Young Fife: The Lost First Decade

He may have gone to Harvard and been elected governor. But did J. Fife Symington III spend his early years on the poor side of Phoenix?

"I used to look at him and say to myself, 'Now, that's what I call a white boy!'" wheezes Marcus Hesby, dissolving into a laugh that starts with sheee and ends about 30 seconds later and an octave lower with it. Hesby is an old man now, a retired hod carrier who pretty much keeps to himself these days, sitting in the same small, faded green house in South Phoenix he's lived in for most of his life.

When the laugh is finished, he squints around the room, which is a little too warm and smells like TV dinners, taking his time with this story. Hesby looks at the dead television set, over at the weathered Harmony guitar propped against the wall, and finally beyond everything in this room, back to something that happened some 50 years ago.

"Some folks may say I'm mistaken 'bout this, maybe I'm makin' the whole thing up or somethin', but I know what I know. That boy used to come scufflin' 'round here in his raggedy clothes with things on his mind, askin' questions about life and money and whatnot ... cooking, too, he always wanted to know about cookin', for some reason.

"I'd play him a tune on the guitar, he'd do a little dance out in the yard among them chickens. Anyway, that was Little Eddie." Hesby leans forward, elbows resting on his knees, his whisper husky with irony. "Course, they call him something else now," he says, slowly shaking his head.

And that would be?
"Governor. Sheeeeeit."

It's fantastic, surreal, hard to believe, what this man Hesby is saying. J. Fife Symington III--Harvard graduate, distinguished U.S. Air Force captain, 19th governor of the state of Arizona--spent the first decade of his life not as a privileged son from a long line of wealthy, patrician, East Coast power mongers, but as a humble, towheaded kid from the poor side of Phoenix. A kid who liked to do little dances with the chickens in a dirt yard while a black man picked out the blues. Who liked to ask questions about cooking.

Who answered to the name of Little Eddie.
"I'm here to tell you it's true," rasps Hesby, slapping the armrest of his Barcalounger for emphasis. "That boy was raised up by Ella Sleeth down the road, right along with her own kids. She found this baby one day curled up next to their old hound, Moxie, out back of the incinerator. He was all wrapped up in a army blanket, a sleepy little droolin' thing. They never did find out how he got there.

"She was a good woman, Mrs. Sleeth. Took that boy in and ended upcalling him Eddie, after her husband who had been killed on the 12th of August, 1940--five years to the day before she found this baby. Ol' Eddie'd been trying to cook a truckload of meat with half a stick of dynamite. All that meat went flyin' straight up and came right back on top of him." Hesby's face darkens. "He was always lookin' to make advances in ways to cook things, coming up with new recipes, you know. 'Til all that meat got him."

A shudder, a pause. He continues.
"I think it was in the memory of Eddie and his kitchen dreams and such that Ella tried to pass on those cookin' ways to Little Eddie," he says. "And he seemed to take to it, coming over when I'd get home from work, askin' can he borrow some dry white vermouth for a fondue de poulet a la creme he was working on, or how long to simmer the onions with haricots verts a la Proveneale--that's green beans in a French way; he always sided with those French dishes.

"Course, I'd been overseas during the war, and I'd picked up a thing or two over there. So I was able to teach the boy somethin'."

Hesby reaches for his guitar and strums softly. The strings sound smoky and thick and slightly out of tune. "Little Eddie lived with the Sleeths for ten years," declares Hesby, "then the agency found out he wasn't their actual kin, and they adopted him out of here. I figured a boy as young as that, with talents in the kitchen such as he had, he could go on to make something fine of hisself."

Hesby stops strumming, slowly shakes his head again.
"All those years passed, and then I'm watching this face on the TV, and they're saying it's the new governor. I can tell you I knew that face--still white as anything--and they're saying this is someone called J. Fife Symington. Now, what kind of man would call hisself Fife?

"And I can tell you this, same as I said to the TV: That ain't no J. Fife Symington, that's Little Eddie!"

The Cardiff giant, Hitler's diaries, the Roswell incident, Bigfoot, Princess Anastasia, the Loch Ness monster, Paul is dead. And now this. History is full of fantastic tales that may or may not be true, and to think that our governor--our Fife--could be part of this bizarre lineage is almost asking too much.

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