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.”