“THE NEWSMAN: A MEMOIR” – CHAPTER ONE
A horrible train-car accident led to my existence. Late at night, my father, aunt, sister, brother and grandmother were on their way home to Columbus, Georgia after spending Thanksgiving day, 1928, with my aunt’s side of the family in Macon. Just outside of Oglethorpe, Georgia, their car stalled at a railroad crossing as the Columbus-to-Macon passenger train bore down on them. My father and Aunt Sue jumped out and frantically pulled my sister Betty and brother Elbert out, and as my father was taking the children away from the scene, my aunt went back to the car to help my grandmother get out. The train hit, killing them both instantly, with Betty, Elbert and my father watching.
My sister told me that as she was standing there crying during the confusion of the aftermath, a huge well-dressed man who had been on the train, started comforting her. He took her in his arms and put her cold bare feet – she had taken off her shoes in the car – in his coat pockets. Then he carried her to the train and put her on it. She said she will never forget that man’s kind face. She and my father and brother rode the train into Macon, which also carried the bodies of the aunt and grandmother I would never know. The kind man who had come to my sister’s aid also rode on into Macon, but in a separate car, the one for “colored.”
As Daddy, Betty and Elbert were riding toward Macon; Daddy broke down and started crying. Betty, who was ten at the time, said Elbert, who was four, tried to comfort his father by saying, “I can dress myself now Daddy.”
Betty told me that after the accident, when my father would come home after he had worked as a clerk in a grocery store, he would sit by the fireplace in the living room and cry. That lasted for a few months, until he started courting Sara, Sue’s sister and Betty and Elbert’s aunt.
My mother, 18 at the time, decided she needed to take care of her niece and nephew. So she married her brother-in-law, soon to be my father. On October 2nd, 1930, she gave birth to me.
You could say that broadcasting and I grew up together in Columbus. Radio broadcasting was born in Columbus in 1928 in a dressing room of the brand-new Royal Theater when WRBL went on the air. I was born two years later in a small frame house on Britt Avenue in a section of East Wynnton which, with some notable exceptions, was made up mainly of lower-middle and middle-class whites, and some lower income blacks who lived in shotgun house ghettoes. The black females served as cooks and maids for the whites. Even many lower income whites had maids back then because they worked so cheaply. It was a better deal for working whites than they have now. The dirt cheap labor provided a clean house, a hot meal at lunch – people came home for lunch a lot then – another hot meal for supper (we didn’t call it “dinner” back then) and someone to tend the kids while their parents were at work. Parents pay a lot more now to keep their children in day care centers and almost no one has a full time maid and cook any more.
My memory starts after we moved into a small California style bungalow on the north side of Wynnton Road near the intersection of Wynnton Road and Hilton Avenue. Across the street in back of our house was the famous Hilton estate. You couldn’t actually see the home because it was hidden behind a blanket of trees. The Bickerstaffs of brick manufacturing fame lived there at the time. What impressed me about that home was the clay tennis court that was visible from the street. They let my older brother Elbert play on the court.
The first time I became aware that we lived so near the city limits was when I ran to the front porch one day to see why a police siren was screaming over the roar of a police motorcycle and a speeding car. Elbert explained that the speeding car was headed for the city limits because the city police couldn’t arrest the driver once he crossed the line.
Elbert, who was six years older than I, taught me a lot of things over the years. Oh, we had minor squabbles when we were young boys, but nothing major. Since he was so much older and smarter, nothing pleased me more than for him to actually play with me, which, because of our age difference, was rare. But, when it happened, it was quality. He was witty, seeing humor in just about any situation.
Our house was not only small, it was crowded with me, my mother, father, sister and brother, and, from time to time, out-of-work relatives. After all, we were in the grips of The Great Depression which everyone in my family said was caused by Republican President Herbert Hoover. Later, I learned more about Hoover and that he really was a good, compassionate man, and that Coolidge and a lot of other people like him, Republicans and Democrats, had more to do with causing the depression than Hoover. Back then about the only thing worse for whites in the South than a Damn Yankee was a Damn Yankee Republican. Now, as you know, the situation is reversed. Race was and is a potent political issue.
My father, like everyone else in the South, except for a few “post office” Republicans, was a Democrat. A “post office Republican” was a person in Dixie who admitted to being a Republican in order to be appointed as a postmaster when a Republican president was elected. That didn’t happen for the first twenty-two years of my life.
The only president I had known for my first fifteen years was Franklin D. Roosevelt, special in our area because he made Warm Springs his second home. He was a good Democrat, according to my mother, and Republicans were bad rich people who cared only about their wealth. I picked up all of that valuable information about Republicans from my mother. My father wasn’t as vocal about national politics, concentrating mainly on state races. He was a Talmadge man to the core. My mama was vocal about politics national and local, and didn’t hesitate to let all within earshot know her views right then and there. Usually, she would do it in such a way that she would have even those who disagreed with her laughing.
Daddy was one of the few men in our extended family who had a job for a number of years in the early 30’s. When relatives came to visit with suitcases in hand, they stayed a while. Since there was no welfare, families had to look out for their own.
One Christmas, after my mother and father had stretched their budget thin by seeing that all the visiting kids got something from Santa Claus, they discovered they had forgotten guess who. On Christmas Eve they left me in the care of my brother and sister, and along with other last minute chores, started looking for something for four-year-old me.
The stores had already closed but they found a barber shop open that had a cardboard toy circus for sale. They were up late punching out colorful flat sheets of cardboard and folding them into a circus bandwagon, lion cages, elephants and other circus paraphernalia. When I wandered sleepily into the living room on Christmas morning, I was greeted by a huge circus that was spread out all over the floor. It took my breath away. I had never seen such magnificence before. It was probably the most exciting Christmas morning I ever experienced. It might not have cost much, but what does a four-year-old know or care about costs?
I read in Columbus industrialist Bill Turner’s book, A Journey Toward Servant Leadership, that he and his sisters rode a short two blocks to WynntonElementary School in a seven passenger, chauffeured limousine. He was not in favor of arriving at school that way, but his mother insisted. He said she told them, “You are different.” Being probably the richest children in town definitely would make them different. Another big reason could have been the kidnapping threat that had been made on them by the father of one of my close boyhood friends. He ended up serving time for that act.
I lived about the same distance from the school on the eastern side. The Turner mansion was on the western side. Though I didn’t ride in a limo, I did have an escort. I was accompanied by a lovable bitch called Pat. She was part fox terrier and part who-knows-what. That remarkable canine walked to school with me every day. When we reached Wildwood Avenue, she just stopped and watched me cross the street onto the school grounds, then she would trot back home. When I got out of school and headed back home she would be waiting on her side of the road to accompany me. How in the world did she know when to come back to meet me?
I got off to a horrible educational start which haunted me all through elementary and high school, flunking the first half of the first grade. We had half grades, A and B, back then. My mother told me I was held back because the teacher, Miss Ramsey, said I was not mature enough and it would probably be better for me to repeat the first half.
The other kids did have an advantage over me. They had gone to kindergarten together. Wynnton was the first school in the state to have one. I missed out because I contracted pneumonia and almost died. My mother tried to make me feel better about missing it by saying, “All they do is play games and draw and color.” Actually, playing games and drawing and coloring sounded pretty good to me.
My classmates already knew one another and had the advantage of knowing to do what the teacher told them so they wouldn’t have to stand in the corner. When another kid acted up and got sent to the corner, I thought, “well that looks like fun,” so I acted up and Miss Ramsey sent me to another corner. I can remember her perplexed face when I made my bid to get in on the corner action. Maybe that’s when she decided “this child is not mature.”
My sister Betty loves to tell the story about trying to help me with my First Grade homework. She said that my mother would start working with me, but after a while she would become frustrated and turn me over to her. Betty said she would say, “Now that word is T-H-E. What is that word?” My answer would be, “I-on-know.” When she had all she could take she would hand me over to Elbert who ended up throwing up his hands. Betty said they all laughed about it.
When I was recovering from pneumonia, Betty said she and Elbert would pull me around in a little red wagon because it took a while for me to gain enough strength to walk very much again. I don’t remember that but I do remember burning up with fever and the searing mustard plasters that were put on my chest to loosen up the congestion in my lungs. Also, I vaguely remember going through the “crisis,” and the look of distress on my mother’s face. She told me later that the doctor had told her, “He is going through the ‘crisis’ now. If he makes it through, he’ll live. If not, he will die.” I guess that would put distress on any mother’s face.