“Bay Boy: Stories of a Childhood in Point Clear, Alabama”
Author: Watt Key
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Price: $24.95 (Cloth)
Watt Key established himself as a writer of young adult fiction with three successful novels, “Alabama Moon” (2006), “Dirt Road Home” (2010) and “Fourmile” (2012), then published a collection of nonfiction stories set in the Mobile-Tensaw River delta, “Among the Swamp People.” In that book we explore this geographically near but hard-to-access piece of nature and some of the odd folks who make it their home or their hide-out.
This book, “Bay Boy,” is another collection of nonfiction pieces, but Key takes us further back in time to when he was a boy, growing up, especially in summers, in Point Clear, Alabama.
The Grand Hotel was long-established but the whole area had not become so very posh.
The Keys spent summers in their little house on the bay, with no air conditioning, the children often sleeping on the wharf, to catch the breezes.
Readers should know this is a very quiet book, no violence, and sex and drugs had not yet been invented. It would, as they say, make a good gift for your maiden aunt.
It was a different Point Clear, that is clearer, simpler, more natural, almost Edenic.
Children stay overnight in the woods but are not kidnapped. They hitchhike but are not abducted. Key and his brothers build a tree house, go shrimping, and fish in the bay, sometimes for trout.
In the autumn, in season, there is deer hunting and Key tells of killing his first buck, at 12 years old, after which he is ceremoniously “blooded” and then hoodwinked. His father and his friends make a necklace of deer testicles and put it around his neck. On the way home he wears it proudly at Wal-Mart and Delchamps, with lots of people staring. That night he gets into bed with the necklace still on, and his father mercifully takes it off and puts it “someplace safe.”
One night, ill-advisedly, Watt and two younger brothers decide to sleep at the middle bay lighthouse with their boat anchored nearby. A storm comes up, the waves grow to six feet. Foolishly, they leap into the water, swim to their bobbing boat, and make it home. Nobody drowns; it isn’t that kind of book.
“Bay Boy” is gentle, full of nostalgia for a time which was in fact not very long ago, but seems lost forever.
There is a chapter on jubilee, one on dove hunting, of course one on a dog, more than one concerning a boy’s first car, of which one is so proud, even if the car is a disaster.
One of the only unpleasant characters in Bay Boy is the tow truck driver “Mad Bill Dickson.” Dickson isn’t insane, only a bad tempered, rude, cranky, white-haired old man. Everyone is afraid of him and this may in some way have lowered the number of wrecks in Point Clear. No one wanted to call Mad Bill and be abused by him.
Towards the end of the volume, Key moves towards the present and tells the story of “convict fish”—striped fish that were once called sheepshead and used to be thrown back. Now with other species vanishing, the sheepshead, renamed, is a delicacy.
In a gracious introduction John Sledge suggests this book will be happily read around Mobile Bay but says “it is even more satisfying to think of it in homes far from lapping waves, salt breezes, and swaying moss.”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.