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.

Chasing Aphrodite


Miami in 1972

New York City journalism had recently experienced a major upheaval with many of the dailies closing, sending dozens of staffers heading south for jobs in Florida. Many landed at the Herald, adding to what was already a diverse group of wily veterans, including a refugee or two from pre-Castro Havana.

There was Gene Miller, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative work. When he was present, his loud and dogged phone interviews dominated the newsroom.

At the other end of the spectrum was demure Edna Buchanan, her appearance belying her skill with grisly stories from the police beat; and Jay Maeder, whose laconic demeanor masked a rapier wit which eventually found fruition in a column.

Jim Dance, a talented and eccentric editorial writer, was a fellow native of southern Appalachia. He was from Middlesboro, Ky.

Then there was Ben Hunt, a Brit who had been declared persona non grata in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia for refusing to vote, a requirement for all white residents. He had worked for papers in London, Johannesburg, and Toronto.

It was an interesting mix, making for an interesting publication.

At that time, South Beach wasn’t exactly seedy, but it was years removed from today’s glitz. The atmosphere was traditional beach-boardwalk. A Coney Island habitué would have felt at home – and many of them did.

The south end of the beach gave way to a greyhound-racing track. Many of its patrons were regulars at a bar/restaurant a half block away. The Turf was dark and smoky, an escape from the sun, sand and surf a short walk away. It was close enough to the Herald via MacArthur Causeway that it became one of our regular dinner-break spots. Our usual waitress was a Brooklyn escapee with an accent that was thicker than the burgers.

Another favorite, within walkiing distance of the Herald on Biscayne Boulevard, was the Lobo Lounge, a place that could have been a mainstay of many Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Most often after work, we headed to the North Dade Athletic Club, where the only athletic equipment was a pool table. The hours were the main attraction – as a private club ($5 to join), it stayed open until 3 a.m.

The Herald building was on Biscayne Bay, which meant spectacular views from the east-facing windows. We could watch the seaplanes of Chalk Airlines as they landed on the water. Or the Goodyear blimp, tethered next door to the Chalk facility on Watson Island.  A bit farther south, there were usually several cruise ships tied up at the Port of Miami pier.

That was 40 years ago, and now, in May 2010, I’m beginning a two-month journey to Cyprus, birthplace of Aphrodite, by returning to Miami, where I’ll be boarding one of the successors to those ships. But I’ll be checking out the old Herald neighborhood before sailing. I’m sure my favorite views have changed, my old haunts have disappeared, the tropical funk replaced by sparkle and glamour. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing Miami again.

Return to Miami

In South Georgia, on Interstate 75 for Florida and Miami, billboards dominate the terrain, touting pecans, peaches, and peanuts. Closer to Tifton, just beyond the sign boosting the “historic”  downtown, spa advertisements take over – there is Lucky Spa, No. 1 Spa, Tokyo Spa (Truckers Welcome). South Georgia is, it appears, about more than fruit and nuts.
Across the state line, roadside scenery quickly changes. North Florida apparently has stricter rules when it comes to billboards. They are there, but not in such numbers. Real estate, a classic Florida sell, is available, at least until horse country starts. Then the interstate cuts through expensive terrain, home to thoroughbred horses and their moneyed owners. Billboards aren’t as welcome.
Ocala  comes and goes as a fierce thunderstorm hits, then it’s the tollway heading east, horse culture giving way to Mouse culture as Orlando looms. I skirt Disney country to the south, leaving its tourist attractions to those more enamored  of rodents and their fascist creators than I am. Back into desolate agriculture country, finally leaving the turnpike for a room in Okeechobee.
The next morning, I head east for Interstate 95, making contact in Palm Beach County at rush hour. Just before 8 a.m. two guys in a convertible speed around me, top down, golf clubs filling up the back seat. This is the Florida I remember.
On the outskirts of Miami, I get off I-95 in favor of Biscayne Boulevard. Little River, where I briefly lived before leaving Miami, is now a Caribbean enclave, a Little Haiti with its bright colors, street-front food vendors and storefronts blaring reggae – or on one occasion, Aretha Franklin. But the seeming prosperity is only evident for a couple of blocks; empty buildings and caved-in roofs speak to a desperate poverty only a few steps off the main drag.
Right onto 36th Street (not easy as Biscayne is torn up with a construction project), to see what remains of the North Dade Athletic Club. There’s the building, sadly boarded up and graffiti-splattered. Not surprising, as the joint’s heyday was 30 years ago.
On to downtown, where new high rises crowd Biscayne Bay. The Herald is still where it was when I worked there – but part of the building is rented to a school. Across the McArthur Causeway to South Beach. No dogtrack, no Turf Bar, just sleek, airy
hipster hangouts instead. But the pedestrian traffic seems to be the same mix, enough weathered retirees that have called it home for decades to offset the young, not-yet-weathered sun worshippers.
And just south of the causeway, tied up at the Port of Miami, is my ship, the Jewel of the Seas. Time to ditch the car and board the boat.
As the ship slips through Governor’s Cut, South Beach to the left, Miami is spectacular in the rear-view mirror, like most cities: beautiful from a distance, not so much from street level. Miami is a tropical metropolis, sunny funkiness edging toward heat-induced rot.


At Sea

The last time I was on board a boat out of Miami, it was a 12-foot Sunfish, property of a fellow Miami Herald employee named Dave Finley. It was my first adventure on a sailboat, and it ended with the Sunfish on its side in the Atlantic off Key Biscayne, Finley and I thrashing around trying to right it as a Coast Guard Albatross circled overhead. We finally got it upright, clambored aboard, and returned to the safety of Biscayne Bay.
The Jewel of the Seas is a bit more of a boat – a cruise ship of the Royal Caribbean line, a gleaming, massive party vessel with a full casino, a theater, several restaurants and bars, two swimming pools, a library, resident acts ranging from magic to musical, and, not to be discounted, two ping-pong tables.
The passengers, headed for Harwich, England, with stops in Bermuda, Lisbon, and Brugge, number about 3,000. Judging from their destination-tagged t-shirts and tote bags, they are a well-traveled bunch: All the expected  Caribbean locations, plus the Falklands, Cape Horn, K2 Pakistan, the Black Sea. When a destination is featured on a t-shirt, it’s no longer remote no matter how far away it may seem.
The British seem to be in the majority, many headed home after South Florida vacations. Out of Miami, weather hot and humid, the outdoor pool is popular, tanners catching the rays. The poolside tableau – when its members were several decades younger – could have starred in an R. Crumb fantasy.
The first few days, before we head north into cooler weather, the pool is the center  of organized activity, with line-dance lessons, bean-bag toss, a putting contest, and the World Male Belly-Flop Championship. The last garners much attention when a female, helped by libations from the Pool Bar, insists on entering, fully clothed. She competes, but loses out to a big-bellied Scotsman.
My dining tablemates – Peggy, Sandy, and Rosa – are all cruise veterans and, natives of the New Orleans area, not easily fooled when it comes to eats. Even as we critique what Royal Caribbean is serving up, we are talking about the best of the Crescent City. I learn to always insist on unwashed oysters (saltier and tastier); that in real Italian households, tomato sauce is called “red  gravy;” and that the best bread pudding is found at the Red Maple in Gretna.
On Mother’s Day, we land in Bermuda, though many are disappointed because downtown Hamilton and its shopping is closed, it being Sunday.
After eight hours ashore, it is back at sea – five days until Lisbon. As we are farther north, it is generally too chilly for poolside activity, though the solarium pool is still available for the serious water sportsmen. So the two ping-pong tables, wind-protected in the verandah, start drawing crowds. As I takie my morning tea at 7:30, I can watch ping-pong. There are even formal-wear games. (Several evenings are designated for formal wear – I do not participate, but am startled one night by a huge Scotsman in tux and kilt, a sight not soon forgotten.)
One of the appeals of a cruise is that it can be an escape. You are among folks that you never have to see again; you can participate in belly-flop competitions in anonymity; you can spend hours in the casino without anyone (except your banker) knowing about it; you can take the stage on amateur night and pretend you’re on American Idol. And, like the man in the kilt, dress however you want.
One Brit, bald and in his 50s, favors an all-red outfit. His sleeveless shirt, mid-calf pants (they used to be called pedal-pushers), and matching Keds wouldn’t be acceptable in any London office, even on casual Friday.
Finally, Lisbon looms. I sign up for a shore excursion to a national park and fishing village south of the city. There is a stop at the Fonseca winery, where I discover that one of their products is an old undergraduate favorite, Lancers. On the tour, Most-Obnoxious title goes to a couple who insist on loudly arguing with each other in the middle of our guide’s commentary.
The coastal scenery is spectacular, wildflowers in bloom, blue sea below. The tortuous cliffside roads make me think of those short States-side news stories: 56 die when bus plunges down Portuguese mountainside. Fortunately, our driver is experienced, his bus in top shape.
Back on board, next stop Brugge. I haven’t been there, but I have spent a lot of time in Brussels and am way too familiar with Belgian chocolate, so I am looking forward to laying in a supply to get me across Europe.
And I want to see the Michaelangelo sculpture housed in the Church of Our Lady. The sculpture, Madonna at Bruge, is reason enough to visit Belgium. Because it’s in a church and not a museum, there is no crowd; I can spend as much time as I want admiring the work of a master.
There is also success on the chocolate front – I pick up a kilo (I would get more but I know it will melt before I get to Greece), and head back to the ship. Our next stop is Harwich, then a short train ride to London, a taxi trip across the city to St. Pancras Station for the EuroStar, the luxurious “Chunnel” train that connects London and Paris in less than two hours.
Another taxi-ride, this time across Paris, Gare de Nord to Gare de Bercy, and an overnight train to Milano. As I’ve done in the past, I wake up in the middle of the night and peer out the window at the quiet Brig train station at the Simplon Pass, a last bit of Swiss calm before Italian anarchy. A few hours later, I am awakened by the conductor announcing Milano.


Italy and the Adriatic

The Milano train station at  6 a.m. is quiet, and my train for Bari, a primary port on the Adriatic Sea, doesn’t leave until 7:35. So I find a spot to sit. Unfortunately, the only place I can find is Smokers’ Corner, so I periodically have to put up with tobacco, the Indians’ Revenge.
As rush hour approaches, the station starts to get busy and I move to where I can see the schedule to find out the platform where I’ll board. I notice a black man, carrying a large plastic bag, as he keeps traipsing around a circle of his own making. Then he puts down his bag, next to a light pole, and goes back to his circling. By now there are a lot of commuters coming and going.
Suddenly the black man starts hollering as he walks, his comments in a dialect that only he understands. The other schedule watchers start watching him as well. A passing policeman, typical of Italian officialdom, studiously ignores him.
Finally, my train shows up on the schedule and I make my way to Platform 12. I’m in seat 54, car 2. I find car 2, but its seat numbers stop at 32. So I plop down in the nearest empty seat and stow my bags overhead.
As we pull out, four train officials claim the spots across the aisle and another passenger, also unable to find his reserved seat, questions them. They wave him off – “Don’t  bother us with your problem.” I stay put since the car is not crowded and plenty of seats are available.
But as we get closer to Bologna, the train gains more commuters at each stop. I have to move twice as passengers claim my seat. At least I’m able to stay in the vicinity of my bags so I don’t have to pull them down and then put them somewhere else.
East of Bologna the crowd thins as we speed through vineyards toward the Adriatic. At Ancona, we turn south and head down the coast. The towns are beach escapes, some with sleek new resort hotels, others with older, funkier facilities. Blue sky, blue sea, palms swaying in the breeze – interesting ride, until all the towns start to blur together.
I’m scheduled to catch a 10 p.m. ferry at Bari, an overnighter for Patras, Greece, with stops in Corfu and Igoumenitsa. The train is scheduled to arrive at Bari at 3:35 p.m. We make it at about 6, during a downpour. I’m beginning to understand the contention that Mussolini was popular in Italy solely because he made the trains run on time. And I’m glad I’ve got until 10 p.m.
At the port, I don’t have to worry with Italian officialdom – there isn’t any. Nor signs. But there are a large number of wet motorcyclists, apparently together and heading for Patras, too. With the help of the ferry folks, I find my way to customs and the ship. Pulling my bag, dodging puddles and tractor-trailer trucks pulling up into the boat, I make it aboard and am shown my room.
The facilities are nice, much better than I expected for a ferry. But, I soon discover, the smokers have the run of the ship, and most of the bikers are smokers. The bikers, male and female, are Harley-Davidson riders, sporting gear with home club information on the back. They are from Poland, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany, Denmark.
In the dining room cafeteria line, I opt for pastitsia, the Greek pasta casserole, and a salad. The servings are huge. Not paying attention to signage, I sit down in a section marked “Welcome Truckers” and soon find myself in conversation with a German driver from Hanover on his way to Kalamata, Greece, with a load of furniture. Our neighbors are two Dutch drivers and five guys from Romania. All have massive plates of fries that they cover with massive amounts of mayonnaise. The bikers display similar culinary tastes.
The German speaks fair English, and translates for the other guys, all of whom speak
some German. I ask why they drive through Italy and take the ferry across instead of traveling through the Balkans. The answer is quick – it’s less expensive because they don’t have to stop every 100 kilometers and pay a bribe, which they tell me is the norm through the Balkans.
When the others return to their fries and mayo, the German confides that he only makes this run about once a month, that he’s old enough to retire. Then, with a wink, he adds, “I have reasons not to stay at home.”
After the German takes his bottle of wine and retires, and the bikers get heavily into their cigarettes and Carlsbergs, I return to my stateroom and hit the sack, sleeping through Corfu and Igoumenitsa and only waking as we maneuver into port at Patras the next morning. Three days and three countries, by train and by boat.

Run to Olympia

I don’t plan to spend much time in Patras – basically I want to get to the station and catch the train for Olympia, about 100 miles south. Olympia is the site of the ancient Olympics, described in the travel literature as an idyllic glade surrounding the ruins of the games’ facilities.
It’s also well off the beaten track. From Patras, the rail route is to Pyrgos, a center of the farming community that comprises this part of the Pelopennese. There’s a train change at Pyrgos for the short trip inland to the site where athletes competed  every four years for more than 11 centuries.
As I make my way to the Patras station, a few hundred yards from the ferry dock, I notice that my Harley friends have been joined by scores of their buddies. There are motorcycles everywhere. Then I find that the last train to Olympia – there are three daily – departed  at 11:30 a.m. It’s now about 3 p.m. Next train is tomorrow at 6 a.m., with the second at 9.
I walk out of the station, pulling and carrying my luggage as I dodge Harleys and cross the street. Luckily, there is a vacancy at the first hotel I walk into, the Astir, a large, well-kept edifice that looks to have been built in the 1930s.
Tomorrow, Saturday, will be the day for my Olympic run. Later, exploring, I discover that Patras is hosting a Europe-wide Harley-Davidson rally. The riders number in the thousands and they dominate the city. Greek kids are mesmerized by the big bikes, some of the more adventuresome clamboring aboard for photos. I don’t see any get caught by bike owners, most of whom I’m sure would not be amused.
The next day, I catch the 9 a.m. for Olympia. There are three cars. We ramble out of Patras, through a trackside slum that seems to be occupied mostly by black Africans. Next is an intensely cultivated agriculture area. There are expanses of olive trees, with citrus trees interspersed, fields of tomatoes and melons and cucumbers, and, of course, vineyards. The towns are small and clustered around tiny train stations. The only roads are dirt.
Finally, we reach Pyrgos and I get off for the short hop to Olympia. This time, there are only two cars. Besides a couple of Greeks who apparently have gone into Pyrgos for supplies, the only other passengers are a Dutch couple.
The train stops wherever  the Pelopennese want to get on or off, whether there is a station or not. The driver seems to know his passengers and where they want to disembark. He stops at one dirt track to pick up a woman and her child, then lets them off at the next road, maybe a quarter mile away. No one ever asks her for a ticket.
At another crossing, he stops to trade jokes with two acquaintances, who amble over from their back yard, and then continues. This train is truly a local.
Finally, Olympia. By this point the Dutch couple are my only fellow passengers. The town is tourist-oriented, but still quiet and quaint, only four or five blocks long, with residences arrayed around a hill overlooking the commercial district.
The ruins and accompanying museum are a short walk away, occupying space between two streams. The museum contains several true masterpieces, in a country where such relics are commonly unearthed. And yet it is uncrowded, though several busloads of tourists are present. I will appreciate my time here later when I’ve been hurried and harried through Athens museums.
Outside are the remains of the gymnasium, the stadium, the baths, and the temple of Zeus (original home of one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the sculptor Phidias’ statue of the god), as well as a dozen or so other buildings. One was Phidias’s workshop. There, archeologists unearthed a cup that is inscribed, “I belong to Phidias.”
An Olympian thunderstorm cuts short my visit and I return to the museum, taking shelter in its garden.
Time is short, and I return to the train station, where I’m soon joined by my Dutch friends. The two-car train returns to Pyrgos in the post-storm sunshine and I’m faced with two hours before the train back to Patras.
During the wait, I realize that no matter how exotic the locale might seem, Saturday afternoon in small towns is the same everywhere. The quiet is broken only by songbirds and church bells as everyone rests up for Saturday night.
On the trip to Patras, we pass groups of families and neighbors gathered in back yards alongside the dirt roads and the train tracks, tables and chairs pulled out in yards, games of backgammon and cards contested by adults, soccer balls being kicked by children.
Later, back in the middle of the bikers at Patras, I enjoy dinner at a taverna on the pedestrian walkway that dominates the downtown area, watching the motorcyclists as they posture and puff on cigars. A Harley club from Athens has taken over a nearby group of tables. It is dominated by two older men with much-younger female companions, females who have the appearance of being expensive to maintain, much like their chrome chargers.
The next day, as the bikes stream out and as the city cleans up from its busy and noisy weekend, I head to the train station, Athens-bound.

On to Athens

The journey to Athens begins by rail, four or five cars headed northeast out of Patras toward Corinth. To the right are hillsides covered by vineyards or grayish-leaved olive trees with citrus interspersed, deep green leaves speckled with bright orange or yellow fruit. To the left are steep drops to the Ionian Sea, the occasional sienna-tiled house perched on a cliff side. Soon, the spectacular Rion-Antirion Bridge looms ahead, spanning the Gulf of Corinth to the mountains of Sterea Erada.
But the great Grecian transformation for the 2004 Olympic Games is still under way six years later, and the tracks end in a jumble of construction material midway to Corinth. We transfer to a bus, with seats that are more comfortable and air conditioning that is more effective.
Our bus ride ends after about an hour when we are discharged at a new rail station. There is no train, and the rail personnel disappear into their own quarters, leaving the rest of us to mill around on the platform. Two fellow passengers quickly distinguish themselves.
The first is a middle-aged man who takes exception to something a male teen has said or done and begins yelling at him. There is pushing and shoving. A passenger informs the railroad officials, who come out of their office and watch, apparently interested. But they do nothing. Finally, the man disappears, still yelling.
A few minutes later another teen, at the other end of the platform, becomes belligerent toward the woman with whom he is sharing a bench. He finally stalks off. Later, on the train, he will again create a scene, this time with his girlfriend. He is a brawl looking for a place to happen, and everyone tries to ignore him.
On the outskirts of Athens, a middle-aged man and a student-aged girl sit down across from me. The man, speaking passable English, proceeds in academic terms to regale the student with his views on mobile-phone use. The Greek woman sitting next to me, who is carrying on a conversation via her mobile phone, has apparently reminded him of a pet communications peeve.
He doesn’t approve of cell-phone use. The talker can’t understand his English and is too engaged in her conversation to pay any attention: Communication about a communication theory in the face of communication reality.
Finally, Athens station, surprisingly small. A short taxi ride and I am at the Cecil Hotel, one of those old European stops with a small entry way almost hidden between street-level shops. The elevator is an ancient cage model, suitable for a role in a 1930s Hitchcock movie.
But the room is clean and comfortable, and the Cecil perfectly located for my purposes, only a couple of blocks from the bustling Monastiraki square and, in the other direction, Omonia. The Agora is within walking distance, as are a major flea market, the city’s main fresh-food market, and Psiri, site of restaurants, nightclubs, and, I will discover, some of the more unsavory aspects of big-metropolis life.
After I tour the neighborhood (and lay in a supply of the excellent chocolates sold at Anassa), I make arrangements to join a bus tour that will culminate with the National Archeological Museum and the Acropolis. Neither disappoints.
The hill, despite the onslaught of tourists, the babble of guides explaining in a myriad of languages, the restoration work off to one side, dwarfs everything I’ve seen so far on this trip – even the hundreds of Harley-Davidsons at Patras. Simple, classic lines trump chromed excess.
The entry walkway to the museum features glass flooring revealing the active archeological digs below. Inside, it’s masterpiece after masterpiece. But one area stands out because it is empty – the space reserved for the return of the Elgin Marbles from London’s British Museum, source of friction between the two countries for decades.
The next evening I find a concert at Monastiraki Square, a six-piece brass band, its middle-aged members in black pants and white shirts, a horn case set out for donations. A crowd gathers, and an unexpected vocalist joins in – a large white mixed-breed dog sings along with the saxophone player. He’s a hit.
A Romani woman circulates through the crowd with her hand out, implying that she is collecting for the band members. The tuba player confronts her and a loud argument ensues. The show obviously over, audience members disperse after dropping a few euros into the horn case. And the vocalist wanders over to the edge of the square and stretches out in his usual spot, saving his voice for the next show.
The next day I discover an excellent taverna on tiny Iroon Square. After a memorable lunch (fresh fish with a sauce full of sweet peppers and tomatoes), I wander into Psiri, past homeless men sleeping on the porches of abandoned buildings. Just beyond a small church, I glance down at movement between two parked cars and see a junkie crouched on the curb, shooting up.
Early the next morning I go through Monastiraki, take a  quick tour of Hadrian’s Library, meet Hadrian’s three cats and his tortoise, and climb the hill toward an entrance to the Agora, onetime hangout of Socrates, Aristotle, Demosthenes, Paul and other ancient thinkers.
Along the way, on a quiet side street, is the office of the Melina Mercouri Foundation, the late actor’s organization to promote European arts and culture.
The Agora is peaceful, a true park of several acres stretching down the northeastern side of the Acropolis and home to another museum of splendid antiquities. Among the ancient Greek ruins is a quiet 11th-century Orthodox church tucked among old trees. But the gem of the park is the Hephaesteion, a temple from 400 BC, and one of the best-preserved edifices in Greece.
Atop a hill, it rises from surrounding greenery, a refuge in the chaotic world that is modern Athens. In fact, only a mile or so away, demonstrations have been taking place against Greece’s government and the austerity measures being implemented to help solve the country’s economic woes. Perhaps an ancient philosopher or two could help.
The few euros I’m spending aren’t going to make much difference, and it’s time to head for another country whose roots are in Mycenaean culture, Cyprus. But before my entries about the island of Aphrodite, I’ll report on a one-day detour to Cairo.


On Language

By Melissa Wozniak

The first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town, South Africa is learn how to be a knee-jerk racial profiler.

No, the first thing you have to do when you get to Cape Town is to get comfortable with the label Coloured, which is fundamentally different from black or white.  It’s awkward, snaky, illicit on the American tongue.  It’s also the same thing as saying, “I’m Irish.”  Back in the day of colonial rule, when tribes ran South Africa and then the Dutch showed up, and then the British, and then the Indian merchants and slaves from the Malay Peninsula, East Asia and other parts of Africa, and even though whites considered themselves superior to the natives and slaves they regularly mated with them, the gene pool got mixed up.  It made the practicalities of apartheid really difficult.

But it’s been nearly 20 years since Nelson Mandela gave his inaugural address to a free South Africa, in its soul and marketing slogan the Rainbow Nation.  Its new constitution is regarded by the rest of the world as the purest working incarnation of democracy.  Like any country, there are people who are post-racial, just like there are ones who cling to the hateful close-mindedness of the past.  The reason you have to learn how to profile, before even stopping for a photo of gorgeous Table Mountain looming blue on the horizon at the end of the N2 highway from the airport, is that it is the only way to make sense of the present.

You can close your eyes on the ride from the airport.  You can ignore the haphazard field of corrugated steel roofs separated from the highway by a barbed wire fence and rippling in the sunlight like a mirage, making it unclear exactly how far it extends.  South Africa isn’t defined by its shantytowns.  It isn’t defined by its Mediterranean-style beaches, either, or the Ferraris that cruise the strip in Camps Bay.

What it’s defined by is the presence of both, and how even if you close your eyes on the way from the airport you’ll still have to deal with the juxtaposition of the two on a daily basis, because that’s the friction that gives Cape Town its indescribable energy, a messy complicated throb on a tiny strip of land sandwiched between a majestic mountain and the endless sea.

The Europeans called it paradise.  Coldplay agreed.

History can be ugly.  You learn from it, and then you relegate it to textbooks.  The thing with history, though: Laws change immediately, but reality doesn’t.  The reality is that looking at an aerial snapshot, apartheid still exists in South Africa.  Neighborhoods that were black, white or Coloured are still black, white or Coloured because community—family—determines where you live, and those bonds go deeper than any law can.

Money does too, and that’s more complicated.  See, back in the day, laws controlled what kind of education a person received.  Education controls the cycle of poverty.  So to end poverty you must have education, which requires money and that by its very nature is unequal in society, particularly one that used to regulate it by the color of one’s skin.  So how do you end inequality?  You wait for it to work itself out.  Or you elect new politicians.  Or you enact affirmative action hiring laws meant to lift the poorest of the poor—blacks in the shantytowns—to an even playing field, at the expense of other races that may need the opportunity, too.

It’s the knee-jerk observation of a woman’s skin color crammed next to you in a public taxi that gives perspective to her rants about there being no jobs.  It shifts attention to the children, and how you help them get textbooks so they learn math and economics and figure it out one day. It is the plebian way to begin to understand the higher philosophy of a nation.

Then there are the practical reasons for racial profiling.

There are three different clicks in the isiXhosa language, on the C, X and Q.  You’re supposed to simultaneously click and pronounce the letter, which is pretty damn near impossible for non-natives—even the name of the language, isiXhosa, you say while making a noise off the side of the cheek like how you call a dog.  Tsk!  Click!  Pop!

But as a foreigner in town on a volunteer grant, you make the effort to master that, somewhat.  You try out a few words on a kid admitted to the pediatric ward of Groote Schuur, the stately white-columned public hospital which serves a largely indigent population and is the site of your volunteer work for the next five weeks. Unjani?  Ngubani igama lakho?  How are you?  What is your name?

The kid is four, and four-year-olds are universally hard to understand, but instead of opening her mouth she stares at you blankly.  So you try the one word you know in Afrikaans, and you declare it with such gusto that no four-year-old’s heart could possibly maintain its steely guard. Grondboontjiebotter!  Peanut butter!  Nothing.

So you evaluate.  She looks black.  IsiXhosa should have worked, because kids generally don’t learn English until grade school and isiXhosa is what’s spoken in black homes.  Unless she comes from KwaZulu Natal in the east, in which case she probably knows isiZulu, or one of the other 11 official languages in South Africa, or one of the dozens of unofficial ones.  Maybe her family came from that tiny province that spoons Swaziland, but linguistically isiNdebele and isiXhosa are similar.  Maybe her family came from Zimbabwe.

But is she really black?  She’s light.  Coloured?  But not Cape Coloured—there’s black somewhere in her lineage, not Indian or Malay.

So you continue to evaluate:

The nursing sisters go about their daily tasks on the pediatric ward, wheeling metal carts of medicine and nappies between neat rows of painted metal cribs.  They lower the side railing of each crib to adjust tubes and tuck in blankets, to reposition the celery-stalk arm of a tiny patient stricken with meningitis or dehydration or any number of stomach ailments.  Beside each crib is an easy chair, and in almost every easy chair is a mother, slouched and exhausted.  Some of these mothers have spent a week on 24-hour watch.  They sleep in the easy chairs on the ward.  They shower around the corner.  By default, they’ve formed a tenuous community.  One kid cries, and another mother straps him to her back with a blanket and paces to soothe him.  They have their own share of burdens, these women.  In a low voice, a teenaged girl frets about not consulting the sangoma, the traditional healer, a revered figure in Xhosa tradition that links physical health to the relationship with one’s ancestors, or sometimes to witchcraft.  In a not-so-low voice, a much older first-time mom, with tender nerves and tea-colored eyes streaked red, agonizes over the fact that the undiagnosable illness in Crib 2 is a result of giving her baby the wrong name.  She decides her family will hold another Hindu naming ceremony at once.

The easy chair beside Thimna’s crib is empty.  The toddler has one pudgy foot over the railing, shrieks on contact, and needs someone to give her a firm talking-to, in whatever language.

But which of the nurses are also Coloured and therefore know Afrikaans?  If you ask a black nurse to communicate with this kid in Afrikaans, will she be insulted that you thought she was Coloured?  How are you supposed to tell?

There are scores of history books detailing hair texture pencil tests and other measures government officials once devised to determine such a thing.  As a two-day resident of the country, you see firsthand, morals aside, that at its core, apartheid is stunningly idiotic.

The nursing sisters all try their luck with Thimna.  Afrikaans doesn’t work, either, but the wren-like melody of it sounds pretty, even when the sisters cry out, “You naughty child!” (which is often).  The crib in the corner quickly becomes the social focal point of the ward, and more often than not Thimna is attached to the back, hip or hemline of someone—the sisters, the mothers, an eight-year-old fellow patient.  She is a brick of energy, one that hurls its stocky frame against the rails of her confines like a manic human pinball and races circles around the nurses’ station, stopping only to tremble with the rattling pneumonic cough that brought her here.

The cough is wicked, but it’s improving at a rate that impresses Dr. Roux on his morning rounds.  Thimna doesn’t have time for it.  She speaks constantly, even though technically she’s not really speaking, and the cough is just a punctuation mark in a long paragraph of made-up vowels and consonants.  It isn’t baby’s babble.  There are deep inflections, pauses, a thought visually dancing across the toddler’s eyes.  Questions end with a rise in pitch.  Sometimes she scratches the smooth, close-shaven crown of her head, stares at the ceiling for a moment before pursing her lips and continuing on.  She gesticulates like a diva.  You imagine another little girl in America wearing a pink tiara and hosting an imaginary tea party: the matter-of fact authority with which she’s telling Mr. Bear that no, the princess is not available to see him tonight because he is a bear and only unicorns are allowed to go in the castle on Tuesday. You participate as an honored guest, sometimes in English and sometimes in her tongue, mimicking tones and expressions and getting caught up in this dreamlike exchange until you abruptly realize it’s the best conversation you’ve had in awhile.

The nursing sisters finally give up trying to figure out which language Thimna might know and use whichever one is handy.  They are persistent teachers—“You want your koppie?  Sound it out.  Kuh, kuh, koppp…”—but Thimna always manages to get a drink of water without ever properly asking for it, and stubborn child, she never attempts the syllables next time.  The sisters are persistent teachers, but they are also busy, and also there are children with dressings to change who are much sicker than Thimna, and also it is the mother’s job to teach vocabulary.  From the looks of things she has quite a bit on her hands.

But Thimna has an arsenal of communication tools that take the place of vocabulary.  Pointing, furtive smiles, a brow that stretches and scrunches in one fluid motion.  Wild, flirty, expressive eyes.  The most powerful weapon at Thimna’s disposal, however, is a pose that quickly earns the nickname around the ward as her Claudia Schiffer.  Arms akimbo, chin tucked and lips twisted in a pout, thick caterpillar eyelashes just daring to tell you where you hid the purple crayon.

Never once do you question the meaning or emotion behind Thimna’s words.  And yet, she’s puzzling.  You don’t know much about autism.  Or children, for that matter, whether learning a proper language is an inborn human desire or a behavioral choice.  You don’t know what goes on in this child’s head when she wraps her limbs around your waist like a brown little squid and tugs at your clothing so the two of you can walk to the floor-to-ceiling window and peer out over Cape Town.  She never wants to leave the window.  There is something close to joy in her eyes, but not quite.  Bridled excitement.  The shine of a child sitting in front of a wrapped present, imagination churning with different scenarios.  She has stories to tell, and soon the window is smudged with fingerprints.  The red Spanish tiles of Groote Schuur’s roof descend in levels down the steep terrain, nestled in the foothills of Table Mountain.  The peaks themselves aren’t visible, but downtown Cape Town is, a cluster of skyscrapers glittering with the prosperity of any big city viewed from a distance.  At the base of Groote Schuur is grimy, artsy Observatory, and beyond that are the manicured green lawns of Rondebosch Commons, where University of Cape Town students and well-to-do white suburbanites go for their morning jog.  The boxy rows of middle-class houses in the Coloured neighbourhood of Athlone lie over the bridge.  And after that, the sea: cobalt blue, shining cold and vivid.  There isn’t a cloud in the sky.  The only smudge is the perpetual wisp of smoke in the distance that lingers over the Cape Flats, a product of trash burning and fires kept for heat mixed with car exhaust and pollution from the rest of the city that Table Mountain funnels down into this wasteland.  Gugulethu, Langa, Philippi, Samora Machel.  Mitchell’s Plain and Manenberg.

Thimna doesn’t tell you where she’s from.  And it doesn’t matter, really.  Some people structure their lives on the self-perpetuated premise that they are victims.  Thimna, by product of will or necessity, has learned not only how to survive but how to get exactly what she wants without saying a word.  All she needs is one person willing to take the time to grasp her hand as she traces the ABCs and tell her, man, you’ve got the rest of this figured out.  The question that seems to have fallen through the cracks is why exactly this child does not speak.

A week later, the occupational therapist shakes her head. Appointments are set, an official intervention launched.

It turns out Thimna—sassy, street-smart, four-year-old Thimna—does not know a single language.  She lives at Sarah Fox Children’s Home.  She is a temporary member of a congress of kids in varying states of orphanhood because of the social situation at home, but she’s a lucky one, because technically she has a mother, even though no one by that name shows up at the hospital to visit the little girl.  Thimna’s chart lists an address in Khayelitcha, the shantytown by the airport, and a mother with severe alcohol dependency.  At some point between toddling through goat shit outside a home constructed from garbage bags and corrugated steel and joining the overcrowded ranks of Sarah Fox, Thimna never learned a language.

And until today, no one noticed.

Melissa Wozniak Biography

Graduated from UT’s College of Communications with a degree in journalism, magna cum laude, and a minor in political science.

Recipient of the Alex Haley scholarship and internship at Playboy magazine.

Worked on publications in New York and Nashville in editorial, art and production.  Writing in Nashville Scene, Marie Claire, playboy.com, Inked.

Won Travelocity’s competitive Travel for Good grant, which is awarded quarterly based on essay submissions.  Grant covered five weeks of volunteering in Cape Town, South Africa with a partner company, Cross Cultural Solutions.

CCS determined placement at Groote Schuur Hospital, visiting with children on the pediatric floor.   On Wednesdays and Thursdays, worked with Kidzpositive, the pediatric HIV/AIDS care nongovernmental organization (NGO) operating in another wing of GSH.

After five weeks of the formal programme, decided to stay on independently in Cape Town.  Continued to volunteer occasionally at GSH and became more involved with Kidzpositive. Through a connection in the States, learned about the South African Education and Environment Project (SAEP) and in March began full-time volunteer work in its media and fundraising office.

Kidzpositive (www.kidzpositive.org) cares for the needs of children affected by HIV/AIDS and their families.  Children visit the clinic for antiretroviral treatment, therapy and support.  There are resources available to the parents, including an income generation beadwork project many mothers work on in the waiting room while their children get treatment.  Kidzpositive was instrumental in establishing pediatric ARV treatment in Southern Africa, and it remains dedicated to a holistic approach.

SAEP (www.saep.org) empowers young people who are neglected by South Africa’s education system.  Through tutoring, enrichment and support, it gives impoverished students the tools to reach their potential and uplift their communities.  There are seven different programmes that build strong early childhood education; mentor and tutor motivated high school students; provide outlets in the arts; and give graduates the skills and resources needed for employment or university study.

In Cape Town from October 2011 to July 2012. then traveled independently for three and a half months through Zimbabwe, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, Tanzania and Kenya.

Westward ho

In the mid 1980s I worked at The Kansas City Star as editor of the Sunday magazine. Though I had lived and worked in the South – Knoxville, Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas – Kansas City was my first extensive experience in the Midwest. I worked with talented people and we produced some excellent work.
One of the more memorable stories we published was a thoughtful essay by Don Hoffmann, one of the newspaper’s arts writers. The coverline of the story was designed to grab the attention of the reader, and it did: Why Is Kansas City So Dull?
Hoffmann’s premise was simple – during the city’s founding years, it was a starting point, the jump-off place for those seeking their fortune to the west, adventurers heading out on the long journey to the Pacific Northwest, California, or the Southwest. Among the wagon-train trails that began in Kansas City were the Oregon, the Overland, and the Santa Fe. Those who settled in Kansas City had either tired of the journey west to an uncertain future or saw opportunity in service to those heading onto the Great Plains and what lay beyond.
Frequently, partly because of my own ignorance of, and interest in, that part of the country, our stories looked west, too. Jim Kindall re-traced the Pony Express routes. Brian Burns took the train west to Dodge City for an article that echoed that town’s storied past. Kindall explored Kansas’ Flint Hills, where nature created the grasslands that became fattening fodder for cattle driven north from Texas before they were shipped to the slaughterhouses of Omaha and Chicago.
But I didn’t explore much of the country myself, and after a year and a half, I moved to Atlanta.
So this past spring I decided it was time to take a look at the northwestern part of the U.S. – by automobile. I have friends in Boise, Idaho, in Bellingham, Washington, and in Santa Fe, New Mexico, so my plan included those stops. I would take the northern route to Vancouver, British Columbia, south to San Francisco, east across the Mojave, on to Santa Fe, then a dash across the Texas panhandle, Oklahoma, Arkansas and home. (When I lived in Dallas I had explored west Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona, so those areas were not on my to-see list.)
The route I took to Kansas City was via Nashville, southwestern Kentucky, southern Illinois to St. Louis, then across Missouri to Kansas City. It was uneventful, though the river casinos were new from my last trek through those areas. At St. Charles, just west of St. Louis, a billboard-sized Debbie Reynolds invited me to a casino on the Missouri River.
The casinos and their headliners would become a point of interest; as I got into the western states, Indian-reservation gambling would dominate billboards. Upcoming headliners included Gary Puckett & the Union Gap, Anita Baker, Kenny Rogers, Slash, Rod Stewart – quite a lineup of old rockers.
In Kansas City, I checked out my former residence in an apartment building on the Plaza, the city’s famous and still-hopping residential, dining and shopping complex. Built in the 1920s, the Plaza is touted as the nation’s first planned shopping mall. The apartment building, the Cezanne, was still there.

The Cezanne

The Cezanne

Because of its proximity to a host of entertainment, it was one of the best places I ever lived. Besides convenience, the amenities of my first-floor apartment included spacious rooms and lots of storage. My next-door neighbors provided a regular Sunday-morning wakeup – with noisy sex.
Most of the restaurants and many of the retail establishments had changed – there was no sign of the sports bar I had frequented, a raucous joint that had been owned by former Royal Lou Piniella. But I found a substitute and had a quieter – and healthier – lunch than I would have had at my old haunt.
Another stop was Andre’s Confiseire Suisse, where I had been a regular customer. I loaded up with several favorites, enough to get me to the West Coast, and to my relief found that the elegant sweetshop is still in the family of Andre Boller, the native of Basel who founded the business with his wife Elsbeth in 1955.
After realizing that I had enough daylight to make it halfway across Nebraska, I headed northwest, past St. Joseph and on into Iowa. (I hadn’t noticed it before, but Missourians seemed to favor Catholic saints when it came to naming settlements.) I only caught a corner of Iowa before crossing the Missouri River into Nebraska. Deciding that Grand Island would work as the first overnight stop, I skirted Lincoln, though I did not escape the ubiquitous Cornhusker fanaticism.
But first I was startled from my interstate reverie by something looming over the highway in the distance. When I was close enough, I beheld the Great Platte River Road Archway, which spans Interstate 80. The city fathers at Kearney had come up with a way to bring their town to the attention of interstate travelers. Adorned with fanciful metal sculptures of winged horses at each end, it houses “two stories of interactive exhibitory.” That promise, as fanciful as the sculptures, was not enough – I kept driving.
Grand Island wasn’t memorable, except for the name. In a part of the country where any middling stream, no matter how small, is tagged as a “river,” an island that is truly “grand” seems out of the question.
Early the next morning, back on Interstate 80, I passed a motorcyclist being ticketed by a state trooper. I could not miss the biker; he was wearing neon-green leather to match his crotch rocket. A few miles on down the highway, he passed me. I was cruising at about 65 miles per hour, more interested in good mileage then making time, so the biker was not much above the speed limit when he went by.
My car is a hybrid Camry, with a gauge that keeps me informed as to my mileage. Usually, on the highway I get 43 or 44 miles per gallon, but I noticed that I was only getting about 37 or 38. When I next stopped for gas, I discovered why. The wind nearly knocked me down when I exited the car – I was driving into a formidable headwind, a phenomenon that would be constant through much of Nebraska, Wyoming and Idaho.
At the stop, about 50 miles east of where Interstate 76 split south for Denver, there was a large map on the wall. As I stood there looking at it, the biker walked up. “Can you show me where we are?” he wanted to know. I showed him, and then asked if that was him I had seen being ticketed several miles back. “Yeah, that was me,” he said. “He clocked me at 93 miles per hour.”
Then he said that he had left Lansing, Michigan, the morning before and had also gotten a speeding ticket in Illinois. After studying the map, he said he was hoping to make Las Vegas, via Denver, by nightfall. He was headed to a motorcycle show. With a little measuring we determined that he was more than a thousand miles away, and I pointed out that he was going to cross the Rockies. He added that he guessed he would have to slow down.
“Have you ever driven that way at night?” he wanted to know. I told him that it had been years ago, and, though he would be on an interstate, he would still be going through the mountains and that he would be crazy to push it. He looked resigned.
Outside, I noticed that he was riding a Kawasaki Ninja, frighteningly fast. I hope he made it.
I drove on to Sidney before stopping for lunch. Sidney, about 70 miles east of the Wyoming state line, is on the Pony Express route and on the old gold-rush trail to Deadwood as well.

Sidney memorial

Sidney memorial

There is a monument to the former, and much mention of the latter in the town’s commercial literature.
At the Buffalo Point Restaurant & Bar, my waitress was a leggy blonde, a real looker in bluejeans and cowboy boots. She told me her name was Dakota. I thought I was in a Bob Dylan song.
On to Cheyenne, then north on Interstate 25 toward Yellowstone, where I planned to spend some time. More winds across Wyoming, but not much of interest – smelly cattle feedlots and sparse grasslands. I did notice that the group responsible for keeping one section of the highway spruced was a local nudist club. And I spotted a couple of working cowboys driving a lone steer up a draw. They were riding ATVs.
In Casper, I spent the night in a motel a couple of blocks from the Dick Cheney Federal Building. The next morning I decided to leave the interstate and head west on U.S. 26, after being assured that it was a good road though there would be highway construction up in the mountains. A few miles out of town, I saw the first pronghorn antelope of the journey. Then it was mile after mile of pronghorn antelope as I drove through the Wind River Indian Reservation, shared by Shoshone and Arapaho.
At Crowheart Butte, site of a decisive battle between Crow Indians and a confederation of Shoshone and Bannock tribes, I stopped to stretch my legs and read up on the butte, which was surprisingly pronghorn-free. Then on into Dubois and a stop for gas. Next to me at the pumps was a booted cowboy pulling a horse trailer with two mounts aboard, both saddled and ready to ride. He was talking on his cellphone.
The highway started climbing outside Dubois; I was in the mountains. True to my advisor in Casper, I was soon stopped by construction. And it was a serious re-do of the road: one lane only, with traffic being led around massive earthmovers by a pilot truck. We took our turn waiting, then followed the truck through gravel and mud, for a couple of miles or so, before we were back on pavement and heading toward the western slope.
At Togwotee Pass, I got my first look at the Tetons, snow-covered and majestic in an area dotted with spectacular peaks. As I drove down toward Moran and Jackson, the Tetons provided a looming marker.

Storm aftermath

Storm aftermath

Then a quick-moving storm dropped over the top of the mountains and into the valley, moving east toward Togwotee and in my direction. At a pull-out I stopped for photos, joining a lone motorcyclist already there with his camera.
There was lightening just ahead of the cloud front and we both were trying to capture that ever-elusive element. The storm was moving a bit to our left – it looked as if we would be spared its brunt. Finally we gave up, though the biker said he got one image of lightening. I warned him about the upcoming construction over the mountains (he was heading east) and continued on down toward Jackson. At the next pull-out I stopped for more photos as the storm had left the air clear, the Tetons razor-sharp. As I turned back for my car, I noticed an incredible cloud formation, the back end of the storm, and got what will be my best photo of the trip.

The Tetons

The Tetons

Through the National Elk Reserve and into the town of Jackson, home to one of the West’s oldest and most famous ski resorts, Jackson Hole. The town square is dominated by arches built from antlers – and on the day I arrived, by a group of abortion protesters and law-enforcement officers insuring that the protest stayed peaceful. I found a room at the venerable Jackson Hole Lodge, facing the now bare slopes.
A stroll around the town revealed an appealing Old West ambiance, from the 1950s’ look of the Million Dollar Cowboy saloon to the luxurious Wort Hotel, with its bar inlaid with more than two thousand 1921 silver dollars. And there were those antler arches. This place could lead a younger person to ski bumdom. The desk clerk at the lodge later confirmed my impression, admitting that he had spent several years doing just that. “My little sister,” he added, “still spends most of her time on the slopes during the season.”
But there was no snow now, at least at the elevation of Jackson. But I found plenty when I re-traced my route and drove into Grand Tetons National Park and then Yellowstone.

Killian’s ’51 Ford


In my early teens, before I got my driver’s license, I looked up to the older guys at East High School who not only had cars, but had customized them. There was Tommy Mitchell, who had dropped a big V8 into his purple ’37 Chevy. There was the hotrodder who liked to speed down the street in front of the school at lunch time. He drove what I saw as the ultimate, a ’50 Mercury, in primer gray, chopped and channeled. And Moocher Cain, who had a ’57 Chevy and was acknowledged as the school’s car expert.

Then, about the time I got my license, Jim LaMarr got a Henry J, squat, sort of toadlike in appearance, with an anemic powerplant. But the Henry J was actually LaMarr’s, not his parents, and that put him way ahead of the rest of us. We had to “yes sir” and “no ma’am” around the house all week long for a shot at the family station wagon on Saturday night.

LaMarr had big plans for the Henry J – but within weeks he had rolled it. The car was totaled, but LaMarr walked away relatively unscathed. And this was in the 1960s, before seatbelts came into general use.

The wreck and LaMarr’s survival only cemented his reputation at East. He was already known in our circle as a fearless and fast driver. When I would ask my mother if I could use the station wagon, LaMarr’s name usually came up, as in “You’re not going to do something stupid like Jim LaMarr, are you?”

So now, the Henry J in a junkyard, LaMarr was quick to express his admiration when Gary Killian bought a ’51 Ford, black with three-on-the-column. Sure, the front seat was ragged and the front driver’s side sported a snow tire, making handling a bit tricky. But, LaMarr pointed out, the back seat looked like it had never been used and it had a flathead V8 under the hood.

Besides, he said, a ’49, ’50, or ‘51 Ford was the best possible car to own in East Tennessee. He said that no matter where you might break down, you were no more than 200 yards from one up on blocks. That meant that parts would never be a problem.

Not long after he bought the Ford, Killian decided to accompany his parents to Florida for a week’s vacation. He rashly left the keys with LaMarr.

Killian left on a Sunday, and on Sunday night LaMarr was out front of my house in the Ford. He’d already picked up Ralph Neal and David “Goon” Ogle.

“There’s a swingin’ A&W Root Beer down in Madisonville,” LaMarr said by way of explanation. Madisonville was about 50 miles south of Knoxville. I got in.

Our first stop was just outside of town, at the bridge across the Tennessee River. We stopped for a hitchhiker. In the early ‘60s, it was still relatively common, and safe, to thumb rides. Our hitcher was a soldier in uniform, carrying a duffel bag.

“Where you all headed?” he asked as he climbed into the back with Ralph and Goon, settling the duffel between his legs.

“Don’t know,” said Goon.

“Where you headed?” asked LaMarr, turning his head from the front. Even though it was night and pitch dark, LaMarr was wearing mirrored sunglasses, the kind that the comedian Brother Dave Gardner favored. LaMarr patterned himself after Brother Dave, even to the Southern-preacher pompadour.

“Fort Benning,” said the soldier.

“That’s in Georgia,” said Ralph, real matter of fact.

“Well, we might just take you all the way to Fort Benning,” said LaMarr.

“Yeah,” said Goon. “I never been to Georgia.”

“Yeah, maybe we ought to just take you all the way to Fort Benning,” said LaMarr, easing back onto the highway.

The soldier laughed, but he looked uncomfortable.

“It don’t matter to us,” said Goon. “Car’s not ours anyway, so we might as well take you to Georgia.”

The soldier didn’t seem to follow Goon’s logic. Neither did I.

“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, warming to his new audience. “Georgia would probably be a good place to go. Is there a beach near there?”

No, Benning’s nowhere near a beach, said the soldier.

“If we can drive to Georgia,” said Ralph, “we can drive to the beach.”

“Car’s not ours anyway,” said Goon.

The soldier was looking real uncomfortable, probably seeing himself party to a gang of car thieves, crossing state lines, breaking innumerable laws both civilian and military.

By now we were on the other side of Maryville, and, LaMarr announced, running low on gas. The soldier, seeing the possibility for escape, started to look relieved.

Here commenced our regular argument. Ralph and Goon claimed they had no money. I joined them. Our hitchhiker didn’t say anything.

“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, “we go through this every time. I’m the one got the car, I’m the one doing the driving. No reasonable person’s going to expect me to pay for the gas, too.”

Finally, Ralph owned up to a dollar – three and a half gallons of regular. LaMarr pulled into the next station, where the soldier grabbed his duffel and jumped out. “Thanks,” he said, “but I’ll see if I can catch a ride with somebody more sure about where they’re going.”

LaMarr was jawing with the gas jockey when a kid looked like he was about 14 walked up. You all going south, he asked Ralph.

“Madisonville, the A&W,” Ralph answered. “Need a ride?”

“Yeh,” said the kid. “I’m going to Etowah.”

“Well,” said Goon, “we can get you as far as Madisonville. Not our car, so it makes no difference to us.”

Kid climbed into the seat vacated by the soldier. LaMarr handed over Ralph’s dollar, and, just for show, threw a little gravel as he gunned it out onto Highway 411.

In less than a mile, our headlights caught a small white cross beside the highway. What was that, Goon asked.

“This road’s known as Bloody 411,” Ralph said, “because of all the people who have been killed pulling out just like we did back there. The Rotary or somebody puts up those white crosses every place somebody gets killed.”

“Just as a reminder to people like us,” LaMarr said with a smirk.

“You ever hang out at the Madisonville A&W,” I asked the kid. “We hear it’s a swinging place.

“Some,” said the kid. “Used to go there before I left Etowah.”

“When did you leave Etowah?” asked Ralph.

“This morning,” said the kid. “Ran away from home after I broke up with my girl.”

“Most people run away from home, they take some clothes and stuff, don’t they?” asked Ralph.

“Yeah, I guess,” said the kid. “That’s one reason I decided to go back once I got to Maryville.”

“Girls make you do some funny things,” said Goon.

“I reckon,” said the kid.

Suddenly, the car started wobbling.

“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr. “What’s the matter now?”

“Sounds like a flat tire,” said the kid, glad to change the subject.

We pulled into the next service station. The front passenger-side tire was flat. In the trunk, we found a spare – another snow tire – but no jack. The man running the station, not too friendly, said we couldn’t use his, but three guys hanging around a ’56 Chevy loaned us theirs.

“Where’s your all’s jack,” asked the kid.

“Don’t know,” said Goon. “Not our car.”

“Oh,” said the kid. He didn’t seem too concerned about the car’s ownership.

“There should be a lot less highway hum now we got snow tires on both sides upfront,” said LaMarr. “Make this baby easier to steer, too.”

“A&W’ll be on the left,” said the kid as we neared Madisonville. “I’ll probably be able to find a ride on to Etowah there.”

“Better circle this place a couple of times before we park,” said LaMarr as we pulled into the A&W. “So they’ll know we’re here.”

We found a good spot, under the awning out on the end, and backed in. LaMarr revved the flathead before shutting it down.

The kid saw a friend in an old Plymouth and climbed out. “Much obliged,” he said.

“Yeah,” said LaMarr. “Don’t take any wooden nickels.”

Goon had his head out the window, perusing the menu. “I don’t reckon I’ve ever had a root beer,” he said.

“And I don’t reckon you remember thirty minutes ago when we were buying gas and you said you had no money whatsoever, either, do you?” said LaMarr.

“Oh, yeah,” said Goon. “I don’t have any money.”

LaMarr ordered a root beer and Ralph got a footlong hot dog. I kept my eyes peeled for any swingin’ action.

“All the girls seem to be with some hairyleg,” observed Goon.

“Yeah,” added LaMarr, “ I don’t see much in the way of opportunity.”

“Might help,” said Ralph, “if you’d take off those sunglasses.”

LaMarr ignored him and slowly finished his root beer. Finally, after a last slurp, he put the cup on the tray and flashed the lights for the carhop. “What say we blow this joint,” he said. “Sunday must not be the night in Madisonville.”

The flathead roared into action and LaMarr threw a gravel roostertail a good 10 yards long. We waved to the kid, now talking to some girl, and hit the highway back toward Knoxville.

About a dozen miles down the highway, three-quarters up a long, curving hill, the flathead sputtered to a stop.

“Awwww, man, we’re out of gas again,” said LaMarr. He let the car roll backwards and onto the shoulder. Nothing, not even a light, in either direction. Only thing in sight was a trio of white crosses right where we were stopped. LaMarr got out and tried to wave down the first car that passed. No luck.

Then, headed in the opposite direction, came the fellows who had loaned us the jack.

“What’s the matter?” asked the driver. “Another flat tire?”

“Out of gas,” said LaMarr.

They volunteered to take us back to the service station, and the usual argument over money commenced, with Goon keeping his mouth shut. Finally, I owned up to a dollar and LaMarr pitched in another. Then he climbed into the Chevy and they roared off.

Ten minutes later, after we had watched a few semis speed by, the Chevy returned, the driver executing a righteous four-wheel slide in the middle of the highway. LaMarr climbed out, two-gallon gas can in his hand.

“Much obliged,” he yelled as the Chevy sped off back toward Madisonville.

LaMarr poured gas into the Ford.

“Better keep some back to prime the carburetor,” said Ralph. “Specially since we’re sitting nose up a hill.”

“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr, “I don’t need you to tell me what to do. I’ve done this a few times.”

“Bet you have,” said Ralph.

With the hood raised, Ralph behind the wheel, me and Goon standing outside watching, LaMarr primed the carburetor. Ralph turned the ignition, but the Ford wouldn’t start.

“Kick it off,” said LaMarr. “Put it into reverse and roll it down the highway backwards and kick it off.”

Ralph slipped it into reverse, pushed in the clutch and rolled back out onto the highway. The hood was still up. The car, Ralph trying to steer it backwards, was weaving side to side. Then, down at the bottom of the hill, coming around the curve, was a semi, building up speed to climb the grade. Instead of trying to kick it off, Ralph started grinding the ignition.

“Pop the clutch, you ignorant sumbitch,” yelled LaMarr.

Finally, the semi’s driver laying on his airhorn, Ralph popped the clutch and the flathead roared to life. Ralph shifted into first and came flying up the highway, weaving side to side because the hood was still up and he couldn’t see where he was going.

We were yelling at him, and then he was coming straight at us, head out the window trying to see. As we scattered through the crosses, the semi, doing at least 70, pulled into the southbound lane and roared around the Ford. Ralph, the car now mostly on the shoulder, stopped.

“Don’t shut it off,” said LaMarr.

Ralph pulled on the handbrake and climbed out. “That was close,” he said.

“I would think,” said LaMarr, closing the hood, “that you would need to wring out your underwear after that ride.”

LaMarr climbed under the wheel and the rest of us took up our positions. We dropped the gas can off at the service station, spending the rest of the $2 on five gallons of regular. There wasn’t much said on the ride back. We didn’t see any more hitchhikers. About the time we got close to my house, the flathead started sputtering.

“Awwww, man,” said LaMarr. “Not again.”

He coasted into Love’s Creek Pure Station and the money argument started. I slipped out and walked on home.


Sweet William Makes the Rounds

When Sweet William joined the East Knoxville cruising scene on Sunday nights, he would be, befitting a rock ‘n’ roll star, the center of attention. It was on one such foray that I first became aware of him. It was a summer night and a couple of friends and I had copped a prize back-row spot at the Pizza Palace, the still-standing drive-in on Magnolia Avenue. We were enjoying a Super Deluxe (minus the anchovies) as we scoped out the action. The year was 1966 or so.

A white Cadillac convertible, top down, pulled off Magnolia. In the middle of the back seat sat Sweet William, a glitzy blonde female under each arm. Sweet William, real name Bill Sauls, fronted the Stereos, one of Knoxville’s best-known bands at the time. He stood about 6 foot 4, weighed about 260 pounds, and sported shoulder-length red hair and a matching beard. When he wasn’t on stage and the weather allowed, he accessorized with a leather vest, which allowed glimpses of the chest rug that matched his beard. Possessed of a raspy, furnace-fire voice, Sauls at full tilt was a perfect bar-room rock ‘n’ roll singer.

For several years, until his fame led him and the Stereos to the road as an opening act for more established groups, Sweet William and the Stereos were rock ‘n’ roll in Knoxville.

His regular driver was Sticks, the band’s drummer, and, at about 130 pounds, the physical opposite of Sweet William. Excellent at pacing his front man, Sticks knew to keep the Caddy at a stately parade speed as they made the Magnolia rounds. The ritual was a tour of the Palace, then down the alley to the back entrance of the Tic Toc, then west on Magnolia toward downtown to the Blue Circle at Central, and return, with one more stop. Sweet William’s trips always included visits to the Krystal – Sauls had a penchant for sniffing glue, and he claimed that glue sniffed from a Krystal bag worked best. They were quite the spectacle.

Later, when I was working at The Knoxville Journal, I met Sweet William. He was an acquaintance of one of my cohorts, Grady Amann. Both hailed from north Knoxville and had been schoolmates at Fulton High. Sauls would sometimes show up at the Journal seeking publicity, to see if Grady could help. Eventually, after the managing editor banned him from the office as a noisy nuisance, his visits were late at night after the brass had gone home.

Sauls made his business contacts with up-and-coming acts playing the Martinique, a notorious club in Daytona Beach, Florida, famous at college campuses throughout the East because of Daytona’s popularity at spring-break time. Another group with a large following at the time also played the Martinique. The Allman Joys would later break nationally as the Allman Brothers.

Once, after the brothers had become rock stars, Gregg Allman nearly caused a riot at Central Avenue’s Casual Lounge, sitting in with the Stereos. Another Sauls’ friend who sometimes visited Knoxville was Texan Domingo Samudio, better known as Sam the Sham, of Pharaohs fame.

By the time I met him, Sweet William and the Stereos had a well-established and well-earned reputation for on-stage antics, the kind that draws the college-age crowd while driving club-owners crazy. Once, at Bradley’s Barn near the UT campus, a couple of friends and I were seated at a table near the stage as Sauls was working on one of their more popular tunes, the blues standard “C.C. Rider.” Hulking over his electric keyboard in full attack mode, he miscalculated on a run of the keys and toppled off the stage, scattering beer bottles and revelers in all directions.

He was helped back on-stage, the keyboard was set back up, and the show went on, bar management nervously making sure the star and his instrument were well back from the edge of the stage. “I’m OK,” he told the audience as he sat down. “And, if I need any help, I’ve got a big jar of uppers, downers, leapers, creepers and crawlers.”

The last time I saw him was late one night when he showed up at The Journal. He had, he told us, been hassled by the police as he left the Krystal on Gay Street. “What for?” we wanted to know.

“They wanted to get me on a weirdo charge,” he said. “But I told them that at this time of night I fit right in with the rest of downtown’s weirdos, and they had to let me go.”


Bar Hopping with Jim Dykes

The first bar that Jim Dykes introduced me to was a dark, dusty dive on Gay Street, about a block away from the newspaper building. It was called Lockett’s, and, according to the sign in the window offered more than cold beer. The place was in the business of “novelties.”

And there were numerous things inside that fit that description. The bartender, to start with – he looked as if he had never been exposed to daylight. He didn’t say much either, but he didn’t have to. There was a parrot, named Polly, that did most of the talking, though the bird had a decidedly limited vocabulary.

But when Dykes was present, there wasn’t much opportunity for a parrot, or anyone else, to talk.

My first encounter with Dykes came when I started reading some of his work in the News-Sentinel. He was covering the courts and I had recently been promoted from copy boy to state-desk reporter at the Journal. That meant that sometimes we would be writing about the same case.

I quickly noticed that Dykes’ work was most interesting when the case he was covering tended toward the scandalous. Like most successful journalists of the time, he was quick to recognize the quirks and twists that define the best stories. And he had the chops to deliver the tale in the most compelling way. He could present lurid details in an understated, matter-of-fact way that avoided sensationalism.

Plus, he had a reputation as a hard-drinking, hard-living character, the kind of reporter immortalized in the great Broadway play and movie of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, “The Front Page.”

Though we were sometimes competing, Dykes and I became good friends, having a beer at various spots around town, and, later, all over East Tennessee. Though he could fit in at the swankiest gathering, I quickly learned that Dykes had more than a passing interest in places like Lockett’s. One favorite was Opal’s Tap Room on Chapman Highway, a sad spot whose owner tried to keep up with the times by featuring go-go dancers.

Dykes believed the effort was commendable and deserved our support, so we periodically stopped in to check out the entertainment. We finally gave up – every night we visited there was only one dancer and it was always the same girl. Good reporters that we were, we introduced ourselves and proceeded to interview her. Our first discovery was that her name was not Opal. “Well,” Dykes told her, “you’re still a jewel.”

And then there were the roadhouses: bars that were out in the country.

Once, when he and I were driving a backroad in the mountains east of Tellico Plains, he pointed out the weeded-up remains of such a spot, long-since abandoned. “I got in one of the worst fights of my life in there,” he said. Of course, I asked what it was about. “I was in no shape to care,” he said, adding only that there “were lots of broken beer bottles.”

Another time we had just crossed back into Tennessee from Kentucky, up in Scott County, when we came upon a cinder-block building with a big sign that said “First beer in Tennessee.”

“Pull in here,” he said, so I did. Then, before he got out of the car, he paused, looking the place over. “You had better go in and get a six-pack to go. If I remember correctly, I’m not welcome here.”

Though his notoriety seemed to cover most of southern Appalachia, Dykes was most famous in the joints closer to his Blount County home, including the string of nightspots that ran up what was then state Highway 73, on the stretch from Maryville toward Townsend and the mountains.

One night, exploring the area, we went into a spot that met most of our criteria: the gravel parking lot featured several pickup trucks and there was a tasteful neon Pabst Blue Ribbon sign, “tasteful” meaning that it was non-blinking. But when we entered everything stopped. As non-regulars, we found that we were the center of attention. The bartender, especially, kept looking our way. Dykes was unperturbed and we found an empty table.

A waitress took our order and things seemed to get back to normal – pool game resuming, juke box playing, regulars dancing. But when our beers were delivered, the server wasted no time in letting us know that we should hit the highway.

“I don’t guess you all want another one,” she said, staring hard at Dykes. We took her hint and made our way out after downing our Blue Ribbon.

Of course there were other places where Dykes was welcome. One was the Duck Inn in Alcoa. Long after he had left the News-Sentinel, long after Lockett’s had closed, Dykes began writing a column for the Journal called Without a Paddle, where he frequently made fun of his fellow East Tennesseans, especially those who were involved in politics.

It proved popular with the Duck Inn regulars, and they would tell him how he nailed this congressman or that councilman. Once, he and I stopped for a hamburger and beer a couple of days after a column that was a scathingly sarcastic take-down of Lamar Alexander. Two regulars stopped by our table and told him how much they agreed with his support of the Maryville native son.

He looked at them, then at me, and said, “I was being sarcastic.” They apparently didn’t understand what he meant, chuckling before taking their leave.

“Sarcasm, I guess, is wasted in Blount County,” Dykes said. “Readers like these make me appreciate Lockett’s. At least the parrot had a clear understanding of East Tennessee politics.”


Knowledge gleaned at the gossip table

The kitchen table of our house in Burlington was Gossip Central, with my mother the mistress of ceremonies. The other participants varied, with a half dozen or so regulars. The subjects were the peccadillos – both real and rumored – of most everyone else in the neighborhood.

If I was quiet, seemingly absorbed in a game or a book, I could catch the gist of the conversation. Obviously, I had developed a penchant for journalism at an early age.

One frequent subject was a family from our church, a family that included 12 children. The patriarch was not popular with the kitchen-table group.

He had, according to my mother, insisted that he was going to father a dozen kids. He was successful, though the ordeals of birthing the youngest three or four “almost killed his wife.”

Usually my mother, a stickler for education, would add a knowing, “Why, he can’t even read or write.” I had no reason to doubt that, as he made his living by odd manual-labor jobs – scuffling – with the family frequent benefactors of the church’s community-outreach efforts.

It didn’t occur to me until years later that many adults couldn’t read or write. True, I knew some who had never learned to drive a car – both my grandmothers, for example. (They both were literate – they just never bothered to learn to drive, depending on the men of the household to take care of the transportation for any errands that required it.)

But I never considered that the insurmountable hurdle for many might have been the written driver’s test.

In the grocery line once, when I was impatiently squirming because it was taking so long, my grandmother quieted me down by whispering that the woman in front, an aquaintance, was having a problem with the prices because she could not read.

When I was in high school, my sister told me about a friend’s father who was illiterate. Retired, he was taking an adult-education course, to try to rectify his problem.

Later, after professionals began to understand and diagnose dyslexia, it became obvious that illiteracy often could be traced to that affliction. That, his daughter was convinced, was her dad’s problem. Whatever the reason for his not being able to read and write, she said, “he always provided for us.”

My younger brother had problems in school that were later diagnosed as dyslexia-based, though when he was in school in the 1950s, recognition of the problem was rare.

Like many others, he was passed along, moved up a grade by teachers and administrators who had no idea what the problem was.

When we were adults and I would ask if he wanted to join me on a research-run to the library, he would always beg off. And he had a perplexing habit, at family gatherings, of immediately bringing up a subject that I had cautioned him not to mention.

Somehow, despite his handicap, he managed to accumulate most of the credits needed for a bachelor of arts degree. He, too, had been passed along by the education system.

Nowadays, of course, dyslexia is addressed in school, with special attention. Other learning disabilities – attention-deficit disorder, for example – are also diagnosed and addressed.

A friend and I were discussing the issue and how it was basically unknown when we were in elementary school in the 1950s when he mentioned one of his theories. Many tradesmen – he specifically mentioned carpenters – probably were so afflicted, and that’s one reason they were attracted to their vocation, where reading was not required.

There is probably some truth in that.

Looking back, I remember an occasional episode that demonstrated the truth of the time. And one that happened fairly recently. I had contracted with a friend of the family who was in his 60s to help move some stuff to the dump.

Years ago, I had began to suspect he couldn’t read, as there had been a couple of episodes involving fuse boxes and printed instructions.

In this case, I was driving, and when I pulled onto one street near our destination, he proudly read the sign naming the street.

It was a two-name drive; he nailed the first word, but mis-read the second. When I corrected him, he just said, “That’s what I meant.”

The episode and his response, I’m sure, had often been repeated.


The night the newsroom WAS the news

The episode that led to the newsroom being set on fire began with a prank and ended with ax-wielding firemen running up the stairs and bursting into the second-floor quarters of The Knoxville Journal.

Involved were several copy editors, the wire editor, the news editor, the political reporter, and, most prominently, the city-hall reporter.

The result included scorched ceiling tiles, half-burned stories that were destined to run in the paper and were now thoroughly drenched by the contents of a fire extinguisher, an empty gallon rubber-cement can, and a half-soaked political reporter. And, after the fire department’s departure, an embarrassed telephone call as the news editor attempted to explain to the managing editor why his paper was going to be late.

The episode occurred in the late 1960s, an era at the Journal when the staff consisted of grizzled newspaper characters augmented with college kids willing to work cheap. I was one of the latter.

The veterans included city-hall reporter Ron McMahan, notorious for keeping a desk overrun with newspapers, clippings, wadded carbon paper, Blue Circle bags and shriveled fries left from weeks-old meals, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and other unidentifiable bits of detritus.

McMahan’s office domain was next to the horseshoe-shaped copy desk, the hub of the newsroom, which was peopled primarily by the aforementioned grizzled veterans. Coffee fueled most of the staff, and on any given night, at least two of the copy editors would augment the caffeine with beverages containing alcohol.

The news editor sat in the slot of the copy desk, with six editors seated around the outside edge. The wire editor, Bob Adams, occupied the seat at the end closest to the room where the Associated Press machines clattered out the latest world developments.

The copy editors and some of the reporters periodically admonished McMahan to clean up his desk, pointing out that the cockroaches housed in the empty hamburger bags were widening their food-search circles to include the neighboring work stations.

Most of the time McMahan ignored his neighbors’ comments, but a couple of times a year the mess would become unbearable even to him. He would then delegate a copy clerk to clean up his desk. “Throw away everything except the clippings,” he would say.

The fire episode followed one such tidy-up. As McMahan beamed at his newly cleaned desk, he compared it to the mess of the copy desk, covered with stories and ripped-up newspaper pages and pica poles and glue pots.

Then he went to dinner. And the copy editors went to work.

Within minutes McMahan’s desk was trashed: wadded up newspaper pages, carbon paper, rubber cement puddles decorated with shavings from pencil sharpeners and the contents of ash trays. The copy clerk who had cleaned the desk tried to stop the desecration, but finally fled to the Blue Circle up the street, wisely deciding to take a dinner hour of his own.

When McMahan returned he took one look at his desk and walked back to the storage closet, returning with a one-gallon can of rubber cement. He uncapped the can, climbed on top of the copy desk and walked around it pouring rubber cement over everything, including wire photos and stories destined for the upcoming Four Star edition.

Just as McMahan jumped down, Adams emerged from the wire room and saw the glint of the rubber cement on the desk in front of his chair. And someone said “Whatever you do, Bob, don’t strike a match.”

Naturally, that’s what he did.

The glue went all-around the horseshoe and, in an instant, so did the flames.

As everyone jumped back, one reporter had the presence to phone the fire department and another grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall and started working on the flames. Political reporter Ralph Griffith, seeing humor in the situation, began laughing in his annoying high-pitched cackle. He, too, was hosed with the extinguisher.

By the time the firemen arrived, the flames were out and the copy desk crew was trying to salvage what they could of the Four Star stories and photos.

And the slot man, news editor Byron Drinnon, was busy on the phone with managing editor Steve Humphrey. He had the difficult task of explaining to Humphrey why his hand-delivered copy of the Four Star was going to be late.



Mrs. Pollard’s pistol

Late one morning in 1969 I was awakened by a persistent knocking on my front door. A quick glance through the bedroom window revealed an official-looking sedan on the street in front of my house.

I lived in the next-to-last house on Clinch Avenue, number 2303, in the block just as the street ends at the berm supporting the railroad tracks. The tracks cross Cumberland Avenue and continue into the yard where Volunteer Boulevard makes its turn to the east.

I went to the front door and found two men in suits. One asked if I was Christopher Wohlwend. I answered in the affirmative and then said, “How can I help you?”

They identified themselves as being from the University of Tennessee police department. I told them that I was not a UT student (I had graduated a year or so earlier). Sheepishly, they then explained that the woman who lived next door had been calling the home of the university president, Andy Holt, complaining that her UT-student neighbors were spraying pepper into her house.

They then asked if I minded, to humor my neighbor (there was only a shared driveway between the two houses), if they came inside for a few minutes.

I let them in and explained that my roommate (at home in Nashville at the time) was a UT student, and that the elderly neighbor (I’ll call her Mrs. Pollard) was always throwing crazy accusations around the neighborhood. She had taken a particular dislike to my roommate when he had moved in a couple of months earlier.

There were nods from the two cops; she had been calling the department with various complaints for a couple of years. But, they added, somehow she had recently obtained Dr. Holt’s home phone number and the situation had gotten out of hand.

After a few minutes, the officers departed, and I escorted them down the sidewalk – an effort to insure that my neighbor saw that they had made an official visit to 2303.

Mrs. Pollard’s reputation in the neighborhood had been cemented a few months earlier when the young couple who lived in 2301 heard what they believed was a gunshot and saw their cat hightailing it back home from the direction of Mrs. Pollard’s backyard. She was standing on the back stoop with a pistol.

There ensued a shouting match, and I was informed of the suspicion of Mrs. Pollard’s being armed shortly after I moved in.

She confronted me – without any visible weaponry – within a month after I took up residence. The party marking my move-in produced a crowd, and, thanks to the jukebox I had installed in the house, the music was loud, helping broadcast the raucous celebration.

Mrs. Pollard yelled at the guests who were on the front porch, then called the police. Two officers arrived and advised me to keep the party inside.

From then on, Mrs. Pollard saw to it that the black and white city-police car was a regular visitor to 2303 on Saturday nights. In fact, on one visit, the cops told me that they might as well add my house to their regular weekend beat.

Upset as she became when we were partying, Mrs. Pollard was not shy about asking me for help. And that led to a reversal of the usual confrontation – I sent the police to her house.

One afternoon she knocked on my door and asked if I would help her flip the mattress on her bed, as it was too heavy for her to do it by herself. So I followed her over and into her bedroom. On the nightstand next to her bed was a .38 revolver, bullets visible in the cylinder.

The next day I informed one of my co-workers at The Knoxville Journal, the city editor, who was married to a policewoman who was familiar with Mrs. Pollard. She paid her an unannounced visit, and saw the .38. Mrs. Pollard was warned about firing it. She denied that it ever left her bedroom, insisting that it usually stayed in the drawer of the nightstand.

I was told about the visit, and the pistol and warning. Mrs. Pollard continued the pepper-spray accusations against my roommate until he moved out. Mrs. Pollard then advised me not to get another roommate. I did her one better – I moved to south Knoxville, leaving 2303 to a new houseful of UT students.

On a recent Saturday afternoon I drove by 2303 – judging by the group on the front porch, it is still residence to students. And Mrs. Pollard’s house had gained a couple of ungainly, tacked-on additions since the late ‘60s – I assume the present owner decided to do as the other neighbors and provide housing for UT students.

I didn’t hang around to see if the police were still regular visitors.


What’s in a name

Apparently if you grew up in Burlington in the 1930s, a nickname was a requirement. Almost all of my parents’ male friends were known by a moniker beyond their birth-certificate name.

There was Corky. And his brother, Wheeler. They owned Moulton Brothers Amoco station. There was a guy called Babe and another who went by Cooner. One of my uncles answered to Buster. My dad was known as Fats. Until my mother put a stop to it, I was called Little Fats.


There was Smut, and his son, Slim. The operator of the movie theater was called Bunny. There was a man who went by Son, and a bootlegger called Cotton. The husband of one longtime Sunday-school teacher – and a permanent subject of church-wide prayers – was known as Sparky. The woman who played the organ at church was married to a man called Bugs. Ottie was the older brother of one of my mother’s best friends.

The gunsmith who lived in a garage down the alley from my grandparents, a Cherokee, was known to everyone as Indian.

Even Knoxville politician and grocer Cas Walker had a nickname, though it probably was exclusive to Burlington. Everyone called him Boomer. If we were on our way home and needed milk, Dad would say, “I’ll stop at Boomer’s.”

And there was the legendary Dodie, who had left home while a teen-ager to wander around the country, riding the rails. Periodically, when a freight brought him back to the area, he would show up at one of the gas stations to bring his old friends up to date on his adventures. Then he would hit the road again.

Once, when my dad was telling a story of his youth, he mentioned a man who attended our church whose last name was Hockenjosh. What was his nickname? I asked.

“Didn’t need one,” my dad said, implying that a surname like that was differentiation enough. There was certainly no problem with his being confused with another church regular, a fixture of the gospel quartet featured at Sunday-night services. His name was Ailshie – pronounced ale-shy.

There were others who were nicknameless. Burlington’s Esso station was owned by Mayford Mitchell, his given name distinctive enough. Something wrong with your car? “See if Mayford can help” was all that was needed. Everyone knew whom you were talking about.

My grandfather on my mother’s side didn’t need a nickname either, since his given name was Boss. But no one called him that – he went by his initials, B.L.

The nicknaming didn’t seem to carry over to females. In most cases the given names were enough. My grandmother, Boss’s wife, was Etta. My mother’s circle included Ola Mae, Rosalee, Venita and Lela.

Nicknames were not the only idiosyncratic uses in Burlington nomenclature. The last name of the woman who lived next door to Boss and Etta was Stover. And, as far as we knew that was the only name she had. My grandmother would send me next door to “see if Stover can loan me a cup of sugar.”

While he was still single, my dad ran the Texaco station a block or two away from where Corky and Wheeler operated. It was at the intersection of Rutledge Pike and Holston Drive, the last stop heading northeast out of town. And, like Mayford’s and Moulton Brothers’ and other service stations of the era, it was a neighborhood gathering place.

As such, it figured into many of Dad’s laconic tales. One story provided my introduction to Cooner. Early one warm evening, Dad said, he and Cooner were sitting out front, swapping stories, when a bootlegger of their acquaintance pulled in.

“He had a sack full of quarters and half-dollars that he wanted to change into bills,” Dad said. “I couldn’t help him and steered him to the five & dime up the street.”

“I guess he was in a hurry because he left the motor running in his car. When he was out of sight, Cooner jumped into the Ford and drove off.”

What did the bootlegger do when he saw what happened, I wanted to know.

“He wasn’t too happy. He cussed and kicked and yelled for a while. Finally, he called somebody to come get him. They drove off, headed out Rutledge Pike.”

What happened to Cooner, I asked. “I don’t know,” Dad said. “I never saw him again.”


From Jefferson County to Playboy Mansion

 The building on Dale Avenue between the interstate and the chemical plant long known as Rohm & Haas is a pile of rubble now, the tenants who called it home in its last incarnation as Volunteer Studios long gone.

The building had a mixed past – home to a Job Corps group involved in a grisly murder and later occupied as a kind of halfway house by registered sex offenders.

But the building was built as a Holiday Inn, and as such occasionally played host to the famous. One such celebrity occupant for a couple of days in the fall of 1971 was one of Playboy magazine’s most popular Playmates – a native of Jefferson County who was returning to her home turf for a few days.

How, you may ask, did a girl from East Tennessee become not only a centerfold, but the 1962 Playmate of the Year?

That was the question I put to my editors when I discovered that June Cochran was coming to Knoxville as an ambassador of Hugh Hefner’s magazine, to grace a car show at the Civic Coliseum. My boss at The Knoxville Journal decided to indulge me and agreed that I should interview her and find out.

So, accompanied by photographer Al Roberts, I met with Miss Cochran and her traveling companion, a woman from Playboy who described herself as the chaperone. The resulting story – and Al’s photo – was published in early December of 1971.

What did I find out? How did she escape small-town Appalachia and get to the big city of Chicago and its spacious and ornate and notorious Playboy Mansion? Well, there was an early appearance on the Cas Walker TV show with her grandfather, a Jefferson County constable, but it is not likely that Playboy representatives were familiar with the Farm & Home Hour’s reputation as a talent showcase. It was Miss Cochran’s showing as Miss Indiana in the Miss Universe pageant in Miami that caught the attention of Hefner. (She had moved to Indianapolis after her sophomore year in high school.)

After Hefner found her through the director of the Miss Indiana pageant, Miss Cochran told me, “my mother talked me into posing” for the Playboy photographer.

There followed a reader contest to determine the ’63 Playmate of the Year, the first-ever runoff for the title. In announcing the contest, the magazine’s writer described Miss Cochran as a “silver-haired Hoosier with a modeling-and-movie career in mind.” She received, according to the magazine, “the lioness’ share of reader votes” with her “perfect blend of little-girl charm and big-girl proportions.”

After spending a couple of hours talking with her, I can attest to that description – I was certainly charmed, as was Al Roberts, who did not want to leave even though he had other assignments.

During my interview, she said that Warner Brothers had offered her a seven-year movie contract, but she had turned it down because of the restrictions it would have placed on her time. But the modeling career move came easy for Miss December, and she became one of the magazine’s most in-demand Playmates.

Reportedly, she was the basis for artist Harvey Kurtzman’s long-running “Little Annie Fanny” cartoon strips in Playboy. And, nine years later, she was still representing the magazine at such events as the car show that brought her to Knoxville.

One question that I put to her at the time, which did not make the published story, involved the more explicit photos that Playboy’s chief competition, Penthouse, was featuring. “Would you pose nude today, when the pictures are more revealing?” I wanted to know. Her answer reflected the standard answer of the time. It was something like “Why should we be ashamed of our bodies – that’s the way God created us?” My editor decided against using that part of the story.

Many years later, a friend from her hometown told me that Miss December’s successful move from the hills of Appalachia caused a bit of scandal at the time. But as far as she was concerned when I met her, she had no regrets.

And four decades after her Playboy debut June Cochran was still a popular former Playmate, easily making the transition to the internet. When she died in 2003, she had more than 1,000 followers on her Yahoo page.



Living in a VW bug

Dean took up residence in a Volkswagen Beetle in the winter of 1967. The VW belonged to the boyfriend of one of Dean’s acquaintances, a girl he knew from the Nashville area where he grew up. Prior to that, he had bounced from couch to couch in various Fort Sanders apartments, staying until he wore out his welcome or until his benefactors moved on.

I met him when he walked into an early-morning gathering at his friends’ house on Clinch Avenue – his new-found home in its usual parking place at the curb in front. The house was one of those common to the area – once grand before being turned into student housing. But it had not been subdivided; the main floor and upstairs had been rented by one person, who had then subleased bedrooms to three of his friends. It still retained vestiges of its former life, including a working fireplace and the airy and loftily tagged “Florida Room” off to one side of the main room. The space, probably originally a breakfast nook, had been turned into a bar, complete with stools, and that is where we usually gathered.

Dean suddenly materialized behind a couple of girls sitting at the bar, scaring them when they realized there was a “presence” at their shoulders.

The friend who owned the VW saw him and said hello. Dean only said one word: “Cold.” Then he went into the living room and sat in front of the fireplace, where the remains of the evening’s fire still smoldered. The Doors were playing over and over on the turntable.

“That’s Dean,” explained the VW’s owner. “He hasn’t got anyplace to stay so I told him he could sleep in my car.” The arrangement included shower and bathroom privileges at the house. Fortunately, given the space limitations of the Beetle, Dean was small enough so that he had no problem sleeping while pretzeled into the backseat.

We went back to our business of swapping stories and drinking beer and Dean was soon forgotten. When I crossed the living room headed into the kitchen for another Stroh’s, he was still in front of the fireplace, seemingly entranced as settling logs scattered sparks. I took little notice – it was the Sixties and falling into such states while watching conflagrations was common.

After that first encounter I would occasionally notice him on the Strip. Unlike many of the late-night regulars seeking “spare change,” he never seemed to be hassling anyone. Once, when he saw me in front of the Vol Market, he got my attention with another of his one-word declarations. “Hungry,” he said. I bought him a sandwich, which he took without comment.

Once, I heard later, he was rousted by the cops and arrested. He got “a little bent out of shape,” we were told. Conjecture put the blame on “bad acid.” Some said LSD was at the root of Dean’s problem: “Too much and too much variety.” Later, someone who knew him better said that many who had known him in Nashville suspected there was a touch of schizophrenia at play.

Usually, as the night wound down, he could be found waiting for the Volkswagen and its owner to show up, sitting on the stoop of the Clinch house or on the concrete wall in front of the doctor’s office across the street.

Like most such Fort Sanders wanderers, Dean had come to Knoxville because of the university. He was from a prominent family, well-known, well-connected, well-fixed. Family plans, according to the girl who knew him from Nashville, were that he would become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a marketing whiz. But he wasn’t on campus too long before school became secondary, and then a memory.

Eventually his landlord, the owner of the Beetle, who knew someone at one of the Knoxville mental-health agencies, arranged for Dean to get a checkup. He drove him to the center and waited while he was questioned and examined. That evening, as we settled into the late-night routine of the Florida Room, Dean’s name came up. The VW’s owner then told us he had taken him to the center. What happened, we wanted to know. “They kept him,” he said with a shrug.


 The legend of Squeegee

The top executive, sole employee and chief window washer of the Kalijah Window Cleaning Service was a small-statured, big-voiced character who was known around town as Squeegee. His unofficial headquarters was the Yardarm, the ‘60s-era hangout on the northeast edge of Fort Sanders.

Squeegee was also known to the Yardarm’s habituees, and to the police force, as a troublemaker. He was in the habit of taking a seat at the Yardarm’s bar, engaging adjoining barflies in conversation, then, when their backs were turned, drinking their beer. Herschel, the bar’s owner, had banned him numerous times.

But bartenders change, especially at college-area establishments, and new barkeeps meant unfamiliarity with Squeegee and his tricks. If he stuck his head in the front door and saw an unfamiliar face behind the bar, he would make for an empty stool. And once again be would be a regular, at least until spotted by Herschel or one of the veteran bartenders.

Too, Squeegee had an angel in one of Herschel’s Clinch Avenue housemates. If he spotted Squeegee walking the Strip with his bucket and his cleaning rags, he would offer him a ride to the Yardarm for a beer. Then, after seeing him settled at the bar, he would leave him to his own devices. Afterward, on hearing the rantings of his housemate, he would express surprise that Squeegee had been allowed inside the door, let alone given a seat at the bar.

The police, not interested in what went on inside the Yardarm or the Journal, knew Squeegee because of his business practices. Riding the bus out Broadway, for example, he would get off with his bucket, his squeegee and his cleaning rags at a likely stretch of small businesses.

Then at, say, a beauty salon, he would go in and offer his services. If no contract was forthcoming, he might go next door and repeat his offer. But, sometimes, depending on his mood, he might argue with the shop owner. He had been known to run his finger down the shop’s front window and then turn toward the owner and her customers and say something like, “Lady, that’s the dirtiest *$#!!!* window I’ve ever seen.”

Or he might empty his bucket of water onto the inside of the window, recommending that the proprietor clean it herself.

Such behavior often led to calls to the police and trips to the county jail. More than once, Squeegee earned a transfer to Eastern State Hospital, the facility on Northshore Drive for the insane.

But the escapade that cemented Squeegee’s reputation involved a late-afternoon police raid of a notorious downtown bar. Squeegee was inside when he saw the cops coming through the front door and managed to sneak out a side entrance.

Looking for a place to hide, he crawled under a car, lying on his back between the rear tires, feet sticking out. He then acted like he was working on the differential. Unfortunately, the car’s owner was coming down the street, preparing to head home. He climbed in behind the wheel, started the car and drove away.


Squeegee was exposed, no tools, no differential, no credibility. He was then taken to jail, another story added to his legend.

For a time, Squeegee was a late-night regular at The Knoxville Journal where he invariably would pick an argument with one of the copy-desk denizens. One such shouting match ended with the copy editor accusing him of being crazy. Squeegee reached into his back pocket and pulled out a folded, official-looking piece of paper.

“I ain’t crazy,” he said. “And here’s my discharge papers from Eastern State to prove it. Now let’s see yours.”


Gotta travel on …

Travel writing has been around as long as travel — which is to say from the days when it first became possible to put ink to papyrus. Besides being called the “Father of History,” the Greek Herodotus has also been called the first travel writer. He was working from 480 to 425 B.C.

In those days, travel was truly adventure, and the travelers had to be fearless. Those we know about — and we only know about them because they wrote about what they did — were intrepid, adaptable, and curious.

They also didn’t have pressing duties that would keep them at home. The great Islamic traveler Ibn Battuta took 24 years on one of his voyages. He is estimated to have trekked more than 75,000 miles during the 14th century. And he wrote all about it.

The tradition continued through imperial England; many great novelists of the 18th and 19th centuries wrote non-fiction travel pieces as well. Jonathan Swift, Laurence Sterne, Lord Byron, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, D.H. Lawrence — all left colorful accounts of their travels.

And there were adventurers who were travelers first and writers second. They relished poking around the more remote corners of the world, enduring hardships and hostile inhabitants just because they were curious. This group included women who were not afraid to venture into places where solo females were looked upon with surprise if not disdain. Freya Stark, Isabella Bird, Mary Kingsley, Edith Durham — all wrote knowingly and brilliantly about their encounters in obscure corners of Africa, Europe, and Asia.

In today’s world, the actual logistics might not be as arduous, and the adventures might not be as hair-raising, but, for most of us, there is still much to be learned in the parts of the world that are foreign to our own. And that is the reason behind this blog entry, to set down my own thoughts about places I am headed or have been, and display photographs that I have taken. This is an attempt to explain my own wandering.


Except for occasional forays into the flatlands, my first 20 or so years were spent within the confines of East Tennessee, in the broad hill-and-range valley of the Tennessee River and its tributaries. The valley is hemmed between two arms of the Appalachians, the Cumberland Plateau on the west and the Great Smoky Mountains on the east. And hemmed it is, both topographically and culturally. As much as we like to think of our world as a small one — thanks to good roads, air travel, the Internet, television — it is still bound by topography.

The Smokies

The Smokies

Knoxville, the heart of the Tennessee Valley, is much more attuned to the urban areas up and down the valley than it is to the closer cities, Asheville or Nashville, on the other sides of the Smokies and the Plateau.

All this is by way of trying to explain how I came to be a traveler. I was born and reared in the confines of that valley, went to college there, worked for seven years with a newspaper there. But I have always been curious about the rest of the world. While in college, I made up a list of places and events I wanted to see and attend: Munich’s Oktoberfest, Carnival in Rio de Janeiro, Wimbledon’s tennis matches. I did not want to miss anything.

In the summer of 1972, after deciding it was time to set out, I quit my job, took my life savings and caught the cheapest flight to Europe, to Luxumbourg. I stayed until my money ran out. My last night was spent shivering in 32-degree temperatures on a church bench in the tiny German hamlet of Zweibrucken. The next day I reluctantly gave up, using my expired train pass to get back to Luxumbourg and my return ticket on the next flight back to the States. I didn’t want to return home (though I will admit to a hankering for a glass of iced tea and a real cheeseburger), but I leavened my disappointment with the certain knowledge that I would return to the road.

Though I boarded that initial Luxumbourg flight with considerable trepidation, my arrival in Europe went smoothly — the bus to Luxumbourg city was waiting at the airport and getting the train for Brussels was easy. But when I got off at the wrong one, I discovered that Brussels had more than a single, central train station. And it was late. Luckily I found the center of the city and a hotel. But I realized that Europe wasn’t the United States, that two years of high school French was of no help, and that I was alone and scared.

The next day brought a new dawn. The sense of adventure that sent me out overcame my fear, and I was roaming the city at an early hour. From then on, every day was a wonder. I bounced across Europe without worry. So what if I was in Bergen, Norway, at 11 at night and had no place to stay? Something would turn up. And it always did. I had made an important discovery. As long as I kept the ideal of adventure foremost, I could cope. Look on the moment’s occurrence with the wonder of discovery, and it can bring only excitement.

My adventures might be more mundane than the 19th-century trips explained by Philip Glazebrook in his book Journey to Kars: “The ordeal proved to the traveler that he possessed the qualities he had been taught to admire.” But they were adventures nevertheless, and the sense of accomplishment was real.

So I rode the rails north to Copenhagen and Goteburg and Oslo and Bergen. On my way back south to Heidelberg I noticed my scheduled arrival time was late and that my train’s final destination was Vienna at 8 o’clock the next morning; it would be better to arrive in Vienna early than in Heidelberg late. So I simply stayed on the train, incidentally saving the price of a room for the night.

Deciding I wanted to see Spain, I badgered a stationmaster in Zweibrucken into figuring out how to get me to Malaga (he managed, with a 60-hour trip incurring five train changes).

And along my crisscrossing way I heard American ex-patriot jazzman Dexter Gordon blowing his saxophone on a Copenhagen street corner; participated in Oostend, Belgium’s Slufferbal, a beery good-bye to the tourist season; and laughed with a young mortician as he shared tales of his trade in a London pub.

I had the first of two teary good-byes with a WAC friend in Zweibrucken (there has to be a reason to go to Zweibrucken). In Brussels, I got stuck in an elevator. In Paris, I was thrown out of Montparnasse cemetery for taking pictures.

Montparnasse, Paris 1972

Montparnasse, Paris 1972

In Lyons, I laughed with a Frenchman as, teetering from too much wine, he waved his handkerchief and sang “La Marseillaise” to two departing compatriots. At the Olympics in Munich, I stood by in anger and frustration as terrorists held Israeli athletes captive.

I feasted on just-picked wild blueberries in Myrdahl, Norway; looked on as an obnoxious and foolhardy young Moroc was thrown off a Spanish train after he complained about a noisy young couple; spent an entire morning at Chapparel, which consisted of one building, while a new engine was summoned for the same Spanish train.

There was a brief stop in the Swiss city of St. Gallen, which my ancestors had left on their great adventure to America in the 19th century.

Since that initial journey, true to my vow, I have returned to Europe seven times, and have traveled in the Soviet Union, Chile, Israel, Australia, Egypt, Cyprus, Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. And the U.S., too.

I’ve stood on the shore of a roiling Angara River in Siberia as dawn broke, my reverie shattered by the clatter of a horse-drawn wagon and the good-natured shouts of its Buryat drivers. Hanging over the waist-high back door of the tail-end train car at midnight, high in Mexico’s Sierra Madre Occidental, I’ve peered down at the fires of the Tarahumara Indians twinkling on the floor of the Copper Canyon.

I’ve clambered halfway up Australia’s remote and humbling Ayers Rock. I’ve been stopped and examined at an Israeli military checkpoint beside the Dead Sea two weeks after that country’s 1983 invasion of Lebanon.

I’ve watched as a lone tuba player, the last standing member of his oompah band, tried beerily to keep up the music and the spirit of his position in an Octoberfest tent. I’ve traversed stretches of the Silk Road, following in the central-Asia footsteps of Marco Polo, and watched as a dust storm rolled over the oasis that was home to Timur the Lame in ancient Samarkand.

On the floor of the Grand Canyon, exhausted after a day negotiating the rapids of the Colorado River, I’ve been awakened by the braying of wild donkeys. In Australia, from my perch astride a camel, I’ve watched wallabies scamper out of the way as we ambled around a desolate island. In Ralun, Chile, I’ve trusted a horse to get me through the fog-besotted low-tide flats of a fiord. I’ve been overwhelmed by another kind of horsepower on the starting grid of the 24 Heures du Mans, actor Paul Newman in his Porsche only a few feet away.

But I haven’t yet been to Wimbledon, or Mardi Gras, or seen the Himalayas from either the Nepalese or Tibetan side. And I haven’t reveled at Rio’s Carnival, or played chemin de fer at Monte Carlo, or watched the foolhardy tempt the bulls at Pamplona with their rolled-up newspapers. And I still don’t want to miss anything.

Miami in 1972

    I worked at The Miami Herald in the mid 1970s, the newspaper my introduction to big-time journalism, Miami my first foray into big-city life. The Herald then was fat with pages and news and ambition.  Besides several metro-Miami editions, there were a half-dozen aimed at different sections of the state, plus two for Latin America that were flown each night to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Caracas.

New York City journalism had recently experienced a major upheaval with many of the dailies closing, sending dozens of staffers heading south for jobs in Florida. Many landed at the Herald, adding to what was already a diverse group of wily veterans, including a refugee or two from pre-Castro Havana.

There was Gene Miller, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for investigative work. When he was present, his loud and dogged phone interviews dominated the newsroom.

At the other end of the spectrum was demure Edna Buchanan, her appearance belying her skill with grisly stories from the police beat; and Jay Maeder, whose laconic demeanor masked a rapier wit which eventually found fruition in a column.

Jim Dance, a talented and eccentric editorial writer, was a fellow native of southern Appalachia. He was from Middlesboro, Ky.

Then there was Ben Hunt, a Brit who had been declared persona non grata in Ian Smith’s Rhodesia for refusing to vote, a requirement for all white residents. He had worked for papers in London, Johannesburg, and Toronto.

It was an interesting mix, making for an interesting publication.

At that time, South Beach wasn’t exactly seedy, but it was years removed from today’s glitz. The atmosphere was traditional beach-boardwalk. A Coney Island habitué would have felt at home – and many of them did.

The south end of the beach gave way to a greyhound-racing track. Many of its patrons were regulars at a bar/restaurant a half block away. The Turf was dark and smoky, an escape from the sun, sand and surf a short walk away. It was close enough to the Herald via MacArthur Causeway that it became one of our regular dinner-break spots. Our usual waitress was a Brooklyn escapee with an accent that was thicker than the burgers.

Another favorite, within walkiing distance of the Herald on Biscayne Boulevard, was the Lobo Lounge, a place that could have been a mainstay of many Brooklyn neighborhoods.

Most often after work, we headed to the North Dade Athletic Club, where the only athletic equipment was a pool table. The hours were the main attraction – as a private club ($5 to join), it stayed open until 3 a.m.

The Herald building was on Biscayne Bay, which meant spectacular views from the east-facing windows. We could watch the seaplanes of Chalk Airlines as they landed on the water. Or the Goodyear blimp, tethered next door to the Chalk facility on Watson Island.  A bit farther south, there were usually several cruise ships tied up at the Port of Miami pier.

That was 40 years ago, and now, in May 2010, I’m beginning a two-month journey by returning to Miami, where I’ll be boarding one of the successors to those ships. But I’ll be checking out the old Herald neighborhood before sailing. I’m sure my favorite views have changed, my old haunts have disappeared, the tropical funk replaced by sparkle and glamour. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to seeing Miami again.

Sex in the park

September 29, 2011
Wildlife photographer Jim Bennett and I traveled to Cataloochee, a remote valley on the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Our object was not so much to commune with nature as to be voyeurs. There is an elk herd in Cataloochee and this is rutting season, when the bulls gather in the meadows to claim their cows and then mate with them.
The viewing spots are limited – much of the area surrounding the meadows is forested and, until they head out of the woods in late afternoon, dangerously occupied by large, horned animals in rut. So we chose a weekday, when there would be fewer two-legged, camera-armed animals jostling for sightlines.
The bulls are heard before they are seen, bellowing periodically from the woods to announce their presence to the cows and other bulls. The sound – usually compared to a bugle call – is surprisingly high-pitched. Jim described it as the sound an 800-pound mouse might make.
The elk, acclimated though they are to the valley’s tourists, keep to their own schedule, and we realized that we had arrived early. So we shot pictures of wild turkeys until the thickening road dust kicked up by vehicles indicated more arrivals.

Lord of his realm -- Photo by Jim Bennett

Lord of his realm — Photo by Jim Bennett

We claimed a spot at the end of one meadow, set up chairs, got out sandwiches and listened. After a few minutes a bull obliged, bugling from the woods. But he didn’t draw any cows – just more watchers. Soon, the side of the field was thick with picnickers sitting in folding chairs, cameras at the ready.
Finally, the bull nonchalantly walked out of the trees as if he had been waiting for the theater to fill before making his entrance. He was adorned by a magnificent rack – obviously a veteran of many ruts. He skirted the edge of the field, headed in the direction where we had seen cows grazing earlier. But at the far end, where trees lined a small stream, he paused, acting as if he was more interested in grazing than sex. Then he headed back the way he had come, staying in the shadows and making photography difficult.
We decided to go down to the next field, in the direction of the cows. There we saw the reason for his hesitation – another big-horned bull had claimed the females. We joined the audience there, Jim finding space for his telephoto-equipped camera. Soon the small area was crowded, dominated by one naturalist and his heavy, tripod-mounted professional-looking video outfit.
The bull took no notice. He kept trying to climb aboard the cows – without success. Coy, they moved out of reach whenever he got too close. Occasionally he would manage to briefly mount before they slipped away.
The audience found this amusing, uttering appropriate comments along the lines of “not now, I’ve got a headache”.
Periodically, a young bull would slip out of the woods and move toward the cows. But the old master would have none of that, chasing him back to cover.
The audience, frustrated by the lack of action, began clamoring for the other contender to cross the stream into our bull’s territory for some horn-clanging battle. The mood was one of “If we can’t have sex, we want combat.”
I went back up to the other field to see what the holdup was. And found our other bugler lying down, apparently bored with the entire scenario. Soon, as the sun slipped behind the trees, a park ranger told us that, late as it was, there would probably not be anything else happening.
The elk, I guess, wanted that big weekend audience for their performance.