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.”