About Chris Wohlwend

Born and reared in Knoxville, Tennessee. Veteran of 30+ years in newspapers and magazines as an editor, reporter and writer. Lived and worked in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, Atlanta. Teach journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. Freelance to several publications, including The New York Times. Working on a memoir focusing on my encounters in Appalachia. Excerpts will be posted on this blog. Have traveled extensively, and photographs from those travels will also be posted here.

Restless Native

Holbert’s

 

By Chris Wohlwend

 

Holbert’s Cash Grocery was one of those neighborhood spots that were common before supermarkets and fast-food behemoths drove them out of business. You could get a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a can of beans without having to drive to the business district.

 

There was Nelson’s, which was only a block east of Fair Garden School, close enough to get a Grapette after the final bell, or, if you lived in Park City, Pinkston’s on Olive Street, easy walking distance from Park Junior High School. Many also served hot dogs, hamburgers, or, sometimes, fried bologna sandwiches.

 

A hot dog could be had for a dime, a bologna sandwich or hamburger for a quarter. A couple of chili dogs, a bag of chips and a cold drink – what else was needed for a meal that was long on taste if short on nutrition?

 

At Holbert’s, I would take whatever empty soft-drink bottles I could round up and turn them in for two cents each. If I had enough empties, I had the price of a cold Grapette.

 

But the bottles had to be damage-free. The man who ran Holbert’s would sometimes refuse to accept a soft-drink bottle, pointing out a small chip that he said made it worthless. Once when I was in his store, he caught a kid trying to cheat him out of a penny gumball. I don’t remember the details – it might have been a penny-sized slug. He told the perp that if he ever saw him in his store again he would call the police.

 

His attitude was understandable given his clientele. His store sat on top of the ridge that defined Burlington’s southern boundary, at the corner of Fern Street and Skyline Drive.

 

The south side of the ridge was peppered with small, run-down houses, some of which had never gotten beyond tar-paper siding. I sometimes delivered the afternoon paper on that side of the ridge, helping out one of my neighbors who had the route. Scruffy dogs could make the job chancy. Collection days often meant payment in pennies – if there was payment at all.

 

It was the neighborhood of a couple of boys I first met at Holbert’s – Foxx and Crowder. I didn’t know them from Fair Garden; they apparently had decided to forego formal schooling.

 

I never knew where Crowder called home, but Foxx lived a few doors beyond Holbert’s. And he joined us when we decided to dig a hideout into the side of a hill in the woods between our house and Holbert’s. There we could escape younger siblings and the neighborhood’s nosy old ladies.

 

A meeting at the hideout featured a lot of big talk, and Foxx would sometimes demonstrate how to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember any of us taking up his dare on the fags, but I do remember that he confessed that his old man was in prison for selling marijuana.

 

Of course he had to explain what marijuana was. He went on to helpfully tell us how his dad would empty half of the tobacco out of a Lucky Strike and replace it with pot. He was caught, Foxx said, with an entire carton of Luckies that he had meticulously loaded.

 

Once I started high school the hideout was forgotten and I only saw Foxx occasionally. He and Crowder were boxing fans and I sometimes ran into them at Golden Gloves matches at the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park.

 

But the last time I heard anything about the pair was several years later, when I was living in Kentucky, working for The Louisville Times newspaper.

 

I had picked up a copy of The Knoxville Journal and discovered a story that featured Foxx and Crowder and the East Knoxville area where we had lived.

There had been a middle-of-the-night gathering in a wooded section alongside the Holston River behind the country club golf course. I knew the spot – I had camped there when I was in the Boy Scouts.

 

There was a bonfire and a lot of alcohol. Crowder had either jumped or was thrown into the river. He didn’t surface – his body was found the next day.

 

I called a Burlington acquaintance for details. “There were quite a few of them partying,” he told me. “And they’d been going since the middle of the afternoon. It was well after midnight when he went in.”

 

“I’ve heard,” he added, “that they think Foxx may have shoved him in, either just horsing around or on-purpose.”

 

Given the alcohol, the time of the night, the reputations – and rap sheets – of those present, the authorities eventually ended their investigation and Crowder’s death was ruled an accident.

 

By then, the site of Holbert’s, which had closed decades earlier, was a trash-strewn lot.

Holbert’s Grocery

Holbert’s

Holbert’s Cash Grocery was one of those neighborhood spots that were common before supermarkets and fast-food behemoths drove them out of business. You could get a bottle of milk or a loaf of bread or a can of beans without having to drive to the business district.

There was Nelson’s, which was only a block east of Fair Garden School, close enough to get a Grapette after the final bell, or, if you lived in Park City, Pinkston’s on Olive Street, easy walking distance from Park Junior High School. Many also served hot dogs, hamburgers, or, sometimes, fried bologna sandwiches.

A hot dog could be had for a dime, a bologna sandwich or hamburger for a quarter. A couple of chili dogs, a bag of chips and a cold drink – what else was needed for a meal that was long on taste if short on nutrition?

At Holbert’s, I would take whatever empty soft-drink bottles I could round up and turn them in for two cents each. If I had enough empties, I had the price of a cold Grapette.

But the bottles had to be damage-free. The man who ran Holbert’s would sometimes refuse to accept a soft-drink bottle, pointing out a small chip that he said made it worthless. Once when I was in his store, he caught a kid trying to cheat him out of a penny gumball. I don’t remember the details – it might have been a penny-sized slug. He told the perp that if he ever saw him in his store again he would call the police.

His attitude was understandable given his clientele. His store sat on top of the ridge that defined Burlington’s southern boundary, at the corner of Fern Street and Skyline Drive.

The south side of the ridge was peppered with small, run-down houses, some of which had never gotten beyond tar-paper siding. I sometimes delivered the afternoon paper on that side of the ridge, helping out one of my neighbors who had the route. Scruffy dogs could make the job chancy. Collection days often meant payment in pennies – if there was payment at all.

It was the neighborhood of a couple of boys I first met at Holbert’s – Foxx and Crowder. I didn’t know them from Fair Garden; they apparently had decided to forego formal schooling.

I never knew where Crowder called home, but Foxx lived a few doors beyond Holbert’s. And he joined us when we decided to dig a hideout into the side of a hill in the woods between our house and Holbert’s. There we could escape younger siblings and the neighborhood’s nosy old ladies.

A meeting at the hideout featured a lot of big talk, and Foxx would sometimes demonstrate how to smoke cigarettes. I don’t remember any of us taking up his dare on the fags, but I do remember that he confessed that his old man was in prison for selling marijuana.

Of course he had to explain what marijuana was. He went on to helpfully tell us how his dad would empty half of the tobacco out of a Lucky Strike and replace it with pot. He was caught, Foxx said, with an entire carton of Luckies that he had meticulously loaded.

Once I started high school the hideout was forgotten and I only saw Foxx occasionally. He and Crowder were boxing fans and I sometimes ran into them at Golden Gloves matches at the Jacobs Building in Chilhowee Park.

But the last time I heard anything about the pair was several years later, when I was living in Kentucky, working for The Louisville Times newspaper.

I had picked up a copy of The Knoxville Journal and discovered a story that featured Foxx and Crowder and the East Knoxville area where we had lived.

There had been a middle-of-the-night gathering in a wooded section alongside the Holston River behind the country club golf course. I knew the spot – I had camped there when I was in the Boy Scouts.

There was a bonfire and a lot of alcohol. Crowder had either jumped or was thrown into the river. He didn’t surface – his body was found the next day.

I called a Burlington acquaintance for details. “There were quite a few of them partying,” he told me. “And they’d been going since the middle of the afternoon. It was well after midnight when he went in.”

“I’ve heard,” he added, “that they think Foxx may have shoved him in, either just horsing around or on-purpose.”

Given the alcohol, the time of the night, the reputations – and rap sheets – of those present, the authorities eventually ended their investigation and Crowder’s death was ruled an accident.

By then, the site of Holbert’s, which had closed decades earlier, was a trash-strewn lot.

DIVERSIONS: Photographs by Chris Wohlwend

Introduction

I set up my first darkroom when I was a senior in high school, turning the primitive basement bathroom of our house into a chemical-laden den of escape from my siblings.

After I had figured out how to develop black and white negatives, a neighbor and I began making contact prints. Then, after we came into possession of an inexpensive diffusion enlarger, we started producing 8 by 10 images.

Our cameras were cheap, amateur Kodaks and, as I recall, an Ansco.

The experiments ended when my dad noticed that the metal knob on the room’s door was being destroyed by the chemical fumes.

But by then I was in college, and had begun working part-time as a copy boy at The Knoxville Journal, the morning daily newspaper. There, I became friends with the photographers and was soon hanging out in their darkroom, finally convincing a couple of them to show me their tricks.

Soon, I was borrowing the Journal’s twin-lens reflex cameras and, depending on who was present, making use of the newspaper’s darkroom, developing and printing my own pictures.

Without ever mastering the use of the cameras (or the darkroom), I did progress to the point that Knoxville’s Associated Press correspondent would engage me (as last resort) to shoot assignments. And I bought my first real camera, a used Rolleiflex twin-lens that was soon followed by a Minolta 35-millimeter single-lens reflex.

One of the AP assignments led to what I saw as a major break: photos that I shot of a bus-truck wreck north of Knoxville were published in newspapers around the country. The wreck was early on a Saturday morning and left 14 people dead. My photos were used by The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald and dozens of other publications, many displaying my images on Page One.

Though the only credit was “AP Photo,” I was convinced that I was on my way to photographic fame and glory. But my skills were in other areas, and my career in newspapers and magazines (in seven cities) has primarily been as an editor and reporter. Picture-taking has been something I did on the side. That is the reason for the title of this collection – Diversions.

Those diversions include world travel, automobile races, and an on-again, off-again project of photographing roadside memorials.

I progressed from the Minolta to a series of Leica rangefinders, though I still occasionally used the Rollei. And I played around with Polaroid products as well, including the company’s short-lived experiment with black and white transparency film in the 35-millimeter format. The Polaroid Spectra became a favorite, too.

Most of the newspapers where I worked would allow me use of their darkroom, though I had added a professional Omega D2 enlarger that I set up in apartments in Miami, Charlotte, and Louisville. I finally gave up my home facilities when I left Louisville for Dallas in 1980.

I had turned the half-bath of my apartment into a darkroom, placing my D2 on the top of the toilet and using the sink for the chemical work. When I started emptying the apartment, I discovered that in the five years I had lived there, the mineral accretions from the water in the toilet had built up a ring that could not be chipped off.

In Kansas City – my next stop after Dallas – I traded the Omega and its lenses for a used 21 mm Leica Super-Angulon, which became my lens of choice.

My interest in photography eventually led to writing about the art and its practitioners. I spent a couple of days hanging out with William Eggleston in Memphis, trying to coax coherent information about his work from him. And I was charmed for an afternoon by the remarkable Sally Mann at her home in Lexington, Virginia, for a profile that she later convinced me not to publish.

Starting in 1972, when I spent a couple of months bumming around Europe, I have spent as much time as I could traveling, camera in hand – many of the pictures included here are from those forays.

When I moved back to Knoxville in the late 1990s, I began a roadside-memorial project, taking pictures around southern Appalachia that are testament to the danger inherent in curving mountain byways.

In 2010 I made the switch to a digital camera, opting for a lightweight Panasonic Lumix (Leica lens) that, like the rangefinders I used, fits into my pocket.

This collection includes a few examples taken with the Lumix, but the majority were shot on film, most 35 millimeter.

Five of the European images, all photographed in 1972 or 1973, are included in the United Nations Archives in Geneva.

There’s no story line to the photos – they represent diversions, after all.

 

Acknowledgements

Many people contributed to this project, some simply by agreeing to let me photograph them, some by offering advice and encouragement. Others let me use newspaper darkroom facilities (sometimes with the knowledge of the folks in charge, other times in the dark of night). I would like to thank the photographers of The Knoxville Journal, The Miami  Herald, The Charlotte Observer, The Louisville Times, The Dallas Times Herald, The Kansas City Star, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. David Moynihan was a tremendous help in allowing access to the darkroom in Dallas. Encouragement came from art director/designers James Noel Smith, Fred Woodward and Jan Bryza.  Vince Staten and my late brother, Ben Wohlwend, offered valuable support. Jim Stovall and Rob Heller provided expertise that helped bring this project to fruition.

 

Smoky Mountains 1991

Smoky Mountains, Tennessee, 1991

London 1972

Hyde Park, London, England, 1972

Interstate 85, Georgia 1993

Interstate 85, north Georgia, 1993

Off Miami Beach 2010

Off South Beach, Miami, Florida, 2010

Paris 1973

Playground, Paris, France,  1973

Knox County, Tennessee 1997

East Knox County, Tennessee, 1997

LeMans 1979

24 Hours of Le Mans, France, 1979

Mississippi 2001

Holly Springs, Mississippi, 2001

Wyoming 2011

Grand Tetons, Wyoming, 2011

Charlottesville 1992

Charlottesville, Virginia, 1992

London 1972

Morpeth Arms, London, England, 1972

Knox County, Tennessee 2010

South Knox County, Tennessee, 2010

North Atlantic 2010

Off the Isle of Wight, England, 2010

Rome 1983

The Forum, Rome, Italy, 1983

Daytona 1970

Daytona Continental, Florida, 1972

South Miami. Florida, 1973

Quebec 1976

Quebec city, Canada, 1976

Paris 1972

Champs Elysees, Paris, France, 1972

Australia 1981

Uluru (Ayers Rock), Australia, 1981

Alabama 1991

Athens, Alabama 1991

Watkins Glen, NY 1972

U.S. Grand Prix, Watkins Glen, New Y0rk, 1972

Interstate 40 1998

East Knox County, Tennessee, 1998

Munich 1972

Munich, Germany, 1972

Chile 1981

Ralun, southern Chile, 1981

Innsbruck 1972

Innsbruck, Austria, 1972

Moscow 1977

Moscow River, Soviet Union, 1977

El Paso 1992

Downtown El Paso, Texas, 1992

Rome 1983

The Forum, Rome, Italy,  1983

Grainger County, Tennessee 1998

South Grainger County, Tennessee, 1998

Leningrad 1977

Leningrad, Soviet Union, 1977

Munich 1972

Munich, Germany, 1972

Southampton 2010

Southampton, England, 2010

Atlanta 1992

DeKalb County, Georgia, 1992

newdale

South Miami, Florida, 1974

milano14

Calazzo, Milan, Italy, 2010

Key West 1973

Key West, Florida, 1973

Memphis 2001

Memphis, Tennessee, 2001

newmatthews

Matthews, North Carolina, 1974

Arizona 1992

Tombstone, Arizona, 1992

Bergen 1972

Bergen, Norway, 1972

cisco-georgia-1998

Cisco, north Georgia, 1998

Athens, Alabama 1991

Athens, Alabama, 1991

newgijs

Daytona Continental, Florida, 1972

El Paso 1991

Downtown El Paso, Texas, 1992

Tajikistan 1977

Pendzhikent, Tajikistan, Soviet Union, 1977

London 1972

London, England, 1972

New Orleans 1991

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1991

Memphis 1993

Memphis, Tennessee, 1993

Paris 1976

Paris, France, 1976

El Paso 1992

Downtown El Paso, Texas, 1992

Montparnasse, Paris 1972

Montparnasse, Paris, France,  1972

Smoky Mountains 1992

Smoky Mountains, North Carolina, 1992

Le Mans 1979

24 Hours of Le Mans, France, 1979

Wyoming 2012

Northwest Wyoming, 2011

New Orleans 1992

New Orleans, Louisiana, 1992

Riding the rails

 

I know Brig, Switzerland only through a train window, only at night. Three times I have stopped there, entering and leaving Italy through the Semplon Pass, the route across the Alps developed by Napoleon. There my passport was checked, twice to make sure that I was fit for the ordered world of Switzerland, once to be welcomed to the relative chaos of Italy. All three times I was asleep upon arrival, waking because of the still silence. The window view was of serenity: empty platform, blue-cool glow from the station’s lights, dark silhouettes of the mountains looming beyond.

The Semplon Pass, the middle-of-the-night setting, the eerie silence – all mindful of a scene from a classic ‘40s film, perhaps a romantic comedy. My first Brig stop, in the late 1970s, would have worked well in such a film. It involved a girl I had met on the platform at Florence, where we both were waiting for the same north-bound train, she headed home to Basel while I was en route to Paris. Her name was Nelli and she had spent a couple of months in the United States and was eager to practice her English. I was simply eager.

My last stop in Brig was in 2010 when I was on my way from Milan to Paris, then, via the Chunnel, on to England for a Queen Mary voyage back to the U.S. It, too, featured a movie scene, but it was more film noir than romance. There was no Nelli, just a blood-curdling female scream in the middle of the night. When I had boarded around 11:30 p.m. I found I was sharing a sleeper compartment with an Italian businessman who was a regular between Padua and Paris. He warned me that there was a lot of theft on the train, and since I was in the lower berth, I should make sure the door was locked.

After our half-hour stop in Brig, I was soon asleep again. Then, about an hour into the Swiss Alps, I was awakened by the scream, followed, in English, by a female voice yelling “Stop, thief. You, get out.” We could hear commotion in the corridor. Opting for caution, my compartment mate and I decided against opening the door to find out what was going on.

After a few minutes, and some animated chatter (in Italian) from the intruder and the conductor, it was determined that the woman had failed to lock her door, and another traveler, sleepily making his way back to his bed from the restroom, had mistakenly entered her compartment. Film noir comedy, perhaps.

I began my train traveling in earnest in 1972, in Europe. There were memorable rail episodes in Germany, in Norway and France and Spain. And, years later, in Australia and Mexico and the United States. There were friendly, fascinating travel companions. Spectacular scenery, high Alps to Australian Outback desert and Mexico’s Barrancas del Cobre. Unexpected adventures, including witnessing a fistfight at a station in the Peloponnese and watching a troublemaker handcuffed on an Amtrak train in South Carolina. And I learned on three trips in Italy that dealing with rail lines in that country is always an adventure.

Since that 1972 journey, rail has been my favored way of getting from Point A to Point B, for many of the same reasons it has been favored by movie-makers: Diverse groups can be thrown together in a confined space; border crossings present opportunities for drama; interest builds easily as protagonists move farther and farther away from the familiar.

Too, there are more mundane advantages: relaxation as someone else takes care of propelling you; the discovery of exotic cultures and locales; the sleep-inducing rhythm of the rails. And there is the excitement of heading into the unknown, a pleasure that can be made better at night when everything is in the abstract, lit only partially, mysterious shadows hiding pleasure and/or danger.

Early in my first foray to Europe, I discovered that I could sleep on overnight trains, saving the cost of a room. At that time most European trains featured compartments with bench seats that had room for three – if you were the only occupant there was plenty of space to stretch out and sleep. So it’s 11 p.m. and you’re in Hamburg and there’s a train leaving for Vienna, due to arrive at 8 a.m.? Perfect, if you can find a compartment with plenty of space.

But sometimes sleep was secondary to the adventure. Once, I shared a compartment on a train to Copenhagen with a Frenchman, a French Canadian, a Dane, and two Germans, one from Hanover, the other from Munich. We were all in our mid-20s. The Canadian spoke French and English, the Dane German and English as well as his native language. We talked through the night, learning a lot about life in each others’ country – and about the nuances of language when the Hanover German said that he could understand the Dane’s native language easier than his countryman’s Bavarian dialect.

A couple of years later, preparing to depart Munich after Octoberfest, I got to talking with a young German, obviously hung over from the beery festivities, who was headed home to Ulm, a relatively short distance away. I pointed out to him that the train on the next platform was the Ulm express and we were on a train headed to Stuttgart. He said he knew that, but he did not have a ticket and would be thrown off the train at its first stop, which was Ulm. “This way,” he said with a grin, “I do not have to pay.”

In Norway, leaving Bergen on an over-nighter for Hamberg, I shared a compartment with a young man from California. He was headed home to settle things up so he could return to Norway and his new girlfriend. I heard all about her, as he talked the entire night. She was beautiful, he told me dozens of times. So beautiful, he said, that he didn’t even care that she didn’t shave her legs. Realizing that no comment from me was needed, I finally drifted off to sleep as he kept talking. I don’t know if he ever slept or not.

On another over-nighter, in Spain this time, from Barcelona to Malaga, I found myself in a compartment with a second American, a just-married Spanish couple, and a young Moroccan. The American had a guitar and initially there was a song or two. But the newlyweds were only interested in each other and the Moroccan was only interested in impressing the two Americans.

He had learned his English, he said, from American servicemen in his home country. That explained his use of the basest profanity. He had been to Italy to buy a Vespa, which was in the baggage car: “A Vespa is important in my country – I will be big with the girls.” Finally, I escaped to the platform between cars, hanging out the window and enjoying the views of the Mediterranean coast, of the inland desert. Come night, while the Moroccan was in the dining car, we made the seats into beds and prepared for sleep. He returned to find himself assigned to the top bunk above the Spanish couple.

At some point, about 2 a.m., I was awakened as the Moroccan began yelling at the newlyweds. It seems they were whispering to each other and keeping him awake. He went for the conductor, who then guided him out into the corridor; soon his yelling became fainter as they moved down the train. The rest of us went back to sleep.

The next morning, at a small stop called Chaparral, one of the train’s engines broke down. We sat around under a tree until a replacement could be brought in. Our Moroccan showed up while we waited, chipper toward everyone except the Spanish couple. I asked him where he had been. He looked disgustedly at the conductor a few yards away, and said that he had been forced to join his Vespa in the baggage car. And, to our relief, that’s where he rode for the rest of the trip.

But Mexico, high in the Sierra Madre Occidental, was the site of my most memorable train experience. I was traveling with photographer Skeeter Hagler from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, on the Gulf of California side of Mexico. The trip is famous with tourists as it crosses the mountains above the Barrancas del Cobre – the Copper Canyon. The canyon is in area larger than the north American Grand Canyon. It is also home to Tarahumara Indians, famous for their long-distance running and their peyote-centered religion.

The trip is scheduled for about 12 hours, but often takes 14 or 15. There are stops with spectacular views into the canyon, but there are also unscheduled delays. So, about midnight we had just begun our descent from the heights when there was a stop at a small village. Skeeter and I were in the last car, and I was hanging out at the very back with a drunk native. Periodically, his friend the conductor would admonish him to be quiet, to sit down, to quit causing trouble. He would look at me and laugh.

When we stopped, the conductor exited the car at the other end with his signal light. And the drunk exited at our end to relieve himself. After a couple of minutes I glanced toward the conductor and saw him waving the light that meant we were ready to continue. I alerted my “friend”. My voice got the conductor’s attention, and when he saw what was going on he started yelling at the drunk, who just laughed. As the train started slowly moving, he finished his business and started running for the train. I reached down, grabbed his arm and pulled him aboard.

“Gracias, amigo,” he said with a grin as the conductor began marching him back down the car. Looking into the canyon I could see the faraway lights of Tarahumara fires, only then realizing that if my “friend” had been stronger, I could be tumbling down the mountain toward them.

When I told Skeeter, who had been sleeping, he shook his head. “That would have made a great picture,” he said. Or, in retrospect, a great opening scene for a movie.

The founding of the zoo

 The founding of the zoo

Two of my uncles, with assistance from a couple of baby alligators, founded Knoxville’s zoo. At least, that’s the story my mother told me. But I don’t want to mislead – the founding came about not as a noble act aimed at educating the general population. It happened as the result of a prank.

My mother and her four brothers grew up in Burlington, on Lakeside Street, the short thoroughfare that forms the eastern boundary of Chilhowee Park. So they had a vast playground, complete with its own body of water, Lake Ottosee. The park had wildlife – songbirds and ducks and fish. So my uncles can be forgiven for thinking that alligators would be a natural, if not altogether welcome, addition.

One summer in the late 1930s. as my mother told the story, Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Maynard, then in their late teens, made a trip to Florida. There, they discovered tourist stops that sold live baby alligators. And they decided that alligator mississipiensis would be right at home in Burlington. Their motives, as my mother related them, were completely innocent. She contended that they did not think of introducing them into Lake Ottosee, that they believed that my grandmother would welcome them into the household. Besides, she said, they were not thinking about the gators multiplying – they thought both babies were male, even naming them Kenneth and Maynard. Or maybe it was my grandmother who bestowed the monikers. My mother said she could not remember for sure.

But conversations that I had with my uncles when I was a teen-ager made me think that their intent was more devious, that, from the beginning, they saw the lake as the natural home for the pair.

Understandably, my grandmother wasn’t enamored of the horny new arrivals. A dog and a cat were pets enough, she reasoned. (The chickens that had the run of the backyard were not pets – they were there to supply food.) So, before they had time to make friends with the dog and cat, before they had grown enough to take more than a passing interest in the chickens, the gators were transported to the lake and set free.

Initially, it being summer and the water being studded with fuzzy ducklings, Kenneth and Maynard had easy pickings at mealtime. But as the ducklings – and the gators – matured mealtime became noisier, with whipping tails and panicky squawking and feathery splashing. Children fishing from the banks for sunfish took notice. Soon, Kenneth and Maynard were well on their way to becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Children and their parents informed park personnel, who were at first skeptical – until they witnessed snack-time themselves. Traps were set and the pair soon imprisoned.

But then the park’s overseers faced the problem of what to do with a couple of fast-growing alligators. An idea was hatched, and, on the hill facing the lake from the west side of the park, a pen was constructed, with a small pond and a few rocks. The alligators, at least, could view their former home, with its duck population, from their new digs.

Later, they would be joined on the hill by a pair of lions (named Romeo and Juliet), a troop of monkeys, fowl ranging from noisy guineas to showy peacocks to pushy pigeons taking advantage of the park-provided food intended for the official residents. Eventually, Ole Diamond, the elephant generally credited with being the catalyst of today’s first-rate zoological garden, would join them.

But, in my family, Kenneth and Maynard, two scaley Florida fugitives named for their rescuers, were the true founders of the zoo.

The founding of the zoo

 

Two of my uncles, with assistance from a couple of baby alligators, founded Knoxville’s zoo. At least, that’s the story my mother told me. But I don’t want to mislead – the founding came about not as a noble act aimed at educating the general population. It happened as the result of a prank.

My mother and her four brothers grew up in Burlington, on Lakeside Street, the short thoroughfare that forms the eastern boundary of Chilhowee Park. So they had a vast playground, complete with its own body of water, Lake Ottosee. The park had wildlife – songbirds and ducks and fish. So my uncles can be forgiven for thinking that alligators would be a natural, if not altogether welcome, addition.

One summer in the late 1930s. as my mother told the story, Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Maynard, then in their late teens, made a trip to Florida. There, they discovered tourist stops that sold live baby alligators. And they decided that alligator mississipiensis would be right at home in Burlington. Their motives, as my mother related them, were completely innocent. She contended that they did not think of introducing them into Lake Ottosee, that they believed that my grandmother would welcome them into the household. Besides, she said, they were not thinking about the gators multiplying – they thought both babies were male, even naming them Kenneth and Maynard. Or maybe it was my grandmother who bestowed the monikers. My mother said she could not remember for sure.

But conversations that I had with my uncles when I was a teen-ager made me think that their intent was more devious, that, from the beginning, they saw the lake as the natural home for the pair.

Understandably, my grandmother wasn’t enamored of the horny new arrivals. A dog and a cat were pets enough, she reasoned. (The chickens that had the run of the backyard were not pets – they were there to supply food.) So, before they had time to make friends with the dog and cat, before they had grown enough to take more than a passing interest in the chickens, the gators were transported to the lake and set free.

Initially, it being summer and the water being studded with fuzzy ducklings, Kenneth and Maynard had easy pickings at mealtime. But as the ducklings – and the gators – matured mealtime became noisier, with whipping tails and panicky squawking and feathery splashing. Children fishing from the banks for sunfish took notice. Soon, Kenneth and Maynard were well on their way to becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Children and their parents informed park personnel, who were at first skeptical – until they witnessed snack-time themselves. Traps were set and the pair soon imprisoned.

But then the park’s overseers faced the problem of what to do with a couple of fast-growing alligators. An idea was hatched, and, on the hill facing the lake from the west side of the park, a pen was constructed, with a small pond and a few rocks. The alligators, at least, could view their former home, with its duck population, from their new digs.

Later, they would be joined on the hill by a pair of lions (named Romeo and Juliet), a troop of monkeys, fowl ranging from noisy guineas to showy peacocks to pushy pigeons taking advantage of the park-provided food intended for the official residents. Eventually, Ole Diamond, the elephant generally credited with being the catalyst of today’s first-rate zoological garden, would join them.

But, in my family, Kenneth and Maynard, two scaley Florida fugitives named for their rescuers, were the true founders of the zoo.

Escape from Rose Hill

 

Norma showed up at my grandparents’ house sometime in the late 1940s. In her teens, she had left her home in rural southwestern Virginia the day before, catching the bus to Knoxville in hopes of finding a job.

The trip was Norma’s first to Knoxville, and she had exited the bus when it reached Burlington, mistakenly believing the business bustle she was seeing meant that she had reached the city. The highway, U.S. 11, became Magnolia Avenue at Burlington, morphing into a prosperous-looking four-lane. She was unaware that she was still several miles from downtown. Noticing a help-wanted sign in the window of Kay’s ice-cream parlor at Magnolia and Crawford Avenue, she walked in and applied. She was immediately hired as counter help.

Next, she needed a place to live, and my grandparents’ house was only a block from her new place of employment.

My grandmother let Norma stay in her spare bedroom, and she helped around the house for her board. Soon, she was helping my mother, who was trying to manage me, a handful like most toddlers, and my new baby sister. Norma began spending a lot of time at our place, within walking distance of my grandparents’ house. And she soon added another job, working the night shift at Standard Knitting Mills – she could get there on the city bus that stopped in front of Kay’s, exiting at Winona Street and walking a few blocks north to the Standard plant.

I was too young to understand all this, and my memories of Norma from that time aren’t clear. But I knew that she was important to our household, and to my grandmother’s as well.

But Norma’s ambition went beyond the mill and the ice-cream counter. She saved her money until she had enough to enroll in beauty school. By the time I was a student at Park Junior High School in Park City, she had married and was the proprietor of her own beauty salon in Burlington. Soon, she was rearing her own family.

Years later, my mother and dad provided details about Norma, whose tale was typical of the time and place. It was a hard-scrabble story of want, ambition and determination.

Norma Jean Lee had grown up in Rose Hill, Virginia, and did not see a future in what was around her. Belying its name, Rose Hill is a mean stop in coal-mining country, another ridge-side Appalachian hamlet where residents eke out a living as best they can. There were several brothers and sisters. And, according to my mother, the family did not want Norma Jean heading south to the metropolis of Knoxville.

A couple of months after her arrival in Burlington, my dad said, Norma was confronted by her mother, who had ridden the bus to Knoxville to take her daughter back home. Norma refused and there were shouts and then tears. When her mother left, my dad remembered, Norma looked at him and said, “I don’t care if they do come after me, I’m never going back to Rose Hill.”

Next, a younger sister came down to see if she could persuade Norma to return. She succumbed to Knoxville’s city charms.

“Norma took her on the bus downtown to the movie at the Tennessee Theater,” my mother said. “They got caught in the rain, and got soaked. Norma’s sister only had the dress she was wearing, so she had to stay another day until her dress dried out.” She caught the Trailways back to Rose Hill the next day, returning without her sister.

Appalachia’s isolated hills and valleys are dotted with Rose Hills, places where the rock-encrusted land surrendered a limited living to its occupiers, grudgingly providing just enough for a family to survive. The jobs that were available – involving coal primarily – were backbreaking and dangerous. Post-World War II, many of the natives had witnessed the larger world and wanted a piece of it.

Many, like Norma, were successful in escaping, even if was only a hundred miles away to Knoxville, the unofficial capital of Appalachia. True to her vow, Norma only returned when she died in 1991, aged 62, to be buried in Rose Hill’s Daniels Cemetery.

 

The founding of the zoo

Two of my uncles, with assistance from a couple of baby alligators, founded Knoxville’s zoo. At least, that’s the story my mother told me. But I don’t want to mislead – the founding came about not as a noble act aimed at educating the general population. It happened as the result of a prank.

My mother and her four brothers grew up in Burlington, on Lakeside Street, the short thoroughfare that forms the eastern boundary of Chilhowee Park. So they had a vast playground, complete with its own body of water, Lake Ottosee. The park had wildlife – songbirds and ducks and fish. So my uncles can be forgiven for thinking that alligators would be a natural, if not altogether welcome, addition.

One summer in the late 1930s. as my mother told the story, Uncle Kenneth and Uncle Maynard, then in their late teens, made a trip to Florida. There, they discovered tourist stops that sold live baby alligators. And they decided that alligator mississipiensis would be right at home in Burlington. Their motives, as my mother related them, were completely innocent. She contended that they did not think of introducing them into Lake Ottosee, that they believed that my grandmother would welcome them into the household. Besides, she said, they were not thinking about the gators multiplying – they thought both babies were male, even naming them Kenneth and Maynard. Or maybe it was my grandmother who bestowed the monikers. My mother said she could not remember for sure.

But conversations that I had with my uncles when I was a teen-ager made me think that their intent was more devious, that, from the beginning, they saw the lake as the natural home for the pair.

Understandably, my grandmother wasn’t enamored of the horny new arrivals. A dog and a cat were pets enough, she reasoned. (The chickens that had the run of the backyard were not pets – they were there to supply food.) So, before they had time to make friends with the dog and cat, before they had grown enough to take more than a passing interest in the chickens, the gators were transported to the lake and set free.

Initially, it being summer and the water being studded with fuzzy ducklings, Kenneth and Maynard had easy pickings at mealtime. But as the ducklings – and the gators – matured mealtime became noisier, with whipping tails and panicky squawking and feathery splashing. Children fishing from the banks for sunfish took notice. Soon, Kenneth and Maynard were well on their way to becoming the stuff of urban legend.

Children and their parents informed park personnel, who were at first skeptical – until they witnessed snack-time themselves. Traps were set and the pair soon imprisoned.

But then the park’s overseers faced the problem of what to do with a couple of fast-growing alligators. An idea was hatched, and, on the hill facing the lake from the west side of the park, a pen was constructed, with a small pond and a few rocks. The alligators, at least, could view their former home, with its duck population, from their new digs.

Later, they would be joined on the hill by a pair of lions (named Romeo and Juliet), a troop of monkeys, fowl ranging from noisy guineas to showy peacocks to pushy pigeons taking advantage of the park-provided food intended for the official residents. Eventually, Ole Diamond, the elephant generally credited with being the catalyst of today’s first-rate zoological garden, would join them.

But, in my family, Kenneth and Maynard, two scaley Florida fugitives named for their rescuers, were the true founders of the zoo.

 

Of preachers and popes

The voice, despite being at shout volume, seemed to be disembodied, but the message was clear: If we all didn’t change our ways, we were going to Hell.

I was sitting in my car, waiting for the light to change at a busy downtown Knoxville interchange, three lanes each direction. Finally, I spotted the source of the sermon. The driver of a truck was shouting his message to everyone waiting on the red – preaching to the air.

Raised a Southern Baptist, I have heard my share of sermons, from the raised-stage pulpits of large, rigidly structured edifices and from the worn wooden floors of tiny, no-pulpit store-fronts. But this was the first I had seen delivered from the driver’s seat of a truck with its motor running. This was a man of God of singular determination – definitely qualified for my list of notable preachers.

Up until my late teens, I was a regular attendee of morning and evening services as well as Sunday School and Training Union. And the annual Vacation Bible Schools and week-long revivals. Occasionally there were dinners on the grounds, too, with fried chicken and potato salad and deviled eggs in infinite variety.

We were active in a popular Knoxville congregation.

While I was enthusiastic about the dinners, I was a reluctant attendee of the regular services and the revivals. My father was a deacon, my mother a choir member, and my siblings and I had no choice but to be in church when they were. Decisions to skip the service in favor of the soda counter at the nearby Greenlee’s Drug Store were made risky by Mom’s position in the choir. She scanned the pews to see that we were not only present, but upright and awake.

And staying awake could be a problem. The church was large enough – more than 1,000 members – that ritual took precedence over spirit, at least on Sunday mornings. Longtime members had sat through hundreds of sermons, delivered by dozens of preachers. Many were prone to dozing. There was one lanky member, habitué of the rear of the auditorium, who was well-known to me and my friends. He would nod off, his head would drift backward and his Adam’s apple would bob with his breathing. We found the sight amusing, a diversion that kept us awake.

Another diversion, usually occurring only at evening services, involved Aunt Jenny, an older choir member who would be moved to dance from her seat in the loft down to the front of the altar, choir robe swirling. We didn’t know whether to laugh or run.

Reluctant though I was about the sermonizing, I didn’t mind Vacation Bible School. My dad, a machinist who worked the second shift and was available in the mornings, would be called on for VBS, usually put in charge of crafts for the boys. And I would be drafted to help, loading pieces of plywood into the station wagon, along with the saws and files that would be used to cut them into animal shapes. They would then be decorated with colored popcorn. Sometimes, the end product would actually resemble a chicken or a rabbit – or something nightmarishly in-between. Afterward, I would wield a broom as we cleaned up the scattered popcorn.

By the time I was 12 or 13, plywood animals didn’t hold much interest for my age group. Crafts hour degenerated into popcorn battles, saws and files becoming dangerous weapons.

As I became more of a hindrance than a help, Dad enlisted another deacon. Boomer, as I’ll call him here, was an automobile mechanic, and he had an idea. He brought in several boxes of old carburetors, screwdrivers, wrenches, and a can of kerosene and shop rags for cleaning. He showed us how to disassemble the carbs, how to clean all the parts with kerosene, and how to put them back together. We worked on single-barrels, then two-barrels, and, finally, at week’s end, four-barrels. There were a lot of greasy fingers and oil-stained clothes, but no more popcorn battles.

But as I grew older and bought my own car, with its own carburetor, I moved away from active church participation, eventually working a part-time job downtown. It was then that I started taking note of street preachers. Knoxville had its share, most of them active on Saturdays on Market Square. Their breathy buildups and sing-song deliveries were fascinating, at least as a lunchtime diversion. Too, there was the young guy who was adept at leaping into the air at particular points during his sermons, jumping just as he slapped his Bible against his hand, his timing precise.

After I graduated college and changed jobs, moving from city to city, other Bible thumpers caught my attention. In downtown Dallas, there were dueling preachers who worked a particularly busy street corner. One would sermonize for a while, the other looking on in disgust. When the first ran out of steam, the second would start, his competitor watching with a disdainful look.

Atlanta featured several of note. There was a woman, part of a group that wore white robes, who would smoothly segue from preaching to singing, her “sisters” joining in on the chorus. But downtown Atlanta’s best as spectacle was an African-American man who worked Woodruff Park at lunchtime. He carried a guitar slung over his shoulder, though I never saw him play it. What made him interesting was his “shadow.” At some point, a young white man had decided to follow him closely and mimic his movements, making fun of him. The shadow became enough of a problem that a third person joined in: an Atlanta policeman who made sure the shadow didn’t get too close.

Though I found street preachers intriguing, I had long ago decided I didn’t want middlemen between me and my maker, epiphany coming when I was high-school age and still attending the church of my childhood. The educational minister was a slick, charismatic character with a wife and five children. His spouse, who sat next to my mother in the choir, was the butt of his jokes when he made his reports to the congregation on Sunday mornings. And, I overheard my mother tell her friends, she would whisper funny asides in response, using language not suited for church.

But one afternoon as Mom and her friends gossiped, I overheard a different tale about the minister. It seems that he was having an affair with a church member, also married. I didn’t hear much detail – one of Mom’s friends noticed that I was in the room and I was quickly sent outside.

The next Sunday, the educational minister and his wife were not present at either service. The word quickly spread that he had resigned and that he and his family were leaving Knoxville. Over the next couple of weeks I picked up bits and pieces of the story, but I was too involved in my own high school shenanigans to pay much attention.

The years passed, the neighborhood changed, and the church merged with another congregation. I was living in Kansas City at the time. Mom and Dad were active in the new church for a while, until the fundamentalists started taking over the Southern Baptist Convention. My parents were both strong believers in formal education, and the mail-order degrees held by the new faction appalled them.

Eventually the new church called a new preacher, a fundamentalist whose education was, as far as my mother was concerned, seriously lacking. She soon was at loggerheads with him and he fired her from the Sunday School class she was teaching, even sending a young minister-in-training to suggest that she not tell anyone why she was no longer teaching. She told him that if she was asked by any of the women in the class, she wouldn’t lie. Eventually, she and my dad quit attending.

My parents knew everyone in that area of Knoxville, and my mother, never shy, wielded considerable influence. The new preacher – she had taken to calling him Pope John – decided he needed her back in attendance. He began regular visitations at their house.

His entreaties only angered her. Finally, she told him that if she came to church it would be to call for his ouster. Under Southern Baptist Convention rules, any church member can call for a vote about a preacher at any service; if there is a second, the vote must be held then and there. Her threat was sufficient, and Pope John didn’t come around anymore.

Years later, at my father’s funeral, I spoke with many of his old friends from the old church, the shade-tree mechanics he talked cars with, fellow machinists, the neighbors he helped when their vehicles wouldn’t start. But I didn’t see Boomer.

Later, talking about the crowd with my brother and sister, I mentioned his absence.  My sister looked over at me. I guess you didn’t hear, she said: He committed suicide years ago.

My look of surprise led her to explain. Boomer had had a drinking problem, a problem that became worse with the discovery that his wife was involved with the church’s educational minister.

 

Of Blackberries and ‘Panters”

Miz Lusby lived on the street that ran the length of the ridge that defined the southern edge of Burlington, a block or so from our house. She was, according to word around the neighborhood, a bit of a witch. Because of that reputation, and because of the tales she told, she was popular with the kids.

During warm weather, after supper when twilight was deepening, she could often be found sitting on her front porch in a rocking chair that appeared to be even older than she was. And often we would be gathered around, waiting for one of her stories.

She liked to scare us with accounts of in-house wakes, the honoree stretched out in his or her coffin in the parlor, mourners gathered around in the dim light of candles or lanterns. The memories that were shared by the mourners in attendance would invariably involve a violent act, sometimes following a mysterious night-time chase. One such chase, one of the more memorable, involved a “panter.”

Panters – panthers or cougars – were a particular favorite of Miz Lusby. Though they had not been spotted officially in East Tennessee for decades, she was sure they were still around. “A panter is smart,” she would say. “He learns how to stay away from human beings, only coming out at night to raid a barn or a pig sty, grabbing a shoat or a newborn calf for his supper.”

So, according to her, panthers were responsible for the mysterious disappearance of farm animals, or, she would imply, somebody’s dog. “They wouldn’t mess with cats,” she contended. “Some people say it’s because they’re too small, not worth messing with. But the real reason is because they’re cats, too. They’re kin, so the panter don’t mess with ‘em.”

And, she liked to emphasize, “a panter’s cry is just like a baby’s – if you ever hear one in the middle of the night, it’ll sound just like a little baby crying.” Of course we all knew the sound of the neighborhood tomcats as they made their nighttime rounds, wailing at each other, so we could easily imagine the sound of a panter. And, just to make sure we understood what she was talking about, she would demonstrate, executing a long, drawn-out cry that sounded just like a baby.

Miz Lusby was a “widow woman”. Her husband, according to neighborhood lore, had disappeared not too long after they were married, then turned up dead in Texas. Some said he had been shot. Miz Lusby had lived alone ever since, with a dog and a house cat or two. No one ever said anything about how she survived, except that she took in sewing. And she had a garden during spring and summer. We weren’t interested in such details. We only wanted to hear her tales.

Sometimes, we would ask about how to keep a panter away. She would say that it didn’t always work, but there was a spell you could use. She would then tease us. If we could find her a black-cat bone she would tell us how to use it. “It takes some practice, and it don’t always work,” she would insist, “but it’s your best chance.”

Once, Earl Presley brought her a small bone he’d found, claiming that he was sure it came from a black cat. She took one look and said, “No, that’s from a possum.”

About the time I got a decent bicycle and was getting old enough to start scoffing at her stories, she delivered the tale that topped them all. She delivered it so believably that I forgot my recently acquired skepticism and sat up and listened.

She had heard, she said, a panter the night before, and it was so close it had to be in the Holler, several acres of bushes and weeds that began only a couple hundred yards behind her house. We were all familiar with the Holler – it was full of blackberry bushes as well as rabbit tobacco and hidden spots for smoking it.

Eyes widened as she demonstrated the panter’s cry, and provided details of her two cats trying to get out of her house when the wailing began. “They were wanting to go join it, I reckon,” she said. “I didn’t sleep another wink, I can tell you.”

Then, a few days later, at the height of blackberry season, I saw Miz Lusby in the Holler, busy filling a pan with berries. She had the entire place to herself, all the kids staying away lest there be a panter present.

 

A baptism into religious differences

Troop 15, Boy Scouts of America, met on Thursday nights at Kirkwood Presbyterian Church, on McCalla Avenue in Burlington. The church building was small, but there was an adequate meeting room in the basement, and more importantly, a grassy back area perfect for games of “Pitch Up and Smear.”

I can’t remember the objective of the game but it involved a football that was thrown into the air, with everyone scrambling to catch it. The lucky Scout was then susceptible to a “smearing” by the others unless he could get the ball to someone else. There must have been some kind of scoring system. Understandably, not everyone present wanted to participate.

Most of us were veterans of such neighborhood “games.” But one of the kids, who was not a Burlington resident, expressed an intellectual skepticism to the game’s “point.” His name was Richard and he lived in Park City, the next neighborhood to the west, far enough away so that his dad drove him to the Scout meetings..

Worn out from the games, we would then gather in the church’s meeting room, with the scoutmaster, Jimmy Coppock, presiding. The church might have been modest, but, thanks to Mr. Coppock, the troop enjoyed a certain prestige in the Great Smoky Mountain Council of the Scouts. Mr. Coppock, a postman by day, was a longtime fixture with the organization, and holder of a Silver Beaver Award, one of Scouting’s top honors.

Though the meeting place was Presbyterian, the troop membership reflected the community, drawing from McCalla Avenue Baptist, across the street, from Burlington Methodist, a couple of blocks away, and from other churches in the area.

The troop shared ownership with another troop of a cabin on Chilhowee Mountain in the Smokies. The cabin – one long room with a porch that ran its entire length – was equipped with rustic bunk beds, a fireplace, and a wood-burning cook stove. A spring just above it on the mountain provided water. During warm weather we would spend three or four weekends there.

At that time, the late 1950s, that part of the mountain was serviced by a barely usable dirt road. At one point in the 1920s, we were told, on the Knoxville side of the peak, there had been a resort hotel called Dupont Springs. Sometimes we would hike up there and scout around its remains.

Our cabin was on the side facing Sevierville, about two-thirds of the way to the top. It was well off the dirt road, barely visible in the winter when the trees were bare. There was only one other usable cabin in the area, owned by the couple who had donated the land for the Scout facility.

The road, most of the time, was passable by car or truck, but we always hiked up, complaining most of the way, badgering Mr. Coppock with distance questions. No matter how many miles remained, his stock answer became a running joke. When asked how much farther, he always said: “Mile, mile and a half, two miles.”

Sometimes, those of us who were more experienced, who had his trust, would be allowed to hike up a creek, scrambling through the woods in an attempt to get to the cabin ahead of those using the road. Once, on a dare, Ray Merritt and I toted a watermelon, along with our usual gear, the entire three and a half miles up the road. Mr. Coppock saw to it that we shared the melon with the others even though we pointed out that none of them had volunteered to help carry it.

Later, I figured out that I could lighten my load by simplifying my diet. The only food I carried was a package or two of wieners, a loaf of bread and a jar of mustard. No cooking pans, no eating utensils. All I needed was a sharpened stick and a fire to make my hot dogs, which I ate for every meal. Mr. Coppock told me that though my thought process was admirable, I was a bad example for the younger boys.

But Mr. Coppock’s greatest lesson to us came about when the question of religion arose on one of the trips. I don’t remember how it began, but someone started talking about the difference between being a Baptist and being a Methodist or Presbyterian. Obviously, being dipped under the water was scarier than being sprinkled, so Baptist was a tougher religion. Or something like that.

Richard wasn’t participating in the argument, and someone finally asked him what religion he was. He simply said he wasn’t any of those. One of the kids pressed him, and Mr. Coppock then stepped in, explaining that Richard was Jewish and what that meant.

As I remember, there were a couple of shrugs and that was the end of it. We all took pride in the fact that Troop 15 had its own cabin in the mountains – something that most other troops did not have. But now, at least for a few of us, we had something else that set us apart, we had a Jewish member.

 

Zip guns and exploding toilets

My move to junior high school in many ways was more than a mere move. It was a leap. I went from the neighborhood atmosphere of Fair Garden – on Fern Street a couple of blocks away from the Burlington business district and within walking distance of home – to Park Junior High School, several miles away toward downtown.

That meant a ride on the city bus to and from school, either via Magnolia or McCalla avenues. True, most of the kids who were my classmates in grades one through six were still with me, but there were new faces, too, from different parts of town: primarily Park City and the area along the river just east of downtown.

And there were more technical offerings such as woodshop and mechanical drawing – even a plastics class. The grades were 7th, 8th, and for some, 9th. I noticed fairly early that a few of the students were much older. A couple even drove cars to school. The primer-gray early-‘50s Mercury that a kid named Julian drove was particularly cool.

But the real eye-opener came about the third week of my seventh-grade year. I had noticed that the boy who sat behind me in homeroom was older. His surname was Young, and he told me he lived on Hill Avenue above the river. That neighborhood consisted of run-down Victorian houses; a couple of years later it was bulldozed out of existence in an urban-renewal effort. One morning about 8:40, just after the pledge of allegiance to the flag, two policemen entered, had a quick conversation with the teacher, came down my aisle, and led Mr. Young out. We never saw him again.

A couple of weeks later, the south end of the school was shaken during third period by an explosion. A quick trip into the hall revealed water streaming from the boys’ bathroom. Later, we learned that someone had dropped a cherry bomb (waterproof fuse) down one of the toilets.

The result proved popular – exploding toilets became a regular occurrence, finally leading to a patrolling policeman.

Uniformed officers also joined us on the Magnolia Avenue bus after school. Their presence became necessary after a game developed among those occupying the back bench seat, which went all the way across the vehicle. A handful of the boys discovered that they could push on the bus sides and squeeze the kids who were in the middle.

After the second time that a bus window was popped out by the pushing, the cops became regular riders.

When I took wood shop, I noticed that some of the boys were making Y-shaped sling shots. Then one of the older students shaped a wooden pistol, rigging it up for rubber bands. The weaponry development soon escalated with technical advice from an older brother. A zip gun capable of firing a .22 bullet was fashioned. He, too, was escorted out by policemen and not seen in the hallways again.

By eighth grade, I was involved in the Black & Gold, a mimeographed newsletter that appeared sporadically and was shepherded by my homeroom teacher. In hindsight a crime column would have been popular, but I doubt if the idea would have met with the principal’s approval.

Eventually, some of the troublemakers started answering to a skinny kid named Harrison, who had seen a few James Cagney-George Raft features and adopted their movie characters as role models. He had leadership ability (he was probably at least three years older than most of us) and soon had a half-dozen followers.

Harrison and a couple of his lieutenants began stopping seventh graders in the hall, guiding them to a quiet corner and asking “What would you do if someone just walked up and slugged you in the jaw?”

The wide-eyed response was usually along the lines of “I don’t know.”

Then the “insurance” racket would be explained. “We can protect you from that kind of thing, and all you have to do is pay us a quarter a week.” (This was the late 1950s, when the school lunch was only fifty cents.)

The business started off well and soon became the subject of lunchroom whispers and nervous glances in Harrison’s direction.

But then Harrison made a serious mistake. During the mid-day break, while the lunchroom was crowded, he approached Slack, one of my Burlington buddies, with his proposition. Slack had an immediate response – he cold-cocked Harrison.

The episode was witnessed by enough kids that Harrison became a laughing stock, his entrepreneurial attempt at an end.

 

Rock ‘n’ Roll at the Indian Rock Grill

My brief stint as a rock ‘n’ roll roadie began with a panic-induced call – and had a tenuous connection to Jerry Lee Lewis. It came about through Vance Walker, a high school classmate, and involved the Indian Rock Grill, a Rutledge Pike roadhouse that was frequently in the news for all the wrong reasons. The year was about 1967.

Vance taught himself to play guitar by listening to Chet Atkins records. By the time he graduated from East High School in 1963, he had become quite accomplished. At a Talent Day gathering in the auditorium when he was a junior he joined three senior musicians on stage; their music had most of the student body rocking in their seats as nervous teachers and administrators squirmed. Finally, at the performance climax, an extended riff on Jimmy Reed’s blues standard, “Baby, What You Want Me to Do?” one of the teachers went backstage and turned off the power. A near riot was averted by stern looks from principal Buford Bible, who had taken over the microphone.

But one unplugging didn’t deter Vance. He moved on to sitting in with the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, playing lead for popular local singer Clifford Russell, and jamming with his older cousin, a keyboardist who was an in-demand fixture of the East Tennessee roadhouse scene, adept whether the occasion called for country, rock ‘n’ roll, blues or gospel.

A couple of years after high school, Vance’s cousin came up with a headlining job at the Indian Rock, renowned for fights and arrests and violations of liquor laws. Jerry Lee Lewis, his career then in a tailspin due to backlash because of marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, had performed there a couple of times – that was as close as the place got to positive press.

Vance’s cousin had received a Saturday-morning call from the Indian Rock’s owner – the regular band had cancelled. A quartet was quickly assembled, with Vance on guitar and vocals. The group would play for the door. I got the nod because they needed someone to collect the cover charge.

Of course, I saw the call as an opportunity to be associated with rising rock ‘n’ rollers, with a famous venue, and, by a dubious stretch, with Jerry Lee Lewis. “What time do I show up for the gig?” I asked, employing a term that I was sure made me appear to be a seasoned veteran of the music scene.

I helped the four unload their equipment (amplifiers, a drum set, and most notably because of its weight and awkwardness, a Hammond B3 organ with Leslie tone cabinet). After the stage was set up, I pulled a stool to the door and counted the bills I had brought along for making change. The cover charge, it was decided, would be $2.

There was time for the band to run through a couple of songs before the first customers – two women – showed up. They listened for a bit, asked me where the regular band was, and then wanted to know who the group on stage was. I told them they didn’t have a name yet. They listened for a couple more minutes, looked at each other, said something about checking out the Oak Grove, and left. The Oak Grove, which was on Asheville Highway, boasted the same kind of reputation as the Indian Rock.

The pair’s reaction, unfortunately, was a harbinger of the evening. After a couple more departures, I began distancing myself from the band, telling would-be customers that I didn’t know who they were, only that they were a last-minute substitute. I would point out that the cover was only $2.

A handful of revelers paid up and found tables. There was some dancing. Vance and the others began making their jams longer and longer as they ran out of tunes that all four were familiar with. I was adding “They don’t sound too bad on some songs” to my banter with would-be customers.

At closing time, the take totaled $22. After we had managed to get the Hammond and other equipment loaded back up, we split the money. The band members got $5 each and I was given the remaining $2. Vance and I then took our money and went to the Oak Grove, where the crowd was enjoying a classic roadhouse mix of country and rock ‘n’ roll by the regular house band. The woman on the door knew Vance and generously let us in without charge, leaving us with just enough money for a good time.

 

 

 

 

Reading List

IN GENERAL:

Anything by John McPhee (and there are a lot)

Sarah Davidson

Katherine Boo (The New Yorker magazine)

Tom Junod (Esquire magazine)

TRAVEL WRITING:

Anything by:

Colin Thubron

Wilfred Thesiger

Patrick Leigh Fermor

Edith Durham

Mary Kingsley

Caroline Alexander

Jonathan Rabin (non-fiction)

Eric Newby

SPORTS WRITING:

George Plimpton

Drew Jubera (“Must Win”)

Gene Wojciechowski (“Pond Scum & Vultures”)

Paul Zimmerman on professional football

Charles Pierce