Sunday, June 20, 2010
My Father - Louis Ernest LaMont
In Coral Gables in 1952
Thoughts by his son 50 years after his death
My father’s 65-year life encompassed a lot of positive times: a comfortable childhood in a secure family which left him with a strong sense of home; an exciting youth including a good education; a love for books and poetry and music; a strong faith; a sense of optimism in a changing world; an active social life with a wide circle of friends as a young adult; the experience of travel and developing business skills and contacts throughout his native region; marriage and children, and living in a warm and comfortable place with beaches and fish. He always had people who loved him.
There were negatives times as well: the disruption of World War One and the Great Depression; the uncertainties of World War Two and the post-war recession; constant travel; the challenge of having a young family as an older man; ill health for at least 30 years of his life; divorce; maintaining the role as father from miles away, and economic uncertainties in the final years of his life.
But he lived and loved well.
Friends enjoyed his company and admired his contributions to any group he joined. He was an honest man. His work was meticulous, even when he was more interested in doing other things. He served his country well. His entire family -- grandparents, parents, numerous cousins and his children -- loved and respected him and enjoyed his company. He did what he felt was his duty, without complaint. He was never hesitant to express affection and gratitude and respect to the people around him. And he had very good manners.
Above all he was absolutely constant in loving his family, and showing that love through his actions.
His children, and in their turn the grandchildren and descendants he never knew, still benefit from his care and concern he expressed throughout his life.
Louis Ernest “Lep” LaMont
Louis Ernest LaMont was born at his grandparents’ home in Montgomery, Alabama, on Feb. 17, 1892.
Montgomery was the capitol of the state, and a major river shipping point for crops from the Black Belt region. The area was famous for rich dark soil and massive fields of cotton.
The South in this era was caught between painful memories of the Civil War, which all the adults in the family had lived through, and the extreme nationalistic and Jim Crow years that followed.
Ernest was christened in the Methodist Church where his grandfather was a lay leader. He wore a long white dress made by his mother from a pattern in a popular magazine.
The style of living was “old fashioned” even Victorian. The women of that era were trained in “womanly skills” such as sewing, music and painting. Entertainment centered around socials and theatrical and musical performances, often at church or in the home.
The men in the his extended family were printers and strong union supporters. Ernest’ grandfather had been a foreman at the Montgomery Advertiser since before the Civil War, and his uncles had worked there or at the Paragon Press, a local printing company.
Ernest’ parents, Roswell DeEstra LaMont and Mary “Mollie” Barry LaMont, met when Ernest’s father (known as R.D.) was working as a printer with his grandfather Barry.
The home Ernest he was born in was built before the Civil War. It was an oversized log cabin that had been added to over the years until it had a shaded porch on the front and was planked over. It looked like a frame house, rather than a cabin, and faced Whitman street. A garden was planted out front, and they had a milk cow in a shed.
The home was on a hill above downtown Montgomery, originally the edge of town.
Ernest’ parents were living In Birmingham at the time, where his father was working for the Birmingham News, but returned to the Barry home for the birth.
Roswell was a native of New York who had moved south from Michigan in the 1880s. Ernest’ mother Mollie was a native of Lowndes County southwest of Montgomery, where her grandparents still lived. She had moved with her parents to Montgomery in 1860.
Ernest always considered Montgomery his home.
His father Roswell lived and worked as a journeyman printer in different towns throughout Alabama. He owned print shops and newspapers in Geneva, in South Alabama, and in North Florida near Pensacola.
As an infant and young child, Ernest and his mother Mollie often accompanied Roswell and lived temporarily away from Montgomery. In 1900 they lived in Geneva long enough for him to take part in a Sunday School pageant.
Ernest attended schools in Montgomery and lived in the Barry family home most of his childhood.
The Barry family was reasonably prosperous. As tradesmen they lived in town, owned their own home and acquired some symbols of status: a large piano, massive furniture, a library of classic books, oil paintings and needlepoint on the wall, a Tiffany lamp in the parlor. They traveled to the Gulf Coast for fishing trips and vacations, and they owned property outside Montgomery at a place called Mountain Creek.
None of the LaMont relatives lived nearby, having scattered across New York, Michigan and Wisconsin in the 1800s. Most LaMonts were farmers or merchants.
Ernest was raised in town. He was never a farm boy. Social life centered on the family, church and school.
He was an only child, born relatively late in his parents’ lives, and was surrounded by Barry family members, particularly his aunts who remained single and at home.
Early photos of him show thin hair, a narrow face, a prominent nose, and stiff formal collar.
When he was a boy the United States was entering the industrialized 20th Century. His modern world included new marvels like radio, electricity and telephones, none of which were in his home when he was born.
Horse and buggy was the dominant transportation. People walked everywhere. Street cars were pulled by horses, and cotton bales were brought to the market in the heart of town by black men, many the sons of former slaves, in mule-draw wagons.
As a teenager he would have seen the first automobile drive through town, and watched his first airplane fly overhead.
At about 18 years old Ernest and another boy built a crystal receiver set from a mail-order house and were able to listen to wireless signals for the first time. The event was written up in the local newspaper.
While he was a student his parents and grandparents rebuilt the family home. The original log home sat at corner of Clayton, facing Whitman. They built a new Victorian-style house on the same lot but facing 508 Clayton Street. Builders incorporated the original log building into the back of the new house. Today the old log house serves as the kitchen of the home.
Family photo albums include pictures of what his mother called “the old home place” and the new home built around 1905. (She sold her home in the 1930s. The current owner discovered the old section and has stripped away the interior walls that hid the logs in the kitchen to reveal he history of the home.)
Ernest attended an all-male school called Boys High School. The curriculum included Latin and Greek and every student was trained in formal penmanship and studied classic literature.
In a school play he acted the part of a leopard, and was given the nickname “Lep.” His friends called him that for the rest of his life.
Around 1910 Ernest briefly attended college at Auburn University. There is no record of when he left or why.
At that time he and several friends plotted to get rich by going to Central America, then known as the Banana Republics, to make their fortunes. He claimed they saved enough money for passage, but spent it all when they got to New Orleans, and never got on the boat. They had to come home and go to work.
Ernest worked at a variety of jobs in Montgomery. He worked at a local florist shop, loaded gold and silver coins at the Fourth National Bank, and became an accounting clerk.
When World War One began he joined the Alabama National Guard. He worked two years as a civilian for the Adjutant General of the State of Alabama as disbursing officer for the state’s military department, responsible for delivering supplies and troops being moved to training posts and to ports bound for Europe. He was paid $4 a day.
He also went to work for the state draft board office while waiting to go on active duty in the Army, apparently holding down two jobs.
Ernest formally enlisted in the Army on July 4, 1917, and was assigned as a PFC in the Quartermaster Corps But he was not called up for training until December.
While waiting he ran the draft board office, replacing an Army officer who had been reassigned, and was named Draft Executive. He wore civilian clothes to work but was considered a member of the Army.
The appointment, the local newspaper noted, made him the youngest draft executive in the nation. He would have been 25 years old at the time.
Late in 1917 the Army sent him to train with the Quartermaster Corps at Camp Joseph E. Johnson in Jacksonville, Florida, where he was paid $30 a month.
Early in February 1918 Ernest was on a troop train heading for the port at Newport News, Virginia, to sail for Europe when the tracks were blocked by a derailment. His unit had been headed for the trenches but was pulled off the train and put to work cleaning up the mess left behind.
By the time his unit was ready to go again, new orders caught up with him.
The Army was advised by state officials that he was “irreplaceable” at the draft office in Montgomery, and he was released for reassignment back to his old job with the full title and a pending promotion to Major.
He went back to Montgomery a few days before his birthday in 1918 and took over as executive of the draft board.
That summer the Butler Alabama Choctaw Weekly Banner weekly newspaper blasted him in an editorial, “A Call to Americanism!!” and attacked “this Frenchman” for sending American boys off to war. The newspaper did not note my father was a Scots-Irish decent, his ancestors had fought in the Revolution, he had already enlisted in the Army and he was a native of Alabama.
He found the editorial amusing, though I suspect his mother did not.
That same summer a severe flu epidemic swept the nation, killing thousands. A photograph of Montgomery’s Fourth of July celebration shows crowds of people wearing protective face masks to avoid spreading infection.
Ernest stayed at the Draft Board job until Spring of 1919, closing out the office after the end of the war. His mementoes of the Army were a Colt 38 Special revolver which had been his sidearm in the service, and photos from the training camp in Jacksonville.
When the Roaring 20s began he was a 27 year-old bachelor from an “acceptable” local family and knew everybody in what was then a small town. He was a Mason and joined the American Legion. One of his classmates became Montgomery mayor. Another became a U.S. Senator. Another a judge. His best friend owned a jewelry store downtown.
He kept several photo albums from that time filled with pictures of social events, family musicals, summer camping outings at ”the creek” and fishing trips with his family to Perdido Bay and Pensacola, Florida.
He kept a notebook of poetry, some copied from things he liked and some apparently that he wrote. He shared poems with friends, and began to build a library including Dickens and the complete works of O. Henry.
Ernest was a charter member of Montgomery’s Beauvoir Country Club, though he never cared much for golf.
He attended, as did his family, the local Methodist-Episcopal church on Court Street that his grandfather Barry had helped establish in the 1800s.
He also was briefly arrested drinking from a flask underneath the grandstands at an Auburn Football game, his only run-in with the law. He laughed about it when he told the story as an incident from Prohibition Days.
His surviving papers don’t reveal details about what he did for a living at the time. A good friend chided him in a letter for a lack of ambition, but Ernest seemed always to be gainfully employed by a series of insurance companies.
In later years people who knew him in the 1920s and 1930s remembered him as a man with “perfect manners,” honest, a charming companion and good friend. He was “dapper” in a way that people understood in the 1920s and 1930s.
My mother (who married him later) said that that during the Roaring 20s he was acquainted with people like Zelda Sayre, whose family lived nearby She later married F. Scott Fitzgerald, a frequent Montgomery visitor during the war. There is a photo somewhere of Zelda, about age 16, along with young adults all in their 20s, at a creek side swimming party with his friends.
Ernest’ social life included a lot of social drinking-- he preferred Four Roses blended whiskey -- and at least two of his close friends died alcoholics.
Photos at the time show him to be neat and precise in appearance and dress, and unmarked by age. He was 5 foot 7 inches tall, and was thin or even skinny his entire life. Photographs of him from that era resemble similar photos of the dancer Fred Astair.
Ernest’ photos and letters to his mother indicate he enjoyed being single, traveling and working at different places throughout the South.
By 1927 he was living in Charlotte, N.C., working for an insurance company traveling the South. He wrote his mother regularly and visited Montgomery in a brand new 1927 Chevrolet Coupe which he bought for $540.
He left Charlotte briefly when his father, who had been working as a printer in Cuba and Miami, had a heart attack and died late that Spring. He corresponded the details of the burial and the small estate to his mother and then visited her by train before returning the Charlotte. He liked the climate and surroundings in the Miami area. He enjoyed the beaches, fishing and the horse races.
Around 1930 my father moved to Atlanta, Georgia, to live and work. Three of his best friends from a Montgomery family lived there -- Richard, Ed and Sanders Hickey. Ernest had been particularly close to Sanders, who died early, and he
eventually named me, his son, for him. He became good friends and roommate with Richard during the early 1930s, the last years of prohibition. (Richard later became my godfather.)
Ernest and Richard shared an apartment in a businessmen's hotel, the Cox-Carlton, near the corner of Ponce DeLeon and Peachtree streets. It is across the street from the movie theater where “Gone With The Wind” had its premier.
Friends stored kegs of illegal whiskey in the big cedar closet in their apartment, a service they were willing to render for a small “evaporation tax.”
Ernest traveled the South as an insurance auditor keeping track of claims and payments from firms, including the coal industry. A pattern of work was established that was followed for 25 years: traveling constantly by automobile throughout the South; staying in business-oriented hotels, and always keeping his roots in Montgomery. (When I was a child I thought my father knew every hotel manager and desk clerk in five states.)
Ernest was 40 and living a happy bachelor life in booming Atlanta when he met Dorothy Strickland, a 20-year-old nurse from North Georgia. They met through a mutual friend who had a detective agency and whose girl friend ran the women’s boarding house where Dorothy and her sister lived, not far off Peachtree Street.
Dorothy described Ernest, whom she always called “Lep,” as “charming and good looking” and said he had almost courtly good manners. “Lep” and “Dot” had friends and interests in common.
They went back to the Barry home on Clayton in Montgomery for the wedding on April 8, 1933, the height of the Great Depression.
Times were difficult all over the country but they seemed to survive reasonably well. Dorothy always had work at local hospitals. Ernest changed jobs several times in the 1930s, but was able to work despite the bad economy. He continued to travel. They moved several times.
They rented an apartment on Peachtree Street, and moved to a rented house in Decatur in the late 1930s.
Money was an issue for Dorothy later in their married life, but the lack of it never seemed to bother Ernest. He once wrote a letter to his mother that he would come to visit here when he could get enough money for a train ticket, less than $5 at the time.
During the late 30s they dealt with big changes in their new lives together.
Dorothy’s much-admired older brother was killed while training pilots at the Atlanta Air Field south of town. Her father had an severe heart attack after hearing the news over the telephone, and ended up living with them temporarily during his recovery. He died within a year.
In February 1937 their first child, Mary Elizabeth LaMont, was born in Atlanta.
Shortly after that Ernest’s mother Mollie, in her 80s, was forced to sell her Montgomery home. She lived with Ernest and Dorothy in Atlanta until she died in their home in 1939.
Ernest’s close connections to Montgomery were weakened, but not broken. He stayed in close touch with his Barry cousins and visited often.
In 1939 he bought a Plymouth Coupe for business and family. That car stayed in the family through the war years and beyond and he called it “Old Betsy.”
In November 1940 I was born while the family was still living in Atlanta, living in a small house they had purchased from Richard Hickey just off the golf course near East Lake Country Club.
More changes were in store as World War Two began to reshape the country.
Ernest and Dorothy moved the family to Mobile, Alabama, in 1942. He continued to work and travel for Bituminous Casualty Company, but in a different territory. Dorothy took a job working as a nurse in the county welfare clinic.
The family lived in an area known as Spring Hill in a development built to handle the crowds of war workers that flooded the town. The rented house was small, wood-framed, in a hilly area covered by pine trees. Most of the neighbors were young couples who had come to town to work for war industries. Single men lived in dormitories near war plants, or rented rooms in homes downtown.
Mobile at that time was one of the fastest growing towns in the country. Brookley Air Force Base, shipbuilding and major port facilities, made it a hub of war-based activity.
The housing area the family lived in provided outdoor movies on summer nights, sitting on blankets under the trees swatting mosquitoes. Entertainment included going down to the shipyards for the launching of Liberty Ships. Mardi Gras, a weeks-long festival more family oriented than in neighboring New Orleans, was a major annual entertainment.
Around 1944 the family moved further into the city, to the downstairs of a house carved into a duplex on the main street of town. They lived at 1214 Government street, the east-west thoroughfare which also served as U.S. Highway 90. It was a big pale yellow house with a large front porch, giant oak trees, azaleas in the front yard and pecan trees and collapsing servant quarters in the back.
Ernest traveled constantly and was seldom at home. Money seemed to be an constant issue between husband and wife.
One day in 1948 my father came by my elementary school to tell me that he and mother were getting a divorce and he would not be living with the family anymore.
He was full of reassurances, but was clearly unhappy. The marriage was over, and a new chapter in my father’s life had begun.
Much later my mother said she was “too young and silly” to marry a man his age and background. Neither ever explained exactly what happened, if they understood it. The legal reasons for the divorce were “irreconcilable differences.” She acknowledged later that she had expectations he could not meet. He never talked about it.
He also never made much adjustment from traveling, living in hotels and eating in restaurants to being a homebody. He was caring, kind and loving, but as children we did not expect him to show up for scout outings, swimming lessons or baseball games. We got encouraging letters instead.
His health, which had not been good for a decade, was getting worse. He smoked Camel cigarettes constantly, and the years of constant travel were wearing on him. He was in pain much of the time.
He had rheumatoid arthritis, was underweight and he was almost completely bald.
In 1948 Ernest moved his few belongings, most in an Army trunk filled with family papers and photo albums, to the basement of his cousin John Barry’s house on Cherry Street in Montgomery 200 miles away. That was his base for travel and work for the next few years.
He visited Mobile frequently and wrote letters constantly, making sure my sister and I knew of his attention and affection. He and Dorothy were cordial but distant. Both insisted that my sister and I respect and obey the other parent. I never heard him speak an ill word about my mother.
The next few years were difficult for him, but he always worked hard to remain in close touch with my sister and me.
He wrote at least one letter every week to both of us children for almost a decade. He would often tell funny stories or relate small events from his life. He reported on a trip to the race track, where he lost on a two dollar bet, and he would tell us about fishing in the Florida Keys.
He made up bedtime stories for us, in which we played starring roles, all typed meticulously onto hotel stationary on his Royal portable he used for business. He planned trips we could make together to interesting places. He monitored our progress in school.
Sometimes he wrote lonely letters asking us to write more often, wanting to know what were we doing and why we didn’t let him know what was going on. Once in a while his frustration would show and he would threaten, gently, to withhold our allowance until he heard from us. (We were both poor letter writers.)
During the first few years after the divorce Ernest would travel to Mobile and stay at the Battle House Hotel, and we children would visit or stay with him there. He insisted on being filled on in details of my sister’s increasingly active social life, and approved of most of her boyfriends and all of her school activities. Once when he did not approve of a boyfriend he wrote her a long thoughtful letter acknowledging her right to choose her friends but firmly stating his reasons for concern.
He taught Mary how to drive, and showed me how to to shoot his Army pistol, and then bought me a shotgun for hunting and taught me how to use it safely. He rented a small boat so we could go fishing.
In the summer my sister and I took turns spending several weeks with him while he worked, and we got to see a lot of the South from his un-air-conditioned car. We would travel with him, sometimes piling up in the back seat of the car with comic books and a candy bar. We waited in the car outside the offices of coal mines near Birmingham, and plants in Tennessee and Georgia, while he did audits inside.
We would ride down the highways with the windows wide open, summer heat blasting through, loudly singing songs he had known from his youth. When we would approach a town he would suggest we quiet down a bit so we would not shock the local residents.
My father provided rewards for us for accompanying him. We got to see Rock City, Ruby Falls, Civil War battlefields and large public swimming pools all over the South. He showed us the Confederate flag his aunts had sewn for the burial casket for Jefferson Davis in a museum.
If there was a beach nearby, we would detour for a quick visit.
He introduced us to his friends along the way, people he had known from decades of travel, or family friends from Montgomery and Atlanta.
He was lonely outside the summers, and his health grew steadily worse.
Even in the South the winters and wet seasons were brutal on his arthritis. Doctors kept trying different treatments and medicines that did not ease the increasing pain. One doctor told my father the source of his pain was his teeth, and so he had all of his teeth pulled. He got no relief.
He tried numerous strong medications, some of which made him ill.
In 1952 he announced to us in a letter that his “prayers had been answered” and he had been able to find a job in Miami, Florida, where it was warm, he had friends and little travel would be required.
He wrote hopeful cheerful letters about finding an apartment in Coral Gables that was near his work, close to fun things to do when we visited, and not too expensive.
By this time, primarily because of his health, he had been working on a “piece work” basis. The insurance company would send him payroll audits to accomplish by a certain date, and he was paid based on how many he completed.
The Florida job provided a regular salary, with a company car and benefits.
For a while.
The winters were mild, he had good friends who lived nearby, and he had a place to call home after living out of hotels for several years.
During the years he lived in South Florida my sister and I spent summers with him and would see him on some holidays during the school year. He could not see us often because of the distance and expense. But he kept up the steady stream of letters reporting on his life, asking about ours, and being supportive .
Long distance telephone phone calls were used only in emergencies in the early 1950s, and travel by airplane was a luxury affordable to few.
My father would drive 800 miles to see us, or we would take an overnight train trip to Miami via Jacksonville for our summer trips.
Letters were our primary connection, and my father was faithful and consistent. Every week brought a personal letter, often detailed. Every accomplishment or concern brought a quick response, by mail.
My sister and I were not good letter writers despite encouragement from our mother, but our father never stopped writing to us no matter where he was. I have more than 200 letters from those years, just a sampling of his constant efforts.
Summers together in Florida were fun for us children and for him. The beaches were not far way. A large ice skating rink was within walking distance. The public library was within two blocks, and the bus system was cheap, safe and efficient. We explored the Everglades and the Florida Keys, places my father had been with his father in the 1920s, and much of the rest of Florida. He knew how to catch fish.
He took us to the Methodist Church near the University of Miami on Sundays.
He read a Bible chapter aloud to us every night at bedtime, and marked each chapter off with a Number Two yellow pencil. He had read through the entire book several times, and the marks were adding up.
He took us to every big tourist attraction in the state: Silver Springs, Monkey Jungle, Gatorland and his favorite, Ross Allen’s Reptile Institute where we watched “explorers” milk rattlesnakes for venom.
Every Fourth of July we vacationed at a motel on the north end of Miami Beach, where the rooms were less expensive, and we spent the long weekend in beach-front luxury.
My sister and I were able to help my father with household tasks during the summers, as his health continued to fail.
In the Spring of 1955, while we were back in school in Mobile, my father wrote my sister and me and our mother asking for help. His health was getting worse, and he could barely work part-time. His arthritis was crippling him to the point it was very difficult to dress or shave or bathe.
My sister, a senior in high school, decided that she should attend college at the University of Miami and help our father manage. She became his caregiver, and both parents came up with the money for her tuition.
I spent that summer in Florida with my father, and my sister arrived and enrolled as a college freshman at the beginning of Fall semester.
By the time my sister moved to Florida to help our father’s health was so poor he was no longer able to work much. He had little or no savings.
I joined them in Florida in January of 1956, transferring to Coral Gables High School for the second semester that year. The three of us got along well except for occasional brother-sister disagreements which my father refereed.
Late that Spring my father decided he wanted to move back to Montgomery.
He was 64 years old, unemployed, emaciated, crippled to the point he could no longer type or put a shirt on by himself. He needed medical care and felt he could get it easier at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Montgomery.
He was stooped, frail, and tired. He looked 20 years older than he was.
He was not maudlin about it, but he told us frankly that he wanted to go back to Montgomery “to die at home.”
Our mother, his ex-wife, who had divorced him almost a decade earlier and had since remarried, jumped in to help do whatever was necessary for her children and their father.
My sister Mary gave up college after one year and started looking for work in Montgomery.
Our father -- we always called him Daddy -- accepted what he could not change, and looked forward to getting back to his home ground.
Our mother came to Coral Gables and picked us all up in May, and drove the 900 miles to Montgomery. My father and sister moved into an apartment a few blocks from where he had been born. She went to work.
Daddy’s health never improved. Every two or three months his doctor would put him into the Veteran’s hospital. The staff would build up his strength and send him home.
By late fall he had been in the hospital multiple times, but was unable to regain his health. It was painful to walk. He was sick most of the time, and his weight dropped to 100 pounds, sometimes less. He would add a few pounds in the hospital, then lose it immediately.
He was no longer able to drive. That Fall he stayed inside the apartment most of the time, and was unable to reconnect with the remaining friends from his youth.
My sister had a job, kept house, and did what she could to make him comfortable.
He went back into the hospital for the last time on Christmas Eve 1956.
By this time our mother had moved close to Montgomery to help, and I was newly enrolled in a military school not far away. She and I spent a cold wet holiday in an old house at Mount Meigs, not far from the hospital.
January was spent waiting, and I visited every weekend. Daddy did not get better.
In January 1957 he wrote a list of items he needed on the back of an envelope, and reminded himself of questions to ask my sister: “When I am going to get out of here?”
He died during the early morning hours February 25, one week after his 65th birthday.
The cause of death on the death certificate was listed as “general debility.” He had developed tuberculosis and his weight had dropped to 80 pounds.
He didn’t leave a lot of material possessions.
Most of the things he owned were contained in one small suitcase-- he called it his “ditty bag.” He also left behind a few items of furniture that remained from the Barry home, and a life insurance policy that eventually helped pay my way through college.
He was buried at Montgomery’s old Oakwood Cemetery in the family plot. A Methodist minister was assisted by a military honor guard and representatives of the local Masonic Lodge. The pall bearers were Barry relatives and old friends. The small crowd was mostly made up of cousins, and a few old friends from the early days in Montgomery.
Within a hundred yards of his grave is a hillside covered with graves of unknown soldiers from the Civil War. Across the railroad tracks on the next hill is the popular grave of country music star Hank Williams.
Sanders Hickey LaMont, Camp Connell, CA, March 2009