in the day
Al head shot
Charles Allen Clayton, III 
June 14, 1934 — April 27, 2014

Every odyssey has to begin someplace, and in this case it was Washington D.C. on June 16, 1967 at a special hearing of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, the most prominent members of which were its chairman, Sen. Joseph S. Clark, and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

I ‘d read a New York Times news story that this committee would be hearing from a team of doctors who had traveled though parts of Appalachia, Georgia, Alabama and, most notably, Mississippi, and returned to report on conditions in the South amounting to actual starvation. Starvation in America! It was this that prompted me to fly down to Washington from my office at LOOK magazine in New York to hear for myself what this story was all about.

And the whole story was as bleak as anyone could imagine. For example, the doctors testified that in a small Appalachian town on the Virginia-Tennessee border, five small children ripped apart a live shrieking hen and devoured it uncooked, feathers, blood and all. It was the first meat they’d eaten in three months.

But Mississippi, “the least progressive of the Southern states,” was the real horror show. “We do not want to quibble over words, “ reported the doctors, “but ’malnutrition’ is not quite what we found; the hundreds of boys and girls we saw were desperately hungry—weak, in pain, sick, their lives are being shortened. They are suffering from hunger and disease and directly or indirectly they are dying from them—which is exactly what ‘starvation’ means.”

In support of their testimony the doctors presented scores of black-and-white 8×10 photographs that, as they were passed around, and projected onscreen, stirred noticeable reactions from every one of the senators.

These photographs had been taken by a photographer who had been commissioned by the Southern Regional Council to go to all the places the doctors had visited and make a record of what he saw.

Following the testimony, I went to Sen. Kennedy and asked if I could take this set of photos back to LOOK. He thought that was a great idea and handed them over.

Next day, back in New York, I described the hearing to LOOK’s Managing Editor, Pat Carbine, and arrayed the photographs on a table, and said to her exactly this, I said, “I want to go to Mississippi and I want to go with this photographer.”

One look at the photos and she was won over — she said she was knocked out by these deeply painful stirring shots of black destitution taken by this fellow, Al Clayton. And she immediately placed a call to his home in Franklin, Tennessee to strike up a deal.

Less than a week after this we convened, as planned, in the Airport in Jackson, Mississippi. I first spotted him at the top of a tall escalator –- a dark-haired lanky guy with a Nikon hanging around his neck.

We thereupon rented a car and set off for the ever potentially volatile Delta. Prior to this we had both been brought up to date on the temper of the terrain by knowledgeable sources, including an FBI agent whose survival tips included taking the dome light out of the overhead in the car “so they can’t see to shoot you when you open the door,” and also, when chased, “step on it.”

Pilgrim storyWe traveled for three days, visiting some of the malnourished families Al had already known in Humphreys, LeFlore and Neshoba counties. I think someone recognized Al as a photographer because we were chased down the highway out of Greenwood by a pick-up full of aggravated rednecks. But finally we made our way to Yazoo City and came upon what turned out to be the perfect story subjects.

In the course of this search across the Delta I had come to learn that Al, the son and grandson of railroad men, hailed from Etowah, Tennessee and later Copperhill, where, he joked, he was salutatorian of his class of fifteen. After that, he spent six years in the U.S. Navy as a Medical Corpsman and medical photographer assigned to a special Marine combat unit.

Al attended the Art Center School in Los Angeles and had been a professional ever since, supporting his wife and two young girls, Jennie and Hope with mostly commercial work. He was, at 33, seven years older than I was at the time, and was already a veteran when it came to hostile environments like this.

The family we finally zeroed in on were perfect examples of the downward spiral of malnutrition. This was the family of Nathan Pilgrim, his wife, Lerleen, and their children Pig, 2, Dometa Jo,4, Lerleen,3, and Teresa, 6.

Nathan had lost his job when a local cement plant went out of business, and — with mechanization making most black farm laborers unnecessary and unwanted — he could only gather with others each day in front of a grocery where whites might come to fetch a day laborer or two. Occasionally he might bring back a few dollars worth of food. But he couldn’t grow his own food beside the rented house because the landlord, like most, wouldn’t allow it.

Meanwhile, the Federal commodity food program and the Food Stamp program, as it was then, were arbitrarily managed by the local powers in a way that amounted to deliberately inflicted suffering. They wanted to drive local blacks to Chicago or wherever, but in no way should they be enabled to survive here or anywhere in Mississippi. In fact, the sheriff of another county bragged that he had broken up an effort to establish a Federal food program because “there’d just be a lot of niggers lined up and that’s all it would do.”

Al and I focused primarily on the articulate daughter, Teresa, most of whose thoughts and dreams seemed to revolve around food. Her family had no stove or refrigerator in the kitchen, just flies and a shelf with the food supply: a quarter-filled jar of instant coffee, some flour, and an inch of rice in a cellophane bag. Al captured it all, and we made daily runs to Jackson to mail the film rolls to New York to prevent having the film being stolen or ripped out of the cameras and destroyed as often happened in these parts.

In the course of the several days we were in Yazoo City we stayed at a local motel, not knowing it was owned by the local Klan chief. But it was a decent place that included a restaurant.

On this particular morning, prior to setting off for the Pilgrim’s, Al and I were having breakfast in the restaurant, reading the New Orleans Times-Picayune, when we noticed, after the few other customers had left, that the front door closed rather firmly, and then locked.

Next we were approached by a uniformed man, the deputy police chief, and three others claiming to represent the Yazoo County White Citizens Council. They arrayed themselves in a circle around our table from which we both stood up. One of them had both fists doubled up and was slightly lurching from side to side. He had a butch cut and a Maytag build and was definitely prone to easy aggravation.

The deputy came right to the point. “These niggers ‘round chere they got their business and we got our’n. And we jus don’ want you New York agitators comin’ down here and stirrin’ ‘em up like you do.”

“Now wait, wait a minute,” I said, hoping I could think of something, “Just ‘cause you boys hate nigras don’t make you better than us.”

This seemed momentarily to deflate things as they tried to figure what that piece of nonsense meant. At which point Al jumped in and said, “Hey, I’m from Franklin, Tennessee and he’s from Georgia. We’re not from Noo York.” On which note I pulled out my Honorary Georgia Peace Officers Card signed by Lester Maddox. This seemed to defuse the atmosphere.

Basically we went on to give them the general impression that we were both potential Kluxers under the skin and were on a mission to document Negro treachery on the hoof. And somehow they bought it. The amiability of it all got to the point where, before leaving, the deputy offered to lend us his sawed-off eight-gauge shotgun for our own protection.

Following this, our work with the Pilgrims went on without further strife until we’d gotten what we needed and got the hell out of Yazoo.

Al said that, comparatively speaking, this experience – except for the restaurant encounter — hadn’t been quite as stressful as the work he’d done on the photographs the doctors had presented to the Senate. While photographing many of those others cases of desperate starvation and despair he would commonly come back to his car or his motel room and break down crying.

Teresa Pilgrim
Teresa Pilgrim

Our piece was published in he Dec. 27, 1967 issue of LOOK as “The Hungry World of Teresa Pilgrim,” and it was, so far as magazine stories go, an immediate blockbuster hit. At that time LOOK had a circulation of a shade under 8 million and a per issue readership of about 44 million. So a lot of people very quickly became aware for the first time of the fact of starvation in this country and who it hurts.

The story brought in a record-setting number of letters, thousands of dollars of contributions plus gifts, toys, clothes — and a job for Nathan Pilgrim at Lockheed in Los Angeles. As well as a home there. They were even on national television shows, such as The Joe Pine Show and others.

On top of that, apart from various awards including a Pulitzer nomination, some lawmakers said that Al’s photographs and our story were a strong influence in passing the Food Stamp Act and related legislation.

And from that point on, in the eyes of editors, Charles Allen Clayton III and I could do no wrong. This expedition to darkest Mississippi, in fact, represented the first several hundred of what would become literally tens of thousands of miles we traveled together in a creative collaboration extending over the following decades.

It became clear early on that Al was an artist of the highest order — and a cool cat to boot. It didn’t occur to me right off, but in his general presentation he had something of the same cool spirit as Steve McQueen. He was fearless but not foolhardy, practical but subversively perverse

Biafra Story 2So for our next adventure we took the starvation issue to even greater heights, or depths. In 1969 we undertook to explore the growing international tragedy of Biafra.

The situation was this: Nigeria had been a British colony consisting of hundreds of tribal and ethnic populations with very little in common except the name of the country. It consisted of four regions, with the north being ruled by the Hausas, who were Muslim, the west populated by the Yerubas, who were Muslim and Christian, and the predominantly Christian Ibos, who were most adapted to European values, in the south and east .

When Nigeria gained independence in 1960, all of these factions produced political chaos that provoked a coup by the Nigerian Army and a counter-coup that led to a massacre of Ibos, leading most of Nigeria’s Ibos to flee to the safety of their home territory in the southeast. Consequently the military governor of the southeast, Lt. Col. C. Odumegwu Ojukwu, proclaimed the secession of eastern Nigeria as the Republic of Biafra on May 30, 1967.

The Nigerians responded by starting a shooting war to retake the secessionist territory, which developed into the Nigerian Civil War or the Biafran War in which the Biafrans were clearly outmanned, outgunned and, after some initial successes, soon blockaded and besieged on land and sea.

The Biafrans claimed the Nigerians, with the support of the U.K. and the USSR, were using mass starvation and genocide against them—over a million having already died — and appealed for help to the outside world, which responded.

This led to the Biafran Airlift in 1968, supported by organizations such as Caritas, the Catholic relief agency, the World Council of Churches and various volunteer groups who flew food and medicine into Biafra under cover of night, landing on the country’s remaining airstrip, a stretch of reinforced highway.

It was into this mess that Al and I plunged in January of 1969. We flew out of the Portuguese island of Sao Tome in a DC-6 loaded with nine tons of salt.

Al and Bill in Biafra
Al and Bill in Biafra

The idea was to fly into the country with no lights on the plane, and, upon sending a code, the lights on the airstrip would be switched on just barely long enough for the plane to line up for landing. The chief problem here was “The Intruder,” a Nigerian DC-3 that looked for the lights in order to drop bombs on the whole operation.

As we made the first attempt to land, bombs began exploding on the ground and the pilot suddenly pulled up to circle, hold and try once again later. Meanwhile, the Biafrans opened up with Bofors antiaircraft guns and 50-caliber machine gun fire, hoping to drive off the Intruder, but with a few of the 50-caliber tracer shells ripping through the fuselage of this plane. I recall the Norwegian pilot whistling, then saying “This is an expensive load of salt.”

Hours later, once on the ground, a score of men loaded the salt bags onto trucks that would carry this and other planeloads of provisions, perhaps 120 tons a night, to feeding centers across the 3,000 remaining square miles of this besieged countryside.

None of this was even close to what was needed, as a result of which the weakest, meaning mostly the youngest, were dying all over the place — singly, in groups , in the cities, in the jungles, by the roadsides, in hospitals, and some literally dropping dead right in front of your face. Beyond those who were actually dying on the spot were an even larger number on the outskirts of death. Bloated bellies, faded eyes and umbilical hernias mean severe malnutrition. Swollen limbs and reddish hair meant the protein deficiency disease, kwashiorkor. Either of these means the process has begun of wasting away into death by starvation. Al unflinchingly captured it all.

Not far from the airstrip was the Caritas feeding center and hospital run by Father Gus Finucane, a huge Irish priest of the Order of the Holy Ghost. Almost a thousand young children would cluster at his compound each morning with tin cups to gulp down a green concoction of stockfish, palm oil, salt and vegetables.

We stayed in a hut near the compound, and the very first night we were both blown right out of our cots into the ground by an exploding bomb dropped by the Intruder. Outside the hut, Father Finucane was running about, gathering up armloads of frail kids and carrying them into shallow bomb shelters.

From here we traveled to scattered villages and other feeding centers, witnessing the ravagement of war, starvation and despair, the roads filled with flowing droves of dispossessed individuals, families, lost children, most of them refugees from captured areas.

The fighting was never far away and everywhere were truckloads of ragged soldiers with an assortment of firearms, most of which were captured from Nigerian troops.

Before going to the front we stayed at a military base where we saw three platoons of Biafrans, with only 11 of the soldiers bearing WWI era British rifles, marching through the compound with a stilted, British Army-style strut, some barefoot, others with the soles of their shoes flapping in the dust, Behind this tromped a motley military band with meager instruments and a drum marked Enugu High School, who broke into a reedy version of The Colonel Bogey March.

Immediately prior to being trucked to the front, the soldiers insisted we smudge our faces with charred wood and laughed as we became black.. Upon reaching the front line, such as it was, at some indistinguishable spot in the jungle, we advanced with the troops for most of a day, slept in hastily dug out foxholes, then retreated the next morning under mortar fire.

Back in the temporary Biafran capitol of Umuahia, I interviewed President Ojukwu as Al shot some potential cover photos, and we figured we’d done what we’d come for.

The following are the concluding scenes from the story as published:

After leaving Ojukwu, Photographer Al Clayton and I walked to Queen Elizabeth Hospital to cable about our return to Sao Tome that night. On the hospital grounds, in an opensided cathedral, a choir was practicing a Latin hymn in four part harmony that carried down the hill, drifting past flocks of fragile skeleton-children with skins stretched tight over tiny bones, past wards of wounded soldiers, on past the main gate and across the street, where ragged refugees and ghostly beggar women with babies tugging at dry breasts gaped blankly at passersby.

Walking easily in the thin sunshine, we turned a corner just as a wisp of thunder boomed in the east. At once people on the road began yelling and running blindly as something with a roar charged out of the sun to the thunder blast of a second bomb and the regular peck of heavy machine gun fire. We dove for a ditch as the Nigerian attack bomber—a Soviet Ilyushin Il-28—strafed just above treetop level, spraying 20-mm cannon fire from both nose and tail. It hissed overhead, released a third bomb near the center of town and shrieked upward. Behind us, a child’s legs were shot off. Up ahead three houses were blown apart. From the rubble, four men lugged another with a face swathed in thick blood, who, once they laid him on the grass, sucked three raspy gurgling gasps for breath before his chest ceased to rise and fall. Farther on were more deaths, men chopped in two with cannon fire, an auto flaming furiously, and stunned women rending the air again and again with shrill, incoherent animal screams.

We left Umuahia within the hour, heading a relic of a car toward Uli and the airfield. Midway, at Orlu, some people were burying others beside the road. Ahead, a gasoline tank truck smoldered among debris, and beyond that, under a palm frond shelter, lay — freshly dead and stacked—14 women and children whose roadside fruit stands had intruded upon the Ilyushin’s bombsights.

Once at Uli, we waited at Father Finucane’s compound for darkness and the first plane. As the sun grew low and deeper gold, the trucks that would receive that night’s food shipments began lining up under a shroud of trees…

I thought back to the Mbaise Joint Hospital at Aboh, near the front, where Al and I had been stranded briefly—a dumping bin, it seemed, for men fresh from battle with wounds too horrible for decent hospitals. Lockjawed troops, burning with tetanus whimpered and writhed on mats on the floor. But Mbaise had something else: a maternity ward with a handful of listless mothers and infants already withered gaunt.

Suddenly, through a curtain of flying insects, a Biafran nurse burst into the ward with a plumpish baby, still wet and discolored from new birth. She snuggled him into a cradle with a tiny glint of excitement in her eye, and the room stirred slightly. “Is it a boy or girl?” I asked. The nurse looked up and straight through me with a fixed, defiant smile: “It is a soldier!”

Through multiple plane connections after all this, Al and I made it back to New York with our valuable material in hand. According to what his older daughter Jennie recently told me, Al checked into his New York hotel room and collapsed in tears from the accumulated stress from all this. As for me, I began assembling my notes in an office in the LOOK Building until I began feeling sweaty and feverish and suddenly collapsed flat on the floor. Turns out, after being quickly hustled off to a jungle disease specialist in Manhattan, I had come down with a then-rare case of chloroquine-resistant malaria.

The piece, “BIAFRA: Despair, Hope On The Edge of Extinction,” appeared in the April 1, 1969 edition of LOOK and generated major attention. For his part, Al won the Overseas Press Club Award, Best Coverage of Foreign News Event, 1969.

Later that same year Al published the much-acclaimed book Still Hungry In America featuring the photographs he had taken for the team of doctors who had appeared before Sen. Kennedy’s Subcommittee. His co-author was the psychiatrist Dr. Robert Coles, who was one of those doctors and who wrote the text. The Introduction was written by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

On June 19, 2006, National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” did a special two-part story about this book, one part of which is a fairly extensive interview with Al entitled “Al Clayton: Chronicler of America’s Poor and Hungry” which you can access at NPR.org.

South storyIn 1969 I was made LOOK’s Southeastern Bureau Chief, with an office back in my hometown of Atlanta, which made it easier to conspire with Al on a whole slew of potential new projects.

We actually undertook two other LOOK stories but didn’t pursue them to completion. One had to do with Sen. Strom Thurmond and his 26-year-old bride, which just seemed depressing. Another had to do with a physically remote and almost inaccessible town in extreme northeast Tennessee, Big Springs, whose only connection to the 20th Century was electricity.

Meanwhile we continued an ongoing interest in hogs as well as deceased animals on the road (which I’ll come back to).

In 1970 Al and I spent months on a major LOOK project about the South. We bought an old Ford pickup truck, plastered it with an America Love It Or Leave It bumper sticker on the front and a George Wallace for President sticker on the back, attached a gun rack and took to the roads for what became an 8,000 mile trek throughout most of the old Confederacy.

This wasn’t as life-threatening as our previous ventures, though we spent considerable time, and had a few hairy moments, with the Ku Klux Klan, mostly in North Carolina. And we were chased out of Perry, Ga. by the law while photographing the beginnings of what became a major Civil Rights march which we followed all the way up to Atlanta.

It was while in Atlanta, in the course of this story, that we attended a lakeside party by Newsweek’s Joe Cumming, at which Al met Mary Ann Cleveland, whom I had known since 1960 when she had run a Beatnik-era coffeehouse, The Golden Horn, in “the Castle” on 15th Street in Atlanta. He showed her our truck. That’s all it took. They were married four years later and for forty years thereafter.

This piece, entitled “THE AMERICAN SOUTH: Rise OF A New Confederacy” came out in LOOK on November 17, 1970. Chock full of great shots by Al, it was the longest piece LOOK had ever published, so I was told, next to book excerpts. And, as usual, it was a major award-winning hit that aggravated all the right people.

Bob & Sybil Jones
J. B. Stoner

Country:Al

In that same year Al photographed A Mind To Stay Here by John Egerton, with whom he later photographed a book on Southern Food, and still later another called Generations.

Our last LOOK endeavor was in a special issue devoted to country music. The whole idea of doing this, in fact, was mostly Al’s. In the “LOOK Behind The Scenes” page in the front of the issue, it says: “LOOK’s Art Director, Will Hopkins, is a country music buff and a prime force behind the scenes of our special salute to country music. ‘I wouldn’t know how we’d do this story without Al Clayton,’ he says. ‘Al knows most of the people who make country music, its town, Nashville, Tennessee, and its home, the Grand Ole Opry. They’re all hometown to Al. He’s as unflappable as the whole scene.’”

The cover featured a photo of a then-not-all-that widely known Kris Kristofferson taken by the great Stanley Tretick, with an Al photo of Roy Acuff at the Opry superimposed on Kris’s guitar.

He and I did two pieces for this issue: one on the Grand Ole Opry and another called “Superstars, Poets, Pickers, Prophets,” which were short takes on people like Skeeter Davis, Roy Acuff, Tex Ritter, Mickey Newbury, Kris Kristofferson, Earl Scruggs, Chris Gantry and Tammy Wynette.

One interesting by-product of this was when I asked most of these artists, and others, whom they most admired, the name that most often came up was Townes Van Zandt, an elusive genius of a poet in the same league as Hank Williams who lived nowhere and had written some of the best stuff that anyone had ever heard.

It was after this that I managed to track down Townes — presently regarded as an iconic legend — whom Al photographed for a couple of stories we did for other magazines, and with whom I remained a close friend until his death in 1997 on January 1st, the same date Hank died.

Kris Kristofferson
Townes Van Zandt

Snakes 2LOOK folded in late 1971, thanks to the Nixon administration’s exorbitant postage rate increase — the same reason that LIFE folded less than a year later — so Al and I forged ahead with other subjects for other projects and publications. For instance, we worked with religious snake handlers in various Holiness churches in Georgia and Tennessee. We worked with the then-unknown Ru Paul and members of the cross-dressing performance scene. We did an important piece on the two shipyard workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi who were briefly abducted and taken aboard an extraterrestrial craft in 1972 (which really happened). We did a magazine story on Greens (collard and turnip) for which purpose we got then-Gov. Lester Maddox to come down to Pittypat’s Porch in Atlanta, tuck a napkin into his collar and pose, grinning, over a forkful of greens.

We also pursued our mutual passion for hogs, their wild, wise and wily ways. The eventual upshot of this was The Hog Book, published by Doubleday in 1978, which became, and remains, a best-selling cult classic and still the best and most authoritative work on the subject (according to Amazon).

Earlier, though, back when LOOK was still in operation, we assembled many of the best of Al’s photos of all sorts of animals beside the road — deceased. Very tasteful shots, really. And, with slide carousel in hand, we went to the offices of Esquire Magazine, which was located in the LOOK building at 488 Madison Ave. Our reputations had preceded us and we were greeted by the fabled Esquire editor Harold Hayes, his art director and a few others and went into a viewing room where we projected the proposed contents of a story to be called (Al’s title) “Look Out Kitty, Here Comes De-troit.”

If you’ve seen Mel Brooks’s “The Producers, “ you may recall the shot of the stunned, mouth-agape audience upon first hearing “Springtime for Hitler.” That’s the way it was for this. The art director, when he was able to speak, admired the aesthetic quality, the composition and the general quality, but he said readers would probably try to set fire to their offices if they ran a thing like that.

critter-cuisineSomewhat related, in the outrageousness department, was an excellent (and successful) small book that Al and Mary Ann produced called Critter Cuisine, the cover of which featured an armadillo on its back lying on a bed of lettuce, surrounded by taco chips, strawberries, grapes and cheese, with its underside piles with guacamole and a single chip stuck upright in the green mass.

Mary Ann, an expert food stylist arranged the various creatures

displayed in the book and also wrote the text. The jacket flap reads: “For the cook who’s cooked it all—new and wondrous dishes based on the creatures that crawl in our yards at night, swim in our drainage ditches, and flap around in vacant houses…You and your children can marvel at how easy it is to catch, prepare and eat the species indigenous to your neighborhood and highways…”

The pages feature very artfully arranged and photographed dishes such as Tadpole Consomme, Festive Possum, Mixed Lizards Demi-Chaud Froid, Batburgers and Armadillo Asado Ahumar.

At about this same time Al produced COVENANT: Faces, Voices, Places, a large format book with Rev. Will D. Campbell, his (and so many others’) spiritual mentor. Rev. Campbell was the famously radical fundamentalist minister who, among other things, escorted the first black kids through howling mobs into Central High School in Little Rock. Their book is a panorama of some of Al’s most moving images of Southern people alongside fictional soliloquies by Will D. As the Introduction says: “Like the Biblical tribes of Israel, the people of the South have clung to a remnant of common identity throughout their history as if by some unwritten covenant they were destined to abide.”

As for what her father was all about, Jennie Clayton mused, “My belief is that he was against people judging other people. It seems like a common theme. He wanted to show Black Panthers in their radical sense and in their home sense, the Klan in their cross burnings and then he wanted to show them with their children. He wanted to show Ru Paul and the cross dressers as men and as women. And then the food shots—beautiful food and then you say, my God, that’s an eyeball! It seems to me he wanted to make us really look at things that were uncomfortable to look at, like looking at starving children.”

Quite obviously LOOK and LIFE, in which Al’s work also appeared, had access to and published the absolute cream of the crop of the world’s top professional photographers, and in that rarefied sphere of individuals Al was universally recognized as royalty.

Said former journalist Marsha VandeBerg, Ph.D., now an executive advisor and Asia Pacific analyst in San Francisco, “My memories of Al go back to 1969 when I tagged along with him and Bill Hedgepeth to east Tennessee for a LOOK story. While Al never made a sweeping entrance, one always knew he was there. He was always present and counted when I moved to Nashville in 1970, a freshly minted Duke University graduate headed to Vanderbilt and then on to the staff at The Tennessean. Al was truly a photographer in the tradition of Walker Evans and together with Bill Hedgepeth he sparked my fire about news reporting, the public’s right and need to know and the influence of the printed word especially when married effectively with photographs. Al and Bill were their own James Agee/Walker Evans (Let Us Now Praise Famous Men) team. As a photographer, Al was an artist and a businessman who ran his Nashville photo studio with the late Slick Lawson before moving on to Atlanta. He also was a friend with kindness, wit and a chuckle at the hard luck that life hands each of us, no matter who or where we are. I’d guess he’s chuckling now.”

It was about five years ago that this rare man fell prey to some rare and unexplainable thing. He first began experiencing bouts of dizziness and then increasingly frequent blackouts and oftentimes injuries resulting from falling. It got to the point where Mary Ann had to place chairs throughout a room in their Jasper, Ga. home for him to use to support himself every few steps just on the way, for example, to the bathroom. His blood pressure was virtually uncontrollable and would soar and then plunge to extremes.

It was not until last year that specialists at Vanderbilt University Hospital were able accurately to diagnose this condition, which was so rare that they didn’t even charge him for their services. And the diagnosis was Dysautonomia, a total disruption of the autonomic nervous system and the glandular functions that keep organs running smoothly. His particular variation of this incurable ailment was called Orthostatic Hypotension, and the docs had never seen anything quite like it.

In late April, with Al needing virtually round-the-clock care, Mary Ann and Jennie enrolled him for a couple of days at a medical facility in Gainesville, where Jennie lives, while Mary Ann made a quick trip to Detroit on family business.

Early on the Sunday morning of April 27, Jennie arrived with some groceries, preparing to spend the rest of the day with her father. She stopped to talk with the nurses who reported that Al had waked up and been tended to around 6:30 and then had asked that the nurse close the door so he could sleep a bit more. So everything seemed to be going smoothly.

She entered the room and immediately saw him on his knees at the edge of the bed. He had apparently gotten up to go to the bathroom and then crawled back to reach the bed. He was on his knees with both arms on the bed and his head turned to the side, between his hands. He was still warm, she said. He had just reached the bedside maybe just a few minutes earlier and he looked, she said, like a child on his knees at prayer before going to sleep.

I can see how it must have been for him. He had to have crawled back across that room to his resting place, the now familiar sensations beginning to stir in his brain and throughout his afflicted 79-year-old body, but determined to reach his goal. And there, propped on his knees, his hands and his head on the cool surface of the mattress, but ever the same old Al, it is entirely in character that his final fading thought before awakening in the realm of the spirit was “Look out Lord, here comes Al Clayton.”

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Images: Most of the photos were provided by the author and taken by Al Clayton.
William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth

William Hedgepeth is a former senior editor and Southeastern bureau chief for LOOK magazine and a former editor at LIFE, Saturday Review, and other national and international publications. A longtime political campaign consultant, he has written for television and films in Hollywood and has authored several books, one of which, "The Hog Book," has just been reissued by the UGA Press. He is married to journalist Carol Carter, also a contributor to "Like the Dew," and lives in the forests of North Georgia with a loyal army of animals.