by Ray Allen
Part 2 - The Hannah Sisters
Chapter 11 - The Hermit, Our Uncle Johnny
One of the other out-of-town places we always went was to see Uncle Johnny. This trip was a required special event, since Uncle Johnny was one of the Hannah brothers. Yes, the family had three girls and two boys. The other son was Uncle Malcolm, the oldest.. He is the one who got a college education and became a druggist. He owned the very successful Hannah Pharmacy in Pensacola for years, and then retired to West Palm Beach, down by Miami, so he had been gone from Milton for years. We knew Uncle Malcolm, since from time to time, he and his second wife, Nora Lee would drive down to Miami and visit us. But Uncle Johnny was completely different.
Uncle Johnny was a hermit. When I’ve told people that, they find it hard to believe, but when something is going on in your own family, over time it seems natural and just becomes part of life. This had been going on for so long in the Hannah family that the sisters seemed to accept it without question. Everyone knew he was out there, and they felt a responsibility to keep somewhat in touch with him. But when you think about it, they had adapted to a very unusual situation. They had a brother just a few miles away, yet none of them had spent any time with him for over thirty years. When we were to go to see Uncle Johnny, it meant half a day trip out into the woods to his little cabin.
John Albert Hannah was the second oldest child, and we had heard all about his earlier years. He had attended Auburn University, had worked as a bookkeeper when he was young, and married a woman everybody called Margaret. They had had several children, and then one day, Johnny simply left. He deserted his family. They were somewhere known to the grown-ups, but not to us. After he left them, Johnny simply retreated to the woods and lived alone, and he had been doing that ever since.
His property was out near Allentown, up by the Alabama line. We learned that he lived in the middle of 260 acres of woodland, acreage he had bought for almost nothing at a government land sale a long time ago. It was truly in the middle of nowhere.
To get there, we had to drive down miles and miles of dusty country roads, take certain turns, and even ford a couple of creeks. In those days, shallow creeks often flowed over the roads. There would be a short sunken section of pavement, with a shallow creek flowing right across. Fred would slow the car down, and then creep across through the running water, which was only a few inches deep.
When we’d finally reach the turn-off into Uncle Johnny’s acreage, we’d have a couple of more miles to drive through the trees on two ruts that got almost no traffic. In some spots, the road was almost invisible, and branches slapped the car all the way through. Soon, we’d arrive at a clearing that contained a tiny cement block house and a few old tools and other things lying around. I remember a rusted hand-cranked cement mixer, and asked Fred about it. He told me that Johnny had made the blocks for his one-room cabin with that old mixer.
Behind the cement cabin, the land fell off and the greenery increased, which I had learned usually meant there was water nearby. And there was. Just a few feet down the hill was a beautiful little spring, the reason Uncle Johnny had chosen this spot for his cabin site. Swift flowing water bubbled up right out of the ground forming a little, magical-looking crystal clear pool which, in turn, created a little creek for the runoff. The whole area around it was filled with ferns and other lush greenery. Of course, the first time I saw it, I asked permission first, and then ran down and stuck my hand in the clear water. As I expected, it was ice cold. I loved that spring! To a little boy, it was like something out of a storybook.
Actually, Uncle Johnny was, too. First of all, he was huge. A big burly man well over six feet tall. He had a heavy shock of white hair and a full white beard—not a long beard like Santa Claus, but a full white one all the same. He was a sturdy –looking man with a very deep voice. However, we didn’t hear much of his voice, since he was a man of very few words.
Grandmother Allen would call to him, “John-ny!”, and he’d come out smiling. Always dressed in coveralls and no shirt, he was a true woodsman. We were never invited into his little cabin; we just stood outside and exchanged small talk. Once, when our dad was with us, he was invited in. We wondered if that meant only men could go in there. Thinking back, he must have hated having to see his sisters and his great nephew and niece drive up through the woods. This was a man who wanted to be left alone. He was pleasant and kind to us always, but we never stayed long. After our hellos, there wasn’t much to do or say.
We learned that Uncle Johnny came to town about once a month to buy sugar and flour, and have his head shaved. Then he’d disappear back into the woods. To us, of course, everything about Uncle Johnny was sort of like a dream.
In fact, looking back now, almost everything in Milton when we were little was that way. It was fun, it was exciting, but like many events in life, when you’re living it, you’re never aware that you may be witnessing something that is fading from the scene. Each time we visited Milton, we were plunged into a whole way of life that was near its end. As the years went by, we watched as almost everything changed.