William Hedgepeth – LikeTheDew.com https://likethedew.com A journal of progressive Southern culture and politics Sun, 17 Feb 2019 15:51:39 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=5.0.3 https://likethedew.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/cropped-DewLogoSquare825-32x32.png William Hedgepeth – LikeTheDew.com https://likethedew.com 32 32 Where Was Mooney’s Lake? https://likethedew.com/2016/06/11/where-was-mooneys-lake/ https://likethedew.com/2016/06/11/where-was-mooneys-lake/#comments Sun, 12 Jun 2016 02:34:06 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=64228 Wherever it was, it's not there anymore. . . .Then again, maybe it is.   Rising up out of the water were three enormous white towers. I'm sure of that. Three. They looked like very tall rectangular scaffolds made of wood with ladders leading up to platforms near their tops from which people jumped off. One of them had a diving board, but the other two were more in demand among the more daring and were unlike anything anywhere else in the city and were the reason so many people like us came from so far to swim here.]]>

Mooney's Lake in the 30s

Wherever it was, it’s not there anymore. . . .Then again, maybe it is.  

Rising up out of the water were three enormous white towers. I’m sure of that. Three. They looked like very tall rectangular scaffolds made of wood with ladders leading up to platforms near their tops from which people jumped off. One of them had a diving board, but the other two were more in demand among the more daring and were unlike anything anywhere else in the city and were the reason so many people like us came from so far to swim here.

These two towers, about 25 feet high, each had a single long cable attached to its topmost edge which ran way, way down, at about a 30 degree angle, to the concrete edge of the vast swimming pool. And if you were disposed toward bravery or tomfoolery or wild animal abandon, you would get in line to climb up one of the towers to where the cable started and grab hold for dear life onto a pulley with a handle on it and leap out into space.

Sometimes the boys would close their eyes when they plummeted off the towers into the bright sunshine, and some would yell “Geronimo!” Some of the smaller boys – usually people’s little brothers – would start crying when it came their time and would inch their way back down the ladder into the pool and be very quiet and subdued the rest of the day. And some others – the older boys in their early teens – would act very blasé about the whole thing, except perhaps for occasional reassuring glances toward the girls down below who they hoped would notice.

Girls hardly ever rode the cables. But the boys made a gutsy rite of it, jumping off these lofty perches, holding onto the pulleys, sliding with a metallic whine down, down, faster than anything, faster even than you could run or ride a bicycle, straight into the water with a wild yell and a stupendous splash. Then they would usually get out of the water to strut proudly around the edge of the pool with supreme coolth, or else go do it all over again.

The only place you could do this (at least the only place that I or my friends were aware of) was Mooney’s Lake, and I was never quite sure just where it was. It was in Atlanta, somewhere on the northeastern outskirts of what comprised the civilized world in the eyes of little boys too young to drive, but none of us would have been able to find it alone or to get there at all without the help of somebody’s mother.

Early on some specially designated summer day a mother would come by my house (my parents’ house) in Ansley Park and honk the horn, and I would charge outside to jump into a back seat full of other eight- and nine-year-old boys – plus, usually, a younger brother or two – for what seemed a long, twining drive out to wherever it was that Mooney’s Lake was located.

I remember it as a clearing in the woods somewhere within the city limits of Atlanta as it existed in the pre-expressway days of the late 1940s and early ’50s. But it was like nothing else that has ever existed in the world, a dreamy and fantastic place where nothing whatsoever was the same, like the glittering and magical playland where Pinocchio and other children were lured, and turned into donkeys.

There were hills and huge trees and then, suddenly, a main pavilion on a little rise with an arcade beside it lined with pinball machines and shooting games and machines for stamping your name, or some message, on little metal disks.

Below the pavilion and arcade was the swimming pool, a large one, and just beyond that, the lake itself. People rented paddle boats to ride on the lake. Behind the pool and pavilion was a picnic area and a baseball field, and all of this ringed by big softwood trees filled with singing birds, and there were never any fights. Mooney’s Lake was one of those high points of children’s lives simultaneously and spontaneously discovered. I don’t know who among us knew about it first, but I know it was Mrs. Pate, my friend Frank’s mother, who usually hauled Frank and me and Bobby and Harry and Dev and Gene and Feedbag (or some combination of that group) out to the lake and left us for the course of the afternoon.

Most of the people who came out to Mooney’s, not counting parents, were between eight and ten years old. At least those were the ones I paid any attention to. But I suppose there was an equal number of high schoolers whom few of us knew how to relate to. Lots of them swam in the pool but most of them seemed to loll around the edges just talking to one another. I never understood how they had much fun. Dev, who had an older sister, explained that high school boys spent most of their time working on their cars, which seemed like a bleak thing to look forward to with advancing age. Indeed, lots of them always seemed to be sitting out in the parking area under the trees in their cars – cars with big wide whitewall tires – where they smoked cigarettes and talked to each other, or to girls, and seemed to find something mysteriously enjoyable in all that.

But it was the towers with their taut cables that brought us here, each of us daring the others to take the plunge in some heedless and dramatic way. The cable towers at Mooney’s Lake were the main attraction – to me, at least because they were so obviously terrifying and death-defying, so much so that for an eight year old to be so hold as ever1 to mount the ladder to one of the tower platforms was the accepted certain sign that you were henceforth no longer classed as a “little” boy.

Standing with shivering glee on the platform, high above the whooping and caterwauling of those in the pool, always filled you with a certain now-or-never bravado and sense of power and the feeling of being on a stage. Down below, the other swimmers splashed around or sat on the edges or walked around the poolside. They all looked so small from that height, even the teenagers, and they always tried to appear as if they were too preoccupied with whatever they were doing to pay any attention to whoever was about to slide down the cable, but you knew they were always watching.

Photograph of Mooney's Lake amusement park, Atlanta, Georgia, between 1953 and 1955Scenes light up: porky shaped boys … puff-faced adolescents . . . sallow and scrawny shave-headed kids from God knows where . . . and here and there an archetypal nymphet with a semi-exquisite figure that featured the beginnings of breasts. From this elevated site you were almost level with the branches of the big trees and could catch the raw fragrances of the foliage which melded into the whole aromatic fiesta: chlorine from the pool and hot dogs from the pavilion and the smell of bubble gum on almost everyone’s breath. Little flattened pink gobs of bubble gum from lime immemorial dotted the bottom of the pool.

Down below, the kids kept up a running cacophony of hoots and bombastic trivialities flung back and forth, and darings of one another and scattered ecstatic shrieks and whistles, and when there was a lull you could hear the buzz and gong of pinball machines in the arcade and the birds and the sporadic gusts of breeze that filtered through the leaves.

But up on the tower it was different: quieter, more seriously excited, more of a grim-set determination on the part of each boy not to fail before his peers; each dripping water, breathing deeply, eyes wildly alight with anticipation. And then it was time. Your turn. The holy moment. You grabbed the pulley, took your life’s last lungful of air and voluntarily jumped – or got pushed if you paused too long – for a ten-second slide to certain glory (or horrible death).

If you did this once you could do anything. You were in. You could even look teenagers in the eye and not feel so small. You could feel superior to girls and could swagger around feeling like Charles Lindbergh or John Wayne for the rest of the day until somebody’s mother finally came to take you back home.

I don’t know exactly what happened. Something happened. I don’t remember how or why. I just remember not going to Mooney’s Lake one summer. We all simply began frequenting other pools and playgrounds that were never quite the same. Someone said they thought Mooney’s had closed. I didn’t know for sure. I never knew how to get there anyway.

And soon there were other things to do and think about (like work on cars and fret with freshly blossomed young ladies), and before long nobody even mentioned Mooney’s anymore. And by the time l did think of it again I learned that it was gone, a whole lake wiped of the face of the earth without a murmur; and in not too many more years from now all living memory of the place will grow hopelessly dim and distorted and ultimately irrelevant to anything. It probably already is. And that’s probably just as well because pasts redeemed remain always the wrong pasts. It’s best to leave these matters to Norns, the keepers of the shrines of memory and ancient values.

So many things are gone. So many things are passed away down the throat of time: buildings and schools and landmarks and homes you lived in and parks and big movie palaces, and new edifices are erected in their place and pretty soon you forget exactly what had been there before or whom you shared it with, and it all becomes vaporous mind-stuff of no greater substance than a dream.

But how do you look back on the long gone, lyrical scenes and sites and casts of characters or relationships that make up the myriad spiderwebbed strands woven deeply into the fabric of your total being? If you remember it at all, it must have meant something – maybe no more than a glimpse of some kind of ideal vision or way of being. Or maybe it means for now that you are supposed to remember henceforth that you can actually add a dimension of beauty to the current features and facets of your life by accepting that it’s all transient and temporary – and hence ever so much more powerful and intricately strange and infinitely fragile.

This 1949 aerial photo of the area shows the lake at the right. The Piedmont/Lindbergh intersection is at the lower left of the image
This 1949 aerial photo of the area shows the lake at the right. The Piedmont/Lindbergh intersection is at the lower left of the image. (1949 Aerial Mosaic and Photographs, Georgia State University Library)

Mooney’s Lake died and was buried at some point around 1953 or ’54, at about the time the northeastern leg of I-85 was built. It once lay somewhere in the area of what is now a swatch of woodsy terrain bounded by Lindbergh Drive and I-85 and the back of Broadview Plaza. No one seems to be able to say for certain where it was located, but as best I can determine the scant remnants of Mooney’s lie covered over by undergrowth on a piece of negligible acreage I looked at tonight. There’s a large circle of senior trees surrounding a fairly sizable flattened expanse of kudzu where the lake itself must surely have been – all of it perfectly still and lifeless against the nighttime sky, merging into the great cold silence of outer space. It remains a place where nothing whatsoever is the same.

But if you know – or strongly believe – that it once actually thrived there, then maybe you, too, can sense the secret liquid gusts among the trees and fluid sounds below the rolling blanket of kudzu. And you hear, muffled in echo, the wild raggedy shrieks of sun-crazed children, each imbued with the brassy vitality of young animals and the fiercest juices of life. They wear the faces of tree dwellers on the loose, all rootless, homeless, all lost in the ecstasy of the moment, chigger-bitten and resplendent in the bright air, with voices soft as birds and visions in their heads of ever lasting unrelinquishable possibilities.

If you don’t remember a thing like Mooney’s Lake it might as well never have happened, might as well never have been – except for the fact that something surely must have registered deep inside your own organism or encoded itself on your ganglia in some indecipherable way. And something in your innermost cells will always be filed away, waiting to be plucked forth and called back. At night perhaps. Or perhaps by seeing other children at play and recalling at once how it all felt and what all you feared at the time.

Something will always be an awed eight-year-old boy awash in wonderment, inwardly hoping to seem at least as brave and audacious as the rest, responding to their incantatory yells by leaping without a noticeable twinge of hesitation from an enormous tower, holding dearly to the pulley handle, lifting feet in perfect exhilaration while careening down in a fast clean surge with the sunlight of late afternoon flashing through the gaps in the tall trees: sliding to the metallic whine of pulley against cable–a supersonic whine, a wild high cosmic laugh–swooping downward, not screaming, but braced deep in the shank of the soul against the onrush of air, like a lone single thing out in the middle of the whole awareness; water droplets flying, hair flying, unfixed from earth altogether; sliding, sliding, sliding to a final monumental SPLASH … and the-high-pitched cheers of all the other children everywhere in the world.




EPILOGUE: “Where Was Mooney’s Lake” was originally published in the July/August 1976 edition of Brown’s Guide to Georgia, a now legendary and fondly remembered magazine that originally appeared in late 1972 and remained in publication for the next ten years, covering exciting locales to visit, trails to hike, rivers to canoe and all manner of mostly outdoor adventures to partake of throughout the state. Everyone swore by it. Today it exists online as a national publication devoted to the same outdoorsy pursuits which you can access at Brownsguides.com. Check it out.

Deuward S. Mooney developed Mooney’s Lake as a summertime recreation center in 1920, at a time when Piedmont Road was a partially-paved two-lane street. It was a popular spot that thrived until it went out of business in 1958 when a fire damaged the pavilion, after which the lake was drained and filled in.

In the 40 years since this story of mine was published there’ve naturally been a few changes to the landscape that might help the many die-hards who persist in trying to locate the holy site of their fondest childhood memories. For one thing, Broadview Plaza, mentioned in the story, is now Lindbergh Plaza. Behind Lindbergh, at the dead end of Morosgo Drive, is a building that used to be a Home Depot, now a furniture store called The Dump. Lying between the back of this building and the highly complex interchange where I-85, Sidney Marcus Boulevard and GA 400 ( the latter two which didn’t exist in 1976) come together lies a small, shrunken swatch of wild kudzu that represents all that remains in this world of what was once the ever-magical Mooney’s Lake.

-William Hedgepeth

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Look out Lord, here comes Al Clayton https://likethedew.com/2014/06/07/look-lord-comes-al-clayton/ https://likethedew.com/2014/06/07/look-lord-comes-al-clayton/#comments Sat, 07 Jun 2014 16:12:12 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=56139 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.]]>
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


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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Oh Nixon My Nixon https://likethedew.com/2011/02/23/oh-nixon-my-nixon/ https://likethedew.com/2011/02/23/oh-nixon-my-nixon/#comments Thu, 24 Feb 2011 03:58:58 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=19517 See, I hadn’t been thinking about Richard Nixon at all, as I usually don’t.

I had been scouring through literally thousands of old photos searching for several great shots I’d taken of my pet black hen sitting in the grass next to a Golden Retriever resting beside a young deer– all gathered in the shade of my trailer-office parked in Parkfield, Calif., (right smack astride the San Andreas fault)—so I could send them off to a fellow Animalarian in East Hampton, N.Y.

I’d been looking and not finding to the point of becoming obsessed enough to go through a file drawer packed with old notebooks and  hundreds of contact sheets. Maybe the Parkfield shots fell in there somehow.

Naturally I paused to peruse this and that until I came upon the brown job envelope marked Julie and David Marriage. Hey, I remember that. Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. Working with Stanley Tretick. Chatting with Richard Nixon and taking pictures of him with the kids...


Dick, Bill, David & SusanSee, I hadn’t been thinking about Richard Nixon at all, as I usually don’t.

I had been scouring through literally thousands of old photos searching for several great shots I’d taken of my pet black hen sitting in the grass next to a Golden Retriever resting beside a young deer– all gathered in the shade of my trailer-office parked in Parkfield, Calif., (right smack astride the San Andreas fault)—so I could send them off to a fellow Animalarian in East Hampton, N.Y.

I’d been looking and not finding to the point of becoming obsessed enough to go through a file drawer packed with old notebooks and  hundreds of contact sheets. Maybe the Parkfield shots fell in there somehow.

Naturally I paused to peruse this and that until I came upon the brown job envelope marked Julie and David Marriage. Hey, I remember that. Julie Nixon and David Eisenhower. Working with Stanley Tretick. Chatting with Richard Nixon and taking pictures of him with the kids. And I remember the unexpected impression of him which, now that I’m thinking about it, has lingered from that day to this. I also recall all the things Stanley and I laughed about later.

You’ve seen Stanley Tretick’s work. Many of the most familiar images of the Kennedys were taken by Stanley, one of the most memorable being the LOOK magazine shot of little John Kennedy Jr. crawling from under President Kennedy’s desk.  In the highest echelons of international photojournalism, he was a pro’s pro.  He was also fun to work with on magazine stories, and we shared some mighty adventures.

Stanley had started his professional life as a Marine combat photographer in the Pacific, next he was with United Press and then became one of the top photographers for LOOK. Though I was the youngest editor at LOOK, almost 20 years younger than Stanley, we made a great  writer-photographer team, further solidified by the fact that my father had been a WWII Marine and they might well have met on some island.

Dick, Bill, David & SusanOur latest assignment was to do a story on the upcoming nuptial of Richard Nixon’s daughter Julie and President Eisenhower’s grandson, David. This was in December of 1967, and we were to convene with “the kids,” as we called them, at The Dakota in New York City, where Nixon, then a private citizen, had a posh apartment.

Prior to this, Stanley and I had produced two of the three stories we would eventually do on President Lyndon B Johnson and his family and his dog. Stanley had also introduced me to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, whom I interviewed and later called upon a few times concerning issues of the day. On top of this, on the very day we went to The Dakota, the latest issue of LOOK hit the stands with a story we had done on everything leading up to the Broadway premier of British playwright Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough hit, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Stanley and I shared a similar sort of semi-benign attitude about politicians. I never had the standard disdain for politicians as a class, believing them to be, in general, not very much worse than anybody else. (This was probably also true of my great-great grandfather, William McKendree Gwin, who, along with John C. Freemont, was one of the first two U.S. Senators from the new state of California.)

Just by way of offering you some necessary perspective on this, and in the spirit of full disclosure, I was reared in the presence of politicians, starting at age 7, and practically by a politician—at least he always claimed, in reference to me, ”Hell,  I raised him.”

Fact is, I grew up next door to the Georgia Governor’s mansion when it was in Ansley Park. One of my main childhood friends was then-Gov. Herman Talmadge’s son Gene, and I spent nearly as much time in the mansion as in my parents’ house.

I’ve always remembered something I overheard Gov. Talmadge telling some fawning patronage-seeker. He spit a wad of tobacco juice into his chairside cuspidor and declared, “You know, it’s awful hard to keep a sense of perspective in this job when you got people comin’ to you 24 hours a day tellin’ you you ought to be nominated for the first vacancy in the Holy Trinity.”

This might be considered an occupational hazard for politicos. Some succumb to the lures of grandiosity and some don’t. Among those that do, there’s probably no better case-in-point than Newt Gingrich, an egomaniacal phony of the first order. Newt was two years behind me at Emory, and I recall even then he was generally regarded as a pretentious nerd.

Nixon, to me, was never as bad as that, but I took a strong visceral dislike to him from the time he got the vice-presidential nomination in 1952, when I was 10. I was further repelled when I watched the driveling self-servingness and false contrition of his famous “Checkers Speech,” which saved his ass from being kicked off the GOP ticket. In addition, during that ’52 campaign I was invited to put on a nice suit and come up to the mansion to meet Adlai Stevenson. So my partisan allegiances were, and are, well rooted.

We arrived, Stanley Tretick and I, at The Dakota at the appointed hour and were buzzed up to the Nixon pad, where Julie and David met us at the door with big smiles, already enthusiastic about  having their romantic story arrayed before a mass audience.

After an exchange of pleasantries, Stanley began scouting out the scene for photo purposes at just about the same time that Richard Nixon appeared from his bedroom down the hall. He was wearing dark slacks and a sort of beige jacket and immediately asked Stanley, whom he obviously knew, if he could get into some of the pictures.

Stanley gave a slight squint, assessing his attire, and said, “No, I’m afraid not. Your jacket doesn’t really offer enough contrast.”

“Well, I’ll go change it then,” said Nixon, immediately retiring back to his bedroom.

Some minutes later he returned with a properly dark jacket and  asked, almost deferentially, “Is this all right?” To which Stanley said, “Yeah, that’ll do fine.”

After a little shuffling around, we all progressed into the library, adjacent to the living room. I could not help but pay close attention to this man I had disliked for so long, expecting the worst from him, but he was surprisingly accommodating, even a bit on the shy side — which seemed odd since this was, after all, his own dwelling place.

I remember thinking that while Lyndon Johnson’s demeanor, even when he wasn’t speaking (and possibly even when he was asleep), was outright overwhelming; and while Bobby Kennedy constantly seemed to radiate the intensity of a slightly muted blowtorch, Richard Nixon, here in the flesh, was remarkably unprepossessing.

In the library was a coffee table with a couch behind it and a window behind the couch that overlooked Central Park. Stanley thought the best thing to do was have Nixon sit on the couch with Julie and David on each side.

So as Stanley moved about the room snapping shots, I stood back a bit from the coffee table and asked questions and joked and chatted with them, making it appear as if they were actively engaged in something.

The most curious thing to me was how Nixon gave every indication of desiring to be convivial and wanting to talk about various topics that arose, but he couldn’t quite manage it. I would ask what he thought about various interesting items that were in the news of the day or big developments on the front pages of The New York Times, and he had to admit that he hadn’t seen these things and seemed a little embarrassed by not being able to pursue a more or less normal conversation, lapsing into awkward pauses. At one point, out of the blue, he interjected how proud he was to have David as a prospective son-in-law and patted him on the knee– eliciting a big Eisenhower-style grin—and noted that Camp David had been named for David.

On the coffee table, as I had noticed earlier, was a magazine lying face down. I had previously looked at the cover and laid it back down, mildly shocked. It was Ramparts magazine, the radical New Leftist publication of that time, reflecting what was then the most far-out end of Sixties political sensibilities. What on earth was this doing here? On the cover of this particular issue were four hands, shot from the wrist up, each holding a burning draft card.

I don’t know if Stanley had seen this, but at one point he said, “Mr. Nixon, why don’t you pick up that magazine and look as if you’re all looking at it together?” Obviously Nixon didn’t know what the magazine was either, but he dutifully picked up Ramparts and opened it up as we continued talking while Stanley kept shooting what now looked like Nixon happily reading this outrageous left-wing anti-war thing to the kids.

By this point, I must say, Richard Nixon had won me over with his awkwardness, his apparent lack of the natural social gifts of most politicians. It seems to me now to have been what it must have felt like for Englishmen to try to carry on a conversation with George VI with his painful stammer, wanting to fill in absent words or complete the other person’s sentences without making them feel bad.

After a bit over an hour we called it a wrap and made plans with Julie and David for our next meeting. Nixon thanked us for coming and thanked Stanley for all the pictures he had taken. And he and I shook hands rather warmly, standing about 18 inches apart, looking into his un-shifty eyes, and I thanked him for letting us
come to his place and assured him he would like the story, and he said he knew he would. I wished him well and Mrs. Nixon, too (who had chosen to stay in her room this whole time). And I honestly felt a little something at that moment. Empathy. For him. I couldn’t quite believe it.

On the way down the elevator I asked Stanley if this was the way Nixon always acted, and he said he just wasn’t much for small talk or things not related to politics. I said we can’t possibly fail to use that Ramparts shot. “Yeah,” laughed Stanley, “once that hits the stands he’ll have lots of ‘splainin’ to do.”

Our next convergence with our story subjects was a couple of weeks later at the main ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. This was a big fancy-dress debutante party marking the “coming-out” of, among others, David’s sister, whose name, I seem to recall, was Barbara Eisenhower. Richard Nixon was there, too, dressed in a tux. He greeted us, but he was more in his onstage “public mode” at the time. Even so, he emanated a faint sense of unease and of feeling vaguely out of place. Again he evoked my empathy.

It was a few more weeks after that, in January of 1968, that Nixon, as expected, formally announced his candidacy for the 1968 Republican presidential nomination. I really don’t remember, if I ever knew, whether that had anything to do with the fact that the LOOK editorial board decided not to pursue our Julie and David story. In any case, they killed it, I stashed all my notes and Stanley’s contact sheets into a job envelope, we both went on to other things and I hardly ever thought of it again.

Almost five months later, on June 5, 1968, Stanley Tretick was with  Sen. Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when he was shot three times, once in the head, by Sirhan Sirhan. Stanley even accompanied Kennedy in the ambulance that took him to the hospital. And three days later he served as one of his pallbearers.

Bobby’s body lay in repose for two days in St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Madison Avenue, right next door to the LOOK building, separated by a narrow one-way street. During that time there was a steady stream of mourners stretching half a mile down Madison.

On the day of the funeral Mass itself, Saturday, June 8, a special team of LOOK editors who had known Kennedy, plus the full contingent of production people, assembled to put together a special issue entitled RFK, featuring a moving cover photo of Bobby at the podium with tears in his eyes addressing the 1964 Democratic National Convention about his brother.

We did this with the speed and efficiency of a pit crew at the Daytona 500. Occasionally I would take a break from the two stories I contributed to gaze down at the Cathedral while the Mass was going on, and at the point in the service when that mighty  pipe organ in St. Patrick’s opened up full blast, the windows in the LOOK building rattled. You could put your hand flat on the glass and your whole hand would literally tremble, and tears would well up in your eyes.

On the day that Richard Nixon was inaugurated in January of 1969, almost exactly a year since I’d last seen him—and after a campaign in which he’d trotted out all the usual Republican boilerplate doctrine straight out of McKinley’s tomb—I was in Africa, covering the Biafran War with the great Al Clayton. (Al’s photographs of  the combat, suffering and starvation went on to win a prestigious Overseas Press Club Award.)

All of the foreign journalists there, particularly the Brits, shook their heads in mildly bemused wonderment, and I could scarcely believe myself that this man I had met, this sort of person, had actually become president, albeit by a mere fraction of 1 percent.

From that point on, as the ongoing horrorshow of the Nixon administration began to unfold, along with his venomous and vengeful attitude toward the press, I amused myself by slipping some critical comment into every piece I wrote, no matter what the subject was—though I must say I never made any personal reference to Nixon himself.

A typical anti-administration remark that I rather liked appeared in an epic-length piece about the South that I did with Al Clayton (“THE AMERICAN SOUTH: Rise of a New Confederacy,” LOOK, 11-17-70). Al and I traveled for months throughout the South in an old Ford pick-up with a gun rack and a “Wallace For President” bumper sticker. We happened to be not far from the Atlanta area when we heard about the grand re-dedication of the carving on the side of Stone Mountain, featuring Lester Maddox and VP Spiro Agnew, so we decided to go there. Here was my take on that scene:

The crowd erupts. He’s arrived at last—“SPEEERO!”—come today to dedicate the largest Confederate Memorial on the Planet Earth carved right here on the side of Stone Mountain, not far from Atlanta .

“This is a  Greeeeat day for Jaw-juh,” Governor Maddox intones as Spiro Agnew steps to the fore. Spiro is elegant, confident, groomed, with his hair all combed straight back tight upon his skull, so slicked down, in fact, that he emanates a mildly squnched sensation, like a bad forceps delivery. But he goes on to bare the good word. “Probably at no time since the War Between the States, “ says he, “have the people been so bitterly divided.”

The editors got a lotta angry calls from the administration about that one. That was in November of 1970. It was also about the same time that Nixon decided to cripple the magazines that were tops on his enemies list, particularly LOOK and Life, with a graduated increase in postage rates to a level that would eventually be unsustainable.

And he achieved his goal, the rascal. LOOK folded in October 1971 and Life, as the weekly we all knew, ceased publication 13 months later. At the time, LOOK had 8.2 million subscribers and a per-issue readership of about 43 million. Life had a little less than that. But it was postage, not any lack of subscribers, that did in those big, heavy magazines—and others as well.

In the years since, it has increasingly occurred to me that it might very well have been the forceps joke that was the final straw to the Nixon people and that brought us all down, all those publications, all those jobs. I’m sorry, friends, I just couldn’t help myself.

Stanley Tretick and I remained in touch for years thereafter. We often talked hopefully about story ideas and book projects to do together. As it happened, he died of a stoke in July of 1999, at age 77, two days after John Kennedy, Jr.’s small plane plunged into the ocean off the coast of Martha’s Vineyard.

Before coming upon the Julie and David file a little over a week ago, I had not, until now, written a word about any of this, not a bit of it, since these events took place over 40 years ago — nor even looked at the black-and-white frames, each slightly larger than a postage stamp, on the contact sheets. My friend, the ace illustrator John Findley, produced the enlargements.

I had simply been looking for some shots of a deer, dog and chicken lying in the grass together to send to my pig website partner, Helen Bransford, who lives in East Hampton on Long Island, probably the ritziest address on the East Coast, with her three pet pigs. That’s all I was interested in, certainly not Nixon. My head unexpectedly erupted with these long-filed memories, and they all just came out in a rush right before your eyes. Aren’t you lucky. Aren’t you glad you happened to be here.

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Truly a Happy Birthday to Us All https://likethedew.com/2009/06/21/3596/ https://likethedew.com/2009/06/21/3596/#comments Mon, 22 Jun 2009 03:41:26 +0000 http://likethedew.com/?p=3600 Dear Jon,

Here is an interesting website to open and examine. But hold off a bit until I tell you something about the person whose website it is and how much you owe her.


I know you've heard me speak in a general way about this accident,


WBHFrom:  hedgepeth@tds.net
Subject: 6 June 1963
Date: June 6, 2009
To:  jhedgepeth@hhfamilylaw.com

5-6 June 2009

Dear Jon,

Here is an interesting website to open and examine. But hold off a bit until I tell you something about the person whose website it is and how much you owe her.


I know you’ve heard me speak in a general way about this accident, about my brand new Volkswagen losing a rear wheel on a curve on a dark highway outside a little South Carolina town, and rolling over several times, and how the underside of the rolling car smashed into my head as I was thrown out. And how my longtime girlfriend saved my life under the most extreme circumstances.

In fact, anytime anyone asks me why I have an eye patch or this scar on my forehead, I’ll briefly describe what happened — or else I may just shrug “Vietnam” and let it go at that. But for those to whom I tell the truth, I always give complete and specific credit for my successful, downright heroic rescue to Joan Sims, also known as E. Joan Sims. I am aware that whatever person I may be telling this to won’t remember her name, and you probably don’t remember it either. But obviously I do, and I’ve always figured I owed it to her memory to keep at least her name alive, in that small way.

At my recent Grady reunion I was quite seriously informed by a member of Joan’s class, which was the class ahead of mine, that she was unreachable for her own class reunion and was generally believed to have died. I was just horrified to hear this, and for most of the next week I went through death records from everywhere and, along with one of her classmates, tracked down all sorts of leads and sources simply to determine whether or not she was still amongst us.

On this very June evening, 46 years ago — having just completed my last final exam of my senior year at Emory, and with almost a week to go before graduation — I picked up Joan at the house she was sharing near Emory in my new red VW Beetle graduation present, and off we set for Hunting Island, S.C. to join Eddie Lee and his actress girlfriend, later wife, Page. (Page, incidentally, has since gone on to become one of the very ultra top handful of Thetan zealots who run the Church of Scientology, far elevated beyond our sphere.) Anyway, we were going to join Eddie and Page at the beach.

Somehow it seemed perfectly reasonable to undertake a 400-mile trip at the shank of the day. Staying awake all night was just a routine activity back then, and the idea of driving until dawn didn’t seem to present any problem at all. Even in a car I’d just owned for three days and with somewhat different handling characteristics than an American model. But I felt perfectly competent driving race cars or anything else, so this cute little auto couldn’t be a problem either.

We made the 150 or so miles to Augusta by about 12:30 AM and stopped at a Waffle House for eggs, coffee and what-not. We listened to their juke box music and joked about the clientele. The night was nice, the drive had been fine, we were fully awake, full of good humor, the whole wide world was smooth and cool.

We headed east out of Augusta, then southeast along a rural highway that skirted around the top edge of the super secret Savannah River Plant before continuing southward down to Beaufort, and on to Hunting Island. The night was brisk, the sunroof was open. There were very few lights visible from windows of the occasional farmhouses scattered along that road.

At one point we came to a sudden fork in the dark highway, and I veered to the left until I quickly realized that it was the wrong way. I remember that I stopped and backed up maybe 20 feet to the point of the fork. Then I got back onto the road we’d been traveling. And that’s the very last thing I remember.

It was about 20 miles from that fork in the road, on the far side of the small town of Barnwell, S.C., and well out into the country, at a point where the road curves sharply, that the right rear wheel of the VW collapsed. Joan had been dozing on her pillow propped against the door. The car began rolling to the right, jamming her door closed. I don’t know if she was wearing her seatbelt, just a simple lap belt back then. I, apparently, was not and was thrown out the window or the door, and the underside of the car rose up and smashed me in the left side of my head as it continued to roll.

Joan was briefly pinned inside the car, lying on its right side. Her knee was injured but she managed to crawl out through the sunroof. She found me lying on my back on the edge of the road. There was a deep gash above my left eye, my eyebrow and left temple and jaw were crushed, and my left cheek was torn wide open and bleeding.

She said, “Bill, can you hear me?” And she said I responded. She then turned my head to the left, to keep me from being choked on gushing blood, and ran to the VW to get a blanket to put under my head.

A short distance back from the highway there was a totally darkened farmhouse. This, after all, was 2 in the morning (and as I write this now, it is exactly 2:19 AM on June 6th). Joan yelled for help as she ran up to the house and beat on the door and hollered, but nobody came. Then she ran to a nearby pick-up truck and began blowing the horn and next she picked up a stick and jammed it between the back of the cab and the horn so that it was blowing nonstop.

She then came back to where I lay on the roadside and tried her best to stop the bleeding as she kept talking to keep me awake. And pretty soon an ambulance arrived — a hearse actually, from Mole Funeral Home. The men initially weren’t sure if I was already dead until, said Joan, I began screaming and they took off full tilt for the little hospital in Barnwell.

They brought me into the hospital DOA. My heart was stopped. With the loss of seven pints of blood (out of ten), all my blood vessels had collapsed except for two major veins on the inside top of my legs. The doctors cut into these veins and pumped blood into them as they started my heart back with an electrical charge. They closed my cheek and sewed up the other gashes, but there was almost nothing they could do about my pulverized skull. My back was broken also, as well as my pelvis.

Joan gave the doctors my parents’ number, and they called, waking them up. The docs reported what they had done, but they said I urgently needed to be in a larger hospital with neurosurgeons. My condition was listed “critical moribund.” I would probably be dead, they said, before my parents could possibly drive here from Atlanta.

My father immediately rang up Senator Talmadge, getting him out of bed, and asked if he could help. Sen. Talmadge immediately called the head of the University Hospital in Augusta, and in quick order he dispatched the hospital’s top neurosurgeon and a team of nurses to the Barnwell Hospital, which was about 60 miles away.

As soon as he arrived and saw me, Dr. Nichols, the neurosurgeon, said I would need to be taken right away back to Augusta. So that’s what they did, at top speed with siren the whole way.

Dr. Nichols removed all the shattered skull bits and rebuilt the supra-orbital ridge above my left eye with an almost perfectly matching bone from a cadaver sewn in with wire, and he put my jaw back together with wire. So I was somewhat physically reassembled for the time being, but still in a coma.

From that point, and for most of the next nearly two weeks, it was necessary that I be rousted to some level of wakefulness every half-hour to prevent lapsing into a much deeper and possibly irretrievable coma. People had to take shifts doing this.

It was within two days of this surgery that Joan’s mother took her turn on coma watch. It was late at night, and as she sat in her chair beside the bed she said that I opened my unbandaged eye, turned to her and said very calmly, “I’m going to die,” and suddenly all the monitors went flat and Mrs. Sims jumped up and hit the emergency call light.

I don’t remember that. In fact, I don’t personally remember anything I’ve reported here — not since the fork in the road. But I do remember this incident as vividly as any memory in my head. However, the scene that I clearly recall is being to the right and above the bed, almost in the upper corner of the room, looking down on where my body was lying. And I remember seeing Mrs. Sims down there, and I watched her run toward the door. But mostly I was just amazed to see how bad off I looked, lying there. I remember thinking, “Gee, I didn’t know I was in such bad shape.” My head was almost completely wrapped in bandages and I had tubes running into my arms and into my ankle. And I thought to myself as I hovered there, “I sure don’t want to go back into that.”

Now I was skimming over water, like water skiing on a lake, like being pulled along by something, and soon I realized I was gradually being dragged deeper and deeper into the water, up to my knees, up to my chest, my neck, and I felt a great rush of terror just before my head slipped beneath the surface.

But as soon as I got under the water, it was completely peaceful. I saw all kind of creatures, fish things and people too, swimming along and stopping by to show their concern with an overwhelmingly loving attitude. I knew I didn’t want to leave this. I didn’t want to go back to anything anywhere else.

Then, in a blink, I looked down and saw men in white coats huddled around my bedside and working frantically on my body, when all I wanted was just to be left alone. But before I knew it, I was back inside. And I would not come out of my coma and be fully conscious again for at least another week after this. But I was alive in spite of it all.

I have never before written this much about the accident, nor in anywhere near this level of detail. I was stirred to do this now as a result of the shock that reverberated throughout my system when I heard — and then everything seemed to confirm it — that Joan Sims had somehow preceded me in death, which seemed to violate the natural order of things. How could she save my life and then die before me?

joan_simsAs it finally turned out, E. Joan Sims is actually alive after all. I had not seen nor heard anything from or about her in 43 years, beyond the fact that she had married and moved to Venezuela, but as a good investigative reporter I eventually stumbled upon the website cited above, and saw there, for the first time in four decades, a photo of her in connection with the fact that she has become a successful writer of mystery fiction. Naturally I wrote right away to the e-mail address as given in this website, but it bounced back to me as permanently undeliverable. Which clearly meant she really was dead, just like they said. But no, somehow she did in fact receive my “undeliverable” message and responded a week later. I can’t tell you what a huge relief that was. And it brings all of this to mind and puts it into perspective — the wreck and everything that has happened since.

If it had not been for her, I would at least have already lived for 21 years. But you wouldn’t have existed at all, even as an embryo. It’s not as if there would be no one to mark your passing; there would be no thought of you whatsoever by anyone and no one to miss what was never there to begin with.

There would never have been a mom named Laura nor a grandfather named Judge Anderson. And Jane would never have been your wife because you would never have existed, and Warren and Charlotte would never have appeared in any form on this earth. Nothing that you are and nothing you now know would have ever come to be, either here or anywhere else in the universe.

There was a moment when everything hung in a precarious balance on a black rural road in the pre-dawn hours, exactly 46 years ago today, and it was Joan Sims, and she alone, who tipped the scale. And that’s why you are here now and able to read this story, and why you can pass it along to your own children.

So today is truly a Happy Birthday to us all.




I said that after finishing my last final exam I drove my new car, already packed, to pick up Joan for our trip.

When I arrived at the place where she was staying, I loaded her suitcase and another bag into the trunk. She went back into the house and then reappeared with a cigarette in hand. Not only that, she was actually smoking it. I was stunned and appalled. Not Joan! Not the gentle artist and writer and sweetheart and sparkly wit, suddenly polluted with a cigarette. She was the absolute epitome of the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of tawdry girls who smoked. Moreover, she now seemed almost defiant about it. I flew into a rage over this. I opened up the trunk and flung her bags out on the lawn and then got back into the car saying I would make the trip alone. But she got rid of the cigarette and we got past the crisis, and after a few miles it was forgotten. But I have always remembered this by way of imagining what would have happened if I had gone through with my idiotic threat to set out on the highway by myself that night. I would have reached that curve and been thrown from the car and bled to death alone and undiscovered on an obscure rural road — all because of a friggin’ cigarette.

Editor’s note: “The Hog Book” by William Hedgepeth has recently been re-issued by the University of Georgia Press:


Mysteries by E. Joan Sims are available at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=e+joan+sims&x=0&y=0

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