Escape from Rose Hill


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The founding of the zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of preachers and popes

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

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

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

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

We were active in a popular Knoxville congregation.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Of Blackberries and ‘Panters”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A baptism into religious differences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Zip guns and exploding toilets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Rock ‘n’ Roll at the Indian Rock Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





My brief career as a private eye

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

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

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

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

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

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.”