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(or, coming of age in the Deep South in the early 1970s with the likes of Gov. Jimmy Carter, James Brown, Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, the specter of Dick Nixon’s pal Bebe Rebozo, the ghost of General Mad Anthony Wayne, a Kervorkian electro-shock pioneer, and, of course, the Allman Brothers, all on the periphery, as a corrupt Georgia Vice Cop goes after a commune of gonzo, kudzu rebels in redneck country).
I walked into the dark, dull interior of the courthouse in Augusta, Georgia with my buddy Bill Bryan. Bill was a six foot 5 or 6 tall newspaper reporter at the local paper, a good one, and he would hide me out when I got to town. Normally, when the police force, not to mention the stinking political structure of the whole damned town, was out in force like this he would ask me to approach the situation cautiously.
Today, I walked with a swagger. Like, fuck all of ‘ya. And then I saw him in one of the corners, preparing for the courtroom, huddling with a slimy lawyer and that big-assed, sweaty, Sargent Durland, the dumbest fucking vice cop on the planet. Yea, that was him, and he slid a look my way, dressed in an Italian Suit, fancy for Augusta, his perpetual shit-eating smirk subdued. The head of the Vice Squad, Buck Kent. It was 1975.
Buck Kent. For two years in the early 1970s, he would chase me, hound me, try to arrest me, try to plant drugs on me, destroy where I lived, try to get me in a fist fight with three cops looking on (“just you and me”), maybe have me killed if he had the chance. Ultimately, I guess, he defined me. In the end, I paid a price. So did he.
I thought of Buck the other day, an eon later, when my two kids were listening to another fly-by-night pop group on the car radio, with lyrics that said, “And make the real world stop hassling me”. As I was chauffeuring them to school, they were both whining again about something, and arguing about a hairbrush, as I was juggling English corrections in one hand, trying to understand a teacher’s comments. One was turning up the hassle song, and the other was mad about something, busy listening to some band called Wet Worm Spooge, or something like that, on her CD-earphone set.
“Oh, you kids today”, I said. “If only you knew how difficult life was back in the old days (and stop gagging like that), when, by god, you had to earn the right to screw off.”
Yes, I thought of the old days again, so I decided to tell them a little story (albeit a sanitized version) about a different time, my early years, when life was different
It All Starts With.
I guess it all started in a small northern Georgia town in the Appalachians. Chattsworth, Georgia. It’s somewhere east of Dalton and used to be 1-2 hours north of Atlanta. It was the fall of 1970. It was a beautiful fall Sunday morning, the kind of mountain colors that may not exist anymore, red clay and bright red and yellow leaves in the trees. I was 19, taking a walk in the hills, humming a country-funk boogaloo. I met two girls, probably 15 or 16, for 10 minutes. They had convinced me they were going to split for Atlanta, then the Mecca of the Allman Brothers, mescaline-laced Jim Beam and wild-eyed southern “hippie chicks” in Piedmont Park and the infamous Peachtree Street, and they wanted to know if I had any pot for sale. I gave them a quarter ounce baggie of marijuana I had bought in south Florida for my ultimate trek to the West Coast, Mexico and points south.
Over the last year, I had blown four ill-fated quarters at Georgia Tech. There had been a good beginning…I joined the four-square brothers at Sigma Chi, a fairly good frat (and essential in order for any hope for cooked meals for four years at GT). Later, though, I was inducted into a second brotherhood the “engineers on acid” brigade. I think it happened at the Atlanta Pop Festival that summer of 1969, listening to Tommy James and the Shondells sing “Crimson and Clover, Over and Over” (over and over). I was a ramblin’ wreck from Georgia Tech, and not much of an engineer. I failed miserably at calculus, after trying to take a final while tripping, the equations spreading from the paper onto the walls and ceiling.
So, there I was, a year later, walking around in a friendly daze in north Georgia, in my long hair and plaid shirt and jeans, transferring pot to two deputies’ daughters who were there on the dad’s instructions to set me up. I wished them well and walked back to my Great Aunt Kate’s big house– a former hotel in the middle of the small town—, day dreaming of the Andes, and ready to take a little mid-Sunday nap.
Great Aunt Kate Wright Raines was a nurse on native American reservations in the West for thirty some odd years. She was a stern and good woman. She believed in me, though I had offered little to show for it.
Her house was (and is), literally, a national landmark, built in the early 1900s by great granddad Wright as the first hotel in the one-track town. Her home was a three-story red brick building, surrounded by white columns, a white veranda and a broad porch, settled by old rocking chairs. It was a remarkable place, a mix of dark walnut and mahogany antiques, many hand-made by Mr. Wright, and native wallhangings, hand woven rugs, Navajo baskets and art that the kids had given Kate over the years.
The Wright’s family lineage included a member of the Wright Brothers family (my middle name), who somehow hooked up in Tennessee with a descendent of General Mad Anthony Wayne of Revolutionary War fame (a guy who, under Washington, understood only two words: attack, attack). They married into the Holbrooke family; my great-grandmother Wright was a Holbrooke, half-Cherokee, her grandfather having hid out in the Appalachians during the Trail of Tears. My great grandfolks, the Wrights, moved to northern Georgia in 1899-01.
Sixty-nine some odd years later, I was awakened by a knock on the door of a second floor room of the old Wright Hotel where I slept, a deep sleep like no other, dreaming of sweet Colombian mountain women, in my favorite room filled with a deep red carpet, brass bed and old paintings on the wall. I was surprised by Kate’s introduction of the 60-something kindly county sheriff in Chattsworth, who wanted to know what was in a small bag he held. I looked at Kate, who was fear-stricken, and who realized, as I explained to the law officer, that, well, yes, it was illegal. I gave him the other eight or so ounces of the only pound I ever bought. He apologized as he told Kate he had to take me over to the courthouse.
Well, when it was all said and done, I embellished a story for the special investigators who came up from Atlanta to test whether I was there to set up a new drug ring to cover the (until then) virgin northern rings around Atlanta, telling them I bought the pot from a Mr. X, a strange man I met at the Miami airport where I worked that summer. Never saw him again, I promised.
Later, we reconstructed what happened. I had pissed off said deputies when I complained that they had been peeling wheelies outside Kate’s house one Friday night. They had woken me up. I had walked to the sheriff’s headquarters and, stupidly, filed a complaint, asserting that cops should have to follow the same rules as every other citizen.
Between my Great Aunt and my Dad, who called on his former Baptist teacher who also became Governor, Carl Sanders, I was spared hell and damnation. But, I was still punished. Instead of going to jail, or being forced to work on the road gang, something almost worse. I was placed on probation for two years, and forced to return to my home, a place I had been trying to get out of for years. Augusta, Ga.
Back to Augusta
Augusta, Georgia. Home of James Brown, the Masters Golf Tournament, Brenda Lee (Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree), Ft. Gordan, Tobacco Road, a shallow, rocky stretch of the Savannah River, and Clark’s Hill Lake, a reservoir scraped from red clay and mud banks after the Savannah was dammed, and, like many other cities, farmlands and highways in the south, now under continual attack and encroachment from the legions of Confederate kudzu vines. There were a few other people who kept their place of birth quiet. And not much else.
Cliff Roberts, the stiff (and hated) New York investment banker who co-founded the National with Bob Jones, called Augusta “a little tank town”, when reflecting on the club and tournament’s later glory, “I never thought it would be possible in a little tank town such as Augusta.” Meaning, a “disparaging phrasederived from the water tanks, identical and anonymous, existing only to dispense water for the train’s engines or for its sanitation.” (Curt Sampson, The Masters, Golf, Money and Power in Augusta, Georgia, Villard, 1998, 1999).
And, oh, yea. Dr. Cleckley. Cleckley probably epitomized Augusta the best during that time. He lived behind a spooky, gated wooded area in the upscale part of town. He was famous for being the psychiatrist who pioneered electric shock therapy, which had allegedly cured the Eve of the book and movie, “Three Faces of Eve”. In reality, Cleckley tried to kill the wrong personality, a fact uncovered after she had transmorphed into, eventually, two dozen or so rogue faces. Cleckley was doing a solid business in Augusta on referrals of wealthy parents to assist their slightly disturbed teen who had had a bummer of a trip or had grown their hair a tad too long. Many would be shocked beyond memory, and if you talked to them at school or wherever, they would acknowledge you like, haven’t I seen you before? Uhhgotta go, I’m late for Latin.
A friend of mine who visited his clinic once said it was full of young freaks, drug addicts and kids who were just a bit confused. Another friend of mine, a young rebel with a great personality, but with rich parents, took a visit. He came out a noodle, and never saw his current “bad” friends again. The words.”you might wind up in Cleckley”, or, “they’re gonna send you to Cleckley” would strike the fear of god in you. They say he was a pruny old man with coke-bottle glasses and wiry hair, and, supposedly, from what we heard, had a disarmingly warm demeanor. Kind of like a cross between Joyce Brothers and Kervorkian. The “Behavioral Health” Building at University Hospital in Augusta is named the Cleckley Building for the old succubus. Don’t go there.
Not that Augusta was any worse than any other thick neck town in the South in the 1960s and 70s. But it seemed extra snobby, mean and hypocritical, the buckle of the Southern Baptist bible belt, with the requisite Peyton Place underbelly. It was also a racist town that repressed blacks and the counter-culture, as miniscule as it was.
Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of great times growing up, lots of friends. Augusta had some of the most beautiful girls in the world, southern bellettes, with plenty of charm. With their peddle pushers and culottes when I was growing up in the 60s, they drove me crazy. However, for the last few years living there, I was planning to leave.
Changing Times, Places
My parent’s divorce finally came after Dad knocked up a “groupie” he met while presiding as Grand Boo Ha of the Georgia Elks. My mom would stick us in the car almost every weekend in the summer, for weeks at a time when possible, and holidays, etc., to get the hell out of town and escape to Savannah, my mom’s home.
These were years of mom dating nice guys who didn’t make the cut. One was a fat guy named Mr. Best, the nephew of a wealthy businessman in town, who always brought immense stashes of ice cream and cake for us three kids. We thought, hey, marry this guy.
If Augusta was saddle oxford two-tone shoes and little symbols on golf shirts in the 60s, Savannah was hush puppies, sun-bleached hair, and surfboards. Savannah people were cool, laid back. They had the beach. The Savannah coast and islands were a small piece of low-country heaven and the kids didn’t seem so stuck up.
My grandmother Lillian had a dockhouse on the Little Ogeechee River, on a tiny island, a place reached after driving miles through old oak trees draped with spanish moss, across a causeway, set in salt marsh and miles of brackish rivers, full of blue crab and shrimp, and occasionally dolphin, sand shark and sting ray. Even water moccasin could swim in brackish water, but, thank god, usually didn’t. Grove Point is a small outcropping of trees in the middle of nowhere, where I spent many of my teen years, fishing and swimming in the river.
Savannah’s low-country style set it apart from the rest of the south, sort of a “little easy”, with “‘geechee” cultural vestiges–french coastal influences from the Arcadian nomads who eventually settled New Orleans–and “gullah” influences from African slave populations who were abandoned on coastal rice plantation islands during the Civil War. Savannah was behind the moss curtain, its’ character glimpsed at by the book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”.
But even as I longed to move away from Augusta, after the tenth grade, my mom finally re-married, and, at sixteen, my sister and I found ourselves in a two-prop plane circling over a reefer-strewn, azure ocean island, landing on a small runway on an island paradise. Mom married a golf pro and we moved to the Bahamas! Wahoo! A big wheel, former head pro at Augusta National…home of the Masters. Gene was also Eisenhower’s golf teacher, and knew everybody in the world.
Freeport, Grand Bahama Island. My new stepdad became the pro at a course on Lucaya Beach, where we would live in a house in the middle of the course. While there, I made the most of it. I mean, it was 1967 in the Bahamas, we were picking up Hendrix on the new album-FM stations from Miami, and listening to calypso at the beach bars, which would serve anyone tall enough to reach the bar. Wholesale reefer was flowing across the island from Jamaica, smoked in big brown paper bag-rolled stogies when rolling papers were scarce. The junkanoo, the annual carnival, seemed to last year round. There were kids from all over the states and the world on the island, including some absolutely wild high school girls from Canada and Britain; and I was truly a young redneck in Paradise. Another story.
Being the serious idiot I was, though, I decided to return to Georgia to finish high school in the states in the 12th grade in order to have a chance at a serious college. Truth was, I had been dumped by my Bahamas sweetheart and would show her.
I spent the 12th grade in Augusta living with my Dad and his second wife, Carol (yea, that Carol). After the Bahamas, the frat and sorority society scene seemed like a different planet. Grass was taboo, except for the occasional trash reefer doobie that would show up to give a kegger party a twisted warp. I would jump on a train to Florida when I could and hop over to Freeport. During one such train trip, one of the black porters who looked the other way when I asked for a beer at the bar told me with heavy eyes that Martin Luther King had been shot and killed.
At the end of 1968, I went off to Atlanta to go to Georgia Tech to become an architect and get the hell out of Augusta. Well, we know how the college thing later turned out. I should have just stayed in the Bahamas.
So, after all said and done, I was headed back to Augusta once again. House arrest for two years, essentially. My probation officer read me rules: if I’m caught with “bad apples”, probation revoked; caught with drugs, probation revoked; caught with my hair growing too long
I lived the next year in mortal grief, hating the fact that I had to live with Dad and Carol. Carol was a big-haired, long-nailed…well, hick.
Though she tried hard to camouflage it, opening a dance school, it was not pretty. My Dad worked at the Savannah River Bomb Plant all his life. The bomb plant was a heavily guarded reservation in the boondocks where signs warned drivers to roll up their windows when driving through the steam coming off the streams. Dad would come home after a 5 am to 4 pm day and pass out in his room.
I once had to go with Dad and Carol to visit her family for some summer fun time. They lived a stone’s throw from where Jimmy and Tammy Baker set up the PTL Club, that money-grubbing evangelical psycho sect at the border of South and North Carolina. I thought Augusta and environs was redneck. These people were fuckin’ messianic dirt farmers.
(C) 2002 T.W. Croft