Breezing Through The Good Life City
on the Dixie Highway South
I used to wonder what tourists passing through on the way to Florida thought of Albany. Before Slappey was paved, it was a dirt road to Slappey Dairy, and the yankees headed for West Palm Beach or Delray came down the old Leesburg Road Sometimes water filled the low areas of Jefferson where A Bubba@ Champion would be waiting with a pony to tow stalled-out tourists for a fee, but that was before my time.
Florida bound tourists thought they had arrived when they got to Broad Street, which was bordered with palm trees. Nancy Cartmell in the Public Works department says the palms made her parents choose Albany when moving to a Southern city for Nancy= s asthma. Nancy= s doctor must have been experimenting with a kill-or-cure treatment involving pecan pollen. U.S. 19 (The Dixie Highway) ran down Jefferson to Broad, crossed the Broad Street Bridge and turned south on Radium Springs Road, right in front of my house. Tourists who stopped over for the night stayed at The New Albany Hotel, the Gordon, or Radium Inn.
Celebrities sometimes came through Albany on their way to Florida. Sometimes they even stopped. Sister and I got an autographed 8Xll photograph of Sunset Carson, when that famous Hollywood cowboy= s 1942 Buick ran hot and he had to stop in Miller Motor Company for a thermostat.
Downtown Albany, called Automobile Row, was infested with new car dealerships. Besides the Buick place, there were Sloan Dodge, Bailes Oldsmobile, Phillips Studebaker, Stanley Brown= s Nash and Hudson, the Chevrolet place (owned by the Haleys), Aultman Cadillac/Pontiac, Haley Ford, Joel T. Haley Mercury, and Marks Desota. Mixed in among the automobile dealerships were two mule barns (Holman and Farcus) on Broad and Pat Pelicano= s Bicycle Shop on Pine. Old Sunset knew he could get transportation out of Automobile Row some kind of way, even if he had to swap out a hyperthermic Buick with bull horns on the hood for a brace of mules or a tandem Schwinn. But he couldn= t buy a new car. No new models were made until after the war in 1946.
Another celebrity, Chic Young, creator of A Blondie,@ spent the night at Radium once, and I spilled his morning coffee in his lap when I bumped his elbow while touching the hem of the garment. Arthur Godfry came to the sports car races at Turner Field, and A Deacon@ Andy Griffith spoke to the Lions Club once. My father made him autograph my white leather jacket with a ball-point pen. When I was a teenager, Bo Diddley came and stayed long enough to marry Kay Reynolds, a white Radium Springs girl. That was about the same time that A ne= er do well boy@ Ray Ragsdale changed his surname to Stevens and left town to make his fortune singing crazy songs. A There= s one who=ll come to no good,@ our parents said.
The most important celebrity to visit Albany, however, was Brandon de Wilde, the child actor who co-stared with Walter Brennan in A Goodby my Lady,@ filmed on an Albany plantation. Brandon, who also played in A Shane,@ actually STAYED with Jimmy, Geffrey, and Connie Gray, who caused Brandon to fall from favor with us Radium Springs kids when they reported that Brandon couldn=t play with other kids because he was worth too much money to risk getting hurt. Brandon= s director didn=t worry much about Albany kids getting hurt. Nearly every male Albanian pushing fifty will tell you he was hired on as Brandon= s double for that movie, and he=ll be telling the truth. If everybody hired for the set of A Goodby my Lady@ ended up in the film, the picture would rival A The Ten Commandments@ and its A cast of thousands.@
But Albany was not without its own tourist attractions and celebrities. Wild Bill Chancey, who worked for The Albany Herald, wore a cowboy hat and cap pistols to collect for subscriptions. When Billy charged into Geechee Mark= s Rialto pool hall on Slappey Drive with pistols drawn, for example, everybody cooperated and reached for the sky .@ Don= t shoot, Wild Bill,@ they would cry with raised cue sticks or mugs of beer. Geechee Marks, with one hand high would open the cash register with the clack of a red no-sale sign and ding like the end of a round at a prizefight. Billy would holster one pistol, take Geechee=s proffered money, and, holding the rest of us at bay, he would back out the door, perhaps tipping his cowboy hat, perhaps not. Billy wouldn=t fire his pistols indoors, provided everybody froze. Subscribers paid up, too. Billy didn=t understand deferred debts or uncollectible losses. He= d stand right there. Hours, days, forever, until he was paid. You couldn=t run him off. And nobody tried to. Everybody respected the idea that you paid for what you boughtC that and the fact that Billy wouldn=t leave until you did.
Of course, the day came when somebody who didn=t know Wild Bill got scared when he slapped leather. A tourist stopped off at the Rialto to ask directions just before Billy came in to collect for the paper. The traveler, timid about stopping in The Rialto in the first place, tiptoed up to the bar next to the wino and was waiting his turn when he found himself suddenly surrounded by people with hands high pleading, A Don= t shoot, Wild Bill!@ He didn=t dare turn around, but when he saw the image of a thirty-year-old hombre with drawn pistols reflected in the jar of pickled eggs, he dived under a snooker table, ripping open the back of his bermuda shorts.
When the stranger broke ranks, Billy nulled him with aC KAPOWC shot that froze the terrified pilgrim into prenatal paralysis and left a layer of sulphurous white smoke in the air. Billy holstered one revolver, took his money and backed out, leaving Geechee to coax the visitor from beneath the table, dust him off and assure him he wasn= t in the lawless West.@ It=s just collection day at the Herald,@ Geechee explained.
One thing that I know impressed itinerant Yankees was Spanish moss. The city fathers knew this too and incorporated it into the Christmas decorations that stretched across Albany streets. Tourists driving down Broad during the yule tide season passed under gothic decorations of colored lights draped with trapesing wads of Spanish moss. I don=t know what the tourists thought of those decorations, but we Albanians thought they were beautiful, and we were proud that the City took them down after New Years Day, unlike our smaller neighbors, who left theirs up all year. Incidentally, some of those other towns had mechanically controlled stoplights to entrap tourists passing through. So far as I know, Albany didn=t have any tourist traps, except for ABubba@ Champion, and like I said, that was before my time.
Spanish moss whiskered the live oak tree that grew on the right-of-way of U.S. 19 in front of my house out at Radium Springs. So far as I know, this oak marked the furthermost point north that Spanish moss grew in any abundance on the Dixie Highway, at least the first place a southbound tourist could pull off the road and get a back seat full for souvenirs. Spanish moss, by the way, isn=t Spanish, and it isn=t moss. It= s an epiphyle relative of the pineapple. I don= t know if the tourists who stopped in our front yard knew this or not, but one fact these tourists most certainly did not know was that God made Spanish moss to provide a perfect habitat for chiggersC redbugsC and He made chiggers...well, I don=t know why He made chiggers unless it was to punish folks for that first disobedience in the garden. Chiggers burrow under your skin and cause first degree torment. The only way you can make them stop itching is to paint the place they went in with fingernail polish and smother them.
Sister and I would stand barefoot in slack-jawed amazement in our front yard watching Yankees wrap great mounds of chigger-infested moss on their heads and around their necks, making beards for themselves and their children while their effervescent spouses peered downward into Brownie box cameras immortalizing the penultimate moment before the chiggers realized their windfall. Eventually, the tourists noticed Sister and me standing there astonished.
A Oh, look at the poor little Rebel children. What= s your name, little girl?@ a wide-hipped woman in peddle pushers and high-heel sandals asked Sister one day.
A See-iss-tah,@ she answered, spinningC twisting her body back and forth, swivelling her head in the opposite direction as fast as she couldC the centrifugal force blurring her pigtails and spreading the hem of her dress. Sister twisted so furiously, it looked like she was trying to drill herself into the ground.
A See-iss-tah,@ they all said, mocking her drawl. A Look at them. Aren=t they cute. I bet they can= t even read and write. Hold still, little girl, so I can take your picture.@
Tillie, the Black woman responsible for our care, was the only one who could stop Sister= s spinning. A BE-have!@ she= d say, and Sister would wind down, but Tillie was in the house. The tourists finally gave up on Sister, heaped some more Spanish moss into the trunk and drove away grinning, but I could tell the illiteracy issue hit a nerve. Tears were slinging out from under those whirling pigtails. She wasn=t even in kindergarten yet. Of course, she couldn=t read. I tried to hug her, but the pigtails kept popping me under my chin. A Don= t worry about it, Sister,@ I said. A Reading and writing ain=t all it= s cracked up to be.@
But she pushed away and ran to the kitchen to find Tillie, our only known remedy for a broken heart. She hit her in a dead run, scrambling up her like a squirrel, burying her face in Tillie= s pinafore while Tillie held her with sudsy hands, wrapping her up in all that wonderful, salving love. While Tillie hugged Sister back to health, I outlined the source of the injury.
A Hush up now,@ Tillie soothed, A Who care you cain read? Least you got more sense than to put redbugs in your head and pack you up some more for down the road.@
From 1948 on, vacationers headed for the Sunshine State could stop in Albany for fast food. The Dairy Queen (1948) inspired Norton Johnston to open the Arctic Bear June 15, l950, when that polar bear on the corner of Oglethorpe started licking that ice cream cone he still licks today. The Pig > n Whistle came that September. In those days Slappey was paved two-lane to Whitney, then dirt to Newton Road. Oglethorpe was gravel until the A New Bridge@ was built in 1953 and the Dixie Highway moved over from Broad to Oglethorpe. By the time I was old enough to drive, tourists headed south down Slappey Drive would pass the Pig > n Whistle, where the girls sat parked in the family Oldsmobile, eating curb service barbecue and french fries while we guys drove through with our arms hanging out the window, pressed against the door to make biceps. We were looking for respect. In our primer painted Fords and Chevrolets with shaved hoods and souped-up block and V-8 engines, we drove through A The Pig,@ ostensibly unaware of the girls we were trying to impress. We scratched off, peeled rubber, out on to Slappey, not paying the least attention to tourists, nonchalant in our ducktails and flattops. The City police would pull us over for A getting rubber,@ but not usually ticket us for A pealing out@ of the Pig > n Whistle, out of deference to our courtship rituals.
After the girls went home at eleven, the boys gathered in the Arctic Bear parking lot to fightC "to rumble@ C obliquely over the girls, who were by this time sitting around in shortie pajamas and haircurlers at gatherings called A slumber parties.@ The fights were to juggle reputations, upward mobility in a pecking order of A badness.@ A car with New Jersey plates was there the night pallid-complected Billy Hall, in preparation for battle, removed with a gust of macho flourish his McGreggor button-down shirt. A Watch out Hall!@ Ben Swilley yelled over the cheering aficionados, A You=ll get moonburn.@ On another Saturday evening in A The Bear@ parking lot, an Ohio family watched in amazement when the Albany Police showed up to defuse an altercation caused when a teenage A slick@ in a lowered Merc made an inappropriate proposition to another slick= s youthful mother. The police began rounding up teenagers and shoving them into police car backseats but neglected to lock the opposite door. Johanne Bleicher got away three times before he was finally handcuffed to Marion Cartwright, who got bit by the Police dog and sued the city.
But one personality epitomizes Slappey Drive and a tourist-eye view of Albany more than any other who frequented the sidewalks of the Good Life City, a singular old codger who wore a gray wool overcoat winter and summer. Mr. Slappey, a tall, crane-like apparition, was named for Slappey drive. He was not genetically related to the prominent Albanians of that surname. He was declared A harmless@ and was therefore allowed absolute freedom to roam up and down Slappey Drive selling sewing needles, which he skewered into the lining of his ankle-length coat. It was rumored that Mr. Slappey had been as right as rain until one day while walking in it he got struck by a bolt of lightning. Indeed, we thought he still held an electrical charge, and a glossy scar the color of crabmeat ran from the center of his high forehead down parchment cheeks to his pointed chin. It was just the kind of scar celestial pyrotechnics might cause. When Mr. Slappey would place his needles on the bar of the Realto for the benefit of a potential customer, they would spin to magnetic north. His frizzled gray hair bloomed outward like a bushel of steel wool and his gray eyes gleamed like ball bearings. Everyone paid Mr. Slappey the respect due someone who had died and returned from the grave. We were afraid of him because he could fix you with a hypnotic gaze and preach to you about the apocalypse. He could charm you like a snake charms a bird and A scrutinize@ you, taking a wild, deep glimpse into your soul.
He also had the uncanny ability to pivot his head sideways, perpendicular to his neck, so that his sparkling eyes fixed you vertically. And Mr. Slappey, he could shrink his head. He= d tighten his toothless jaws so that his chin would touch his nose, and his head would reduce by one half, further emphasizing those eyes. It was weird. Mr. Slappey could wad up his face like a brown paper bag.
Typically, he lurked on the curb in front of the Rialto until a tourist stopped for directions. Everybody else knew better than to stop. Mr. Slappey would get into a tourist= s car, offer to show him the Dixie Highway, direct him to wherever Mr. Slappey wanted to go, then abandon the pilgrim in some obscure part of town to fend for himself.
Long after Oglethorpe was paved, becoming the east leg of U.S. 19 through town, the Toddle House appeared and Mr. Slappey extended his territory. The Toddle House was a boon for tourism through Albany, providing travelers with greasy breakfasts during odd hours of the night or day. This was long before the national campaign against cholesterol, and Toddle House cuisine was so loaded with saturated fats there was a rainbow oil slick in the urinal. One winter evening I was sitting on one of the red leatherette stools at the counter, eating scrambled eggs and hashbrowns. A tourist from Michigan was next to me, drinking coffee. Besides the tourist there were an obese man and two women laughing and talking at a table when Mr. Slappey lurched in like Dracula, his overcoat blowing in the gust of February wind that followed him in. I watched through the mirror, not daring to turn around as Mr. Slappey marched over to the happy diners, standing over them, glaring with his sphinx-like gaze. A What you laughing > bout?@ he demanded.
A Nobody laughing at you, Mr. Slappey. We just laughing,@ the fat man said, grinning. A You just go away from here now and leave us alone.@
A You laughin= at me > cause you think I= m crazy,@ Mr. Slappey said, his voice quavering and his eyes shining like a the chrome on a > 58 Buick. A I kin prove I ain= t crazy. You= re the one crazy. I kin prove you crazy.@ I could hear the crackle of static electricity and smell ozone in the air.
A Now Mr. Slappey, ain=t nobody here said nothing about you a= tall, but if you can prove you ain= t crazy, I= d pure love being a witness to that,@ the fat man said winking at the waitress.
Mr. Slappey reached into the deep pockets of that disreputable overcoat, pulling out a frayed, dirty and dogeared document which he trumped on the formica tabletop like a one-eyed jack. @ There!@
A There what?@
A There hit is. My release papers from Millegeville State Assylum for the Insane. If I was crazy, they never would of give me them papers, and they never would of let me out.@ He put his papers up and stood his ground. @ Well?@
A Well what?@ The fat man was starting to sweat. Mr. Slappey had started scrutinizing him.
A If you ain=t crazy, where= s yore papers?@ Mr. Slappey tightened his mouth. His face contracted and his head began to tilt slowly, lining up his eyes.
The tourist next to me spewed coffee across the counter, spraying the cook. He dismounted the stool, threw some money on the bar, and ran out before Mr. Slappey could turn around and scrutinize him, and I, fearing presumed guilt by proximity, eased off my stool and followed the tourist out into the cold.
That was the last time I saw Mister Slappey, except for the day Miss Jacqueline Terry, the draft board clerk, arranged my passage up Slappey Drive on a Trailways bus headed for the Army Induction Center in Atlanta. Mister Slappey stood in the Arctic Bear parking lot waving the bus north up Dixie Highway.
I don= t know what happened to Mr. Slappey. He died or disappeared, I guess, or got struck by lightning again. Tillie died last spring, forever to haunt me and Sister with her love. But some things about Albany haven= t changed. Last week I saw Billy Chancey in the Cookie Shop. He has put his pistols and cowboy hat away, but he still works for the Herald, and as long as Billy= s still around, the Albany I used to know is still buried around here somewhere, even though the tourists are passing through Dixie on I-75.