Monday, September 28, 2009

Deadly Events Impacted Our Lives

Editors Note: In many of our lives, stories that happened in our youth are factors for the rest of our lives. The following stories hppened and remain frozen in the depths of my memories.

At a recent luncheon with former classmates of mine—all of us, now seventy plus—the subject drifted to things which impacted our lives when we were young.
A young mind is very vulnerable. Perhaps the reasons can be debated, however I choose to think it is because the mind of the young is void of shocking experiences. Early in my youth, I was shocked when a policeman came through the mill village looking for dogs without collars. In those early days on the tail-end of the Great Depression, that was not like looking for a needle in a haystack. Most of us had dogs and most of us could not afford the extra money necessary for rabies shots.

The word spread quickly that a policeman was shooting dogs in the street. We had two dogs at the time. One was Spot and the other was Snowball. Like many others we tied our dogs in the hopes they wouldn’t become victims of the exorcism. In the case of Spot and Snowball, my brother tied them under the front porch of our rented small, frame, mill house.
It didn’t work. The policeman looked underneath our porch and shot both dogs. I don’t recall how young I was—probably under five—but suffice it to say that the horrible event impacted my mind for the rest of my life.
On another occasion when I was riding my bike on the village, I spotted a car driven by some Black men which had been pulled over. The policeman yanked the back door of the sedan open and yelled at one of the men. When he didn’t move, he was jerked from his seat and immediately hit on the head with a night stick. He crumbled beneath the force of the blow, and blood ran from his wound. I turned my bike around and sped away from the scary event.
To say these two episodes affected me in a negative way would be right on the money.
Not all of the things that happened in our youth had to do with police cruelty. Early one Sunday morning the news spread quickly as the Hamm family was preparing to go to Sunday School.

A young boy named Gene Hamm, brother of Mae Bennett was fatally killed when it was discovered that he had accidently pulled an electric heater into the tub of water where he was bathing. Death was by electrocution. He was so young, and the accident was so terrible, it left most of us who knew him shaken and with a feeling of vulnerability.
In the exciting days of outdoor theaters, better known to us as the Drive-in Movie, one night ended in tragedy. To say that most people attended the old M&T Drive-in in an automobile would be correct, however some of us rode our bikes from town all the way out to the drive-in, and sometimes it could get a little frightening. On one occasion, I recall a Greyhound bus moving over to go around me on my bike and when he “goosed” the big engine, something hit me in the eye. It wasn’t a rock. I still think it was engine residue from the big diesel. For certain, it caused a burning sensation. To remember that incident is to realize the danger in riding a bike on a dark highway, something I am sure is not done today.
Strange as it may seem, two teenaged boys who resided near each other on the north side of Hartford met accidental deaths. Both were students at Central High School and their deaths were unrelated.

One of the boys, Perry Babb, a son of Preacher Babb, a well-known minister and textile worker in Hawkinsville was walking toward the family’s rented home near the intersection of the Cochran Highway and Chicken Road after the drive-in closed. On the side of the dark, shadowy road, Perry met his death. Someone ran over him and his body wasn’t discovered until the following day. No one was ever arrested and no one to my knowledge was ever charged for the deadly incident.

The other boy named Billy Mullis whose family was living in the house across the road was helping to do some work on a shallow well behind their home when he was touched by the pipe of the well which had an electric wire touching it. Immediately hit with the full force of the electric charge, Billy was electrocuted. Both deaths touched the young people of Hawkinsville and impacted our minds.
There was a classmate, a country boy named Johnny Holder, who very much filled the role of being from the rural area. Johnny walked with long strides—no doubt gained from plowing a mule—and seemed to walk flat-footed. In playground football, he ran with that same stride. He was easily the fastest boy on the playground. Johnny was a humble boy and I really liked him a lot. Then one day, he was hunting in the woods and his shotgun fell discharging into his body killing him. All of the above seemed to take place within the first ten or twelve years of my life. It was a lot for a youngster to digest.
There were two deaths, very similar to each other that occurred near the Ocmulgee River, and both went unsolved. It seems that a group of men were drinking and playing poker somewhere near the old crooked bridge, and one of them, Wesley Bell was murdered and his body was
dragged later from the river. Several men were questioned, but no official charges were made in
the incident.
On another occasion, a group of men were involved in a drinking and a poker game and a tall lanky man named B. A. “Crook” Moore was killed and his body later was also dragged from the muddy waters of the river.

Perhaps one of the most infamous killings in the history of Hawkinsville involved then Chief of Police Tom Bragg on May 11, 1951.

A young Army paratrooper, Leon Passmore, just 27 years old, who was raised on the mill village, had gone AWOL from his base along with another buddy. Chief Bragg was informed that the young troops were AWOL and sought them out for arrest. According to the newspaper accounts, Bragg had the two men handcuffed in the front seat of his police car. In those days, there was no shortcut to Robins AFB, therefore Bragg and his two prisoners headed out on Highway 341 toward Perry where a road to Warner Robins intersected with 341 that would take them on to the Air Force Base. According to the law officer, he slowed down to make the turn and claimed the two men attempted to wrestle his gun from him. There was a struggle for the weapon with Bragg maintaining control of it. He discharged the firearm until it was empty and critically wounded the two soldiers. Someone pulled in behind him to offer assistance to the policeman, after which Bragg continued on to Robins AFB where he turned the men over to the military. Both died or were dead on arrival. Bragg was questioned in an inquisition about the incident and finally was cleared of any charges.
To this day, long after the killings, many believe it was cold-bloodied murder and many others felt it was justified.
The final results will have to be worked out somewhere else. All the people involved including Bragg’s son, Tommy, who lay sleeping in the rear seat are deceased. Dead men tell no tales.
The preceding incidents impacted our lives greatly during our youth.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Silver Screen Cowboys

Saturday mornings in the 1940’s and the 1950’s were special in the lives of Hawkinsville children, girls as well as boys. Excitement raced throughout every fiber of a young person’s body as preparations were made to attend “Picture Show” Thompson’s theater. Typical of the line-up of what would be showing was a great cowboy movie, a good “regular” movie, a cartoon, The Movietone News, previews and the much anticipated serial which was one chapter each Saturday for 15 consecutive weeks.
The serial might be Rocketman, Jack Armstrong, All American Boy, Batman and Robin, or the Lone Ranger and his side-kick, Tonto. Movietone News was how they did the news prior to television and the likes of Walter Cronkite. The cartoon might be a Disney production with Pluto, Mickey or Donald, or it might be everyone’s favorite, Tom and Jerry. The least favorite of all would be the ones where we had to follow the bouncing ball while singing along with a song we were not familiar with in the first place. Listen, this was serious business because it cost nine cents to get into the movies back then. When there was a price increase to twelve cents, boys and girls were going all over town whining and gnashing their teeth about the unfairness of the increase. After all, that was a jump of twenty-five percent in ticket prices. It was no wonder “Picture Show” Thompson could afford to place a wooden likeness of all those cartoon characters on his rolling lawn each Christmas. No one else in town could afford to be so lavish in their decorations. Of course, we all enjoyed the fantasy equivalent of what surely was the Walt Disney Park of the 1940’s.
The Saturday “regular” movie was sometimes Bud Abbot and Lou Costello, sometimes Frankenstein or Dracula, or my favorite Wolfman, and sometimes it might be, the Bowery Boys with Huntz Hall and Leo Gorcey, who was a dead ringer for Wendell Greer. We felt a little cheated if it was a “suit” bad guy movie, one where the bad guys all wore coats and ties, like preachers on Sunday. The favorite of all was the cowboy show, which in recent years have come to be called the Silver Screen Cowboys. They were all heroes and some were just more so than others. Roy Rogers was great, but Gene Autry, another singing cowboy was a little on the chubby side, and on more than one occasion, his famous horse Champion groaned a little bit when Gene suddenly mounted his saddle. Mister Autry, who later became the owner of the California Angels baseball team, did not suffer from “missed meal colic.” Another chubby cowboy named Whip Wilson was a cheap imitation of Lash LaRue, the greatest man to ever hold a bull-whip in his hands. In the first place, I could never figure out why anyone would be satisfied with oleo margarine when they could get real cow butter. (That was an analogy, folks!) We did not need another cowboy with a whip! On one occasion, “Picture Show” Thompson arranged for Lash to appear on the stage of the old Thompson Theater. My heart would not quit pounding at the thought of seeing one of my all-time cowboy heroes in person. After all, I, myself, had become Lash on many Saturday afternoons after returning home from the picture show.
Almost like it was yesterday, I still remember making my own whip which would actually crack when whipped with the right motion. It mattered not to me that my whip, unlike Lash’s all leather whip, was made with a short stick from a chinaberry limb and an old scrap of cotton mill rope with a small piece of leather attached to the end of it to insure that it would pop.
Appearing at the Thompson Theater with Lash was one of the “heavies” of the day in cowboy movies. A bad dude named Jack O’Shea. Thinking back on it now, O’Shea was built more like a lineman for our beloved Dawgs in Athens. I can remember wondering how Lash wound up traveling with the likes of such as O’Shea, a notorious crook, who obviously came from very bad parents in the wrong part of Texas. Nevertheless, I got to see what I wanted to see. Lash popped a cigarette from his lips with his whip without so much as touching his mouth. In addition to that, some words led to a shoot-out on the stage and my hero, Lash, won the duel.
The silver screen cowboys always had a sidekick who rode with them.
In the case of Lash LaRue, his sidekick was invariably a man of slight build named Al “Fuzzy” St. John. His face bordered with whiskers, and a hat that had the bill turned upwards, Fuzzy always seemed to be chewing something in the same fashion as a cow chews its cud. His pants hung low, giving him an overall comedic appearance that made it easy to determine who was the cowboy hero and who was the sidekick. Picture John Walsh of America’s Most Wanted television show, with a black western outfit, a black cowboy hat and a black leather whip talking out of the side of his mouth. That was what Lash LaRue looked like, and he was just as fearsome as the man who tracks down killers and the like today.
Saturdays will forever live as wonderful times in the life of my friends and myself. For as little as a quarter, we could be entertained from ten o’clock in the morning until two o’clock in the afternoon including a cold drink and an ice cream on a stick commonly called a “nugget” or perhaps Milk Duds, raisinettes and pop corn. Afterwards, upon arriving home, we became the cowboys we had watched during the time spent at the movies. Once the argument was settled as to who would be Lash LaRue, and who would be the bad guy or the “boss of the crooks,” the game would begin. The word for “play like” would become a shortened and very southern pronunciation that sounded similar to “plack,” as in, “Plack I’m Lash and plack you’re the boss of the crooks!” Sometimes we had to improvise by allowing two heroes in our game such as Lash LaRue and the Durango Kid. Now I know they never rode together on the silver screen, but they did, on occasion, in my back yard.

The bad guys or crooks as we referred to them in the days of the silver screen cowboys seemed to rotate around with the cowboy heroes in those days, but one man, Roy Barcroft, big in stature with a pencil-thin mustache, and mean as a snake was usually the “Boss.” It mattered not whether he was playing opposite Roy Rogers, Sunset Carson or Wild Bill Elliott, who always said, “I’m a peaceable man,” just as he was delivering his final knock-out punch to the bad guy he was fighting. Barcroft was the “Brains of the Crooks” against Alan “Rocky” Lane or a Lane look-alike,
Monte Hale, who went by the name of the “Prince of the Prairie.”

Wintertime Beach Walking

Long before I fell in love with Sheila, I had another love affair—one which has endured through the years. She was alive with energy and excitement. I gained an inner strength from being in her presence, yet I never knew what she would be like—sometimes wild and uncontrollable, and at other times, peaceful and serene. That love affair began at the same place where I would later meet Sheila for the first time—Jacksonville Beach, Florida.

I truly fell in love with the ocean and its sandy beach when I was a young boy, and it has maintained a magical, enchanting hold on me ever since my early youth.
There is something that is wonderful about being near the ocean, listening as its waves come in an endless pattern, time after time—sometimes rough and harsh, other times quiet and peaceful—licking and leaving its special treasures while taking sand with it as it flows outward. Two guys in college in the 1960s, made a record of an old tune that became a smash hit. The name of it was Ebb Tide, and it captured my love for the ocean in both lyrics and melody. I know many of you remember it, and like me, probably remember that it was first recorded by Al Hibbler, during the 1950s. The recording by Bill Medley and Bobby Hatfield, or as they were known, the Righteous Brothers, started like this: In the background was the intriguing sounds of sea gulls and a wonderful, melodic crash of waves. Next, Hatfield, who sang tenor, begins with the beautiful and descriptive words, “First the tide rushes in, plants a kiss on the shore, then rolls out to sea once again.” The song eventually builds to a heart-shaking climax toward the end that makes this beach lover tremble with pure ecstasy each time I listen to it.
Now, I must tell you if you don’t love that, you must be from North Dakota or Iowa or some other forsaken place. Sheila and I still enjoy going to the beach to charge our batteries, something that the ocean can do for both of us during short or long visits.
As a youth, I must admit that hot weather and the beach was pure heaven to me, but as I have grown longer in the tooth, winter is the favorite time of the year for us. We enjoy ambling endlessly along the beach, wrapped snugly in our winter coats, jeans and a woolly stretch hat to combat the sting of the wind and cold. Despite the cold, it is a delirious thrill seeing the endless onslaught of waves coming in and rolling out, leaving foam from the water rushing hurriedly along the white sand.

Most of the time, there will be only a few other brave souls trolling along in cold solitude of winter on the beach, totally unlike the invasion of hordes of people during the hotter time of the year. We have long since stopped swimming in the ocean, but our romance with it continues into the autumn of our lives.

Friday, September 11, 2009

The Dark Ride Home

The football game ended around ten o’clock that night and like most boys eleven or twelve years old, I ran out to the center of the field to play a quick game of “tag” football where there was more tackling than tagging going on. The home team varsity boys were teaming up with the cheerleaders or some of the other girls who were streaming around the gridiron looking to get a ride with someone who was lucky enough to be driving the family car or truck as the case may have been. At any rate they were the older people in school and boys my age were much more interested in running with the ball, tackling someone or in general just laughing with all the gusto of a pre-teen male.
Suddenly, pouring out toward the parking lot to head home, all the adults had abandoned the field. The bright lights that had given enough illumination to play a football game were turned off, leaving the stadium in a darkened state except for a small bevy of lights surrounding the hot dog stand. Some volunteers were there counting the night’s concession money and hauling out the trash.
I was never one to necessarily enjoy darkness because it meant the end of the day and the end of the play. Yelling loudly, all of the boys that had bicycles broke into a dead run, while others who were riding with their parents headed to the parking lot. Their dads were re-playing the game with each other. They were telling how much they enjoyed seeing the star back take off around the end streaking down the sidelines for the game winning score.

Waving our final goodbye to each other we mounted our best means of transportation around the small town. I named my bike “Paint” after a steed belonging to a Saturday cowboy matinee idol. Leaping on the bike, which only had one pedal and a stump of the remnant of what once was the second pedal, I would let out a yell, “Come on ‘Paint’, let’s git where we ain’t.” Pedaling as hard as I could with the one good pedal and deftly lifting the stub into an upward position to push down again, I headed toward town away from the football field. Until recently, we had always lived in town either on the mill village or later in the housing projects, but my father had found a dwelling in the country large enough to house our family and the family of one of my married sisters.
The dirt road that led out to the country where our house was located was nearly seven miles from town. That night the moon was out but, but hiding. It seemed to race from one cloud to another all the way home, rotating bright to dark, hiding and peeking behind the fast moving clouds. The trees on either side of the old rutted dirt road cast an eerie set of shadows. There were lots of strange sounds such as crickets and frogs from the swamps, and an old owl hooting from a dead tree somewhere in the distance. Up ahead, I could hear an alternating sound of a coyote howling the unhappy news of his hunger, and that of a disturbed dog returning his answer with his incessant barking. The more sounds I heard the faster I was able to pedal even with the encumbering stump of what once was a pedal. I found myself looking forward to coasting the long hill downward to the bottom that ran near the branch of water. At the same time I dreaded the uphill battle back to the top. Nevertheless, I pedaled with all my might and asked silently for “Paint” to do his part to get us home to the warm and safe confines that were to be found inside the old house in the country. Finally, huffing and puffing I managed to get home, only to discover the house and all the surroundings were dark. “Whoa, Paint!” I commanded my bike as I coasted up near the front doorsteps. “Daddy? Mother?” I called out in a semi-quiet tone hoping for an answer. None came. There was not even a glimmer of light coming from the house. I cautiously dismounted and eased myself up onto the dark porch, walked with padded feet to where I knew the front door was, and felt through the thickness of the black night. Feeling my way around the door, I was able to locate the cold, ceramic doorknob which, to my disappointment, I found to be locked. Once more I called out, this time louder and perhaps with a touch of desperation in my voice, “Daddy! Mother!” Again there was only the sound of the jungle, er, forest animals and my quiet but labored breathing.

Dashing from the porch and leaping completely over the steps, I crashed to the ground. Rising to my feet immediately, I located the one ally I had …. that being “Paint”. Quickly, I slung my leg over the crossbar and yelled out once more, “Come on Paint let’s git where we aint!”
Back on the old red clay road with ruts, my feet were pedaling, and my legs were pumping as hard as they could until the seven miles were covered in reverse order of a few moments earlier. Finally crossing the old crooked bridge across the muddy river, I turned toward the safety of the mill village anxiously looking for the old 1941 green Ford sedan. After only a short time, I located it in front of the home of friends of my parents. Breathing hard, I knocked sharply on the door and when answered, I asked if my daddy was there. “Yes, he’s here and they are just getting ready to leave.”
“Hey Daddy,” I choked the words out, “I’m gonna ride home with y’all and put “Paint” in the trunk.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Growing up in Hawkinsville

Having been born in the world’s greatest nation, the greatest state within the United States, and especially the small town of Hawkinsville during the 1940s and 1950s has placed me amongst the most fortunate of people on this planet.
I was born in 1938 on the tail end of the Great Depression to two hard-working textile workers with very little education and practically no wealth. Mother and Daddy probably had trouble rubbing two dimes together for the most part. They had already had six children, one of whom had died within four days of being born. My mother was thirty-eight and my father was forty-four on the cold December Saturday—the last day of the year—making me wonder if they were not the happiest couple to bring a baby into the world. They could not even count me as a tax blessing because they didn’t have deductions back then.
Why then do I consider myself so fortunate? Many reasons come to mind. Mother was a great cook, and Daddy led the singing at the small Riverside Baptist Church each Sunday. I was exposed to the Bible and all of those great prophets and servants of our Heavenly Father from my earliest days in America.
I received an e-mail the other day which summed up what we had and probably why we were fortunate to grow up in the city by the muddy river. The e-mail was sent to me by George Slappey, a friend who grew up here. Most people will remember him as the son of George Slappey, Sr. who had a slogan in his dry cleaning business stating “Be Happy with Slappey.”
His e-mail went in part like this, “A little house with three bedrooms, one bathroom and one car on the street.
A mower that you had to push to make the grass look neat. That is unless you had a dirt yard that was swept with a huge brush—grass was pulled out of the ground and disposed of. In the kitchen on the wall we only had one phone,
and no need for recording things, someone was always home.
We only had one TV set, and maybe two channels. With luck we had one with something worth viewing. For snacks we had potato chips that tasted like a chip. If you wanted flavor there was Lipton's onion dip. Store-bought snacks were rare because my mother liked to cook.
Get a baseball game together with all the friends you knew, and have real action playing ball, and no video games.
Remember when the doctor used to be the family friend, and didn't need insurance? The way that he took care of you or what he had to do was because he took an oath and strived to do his best.
Remember going to the store and shopping casually, and when you went to pay for it you used your own money, or charged it until Saturday? There was nothing that you had to swipe or punch in some amount, and the cashier person had to really count? The milkman used to go from door to door—that was me—and it was just a few cents more than going to the store. There was a time when mailed letters came right to your door—twice a day—walking without a lot of junk mail ads sent out by every store. The mailman knew each house by name.
There was a time when just one glance was all that it would take, for you to know the kind of car, the model and the make. They were streamlined, white walls, fins, and really had some style. Oh, the simple life we lived still seems like so much fun. To explain the game, just kick the can and run. Why did boys put baseball cards between bicycle spokes, and for a nickel, red machines had little bottled Cokes?
That life seemed so much easier, and slower in some ways, but time moves on, and so do we, and nothing stays the same, but I sure love to reminisce and walk down memory lane. Ahh, thanks, George for those classic memories, and we really did live them in growing up in Hawkinsville.
Some of the pictures which accompany this feature article will remind many of us of our childhood. Lee Jordan who was born in Hawkinsville and went on to find fame in the entertainment business is shown pulling his small wagon like most lucky little boys. In another picture, Lee is shown with Ginger his pet dog. Who among us did not have a pet dog?
Alas, there is a picture of our own Lee Jordan interviewing President Dwight D. Eisenhower. How about that sports fans?
Very few if any of us who grew up in the 1940s and 1950s would have special memories of attending the picture show every time we could put together a quarter for admission and snacks.
In one picture, Bobby Mullis, a friend from my childhood is shown with two of his daughters who attended a celebration when Bobby retired from a part-time driving job for Eldercare Pharmacy.
Bobby, who is several years older than me, nevertheless took up a lot of time with me as a small boy on the mill village—teaching me games such as pretend cowboys, superheroes and hitting and throwing baseballs, something he was great at doing. Today, he resides in a local assisted care home, the victim of a stroke or two. He still enjoys life and his family.
There is a great picture of a group of young boys who enjoyed growing up in Hawkinsville. They were a Junior High team at HHS and it is fun to look at the picture of them. Tom Watson Dykes was the coach and he still resides with Mrs. Dykes in Cochran. Curtis Browning grew up to play quarterback for the Red Devils and threw a lot of touchdown passes to Jimmy Eaton who turned out to be a surgeon of some note near Atlanta. Ramsey Grinstead, Ben Lee, Jack Abernathy, and Guy Plowden are all deceased. Nicky Cabero still resides with his wife Linda, a forty year veteran as the organist of the First Methodist Church in Hawkinsville.
Robert Ingram lives on Lake Blackshear with his wife, Helen; Bobby Joe Goode is one of the two survivors of the three children of Neede and Velma Goode. Bobby Joe and his wife are from Vidalia. Dub and Judy Rewis, retired educators live in Warner Robins. Ellis and Helen Smith live in Hilton Head, SC, and Billy and Janice Crenshaw live in Palatka, FL. Bobby Grinstead lives in Louisiana.
The little boy swinging on the tire swing—something many of us did in our youth is my grandson, Joshua Morris. We try to introduce our grand’s to some of the memories we had as children.
In the memories of George Slappey, he pointed out that nothing stays the same and time keeps moving on. In one picture taken just after the beginning of the Twentieth Century, my ancestors are shown at the home of my grandfather William R. Barlow with his wife, Prezzie Wynne Barlow and her mother, Mary Furney Wynne as families looked in the year, 1904. Transportation was horse and buggy. In a contrast, included in the article is a picture of a typical 1960s family shown as passengers in a convertible, the typical transportation of the day.
I’ve said it before and I’ll continue saying it all of my life. I (we) had the best time and place to grow up in the entire world.