

“Despite Daddy’s alcoholism, he was generous to a fault with us kids and others. When I sat on a barstool next to him at the Marion Tap Room or Al’s Tavern, he bought as many bottles of 7-Up or Bubble Up and packages of Planters peanuts as I wanted. He fed me a steady supply of coins for the pinball machine . . . or coin bowling machine. Of course, he expected me in turn not to tell Mama where we had been. I kept his secrets.”

“Upon finishing the eighth grade . . . Mama quit school for a full-time job at another of Hannibal’s shoe factories . . . Fresh off the farm, Mama was green and vulnerable . . . [A]t age sixteen she thought cows dig up babies. That’s what her mother told her when Mama asked where babies come from. Imagine her shock one day at the factory when . . . she charged into a back storeroom and came upon two coworkers engaged in sex on a sack of shoes.”

“At age eight, I took to the woods to coon hunt with my uncle Melvin Sanders. To slip through the woods at night with Melvin and his dog ‘Jigs’ on the Sanders farm . . . with a carbide lantern and my Mossberg bolt action .410 shotgun was sheer delight . . . The oldest of Mama’s brothers and sisters, he worked at an International Shoe Company factory in Hannibal at the time he introduced me to coon hunting. In the early 1930s, though, right off the farm he signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals . . . and pitched for their Springfield farm club . . .”
“Grandma [Blanche] pulled out a dainty hand-embroidered handkerchief from her apron pocket. She untied it . . . and removed a few coins. With a smile, she pressed a dime or two into the palm of my hand . . . to buy both of us a candy bar. She liked chocolate fudge.”

“[E]ven though Grandma Mary . . . lived in Ilasco, I wasn’t close to her and I have few memories of her. I hated going to her gloomy house, which seemed devoid of energy, warmth, and spirit. She was cold and aloof, and according to Mama, needy and weak when it came to men.”

“On rare occasions when Uncle Gordon Sanders flew home from Germany to visit, a family friend who owned a Cadillac picked him up. As a kid, I wondered if you could drive to the St. Louis airport if you didn’t have a Cadillac.”

Andrews remembers and details his large extended family and friends, but the best moments are his own. Even painful struggles are recounted through the forgiving filter of perspective. A chaotic home life brought confusion and conflict, but it’s been softened in the rearview mirror of time. During the summer of 1957, while current events elsewhere were already becoming history, seven-year-old Andrews smoked his first cigarette, sipped his first Falstaff, held his first job, and attended his first drive-in movie. There were other rites of passage. It was also the first time he stared at his father “through the bars of a jail cell.”

Throughout the book, Hannibal remains a presence, as does the Mark Twain legacy……

Finish reading Cindy Lovell’s review at the Mark Twain Forum

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The Mark Twain Forum Review Editor is Barbara Schmidt.

Host of Hannibal: A Tribute To Henry Sweets

[Editor’s Note: Henry Sweets, longtime director of the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Hannibal, announced earlier this month that he would be stepping down at the end of 2019.] 

Any semi-serious enthusiast of Mark Twain has likely crossed path with the ever-accessible Henry Sweets. His steadfast presence at the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum has provided a hospitable welcome for any and all seeking information about Samuel Clemens. Henry did not come to Mark Twain in the traditional way, but then, who has?

Henry Sweets (right) with Jacques Cousteau

His initial academic endeavors offered no hint of his subsequent 42-year career at the boyhood home. Henry grew up in Hannibal and graduated from Hannibal High School before earning a B.S. in chemistry from the University of Illinois in 1971 and a master’s degree in education in 1973. Henry taught high school science for two years in New Jersey and another two years in Illinois before taking an M.A. in American History and Museum Studies from the University of Delaware in 1978, leading to his appointment at the boyhood home in January 1978. 

In the course of the next 42 years, Henry personally welcomed station wagons full of families, at least three generations of schoolteachers, hopeful “descendants” of Sam Clemens, innumerable Twain scholars, hundreds of journalists, and a respectable number of celebrities and politicians. In addition to hosting President Jimmy Carter, First Lady Rosalyn Carter, and their daughter Amy, Henry welcomed the Prince of Monaco, a few U.S. Senators, and the occasional Governor of Missouri. Hal Holbrook, Jacques Cousteau, and Brad Paisley are just a handful of names Henry can drop as having welcomed to Hannibal. Perhaps one of his most memorable visitors was Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine writer. Borges’s wish was to touch the Mississippi River in Hannibal. Henry assisted and would later recount the grateful writer shed tears in that moment.

 

Henry Sweets helps 83-year-old Jorge Luis Borges touch Mark Twain’s Mississippi River

In the four decades Henry has served the boyhood home, the museum expanded to include eight properties, updated its historical message for accuracy, and focused on scholarly outreach, most notably the weeklong teacher workshops offered each summer and the quadrennial Clemens Conference that welcomes scholars from around the globe. In 1982, Henry began compiling The Fence Painter, the museum publication he has edited since. He has traveled considerably to lecture on Twain and contributed two chapters to Mark Twain and Youth: Studies in His Life and Writings, edited by Kevin Mac Donell and Kent Rasmussen. The museum has done its part to be a good neighbor, offering free admission to Hannibal residents and hosting free summer outdoor concerts for more than a decade. The museum also took the Tom & Becky ambassador program under its wing.

Life at the museum is not all glamour. Henry has warded off contrary would-be Twain impersonators and dealt with his share of confused tourists asking such questions as, “Where is Mark Twain buried today?” (The answer, of course, is Elmira.) He is just as likely to be found installing an exhibit as carrying a plunger into a restroom. But if you know Henry, that should come as no surprise. He is never heard saying, “That’s not my job.” He rolls up his sleeves and does what needs to be done.

Everyone has their own story of meeting Henry for the first time, which usually includes descriptors like “knowledgeable,” “friendly,” and “helpful.” I first met Henry in 1996 when I was planning a Mark Twain summer program for 4th and 5th grade students. I called the museum, and Henry himself answered the phone. I explained I was coming to Hannibal in a few weeks and asked if we could meet. When I told him what day I was arriving, he responded, “Well, my wife’s having a yard sale that day, but I’ll give you my home phone number. Give me a call when you get in, and I’ll come meet you.” That gracious and generous response had a far-reaching impact on my own life. Henry drove me all over Hannibal that day showing me places I would have certainly missed. Having since had the privilege of knowing him and working alongside him, I can honestly say that he treated me with the same respect and kindness that he shows to actual celebrities. Henry is simply a nice guy.

Serving as director and curator of a museum consumes time and energy, yet Henry managed to hold a seat on the Hannibal School Board from 1992 to 2010 and play in the same softball league for 30+ years. For years, his hobby has been stamp collecting. A member of the American Philatelic Society, Henry is no stranger at stamp collecting conferences and has been an invited speaker at the annual United Postmasters of America meeting.

Balancing scholarship, historic preservation, and tourism (which pays the bills) is a daunting task. It can only be done as a labor of love. Leading staff, managing board members, fundraising, responding to millions of inquiries, and indulging the most esoteric of inquiries, Henry has done it all. It should come as no surprise that Henry’s favorite Mark Twain quote is, “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.”

Henry will continue to work part-time on curatorial projects at the museum after he retires as director, and for that we are grateful. But, he has “reached the grandpa stage of life,” as Twain put it, and with a two-year-old granddaughter and another grandchild on the way, Henry has earned a new pastime. 

I would be remiss if I didn’t encourage everyone reading this to make a generous donation to the Mark Twain Boyhood Home & Museum in Henry’s honor. It is the least we can do for all he has done for us.