The Long Drive
The Long Drive
This is a story about one of my adventures. I call it "The Long Drive" because that it what is was, among other things. I drove alone for forty-eight hours over two weeks time, covering three thousand miles.
My aviation business of fourteen years had gone kaput in the Spring of 2009. The last few years had been intensely stressful. I needed to think and to unwind. A quiet long drive solo is great for being alone with your thoughts. But where to go?
I perused a map of the Southeastern United States and noticed I had friends and family scattered about, most of whom I had promised to one day visit. I took a magic marker and traced a route from where I lived in Orlando that would take me to South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama and back. Then I set out on my journey.
Columbia South Carolina
I decided to visit my most wild and crazy friend first. It would take seven hours to cover the 433 miles to Columbia, South Carolina.
I drove past Daytona Beach, that party town of a half million souls famed for its hard-packed beach on which you can drive; Spring Break; Bike Week; and the Daytona 500. I drove through Jacksonville, the largest city by area in America, home to 1.3 million, and a major military and civilian seaport. I drove around Savannah, that unusual place known for beautiful historic architecture and unique atmosphere, home to 348,000.
North and South Carolina separated in 1729. Carolina means Charles land in Latin. The Carolinas are named for King Charles of England.
South Carolina was one of the original thirteen states and the first to secede from the Union, precipitating the Civil War. From the American War of Independence to the Civil War, Negro slaves brought in to work fields of rice and indigo outnumbered the original Anglo settlers.
South Carolina was decimated during Sherman's March to the Sea in 1864. Sherman took 62,000 Yankee troops on a rampage, employing a "scorched earth" policy to destroy everything of value. They burned crops, homes, and any buildings in their path; killed livestock; and tore up railroad tracks.
Located in the center of South Carolina is Columbia, the state capital and largest city. It was burned to the ground by General Sherman. Columbia is named for Christopher Columbus and is today home to 768,000, the majority of whom are Southern Baptists. It is noted for warm weather, a comfortable lifestyle, low cost-of-living, and a good economy. It was here in the pine dotted sandhills that I spent the night with my old friend, Lendon Weisner III.
Lendon Weisner Iii
Lendon Weisner buys cars from people and at estate sales. He fixes them up and sells them, making substantial profits. He took me downtown Columbia for some excellent barbecue.
Lendon Weisner and I became good buddies when we sold cars together in the early 1980s. He had once been a preacher. We worked at the largest volume Buick store in the world at the time, Orange Buick in Orlando.
Out of the 35 salesmen (and one woman), I will humbly confess to selling the most cars, but Lendon made the highest profit per car. He thought I was crazy to do all the work required to sell and deliver over 20 cars every month. He would sell eight and make just as much in commissions. Lendon broke the record for selling one car for $3500 more than the sticker price. Keep in mind, the sticker was right there in plain view.
I didn't have the heart to do it the Weisner way, which involved "putting them under the ether." The saying was "he would put the hat on his own grandma." The Weisner way was quite unusual. Other salesmen asked people if they would like to purchase the car. Lendon Weisner told them, "Sign that contract, fool!" It was great amusement to sit outside Lendon's office and listen to him. If a customer said, "I'm going to go think about it," Lendon would shout at them, "No you are not! You are going to sit there until you sign that contract!"
Lendon Weisner was wounded in the head in Vietnam. This left him so hard of hearing that he talks extremely loud. I was once in quiet bar having an afternoon cocktail when I struck up a conversation with the also-suited gentleman next to me. He sold cars, too, and he knew Lendon. I was amazed at the coincidence and said, "So you know Lendon Weisner?" He turned and shouted at the top of his voice, "DO I KNOW LENDON!?"
Ken Carnegie worked for me over a number of years as a top-flight aircraft mechanic. We became good friends, stayed in touch, and I went to see him at his home 103 miles north of Columbia in Anderson, SC.
Ken was with me at the Adam's Mark Hotel in Daytona the afternoon I broke the all time record for consuming alcohol. My business had just gone under and we started drinking away the blues after lunch at the outdoor pool bar. I noticed a sign that read "All Time Record: 35 Drinks." After I put away 39, it was nine in the evening and I still had enough left to win the Karaoke contest with a soulful rendition of "Knights in White Satin," and to go bungee jumping for the first and only time in my life.
Ken Carnegie served several tours of combat duty in the United States Army, beginning with Desert Storm. When he left my company, it was because he was recruited by Blackwater to defend its transport planes and helicopters in flight in Iraq and Afghanistan. The work is fraught with danger, but the pay is extraordinary.
I caught Ken at home in Anderson, SC, on leave from these missions, and we had a wonderful visit. We had dinner outside on the patio of a restaurant on Lake Hartwell.
Ken owns two lovely homes, one on the lakefront. A bunch of his fine friends came over, and we played cards into the night. One of them had been working at the BMW plant for fifteen years. BMW selected nearby Greer, SC, to invest $2.2 billion in because it is a non-union area. The plant employs around 10,000 people. Ken's friend said he loves his job, loves the plant, and has no use for unions.
Anderson South Carolina
Anderson, South Carolina is a city of about 81,000, considered part of the Greenville-Spartanburg Metropolitan Area (population 1.2 million). The original settlers of the area were Scots-Irish farmers come down from Virginny and Pennsylvania.
Anderson was the first city in the United States to have continuous electric power. It sits in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains about halfway between Atlanta and Charlotte, which are 260 miles apart.
Greenville is 25 miles away from Anderson. For 200 years, gold and precious gemstones, including rubies and emeralds, have been mined in the Greenville area.
Greenville was once in Cherokee Territory, but the Cherokee fought on the losing side of the American Revolution with the British and lost this corner of South Carolina by treaty in 1776.
Michelin, Honeywell, 3M, General Electric, Caterpillar, and Lockheed Martin are the major employers. Shoeless Joe Jackson was from Greenville, as was Jesse Jackson, and the actors Joanne Woodward and Bo Hopkins.
Thomasville North Carolina
Thomasville, North Carolina, home to 21,000 souls, lies 168 miles northeast of Anderson.
I drove through the heart of Charlotte, the 2nd largest banking center in America, trailing only New York City. Named after Queen Consort Charlotte, the city and its suburbs boast 2.4 million residents.
Thomasville is well known for manufacturing furniture and is the home of the World's Largest Chair. Thomasville is in the Piedmont Triad—home to 1.6 million people—and close to Winston-Salem.
In the 1940s, six out of ten citizens in Winston-Salem worked either for the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company or Hanes Textiles. Wachovia Bank and Krispy Kreme were both founded there. Howard Cosell, Maya Angelou, and Mark Grace all hailed from Winston-Salem.
North Carolina is our tenth most populous state, long known for tobacco and cotton. It is one of the original 13 English Colonies, and the last state to secede of the Southern Confederacy.
North Carolina has prospered in the past few decades. A Right-to-Work State, it is consistently ranked among the best 2 or 3 states for business in America.
Miguel Herrera is who brought me to Thomasville. "Mike" was the sound technician in my band, White Summer, for about five years back in the 1980s. When you are on the road you develop tight bonds.
The Family Herrera escaped from Castro's Cuba in the early sixties. Mom and Pop came to America with nothing except their five children. They settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, before retiring to Miami. That got a little busy so they decided to live out their days in North Carolina. Eventually, three of their children followed them there—Darlene, Aaron and Mike.
I originally met the Herrera Family in Ann Arbor. My band had a gig there for a week, and Mike's parents insisted the whole group stay with them instead of in a hotel. They are lovely people.
Mike Herrera is an audio-visual wizard who has installed entertainment systems in homes of the ultra-rich around the Western Hemisphere. Mike most recently worked building the new $600 million Google plant (Lenoir Data Center). One of his sons is a special forces sniper posted first in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.
Mike's mother is a wonderful painter. His sister, Karen, is a marvelous singer. Her Motown group is the house band at the Hard Rock Cafe in Hollywood, Florida. Brother Rafael makes television commercials, and we have discussed forging a partnership to produce film documentaries.
David & Johnnie Hennessee
My cousin David Hennessee left our hometown of Benton Harbor, Michigan decades ago and settled in Kingsport, Tennessee. Both of his parents, heavy smokers, died in their sixties. David tragically lost his 18-year-old son Tommy in a car crash on an icy road a few years back. Tommy Hennessee was a precious boy.
In Kingsport, David met and married a wonderful and pretty gal, Johnnie. She is a Southern Belle and they are church-going people. Together, they operate a gold shop in the local mall.
I had not seen David, a few years my junior, in a long time until I went to see him on this trip. I got to meet Johnnie's daughter Heather East, age 18 at the time. Both Heather and Johnnie are avid readers, so that gave us some common ground. Like me, Johnnie loves history. David likes his Bible, as well as gold and guns. Tears welled up in his eyes as we said our goodbyes. That meant a lot to me.
My 200 mile drive to Kingsport was through the Appalachian Mountains, and they are breathtakingly beautiful. On the way I passed through Boone, NC, population 17,000, named of course, for the great pioneer Daniel Boone.
Kingsport, Bristol, and Johnson City form the Tri-Cities Area of the extreme northeastern corner of Tennessee. The area is home to around a half million people.
From Kingsport I was to traverse the entire state of Tennessee—440 miles—traveling westward to the Mississippi River. After the first 277 miles, I stopped in Nashville for a few days, where I have several relatives. On my way there I drove right through Knoxville, a fine city of over a million souls that was the original capital of the state and is the proud home of the University of Tennessee "Volunteers."
Tennessee is where my Daddy was born and lived until he was ten. The Family Watkins moved to Michigan in 1945, seven children in tow.
In 1768, Tennessee was described as a "howling wilderness." One year later it was dotted with cabins built by settlers come over the mountains from North Carolina. One of those became the first governor of Tennessee, John Sevier, who also fathered 18 children.
The Cherokees massacred some of the first settlers, scalping and burning women and children. This made John Sevier a vengeful Indian fighter. His enraged band of mountain men ran down the Cherokees by 1793, and the land was made safe for peaceful living.
Tennessee became the Sixteenth of the United States in 1796. Within fifteen years, the population had boomed to over 200,000. The "over-mountain" men and women loved a good fight; violent family feuds were not uncommon. Both sexes enjoyed chaws of tobacco and kegs of "white lightning" or "moonshine" if you will.
The settlers of Tennessee liked to "put down that hoe and dance" at "hoe-downs." Favorite pastimes included horse racing, cock-fighting, wrestling, hunting, shooting, and gambling. At the same time, religious revivals where folks would "kick up their heels" were a ubiquitous feature of the social landscape.
Nashville is the capital of Tennessee. It is known as Music City USA since it is the "Home of Country Music" and the Grand Ole Opry. The greater metropolitan area has 1.7 million residents. It is named for Revolutionary War hero Francis Nash.
Nashville was one of the most prosperous cities in the Old South before the Civil War. It sat in a strategic location, was a railroad center, and boasted a fine port on the Cumberland River. It was the first southern capital to fall to the Yankee Army.
After the war, Nashville rose from the ashes to regain its prominence. Still today, it is one of the more rapidly growing metropolises in America. Nashville has long springs and autumns, which are great for everybody except allergy sufferers.
20,000 people work in the music industry, second only to New York. But 94,000 people work for Nashville's largest industry: health care.
Nashville is known as the "Athens of the South" for its 24 colleges and classical architecture. It is sometimes called the Buckle of the Bible Belt. Several Protestant denominations are headquartered and have seminaries in Nashville. The Christian music industry is based there. Nashville boasts 700 churches.
Cliff & Carla Retief
Cliff and Carla Retief are my third cousins and both are medical doctors. I spent a night with them in their magnificent new Nashville home.
Carla Retief is my father's cousin's daughter, originally from Clarksburg, Tennessee. She is a dermatological surgeon whose clients include some stars of Country Music.
Cliff Retief was a professional tennis player from South Africa in his younger days. He is now a Podiatric Surgeon who specializes in the treatment of diabetic foot disease. They met as students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.
I left the Retief household on the south side of Nashville in the affluent Brentwood suburb and traveled to the north side of town to visit my cousin Ralph Watkins for a couple days.
Ralph Watkins was born in 1945, to my Dad's older brother Ray. Ray Watkins was an inventor and a Nashville studio session player on steel guitar. Uncle Ray also hand-built beautiful resonator guitars (dobros) called "Raybros." Uncle Ray passed away a few years ago.
Cousin Ralph was my manager in Little League and Babe Ruth baseball. When I was a teenager, he was the only relative I had who let my band practice in his living room.
Ralph lived in Benton Heights, Michigan, which was a town full of hillbillies. No kidding—ten thousand people lived in this suburb of Benton Harbor and ALL of them were from families that had migrated north to work in factories after the cotton went bad down South in the 1940s.
Ralph Watkins left Benton Harbor in 1979. He sold his TV repair shop in Michigan and used the proceeds to set up the same business in Nashville. I spent quite a bit of time with him down there in the 1980s, but hadn't been to Nashville in 20 years before the Long Drive.
Ralph had seen some sorrowful days. Besides losing his father, a son and a grandson had also passed away. His little brother Ray Allen died of a heroin overdose in 1985 at 31 years old. That was the first time I was a pall bearer. I saw Ray a couple weeks before he died in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he lived. He came out to see my band play there, and sat at a table right up front, dead center, by himself. At one point, I looked from behind my drum kit, and he was sobbing.
Ralph had been the victim of an armed home invasion a few years before I went to see him. The robbers had hit him so hard with the butt of a handgun that it broke his jaw and other facial bones.
Cousin Ralph invited me into his home, which sat on a ridge overlooking Happy Valley, just outside Nashville. There were only a few other homes on his road, and he had a huge picture window that offered a lovely view of wooded hills. We sat in lounge chairs all of one afternoon catching up on family lore and telling each other jokes. It was a wonderful visit. But he also shared with me that he felt the Watkins Family looked down on him and his children like they weren't good enough for the rest of us. I certainly never felt that way about them.
Though Ralph was in great spirits and seemingly good health when I saw him, a couple months later he developed serious stomach pains. At the hospital, he was told he had terminal liver cancer and would only live a few months. I think he died ten days later. He was 63. How grateful I am that I spent those days with Ralph.
Thus began one of the best parts of my Long Drive as I left Nashville and headed west 173 miles to see an old friend in Dyersburg, Tennessee. But I did not choose a straight route. There were quite a few places I wanted to see on the way.
Half of my family came from West Tennessee and I had spent several summers there as a boy. It had been forty years since I had been in the area and I wanted to see if I recognized any of it. My Grandmother's family goes way back around these parts. Ollie (Scates) Watkins was a saint and a prophetess.
My first stop was Hurricane Mills. My grandfather, Ray Watkins, used to take me fishing at the waterfall in the 1960s when all that was there was a Plantation House, and a little General Store with Post Office. Country singer Loretta Lynn later bought the burg, and the 3500 acres that surround it.
I drove through little Lobelville, where I worked one summer at my Dad and Uncle Ray's toolbox factory. When I reached Linden, I turned west on Highway 100. It was on this road, the stretch before Perryville, where I stayed several summers with Pap and Mamaw Watkins. I must have driven by their old homestead but it passed unrecognized by me, though I sure looked for it.
Ray "Pap" Watkins had left Michigan after he retired. He bought a place on 350 acres of wooded hills with two creeks running through it that you can drink out of—which we did.
My grandpa kept a sidearm. One day we stood on a bridge on Highway 100 overlooking one of his creeks. As we peered down we saw a water moccasin sunning itself on a rock. In the blink of an eye my Grandpa whipped out his pistol and shot the snake through the head and put the revolver back in its holster. It was like something out of the Old West. I was amazed that he could, seemingly without aiming, shoot that Cottonmouth through the head at maybe 50 feet in one shot.
Pap had a little cabinet making shop next to the house, where he built furniture and sometimes someone would pull off the road and buy a piece or two. He loved working with his hands; with wood. On occasion we would go down to courthouse and watch the old men whittle wood. Chert was discovered on Pap's land that was valuable for road building, and before long there were dump trucks rolling out of his hills all day.
Soon I came to the mighty Tennessee River, on which Pap used to take me fishing for Stripers in a tiny rowboat. I drove through Parsons, where we would get the mail, and then on to Chesterfield, where my father was born—in a house with a dirt floor where if it rained it rained on you through cracks in the roof. My Father was born without a name. The family called him Bobby until he was four when they let him pick his own name. He chose James.
I stopped in Lexington—the place my Dad calls his hometown—for some of its legendary barbecue. From there I drove north to Clarksburg, where Cousin Carla is from and whereas a toddler, I once spent a few days. I still remember it well. I heard a noise in the middle of the night and asked my dad, "What is that?" He informed me it was just chickens under the house.
I drove up to the pretty little town of Huntingdon, and then west to Humboldt where my aunt, uncle, and cousin Ken Frederick lived for many years. I drove through Jackson, the main city of this area, which has undoubtedly fallen on hard times. Then I pressed on to my destination, Dyersburg, where 17,000 people live.
David Wheeler played bass guitar in my first professional rock band; in the original lineup of White Summer. Our connections ran deeper than that. We were close friends who had attended elementary school together, and his father, Bud "the Deacon" Wheeler played guitar for a long time in the same country band as my Uncle Ray "the Professor" Watkins—the Pioneer Rhythm Boys. They toured in the 1950s, and had their own radio show. I cherish the tapes I have of those shows.
David Wheeler was a superb bassist, and he lay down wonderful tracks on the first White Summer album in 1976. A few years later, he left the band because he ran off with his 15-year-old cousin and his uncle swore to kill him. Thus, David and Laura disappeared together and I did not see David again for many years.
I know now that they hid in Taos, New Mexico; got married and had children. Why Taos I do not know; maybe because nobody would have thought to look for them there. At some later juncture, his beloved wife committed suicide, which left David shaken to the core.
David's mother had left Benton Harbor and moved to Dyersburg and all five of her children eventually joined her there. I had a wonderful time visiting David. We went to a Mississippi River gambling boat nearby at Caruthersville, Missouri—my mother's hometown to which I had never been before. My Mother and my Father grew up 100 miles from each other but never met until after both of their families left the South in the 1940s and moved to Michigan.
The Bootheel of Missouri
I left Dyersburg and crossed Ol' Man River—the Mighty Mississippi—the river that bifurcates the United States, and entered the State of Missouri. I explored Caruthersville, a town of seven thousand, which was separated from Tennessee until a bridge was built in 1976—the first one to ever cross the Mississippi River from Cairo, Illinois to Memphis.
I drove west through Hayti, a town of 3,000. As a teenager, my Mom was named the Queen of Hayti. I went through Senath, where 2,000 folks live. My Grandpa Watkins grew up there until he struck out on his own at 13. Grandpa Watkins was born (1898) in nearby Kennett, a city of eleven thousand. He died in 1972. Sheryl Crow is from Kennett, so don't say the American Dream is not still alive and well all across this great land.
I checked out Steele, MO, a town of two thousand, where my mom's mom was born Pearl Mollett in 1915. I cruised around little Hornersville, a town of 600, the home of the Coleman Clan, which includes my half-brother Tony and sisters Lisa and Debbie.
This was my first visit to both Pemiscot (liquid mud) County, where my maternal Grandmother is from; and right next door to Dunklin County, where my paternal Grandfather is from. There had no inkling each other existed when they lived in the Bootheel of Missouri.
The Bootheel of Missouri is so named because on a map it resembles the heel of a boot. It was described 100 years ago as "a flood plain full of bears and panthers and copperhead snakes, so it ain't safe for civilized people to stay there overnight even." The Bootheel developed a well-deserved reputation for remoteness and lawlessness; moonshining and bootlegging; rice and cotton.
Missouri became the 24th State in 1821. The Indian word "Missouri" means "people with big canoes." When it became a state the men there were mostly trappers, prospectors, fortune hunters, renegades, and pettifoggers. Street brawls were common and no one went outdoors without knives and pistols on display. The bugs and humidity were too overwhelming for most folks.
The Bootheel was hit hard by the New Madrid Earthquakes of 1811-1812. Towns and forests were flattened, rivers parted like the Red Sea, and the tremors were felt all the way to Virginia.
Hot Springs Arkansas
From the Bootheel of Missouri, I drove southbound around Memphis (which is in the extreme southwestern corner of Tennessee). Memphis was long the largest metropolis of its state, though it has been overtaken as of late by Nashville. The area boasts 1.3 million residents. Tourists come to Memphis to see the birthplace of the Blues—Beale Street—and the home of Elvis Presley Graceland.
I was on my way to Arkansas to see old family friends "Tank" Barker and his brother "Neil the Nose;" as well as my cousin Sharon June Watkins and her partner Jeannette.
Arkansas is covered with lakes, rivers, and forests. It is prone to intense thunderstorms and tornadoes. Along the Mississippi River, which forms the eastern boundary of the state, cotton has long been king. Arkansas is also known for poultry, eggs, hogs, soybeans, rice, and catfish farming. It is the home of Tyson Foods and Walmart.
I drove past Little Rock, the capital and largest city of Arkansas, located in the center of the state. About 877,000 live in the Little Rock area. I was headed to the fabled town of Hot Springs, home to only 39,000 people but larger than life in our national folklore.
Hot Springs is a spa town because of the million gallons a day that flow out of its 47 natural springs at 143 degrees Fahrenheit. It was first explored in 1673 by Father Marquette, the same man who founded my hometown in Michigan. The Yankees pillaged and burned Hot Springs in 1863, leaving it nearly deserted.
During the early 20th century, Hot Springs was known for hosting major league baseball spring training camps. Teams such as the Pittsburgh Pirates, Chicago Cubs, and Boston Red Sox brought their teams to Hot Springs to get the players in shape for the coming season. Babe Ruth could be seen walking the streets, visiting the bath spas, and gambling at the nearby horse track.
Hot Springs suffered a horrific fire in 1913 that nearly burnt down the whole town. Money from gangsters helped rebuild the city and in return crime syndicates were allowed to run illegal and legal gambling operations. Ten major casinos were open for business in Hot Springs from the 1920s through the 1940s. Prostitution was openly advertised in the newspaper.
In 1967, the gambling was closed down by the new Republican Governor Winthrop Rockefeller. Only Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred horse racing track south of downtown that opened in 1904, was granted a license. It is the only remaining gambling establishment in Hot Springs.
Tourists love to visit the eight historic bathhouses, each well over 100 years old, of Bathhouse Row. Two are still operating and one has been converted into a museum. Several downtown hotels and a hospital also use the natural thermal waters.
Clyde "Tank" Barker has been a family friend since before I was born. He got his nickname from being a fantastic fist-fighter who was as hard to stop as an army tank. He lived on country road outside Benton Harbor when I first met him, a couple miles from my house. His five boys and one daughter became good friends of mine. His daughter Susan is the first girl I ever kissed, and my first girlfriend—in the sixth grade. The oldest son Dennis was killed last year in New Hampshire in a motorcycle accident.
I hadn't seen Tank in the decades since he left Benton Harbor to relocate to Hot Springs until he suddenly showed up for the first time ever at the Watkins Family Reunion in 2008. He had arrived in Hot Springs relatively poor in the 1970s but become rich with a used car lot, especially by selling recycled telephone company vans.
When I was a young feller, Tank took a shine to me. He was the first person to tell me I had a fine voice and he gave me guitar lessons. At the Family Reunion, he said, "Why don't you come on down to Hot Springs to see me?" I had never been there.
I spent several days at Tank's home. It is easy to find. It is the one with a half mile long white fence. I intended to stay one night, but we were having such a hoot and holler that when he asked me to stay longer I did.
People treated Tank like a celebrity around Hot Springs. One night, we went to a country & western nightclub where I met a man who was from Greenville, Mississippi. One of my old bass players I had lost track of, Donnie Brown is from there. The man not only knew Donnie but told me Donnie had moved back to Greenville, and he had just seen him two weeks before.
Tank's brother Neil "the Nose" Barker was once married to my momma. I spent a day with him at the horse track—the first time I had ever been to a horse racing track. Neil lived in a rundown old trailer park with another brother of his right across the street from Oaklawn Park but I've heard he has since struck it rich somehow and moved into a mansion.
My cousin Sharon June left Benton Harbor in the 1970s after a two day marriage that she says convinced her she is a lesbian. She has been with her partner Jeanette for 40 years. I spent a day with them, and we had a big ole time. Now they are both chronically ill.
Sharon June and I had always been very close until last year. She was an avid reader of my Hubs, but she got angry over my articles in HubPages about the Homosexual Movement and the Homosexual Agenda. She knew how I felt about it before the Hubs were published. I always accepted her in spite of her worldview because I love her. But I guess that is not a two way street.
I left Hot Springs headed east, to begin the over 1,000 mile ride back to Orlando. I had one stop left, to see my Uncle Willie Frederick in Hackleburg, Alabama. That was 350 miles away.
I drove through Stuttgart, Arkansas (population 10,000), a city that calls itself the "rice and duck capital of the world." It is home to the world's largest rice miller, Riceland Foods. I think I have some distant relatives there.
I crossed the Mississippi River at Helena into the State of Mississippi. I was now in the "Mississippi Delta," the "Home of the Blues." Helena has a population of 6,000, is 68 percent black, and the birthplace of Conway Twitty—my Mother's favorite singer.
I went through Oxford where 14,000 people live among the campus of "Ole Miss," the University of Mississippi. I cruised through Pontotoc, home to 6,000 people among whom are relatives on my mom's side named Lassiter that I've not met. Then I toured Tupelo, a city of 35,000 and the birthplace of Elvis the Pelvis. Before long, I crossed into Alabama.
Mississippi became the 20th State in 1817. Around 1800, not much was there except some Creek Indians, varmints, and piney woods. But the future State of Mississippi had the best land in America to grow cotton, with a sultry, damp, year-round growing season. It was in the midst of that cotton patch that the new state capital arose in 1820, Jackson.
Mississippi grew from 31,000 people in 1810 to 75,000 in 1820 to 131,000 in 1830. Nearly all these folks were of British stock and most were Baptists. "The cultural divide was between rich and poor more than between black and white," to quote historian Walter A. McDougall.
According to McDougall, "Poor whites and slaves both worked the soil with their hands and made their own yokes, furniture, spinning wheels, and musical instruments. They shared folk tales, tall tales, ballads, and spirituals, creating that mix of English, Scots-Irish, and African moods and rhythms that in time produced Muddy Waters and Elvis Presley alike."
Alabama became the 22nd State in 1819. About the year 1800, hardly any whites were in Alabama except in a few little rustic settlements around Mobile Bay, populated by Spaniards, Brits, and traitors.
Alabama is an Indian word for "thicket-clearers." After Andrew Jackson defeated the Red Stick Indians in 1814 at Horseshoe Bend, a treaty was signed that granted half the land in Alabama to white settlers.
The pioneers came mostly from Tennessee and Georgia—128,000 in just five years. They were mostly yeoman farmers who lived on wild game and corn—corn grits, corn fritters, corncakes, cornbread, and cornpone. There were very few slaves; some farmers had one or two. Most everybody wore homemade clothes or animal skins. The only law and order was your own musket.
Huntsville, Alabama was where the suddenly and amazingly wealthy congregated. By 1818, it was written that "Huntsville featured 260 brick three-story houses of better construction than those in Baltimore or Philadelphia."
This was to be my first visit to Hackleburg, population 1,400, the hometown of country singer Sonny James. But its name had been in family folklore all my life because several men from that little town had married into my family after coming north to Michigan.
Uncle Willie Frederick
My Uncle Willie Fredrick was married for around fifty years to my Dad's older sister Rue, who was known to all as Aunt Cherry. Uncle Willie showed me what a real man was when my Aunt Cherry had a severe stroke and spent the last 14 years of her life flat on her back, unable to move anything but her head. Uncle Willie lovingly cared for her that entire time all by himself, though insurance would have hired professional help. She didn't want strangers in the house, and neither did he.
I went to see them in their Michigan home a couple years before she finally succumbed. There was a picture on the coffee table of their three sons next to the couch where Aunt Cherry lay. It was made when the boys were young men and I leaned over and told her, "Aunt Cherry, you sure had three handsome sons." She could only whisper but she said, "I had four handsome sons," as she looked me straight in the eye.
Uncle Willie winters these days in Hackleburg with his sister Lovie and her husband, unless he is in Sebastian, Florida with his son Ken, who is married to my sister Lisa. Ken and Lisa began their romance at our family reunion. Shades of Jeff Foxworthy!
I spent the night with Uncle Willie, Sister Lovie, and her husband Walter Jaggers, whom I did not think I knew. Boy was I surprised!
As I sat down to visit with these fine folks I came to find out that Walter and Lovie Jaggers had lived in my hometown long ago. They knew me as a boy because Walter was Pastor Jaggers of a Baptist Church I had attended many times. He had personally picked up my little half-brother and sisters (the Colemans) and driven them to church countless occasions (I didn't live with them). Then I found out he is the uncle to Kerry Jaggers, who was married to my beloved cousin Kathy Baker Jaggers. Kathy was like a sister to me. She died a few years ago at 46 of cervical cancer.
The next day was Sunday, and I went to church with them. Pastor Jaggers had been coaxed out of retirement by a little congregation way out in the country that had no preacher. The 20 or 30 souls there were all over 70. One of them said to me, "It's nice to see some young people come to our church."
The Long Way Home
The last leg of the Long Drive was 658 miles. It took me through Birmingham, population 1.1 million, home to a quarter of Alabama's people. Birmingham is one of few major southern cities not founded until after the Civil War (1871). It came to be the industrial center of the South; famous for mining, iron, and steel. Its original settlers were from Birmingham, England.
I drove right through the heart of the state capital, Montgomery, where 375,000 make their home. I went through Columbus, Georgia (population 450,000), the home of Fort Benning. The last major cities in Georgia on my route were Albany (population 77,000), and Valdosta (population 140,000).
My drive across Georgia was to come in the middle of the night, past midnight. From my map, I decided on a shortcut down the two-lane US 82 through Dawson. This proved to be the most deserted road I have ever been on in the dark. It was pitch black out in the country between towns.
So I am zipping along at a high rate of speed that I won't specify; no other cars are within sight. Suddenly a mountain lion runs right in front of me, and it is killed. I had never seen a mountain lion before. It must have weighed over 150 pounds. I kept going, with my fender hanging off the car, rubbing gently on my right front tire.