I went for a nighttime stroll down an old familiar sidewalk a week or so after the hurricane. The damaged neighborhoods of Pear Street were lit more by the growing moon than the occasional proof of generator electricity. I wished that a lot of the well-known old timers— who have now gone on, who use to live down that way— were around to talk about what has happened to this place that I call home. I know that many of them loved the neighborhoods and the streets and the town as much as I do. So, I guess that the disfigured beauty out in the chilly darkness was colored with a little melancholy for me on that night. I could feel something that I believed to be the spirit of the town all around me, as I walked. I stopped for a moment and asked the town if it was going to be alright. And I was sad at the thought of certain trees that I will never see again, the always present buildings that will probably have to be torn down— and the people, and the good old days. I said a little prayer. I remembered to have some faith. Then I made my way back through the dark night, still using my flashlight to guide me, this time to the place where I had parked the car. I soon took the road toward home, with a sleepy head and a heart slowly becoming comforted; realizing that tomorrow is another day, carrying with it the hope that will hopefully grow from a clear blue sky. . .
Early in the history of our fair city, there was erected a special gathering place; a place of blinking amber lights and bright posters and pretentious, longed-for confections; a place that beckoned to visitors from town and countryside. This enchanted location was called The Eagle Theatre. The well-loved attraction was first opened for business sometime in the 1920’s. It was where the large, fancy gazebo along Central Avenue now stands; and for many decades was a wondrous, flickering Mecca for hoards of local movie goers.
Not only was it the host to many an old cowboy and mystery film; but the stage was often utilized by small one-night-only travelling shows, like a live wrestling troupe or authentic Hawaiian Tiki dancers. And cinema stars from that era would sometimes make appearances there to promote their movies- Bobby Blake, Roy Rogers, Bob Steele, Tex Ritter, Fuzzy Saint John, to name a few.
Jim Kearce recalls that back in 1947 when he turned twelve, his dad started giving him thirty-five cents for the regular weekend show, instead of the nine cents for a children’s ticket that he use to pay. Even so, Jimmy pretended like he was still eleven when he went. He would reach in his pocket and give the owner’s wife (Eloise- she sold the tickets) his dime, and she would hand him back a penny and a ticket. Then he would give his ticket to R. L. Bailey, the owner. (The Bailey’s had a daughter who was around Jimmy’s age, so Mr. Bailey was suspicious.) Jimmy would use the penny in change and the quarter that was still in his pocket to buy himself and his friends popcorn and RC’s.
He ran this little mischievous, personal scam week after week; for months, actually- being twelve years old while getting in at eleven and under prices. He said he believed that a devil was on one shoulder and an angel was on the other. He could always hear the devil say, “But, she doesn’t know that you had a birthday.” Then one night, Mr. Bailey raised a stern eyebrow and vehemently asked, “Jimmy, when are you ever gonna be twelve?” Jimmy’s eyes bulged and he said, “Next week!”
Years and years later, my kindergarten class had an early morning field trip to watch “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.” It was 1968. The bus parked right next to the sidewalk at the very front of the theatre; and we all walked hand-in-hand into that place of wonder; calm and well-behaved on the outside, but exited and about to burst on the inside.
I had never been to a movie before and I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen: the daring, out of control car race; all the songs; the sweets factory scenes; the old, eccentric grandfather; the fantastical home of the main character, and all his inventions; the life-sized music box deception; and the absolute creepiness of that sinister child catcher with his giant butterfly net, somehow luring children into his wagon with sugary words and the hopes of candy- in spite of everything seeming so very wrong about him. The spasmodically flashing lights from the massive screen in that dark and narrow room were magical to me, somehow.
But perhaps the best story to ever come out of the old Eagle Theatre was something that shocked and caught everyone off guard one night long, long ago. The story goes that late on a Friday, back in the early 1940’s, the place was packed for a new Roy Rogers western flick that had just come out. All that were present were on the edge of their seats as Roy valiantly fought the bad guys- shooting and punching and outsmarting; trying to maintain justice in his small, dusty, one horse town.
There was a particular woman sitting in the cramped balcony, on the front row. She was a huge Roy Rogers fan, and was completely caught up in all the action; drawn into the movie like she was right there. At some point near the end of the show, as the local crowd held its collective breath, a villain (with his pistol aimed to kill) started to sneak up on the cowboy hero when the cowboy hero wasn’t looking. Unable to take it any longer, that same woman high in the balcony jumped out of her seat and hollered, “LOOK OUT ROY!”
With her arms erratically flinging the alarm, she jerked at an extreme and awkward angle as she yelled out to Roy, and lost her balance. She then doubled over the waist-high banister that was in front of her and let go a panicked scream. THEN her legs kicked up behind her, causing her to exit the balcony all together. The enthusiastic and unfortunate fan cartwheeled through the air and landed with a hard crash onto the preoccupied crowd that was ten feet below. No one was seriously hurt, but there was a lot of talk for quite some time about what ended up being the most exciting part of the show that night- of any night, probably.
Unfortunately, sometime in 1972, the theatre caught on fire. Leann Shoemake said that her mom actually signed her out from school to go and watch. The news of it spread quickly, and almost everyone was already there when she and her mom pulled up- out on the sidewalks and in the street, as they helplessly watched an icon burn away to ashes. It had been abandoned for a while before then, but the loss was still very profound for the whole town.
It was never determined how The Eagle Theatre was destroyed. Some say that a local vagrant got careless with an initially harmless flame meant for a scant, unimpressive little meal- or maybe a cigarette. And now, the memories and the stories are all that remain of the long-lost Central Avenue legend; the place where cowboys and Saturday night monsters and travelling side shows made indelible marks on the imaginations of every man, woman, and child who ever chanced to survey that fantastic, flickering stage. . .
I was recalling, a few days ago- since it is coming nigh to that anticipated graduation season, once more- the unfortunate instance of a particular glitch in the ceremony of 1988, on Bowle’s Field.
I was there that evening, along with a thousand or more citizens, friends, and proud parents and family members of that year’s high school graduating class. It was a splendid scene. Ornate urns were filled with ferns and masses of beautiful gladiolas. Birds were reveling in the warm, breezy, late afternoon air. Relatives and guest speakers were clothed in their Sunday best. The graduating seniors were adorned in burgundy-red, tasseled, medal-laden robes. Last minute gifts, and envelopes filled with crisp dollar bills, were imparted. Elaborately embossed programs were bestowed unto the masses. Decorative ribbons were festooned and hung from rose-covered lattice. The Processional was completed. Many kind introductory words were spoken. The school band played the appropriate tunes, and the chorus sang an ancient hymn.
But when it came to the part where the top scholar was giving the much anticipated Valedictory Address, we all could hear what sounded like a low, grating, far away noise slowly encroaching upon our esteemed event. We soon realized that the municipal mosquito truck was to blame. And as it finally approached the football field, the irritating and continual racket of it was almost deafening. In addition to the rude, blaring interruption, it was (sadly) doing the very thing that a mosquito truck is suppose to do- spread large amounts of toxic, bug-killing gases.
The speaker ignored it as best he could and continued with his inspiring words, while the unwelcomed pest control engineer took his spewing, bellowing vehicle at a leisurely pace; down not one, but two roads that were adjacent to the ball field. And the longer the driver loitered, as the sun sank low in the western sky; the more was the volume of the thick poisonous fog that descended upon and spread out across the crowd in their bleachers, as well as the graduates and dignitaries that were positioned on the grassy gridiron of that fledgling June.
The spectral white, deadly mist barely crept above the well manicured turf, and then simply hung there- suspended in the atmosphere for a while. It was nearly ten minutes before the sound of the bug truck dwindled away to the point where it was no longer a distraction- as it searched for other neighborhoods; but the lethal effects lingered.
You would’ve thought that the driver might have eventually caught on, or someone would have rushed to stop him, but neither ever happened. I even heard that the following year gas masks and hazmat suits were issued to all of the loved ones and well-wishers as they entered the stadium. Even so, there would never be another mosquito truck incident. Some say that the driver was secretly bound and gagged in a boiler room somewhere- maybe in the courthouse basement, until that next spring’s ceremony was completed. And in a few short years after, it was decided (by the powers which be) that it would be far less risky to just hold the much respected ceremony indoors. They have been held indoors ever since. . .
When I was a young boy growing up on Pear Street, I remember all the early hours where my sister and I would sit in the kitchen before school, as we ate our oatmeal and bacon. The dial was always turned to WKMK, the local radio station. That station was such a regular part of our routine that the announcers seemed like family. A person could find out about the day’s weather, the community events that were coming up, who had recently died, hear the latest information of local advertisers, and give a listen to all of that wonderful and exciting music from back then, when flower children and small town heroes ruled the airwaves.
The station, which always had an AM and FM component, if memory serves, went through a format change or two over the decades, since its broadcasting began sometime in the mid-1960’s; from sixties/seventies rock and pop, to classic country, to new country, to southern gospel/occasionally contemporary Christian, and now back again to the same music that it started with- they call it classic rock these days. But regardless of the variations, it has had an influence on me that I simply cannot overlook.
I remember hearing the mesmerizing chords of Bridge Over Troubled Water wafting out from Mrs. Shiver’s open window next door- just after a Maloy’s Grocery commercial had been on, on a gloriously breezy day when I was about four years old. I was playing outside- trying to catch a few grasshoppers to put in an old mason jar- but I immediately stopped what I was doing and just listened to the words and harmonies, and the instruments. I remember how moving it was to be out there on such a serenely beautiful day, hearing that song. I was hooked! Years later, when I was maybe seventeen, the family moved in with my grandmother for a few weeks in the Fall; around the corner on Jeffry Street. One afternoon during that time, in Granny’s bedroom, a certain song came on WKMK- a haunting song that is (oddly) little known to this day. In fact, I have only ever heard it by way of our radio station three or so times from back then- no one else has ever played it, to my knowledge. It was an acoustical guitar-driven ballad called Half Moon Silver. It was so beautiful and stirring and somber that I got a lump in my throat as I listened. Hearing that song on that day continued to shape my appreciation and aspirations for music, and created for me another strong and beloved memory- it was because of our local station that I ever heard it.
And after so much time has now passed, the station that still sits at the quiet end of Kelly Avenue (now known as WYBT, situated at 98.1 on the FM dial) continues to tell of the weather, the local news, and the events and special information that pertain to our little town. And it continues to foster my love for music, just like it did on that long ago day with my grasshopper jar. But it’s not only the music. It is also a comforting thing to hear all the familiar voices of the town folk interacting with the announcers on the Swap Shop every morning; the sounds of all their friendly banter drifting around the corners of the rooms, looking to find old tools, or used clothing, or kittens, or whatever else they might have or need. I guess for me, the local radio station is something that is always there, either obviously or somewhere in the background, influencing me and comforting me in ways that I am sometimes probably not even aware of. It’s kind of like the musical score for my life, and helps keep me connected to all of the people and sidewalks and hidden treasures of this place that I call home. Thanks WYBT for the memories, and thanks for your continuing presence in our community. You’re doing GREAT!
This blistering summer was so rainy and overwhelmingly humid that nearly everybody around town was talking about it. Most likely, any or all of you were part of one of those conversations. I guess that it’s hard not to talk about what you have to deal with every day. But I, for one, have been sensing a change that’s coming. It usually happens every mid-August or early September for me. Maybe it’s the sparkling blue of the sky as the cirrus clouds hang up in the high altitudes, like gossamer strands. Or it could be the chip chip chipping of the mockingbird, choosing not to sing during the end of Dog Days, for whatever reason. And it might be the way that the narrow, lengthening shadows lay on the ground for most of the day. Or maybe it’s an occasionally cooler night that triggers the sense in me that Autumn is around the corner.
But what is it that makes the Fall of the year so welcomed, so anticipated, and in a lot of cases so longed for? It depends on the person, I guess, but in the minds and hearts of many it probably has something to do with the prospect of home town football; the turn in the temperature; the leaf change that comes around November; or the mystery of a foggy glow at midnight. It could also have something to do with the far-off sound of shotguns on a Sunday afternoon; ghost stories; the woody, mellow smell of burning yard litter; or the farmers’ market on a Saturday. And it might be something about that derelict old shanty at the end of the lane; the local dollar store’s aisles filled with Halloween candy; seeing the last golden flower nodding its tired head, far away in an abandoned field; or the incredible food and history associated with Thanksgiving that sends the mind racing.
This past Sunday I was watching FOX News while getting ready for church, and a Marie Calendar frozen turkey dinner commercial came on. Then I looked out through the front window at a beautiful morning, and thought about the hint of Fall that I have noticed these last couple of days. I immediately got to thinking about cornbread dressing, sweet potato souffle, gravy and mashed potatoes, congealed salad, squash casserole, biscuits, brownies and chocolate chip cookies, ambrosia, tender speckled butter beans, a honey roasted ham, laughter, and turkey of course.
Fall is a time for remembering, anticipating, and experiencing all those beloved notions that our thoughts can conjure; whether it’s the delight of great Thanksgiving fare, or any of the other much adored things that are connected with the season. But Autumn is also about a lovely dying away, when the world prepares for a well-deserved change; a comforting change that has been achingly awaited, like an old friend returning from being a long time away from home. Autumn is a season when we are all reminded, once again, just how awe-inspiring it can be to experience something as simple as a high school football game, or a forgotten pumpkin vine out at the old fattening pen, or the clusters of glittered leaves and acorns on the thrift store shelf; and then to get caught up in the overwhelming wonder of it all. So, please come quick Thanksgiving and Halloween and leaf change and cooler conditions; and all the rest that there is to love about the soon-to-come season of wonder. . .
Since this little tale deals with the belief in hocus pocus- a topic which is often seen by many as an embarrassing pursuit; and a black spot upon one’s ancestry, concerning those from the past who were connected to it- most all of the names have been left out of the forthcoming account:
I recently heard this story where, back in the late, late 1940’s or early 1950’s, there were several gypsies who lived for a while in a little woodframe house where the Fairpoint building on Main Street is now located, here in Blountstown. There was a very superstitious townswoman that would take her grown daughter (who happened to live right around the corner from those palm readers) along on a regular basis to get their fortunes told.
Before too long, the gypsies started warning the two women that they were going to bleed out, that all of their food would turn sour in their stomachs, and all other kinds of horrible curses, if they ever told anyone of the subjects of their meetings. It seems that those small town witches were telling tales from the past, controversial tidings of then current affairs, and forthcoming prophecies, on much of the citizenry. Then one morning, the matron of the darksome clan told the mother that unless she gave them $12,000, she and her whole family would die after sunset that same day! The mother was so convinced of their supernatural powers that she immediately and frantically headed to the bank for the requested money.
Meanwhile, another of her daughters got a telephone call from Hilma Barbee, who worked at the bank in question- the Bank of Blountstown; it was a large, red brick building situated on the northeast corner of the present-day downtown fountain park. (Hilma had called because she was aware of the mother’s withdrawal, and believed the transaction to be highly unusual- such a large sum.) This daughter quickly notified her sister- the one who had been in on the meetings with the gypsies from the start. They then telephoned the sheriff, and headed that way.
The two made it to the den of thieves just in time, as their mother had arrived a few minutes before. The original daughter made her way to the back room, pushed aside the strings of purple beads hanging in the doorway, and grabbed the bag of money from the clutches of the head chiromancer- after shoving her against the wall. In just a minute or two the sheriff showed up, but was told that everything was alright, so he soon turned around and left through the front door. And just as fast, the small band of gypsies scrambled together to get in their vehicles and high-tailed it out of town, as they were already loaded up for a quick getaway once they had the money in hand, even though this time- they didn’t. They were never seen again.
Now that is a pretty cool small town story. It is a good example of “you just can’t make this stuff up.” Who knew that Blountstown had such crazy goings-on back in the day?
This is what December is like in my neck of the woods. . . red and umber/gold leaves from the hardwoods, as they rest beneath the planted pines, along the roads and endlessly white cotton fields; days in the 60’s and nights in the 30’s; clear and vivid blue skies, with an occasional cirrus cloud, up where it’s cold; long shadows all day long; mysteriously foggy nights; verdant citrus trees full of kumquats and satsumas; frost on the ground in the mornings; burgundy sunsets; lighted decorations on the town’s power poles; nighttime store windows, glowing with quietly peaceful holiday cheer; crunchy brown leaves on tan colored lawns, pecans littering the scruffy grass, out in the grove; salmon-tinted roses making one last show in front of the neighbor’s home- before Christmas and the chilly winds arrive; church program practice; the Baptist and Methodist cantatas; and the smell of woody smoke on a lazy afternoon. Even though we don’t have snow, December is a beautiful sight to behold in our part of the deep, deep south. And Santa still comes down nearly every chimney, and the prettiest sight on Christmas Eve night is a dollar store Jesus, with his parents and some sheep and a camel by His side; shining in a plastic manger, out under a star-scattered midnight.