In the pre-digital era when print magazines were still popular and profitable, I wrote several pieces for a publication called South Walton Life. The stories featured people and places along Florida Highway 30 A.
I interviewed big shots and small fries. Talked to world-famous chefs, locally adored merchants and people who crewed the boats in the local fishing fleet.
I spent time with theater people and lifeguards and met a woman who would chain herself to a tree to save it from a saw blade. Every interview was memorable, but years later one still makes me smile.
The subject of the story was a man named Woodie Long. Woodie has since gone to his heavenly reward but at the time he was a bright light in that dim, dusty corner of the cultural attic inhabited by self-taught practitioners of what collectors call folk art, or primitive art.
I called his wife, Dot, to set up an interview. She told me to stop by in person and work things out. A day or two later I pulled up at a plain house on a county road about a mile and a half from the beach.
Dot said Woodie was out back and pointed at the screen door. I walked through into a garden easily twice the size of the house. Woodie was in the middle of it, talking to his plants and making happy noises.
He introduced himself and we all sat down in the living room. I asked if there was a convenient time for an interview and Woodie said, “Let’s do it now.” Then he said, “Wait a second. I’ve got something for you.”
He hustled out and came back seconds later with a piece of scrap wood about seven inches long and three inches high and painted with a picture of Woodie plowing behind a mule. He gave it to me. I gulped my thanks and we started talking.
I wanted to hear about art. Woodie had other things on his mind. He spoke about growing up as the son of a one-armed armed sharecropper who worked a five-acre patch of strawberries near Plant City, Florida. He talked about different jobs he had held and his struggles in school.
He spoke of a time years earlier before he started painting in earnest. He and Dot were in a bind and forced to settle in a small place in the south Alabama countryside.
Woodie got excited just thinking about it again. He said as soon as they moved in, he took off to explore the woods behind the house and came across a creek.
Before pausing to unpack his toothbrush Woodie grabbed a bucket, went down to the creekbank and hauled rich bottom soil back to the house until he had enough for a good-sized garden.
I’ll never forget him grinning at me and saying, “In two weeks we were eatin’ good.”
“Eatin’ good.” God bless a man who has his priorities straight. We eventually got around to art.
A few years later I read another magazine article about Woodie. By then he was in demand at swanky parties. The article spoke of an affair where everyone was expected to bring a dish.
The entrées ranged from crab cakes to bacon-wrapped scallops. Woodie showed up with a bowl of beet top salad.
Times changed, but Woodie Long never did. I can’t think of a finer epitaph.
Alex McRae is a writer and ghostwriter and author of “There Ain’t No Gentle Cycle on the Washing Machine of Love.” He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org .