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.

Up on blocks it rests,

a hillside hulk, testament

to roadhouse rambling.


Dancing plastic bag,

skittering across the road,

all its moorings lost.


Labeled a dandy,

juggling too many toppers,

bald but looking good.




Mating Rituals — a report

In the first image, a Common Kawasaki Ninjus, female, rests in the shade.

A male, sporting seasonal colors along the shoulders, approaches.

Finally, a yearling catches up to the adults.



On leaving Beirut

by Zaina Budayr

July 29, 2011

When I step off the plane after it lands in Beirut, the past I have experienced comes rushing back in a swirl of sounds, smells and flashes of memory. In the past I had to focus really hard to keep those away from everyday life, because they were that intense and meaningful. Time has definitely helped with healing the wounds. Being Arab-American, the strain of politics has always played a huge role in my life. My father, a survivor of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Beirut and of the Lebanese civil war, told my sister and I shocking stories when we were younger.

Growing up in the U.S. makes it difficult to relate to such an extreme form of politics where people are harmed and broken and loved ones are lost. As children we thought politics was just banter that happened among old people. “Listen to this guy and his crazy tales,” we would say. But in the summer of 2006, I had my own first-hand experience with that world.

Every summer, my family of five (the “traveling tribe” as my mother called it) would go overseas to spend six weeks with my extended family in Beirut. This voyage became such a fun tradition that I would begin planning my summers starting from the summer before. I lived every waking moment waiting on the time when I could see my cousins, friends, family and neighbors.

The summer of 2006 started as normal with the exception of my father not being able to accompany us. He was drowning in work and couldn’t take an extended vacation to the Middle East. Since he wasn’t going, and I always did have such a blast, I decided to take my high school friend, Sarah, who had never been out of the United States. As we landed in Beirut, her eyes were wide and filled with excitement. “Zaina, this is ridiculous,” I remember her saying. I couldn’t help but agree, even after being to Beirut more than twenty times in my life.

Beirut is a city that refuses to sleep, a city always in motion. Her streets are jammed with carts full of fresh fruits, vendors beckoning people to look at their goods. Beirut rests right on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea, the ocean always crashing on her shores, wafting the sea smell into every nook and cranny of her narrow, winding streets. I never felt like I could get enough. Beirut was the place that inspired me and made me feel like I was home.

As my family quickly embraced Sarah as an “adopted Budayr,” she instantly felt the same. At meals they would insist she keep eating, even after she was full. Plates of grape leaves, tabouli, and meat were passed around the table with family members of all ages and sizes grabbing food as the plates zigzagged around. My friends also took a liking to her. We were having the best summer of our lives. I was getting to share a piece of my history and my happy place with someone who had never experienced it before.

On the eve of my 17th birthday a week or so before our scheduled departure my cousin and I were falling asleep in bed. Each summer, my cousin Lynne would tell me “I hope something happens so that you don’t have to leave. The summers go entirely way too fast.” Every year I agreed, every year I hoped and prayed that something would happen, and every year that time would come and go. That night was no different. As we sighed with disappointment, little did we know that events were soon to make our yearly wish come true.

The morning of my birthday, I unexpectedly woke to my mother screaming.
I heard her footsteps quickly stomping closer. Within a matter of seconds the light was snapped on and her distraught face was clear.

“Get out of bed right now! There has been a huge air raid all morning. Go look outside! How did you sleep through that? The airport is lit up with smoke!”

As my cousin and I fumbled our way to the balcony we couldn’t believe our eyes. The airport was indeed smoking with bombed gasoline tanks spewing a thick, black fog up into the sky.

Smoke from bombs -- the view from our balcony

Fire from bombs, from our balcony

Within a couple of hours, the entire sky went from being the beautiful clear Mediterranean blue to a grey blanket of gloom. Even the weather started to turn somber.

We realized that our week of fun was no longer taking place, so we tried to make do. We were stuck in our apartment complex. My birthday was ruined. Luckily, most of my friends and family lived in the same complex. Our wish had come true. We couldn’t leave. All we could do was wait. But with time the waiting became suffocating.

The television news made it worse as the country’s panic became more apparent. The previous day, the Lebanese group Hezbollah had captured two Israeli soldiers to use as bargaining tokens for the release of the many Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners that Israel held captive. Israel’s anger over these captured soldiers had turned into a heated match. Clearly, we were being overpowered. Nobody knew what would happen next. All we could do was wait.

After four or five days, the excitement of being trapped had worn off. We all had cabin fever, and the Israelis were continuing their bombings. They were now targeting bridges, so all traffic was being stopped and travel by car was being discouraged. Trapped in the house, we had nothing to do but watch television. Each report brought nothing but bad news; each development meant more confinement in our houses.
Then the situation escalated. The Israelis claimed they knew there were terrorists functioning in Dahee, a town on the outskirts of Beirut. Within a couple of hours they had started to barrage the city with high intensity bombs; rumors of poison gas were quickly spreading. I had a hard time understanding their reasoning for this cruel and explosive method of getting what they wanted, for just days before I had been in that town and didn’t notice any people who looked like “terrorists.”
With each bomb, our windowpanes shook and our building trembled. My family and I would line up in the corridor next to our bathroom. One of my closest friends, Adonis, had been sitting with us moments before the bombardment. When he realized his town was being bombed and that he had left his family at home, his face turned pale. Within seconds, before we could stop him, Adonis bolted out of the door. “Ado!” I screamed, “Come back! Its so dangerous!”

He didn’t even look back for a second. In true Arab mentality, family comes first. His life didn’t matter. The act of getting back to his mother, father, and brother were more important. In that instant I had no idea if my childhood friend would be okay, nor did I know if we were going to be okay. All I knew was that I was in a dreamlike state. I took a look around me. All twenty of us were pushed together; everyone was crying, and guilt washed over me as I realized Sarah was here.

The Lebanese are notorious for waltzing with death and still trying to find one last minute to have a good time. It is like a desensitization of sorts. Sarah, on the other hand, was new to this culture and came from a place where safety was always available. It was because of my actions that Sarah was now in this situation with us. I had put her in a real-life game of chance.
As these thoughts flooded my mind, I looked up to see my cousin Lynne staring at me. As we stared at each other for a moment, looked around us, and then looked back at each other, we began to laugh. Not only did we start to laugh, but we became hysterical. In our own moment of insanity, we clearly understood each other. This moment was surreal, and in its terrifying nature, Lynne and I only saw a funny sight coming from a movie that we shouldn’t be in. We had stepped back so far from reality and were so close to what we felt was the end that our understanding of each other made us laugh.
People always say that courage is in physical ability or might, that courage is when you step in the face of danger and scoff at it. However, for me, courage was finding humor in severity, finding light in the dark, and finding the positive in the negative. Realizing that I had the capability to make a terrible situation into something more positive is something I find is one of the best life lessons I have learned. From that one laugh, we took our own “held-as-captive lives” into our own hands.
Clearly we survived. And Adonis and his family got through okay as well.

The next morning, all the people from the next-over neighborhood had run to our area to escape the atrocities of the night before. Cars, families, and children of all ages jammed the streets. People were sleeping on dirt, women carried all of their belongings, and people were wailing. We couldn’t open the gates to our apartment complex because everyone was so hungry that they were storming doors. Everyone was afraid, and we were literally locked into our house.

Finally, relief came. After waiting day after day for news of some sort of evacuation route, we heard rumblings that the U.S. had finally decided to evacuate us. I was getting frustrated at this point. Not only had countries like Sri Lanka and Brazil already evacuated their citizens, but the U.S. hadn’t even mentioned coming to help us. I was shocked that a country I had been raised in didn’t find this invasion severe enough to aid its own citizens. I felt betrayed and my anger was simmering. But finally we were told to meet at the seaport the next morning to board evacuation vessels.

Normally getting to that port was about a 45-minute drive, but since the Israelis were bombing bridges and streets, now we had to go a back way through the mountains and around to the other side on winding dirt roads. Taxi drivers were charging triple their normal rates, due to the risk associated with these drives. That night we drove down to my grandfather’s house in Beirut. It was a ride that lasted for what felt like years. I could tell my mother was tense because she was silent for the entire trip. Spending the night in my grandfather’s house knowing that we were soon going to be leaving my beloved Beirut was bitter. I didn’t feel good about it and my sleep was restless. I was dreading morning.

With the sun just barely rising, we packed our bags and jumped back into the taxi. When we arrived at the port, thousands and thousands of people were standing there in a jumbled frenzy. Guards with megaphones were yelling directions, the people were screaming back at them. Everyone was afraid and everyone wanted out.

We waited all day, baking underneath the now cruel sun. After hours of waiting, the guards told us to go home. Everything was disorganized and no one was being allowed through. Before we left they handed us a number and told us that maybe it would help in the morning. The pit in my stomach continued to grow. As we worked our way back to my grandfather’s house, all was quiet. The once boisterous streets of Beirut were now silent. My family was quiet as well as we waited for the next morning.

That next day Sarah, my mother, brother, sister and I shuffled back to the port with our suitcases and bags. The sight we met was disheartening. Thousands of people were waiting, the scorching sun was still there, and people were tense. Thankfully, since we had waited the day before and received a number, we only had to wait a couple of hours before we made some sort of progress.

After working through the lines, being processed, and making it past the Lebanese army, we finally reached the point where the U.S. Marines took charge and got us onto the rescue vessels. I was overjoyed to be greeted with a “hey, little lady, want me to take your bag for you?”

Then I finally saw it; the USS Nashville. The Marines were carrying old women on board, and we were soon packed on the ship like sardines. As we sat there, Mom started talking with the man to her left. It was chef and author Anthony Bourdain, who had been filming an episode in Beirut when the war broke out. If you go to YouTube and punch in Anthony Bourdain Beirut 2006, you can watch the entire saga from his point of view.
As our ship sailed off and I saw my city of Beirut grow smaller and smaller in the distance, I oddly didn’t feel a wave of relief. I felt guilty leaving. I didn’t want safety or to see my friends back in the U.S.

Sailing away, Beirut in the background

Sailing away, Beirut in the background

I didn’t want a Big Mac or a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream because I felt like it was my duty to stay in solidarity with my people. This is the place where my friends and family were. The pit in my stomach continued to grow. I tried not to think about my feeling of guilt.
As for Sarah, after the initial fears, she was starting to feel better at the prospect of getting home. “When we got to Cyprus I felt some amount of relief,” she says now. But, she adds, “I couldn’t stop thinking about the conflict in Lebanon and how it was tearing apart this gorgeous country I had recently fallen in love with. I was worried about my new friends and [your] family.

And the experience was enlightening, she adds. “The trip to Lebanon deeply molded my worldview, and particularly affected the way I feel about international policy. It helped open my mind in so many ways, exposing me to a rich culture and forever branding my mind with powerful memories and images.”

On board the ship that night and through the next morning we tried to forget the tragic situation we had just left, playing card game after card game with the Marines. We laughed and had fun in the midst of chaos. Even though I was leaving my country, the Lebanese mentality of enjoying life through the most tragic of times is something I’ll always have.
Life is a funny thing.

On the top deck of the ship, headed to Cyprus

On the ship’s deck, headed to Cyprus

One can never know what the fates will decide and where the pieces will fall. What I believe is that life experiences happen for a reason. Life is supposed to be unexpected, and in an odd sort of way, these experiences build character and strength in the ones who survive them.

Beirut is a part of my life and always will be. Going through such a stressful ordeal with the people I loved most is one my family, friends and I still talk about. The situation challenged my judgment, tested my courage, and opened my eyes to a harsh reality that many people live through every single day. From that experience on, I have tried to live my life in a way that enlightens people about overseas policies, what the experience was like, and how I benefited from it.

Zeta Tau Amazon: a sorority girl learns a lesson in the jungle

by Annie Pace
October, 2010

Summer 2009

I can’t remember how to drive a car. I can’t remember what Burger King French fries taste like. I can’t even remember what it feels like to take a warm shower. As my hair is tied back in a sloppy ponytail and matted to my forehead from sweat I try to recall what it was like to have perfectly curled hair for sorority meetings. I look down at my feet and see a distinct flip-flop tan line somewhat faded by the layer of dirt gathered from walking barefoot. I try to remember what it felt like to wear high heels. Squishing the moist rainforest dirt, as black as coal, between my toes, I don’t know why I wanted to put my feet through high-heel torture to begin with. I look back towards our hut and see a child climbing a palm tree to get fruit for me. As she swings back down easily I laugh as I try to recall what it looked like to see children playing on monkey bars back home. Children in the Amazon rainforest play in the monkey’s homes, among the monkeys themselves. A month ago I would have thought these people had nothing. Now, I realize I envy what I once saw as “nothing,” and am so thankful these people brought me into their life, and made me see everything contained in that “nothing.”

It has been more than a year since I was in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest. As far back as I can remember my anthropologist dad had wanted me to accompany him on a research field study. In the spring of 2009, when the time came to make my decision, I decided I was ready. I had been away at college for two years, gotten accustomed to doing my own laundry somewhat regularly, had learned to cook a decent grilled cheese sandwich without setting off the fire alarm, and realized the importance of saving my money instead of buying that really cool bubble machine.

I finally felt mature enough to handle an entire summer in another country, thrown face first into a different culture. Always one for trying new things just to get the experience and to live life, I was excited. However, I was also fearful. I was scared I would miss out on a summer at home with friends. I didn’t want to come back to school feeling regret. In fact, this fear would materialize as I found myself sitting in my room in Brazil listening to country music and missing home.

As a 19-year-old girl, my college life, friends, and sorority sisters were all I knew, and, worse, all I thought I needed to know. I didn’t realize what else the world could offer. It’s ironic that it took the wisdom of a three-year-old girl to make me change my mind. And, in fact, to change my life.

Her name was Edwarda. She was the first person I was introduced to in the small town of Gurupa, Brazil.

We had spent two days on a boat on the Amazon River to get to Gurupa. The boat was no cruise ship. Bedrooms were non-existent; we slept in hammocks hanging every which way on an open deck.

Sleeping quarters on the boat deck

Sleeping quarters on the boat deck

Expert boat travelers would scramble amongst the colorful chaos, the sardine-packed crowd, to hang hammocks above hammocks, just to create a spot away from the intense sun. Bathrooms worked half the time, and the other half they would overflow just below our hammocks. Showers were available, but you tended to smell worse after using them.

The engine in the boat failed constantly, and when we finally got to Gurupa it was the middle of the night. After an uncomfortable few hours of sleep in the sticky Brazilian humidity, I woke in the morning in an unfamiliar house. I scrambled out of my hammock, took a cold shower – all that was available, of course – and sat down, disoriented, at the table. That’s when a little barefoot girl wearing only underwear, hair a tangled black mess, ran up to me. I couldn’t help but think she looked like a young female version of Mowgli from The Jungle Book, a wild rainforest child. Our eyes met, she smiled slyly. Then she grabbed my breakfast roll, and ran away screaming. This was Edwarda.

After that stolen roll, we bonded. For the rest of the summer, every time I would feel scared in the jungle, she would go ahead of me and show me how things are done. Anytime I would feel out of place, she would hug my leg and call me her sister. She was independent and wasn’t scared of anything.

Gurupa, on the Amazon River island of Marajo

Gurupa, on the island of Marajo

She loved what she had with all her heart and wouldn’t let anything endanger that love. One time a stray dog came up and sniffed my hand as we were walking down a dirt road. Edwarda, thinking it might hurt me, took off her flowered flip flop and, holding it high in the air, started chasing the dog, screaming in Portuguese for it to get away from her sister.

My new family didn’t have a car, didn’t have much clothing, or very much of anything. But Edwarda made it fun to ride around on a bike instead of getting to places in a timely matter with the air conditioner blowing. She made it fun to get down in the dirt then wash it off by playing in the rain, not caring if you looked like a mess at the end of the day. She didn’t worry about people judging her or living up to someone else’s expectations. She didn’t even know what that meant.

If we wanted fruit, we’d climb a tree and get it. Then we’d pick enough for the rest of the kids in the town. If we wanted to go for a dip in the swimming hole, we’d catch a bike ride from a friendly neighbor and walk back with new friends.

Edwarda with her new sunglasses

Edwarda with her new sunglasses

If we wanted an adventure, we’d paddle down a creek in a tiny wooden canoe, frequently  with the sporadic but intense Amazon rainstorms pounding down on us. Edwarda lived life on a moment’s notice, and held my hand and dragged me along for the ride.

When I came home from Brazil my friends and family greeted me warmly, and I realized at that moment I hadn’t missed a thing. Yes, maybe adventures in Tennessee occurred while I was gone, but I had my own adventure of life and self-discovery. And my friends and family were waiting to hear all my stories and welcome me back.

I also learned from a small person with a large personality that it’s fun to be yourself, get a little dirty, and that material things are not as important as I thought.

Edwarda, with only three years of life wisdom, understood what was important, and she protected it. Now anytime I walk around campus at night with a friend, I will have that flip flop in the air and ready.

Memories from a long journey

by Kate Greer

February 19, 2010

If everything goes as planned, I will be one of several thousand students receiving diplomas from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville this spring.  Like the other graduates, I will be handed a piece of paper representing several years of hard work. But my journey to reach my degree started differently than that of the other graduates.
It started in Vietnam, where the equatorial sun hangs heavy and unmoving in the sky year-round.  Where the tropical heat suffocates strangers but the sun-beaten peasants toil endless hours, scratching out a living from the soil beneath their feet.

Like our rural neighbors, my family worked the ground as well.  We were farmers of every kind of produce in the unremarkable village of Bien Hoa, just north of the capital, Ho Chi Minh City.  At the time, I was too young to work the fields.  I couldn’t walk yet, but my sisters, about three and four years older, were already helping my parents with the crops.  They harvested what the land brought forth and what kept malnutrition at bay.
But then our mother unexpectedly died from a lightning strike. Our father mourned the loss of his wife and the loss of the extra pair of working hands. The farm began to fail and our household fell apart. Without my mother’s smiling face, our roadside shack was no longer a home.  My sisters took over my care while my father struggled to find a new way of living.

For a while, our father sent us to live on our grandparents’ farm.  But their household was already full and there was little room for three more children.  Our next stop was a nearby orphanage. This foreign place with whitewashed walls became our home.  The orphanage was operated by Catholic nuns who schooled us in their religion as they provided a basic education.  The facility was primitive – a pocket of wildness in this era of civilization.

Flanked by my sisters, Kelsey and Haley

Flanked by my sisters, Kelsey and Haley

The toilets didn’t work and the older children were expected to help the nuns with looking after the smaller children.  My oldest sister has the worst memories of having to wash the cloth diapers used and reused by the babies.  The cloth diapers, along with the rest of our laundry, was dried on clothes lines in the courtyard.  We ran barefoot underneath them to the cafeteria, where a stockpot sat with whatever the nuns could cook during the babies’ nap time.

But most of my memories from this chapter of my life are lost to space and time.  I was about five and my sisters were seven and eight by the time we were adopted, according to the official documents from the orphanage.  Older children were next to impossible to adopt away, and for someone to adopt three or more siblings together was unheard of, but we suspect that the nuns’ wish for a better life for their wayward children led them to lie about our ages.  By Vietnamese standards, we were normal size, but an American family looking at us would see puny children who could pass for much younger than their birth mother would proclaim.

Though my memories from this time are few, there are some bright splashes of color that seemingly have no significance but are more vivid to me than the faces of my biological parents. I can remember our father coming to visit us regularly at the orphanage.  With his motorbike, he would take us out to eat on the streets, which in Vietnam is a cornucopia of food vendors, their offerings ranging from wild game like monkey to the traditional Pho noodle soup. As the youngest of the sisters and the puniest, I always sat on my father’s lap with the gas gauge underneath while my sisters clung to our father’s back, our raven hair waving in the wind. Those visits were the only times I’ve ever been on a motorcycle.

But for me, the most vibrant memory of that time was running to meet the lady with the smiling round face who weekly came to sell delicious noodles, a treat for the kids at the orphanage.  We ate the noodles like American children would eat candy.

Our father’s second wedding, with his new wife, also remains with me.  The new woman was well-off by the standards for our small Vietnamese village, which meant our father was no longer playing a game of Pick-Up Sticks with poverty.  They married while we were at the orphanage.  My sisters and I were invited to the wedding, and although most of the traditional, ceremonial things happened, I only remember a white frou-frou dress that cocooned my body into a walking, talking cotton ball – until it met its demise when a traditional red dipping sauce was spilt down the front.

I do not recall much else.  The task of remembering is like looking at a photograph from the 1800s, faded and yellow with no smiles on anyone’s faces.

My sisters and I were growing up, a joyous process for most children, but it meant it would be more difficult for the three of us to be adopted together.  But Tim and Pam Greer from Soddy-Daisy, Tennessee, a 30-minute drive outside of Chattanooga, decided to adopt all of us. It was an expensive and time-consuming process.

With my new mom and the doll she made me

With my new mom and my new doll

But finally, September 6, 1994, we arrived in America, now our home.  Our new mother, clever with her hands, had made each of us a doll to commemorate the event.  Our parents drove to the airport with three inert dolls buckled into their newly purchased mini-van.  They came home with three animated girls, no bigger than their doll toys.

It was that simple.  Our father had found himself a new wife and family to belong to, and so had my sisters and I.

From this moment, my life truly began.  I’ve been blessed with the opportunity to be raised in America with all of its chances to grow as an individual, chances that Vietnam could not offer.  The Chattanooga airport was our Ellis Island – it held the hope and promise of a better life.

America gave me a chance to complete my education, a chance to choose a career outside of the home, a chance to not live day-by-day scratching out a meager existence. Instead, I’m receiving my Bachelor’s of Science in Communication for journalism and electronic media from The University of Tennessee May 2010.  I could never be where I am today without the courage of my adoptive parents to save my sisters and me from the empty life we would have lived in Vietnam.

My opportunities have opened my eyes and heart, and I have made it my life’s ambition to return the favor that adoption has given me to the rest of the world.
I believe correct information can empower people and ignorance is the strongest weapon the enemy has against us.  In this manner, I hope that my career as a journalist, and whatever else my future might hold, can educate and improve the lives of as many people as possible.

After graduation

After graduation

As an international journalist, I could reach out to more people.  My dream is not of fame or riches but of leaving a lasting impression upon the world that not all hope is lost.  This is my aspiration, but I have many miles to go before I sleep.

Somewhere inside all of us lives our younger and better self.  As I graduate college and begin searching for the next chapter of my life, I feel more like the scared little girl that I started out as, unsure about what is in store. It is in these moments that I remember my heritage and my unique story.  Although my doll, carefully sewn with love and embroidered with my name and anniversary of coming to America, might not have been my favorite plaything growing up, today I cherish its significance.

Rod and I go to the game

Marie’s Olde Towne Tavern, despite the gentrified spellings, is an unremarkable joint on the north edge of downtown Knoxville, with the clientele one would expect from its location only a block from the Greyhound bus station.

But Marie’s does sport one thing that no other bar in town does. On the wall there is a framed, autographed photo of former University of Tennessee football player Rod Harkleroad. And on this October Saturday Rod insisted that I experience it. “I gave them an exclusive, so it’s the only bar in town where you can see it,” he said.

The year was 2002 and I was accompanying Rod on his ritualistic game-day circuit.

I had known Rod since grammar school – he and I had knocked helmets for a couple of years when we were about 12 or 13. Because we were the two biggest guys of our group, we always did the choosing when teams were picked. When we became semi-organized, with regular Friday-afternoon games, he quarterbacked the Stompers, I led the Bruisers. We played in the side yard of Danny Meador’s house, our only equipment being the ball and, for some, helmets. We imagined our games were the talk of Burlington, the working-class east Knoxville neighborhood where we lived.

Rod in his Vol uniform, 1964

Rod had gone on to play high school football, had made all-state as a senior and had received a scholarship to the University of Tennessee. He didn’t play much – on the depth chart, he was behind Bob Johnson, now enshrined in the College Football Hall of Fame. But Rod was active in the Vols’ Lettermen’s Club and kept up with his old teammates.

I was trying to find a different perspective for a story on UT football and had decided that hanging out with the old players prior to a game could work. Rod liked the idea and agreed to get me inside the Lettermen’s Club before a game.

We decided on the Arkansas contest because its 8 p.m. kickoff would give us plenty of hanging-out time. And that’s why we were at the Olde Towne at 1 p.m. Marie’s was our third stop of the day. Rod, after a successful career coaching high school football, was now in the food-service business, and he had pre-game meetings with a couple of clients, providing food for their tailgate parties.

First, we made a delivery of yard-long sandwiches from Steamboat, a sub shop owned by another high school pal, Donny Anderson. The delivery was to Jefferson County, northeast of Knoxville. Then, after we had crossed back into Knox County, we stopped at a liquor store.

“I’m going to let you drive,” Rod said. I took the keys to his van and he mixed Jack Daniels and Sprite in a plastic cup. “I’ve got to meet another client at 3 at Riverside Tavern, so we’ve got time to stop by Marie’s.”

After my eyes adjusted to the lack of light in the bar, I found Rod’s picture. He was in full uniform except for his helmet, looking fierce in a dropback blocking stance.  “Nice, huh?” Rod said. “Enough to make me a regular here.”

After we finished our brews and fended off a half dozen entreaties from a beer-begging crone, we left Marie’s. “Swamp Rat’s on the air by now,” Rod said. “And Mrs. Parker needs to call in.”

Swamp Rat was Dewey Warren, who played quarterback for UT when Rod was on the team. He now was host of a call-in sports talk radio show. And Mrs. Parker? That was Rod, using his best soft, refined, feminine voice. We got in the van, Rod got out his cellphone, and soon had Dewey on the line.

“Mr. Warren?” he said. “This is Mrs. Parker and I was just calling to discuss the finer points of the game.”

The Swamp Rat was a legend among the Big Orange faithful, and Mrs. Parker had become a star of his show, especially on game days. Today, Mrs. Parker wanted to talk about quarterback Casey Clausen.

“I am reminded of breakfast time when I was a child,” she said. “We had to be quick if we wanted an extra biscuit. That young Mr. Clausen’s holding the ball too long and that’s why the young men on the other side break through and he gets his rear side blistered. He just needs to be quicker in order to get the last biscuit.”

Mr. Warren agreed, thanked Mrs. Parker and turned to another caller.

Mrs. Parker was bang-on in voice and manner, she did not take the game too seriously, and she possessed a propensity for double-entendre that was subtle enough to slip right by Mr. Warren and his producers. The voice disguise was perfect. “You know,” Rod said to me after he hung up, “Dewey didn’t figure out that I was Mrs. Parker until the third or fourth time she was on the show.”

I was now pulling into the parking lot of the Riverside Tavern, a popular spot within walking distance of Neyland Stadium. The Riverside, though it too was a “tavern,” had nothing else in common with Marie’s. The gameday crowd consisted of the more successful Big Orange boosters. True, some might be as drunk as the old woman we had left at Marie’s. And they might be overly friendly, but they were more likely to want to buy a stranger a drink than to try to cadge one.

Rod swapped opinions on the game with his client, and then charmed a tableful of Arkansas fans with a “soooie pig.”

We then set out on foot for the serious tailgaters, it now being only four hours to kickoff. It was too early, Rod said, for much action at the Lettermen’s Club.

There were a couple more client stops and a brief visit with a local politician at his set-up before we made our way to Danny Meador’s spot. Danny, my old Bruiser teammate, was now president of a heavy-equipment firm and ran the company tailgate at UT games.

Rod and I regularly joined Danny and his company crowd, so we were expected. Another of Rod’s UT teammates, Paul Naumoff, would sometimes show up, and they would regale us with football stories. Paul, an all-star linebacker, had spent a decade heading up the defensive unit of the Detroit Lions before returning to Knoxville. During their college days, he and Rod had roomed together.

One of Paul’s favorite stories involved another linebacker, a player who partied with the same abandon that earned him All-American honors on the field. Among the other players, he was also known for his insistence when in search of drinking partners.

“That’s the reason I roomed with Rod,” Paul would say. “When he showed up at 3 a.m. drunk and rowdy, Rod would start preaching and praying for his soul. After a couple of those sessions, he left us alone.”

“But Paul,” Rod would add, “I prayed for your soul, too.”

Several drinks and stories later, Rod and I headed for the Lettermen’s Club – there was barbecue and it was close to 6 p.m. and I was hungry. Inside, I found what I was looking for – though it was not what I expected. Instead of insights into the TV games or the upcoming UT action, mostly what I heard were complaints about “these young guys not knowing how to play the game” or “not being tough enough to win the head-to-head battles.” They groused, I took notes, and Rod visited with former teammates.

Finally, it was 15 minutes until kickoff, the Lettermen’s Club was emptying, and the noise from the nearby stadium was drowning out normal conversation. We set out for our upper-deck seats.

About half-way up the entry ramp, I realized how tired I was. I was game-dayed out. I looked at Rod, who had been going longer than I had and who had drank a pint or so of bourbon to boot. He, too, looked tired.

“Do you really want to sit through three hours of football?” I asked him.

Feigning surprise, he looked at me askance. “You mean you don’t want to listen to my insights before each play? And what about all the folks around my seat – they expect me there to tell them what’s going to happen.”

I had joined Rod at games before, and what he said was true. As soon as the opponent’s defense was set Rod would call the play, and 75 percent of the time he was correct. Then he would regale us with derogatory comments about missed blocks and coverage. A game with Rod was always fun.

Once, I asked Rod why he had quit coaching. At his last job, at a rural school north of Knoxville, he explained, he had been forced to lock himself in his office after a night game and call the sheriff’s department because a father angry at his son’s lack of playing time was waiting outside.

“I decided there had to be a better way to make a living,” he said. “Besides, this way I can just tell everyone how it should be done without having to worry about winning or losing.” So he stayed involved in football, and was especially active with the Lettermen’s Club, helping out when any of his old teammates needed assistance.

But tonight, he was as tired as I was. We did a 360 on the ramp, Star Spangled Banner blaring in the stadium. We heard the roar of the kickoff as we made our way back to the van, and listened to the first few minutes of the game on the radio as I drove back to where my car was parked. Rod assured me that he would sleep in the van until the next morning (his habit after such episodes), and I went home. The next day, I read about UT’s victory. Casey Clausen threw a touchdown pass to Jason Witten in the game’s sixth overtime. The game ended at midnight.

A few months later, Rod was diagnosed with advanced cancer. But that did not stop him from helping an old teammate. Steve Delong, a two-time All-American who had a career in the NFL, had fallen down a flight of stairs. The resultant back injury left him wheelchair-bound. He was in a nursing home, and Rod was a regular visitor, frequently accompanied by other former teammates, including Elliott Gammage.

“Every week, we’d go see him,” Gammage recalled recently. “Steve was angry about his circumstances, but what Rod meant to Steve was unbelievable. Here Rod was dying of cancer, but he had time to visit Steve every week. Rod Harkleroad demonstrated the kind of courage that I pray I’ll have when I’m near the end.”

A couple of weeks before Rod’s death, Danny Meador and I visited him at home. In pain, he was in a lounge chair, his reactions slowed by painkillers. His wife Brenda, a nurse, was at work. A woman we didn’t know met us at the door.

“I’m Rod’s first wife,” she said. “Second,” Rod corrected her.

“We couldn’t live together,” she said with a smile. “But we’re still friends.”

He turned to us. “It’s tough when you’re dying, fellas,” he said. “They even bring in your ex-wives.” We all laughed, finding comfort in knowing that he hadn’t lost his sense of humor.

At Rod’s memorial service, dozens of former UT footballers showed up. Tales were told and there was a lot of laughter. One former teammate, Mike Price, repeated a favorite story, one that all the players knew. Rod, Mike, and Art Galiffa, a quarterback on the team during the mid-‘60s, were quail hunting one fall.

“We were taking a break, headed back to the trucks,” Price said. “Art and I had gotten in front of the others when one of the dogs went on point behind us. I hear a gun go off and next thing I know I’m on the ground and blood’s going everywhere. They start trying to find where I’ve been shot, undoing my coveralls. Rod’s hysterical. We can’t find where the blood’s coming from. Finally I look at my hand and see that a pellet has gone through my thumb.

“Rod finally calms down and we head back to the truck to get a Band-Aid. Rod put his arm around my shoulder. ‘You know, Mike’ he said, ‘If I had to shoot anyone, I’m glad it was you’.”

‘Why?’ I wanted to know. ‘Why not Galiffa – I mean, he’s a cocky quarterback’.”

“Because,” Rod answered, “You’re such a nice guy.”

Several days after Rod’s death, several of his old teammates managed to fulfill one of his last wishes. They slipped into Neyland Stadium and surreptitiously scattered his ashes around Shields-Watkins Field.

“It’s good to know,” said Price, “that Rod’s there to tell the coaches when they’re messing up.”

Doc & the cowboy

As a college student in the 1960s, I supplemented my income, and my education, by working as a reporter for a local newspaper. The combination led to my initial first-hand encounter with abortion, then a shadowy, illegal practice. The place was the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, where I lived off campus in a dilapidated two-story building popular with students.
My introduction to the area’s abortion specialist came through a neighbor, an animal-science major. Though the ridges and valleys of East Tennessee are far removed from the cattle-raising plains of the West, Roy was a true cowboy. A senior in his early 20s, he already was a successful rancher, leasing pasturage in a nearby county for his beef cattle. In his junior year he had sold one-third of a blue-ribbon bull for $10,000, testament to the animal’s breeding potential.
Roy exhibited Hollywood-cowboy traits, too. He was taciturn when sober and rowdy when drunk. And he was known to carry a .38 revolver.
A behest from Roy led to my discovery of the Doc. The Doc was a general practitioner whose office hours were 5 to 9 p.m. three days a week. His office was on the fringe of downtown, less than a mile from our apartments. (In this story, he will be called the Doc; the other names have been changed.)
Roy had come to me in an uncharacteristic panic. He had gotten a girl pregnant and he asked if I knew where she could get an abortion. Roy knew that I had contacts through my job. I worked at The Knoxville Journal, the morning daily.
I asked the Journal’s police reporter, he obtained the Doc’s name from friends at the cop shop and I passed the information along. I didn’t see Roy for a couple of weeks, and I assumed that he and his girlfriend had visited the Doc.
But the Doc’s name came up again a few weeks later when my friend Stanley came to me with the same problem. His girlfriend Jeannie was pregnant.
Stanley and Jeannie were involved in a more stable relationship than Roy was. When Jeannie’s pregnancy had been confirmed, they had decided not to have the baby. Stanley wasn’t mature enough for fatherhood and Jeannie was well aware of that. Indeed, a couple of months later, Stanley would be making another trip to the Doc’s – with another girlfriend.
In 1967, the options available to those confronted with an unwanted pregnancy were limited. The Pill had been available for a few years, but to most it was still a novelty, controversial. Roe v. Wade was five years away.
Knoxville had a home run by the Florence Crittenton agency, a national organization founded in 1896 to provide a discreet place where unwed mothers-to-be could stay during their last three months of pregnancy. But Knoxville girls, at least those with the means, usually opted to spend their pregnancies at Crittenton facilities in Nashville or Memphis, returning after the baby had been adopted. That way the pregnancy could be kept quiet, their absence explained as an extended visit with relatives or, in the case of one of my friends, as a lengthy treatment for a mysterious “infection.” Such visits depended on having the contacts, and on being able to take time away from jobs or school.
Another option was the Mexican abortion – Tijuana was popular. But Mexico is a long way from Knoxville, and Jeannie could not miss work.
The Doc provided another option. Most cities, even those in the 200,000-population range like Knoxville, had a doctor or two whose specialty was abortion. As I recall, the Doc’s fee was $200. For Stanley, the trip to the Doc simply meant a month or two of drinking less, catching his executive father in a generous mood with a convincing story, or borrowing the money from friends. Stanley cadged the $200 from a fraternity brother and made an appointment. Immediately after the procedure, Jeannie, pale and shaken, rested in my apartment; the Doc had no recovery facilities and Stanley lived in the frat house.
Later, through my job, I became friends with an emergency-room nurse. She knew about the Doc. And she knew about the girls without the knowledge or the means to visit him. Occasionally, she would be involved in the treatment of a girl who had attempted an abortion either alone or with help, often of the coat-hanger variety. There had not been any recent deaths in Knoxville from such methods, but she had heard stories from veteran co-workers, stories that I did not want to hear.
But that all came later, after Roy’s situation resulted in a first-hand encounter with a time-tested southern Appalachian solution to unexpected pregnancy. Whatever Roy and his girlfriend had decided, her family had their own ideas, and one night shortly after I had sent Stanley to the Doc, I was awakened by yelling outside my window.
The father of Roy’s girlfriend, flanked by his two sons, was facing the building’s second-floor balcony, where Roy was standing, shirtless, revolver in hand. The girl was behind her dad, at the rear of a mud-spattered car that I took to be the family sedan.
The yelling was mostly from Roy and mostly along the lines of “I’m not the one knocked her up.” The father’s arguments were measured, spoken quietly and determinedly. It was evident that the pistol in Roy’s hand was the reason he and his sons had not bounded up the stairs for a more physical confrontation.
As other lights came on in the building, the girl and her family climbed back into the car and retreated. The next day I asked Roy what all the yelling was about. He didn’t say much – just that he didn’t think he would need the abortionist’s services.
I don’t know whether his girlfriend had the baby or not. There could have been a marriage of convenience to a family friend to provide the child a name, or she could have visited a Crittenton home. Roy wasn’t saying. But he did ask me to help him move his cows to another farm, on the other side of Knoxville about 70 miles from the girl’s home county.
A few months later, Roy graduated and moved back home to Virginia. Eventually, the Doc retired – with Roe v. Wade, his services no longer needed.

Writing examples

It would be one of them: Hallett, Levitt, Lowder or Long. It might be the mysterious Richard Hallett, a tiny peanut of a man who refused to have his picture taken or play checkers with anyone smoking. It might be the jovial Leo Levitt, a nuclear physicist from Los Angeles, or quiet Elbert Lowder, a bachelor piano tuner from Sanford, N.C. Or it might be Asa Long of Toledo, Ohio, who had won the title back in 1922, at age 18 and, if he won this tournament as well, would be both the youngest and the oldest man ever named U.S. Checker Champion, therefore embodying the sort of symmetrical statistic beloved by checker men.

— Susan Stewart in Westward magazine


Haim Saban is an Israeli American businessman whose main claim to fame is the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. A proud partisan, he is one of the biggest benefactors of the Democratic Party and Israel, and yet he remains little known outside the inner circles of power in L.A., Washington and Jerusalem. On a cloudless morning in Beverly Hills, he steps out the front door of his mansion to greet the day. His suit is pluperfect plutocrat, tie platinum, hair slicked back and streaked with stately silver. He is 58 years old, at the happily-ever-after end of a rags-to-riches story. He lives in a cocoon woven of the finest silk, on a six-acre estate in an exclusive gated community in a fantasy version of reality where all doors are opened for him: the front door, the car door, the door to his private jet, most every door he cares to walk through. Saban occasionally opens doors himself, though, with a mixture of charm and insistence. “After you,” he says, standing aside as he ushers me to his waiting Cartier edition Town Car.

— Guy Lawson in GQ magazine.


Nathan Alexander Bickley.  Now there’s a name. It conjures up a definite image, something like that of a graying Boston banker; shrewd, prosperous, dignified, confident but not arrogant, faintly aristocratic. It’s a good, gilt-edged name — exactly the kind of name you’d pick for a man who is executive vice president and paladin for the Dallas Citizens Council.

— Kit Bauman in Westward magazine


On first arriving from Florida, I brought my mother’s face close to mine, slid into a pair of well-worn loafers, some faded dungarees, and a royal blue, zippered sweatshirt; piled the marble-topped coffee table adjacent to the davenport high with long-neglected volumes; walked into the kitchen and from the pantry closet removed a package of Oreo Creme Sandwiches; returned to the living room and flicked on the television, which after a momentary lull began its incessant and hypnotic drone; invited Christie III, my mother’s saucer-eyed, russet-and-white cocker spaniel to share the davenport at my feet, and then lay down until the spring of 1958.

— Frederick Exley in A Fan’s Notes





JR Buchanan knew where the body should be — on the rocks alongside Walker Prong, high on Anakeesta Mountain in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a couple of miles from the road where the victim had been taken from his car weeks earlier by two murderous companions.

And he knew why it wasn’t there. Animal tracks crisscrossed the sandy spits along the creek, the prints of “five or six different bears.”

Then Mr. Buchanan and his partner, Buck Branam, found a jawbone, a human jawbone. And, in the still eddy pools of the creek, they spotted bits of what looked like skull.

“The bears had gotten the body and tore it apart, carrying it off. They’d cracked the skull open to eat the brains,” says Mr. Buchanan, relishing the detail.

The year was 1981and JR Buchanan (his given name is just the two initials) and Buck Branam were park rangers, back-country specialists brought into the case after one of two suspects told the FBI his companion had taken the victim up the creek and killed him with a blow to the head.

“We had to have the skull to prove the murder,” Mr. Buchanan says.

So he and his partner got down on their hands and knees to look for bear.

“The rocks were covered with moss — we would lift the moss and feel underneath for the imprints on the bottom. We worked our way up the side of the ridge from the creek — crawling — looking for anything unusual.”

Mr. Buchanan’s specialty is looking for things unusual: He’s a tracker, trained in his youth by his grandfather and uncle to track game through the forest. And if you can track bear, turkey and deer, you can track people: poachers, lost hikers, marijuana growers, murderers.

The “unusual” might be a broken twig, an overturned rock, the silvery underside of pine needles. In this case, it meant the cracked and yellowing remains of a human head.



It’s Saturday night and jet foils are pulling into Macau’s ferry terminal every 15 minutes, bearing crowds from Hong Kong and the Chinese city Shenzhen, each about 40 miles distant. A mile to the north, arrivals by land elbow their way toward customs checkpoints in a hall longer than two football fields. By 9 o’clock, visitors will arrive at the rate of some 16,000 an hour. They carry pockets full of cash and very little luggage. Most will stay one day or less. They will spend almost every minute in one of Macao’s 29 casinos. — Smithsonian, by David DeVoss



The death of Case 0996-81 was not very elegant. The 67-year-old man, reeling from a lethal dose of alcohol, galloped among the stripped-down televisions and boxes of junk in his duplex early April 15 and, finally, dropped dead, his chin catching the edge of his mattress and feet pointing straight out on the floor like a ballerina. Case 0996-81 was in hot pursuit of a 58-year-old woman. — Westward magazine, by Ralph Frammolino



“Walk with me,” John Travolta said.

Walk with him? Yeah, right. He didn’t mean walk with him; he meant walk like him, and we all know about his walk, that it is his instrument, and that he owns it. — GQ magazine, by Tom Junod.







My brief career as a private eye

I was working the popcorn stand at the zoo, first day of the fair, first day on the job, when Dickson showed up. He was in his new security-guard uniform. On anyone else, the spiffy, crisp outfit might have looked impressive. But on Dickson, who resembled Woody Allen, it looked comical. Blue pants with white stripes down the outside edge of each leg, white shirt with blue company logo. A blue cop hat with shiny black brim topped off the ensemble, almost overwhelming Dickson’s horn-rimmed spectacles.
Dickson just grinned when I laughed. “You won’t laugh when you hear where I’ve been assigned,” he said.  Though he might have looked like a cartoon version of a cop, he was full of confidence – in fact most times Dickson could not be headed no matter how stupid his scheme of the moment. And Dickson was a schemer.
At fair time, ten days in late summer, we all tried to pick up extra cash with jobs, preferably on the Midway. We still lived at home, in Burlington and Park City, the two neighborhoods of East Knoxville closest to Chilhowee Park, where the East Tennessee Agriculture and Industrial Fair took place every year. My grandparents lived a couple of doors from one of the main entrances and, come fair time, I had parked cars in their yard from about age 8. Now, a couple of years into college, I had graduated to a job inside the fence.
True, my stand at the zoo was about as low as a fair job could get, across the walkway from the animals – two aged lions and a battery of monkeys. But at 7 p.m. I would close up and move to the duck pond on the main route to the Midway, decidedly more in the midst of the action.
Dickson usually had a job parking cars, working for the same security company but without any uniform. They did furnish a flashlight, though. Somehow, he had talked his way into a promotion, and here he was, outfitted seriously, armed with a new flashlight, one of those double-long, four-battery truncheons.
“While you’re playing straight man to a cage full of monkeys,” he said, “starting in a half hour, I’m working behind the girly show on the Midway, making sure no one sneaks in by climbing the fence behind the tent.”
He put a lot of emphasis on that last clause, because we were all familiar with that particular stretch of fence. Before we had gone legit with real jobs at the fair, before we had taken to calling ourselves “carnies,” we had become adept at sneaking into the fairgrounds. The fence behind the girly show had been a favorite – it was dark and off the main roads – until a couple of years earlier when the Midway operators had stationed a guard there. And now Dickson was telling me that he was that guard.
Though the fair featured the usual displays of produce and show animals and community-club food stands, the main attraction was Gooding’s Million Dollar Midway.
Gooding’s brought in the Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls and I Got It games and freak shows and Guess Your Weight set-ups. And the burlesque show.
So that first night, about 9 p.m. I drifted away from the duck pond and made my way to Dickson’s spot. When the girls were changing costumes, we could almost see more than we could have with a paid ticket and a front-row seat. There was just enough promise to induce neck-stretching and quiet re-positioning.
Of course, when we explained to our friends, we exaggerated, and by the second night we were being joined by three or four others, all of us hunkered down behind the tent. We especially lusted after the long-legged June Knight, the show’s star. And Tondelaya, who was spectacularly configured.

So we spent each night of the fair’s run in goggle-eyed effort at cheap thrills. But the fair only ran for 10 days, and June Knight and Tondelaya were soon on to their next stop.  We returned to our weekend-night routine of cruising the drive-ins, the girly show replaced by awkward efforts at conversation with the girls in the cars next to us at the Pizza Palace or the Tic-Toc.
Then, a couple of weeks after the fair, I got a call from Dickson. He had an assignment, he said, and he wanted to know if I could drive. An assignment?
Yeah, he said, for the security outfit. He was, he informed me, still doing work for them, important work, private-detective work. “You are talking to,” he said, “a full-fledged private dick.” He wanted me to drive, because, he said, he didn’t think his Volkswagen bug was quick enough.
I was driving a 1960 3.4 Litre Jaguar sedan, a giant leap from my previous wheels, the family station wagon. I was the envy of my group, though Vance Walker insisted that his dad’s pink and white1957 Cadillac was faster and cooler. But I had an advantage – the Jag was mine, bought with money I made from my full-time job as a cub reporter at the morning daily. I needed no one’s permission to take it out, as long as I had gas money.
I didn’t take a lot of convincing, and agreed to pick up Dickson in front of his house about 8:30 p.m. on Saturday. He would, he confided mysteriously, fill me in on the way to Maryville. As usual, his mother followed him out the sidewalk, telling him to be careful and to be home early. And, as usual, he acted like she wasn’t even there.
As it turned out we were headed through Maryville, to a service station south of town on U.S. 129. There we were to meet the client, a woman who was trying to gather evidence on her cheating husband.
The woman was accompanied by her sister. They told us to park our car and ride with them. On the short trip Dickson tried to impress the women. “Your husband said anything suspicious?” he wanted to know. “Made any rash moves, done anything stupid?” He mentioned the name Marilee, explaining to me that she was the “other woman.”
“And she’s not even good-looking,” the wronged wife added with a sniff as we pulled into the driveway.
The house was a brick rancher, the basement opening out onto the back yard. Dickson and I quietly crept around to the back while the two women made their way through the house and opened the sliding-glass doors into the basement recreation room.
Dickson had tapped the client’s phone and set up a tape recorder on top of an air-conditioning duct. He needed to change the tape, he said. Fifteen minutes at most, he added.
Just as he was climbing up to reach the recorder, there was a noise upstairs. We froze. The client decided to go see what was going on. Dickson and I, without conferring, decided to go out the sliding-glass door into the woods behind the house. Soon, the woman’s sister rounded us up. False alarm, she said – the cat had knocked over his food dish.

We went back, Dickson changed the tape, and we soon hit the highway for Knoxville. So how do you like being a private eye, Dickson wanted to know. Not much to it, I said – as long as the husband doesn’t show up. Dickson just laughed. “These guys aren’t very smart,” he said, smug in his private-eye persona. “You should hear some of the stupid things he says on the phone when he’s talking to his girlfriend. When he’s not being all smoochy, he’s laughing about his wife not knowing anything.”
My next “assignment” was a stake-out, keeping Dickson company while we sat in his car across the highway from the client’s house. I had convinced him that the VW was less conspicuous than my Jag. I soon found that all the assignments were installing phone taps, changing the tapes, or fidgeting inconspicuously through stakeouts.
The work was steady, and Dickson soon had enough money for a more suitable vehicle. He found a Jag similar to mine, and, in his arrogance, ignored my observation about it being easy to spot. “The people we’re dealing with,” he said, “they don’t know a Jaguar from a ’49 Plymouth.”
Perhaps inevitably, there was a close call during a daytime assignment where he was changing a tape in a basement garage. I was working at my own job and therefore wasn’t along. The suspected adulterer returned home unexpectedly and Dickson had to hide behind the furnace for more than an hour before he could get out. After listening to his tale, told with the braggadocio that only comes after the fact, I decided to get out of the private-dick business, refusing any more “assignments.”
Next time I saw Dickson he was involved in one of Knoxville’s most high-profile divorce cases, a mess that I knew a lot about because of late-night newsroom talk with the police reporters.
The battle was over child custody. The husband, a prominent doctor, was seeking to have his wife declared an unfit mother. She was, according to courthouse scuttlebutt and testimony, sex-crazed. She liked to sun herself nude in their fenced backyard, testimony revealed. She had been known to answer the door without clothes. And, most damning, the maid testified that she had applied ointment to madam’s rug burns, suffered during sex on the floor with a well-known actor who was in Knoxville for the making of a movie.
At first Dickson’s job was tapping the phone for the husband. But by that time, she was coy enough not to reveal anything over the phone lines. The husband and his lawyer decided more drastic measures were needed.
So Dickson and one of our high school buddies, Randall, came up with a plan. Randall’s parents moved in the same circles as the doctor and his wife; he had met the woman a couple of times.

And he had a decent apartment off-campus. He would, he announced, lure her to his place for an assignation. A photographer would then burst in through the unlocked door and, flashbulbs popping, catch the couple in a compromising position. Dickson wanted me to be the photographer. “Money up front,” he said. “And it’s the kind of job that could lead to something big. If this works, the three of us could open our own agency, specializing in high-profile cases just like this one.”
I declined. “Okay,” he said, “but you’ll be sorry after we start working on all kinds of juicy capers. We’ll be like Mike Mannix and you’ll be writing stories about us.” The reference was to a popular television detective.
“Stories about you all being shot,” I answered.

I finally agreed to loan them a camera and show Dickson how to use it. Dickson and Randall then ran through a few practice bust-ins at Randall’s apartment. I stayed away, though I did develop their efforts in the newspaper’s darkroom. After a couple of rolls of film, Dickson finally figured out how to focus the camera on the bed.
But then he made a mistake. He left the pictures on his bedside table and his mother noticed them. “What’s this all about?” she wanted to know. Dickson’s explanations didn’t convince her. She called Randall’s mother. The truth came out. And Dickson’s career as a private dick was at an end. Soon, he was telling me about his new job – as a parking-lot attendant.
“Parked a Corvette the other day,” he informed me with a smirk. “Got rubber all the way across the lot.”

Cooke, Lenny and the hooker



Lenny woke me about noon on a Saturday, early fall, pounding on my apartment door. He was upset.

“Cooke nearly did it last night,” he said. Cooke (all the names have been changed) was a buddy from school. We were all two or three years graduated, and Lenny had spent six months in the Navy until given a medical discharge. I was a junior at the University of Tennessee and Lenny had just enrolled. Cooke, who graduated high school only because the principal was tired of dealing with him, was not exactly college material. He was working a menial job.

The “it” that Lenny was talking about? Cooke was the kind of guy who, consensus had it, would eventually get himself – and whoever happened to be with him – thrown into jail. Our high school’s “Most Likely to End Up in Prison Stripes.”

I calmed Lenny and we got into his yellow Volkswagen Beatle and went to Brownie’s on the Strip for a burger – and an explanation. Stories involving Cooke were always interesting. And sometimes frightening. Carefully trying to edge the Bug into a spot too small to be designated for parking, Lenny cursed his car. “It was part of the problem,” he said.

Though he had his own wheels, Lenny was living with his parents, a half-dozen miles from my off-campus apartment. And Cooke, who did not have a car, had shown up at his house about 9 the night before.

They had made the usual rounds: Blue Circle, Pizza Palace, Tic Toc, Shoney’s on Broadway. After filling the gas tank, Lenny said, he was left with a couple of bucks. Cooke said he had five dollars, “so we didn’t do anything except cruise.” They finally landed a back-row spot at the Palace.

Cooke tried talking up a couple of girls, but, Lenny pointed out, it’s hard to get much action when you’re in a yellow VW.

Cooke was a talker all right. And he had a way with the women – until they got to know him. In high school, he convinced one of the teachers, a single woman who had a pristine, big-finned, two-tone 1959 Dodge, into loaning him her car in the afternoon when we were supposed to be in study hall. I accompanied him a couple of times, cruising the drive-ins.
But there weren’t a lot of cruisers out during school hours, and he had to have the car back by the final bell. He did garner attention a couple of times when I was with him, managing to burn rubber in spite of the car’s automatic transmission and push-button gear-shift.

Cooke decided that he and Lenny should go to the Park Hotel and get a hooker. When reminded that he only had five dollars, he insisted that Lenny loan him his two. With seven dollars, he argued, he could get a room and have enough left to pay the hooker.
The Park, on a seedy side street downtown, was the kind of place where such transactions were common. Rooms could be had by the hour.
Lenny argued, he said, throwing up “every objection I could think of — but you know Cooke.” Finally, he told him he would drop him off and then pick him up after a half hour or so. But he had another idea.
“I tell you what,” he said. “I’ll go in, get a room, then go into the bathroom in the lobby and write the room number over the urinal. You come in a few minutes later, tell the bellhop you want to use the bathroom and see what room I’m in and come on up. I’ll tell the bellhop to get me a girl.
“How are you going to pay for the girl, I asked. The room cost five. He said he’d figure something out. I dropped him off, then found a parking spot on the street. Not a lot of people downtown at midnight.” Another head shake.
So then you went into the hotel?
“Yeah, I walked in, nodded at the bellhop and found the bathroom. Sure enough, there was a number written over the urinal. Cooke was on the second floor. I walked back out into the lobby and started for the stairs. But the bellhop was wise to that trick. You ain’t registered here, buddy, he said. Out.”
So you went back to your car?
“And drove around downtown, killing time. Then a cop stopped me. He wanted to know what I was doing. I told him I was supposed to meet a buddy. He told me he didn’t want to see me circling the block again.
“I drove to the Blue Circle, made a few circuits, but didn’t see anybody I knew. Thanks to Cooke, I had no money so I couldn’t even get a Coke. I went back downtown. Same cop pulled me over and told me if he saw ‘this yellow Volkswagen again’ I was going to jail.”
And then?
“Hey, I’m not stupid. I went home. By then it was about 1 a.m. I figured Cooke could take care of himself.”
Well, if nothing else, I pointed out, he had a room for the night.
“Exactly. I went to bed. Sometime after I fell asleep, I heard the screen on the window rattling. It’s Cooke, of course. I’m not about to let him in, so I go out the back door. He’s shirtless. And short of breath. And pissed. Where were you, he wanted to know.
“I told him. He cussed the bellhop. And the cop. And the hooker.”
So the bellhop sent a girl up?
“That’s what he said. She told him she wanted her money up front. And he hemmed and hawed. Turned on all the charm, he said. But he was dealing with Sonya, a girl, he explained, who had seen and heard about everything.”
Sonya was a widely known Knoxville prostitute. And unlikely to be charmed, especially by a cocky 20-year-old.
“So he said she started to leave and he jumped in front of the door. Naturally, she yelled for the bellhop.”
Cooke still had on his clothes?
“He’d taken off his shirt. He was through the door and down the stairs before the bellhop could get from behind the desk. He ran to the Greyhound station on Gay Street and jumped into a cab. The driver took one look at him and asked for cash up front.
“Cooke gave him what he had left – my two bucks. That got him a few blocks out Magnolia. He then ran the six blocks to my house.”
So you took him home?
“Yeah, but I made him push the VW out of the driveway so we wouldn’t wake up my folks. He’ll probably come down with pneumonia, what with being without his shirt, and sweating. He got really pissed when I laughed at him, sitting there in the car shivering.
“When I dropped him off, he said he’s going to get his own wheels. I told him he’d better because he wasn’t getting into my VW again.”


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