Folklore: Carrying Albert Home

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The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator

By HOMER HICKAM (the younger)

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt (the introduction) from author Hickam’s latest novel. Billed as “Big Fish” meets “The Notebook,” this classic love triangle is a hilarious, sweet and sometimes tragic tale of a young couple and a special alligator on a crazy, 1,000-mile odyssey.

Long after my parents made the journey that is told by this book, my brother Jim and I came along. Our childhoods were spent in Coalwood during the 1940s and ’50s, when the town was growing older, and some comforts such as paved roads and telephones had crept in. There was even television and, without it, I might have never heard about Albert. On the day I first heard about him, I was lying on the rug in our living room, watching a rerun of the Walt Disney series about Davy Crockett. The show had made the frontiersman just about the most popular man in the United States, even more popular than President Eisenhower. In fact, there was scarcely a boy in America who didn’t want to get one of Davy’s trademark coonskin caps, and that included me, although I never got one. Mom liked wild critters too much for that kind of cruel foolishness.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]My mom walked in the living room when Davy and his pal Georgie Russell were riding horseback through the forest across our twenty-one-inch, black-and-white screen. Georgie was singing about Davy and how he was the king of the wild frontier who’d “killed hisself a b’ar” when he was only three. It was a catchy tune, and I, like millions of kids across the country, knew every word. After a moment of silent watching, Mom said, “I know him; he gave me Albert,” and then turned and walked back into the kitchen.

I was focused on Davy and Georgie, so it took a moment before Mom’s comment sank into my boyhood brain. When a commercial came on, I got up to look for her and found her in the kitchen. “Mom? Did you say you knew somebody in the Davy Crockett show?”

“That fellow who was singing,” she said while spooning a dollop of grease into a frying pan. Based on the lumpy slurry in a nearby bowl, I suspected we were having her famous fried potato cakes for supper.

“You mean Georgie Russell?” I asked.

“No, Buddy Ebsen.”

“Who’s Buddy Ebsen?”

He’s the fellow who was singing on the television. He can dance better than he can sing and by a sight. I knew him in Florida when I lived with my rich Uncle Aubrey. When I married your father, Buddy sent me Albert as a wedding present.”

I had never heard of Buddy or Albert, but I had often heard of rich Uncle Aubrey. Mom always added the adjective rich to his name even though she said he’d lost all his money in the stock market crash of 1929. I’d seen a photograph of rich Uncle Aubrey. Round-faced, squinting into a bright sun while leaning on a golf club, rich Uncle Aubrey was wearing a newsboy “Great Gatsby” golf cap, a fancy sweater over an open-collar shirt, plus-four knickers, and brown and white saddle shoes. Behind him was a tiny aluminum trailer, which apparently served as his home. It was my suspicion that rich Uncle Aubrey didn’t need much money to be rich.

Seeking clarification, I asked, “So . . . you know Georgie Russell?”

“If Buddy Ebsen is Georgie Russell, I surely do.”

I stood there, my mouth open. Giddiness was near. I couldn’t wait to tell the other Coalwood boys that my mom knew Georgie Russell, just one step removed from knowing Davy Crockett himself. I would surely be envied!

“Albert stayed with us a couple of years,” Mom went on. “When we lived in the other house up the street in front of the substation. Before you and your brother were born.”

“Who’s Albert?” I asked.

For a moment, my mother’s eyes softened. “I never told you about Albert?”

“No, ma’am,” I said, just as I heard the commercial end and the sound of flintlock muskets booming away. Davy Crockett was back in action. I cocked an ear in his direction.

Seeing the pull of the television, she waved me off. “I’ll tell you about him later. It’s kind of complicated. Your father and I . . . well, we carried him home. He was an alligator.”

An alligator! I opened my mouth to ask more questions, but she shook her head. “Later,” she said and got back to her potato cakes, and I got back to Davy Crockett.

Over the years, Mom would do as she promised and tell me about carrying Albert home. At her prodding, Dad would even occasionally tell his side of it, too. As the tales were told, usually out of order and sometimes different from the last time I’d heard them, they evolved into a lively but disconnected and surely mythical story of a young couple who, along with a special alligator (and for no apparent reason, a rooster), had the adventure of a lifetime while heading ever south beneath what I imagined was a landscape artist’s golden sun and a poet’s quicksilver moon.

After Dad went off to run heaven’s coal mines and Mom followed to tell God how to manage the rest of His affairs, a quiet but persistent voice in my head kept telling me I should write the story of their journey down. When I heeded that whispering voice and began to put all the pieces of it together, I came to understand why. Like a beautiful flower unfurling to greet the dawn, an embedded truth was revealed. The story of how my parents carried Albert home was a bit more than their fanciful tales of youthful adventure. Put all together, it was their witness and testimony to what is heaven’s greatest and perhaps only true gift, that strange and marvelous emotion we inadequately call love.

Homer Hickam (also known as Homer H. Hickam, Jr.) is the bestselling and award-winning author of 18 books, including the No.1 New York Times memoir, “Rocket Boys,” which was adapted into the popular film “October Sky.” A writer since grade school, he has also been a coal miner, Vietnam combat veteran, scuba instructor, paleontologist and engineer. He splits his time between Alabama and the Virgin Islands. Hickam also was the featured guest at the launch event for Lookout Alabama in 2013. For more about Hickam, “Carrying Albert Home” and his other books, visit [/s2If]