It would be hard to imagine a stranger fate for a Stradivarius violin than for it to end up in the hands of a country fiddler who scratched out tunes on it at rural north Georgia hoedowns. But there is a very good chance that in years past exactly that occurred in Elbert County.
This is one of those unusual stories that sometimes glitter like gold flecks in the sands of a mountain stream when you take a ramble through old newspaper files. They might have attracted some notice when the ink was still damp, but since then they’ve just lain around waiting to be found again.
That was the case when research on a project led me to take a tour through 1944 by way of back issues of the Elberton Star. Antonio Stradivari and his instruments were the furthest thing from my thoughts − and then, suddenly, there they were.
According to an unsigned piece in the September 15, 1944 edition of the Star, the violin belonging to C.C. Dye of the Middleton community and bearing the inscription “Stadivarius” inside it had been in the Dye family for years. It had come to Georgia from Virginia in the late 1700s with Dye’s great-great grandfather, who had received the violin a bequest from an elderly mentor on the man’s death.
Mr. Dye himself did not play the violin, but it had been played by several in his family down through the years. By his recollection in 1944, though, it hadn’t been played in over fifty years. In those days, a sharecropper on his grandfather J.J. Dye’s place, J.D. Dubose, had regularly borrowed it to play at the sharecroppers’ barn dances. Scratched on the back of the violin, in fact, was “J.D. Dubose 1890.”
Antonio Stradivari is believed to have made just over 1,100 instruments at his shop in Cremona, Italy, over the course of his fairly long life (1644-1737). About 950 were violins, of which from 450 to 500 are believed to have survived.
Two things lend the ring of credibility to C.C. Dye’s violin being a genuine Stradivarius, three things really if we accept Mr. Dye’s story of the violin’s provenance and apparent age at face value (and there is no reason not to). One thing is the inscription described inside: “Stradivarius.” It’s the Latinized version of Stradivari’s name and it is indeed the inscription he used for all his instruments. The second clue that supports the notion of a genuine Stradivarius is that the “Stradivarius” inscription is all that was noted inside the violin.
By the early 1800s, copies of Stradivari’s instruments, bearing the name “Stradivarius,” were common. But European countries enacted laws that any such copies also be inscribed with the country of origin. And in 1890, the United States enacted a law that no such violins could be imported into the country if they didn’t bear such a label.
The Dye family story of how the violin came into their possession − and as I already noted, there seems no reason not to accept it − places it in their possession before the issue of unlabeled copies of Stradivari instruments became an issue anyone felt compelled to address by laws. So we’re left with there being a better than even chance, I think, that Mr. Dye’s “Stradivarius” was authentic.
(Was? Maybe is, if it still exists in some long forgotten box in a basement or attic. It would be worth the finding. In 2011, a Stradivarius violin in near pristine condition fetched $15.9 million at auction. Even in less than pristine condition, restored, you wouldn’t want to throw it away.)
If the violin is or was an authentic Stradivarius, then, no, I don’t think there could be an odder fate for one of the genius of Cremona’s instruments to have entertained at a rural Georgia sharecroppers’ hoedown.
One sketch I read years ago, but whose truthfulness I couldn’t attest to one way or the other, told of the youthful Stradivari being a frustrated violinist. He wanted very much to make a violin sing as the masters of the instrument could. He simply didn’t have the touch. He would at best never be more than a talented but ordinary player. The youngster had another talent, though; he could find in wood what the wood could become the way that Michelangelo is said to have seen his sculptures in a naked block of marble. A master instrument maker, Nicola Amati, recognized the boy’s talent and made him his apprentice. Today, few but music historians remember the teacher Amati but nearly everyone has heard of the student Stradivari. He couldn’t be the best at making a violin sing, but he could make violins that sang sweeter than any other in the right hands. Stradivari loved music both for the sake of the music and for the pleasure it gave those who heard it. Somehow I don’t think he would have minded if the music his violin made was for a Georgia sharecroppers’ hoedown.
I delight in finding lost chapters. These are the stories from the past that for one reason or another have been shoved into the dark, dusty corners of history where important pieces of the truth often lie. There to await the search for a related piece of the past to perhaps shed a little light their way. So it is with the story of the Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy.
The reverend emerged as a supporting character in the story of the eccentric political maverick William Patrick “Binks” Henry published on this website a couple of weeks ago, but he has a story in his own right that’s worth the telling. As in the case of Henry, the reverend isn’t mentioned in John McIntosh’s Official History of Elbert County published in 1940, and likely both omissions stem from the same two key reasons. For one, as valuable as his book is in some respects, McIntosh generally − not always, but generally − either glossed over or ignored entirely happenings that might not reflect well on the county. The stories of Henry and Kennedy wouldn’t, to be sure. Second, as is the case with myself, McIntosh was related by both blood and marriage to the then politically powerful Mattox-Allen-Heard family web that had opposed both Henry and Kennedy at various times. His telling the stories wouldn’t have reflected well on kinfolk. For better or worse, I have no such reservations. The facts are what they are, each a brushstroke that helps paint the true portrait of the past, warts and all.
Details about Kennedy’s past, particularly his exact age and place of birth, have defied ready discovery. We know, however, that he was still an active minister and educator in the late 1920s, so a year of birth possibly as far back as the mid to late 1860s or maybe the very early 1870s seems a good guess. He first emerges like a bombshell in the news in Elbert County in August 1895.
“T.L. Kennedy, a negro school teacher who had figured prominently in the affairs of the colored people of Elbert County for a year or so past, had his license revoked by Commissioner Wall last for immoral conduct,” related the August 8, 1895 edition of the Elberton Star.
The school commissioner, James Nunnellee Wall, who was also a farmer and Methodist minister, based his decision on a finding that Kennedy had “made a speech at Hull’s [Hulme’s] Chapel, a negro church near Ruckersville, which the commissioner claims was incendiary in character and calculated to engender strife and bad feeling between the races, and that will, if its injunctions are heeded, cause trouble and bring incalculable injury to the negroes of Elbert county [sic].”
The newspaper didn’t elaborate on the specifics of what Kennedy reportedly said, but according to the paper he denied his remarks fit Wall’s description. Wall held that he had solid evidence to back his claim, and according to the Star’s account when the substance of Kennedy’s alleged comments became generally known “a body of representative men from the city and county” gathered at the courthouse and endorsed Wall’s action and affirmed that the schools should not be used to foment racial discord.
It’s worth noting here as well as anywhere that James Wall belonged to a branch of the Mattox-Allen-Heard family and was a cousin by marriage to William Henry Mattox. A former state senator, Mattox in these years had seen his political power wane in proportion to his declining economic fortunes. His investing heavily in a textile mill on Beaverdam Creek in eastern Elbert County in 1888 and 1889, and the subsequent loss of the uninsured mill in a fire, was the beginning of the end his empire that had included four grist mills and nearly 4,000 acres of cultivated land where a great deal of the physical labor was done by convicts leased from the state. But enough of his kinsmen remained in various positions that the remnants of his political machine still had some juice to jolt local affairs, sometimes, as with “Binks” Henry, resorting to physical intimidation.
Following his firing, Thomas Kennedy didn’t simply pack up and leave town looking for a new teaching position. He continued to preach, and he founded a weekly newspaper, the Progress, aimed at the county’s black community. Elbert County’s black community was already served by one newspaper, the Golden Age, edited by another minister, E.J. Bell, but Kennedy’s Progress staked out a more radical and confrontational course. It evidently developed a readership, at least enough to give Kennedy a base of support for his causes. His first major cause involved an attack on segregation in the county courthouse.
In 1893-94, Elbert County built a new courthouse, the courthouse still standing now on the west side of the town square. Included was a balcony in the rear of the large courtroom where blacks were to sit. In March 1896, Kennedy launched in the editorial page of the Progress his campaign for free access to seating on the courtroom’s main floor. A petition addressing the issue was presented to the county commissioners, who passed it on to the presiding state court judge −who passed it back to the commissioners. Kennedy then trumpeted the editorial call that redress of this grievance would be sought at the ballot box.
This was no idle threat, as it turns out, given the times. Almost without fail since the days of Reconstruction, southern blacks had been inclined to vote Republican when there were Republican candidates to vote for. But “Binks” Henry’s painful (literally) experience voting Republican in the presidential election of 1888, elaborated in the previous column, illustrates how weak and hollow such a threat might have been under the same conditions, but conditions had changed since 1888. As noted in the earlier column, the rise of the Populist Party to become a force by the election of 1892, with the Populists initially courting a voter base of both rural whites and blacks (mostly small farmers), now actually meant that the Democratic Party’s grip on county and state politics was not as firm as in times past. In Elbert County, as in nearly all southern counties, the courthouse was both the totem and the temple of the political party that held local political power, housing the actual offices of the local overlords and the figurative coffers of the patronage by which they kept their minions happy. With the white vote now divided, enough black votes for Populists might indeed cast local Democrats out of their temple. That was especially true since the elections of 1892 and 1894 when the state Republican Party, which generally had no chance of winning elections in rural counties, in a move to weaken the Democrats had quietly thrown support behind the Populists.
The Star, firmly a Democratic organ (and few papers in those days even claimed to be nonpartisan), lost no time in denouncing Kennedy’s editorial. Any desire to change the seating arrangements in the courthouse was “impudent,” read the Star’s editorial page. “[The blacks] should remember,” the editorial continued, “that and [sic] appeal to the ballot box is sometimes followed by an appeal to the cartridge box.” But as the Democratic primary played out in succeeding months, the Star softened its tone. Because even though Kennedy was a longtime Republican Party organizer, it was the dynamics of the Democratic primary that gave him some real leverage.
The Democratic primary for state representative was a close race between Thomas Swift and Ira VanDuzer. VanDuzer was a local attorney, viewed as something of an upstart, whereas Swift was as about as close to local aristocracy as one could be. With roots deep in the county, Swift was a cotton gin and cottonseed oil mill owner who had made hay of William Mattox’s misfortune, obtaining in a bankruptcy sale the site of Mattox’s and his partners’ destroyed cotton mill on Beaverdam Creek and building the three-story Pearl Mill (which itself would burn in 1929).
Swift was an old-school Democrat. VanDuzer, though running as a Democrat, had been endorsed by the Populists. Kennedy seems to have had little trust in the Populists despite the party’s reaching out to Southern blacks, so when Swift’s supporters looked to bring Kennedy into their camp, he parlayed his influence to advantage. Over a week before the election, Kennedy spoke at the White’s Chapel church and he had asked that both Swift and VanDuzer be invited to attend. Five days before the election, the Star ballyhooed the result: “Kennedy made the first speech, and it was a good one. He put forth his reasons why the colored people should support Col. Swift, and he was cheered by both the white and colored people.”
Swift won the primary handily, but the comity with Kennedy didn’t last. As we saw in the story of “Binks” Henry, came the November general election voting day, it was business as usual all way round. Kennedy’s later claim on the editorial page of the Progress that the “standing army of democratic ruffians” led by William Parks Clark, a member of the extended Mattox-Allen-Heard family, had kept 1,000 to 1,500 Republican votes from being cast in Elberton is probably a bit of hyperbole (as there were only about 3,100 registered voters in the county in 1896), but there is little doubt as to the rest of his claim. He had been “roughly handled by a crowd of rowdies led by W. Parks Clark and Bob Almond,” Kennedy wrote, “and had it not been for the timely intervention of Policeman Irvin and several other white men, no doubt [I] would have been murdered outright. This fellow Parks Clark is characterized by his rowdyism and seldom, if ever, a fuss occurs that he is not the leader. … We hope and sincerely do we ask that the better class of white people in this county will rebuke such devilish work as was done here Tuesday. …”
“Roughly handled” may be a politic understatement by Kennedy, as from later statements and his later actions one can infer that he was beaten. In the next edition, the editor of the Star took issue with the whole of range of Kennedy’s claims. “Not a single voter of any party was hindered or intimidated in any way from casting a ballot for any candidate he chose,” went the editorial. As for Parks Clark, “there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he.” The Star in the same issue also reported that Kennedy had been confronted by a “committee” that had laid 200 lashes on his back and ordered him to leave town. There is some reason to doubt this, and not only because Kennedy struck back with a letter to the editor of the Star, denying the report and also telegraphing his effort apparently then already underway to carry the fight to higher jurisdictions.
“Elberton, Georgia November 14, 1896 TO THE EDITOR OF THE STAR DEAR SIR Your editorial of the last issue is false to the core. I have not been interviewed and neither have I received a lick from any man or set of men since election day. I did not leave Elberton under fear of being whipped for my editorial, as not a single white man has said anything to me contrary to its publication. I went to South Carolina on business Friday night and returned on the 4 o’clock train Saturday evening and kept on through to Atlanta. I was in Elberton again Monday and went to Atlanta on the same train that Parks Clark left on for Mexico, and when he got to Atlanta I had an officer waiting to arrest him. …”
Kennedy went on to say that Parks Clark had avoided arrest and further threatened to have the Star’s editor “indicted for perjury” if word of his being beaten and threatened continued to be circulated. “Libel” was of course the word that eluded Kennedy in his account, not “perjury.” The claims of trying to have Parks Clark arrested can’t be verified, but that may explain Kennedy’s frequent trips to Atlanta following the election. In any case, Parks Clark was never arrested. Kennedy posted his letter on November 14. Two days later, Monday November 16, he was again on the train bound for Atlanta when his life took a hard turn for the worse.
The Georgia, Carolina and Northern Railroad train from Elberton to Atlanta was pulling into Carlton, in Madison County, when Presh Mattox entered the car where Kennedy sat. Henry Presh Mattox, twenty-two, was a kinsman of the now bankrupt William Henry Mattox (but not his son, as some later accounts held; William Mattox had only two sons, Clark and Singleton). What happened next depends on whom one believes. Probably the truth lies somewhere between the two. The next week the Star carried Presh Mattox’s version: Kennedy had “cursed one of our citizens, Mr. Presh Mattox, and when the insult was resented with a blow, drew a pistol and followed him off the train at Carlton with a drawn pistol, cursing and abusing him in a manner intolerable to Anglo-Saxon pride and patience.”
For his part, Kennedy never denied pulling a gun on Presh Mattox, but he claimed that Mattox entered the car and struck him, further threatening to have a crowd of men pull him off the train in Carlton. He had pulled the pistol, he said, when he felt his life was in danger. Mattox swore out a warrant for Kennedy on the relatively minor charge of carrying a concealed weapon. Kennedy was arrested and carried to the Madison County jail. His bond was soon posted by Monroe B. “Pink” Morton, the wealthy mulatto businessman and Republican political organizer in Athens (and eventually Athens’ first black postmaster). Morton found Kennedy a place to stay in Athens, but within a matter of days Madison County issued another warrant for Kennedy, this time for the attempted murder of Presh Mattox. Kennedy was arrested in Winder, but was eventually lodged in the Clarke County jail after his benefactor Morton petitioned the governor. Morton feared for Kennedy’s safety if he were held in Madison County. He remained in jail until his trial in Danielsville the first week in March of 1897. Morton had retained two attorneys for him, Samuel Tribble and former Athens mayor, H.C. Tuck.
Kennedy had been indicted on both charges, carrying a concealed weapon and attempted murder. The defense’s strategy rested on establishing self-defense, and for that the attorneys would rely on the testimony of a white woman, Lula Watson, who was supposedly in the railroad car at the time of the incident. She did not appear in court, however, and when bailiffs visited her home they found her in bed, apparently ill, and according to her husband, unable even to rise from the bed much less leave the house. Judge Seaborn Reese accepted her husband’s secondhand testimony that his wife had told him nothing of witnessing any incident involving Kennedy and Mattox. Kennedy was found guilty and sentenced to two years hard labor. Tribble and Huck immediately requested a new trial on several grounds, but mainly on the inability of getting Lula Watson to court and that Reese had not instructed the jury to consider any of Presh Mattox’s alleged actions as justifying self-defense. Reese denied a new trial but stayed the sentence while the attorneys took the appeal to the state supreme court.
In early June, the supreme court agreed that Kennedy should have a new trial, agreeing that the hearsay testimony of Lula Watson’s husband was no substitute for her own, and was in fact contrary to the law. The new trial was set for September. Neither Kennedy nor Morton could post Kennedy’s appeal bond, however, and he remained in the Madison County jail until his new trial with the exception of a few weeks in the summer when he was rented out as a laborer to James Smith of “Smithsonia,” Smith’s plantation of several thousand acres in Oglethorpe County that, like William H. Mattox in Elbert County, he worked with convict labor. (Much of the old Smith plantation would eventually become the Arabian horse ranch of country and pop music star Kenny Rogers.)
On September 9, 1897, Kennedy was tried again. Again the jury returned a verdict of guilty of attempted murder, but this time with a recommendation for mercy. He had already pleaded guilty to the charge of carrying a concealed weapon and been sentenced to a year of hard labor or a $50 fine. He had managed to pay the fine. The recommendation for mercy handed down meant that he had the chance to escape the two years of hard labor Reese imposed if he could pay a $300 fine. Neither he nor Monroe Morton could raise the money for the fine, however, and in October he was sent to the chain gang of the Fulton County public works department.
There is no record indicating that Thomas Kennedy ever came back to Elbert County after his release. Later years found him a minister in Jackson County, noted once in the local newspaper in 1908 when a young man requested that Kennedy accompany him on his walk to the gallows. He evidently spent his last years in Rockdale County. A February 1929 edition of the Rockdale Record notes that Kennedy had in years past been principal of the city’s black school and at the time of the writing he had been for six years principal of Bethany Academy, a black school associated with the Presbyterian church.
As for Kennedy’s adversaries, they faced their own trials after a fashion. Presh Mattox’s venture at establishing a cotton brokerage business failed, and in early 1901 he went to Texas to try to reestablish himself. He died in Texas in September 1901, allegedly of an overdose of laudanum (a tincture of opium in alcohol) to which it’s said he was addicted. He is buried in Elberton’s Elmhurst Cemetery. Even though he was in his forties, Parks Clark joined a volunteer military company at the beginning of the Spanish-American War, rising to the rank of captain and serving in the Philippines. He returned to Elberton and lived there the rest of his life as a civic leader, Masonic brother and man about town.
So there it is, the story of the trials of the Reverend Thomas Kennedy, a lost chapter no more.
The talk from many idle chatterers these days is that politics is more vicious and cutthroat than it’s ever been.
I always chuckle on hearing this, because anyone having anything more than a passing acquaintance with the history of this revered republic knows it isn’t true. Nor does one have to delve into the intriguing and slandering that went on in the 1800 presidential election between once and future friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first real down and dirty presidential election, or into any of the of the national elections since, to find exculpatory evidence for our age. It lies closer to home.
Not in my own memory, nor in any recollection of any older relative or anyone else that I recall, has an election day in Elbert County seen any rioting, beatings or shootings related to politics and the voting, but such used to be commonplace. In fact, rare was the election day in Elbert County between the end of the Civil War and 1900 that didn’t see someone shot or beaten or, in at least one case, hanged in effigy by a mob. I was reminded of this recently while researching material for an article that will appear some months hence in Georgia Backroads magazine. It all also reminded me how often in times past members of my extended family have played their parts in the little drama of our local history, in this case both as givers and recipients of beatings and in other acts of unconventional politicking. I have often said the actual history of the Heard-Allen-Mattox-McIntosh-Harris family tree from which the Chandlers are a main branch stomps into the dust William Faulkner’s best efforts to invent a back story for his fictional characters. Most of the people mentioned in the tale I’m about to tell are relatives of mine at some distance, either by blood or marriage, and I offer them as further evidence to back my claim.
On Tuesday November 6, 1888, William Patrick “Binks” Henry walked into the Elbert County courthouse and cast his ballot for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate for president. It was the first time the 22-year-old Henry had ever voted and his was the sole Republican vote cast in the county that day (black voters who in those days often wanted to vote Republican were discouraged from voting at all, and what would happen to Binks Henry is a study in how). There was no secret balloting in those days; everyone knew how everyone else voted.
Henry was scarcely a block away from the courthouse when he was accosted by three men whom he had theretofore had no reason to consider enemies, William Parks Clark, Joseph Mattox and P.H. Ham. Hot words followed over Henry’s heresy of voting Republican. The altercation ended with Henry lying in the street, felled under repeated blows of Clark’s buggy whip.
What possessed Binks Henry to cast his first vote ever for Benjamin Harrison, we don’t know. He recorded no reason in his surviving papers and if he ever confided his thinking on the matter to anyone, no record they made has ever been found. He was an eccentric man among a family of eccentrics. From his story it’s not hard to infer that he enjoyed sticking his thumb in the eye of convention, and absent hard evidence that offers as good an explanation as any for his vote. Family accounts hold that he was a medical doctor by education, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced medicine. He and his sister Mary Ellen “Ella,” older by three years, lived in what had been the Allen plantation house overlooking Beaverdam Creek, near where the Pearl Mill textile manufactory would rise in a few years. (In 1888, William H. Mattox, a Henry relative by marriage, and his partners were already building a mill on the site.) The Henrys had inherited the Allen home and lands through their great aunt being the wife of Beverly Allen (my own great-great-great uncle, as it happens), son of original settler William Allen and nephew of the notorious Beverly Allen, the defrocked Methodist minister who had killed a U.S. marshal in Augusta in 1794 and fled to the wilds of Kentucky. By all indications the Henrys were satisfied to live on inherited money and the landowner’s share of the fruits of their sharecroppers’ toil. Binks Henry’s refuge, not to say delight, was evidently in his books, of which he had a large collection.
After his beating, Henry swore out warrants for Clark, Mattox and Ham, and all were later indicted for assault and battery by an Elbert County grand jury that, oddly enough, included Clark as a member. The incident was to some degree a family affair [and, as it happens, my family affair as well]. Clark, then 40 years old, was distantly connected by marriage to the Heard, Allen, Mattox and Henry families, his mother’s first husband being Gerrard Allen, a son of Singleton Allen, the brother of Binks’s and Ella’s great uncle Beverly (making Gerrard Beverly’s nephew, of course), and a grandson of local Revolutionary War hero Stephen Heard [my great-great-great-great grandfather who, as I wrote in an earlier column, almost certainly was not saved from a British hangman’s noose by his slave woman “Mammy Kate,” as local legend holds]. Joseph Mattox was a nephew of local planter, mill owner, entrepreneur and Democratic political boss the aforementioned William H. Mattox (my great-great grandfather), whose wife was the daughter of Singleton Allen, thus Gerrard Allen’s sister and granddaughter of Stephen Heard. (I never promised you the family tree would be simple to follow.) When the case came to trial, Clark was found guilty of the charge and fined. His compatriots were acquitted.
Owing to its political overtones, the case had gained national notoriety, attracting the attention even of the new administration. President Harrison rewarded Binks Henry for all his troubles and suffering by giving him the privilege of naming the new postmaster for Elberton. Binks selected the person apparently closest to him in the world, his sister Ella. In late 1889 she replaced John. M. Heard, another distant cousin, and became the first postmistress in Elberton’s history (and is believed to be the first postmistress in Georgia).
Binks Henry wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of his case. He took the then novel step of bringing federal charges against his assailants for violating his civil rights. A federal grand jury in Atlanta, however, dismissed the charges in October 1889. Henry again brought federal charges and that time a second federal grand jury indicted the men. The case again gained Binks Henry national acclaim in Republican circles, and Elbert County national notoriety, but it was ultimately dismissed on a legal fine point. Federal law in those days protected a person attacked or threatened before voting, or if they were attacked or threatened by anyone wearing masks. An attack made after a person had cast their vote, though, and by assailants not wearing masks, did not fall under federal purview.
The Republican Party in Georgia largely sat out the election of 1892. That year saw the first significant rise of the Populist Party, a coming that threw the already turbulent world of state politics into even more disarray. The Populist Party sprang out the Farmers’ Alliance that had swept across the South in the late 1880s and early 1890s, gaining more than 100,000 members. In those years cotton prices had plummeted at the same time that farmers saw their debts and a number of other problems of rural folk increase, notably stiff increases in railroad freight rates. Mirroring similar movements by farmers in the West, the southern Populists urged the nationalization of railroads, more government control of banking, and a bimetallist monetary system, specifically the free coinage of silver at a rate 16:1 with gold. “Free silver” is an historical footnote now, but in these times it was an issue that excited passions. The basic idea of its supporters, among whom farmers were heavily represented, was simply to put more money into circulation, creating a form of inflation that would drive up the prices of farm commodities. And also, allow them to pay down or pay off their debts with inflated dollars. This latter is exactly why free silver was opposed by the industrial and financial interests. Like other coeval organizations such as the Knights of Labor that would now be considered left-leaning (the right-left description then not being in general use), the Populists also supported a graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators. The rise of the Populists in Georgia pitted the interests of the largely rural folk against those of more urban areas and posed a serious challenge for the Democrats.
That wasn’t just because the Populists co-opted some of the Democrats’ positions that appealed to farmers (nationally, such prominent Democrats as William Jennings Bryan championed free silver and more regulation of the railroads). The Democrats had never been especially popular in large swaths of middle Georgia west of Augusta that had voted mostly Whig before the Civil War, but postwar the Democrats had captured the votes in those areas by default, being the only choice other than voting Republican. Now the voters had a choice. Even more infuriating to the Democrats, the Populists under the leadership of the brilliant orator and political maverick Tom Watson set out to cross racial lines and appeal to both rural and urban blacks who, when they managed to vote at all, were inclined to vote for any Republican running. Black delegates were invited to the Populist’s state convention in 1892, the first of several such acts nearly unheard of at the time. (That would change in the years near the end of the Georgia Populist Party’s relevance, as Watson took stances virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.) Even though their aims and platforms were almost diametrically opposed, Georgia Republicans saw a chance to make a devil’s bargain with the Populists. Given the futility (usually) of running a Republican candidate, many Republicans threw in with the Populists in an attempt to thumb-gouge the Democrats in the eye. That led Binks Henry back into the political game.
The Republican Party sent out sample ballots for Elbert County with the name of the Populist candidate for Congress, J.R. Robins, along with the names of the Republican presidential electors. Henry had other thoughts and surmised that instead of bringing Populists to vote for the Republicans this stratagem-cum-trick would actually push them toward the Democrats. He had other local sample ballots printed with the Republican electors listed along with the Democratic candidate for Congress. The Democratic Party bosses in Elbert County were incensed, and threatened Henry and the local Republican chairman with prosecution for fraud. Nothing came of the threats but when, as expected, the Democrats won easily in Elbert County, and nationally the Democrat Grover Cleveland reclaimed the White House he had lost four years before to Benjamin Harrison, the celebratory crowd in Elberton’s town square, estimated by the local newspaper at a couple of thousand, hanged Binks Henry in effigy − and then the effigy was burned. For Ella Henry the election has more concrete consequences. Early in the new administration she lost her position as postmistress − to the former postmaster, her cousin John. M. Heard.
In late 1893, Binks Henry left Elbert County and took an extensive tour of the north, but exactly where he went and what he did isn’t known. He played no part in the midterm elections of 1894, when Republicans in Georgia again discreetly supported the Populists as a dig at the Democrats. By 1896, however, Binks was back in Elbert County just in time to set out on his most ambitious political play yet. When the Republican organizers of Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District met in Athens in the later summer of 1896, they chose him as their candidate. Between then and November he crisscrossed the district campaigning to mostly black voters.
Tuesday, November 3, 1896 was a cold, rainy day in Elberton, according to the Elberton Star, but the newspaper’s editor found some sunny notes. “There was not near so much drinking and debauchery in this election as there was in the last,” went his editorial. “The town was quiet all day and there were only one or two election scraps.” It was something of a change from the primary election held in Elberton the month before. That day, a quarrel at the polls had led to two Democrats shooting two Populists (they survived). It seems, however, that the Star’s editor had a gift for understatement, and also chose to ignore quite a bit.
The editorial continued that “‘Cuffy’ [blacks] did not play near so prominent a role in this election as he did in the last. When left alone he voted the republican ticket, but by using a little ‘persuasion’ he could easily be induced to cast his vote for some other party.” The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy begged to differ.
Kennedy, a black minister and former teacher, had been a thorn in the side of the local Democratic establishment for some time. In August 1895, the county school superintendent had fired him from a teaching post at one of the county’s black schools after Kennedy, speaking at a church, allegedly made political statements in favor of Republicans and deemed to be fomenting racial discord. Kennedy had then founded a black-oriented newspaper, the Progress, a more radical and confrontational paper than the county’s other black newspaper, the Golden Age, which reflected the fairly conservative stance toward black issues favored most notably by Booker T. Washington. Kennedy was also a key organizer of the black vote for the Republican Party and an associate of Binks Henry. In the pages of the Progress Kennedy painted a different portrait of the election day doings. Blacks who approached the polls in Elberton to cast Republican ballots, Kennedy wrote, had found their way blocked “by a standing army of democratic ruffians.” Had not the casting of Republican votes been blocked, Kennedy went on, he estimated that “fully 1,000 to 1,500 republican tickets would have been cast.” The man Kennedy tagged in print as the leader of the “democratic ruffians” was our old friend and Binks Henry’s tormentor William Parks Clark. (The Elberton Star responded in the next issue with an editorial defending Clark: “… there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he. …”)
(The incident and Kennedy’s writings provoked a convoluted series of events that would result in Kennedy serving a very likely unjustified sentence for attempted murder. But he went on to have a life afterward of some significance. It’s quite a tale and I’ll probably take it up in a future column.)
As for Binks Henry, he lost his bid for Congress, not garnering a single vote in his own home district of Longstreet. Nationally, however, the Republican William McKinley won the presidency over William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated by both the Democrats and the Populists. Once again Binks Henry was rewarded by being given the choice of naming Elberton’s new postmaster. Once again his sister Ella replaced their cousin John. M. Heard.
In June 1897, President McKinley offered Binks Henry the U.S. consular post in Switzerland. He did not accept immediately but decided to mull it over. He waited too long. That October he fell ill with meningitis and died at the Henry home on November 1. He was 31 years old. (Ella would die four years later.) Thus ended one of the oddest and most turbulent careers in politics this area has ever seen.
Now then, the next time you hear anyone say that the theater, the strife and the fang-and-claw rhetorical blood sport of politics nowadays are the worst they’ve ever been, think of Binks Henry, and tell them that just ain’t so.
A funeral eulogy, of all things, recently provoked thoughts on the country store and its legacy, and what the decline of the institution has cost us.
On reflection, I think it has cost us a great deal in what some mavens and bean counters of social culture lump together in the term “quality of life.” This yardstick includes a good many things supposedly contributing to the overall happiness and wellbeing of the average person of common sensibilities, often accompanied by a caveat that some of these are prone to becoming casualties of our faster paced modern age. The decline of the country store, such as it has, I believe, left a good number − namely those nebulous threads that can help hold a community together and give it strength − squarely among the injured.
The eulogy was for a woman who had operated a convenience store in this community, but not your typical convenience store with slam-bam-thank you-ma’am service by a clerk whose name you likely don’t know and who probably won’t be the clerk if you stop in the next week. This store was different. It sits a crossroads on a main highway, attracted the normal passing trade, and when she ran it did a lot of business with the local community, being the only place around for several miles. It was this latter trade that gave the place its character.
Rarely did you stop there during the summer months when there wasn’t a collection of elderly men from this residential and farming community sitting outside on benches put there for that purpose. Community gossip and tales − fishing, farming or just tall − were the common fare for anyone who wanted to sit down for a sample. In colder months, the regulars took the bucolic banter inside. The woman being eulogized, the owner, not only allowed this but encouraged it, made provisions for it, and along the way the store become more than just a place for the odd soft drink, loaf of bread, gas or fishing tackle and bait. It became a community institution.
This was the remnant of a tradition stretching back at least to the second half of the 19th century in the South and representing what was first a commercial phenomenon and then a social one. In The Southern Country Store (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944) Thomas Clark traced the main growth spurt of country stores to the post-Civil War period when the small farmer in the South who couldn’t afford to take a lot of time away from his work and travel to the nearest town needed a source of supplies, farming equipment and seed, dry goods and even credit closer at hand. Some merchants who before the war might have hauled their small wares from farm to farm in wagons settled down, put down roots and became a mainstay of the community. The postwar development of more railroad mileage fed the creation of some stores, such as that of T.J. Hewell in the Dewy Rose community of Elbert County. Railroad officials urged Hewell to start a store and even helped with a small loan. Eventually Hewell’s store, opened at first in what had been a shotgun house, became not only a store but a railroad freight station. The slogan was “A store within reach of every cabin in the South,” and in time, one way or another, that idea was largely realized.
Virtually everything needed for rural or small town life could be supplied from the country store. It doubled as a community forum as well, with small gatherings around its pot-bellied stove in the winters and on its front porch in the summers. Out of the banter around the stoves and another often present fixture we get the term “cracker barrel philosophy” for homespun commonsense, often unsophisticated but always reflecting the life experience of the “philosophers.” Stump speakers on the hustings from the start found country stores a good and convenient place to draw a crowd. Beginning his political career running for Georgia agriculture commissioner, the legendary Eugene Talmadge campaigned around country stores. So did the notorious political huckster Huey Long of Louisiana, who started out as a traveling salesman selling fertilizer to country stores (seemingly a good apprenticeship for any politician). Country magistrates sometimes conducted court proceedings at stores and the store was sometimes a venue for community meetings of local importance. (In my own time I know of at least one community volunteer fire department that can trace its roots to discussions beginning in a country store.)
I grew up around a latter day country store, in the Pearl Mill community in the 1960s, and in some ways it was my first school. The store was operated by my grandfather and mother. In his last able years, my grandfather held court around the pot-bellied stove winter and summer (when the stove was cold but the open door still provided a convenient place for him and his cronies to dump their cigar ashes.) Half a century later, the scenes are as clear in memory as they were in life. The mainstays were my grandfather, in his favorite gray jacket and sweat-stained rumpled fedora. Along with Mr. Henry Prince, another local retired farmer, summer and winter dressed usually in a black suit coat with matching pants, neither no longer fit for church on Sunday but still giving him a dignified air. Perched atop his head and cocked to one side was his other trademark, his flat-topped felt hat that had probably been new the last time he voted for Eugene Talmadge. Mr. Henry also stands out in memory because he always punctuated his tales with guffaws accompanied by fierce taps of his walking stick on the concrete floor. More often than not there was Bill Shiflet, a local retired textile mill worker and jackleg carpenter who was forthright about several youthful misadventures on a South Carolina chain gang for bootlegging. A variety of less often regulars filled the extra chairs from time to time.
Listening to their stories of times past − of the years of World War I and before, of the Depression and of World War II − was my first schooling in history (and about people), and the idea that in all times the big stories of history are made up of untold numbers of smaller, individual stories, like the fibers and strands that make up a rope. Looking back, I now see these were priceless lessons that could never have been gleaned from the pages of a book.
There are more than a few stories that came out of these times that make me laugh even now, over 50 years on. Only a few miles from where I now sit there was for many years Hudson’s Store, a country store that was a mainstay of the Fortsonia community. It was also, of course, a local gathering place. One common visitor was my great uncle, Jeptha “Jep” Mattox, a local farmer. Short and stocky, like all my male Mattox kinsmen, he was gregarious and regarded as honest to a fault; he served for many years as a deacon of the nearby Bethel E Baptist Church. For all his saintly qualities, however, he was also an inveterate prankster. Had his forebears been Irish instead of Welsh, you might be tempted to say there was a leprechaun in the woodpile somewhere (he had more than a little of the blarney of the Irish about him nevertheless). One of his favorite targets was his brother-in-law, “Lily” Scarborough. “Mr. Lily,” as he was known, was a good fellow by all accounts and my own vague recollections, but unlike Jep he had a reputation as generally being serious-minded. He was of middling height, slim, with a clean-shaven face, usually a little flushed, and with a prominent nose. His most distinguishing trait, however, was his high-pitched voice, which came out in a slow, nasally drawl. When he and Jep weren’t like oil and water they were like gasoline and a spark.
On one occasion, Jep was in Hudson’s Store entertaining all and sundry with his impersonation of Mr. Lily’s voice and demeanor. His back was to the door, so he missed it when Mr. Lily, shuffling quietly as always, entered. The others saw Mr. Lily, of course, and quickly grew quiet themselves, stone-faced even, unsure what would happen next but pretty sure it wouldn’t be good, though probably amusing in the aftermath. When Jep noticed that he had apparently lost his audience and that their gazes were now fixed behind him, he turned around to see the object his jesting staring at him. It was probably a look akin to that of a wolf with a rabbit in its crosshairs. The rabbit will sometimes freeze rather than flee, hoping it won’t be noticed. But when the wolf is as tormented by hunger as Mr. Lily had been tormented for years by Jep’s shenanigans, the rabbit is seldom lucky enough to escape. Jep froze, but there wouldn’t be any escape.
Mr. Lily just regarded Jep for a long minute before finally saying, softly, his voice even and in earnest and at its twangy best, “Jep, you do that again I’m gon’ hafta kill ya.”
With a mumbled apology Jep beat a hasty retreat. That time. For the moment. But no way could he let it end there.
He and Mr. Lily didn’t really speak for several months after that. As the winter months came, though, Jep hit upon an idea he hoped would make Mr. Lily look ridiculous, allowing Jep to regain the upper hand in the one-upmanship.
Dynamite was easier to obtain in those days, the early 1950s; in fact, some farmers even kept a couple of sticks on hand for blowing up stumps from new-cleared land or for opening up the flow of a stream dammed by beavers. However he managed it, Jep obtained the heavy, waxed paper that formed the outside wrapping of two sticks of dynamite and carefully wrapped them around two lengths of an old hoe handle cut to the right size. Then one cold day when the potbellied stove in Hudson’s Store was bronze with heat and he knew Mr. Lily was there, Jep ambled in, the two wrapped lengths of hoe handle sticking out of his back pocket.
After general greetings all around, subdued somewhat as all present knew of the ongoing feud between them, Jep turned to Mr. Lily.
“Lily,” he said. “I been thinking about how to end this trouble of ours. I’ve thought over it and prayed over it and I cain’t come up with nuthin’ but ta let Saint Peter settle it ‘tween us.”
At that he opened the door of the stove and tossed in the two wrapped sticks.
Mr. Lily broke for the door yelling, “He’s crazy as hell! He’s crazy as hell!,” barely slowing enough to open the door on his way out. All of course leaving Jep doubled up with laughter and the others at hand gradually realizing they weren’t about to die then and there.
I remember my grandfather telling this story to the coterie around his own stove on an occasion after Mr. Lily had just departed their group. Just one example of the lore the country store culture gave rise to. Like the “cracker barrel” philosophy born of hard experience and passed down in plain talk, it was all part of what more tutored philosophers call the “ethos” of the community, its fundamental character or spirit. The decline and loss in most cases of the country store has cost communities. Athens wouldn’t have been quite the cultural wellspring it was without the agora, nor Rome the center of civilization it was without the forum. Small communities lost their nearest thing to these when the country store culture started to fade.
These days planners of developments often lay out elaborate plans for residential communities around what is supposed to be in improvised “town square” ambiance of small retail shops and eateries. The idea is to try to recreate a small town atmosphere whose loss is generally lamented by those of a certain age and experience with a mystic chord of nostalgia. This is laudable, in a way, though somewhat plastic and phony in essence.
They might do better without so much thought and paraphernalia. Maybe all that’s needed is just a simple general store with a good heater in an open space with chairs around for winter and a few benches on a porch outside for summer. Human nature might take care of the rest.
It’s safe to say, I think, that these days “hero” is one of the most overused and dubiously used of words, but this time of year my mind often turns to a man for whom in some ways the word seems not quite adequate.
This coming February 3 will mark the twelfth anniversary of the passing of a man I was privileged to know and call a friend. And of all those famous and infamous with whom I’ve crossed paths over the years, he remains the most fascinating man I’ve ever known.
Jazz trumpeter, world traveler, amateur wrestler, aspiring artist, member of the French resistance, smuggler of Jews out of Vichy France, Royal Air Force airman, member of the Free French forces, actor, director, CIA operative and center of a web of shadowy connections across the world − he was at times all these things. But a simple list by itself hardly tells the tale.
Charles Fernley Fawcett, “Charlie” to his friends, died in London on February 3, 2008, ninety-two years and two months after he was born on December 2, 1915, in the tiny hamlet of Waleska, Georgia, in the Cherokee County hills north of Atlanta. A long life, certainly, but a vessel barely big enough to contain the fullness of his life, one of heroism and high adventure ending with a peaceful death. London papers gave him a grand send off, while his death mainly escaped the American media entirely. Charlie, for his part, wouldn’t have cared either way. His exploits won him many medals and accolades, but for him that was never what it was all about. It was all for the adventure and for what he believed to be right.
He and his two sisters were orphaned when he was six, so he spent his later formative years in Greenville, South Carolina, in the care of an aunt. He was a star football player and wrestler in high school, but undecided about what he wanted to do in life. Fate, and maybe comeuppance, decided for him in 1937, when at age 21 he decided he had best leave Greenville. By his own later account, at the age of 15 he had started an affair with his best friend’s mother, and it had turned sour. He later expressed no real regrets over it all, however.
“If that’s child molestation,” he would say in his gleeful retelling, “I would wish this curse on every young boy.”
He washed up in New York City, where by chance he met musician Louis Armstrong. It was a fateful meeting, because the great jazz trumpeter taught him to play his instrument, for which Charlie, it seems, had a natural talent, taking to it and mastering it. In later years Charlie delighted in relaying the simple instructions Armstrong gave him: “Just put your lips thusly, and blow, blow, blow.” Charlie was then off again, this time to Europe.
Events extraordinary in hindsight just seemed to have a way of happening to Charlie, such as the chance meeting with Armstrong. That turned out to be a theme of his life. “Everything that’s ever happened to me has happened accidentally,” Charlie told a London journalist not long before his death. Those who knew Charlie might disagree. He had a magnetism that seemed to draw other people to him and him to situations where his qualities shined.
The outbreak of World War II caught him in Paris, where he was supporting himself by trumpet playing, being an artists’ model, and by wrestling in backstreet clubs while, among other things, he made some headway toward becoming a sculptor. When the French army rejected his enlistment, he joined the ambulance corps, the Volontaire des Américains.
After the fall of France, he for a while shared an apartment with a fellow American who happened to be the nephew of General Otto von Stülpnagel, the German general designated commander-in-chief of occupied France. Through his roommate he met many of the top ranking Nazis, both military and civilian. As he moved in their circles he kept his eyes and ears open − and found a way to pass the tidbits of intelligence gleaned to the French Resistance.
Roughly during this time, he pulled off one of the schemes he often recounted with the greatest humor. In the early hours of one morning, he and a friend impersonated a German ambulance crew to rescue British prisoners of war from a French hospital.
“Gentlemen,” he told them as he drove the ambulance away, “consider yourselves liberated.”
“You’re a Yank,” one of the Brits said, surprised.
“Never,” said Charlie, in his best Southern drawl, “confuse a Southerner with a Yankee.”
When occupied France became too hot for him — following the first of two escapes from the Gestapo — he started out for North Africa to join the Free French. On reaching Marseilles, however, he fell in with the American journalist Varian Fry, who was setting up a smuggling operation to get refugees out of France. Despite his long list of exploits to come, it would be for this work that Charlie would become best known and most honored. Fry, for his part, would in 1996 become the first American to be honored as a Righteous Among the Nations by Israel’s Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem memorial to the Holocaust, joining the much better known Oskar Schindler. Charlie’s role, as he later recounted it, was more or less playing the heavy, the muscle and guts, of the Fry network.
“The American consulate in Marseille didn’t like us very much,” Charlie recalled. “This horrible doorman was given instructions not to let refugees in — and he really meant it. A friend and I took him around the corner one day and worked him over. I had a wrestling hold on him, and when we got around the corner, three or four of the refugees had followed us and were watching. From then on, he was much nicer.”
In his memoir, Assignment: Rescue, Varian Fry recalled that Charlie’s time with his organization wasn’t always so grim. In fact, Charlie had the time to indulge his lifelong habit of bringing the full force of his Southern charm to bear on beautiful women. “Charlie was from Georgia,” Fry wrote, “and before the war he had been studying art in Paris. I often wondered how far Charlie would go in his chosen field, since his idea of art seemed to consist only of drawing pretty girls, preferably nude. … He had many girlfriends … In fact, he was the most popular member of our staff.” It’s worth noting that Charlie’s reputation as something of a bounder actually helped him on one endeavor. Apparently the Vichy French authorities did not think it at all odd that he took out papers to marry six women during his time there. His “wives” were all Jewish and the marriages enabled them to get official papers that made it easier for them to leave France.
Part of his work for Fry also involved the smuggling of messages, which he often did by hiding them in his sculptures — the more risqué the statue the better the chance any police or border guards would be distracted, he found—and in the third valve of his trumpet. His trumpet turned out to be a useful cover in espionage, he recalled, because “nobody ever took you seriously if you had a trumpet with you.”
To his compatriots, he might have appeared the picture of fearlessness, but in later years he confided his fears from those times to his wife, April Ducksbury Fawcett. “He said later he was scared all the time of being taken by the police,” she said. “But he never showed it.”
It all came to an end when the Gestapo and Vichy French officials got too close, and Charlie had to make his own escape, to England. He joined the Royal Air Force in 1942, training to fly Hurricanes, but was invalided out later that year with the first instance of the tuberculosis that would plague him for decades. That led to an extended recovery in, first, a Canadian sanitarium and then one in Arizona. By 1944, however, he was back in Italy as a volunteer with the ambulance corps. A short time later, he joined the Free French forces and fought with his regiment in the Vosges mountains of eastern France from the winter of 1944 until the end of the war in Europe. A recurrence of his tuberculosis, however, soon landed him in a French hospital and he was invalided out of his regiment.
After the war he drifted into acting, mainly in the French and Italian cinema. Obviously rugged, but also starkly handsome and with considerable charm, the young expatriate American took to it naturally. “For a short while you could be what you wanted to be,” Charlie later said of his discovery he loved acting. He would pursue it off and on, as an actor or filmmaker, for over 40 years, appearing in over 100 films, working often in B movies but sometimes in supporting roles to golden age actors such as Errol Flynn and Alan Ladd. Some, such as actor/director Orson Welles and William Holden, became lifelong friends. Never bashful with women, of course, for a time Charlie was also the lover of screen vamp Hedy Lamarr.
It would have been easy for Charlie to just latch onto his new career and lose himself in the glitter of the stars he moved among, but the war and his roles in it had cut too deep an impression, especially the Holocaust. “When you’d seen what they were doing to the Jews, you couldn’t help but be on their side.” He recounted years later. “We were taught at school, you know, the strong protect the weak. And this is the way it’s supposed to be — we are our brother’s keeper, let’s face it.” For the rest of Charlie Fawcett’s life, wherever people were fighting to throw off oppression of any kind, there he could be found.
In 1948, traveling with fake journalist credentials, he went to fight Communist insurgents in Greece. And when the Hungarians rose against Soviet control in 1956, Charlie was in Budapest, filming some of the struggle and helping to smuggle out refugees. He later spent three years of the early 1960s in the Belgian Congo — afterward Zaire and now the Republic of the Congo — flying out to other African countries the refugees from the mercenary wars that gripped Africa for a good part of that decade.
Charlie made his last film appearance in 1975, in a supporting role to Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni in Up the Antique Stairway. He was by then beginning to have recurrence of the tuberculosis that had plagued him since the war. Charlie had married in the years after the war, and, Charlie being Charlie, he had married a German countess. But the pairing did not last and eventually she and their daughter moved to Argentina where she had other family. It was one of the dark clouds over Charlie’s psyche in his later years that he felt he had failed as a father.
But even notorious rakes can find the love of their life, and once while in Rome, Charlie met his in April Ducksbury, a beautiful Yorkshire girl who worked at the British embassy. She would, however, have to endure a 30-year engagement, because from the late 1970s on, April had to take second seat to another war, what became the last of Charlie’s wars.
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 found Charlie in Houston, Texas, staying with an old friend, Joanne Herring, and trying to overcome a patch of financial drought. But in June 1979, he announced he was heading out to aid the Afghan resistance. Herring was a politically active socialite and was always on the lookout for her next big cause to promote and before long Charlie gave her one. He sent her a note out of Afghanistan, scribbled in crayon on the back of a child’s picture book: “Come immediately. Bring film equipment. The world doesn’t know what’s going on here.”
The film equipment, Charlie packed over the mountains of Pakistan and into Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. The result was a documentary “Courage Is Their Weapon,” which detailed and graphically recorded Soviet atrocities against the native tribesmen. The voice over narration was provided by his old friend Orson Welles.
What followed was told in a book that became the 2007 movie of the same name “Charlie Wilson’s War.” It starred Tom Hanks as the n’er-do-well Texas congressman who cobbled together some private interests with some renegade CIA operatives to support the Afghan mujahadeen in their fight against the Soviets. Charlie Fawcett doesn’t appear as a character in the movie because he didn’t approve of how some of the characters were portrayed in the script. However, when Julia Roberts, as Joanne Herring, recruits Hanks’s Wilson to her cause by showing him a movie made “by a friend of mine,” it’s Charlie’s movie being shown. Before it was Charlie Wilson’s war, it was very much Charlie Fawcett’s.
Later, it emerged he had played a larger role than first acknowledged. Along with camera equipment, Charlie had occasionally packed Stinger ground-to-air missiles for the Afghans, courtesy of some of Wilson’s CIA recruits. One the photographs that later adorned Charlie’s study in his and April’s townhouse in London’s posh Chelsea section was one of him accepting thanks from Reagan Administration CIA director William Casey.
The Afghanistan outing proved a last hurrah. “After the Afghan war he felt his time was over,” April Fawcett said later. “He was 75, he couldn’t do anything else on the big cases. He felt the world was in a terrible mess. He didn’t know what else to do.”
One thing he could do was keep his promise to April. When his wars were over, they would get married. They were married March 30, 1991.
“We had an Afghan wedding at a house in Los Angeles and were married by a Muslim mullah,” she said. “It was the most appropriate thing we could do.”
April had spent the years of her and Charlie’s engagement building up her own modeling agency, and by the time she sold it in the mid-1990s for British pounds in the low eight figures, the Model One agency was one of the top of its kind in London.
It was nearly two years before their marriage that I met Charlie Fawcett. We were introduced by his cousin and my own longtime friend Dr. William Hunter of Clemson, South Carolina. We had much in common, and hit it off from the start. “Come to see me in London,” he said. We stayed in touch and fate eventually found me in London, where we reconnected.
Charlie’s health grew gradually worse as the years passed until he was also battling cancer. Along the way, however, he was awarded the Eisenhower Medal by the United States, the Croix de Guerre by a grateful France, medals by Pakistan and a special medal for service from the King Hassan of Morocco, who had became a friend.
His last recognition came in January 2006, when he attended the Holocaust Memorial Day in Cardiff, Wales, and was honored by then Prime Minister Tony Blair for his work with Varian Fry’s network. He was afterward also nominated for a place along with Fry among Israel’s Righteous Among the Nations.
Sitting on the stage in his wheelchair, Charlie answered the honor with one brief statement.
“I thought we could make a difference,” he said. “It’s a responsibility people have.”
Charlie Fawcett’s funeral was held in London on February 18, 2008, and two days later April Fawcett scattered his ashes over the Seine in Paris, a city he had loved since his first days there. Journalist Andy Marino, who had come to know Charlie while researching a book on Varian Fry, tried to sum him up in his eulogy:
“Two clues to Charlie lie in where he came from, and when he was born. I always thought of him as the last of the Southern gentlemen, with an antebellum graciousness and the natural charm and poise of one of nature’s aristocrats. When you think about it, he was one of the USA’s first really useful exports to the world: Charlie was the last of that first great migrant generation, headed up by Hemingway, that returned to Europe. And he was very much in the Ernest Hemingway mould, although I would much rather have a drink with Charlie.
“What did he bring with him when he arrived in the Old World? He had an openness, an unaffected wonder at life that was often noted in Americans of the time. In Charlie’s case it was matched by physical toughness and an instinctive courage we rightly call bravery. I have thought about it a lot, and my conclusion is that the big thing about Charlie was that he was not afraid of anybody.”
In a way, though, Charlie had left his own epitaph lying on the reading table of his study. Just days before his death, he had been reading a book of poems, “Healing Light,” by a friend of his, Alexandra de Borchgrave. In one poem, found intensely circled were these words: “With a heart full of thanks that I’ve done my best.”
Another overworked phrase these days is “I want to make a difference.” It’s imprecise, indefinite. After all, Adolph Hitler made a difference, but most people would just as soon he hadn’t − but the presumption is that the person means a difference for good. But because it’s imprecise and indefinite, as a mantra it’s meaningless and suitably shallow for a shallow age. The truth is that the people throughout time who have made the most difference for good didn’t set out on a grand crusade wearing their virtue as decoration but did good simply because of their natures and the way they lived their lives.
That sums of Charlie, the jazz trumpeter prodigy who otherwise never blew his own horn. Dead now himself twelve years, but his works are eternal. There aren’t many such men who are born to be heroes, but I was privileged to know one.
Like him, loath him or fall somewhere in between, Jimmy Carter left his mark on the American political landscape.
As Georgia’s governor, the man from Plains doesn’t stand out. He was, in fact, unexceptional in the office: it’s virtually impossible for even anyone old enough to have voted for him in 1970 to recall now any shining moment from his 1971-1975 term. Politically, he was regarded at the time as something of a “New South” candidate, representing a new generation of “progressive” politicians after the tumults of the 1960s, but that only for a brief and passing season.
Instead it was as president that he made his indelible mark. And in the appraisal of even the most objective assayers these days, he comes up far short in nearly every area of governance. In foreign policy most of all. Most tellingly, Carter’s name inevitably surfaces every time America’s longtime cold war with the terrorist state of Iran makes the news, as it does these days, and that is unlikely ever to change. His refusal to support the regime of the late Shah Reza Pahlavi, his general weakness in the face of the Islamic fundamentalist revolution in Iran and the 444-day hostage crisis involving 52 Americans at the Teheran embassy altogether is considered an low point of American world relations and a booster shot for the growth of radical Islam. That’s hard to argue against that objectively with any pretense of seriousness.
So how did this Mr. Carter manage to go to Washington?
Clay Ouzts, a professor of history at the University of North Georgia, undertook to answer that in his recent book, Showdown in the South: Jimmy Carter and the 1976 Democratic Primary (Sentry Press 2018). The book lays out how a combination of a deeply thought out strategy, a clear assessment of his main opposition and − as always amid the mercurial uncertainties of politics − a little luck cleared the way for the “Peanut Express” to reach Pennsylvania Avenue.
In full disclosure, I should say that I’ve known Clay Ouzts for over 40 years, since we both attended Elbert County Comprehensive High School. We’ve only recently become reacquainted, but I’ve had a passing familiarity with some of his work in his field over that time. That aside, he’s done fine work by any measure and this book is no exception.
The story begins not in 1976 but in 1972, when Carter served as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in Miami and first drew attention to himself with his nominating speech for Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington. Jackson did not get the presidential nomination that year and Carter was unsuccessful in maneuvering his way into the vice-presidential slot on the ticket of the nominee, George McGovern (who suffered a historic electoral wipe out at the hands of incumbent Richard Nixon). Carter came away from Miami, however, with his appetite for the White House well whetted.
Enter his young staffer and political adviser, the late Hamilton Jordan. Jordan drew up a three-stage plan that he believed would propel Carter to the 1976 Democratic nomination. It called for Carter to win the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary as a strong entry to the Florida primary in March 1976.
Carter started campaigning in Florida in January 1975, building his base especially in central Florida − what Jordan called the “I-4 strategy,” focused on the areas connected by that interstate highway. He did go into Florida with wins in Iowa and New Hampshire behind him, there to face Henry Jackson, with whom he was on good terms, and Alabama governor George Wallace, with whom he wasn’t. Wallace and Carter in face represented the Janus faces of the Democratic Party in the South and the battle between the two of them especially had a lot on the line.
Carter won the primary, Jordan’s plan showed its sagacity and Outz’s book is the well-researched and well-written explanation of the hows and whys of that. I’m no fan of Carter or of his politics and certainly not of his legacy. I did, however, come away from the book with a great respect for his drive and tenacity, as well as his political acumen in campaigns. He was far better at winning campaigns than in serving the offices he won. That he and his legacy deserve serious scholarship of this sort is of course incontrovertible.
Ouzts is balanced in his appraisal of Carter, meaning this is no hagiography even though I suspect he rates Carter higher than I do. He writes forthrightly, for example, about Carter very much overselling his humble roots as just a peanut farmer from Plains. In one instance Outz relates how Carter’s sister contradicted his claim to when a boy have arisen at 4:30 in the mornings to plow in the fields. In fact, the Carters were wealthy by the standards of the community. James Earle Carter, Sr. was not only a farmer but he owned the local general store, which in the rural South of the time made him both something of a banker and political boss in the community. Indeed, when the elder Carter died, his estate included over 3,000 acres of farmland, peanut warehouses and, reportedly, over one million dollars in cash.
The book is a 335-page excursion into, by modern standards, political ancient history. But it should be essential reading for anyone, scholar or layman, interested in the long running story of how we got here from back beyond there.
If we’re lucky in this life, some of the best Christmas presents we ever receive are stories. This is one of the favorites of my own family:
The Christmas of 1933 the Great Depression was four years old. In the newspapers and on the radio the politicians were promising better times, but in the Pearl Mill mill village an end to hard times seemed nowhere in sight. There seemed little reason for even having hopes of an end anytime soon.
As unlikely as it might seem now, in that time and place events played out that gave my family the gift of a story told at least once every Christmas down through the decades since.
The village had risen along with the textile mill, built in the early 1890s about eight miles east of Elberton along Beaverdam Creek, offering workers a modest prosperity as an alternative to hardscrabble sharecropping. All that ended when the mill burned in 1929, the mill workers and their families forced to find new lives even before the ashes had cooled. In time most of the over thirty mill houses stood empty and the mill property gradually slipped into the receivership of Elberton’s First National Bank. The crumbling hulk of the burned out three-story brick and stone mill loomed over what was mostly a ghost town.
My grandfather farmed near the village. He had worked in the mill several times, boy and man, beginning when he was six and his family had moved from Jackson County to Elbert, and now he scratched a living out of the red and gray dirt, with a few acres of cotton as a cash crop. Like most small farmers, even before the first boll was picked the greater part of his crop was owed to one of the combination storeowner-cotton buyers in Elberton for seed and fertilizer and what food couldn’t be raised. It was a very good year that saw him end up with two hundred dollars in cash when the cotton was sold.
The First National Bank also paid him $3.50 a month for being a night watchman of sorts over the mill property. With my grandmother, my two aunts and my father, then five years old and the youngest child, to provide for, in addition to a frequent houseful of relatives in need of a place to stay, the extra money was more than welcome.
Over time a few people, mostly older couples, with no real livelihood and nowhere else to go, drifted back to Pearl Mill and squatted in the mill houses. As long as the squatters took care of the houses, the bank president told my grandfather, there was no harm in letting them stay. Pearl Mill almost became a village again, but hardly a thriving one. “Looking back later, it was hard to see how they made it through,” my father always said in the telling the story he’d been told, himself remembering some of the later Depression years. The relief that filtered down through the county was limited, and looking for work was almost a lost cause. Hundreds of men, black and white, from young and spry to old and shuffling, according to the December 1 edition of the Elberton Star, thronged an unemployment office in Elberton the last week in November to register for jobs under relief programs. But, the paper noted, R.H. Johnson, manager of the unemployment office, made clear to all that registering was no guarantee of work.
Among the mostly old, there was one young family in the village. Marshall Stanley, his wife and their three daughters, the girls in ranging from maybe six years old to no more than 12 in recollections, had moved into a mill house. Stanley had been a mechanic, and a good one by all accounts, somewhere in the vicinity of Commerce before coming down with an illness that kept him bedridden much of the time. Mrs. Stanley had relatives in Elbert County, so the family landed in Pearl Mill as the likely the only shelter they could find. With some sewing and the occasional odd job that turned up, Mrs. Stanley earned what little money they had, but no matter what, four to five dollars a month had to go for medicine that was her husband’s only relief. Neighbors, then as now and maybe more so, shared what they could and not from any abundance. The Stanleys scraped by.
People looked forward to Christmas then maybe more than now, it seems, and certainly in the country they made sure it lasted longer. On the farms, most of the hardest work was done till spring, and the pace could slow a little. Two weeks or more before Christmas, the children were set to sweeping the bare dirt yards as the women and older girls looked to what they needed to cook and bake. If they could afford it, that would be a lot. Not because Christmas was looked on as a reason to over indulge but because a country Christmas lasted from Christmas Eve till at least New Year’s Day. Visitors were expected during those days and nights and a good part of the cooking and baking, especially the baking, was preparation for welcoming them. Groups of younger people, usually “courting age,” sometimes joined by some older folks, would go from house to house at night in the community caroling, accepting offers of cake and, for the men, maybe a glass of persimmon beer or a dram of high-proof Christmas spirit from a fruit jar of a local moonshiner’s best.
By custom − and how and why it came to be, no one recalls − my grandparents would never do any shopping until the day of Christmas Eve. Some years, the eight-mile trip had to be made by horse-drawn wagon, with them leaving before daylight. During the hardest of the Depression years my grandfather could seldom turn over to my grandmother as much as ten dollars to buy what the children needed or wanted, more likely closer to five dollars − and what was needed got priority. Any needed clothes were bought first, and then a plain toy or two for each child (one year around this time my father received the first of his several “Big Little Books” of adventure stories, some of which I still have). But “buying Christmas” mostly meant buying things not usually bought any other time of the year − candy, nuts, fruits you didn’t grow. In 1933, you could buy a lot of that in Elberton for a few dollars − if you had the few dollars. Fowler’s Grocery, where my grandfather preferred to shop, advertised its full holiday line in the December 22 edition of the Star that year: Mixed hard candy, 10 cents per pound; peppermint sticks, 23 cents a two-pound box; chocolate creme drops, a two-pound tub for 25 cents; oranges or apples, a penny apiece; bananas, 11 cents per pound; fresh grapes, 10 cents per pound; seeded raisins, two 15-ounce packages for 15 cents; Brazil nuts, 15 cents per pound. Cheese was a favorite thing for Christmas in the Chandler family − a rarity any other time − and the grocery offered “Best Cheese” at 15 cents per pound. It’s hard to imagine now macaroni and cheese as a holiday delight, but in that time and place it was just that. Fresh coconuts for the coconut cake that no Christmas in the Chandler family would be complete without were a bargain at 5 and 7 ½ cents apiece, depending on the size. Their whole haul from all this buying would probably no more than fill a modern shopping cart, but the scarcity of these items most of the year at Pearl Mill made it a cornucopia of abundance.
But in all this readying for Christmas a troubling question hung in the air: What kind of Christmas were the Stanley girls facing?
That was answered on Christmas Eve, when three small boxes found their way to the porch of the Stanley house for the girls to find the next morning. The $5 to $10 or thereabouts had been made to stretch even further. Each girl got a paddle ball, a simple wooden paddle with a rubber ball attached with a string, surprisingly a novel toy in the early 1930s. And with that each box also had some fruit and candy. “They came up to the house on Christmas morning, showing us what Santa Claus had brought them,” my father often recounted. “They were as proud of all that as children today would be of every toy in a store. They had probably been told not to expect anything.”
In time, Marshall Stanley’s health improved so he was able to get a job as a mechanic back near Commerce and the family moved from Pearl Mill. The story doesn’t end there, though. His and my grandfather’s paths would cross again a few years later.
It was during a trip to visit Chandler relatives in Jackson County. A mishap on a country road ended in a broken car axle not far from Commerce but a long way from home. Then it was recalled that Marshall Stanley had moved back to the area. By word of mouth he was found and came to the rescue, and in a matter of a few hours he had a new axle in place.
He refused any and all payment. His only reply to my grandfather’s protests and urging was, “No, Raymond, you paid me years ago.”
And so the story was always repeated over the years, never growing with the telling but sticking with the bare facts.
A good deal of the mill village was blown away by a tornado in December 1942. In years afterward my grandfather was able to buy the whole mill property, farming in the shadow of the burned and crumbling building that loomed over the landscape. The few surviving mill houses became barns. My grandfather and grandmother moved into what had been the mill superintendent’s house, bigger and finer (in its day) than the rest. In that house as a child in the 1960s I spent some of my own happiest Christmas Days. At least three generations of the family would be at hand. Tables would hold more food than could be eaten in a week (including macaroni and cheese by every contributing cook). And my grandmother would see that every child got at least one small toy.
And at some point, and sometimes more than once, the story of that Christmas of 1933 would be told.
This story is no sermon, and I’m not looking to make it one. Each can look at it in his own light. It’s just a simple story that became part of one family’s Christmas catechism. A simple act of seeing that three little girls were not left out of the joys of the season was repaid in practical terms many fold. It involved no lavish and expensive gifts − in that time and place there were none to be had − but instead small tokens given not out of excess or even abundance but given from meager means out of simple caring. Small gifts that gave happiness far out of proportion to their price tag. No matter how little their money in hand, neither of my grandparents would have been happy in the season in their own right with lacking, disappointment and the heartbreak of children near enough for them to touch. The three boxes left on the porch in the dark of a Christmas Eve were gifts they gave themselves. The story of it all, never told in its own time but only years afterward, is a gift to the rest of us.
In a lot of homes, it seems, the Thanksgiving turkey is still defrosting but the Christmas tree is already up. They’ve been up in most of the big box stores for some weeks, which is an understandable if annoying desire to prod the holiday buying season into high gear, but it does seem that the urge to erect and decorate festive freestanding timber, real or not, has taken hold this year earlier than before.
If local lore in Elbert County is true, then a house there saw the first Christmas tree in Georgia in the late 1850s. According to a 1958 article that appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the grandchildren of George Loehr and Henrietta Leopole Loehr recollected that their grandparents had had the first Christmas tree in Elberton and there was some reason to believe they had the first Christmas tree in Georgia, at least the first that ever attracted attention and emulation.
George Loehr was born in Einbeck, in the German state of Saxony, and was a skilled cabinet maker when he emigrated to the United States in 1848 with his bride. The 1850 census shows the Loehrs living in Elberton. In October 1858, George Loehr bought a four-acre lot on what’s now Heard Street and built the home that now stands at 305 Heard Street.
The Loehr’s grandchildren remembered that their grandparents “made paper chains and streamers, fashioned other ornaments [and] added strings of snowy-white popcorn” and candles were affixed to the tree. George Loehr carved wooden toys that were placed around the tree inside a small picket fence, not as gifts but as ornaments themselves, as the toys were reused year after year.
There is no way to know for sure if the Loehrs actually introduced the first Christmas tree to Georgia even though it’s plausible that they did introduce the custom to Elberton and this corner of north Georgia. That the Loehrs were German is, however, highly significant to any such claim.
Many cultures in eastern and central Europe lay claim to at least a piece of the origin of the Christmas tree, but it is with Germany, or the various German states before Germany’s 1871 unification, that the custom of the Christmas tree approaching the practice as we know is most associated. The custom of decorating evergreens has both Roman and medieval roots but one plausible story has gaining prominence when Martin Luther decorated an evergreen with lighted candles. By the 1500s and early 1600s the custom had taken firm hold. A reference in a 1570 Bremen guild chronicle notes a small evergreen (Tannenbaum) decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” arranged in the guild house for the children of the guild members on Christmas Day.
The custom followed Germans wherever they went, so it’s almost a certainty, even without finding specific instances, that the custom was in the American colonies well before the American Revolution, especially in Pennsylvania and the central part of South Carolina, the old Sax-Gotha district, that saw significant settlement by immigrants from the German states. And since colonial Georgia also attracted a number of German immigrants, it’s plausible that the Loehr’s Christmas tree wasn’t truly the first in Georgia. But like so many other instances in history, it’s a good story and it serves a useful purpose and there’s no reason beyond arrant pedantry to argue with it.
Some stories hold that Hessian mercenary soldiers during the American Revolution erected Christmas trees during the holidays, and in the postwar years a number of places with German immigrant and German-descended populations are known to have followed the custom. So the first third of the 19th century, Christmas trees were a well-followed custom in some places but wasn’t a commonplace tradition. Stockings were hung by the chimney with care in Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” for instance, but there is no mention at all of a Christmas tree.
The little contretemps of 1775-1783 aside, Americans still tended to take their cultural cues from Great Britain, and there the custom has a complicated history. King George III’s German-born wife, Queen Charlotte, is said to have introduced the Christmas tree about 1800 (if not before and it attracted little note). The custom did not gain widespread following, however, until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of the German state of Saxe-Coberg in 1840. Look all you want in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” for mention of a Christmas tree but you won’t find it. The book was written in 1842 before the custom had become widely popular outside Windsor Castle, so it wasn’t part of the Christmas festivities Dickens depicted. When the custom took hold in Great Britain, naturally it was a shot in the arm for the custom in America.
So … that’s probably more than you might have ever wanted to know about Christmas trees or Christmas trees in Georgia. But it’s the time of year for one of our most dazzling, beautiful and iconic symbols of the season.
Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose significance can change as the years pass, so too some of the people we hold dear. That’s true of Christmas as well, but for most, I think, Thanksgiving is less a time than Christmas for somber reflections on those who live forever in our memories, more a time for instinctively celebrating what you still hold onto in the here and now. That’s good in itself, but also an opportunity missed. Celebrating and giving thanks for the here and now is like the making of new wine, but it’s the savoring of old vintages that bring the most pleasure.
In my early years, we of course learned about the Pilgrims and the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving and accepted it all without a peep. In the third grade class of Mrs. Mary Williams (who just recently turned 100, bless her) at Falling Creek Elementary, the whole first half of the basic reading book dealt with the Plymouth Colony, that section intended to take the class at least through till the Thanksgiving break. As interesting as the history lesson was, at least to some of us, it was hard being in a rural Georgia county in late 1970 and feeling any particular kinship with characters in far off Massachusetts of 250 years before. The idea of a special day set aside to give thanks also seemed a little odd, as in the even more than now churchgoing times, giving thanks was pretty much an every day, every meal thing.
It wasn’t till years later, and again most recently after reading Nathaniel Philbrick’s Mayflower(Penguin Group Publishing 2006), that the traditional story of the first Thanksgiving pretty much collapsed in my thinking on the day. First, we don’t have even an approximate date for the 1621 feast. According to Philbrick’s research, anytime from mid September to late November is as close as one can guess. After the harvest, when the colonists had “gathered the fruits of our labors,” according to the governor William Bradford, it was time to “rejoice together … after a more special manner.” Geese, ducks and deer (the deer supplied by the local Pokanokets, an estimated 100 of whom accompanied the colonists’ friend Massasoit to the feast) were also as much a part of the menu as the wild turkeys hunted in the woods. It’s also unlikely that anything ever took place like the traditional depiction of the colonists and Pokanokets sitting down at a long table covered with a tablecloth with tableware set out. Historians think instead that the celebration was more in the fashion of a traditional English country harvest festival of the time, with the various fowl and the deer roasting over spits on open fires and the revelers eating either standing or squatting. (And both colonists and tribesmen would have eaten the fowl and venison mostly with knives and their fingers. Forks were still decades away from being common. Any stews or potages of meats and vegetables would have been eaten from crude bowls with carved wooded spoons or small oyster shells.) There would have been no cranberry sauce or pumpkin pie, but there would have been beer, for the Pilgrims, as we call them (they called themselves Saints), were not nearly as stiff and Hellfire-breathing as they’re sometimes depicted. They liked their beer, and one of the bountiful crops being celebrated was the barley, which would ensure ample beer and ale through the winter.
Learning all this, I didn’t feel bad or deprived (as I had occasionally in fleeting thoughts over the years) at the Thanksgivings of childhood, which were not much like the traditional story. Thanksgiving then meant a big turkey (Thanksgiving and Christmas being the only times of the year we ate it), watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade (which in my thinking “officially” marked the beginning of the countdown to Christmas − it still does), and being out of school for two days. In fact, thinking back our Thanksgivings probably had more in common with what historians believe actually occurred than with the traditional story. But there was always the hunting.
My father was not a hunter in the sense that he hunted for sport. He had nothing against hunting as a sport, and certainly had nothing against the killing of game animals for food, but he simply seldom hunted for the sake of it. Looking back, he never really had the time. Thanksgiving was an exception. He would take his 12-gauge shotgun and the 12-years-old or so me would have my .22 caliber single shot rifle (or later my single shot .410 shotgun) and we would spend three or four hours prowling the woods along Beaverdam Creek (our family then owned land almost a mile along each side of the creek in the Pearl Mill community of Elbert County) usually shooting into squirrels’ nests (we seldom saw any game or other signs of game). I don’t recall us ever actually killing any game; we tended to pay little attention to the noise we made slogging through the dry leaves, more than enough noise to forewarn any game. It wasn’t till some years later, after the fever of adolescence, that I realized that that the lack of success didn’t matter, in fact hadn’t been at all important even at the time. The idea was simply that we would hunt together, and something unspoken would be passed that would probably only later be appreciated.
It suited me that we didn’t kill any game. Like my father had, I have nothing against hunting game animals for food and have done a good measure of it, but the idea of killing an animal just for the kill doesn’t appeal to me and hasn’t since I was five years old. And that introduction gives me a good excuse to tell another story that comes to mind whenever talk of hunting comes up.
Like “Ralphie,” the hero of the movie “A Christmas Story” that came out nearly 20 years later, I wanted a BB rifle. But where “Ralphie” was 10 or 11, I was five, but my age didn’t matter to my grandmother. If I wanted it, then by God I should have it, and so I soon did.
Elberton had a Western Auto store in those days, on North Oliver Street, fronting the town square, and that’s where she made the purchase. Donald Brown, son of a neighbor in Pearl Mill was a salesman at Western Auto and he helped me pick out the multi-shot, lever-action piece of boyhood paraphernalia, the stock polished and the metalwork finished just like my father’s guns, and even threw in a cardboard tube of BBs and a handful of paper targets. These would prove useful after the initial outing.
Back home, in my grandmother’s backyard, I took aim at all manner of targets, a tin can, a plank that stuck out from a shed, the twig of the big peach tree that stood beside the chicken coop … and then one of the chickens wandered into view. It was about half-grown, as I recall, and was one of several that regularly made it out of the fence, usually only to wander back in again. It was strutting and clucking its way along the outside of the coop’s chicken wire fence, scratching for grubs and other bugs in the dirt.
I took careful aim down the barrel, the front sight blade squarely on the chicken’s head. I pulled the trigger and the rifle spit the BB at the target. The chicken collapsed without a sound. I had hit where I had aimed; the BB had gone right into the chicken’s head.
I walked over and nudged it with my toe, expecting it to get up and get away. So far as I then grasped the whole notion of death, it had never occurred to me that the BB rifle would kill or that the chicken I shot could and would die.
I recall a sense of panic setting in. How would I explain this? There was no way out of it. The chicken was dead from being shot with a BB and I was the only one around with a BB rifle. There would be no need for a trial, and the peach tree was handy. (That was the way things tended to play out on “Gunsmoke.”) Even though I was only five, Sherlock Holmes couldn’t have added up the evidence to that conclusion any faster than I did. There was nothing else to do but confess and hope for mercy.
It was a lenient court, and I probably got off far better than I deserved. My grandmother regretted the loss of the chicken, but she made sure I understood the idea of killing only what you intend to eat. She cleaned and fried the chicken and made me eat it, even though the experience had left me with no taste at all for chicken. Before that, she did make me walk down the hill from her house, rifle in one hand, carrying my kill by its legs in the other, and show my mother what I’d done. My worst fears as I’d stood there by the chicken coop fence looking down at the still and quiet chicken hadn’t come to pass − and I kept my BB rifle. But I never again shot it at anything that was alive.
That’s why I’ve never been a hunter, at least not a hunter for sport. (And I’m not especially fond of fried chicken, either.)
All such memories, often as the years fly by, peopled by those who live on only in your memory, are milestones that add up to lead you by whatever routes and meanderings to where you are. They’re one of the things I’m most thankful for, and not just one day a year.
It’s not at all uncommon that anytime you mention to someone in passing that you’re from Elbert County, they’ll say, “Isn’t that where the Georgia Guidestones are?”
It isn’t really a question. They’ve heard of the Guidestones in some way, and the Elbert County reference is part of the package. The statement is just an opening gambit usually with the hope of provoking discussion of the curiosity and maybe learning something they haven’t heard.
There’s no doubt the Guidestones provoke curiosity. They also lend themselves to both idle and involved speculation, to say nothing of attracting the attention of the mystical-minded, the conspiracy theorists and an assorted variety of keepers of odd knowledge. It’s Elbert County’s addition to the gallery of cult claptrap that includes Area 51 and Roswell, New Mexico.
I was reminded of all this again recently when a friend in New York City mentioned hearing about the background of and speculation regarding the Guidestones on a radio program devoted to conspiracy theories.
The “official” history of the Guidestones is well known, but still cloaked in some mystery. The story goes that Joe Fendley, at the time owner of Elberton Granite Finishing Company, was approached in 1979 by a mysterious man calling himself “Robert C. Christian” who purported to represent a group wanting to commission a monument. Details about the group were never publicly revealed. All in Elbert County involved in the project were to be sworn to secrecy.
On hearing the proposition Fendley was at first incredulous but took an interest. Apparently, money was no object to the mysterious Mr. Christian, who provided a model of the desired monument, along with a sheaf of specifications, and soon purchased a five-acre site for the stones on a promontory north of Elberton and just off Ga. 77. Fendley enlisted local banker Wyatt Martin in the venture to handle the financial arrangements, and like Fendley, he also purportedly swore to carry any secrets about Christian and his group to the grave.
The resulting structure was officially dedicated in March 1980.
It consists of five upright slabs − each 16 feet, 4 inches high, weighing over 42,000 pounds apiece − with a capstone, only vaguely similar to Stonehenge in England to which it is sometimes compared. On the slabs are ten “guiding principles” in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, Traditional Chinese, and Russian that read thus:
Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
Unite humanity with a living new language.
Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
Balance personal rights with social duties.
Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
Another inscription reads “Let these be guidestones to an Age of Reason” with translations in Babylonian cuneiform, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyption hieroglyphics.
The philosophical and historical inspiration of the “principles” has defied even the most sagacious keepers of odd knowledge. They appear a mishmash of aphorisms bringing to mind various Eastern religions and philosophies. It’s not my purpose here to expound on all the speculated inspirations for the stones, but over the years since their building has been attributed to Satanists, the New World Order conspiracy, the Rosicrucian Order and various types of sun and moon worshipers (following the noting that the arrangement of the stones marks out an 18.6 year lunar declination cycle.
That’s the official version of the story. Now here’s a version I believe to be the right one.
It was told to me by a woman who spent most of her high school years in Elbert County and is now a nationally prominent clinical psychologist living in San Antonio Texas. During her high school years she was a close friend of banker Wyatt Martin’s daughter and spent much time at the Martin home. I have known her for over forty years and have no reason at all to doubt her version of events. She has, in fact, expressed amazement that the story she told isn’t now generally known.
During the time of the Guidestones’ planning, she tells me, she was an inadvertant eavesdropper to conversations at Martin home involving banker Martin and Joe Fendley. At third person at the meetings was a Pakistani businessman named Jalil who had built a factory in Elberton, Georgia Synthetics. The project to create the “mysterious” monument was intended to showcase Elbert County’s granite industry and perhaps create an oddity that would draw tourists, putting Elbert County on the map in more than one way. Fendley’s company would do that actual work and Martin would purport to handle the money for the mysterious Mr. Christian. Jalil would provide the money. (Who the person who passed himself off as “Robert C. Christian” on the occasion when the person actually had to appear seems to be the only actual mystery remaining.)
So there it is, an alternative history of the Georgia Guidestones. It is thoroughly plausible and I believe it to be the right story.
What of the “official” story? Well, if creating a curiosity was the “conspirators’” goal, it worked.