Monday, December 1, 2014

1963 - Chapter Three - The Turning Point

   Our happy world began to crumble around 1960. I can't point to a specific event. Daddy just started drinking a lot and acting weird. Some drunks are tolerable. They drink themselves into a stupor and pass out in a corner somewhere. Others drown themselves in self pity or they get mean. Daddy was the latter two. We walked on egg shells and stayed out of his way. He began drinking so much that mother was having to fill in for him at the store. Daddy would drink for days and lay passed out on the couch. This was okay with me because I didn't want to be around him when he was like that. Mother would leave us with Donna when she could. Other times she had to leave us alone with daddy. He drank as long as I knew him but he rarely got drunk.  He would enjoy a six pack of beer late at night after getting off work while he watched the Tonight Show with Jack Paar or the late movie. He drank on some holidays like Christmas and New Year which is when I saw him drunk. When he bought his hard stuff he would stop at a liquor store on Charlotte Avenue called Wendell Smith or a bootlegger that was on Charlotte Pike near White Bridge Road. If we were with him he would tell us to wait in the car while he went in to buy apple cider. People have asked me over the years what caused daddy's behavior and personality to change. I don't know for sure but this is what I believe. I didn't know until after he died that he was not only drinking but he was taking pills. Drug addiction is a common problem among pharmacists because they have easy access to drugs. It is also a dangerous combination that helps to explain his erratic behavior. I also learned that daddy never had a license to fill prescriptions. How this happened is a mystery to me. I have heard that during the 1940's it wasn't necessary for a druggist to attend a pharmaceutical school. You could go before a state licensing board to prove your competency but formal education was not required. At some point the law was changed. If a person wanted to be a pharmacist he had to go to school. That is what I was told by other family members. I just know that daddy was breaking the law. Carolyn told me that he paid a thousand dollars for a fake license that he hung on the wall in his prescription department. He was also head over hills in debt to the I.R.S. and I can see why he felt overwhelmed by it all. Daddy was really pushing the envelope. I assume that Dr. Nall was licensed but daddy was allowing mother, Aunt Freddie, and Aunt Lillian to fill prescriptions. Mother did it regularly. Freddie helped out from time to time. Aunt Lillian was helping some until she had a massive stroke at the age of 43. Daddy would have been put under the jail if he had been arrested. For many years now I have believed that the police knew that he was breaking the law. He was friends with a lot of police officers. One in particular came in the store on a regular basis. The man was a plainclothes detective. I can't remember his name but after a short conversation they would always walk back to the prescription department and after a while the cop would leave. I believe that daddy was paying him off. The police department was very corrupt in those days or at least this is what I have told by former police officers.

This is the Nashville detective that was possibly taking bribes from daddy
  I hated mother being away so much. As long as I could remember she had been a stay at home mom. But now she was having to work at the store more and more. I was definitely a mama's baby and I worshiped the ground she walked on. Between this and daddy's weird behavior I just wanted everything back to normal. One night when daddy was a little buzzed I laid down next to him on the couch and we started talking. I was trying to build up my courage. He was feeling a little sorry for himself and I took this opportunity to encourage him to get help. I told him that I wanted my old daddy back. To my surprise he agreed. I knew that my mother and others had asked him to get help but he refused. It's different when your child comes to you I guess. Daddy lived up to his promise. A few days later he checked in to City View sanitarium and was there a week. He seemed to be okay and even went back to work. This lasted maybe a month but daddy reverted to his old behavior and a pattern developed. He would fall off of the wagon and after a while he would check into City View to dry out but the cycle continued. During this period daddy was hard to tolerate. One day he was drunk as a skunk and standing in the kitchen next to our refrigerator. The door to the garage was open and he was standing with his back to it. Daddy fell backwards and there was a thud as his head bounced off the concrete. There was at least a two foot drop from the kitchen to the floor of the garage. Of course it knocked him out. It would have probably killed anyone else that was sober. I called mother and told her what happened. She told me to check him out and if he was okay just let him sleep it off. Another time I was working on my tree house in the back yard and I did a really dumb thing. I walked out on some long boards that I had nailed to the floor. There was no support under them and when I felt them give I tried to walk back but I was too late. The boards came crashing down and I landed flat on my back. I looked up in time to see the boards falling on top of me. Frankie, who was standing nearby, said that I was knocked out for a few minutes. When I woke up I had blood running down into my eyes. I cut a small but deep gash in my eyebrow. As usual daddy was drunk when I got to the house. Donna was watching us that day. I can still remember him slumped over in a kitchen chair so drunk he could barely hold his head up. Donna was only fifteen and she didn't have her regular drivers license. She only had a learners permit. I needed to go to the hospital but daddy wouldn't give her permission to take me. Donna called mother at the store and she told her to put us in the car. Donna put the car in neutral and let it roll backward out of our driveway and into the street. There she started the car and drove me to the emergency room at Baptist Hospital. We pulled this off without a hitch and the doctor was able to sew my eye up. On another weekend daddy was driving drunk near 17th and Church. He was driving east on Church Street and I was in the passenger seat. There was a city bus picking up passengers at a bus stop on my side of the street. It was a warm day and I had my arm hanging over the outside of the car door. As we neared the bus I realized that daddy was veering to the right and just in the nick of time I pulled my arm inside the window as he sideswiped the bus. I looked over at him and it was obvious that he didn't know that he had just had an accident. One day in the Spring of 1962 mother and I came home and as we walked in the front door we noticed pills everywhere. It looked like someone had taken pills by the handful and had thrown them all over the living room and dining room floor. I believe we had been at our drugstore that day and mother was able to leave early. Daddy was at home alone. There was moaning coming from the direction of the bathroom. When we walked in there daddy was naked except for a wife beater tee shirt and slumped forward on the toilet. Mother asked him several times what kind of pills he had taken. She called an ambulance and they rushed him to the hospital. He had over dosed on something and the pills affected his brain. He was hallucinating because mother told me that he kept talking about a family of cats living behind a heater in his hospital room. I won't lie. In light of what happened later I have always wished that he had died that day. Daddy was committed to Madison Sanitarium, which was a Seventh Day Adventist hospital. He was supposed to stay ten weeks. While he was there he underwent electroshock therapy.or as it is actually called electroconvulsive therapy. It was first introduced in 1938 by an Italian psychiatrist named Ugo Cerletti. It was used to treat depression, which is why they used it on daddy. They also used it on schizophrenia, mania, and catatonia. There has been an ongoing debate over the years as to the benefits of electroshock therapy. One of the side-effects of it is short and long term memory loss, which I saw in Daddy after he was released from the hospital. Daddy hated these treatments and I believe he was traumatized by them. He talked about other patients heads being swollen after taking ET. I don't know if he was imagining this due to his mental state or if there was any truth to this. ET was given in America under anesthesia and it usually caused the patient to go into convulsions.

This is a 1960 model of an electroconvulsive machine

This is a picture from a museum demonstrating how it was applied
  Mother and I regularly went to the hospital to visit him which was a real burden. We were still living in West Nashville and mother was running herself to death managing the store, taking care of us, and regularly visiting daddy. She was the only one allowed to visit him. I always waited in the waiting room. Didi told me later that daddy would beg mother to sign the papers to release him from the hospital. Under this relentless pressure, and mother being a tender hearted person, she finally gave in and had him released after about six weeks. Many in the family believed that she made a mistake doing this but I don't think it would have changed the eventual outcome at all. If it had been up to me he wouldn't have gotten out of the hospital. I loved my dad but I wanted to be happy again and the way he was acting I knew that wasn't going to happen as long as he was around. Daddy was never the same after he got out of the hospital. He had memory problems and for a while severe back pain. One night we went to the Belle Aire drive-in theater on Charlotte Avenue. There was mother, daddy, Mark and myself. Daddy had hay fever and he was sneezing quite a lot that night. Every time he sneezed he would scream out in pain. The back [pain may have been a side effect of the shock treatment. Also he just acted weird all the time. It was as if aliens had abducted my dad and replaced him with some alien creature that physically looked like him but that is where the resemblance ended. I believe that families have curses. For some it is cycles of addictive behavior like alcoholism, physical or mental abuse of women, children or both. Pedophilia, co-dependency, sexual addiction, drug abuse, or in our case mental illness. My great grandmother, Sara Vandergriff, Aunt Margaret, and daddy were all victims of mental illness. I began having severe anxiety attacks in 1974 and my daughter Melanie and son Jon have also dealt with severe anxiety. Anxiety is a form of depression. I have a leg up because I am aware that our family may have a chemical imbalance and I recognize the beast for what it is. Because of this I was able to help my children weather their bouts with anxiety. The bottom line is that you must be a fighter in order to be able to overcome it and break the cycle. For my sixth grade year of 1961-62 I attended Charlotte Park Elementary school. It was a brand new school within walking distance of our house and I loved it. My teacher was Mrs. Hearn and I passed with flying colors. For my seventh grade year in the Fall of 1962 I was enrolled at Hillwood Jr. High and I hated the whole experience. Unfortunately I was forced to ride the bus again, which I absolutely hated. I was very modest and I was terrified at the thought of having to undress in front of people. Everyday I would make up an excuse so I wouldn't have to dress out. I would tell them I had a stomach ache or I would conveniently forget my gym shorts. This went on for a while and the gym teachers patience was growing mighty thin. Hillwood and I just didn't mix because I didn't fit in. I joined the band and played the snare drum. One day I got into a fight with another drummer and I got in trouble over that. I can't think of any positive experience there. However daddy was stable enough that he actually took me to a Hillwood varsity football game one Friday night. This was probably the last time that we ever did anything together.
Charlotte Park Elementary

     I have trouble remembering chronology during this period. The events I am writing about from the day that daddy attempted suicide to his eventual death mostly happened in the last six months of 1962. Exactly when they happened I am a little fuzzy. Daddy's attempted suicide had to have happened in the late Spring or early Summer. He was released before we started back to school in the Fall. We were awakened one night to the sounds of a scuffle coming from mother and daddy's bedroom. Mark and I were sleeping in the front bedroom with my sister Donna and they were in the rear bedroom. We slept with her a lot because we were afraid to sleep alone. When we walked into the room daddy was choking mother with his left hand and trying to hit her with a nightstick. He had her pinned against the wall and she was trying to break his grip on her neck with her right hand and fending off the nightstick with her left. We started screaming and crying in terror. Our screams seemed to jar him back to reality. He let go of mother and fell back on the bed in a sitting position. He buried his head in his hands as the realization of what he had done seemed to take hold of him. Mother took us back to bed and stayed there until we stopped crying. She told us that daddy would never really hurt her and that she could easily handle him when he was drunk. I wanted to believe her and I didn't learn until years later that he was actually trying to kill her that night. Mother became afraid of  him after this and he left bruises on her neck. It was after this incident that she decided that we needed to move in with my grandparents. She couldn't trust us with daddy and she needed somebody to watch us while she ran the store. My grandparents lived at 1300 McKennie Avenue in East Nashville. Granddaddy, mama, Aunt Arda, Didi and her two children Roy and Alton lived there. Aunt Arda was granddaddy's invalid sister, who besides being old, was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis. We pronounced her name as Aunt Oddy. Now there were five more people living there. Daddy, mother, Donna, Mark and myself. Didi was primarily responsible for watching us when mother wasn't there. Mama took care of us until Didi got off work. The house was old and had twelve foot ceilings. Mother, daddy, and Mark were sleeping in the living room. Didi, Roy and Alton were in the front bedroom. Granddaddy and mama slept in a bed in the corner of the dining room. Donna slept on a pullout couch in the dining room and I had a little bed in the opposite corner. Aunt Arda slept in the only other bedroom on the side of the house that fronted 12th Street.
Aunt Arda
Aunt Arda's room today
Before remodeling

  Our life was chaotic. Mother would wake us up very early and we would get ready for school. Donna was riding a city bus to Hume-Fogg high school downtown. We would pile into our Ford Falcon station wagon and mother would drive Mark to Charlotte Park elementary school where he had started the 1st grade that Fall. Then she would drop me off at Hillwood. Later that afternoon she would pick us up in the afternoon, drive us back to East Nashville, and return to the store until closing. This was hard on all of us but actually I liked the fact that I got to spend some actual time with her on the long drive to and from school. Then I am guessing around the beginning of November mother decided that this routine was just too hard on her. She enrolled us at Bailey on Greenwood Avenue a few blocks from my grandparents house. Bailey was an old school that spanned grades one through nine. I wouldn't know until later that Bailey was nearly destroyed by a tornado. One of those local events that the older people would tell me about when I was growing up like the Blizzard of 51, the East Nashville Fire of 1916, and the great East Nashville tornado. Just at the bottom of our back porch was a tornado shelter, or as we called it a "storm cellar". It was useless to us in the event of a tornado because the previous owner, for reasons I will never understand, had filled it in with dirt. I would love to have one today as nice as this one was. It was closed in by two wooden doors that lay flat over the entrance and as we found out later the steps were made of brick that led down into a brick lined room probably 10ft x 12 ft. Later on we wanted a club house and decided that the storm cellar would make a good one. The four of us along with neighborhood kids dug it out. We put chairs and a table down there and had a good ole time. It never occurred to me why we had a tornado shelter until I learned years later that many people in East Nashville had built them as a result of the deadly East Nashville Tornado of March 14, 1933. The tornado followed almost the same path as the East Nashville tornado of April 1998. The big difference between the two was the amount of casualties. There were far less people living in East Nashville in 1933 but eleven people died in that storm as opposed to two in 1998. There was no advanced warning in 1933 like there was in 1998 and the 1933 storm happened at night. The 1998 storm was during the daylight hours. March-14-1933 was a mild day in Nashville. A warm moist air mass covered most of the southeast. A powerful cold front lay to the northwest. On 13-March the high was 73 degrees. By the morning of the 14th it was 61 degrees. Although it was cloudy the temperature rose to 80 by 3:00 pm. The cold front was fast moving and dumped 0.81 inches of rain in a short time. The tornado touched down near 51st Ave. and Charlotte in West Nashville. The storm was weak in intensity until it hit downtown but it blew out windows in the Capital building and intensified as it hit the north side of the square. It crossed the Cumberland River above the Woodland St. Bridge and widened from about 400 feet feet to 800 feet. For three miles it tore through homes, churches, schools, and stores. There were 1400 homes destroyed, 16 churches, 36 stores, five factories, four schools, one library and a lodge hall. Eleven deaths occurred along with 2,000,000 million in property damage. The storm weakened as it went through Donelson but strengthened as it hit Lebanon. It traveled a distance of 45 miles.

What was left of Bailey school after the 1933 tornado
   The socioeconomic level of the kids at Bailey was a little lower than I had been used to at Hillwood but I was much happier there. I began to develop long lasting friendships and I even worked up the courage to dress out for gym class. Going to the same school as Mark, and my cousins Roy and Alton was helpful to my adjustment there. I was still very unhappy with the status of our family and just living with the uncertainty of it all. Daddy was working some and on November 26, 1962 Donna married James Larry Sircy. We just called him Larry. Mother and daddy were not happy. They eloped to Sparta Tennessee. Larry was twenty and Donna was sixteen. After they were married Larry asked the Justice of the Peace if he owed him anything. The man said "just pay me what you think she is worth" and Larry walked away without paying him anything. Since we weren't living at home mother told Donna they could stay at our house on Henry Ford Drive. Mother and daddy liked Larry at first but Larry was a charlatan. It wasn't long before they realized this and by the time Donna married Larry their eyes were open to him.

Donna about the time she was married

  I loved my grandparents and Didi but I missed my mother. After we were enrolled at Bailey I rarely got to see her. I saw her in the morning when I got up for school but I was usually in bed when she got home from work. One night I was really missing her and I felt an overwhelming need to be with her. It was a Friday or Saturday night and I walked to Daniel-Hoppe Rexall drugstore on Gallatin road. There I called a taxi and told the driver to take me to the drugstore on Charlotte. I was, and still am, very stubborn. Once I make up my mind to do something I am hell bound to go through with it. Mother told me the story of when she took me to my pediatrician Dr. Koenig because she thought there was a problem with my hearing. After the examination he told her "He's not hard of hearing, he is hard headed". When I arrived at our store mother was shocked to see me and very angry. She told me that I was going right back home and she called another taxi to take me back. By that time Didi had noticed I was gone and everyone was out looking for me. She called the store and told mother that she couldn't find me. Mother told her what I had done. Didi was livid and wanted to talk to me. I stood there listening to all the bad things that she was going to do to me when I got home. For many years Didi told people that she came to the store, and in her words "Marched me right back home". This was how she wanted to remember it and I would sit there and smile every time she told her story about that night. However I didn't want to embarrass her or start an argument. The following is what really happened. When the taxi arrived I was determined that I was not going back. Mother walked me out to make sure that I got into the taxi. Just as she opened the door I ran away. She was screaming at me as I disappeared around the corner of the building. I ran south on 17th to the alley in the rear of the store. I found a hiding place until she sent two boys, who worked at the store, out to find me. They talked me into coming back with them. When I got there the taxi was gone and mother told me I could stay with her until closing. She was still angry but I guess she finally realized that I was determined not to leave her. I have never regretted what I did that night because this would be the last real time that I spent with my mother before she died.

Mother and Dan

  The house on Mckennie had seven rooms. Two bedrooms, a dining room, a living room, a kitchen, a small room we called the back room and a bathroom. The bathroom had an entrance from Aunt Arda's bedroom and one from the back room. There was also a hallway that connected the back room with the living room. A dial telephone sat on a small table in the hallway near the entrance to the cellar. As a child the cellar was always scary to me and I wouldn't go downstairs unless someone was with me. It had a dirt floor and in the winter there was always a pile of coal in the corner and a coal furnace at the foot of the stairs. Granddaddy would go down there the first thing every cold winter morning and start the furnace. It would be freezing in the house because the furnace would go out during the night. We would sleep under three or four quilts and be warm as toast. I hated getting up because the cold would hit you when you came out from under the covers and I hated to put my bare feet down on that ice cold wooden floor. We had an old Motorola black and white television that at one time or another was either in the back room or living room. There was a front door which opened from the living room on to a large concrete front porch that circled around to the side of the house. The house was clapboard. There was a fairly large back yard and there was the storm cellar at the bottom of our back steps. At the end of the back yard was a barn that granddaddy built around 1960 that served as both his work shop and storage It could also be used as a single car garage.
The kitchen in November 2015

Granddaddy in the kitchen
Aunt Arda in the kitchen
Uncle Jim, Aunt Tincy, Donna and Uncle Bud in the dining room

Didi on the front walk

1300 McKennie Ave. in 2015

The spooky cellar in November 2015 - The furnace was in front of the steps

  As a family we spent our last Christmas together there at my grandparents house on McKennie Avenue in East Nashville. It was December 1962 and for some reason I can't remember much about it. The only thing I do remember is that it snowed on Christmas Eve and for some reason I was walking down West Greenwood Avenue that night. During that time my cousin Roy Anderson had a paper route. I was probably helping him deliver the afternoon newspaper which was called the Nashville Banner. When I reached my Uncle Doug's house near Hattie Cotton Elementary school I saw my mother standing just inside the front door of their living room. She waved at me as I walked by. There were a few inches of fallen snow already on the ground and the flakes were really coming down. It would snow about twelve inches that night. Snow in Tennessee on Christmas Eve or Christmas day is very rare. There is a picture of my father that is possibly the best picture ever taken of him and as far as I know the last picture ever taken of him alive. It is Christmas day 1962. He is wearing a hat and a trench coat that he received as a Christmas present that morning. He has a big smile on his face and looks perfectly normal. There is nothing in the picture that betrays the fact that my father was a very sick man.
Last picture of my father
Nearly the same angle in November 2015

  Sometime in the latter part of 1962 mother reluctantly came to the conclusion that she had to take drastic action regarding daddy. She decided to have him committed to the state mental hospital called Central State. I have heard that mother needed the signatures of at least two doctors in order to commit him. Didi told me that she walked the streets of Nashville looking for doctors who would sign the papers. I don't know if she ever got the signatures. Many people have asked me this question over the years and I have asked myself this question thousands of times since January 16, 1963. Why did daddy have to kill mother? Why not just kill himself? Honestly I don't really know and only daddy could answer that question. People have tried to console me by saying that daddy was a sick man and wasn't in his right mind. I can accept that. Anybody who would kill the mother of their children and then kill himself, leaving those children orphaned, couldn't be in their right mind. Relatives have also told me that daddy loved mother so much that he couldn't bear going by himself. This is twisted logic to me. That is a heck of a way to show your love for someone. Apparently he didn't love his children. He left us here to fend for ourselves. My relatives and friends have meant well but I have my own theory that makes more sense to me. Daddy found out that mother was trying to have him committed. Didi told me that daddy and Aunt Viola were fishing one day and she told him that mother was trying to have him committed. In my opinion daddy was determined not to let that happen. From what I know of Aunt Viola I can see her telling daddy this. In fairness I can't imagine her doing this if she actually thought daddy would commit murder and kill himself. Nobody could have predicted that. In my opinion it was irresponsible of her to tell a mentally ill man something like that. Even more despicable, Aunt Viola spread a rumor about my mother after she died. Mother was five months pregnant when she was murdered. Supposedly daddy killed her because she was pregnant with a black child. A Nashville police officer claimed to have seen mother riding around with a black man before she died. Supposedly this is why daddy killed her. I have no doubt that the baby belonged to daddy. Can I prove that? No, not without having her exhumed, which I would have no legal authority to do. For starters it was common for white business owners to drive their black workers home after work. Many blacks didn't own cars. They either walked, rode a bicycle, took a taxi or city bus back and forth to work. Mother and daddy drove Dr. Nall home many times after work. This was 1962 and the South was full of racist cops. I can only imagine what a white cop might think of seeing a white woman, with bleached blonde hair, driving black men home late at night. Secondly it would be out of character for my mother to do something like that. This was a woman who wouldn't allow us to even use words like darn, or call someone a liar. Mother lived a Christian life daily in front of us. She made sure that we were always in Church or Sunday school. The idea of mother having sex with a black man does not bother me. I have always been open-minded about interracial relationships. I just don't believe that mother was cheating on daddy. If she had been I know that it would have been wrong but mother was going through hell. I can understand why a woman in a similar situation might fall to temptation, but I don't believe that she did. There are reasons, that I don't want to talk about here, why I believe the baby she carried belonged to daddy. In 1993 my Air Guard unit was deployed to Hickam AFB Hawaii. My sister Carolyn lives in Hawaii and was very angry when I asked her about this story. She had heard this rumor before. Carolyn shouted "that bitch, that bitch" over and over, referring to Aunt Viola. She claimed that mother wrote her a letter before she died. Carolyn's husband John Kemper was stationed at Ft. Hood Texas and the letter arrived right after she heard the news that my parents were dead. Carolyn said that mother told her in the letter that she was pregnant and it couldn't have happened at a worse time. With all that she was going through with daddy. Carolyn told me that mother would never have told her about the baby if it wasn't daddy's. She said that both Faye and herself loved mother more than they did their own mother. In conclusion I can't prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that mother wasn't pregnant with a black child. Regardless of what might be true it would never change the way I feel about my mother. I think that Aunt Viola spread this rumor because she couldn't come to grips with the fact that her brother committed such a horrible crime. She once told my sister-in-law once that the only good thing she could say about my mother was that she kept us clean. This is the only negative thing that I have ever heard about my mother. She was loved by everyone and whenever I met a relative or friend that knew her they would always tell me how good she was and how much they loved her. The following pictures are some of the black men that were working at our store in those last months.

  I asked my cousin Roy to tell me everything that he remembered about mother and daddy in those days leading up to and the day of their death. He remembers the Sunday night before they died when daddy, Didi, mama, granddaddy, Alton and himself were eating supper at the kitchen table. I don't know where I was because I have no memory of this. Suddenly, out of the blue, daddy calmly said that he was going to kill mother and then kill himself. Shocked, Didi told him "Bill, you know that you don't mean that" but he repeated the threat again. Roy said that the next day mama was looking in the big wardrobe chest that sat in the back room and she noticed a pistol in the pocket of daddy's trench coat. She took the pistol out and hid it. On Tuesday she found another pistol but was afraid to take this one because she didn't want to make daddy mad. This is probably the gun he used. Mama was guilt-ridden later because she didn't remove the gun when she had the chance. Wednesday January 16, 1963 is a day that will be forever etched into my memory. There have not been too many days since that I have not thought about that day, and it's consequences, in some form or fashion. We woke up as usual that morning and dressed for school. Daddy was sitting in the back room facing the kitchen in a rocking chair. He was dressed in his work clothes. Dark pants, a long sleeved white shirt and bow tie. I will never forget the look on his face. He sat there lifeless, expressionless, with eyes staring straight ahead. A thousand yard stare. The look on his face grabbed my attention as I walked through the kitchen and I paused for just a moment to look at him.
Just beyond the open door on the left was where my father was sitting when I noticed the 1000 yard stare
My grandfather sitting in his easy chair in the back room

  For some reason I was irritated at mother that morning over something very minor. As we were walking out to the car mother was lying in my little bed in the dining room. She told me goodbye and I always kissed her but I didn't that morning. Something that would haunt me later. I walked out to the car where Roy, Alton and Mark were already waiting in the back seat. I hopped into the passenger seat next to daddy in our white Ford Falcon station wagon. Daddy said nothing as we drove the few blocks to our school on Greenwood Avenue. Roy remembered him driving past the school entrance. He said "Uncle Bill, you missed the school". He turned right at the next street and turned the car around. Daddy turned left on to Greenwood Avenue, and according to Roy, drove past the school again. Roy told him a second time that he missed the entrance to the school. Daddy turned around and this time he finally found his way into the school driveway. For some reason this is one of the things about that day that I don't recall.
The last time I saw my mother alive was on my little bed to the right of the door

  The only class I remember that day was band class. I was sitting in the drum section when I heard the school secretary, Miss Greer, make an announcement over the school intercom. She said- "Everyone who has a transistor radio, please bring them to the office immediately". Laughing, I turned to the boy next to me and said something like "Yeah, I'm sure everybody is going to do that". It never occurred to me that this announcement was aimed at us. Mother and daddy died around ten o'clock. It was all over the news and Miss Greer didn't want us to accidentally hear about it. At lunch period I walked down to our cafeteria in the basement. I ate at the same time as Roy but he wasn't in the cafeteria. I saw a friend of his named Jerry Perry standing in the lunch line and asked him if he knew where Roy was. He laughed and said that Roy was in trouble. He had hit a little girl in the face and was in Mr. Wades office crying his eyes out. Mr. Wade was our principal and he was a small slender bald headed man who reminded me a little of Harry Truman. Miss Greer, our school secretary was a young full figured blonde who was very popular with the students. Jerry was always cutting up so I wasn't sure if he was kidding or serious. I ran up to Mr. Wades office. When I walked in the door I saw Roy sitting in a chair in Mr. Wades office. He was sobbing and Mr. Wade and Miss Greer were both standing behind him trying to console him. A feeling of panic rose up in me. Something bad had happened and I asked him what was wrong. Mr. Wade and Miss Greer were not prepared to see me. They told me that Roy wasn't feeling well and I needed to go back to the lunch room. I begged Roy to tell me what was wrong but he was too upset to talk.

Our principal Mr. Wade is on the top left and one of my favorite teachers Mr. Norwood is on the right

  About this time daddy's cousin Howard Wilkinson walked into the office and I knew then that something was very wrong. There was no way that he would be at my school in the middle of the day otherwise. Howard told me that he was only there to take Roy home. He was the oldest and I guess the adults thought that he could handle things better. Howard wasn't expecting to see me. He told me to go back to class. I was determined however that I was going home, even if I had to walk. We argued about it until he realized that he was fighting a losing battle. Howard turned to Mr. Wade and told him to dismiss Alton and Mark. He would take all of us home. I don't know how they thought I wouldn't find out about my parents before the day was over. The news would soon be all over the school. I was told later that after we left the teachers were crying as they told their students the news about my parents death. Many teachers and students were crying and hugging each other. When we reached Howard's car Roy, Alton and Mark sat in the back seat and I sat in the front. As we were driving away I was pleading with Howard to tell me what had happened. Without saying a word he drove to the end of the school driveway and stopped. I asked him, "Has something happened to daddy"? He looked as if he was trying to think of what to say. I then asked him "Has something happened to mother?" Howard then turned to me and said "both". I was feeling sheer terror now. He asked me "Greg, can you be a man?" Hesitantly I said "yes, I guess so." Again, with more firmness in his voice he repeated the question, "Greg, can you be a man?" Almost shouting I said "Yes, please tell me what has happened". He said, "This morning your dad shot your mother and turned the gun on himself". Fearing the worst I asked, "Are they both dead?". He said "Yes". Howard's words hit me like a ton of bricks. I lurched forward, laying my head on the dashboard, wailing like a wounded animal. The whole situation was so unreal to me that it seemed like it was happening to someone else. It was as close to an out of body experience as I have ever had. As we pulled up to our house a crowd of adults rushed toward us. Aunt Catherine was the first to reach me and like everyone else she was sobbing as she hugged me. The yard and house was packed with people. Everybody was crying. There were relatives that I hadn't seen in a while and relatives I didn't  even know. There were also neighbors and people I had never seen in my life. Mama was walking aimlessly through the house crying and talking out of her head at times. Every now and then she would say something crazy and Didi would say "Mama don't say that". I couldn't quit crying and she would say, "Listen to that poor baby, he wants his mother". Mark was ten days short of his eighth birthday and I don't think I saw him cry one time. I just believe that he was so young that he really didn't grasp what was happening. He just looked lost. Mark would ultimately pay a higher price because he was so young. Our life was chaotic after mother and daddy died and he would have to put up with a lot more chaos than I did and for a lot longer. All of daddy's sisters were sitting together at our dining room table holding each other and crying. My Aunts Viola, Margaret, Lillian and Freddie. Uncle Doug and some other men were still cleaning the front bedroom where my parents had died. Curious I opened the door and walked in. Luckily they were finishing up and there was no blood left on anything that I could see. They were putting a mattress on the bed. When they saw me I was shooed away.There was a constant flow of people carrying tray's, plates and bowls full of food. We had enough to feed an army over the next few days. Grief can be a strange thing. One minute you are weeping from the very depths of your soul and the next moment you can be laughing, hilariously. Or you just feel numb and devoid of any emotion. I would run the full gamut of grief over the next few days and weeks. One thing that stands out in my mind was how beautiful the day was. The sky was a deep blue without a cloud in the sky. For some reason bad things seem to happen on pretty days. In addition to the death of my parents there was the Kennedy assassination, September 11th 2001, and the near death of my daughter Misty. These things all happened on beautiful days.

  As far as I could glean from talking to my grandmother, Didi, and what I have learned from other sources over the years the following is what I think happened that day. At some point after we left for school mother got up from my bed in the dining room and walked to Didi's larger bed in the front bedroom. She put an Elvis album on the Victrola and was lying on her back as she fell asleep. Mother loved Elvis and had probably seen all of his movies. She had taken me to see several of them. Mama told Donna that mother had a smile on her face she walked through the bedroom just before she was killed. My sister Donna remembered the bed being at an angle in front of the fire place hearth. She said that mother liked to lay on the side of the bed nearest the large window facing McKennie Avenue. After returning from dropping us off at school daddy undressed and lay down next to mother. After a while he got up, put his pants on, and walked to the back room to get his pistol out of the pocket of his trench coat. It was a Saturday night special .22 caliber, nine shot revolver. He had given this gun to mother because she had to make night deposits at Third National Bank on Church Street. For whatever reason she gave this gun back to him just before she was killed. Daddy walked through the bathroom, Aunt Arda's bedroom, the living room and through the big wooden doors into the front bedroom and locked the doors behind him. There were two sets of these doors. One set opened into the dining room and the other opened into the living room. He then sat down at a dresser on the right side of the bed where mother was sleeping. How long he sat here Is not known. There were a number of cigarette butts left in the ash tray which indicates he probably sat there for quite a while, building up his courage. He then stood up, leaned over on the bed and fired three bullets into the left side of her head behind the ear. Almost immediately, daddy shot himself in the right temple and fell backwards across the fireplace hearth.
Roy standing in front of the wooden doors that were locked by daddy

  A .22 caliber bullet can produce a devastating injury to the human brain. I have heard that this is the preferred weapon of mafia hit men because the bullet is of such small caliber and low velocity that it penetrates the head but doesn't create an exit wound. It simply bounces around inside the skull, ravaging the brain in the process. On top of that, daddy was using hollow point bullets. For those who don't know, a hollow point makes a small entrance wound and a large exit wound. As a security officer I am supposed to use hollow points because the bullets disintegrate inside the body. Ball ammunition will pass through the body and can hit an innocent person in the line of fire. So you can imagine what the death scene looked like. Didi told me that the bullets blew my mothers eyeballs out. I am being graphic in order to illustrate the horror that my grandmother encountered when she walked into that bedroom and found my parents. Mama, granddaddy, and Aunt Arda were in the kitchen when they heard the shots. Mama turned to granddaddy and said, "Celly, are the kids home?" She thought that she heard firecrackers. Granddaddy was almost deaf and didn't hear the shots. Mama walked through the dining room to the the big sliding doors that opened into the front bedroom. She said later that she didn't see daddy when she opened the doors, which was strange because she would have had to walk over or around him to get to where mother was. Mama walked to the foot of the bed and shook mothers foot. She was a very light sleeper. Mama was probably in total shock at this point. Or maybe she was lying in order to keep me from knowing the truth. She ran into the kitchen and tried to tell granddaddy what had happened. Granddaddy, thinking that daddy had hurt mother, grabbed a chair in order to hit daddy. He put the chair down as he realized what had happened. Didi was taking her 10:00 AM break at Southern Bell telephone company. It was at the corner of Douglas Avenue and Gallatin Road. Southern Bell was the forerunner of South Central Bell. She only worked three blocks from home and she said that for some reason a powerful feeling of dread engulfed her. In her words "it was as if all the blood drained from my body".  She ran to the phone and called home. When mama answered she told Didi . "Something is wrong with Donie, I can't wake her up". Didi told her to try again. When mama returned to the phone she told Didi that she still couldn't wake her. Didi told her that she was coming home. Unknown to Didi, in her haste to get home, she left the receiver off the hook. Didi couldn't drive and wouldn't learn how until she was about forty years old. She told her supervisor there was an emergency and asked him to drive her home.
Didi working at Southern Bell Telephone company

  When they pulled up in front of the house Didi jumped out of the car and ran through the front door. Immediately to the left were the sliding wooden doors that daddy had locked. She then ran around to the other doors where she saw daddy but she didn't see mother. Didi tried to call the police but was unable because she left the phone off of the hook at work. She then ran next door where she was finally able to get in touch with them. In those days there was no 911. Each emergency service, like the police, ambulance, or Fire Department had their own emergency numbers. Ambulances were owned and maintained by private funeral homes. The ambulance attendants, for the most part, only had a basic knowledge of first aid. The main idea was to quickly transport the patient to the nearest hospital. The profit motive led to some dangerous situations when rival funeral homes would race each other to the scene of an accident. This could result in some pretty bad wrecks involving ambulances.
Phillips-Robinson & Pettus-Owen & Wood were probably the biggest funeral homes and providers of ambulance service in Nashville at the time.

Vernon Wilkerson at Pettus-Owen-Wood Funeral Home, Charlotte Pike West Nashville Tn in 1959.

Death room - Mama entered from the right
The bed was directly in front of the fireplace

  It wasn't long before the house became a crime scene. Cops, and the news media were everywhere. Didi was never fond of Nashville's police department. She would tell me with disgust how many police officers seemed to be there for no other reason than to gawk. An article was released on the front page of the Nashville Banner that afternoon. I was shielded from the news over the next few days but I was told that the story ran on the three local news channels that evening and it was on the radio. The story was on the front page of the Tennessean the following morning with a picture of my Uncle Doug being led away crying by two friends.The murder-suicide occurred around ten o'clock and we probably got home sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 PM. The police, coroner, and news media couldn't have been gone long when we arrived. The case was pretty open and shut. Later that afternoon I was composed enough that I walked to Daniel-Hoppe Rexall drugstore to buy a cherry coke at the soda fountain.They only cost a nickle and I just felt like I had to get away for a moment. While I was sitting there two strangers were sitting next to me talking about the death of my parents. I never let on to them who I was. Mother and daddy died on Wednesday and the bodies weren't ready until Thursday. On Wednesday night mama and I had a sleepless night. She sat next to my bed holding my hand as we comforted each other. Although my grandmother was not my mother she was the closest link I had left to my mother on earth. We talked all night. Mama sat in a chair next to my bed staring into the darkened bedroom where my parents died. She would do this for the next several nights. She told me that she saw an angel standing over the spot where mother died one night. On Thursday I refused to go to the funeral home for the visitation. Everybody tried to get me to go but I refused. One of the Hughes women, whose name I can't remember now, tried very hard to talk me into going to the funeral home. She was a cousin. One of granddaddy's sisters married my uncle Elmore Hughes who was a railroad engineer. Many of the Hughes lived on Cahal Street in East Nashville. She kept telling me " Greg, your mother is so beautiful. You will regret it if you don't see her". Mama was my champion. She told them to leave me alone. "If he doesn't want to go, don't try to force him". She refused to go to the funeral home herself because she didn't think that she could handle it. Part of the reason I didn't want to go was my fear of death and dead people. The other reason was that I just didn't want to see my mother like that. I wanted to remember her in life. Didi took pictures for my benefit and it would be years before I could bring myself to look at them.

  Didi told me that when she arrived at the funeral home on that Wednesday afternoon, January 16, to make funeral arrangements both sides of the family were there. Gale Robinson, who was Didi's lawyer, and an owner of Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home, told her before anything was done a decision should be made about Mark and I. In other words, who was going to raise us? There was silence until Didi spoke up and said that we would probably be more comfortable staying where we were. Mama told me that she wanted to become our guardian but the court wouldn't let her because of her age. I will always be grateful to Didi for taking guardianship of us. She was an attractive single mother with two children and was only thirty-five years old. There was plenty of life ahead of her. Now in a moment she had two more children to raise. In 1963 it was still a man's world. Most women were housewives. If they worked it was in the traditional jobs reserved for women. Secretarial, nursing, teaching, or retail. Didi had a good job for a woman but men doing the same job were paid more money. I didn't know until I was twenty-one years old that Didi raised us on her income and was putting our social security and veterans checks from daddy into a trust fund that had been set up for Mark and I. After all of daddy's many debts were paid there was only 10,000 dollars to be divided between his four biological children. Unfortunately daddy never adopted Donna and she was left out of the settlement. A trust fund with 2,500 dollars each was set up for Mark and I. We were to receive it when we reached the age of twenty-one. Because of Didi I had almost 9,000 dollars and Mark had well over 10,000 when we were eligible. Ten thousand was worth a lot more in 1963 than it is today. There are not many people on this earth that would have done what Didi did for us. Unfortunately the relationship between Didi and me was never what I would call a warm one. It was pretty turbulent and we never had good chemistry. She tried but I guess that I was just too determined that no one would ever replace my mother. Years later Didi told me of an experience that she had one night just after mother was buried. She was sleeping on the pullout couch in the dining room. Didi said that she was lying there awake and staring into the room where mother died. The big wooden doors were open about twelve inches. Suddenly mother appeared in the opening. She was standing there in the gown that she had been buried in. Didi said that she wasn't scared at all but the experience gave her a feeling of peace. It was as if mother was telling her everything was okay and there was nothing to worry about. I was shocked when Didi told me this story. She was the last person in my mind that would ever have had a supernatural experience and she was always so skeptical of things like that. This is what gives the story a feeling of authenticity to me because it was so unlike her.
My mother was standing in the doorway - My bed was in the left corner - My grandparents bed was in the right corner

  The funeral was at 10:30 AM on Friday morning January 18 and burial was at 11:30 AM. They were buried side by side at Nashville's Woodlawn cemetery. I was told that the funeral home was packed and people were even standing in the yard during the service. My parents had plenty of friends and relatives that came to the funeral along with people that came out of respect for Mark and I such as our teachers and school mates. There was even a celebrity there by the name of Moon Mullican, who was a country music singer that daddy had befriended. Many Black people who loved and respected my parents were also there and many stood in the front yard of Phillips-Robinson during the funeral. I was told that the funeral procession extended as far as the eye could see. There were never any regrets on my part about not going to the funeral or to the funeral home for the viewing. I have only been to their graves maybe ten times in my life and most of the times that I was there was because of a relatives burial or a viewing at Woodlawn Funeral home. Anybody who has lost a loved one will probably agree with me on this. The worse time in the grieving process is when everyone leaves and you are left to grieve alone. During the three days from the time of their deaths to the day of their burial the house was full of people and distractions. Most of the people were not there on the nineteenth however. Relatives and friends would come by to check on us from time to time but I never felt as lonely in my life as I did during those days and weeks after they died. Mama was my pillar of strength. Every night she would sit by my bed and we would talk until I fell asleep. On Saturday morning I woke up and mama was gone. I asked where she was and I was told that  she had a heart attack during the night. She had been rushed to Baptist hospital and I was told that she would be okay. Little did I know that this would be the first of five heart attacks. The fifth would kill her. She was suffering from heart failure. On the first Monday after mother and daddy died I was back in school. Almost everyday I would tell my teachers I wasn't feeling well and ask to go home early. I got away with this for a while until it started getting old. The whole year of 1963 was a blur to me and I really don't remember much about it. During that year I became close friends with Gus Fowler who lived a street over on Greenwood in a big two story white house. He lived there with his parents, grandmother and older sister. I spent a lot of time at his house. Gus and the family was a source of comfort to me. Mr. Fowler was ATF or an Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms agent. He was also a Marine combat veteran of the Pacific fighting in World War II. There was always a car or a van in the driveway with out of state tags. These were the days before the explosion of drug use in this country and there was still a lot of moon shine stills. He was constantly out finding stills and busting them up. Almost every weekend I was at his house.

  In May 1963 I skipped school to see John F. Kennedy He spoke at Vanderbilt before 30,000 people and was there to initiate construction on the Cordell Hull Dam by pushing a button on the podium that set off a gigantic explosion that could be heard over the stadium speakers. This was six months before his assassination. When I see color news footage of Kennedy, that day in Dallas, November 22, 1963, I am reminded of that day in Nashville. Just like Dallas, it was a beautiful sunny day and the only thing missing was Jackie Kennedy. His route took him from the airport on Murfreesboro road down to 8th Avenue where the motorcade turned right on to 8th Avenue and then it would make a left on to Broadway. Back then newspapers posted the motorcade routes. My plan was to stand on the corner of 8th and Broad so I could get a good look at him as he made that left turn on to Broad headed toward Vanderbilt. Then I would catch a bus out to Vanderbilt Stadium where I would hear the speech. There was a nice young married couple that I struck up a conversation with. They were very impressed that a kid my age would be interested enough to skip school in order to see a president. We sat together during the speech. I have had the opportunity to see several Presidents and Vice Presidents since 1960. My first was presidential candidate Richard Nixon in 1960, and Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the military I was involved in the security of Ronald Reagan in 1984, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. Vice Presidents Walter Mondale twice in 1979, Dan Quayle, and Al Gore Jr.
The Kennedy motorcade passing through Nashville 

Kennedy speaking at Vanderbilt stadium

  The year of 1963 stands out in my mind as being the saddest of my life. I would dream that mother had taken a long trip and when she returned I would just throw my arms around her and sob. Then I would wake up and realize that I was dreaming. I dreamed that dream a lot over the next few years. If I dreamed about my father it was a nightmare and he was trying to kill me. In September Aunt Arda got very sick. An ambulance came to the house and took her to the hospital but I never saw her again. She died on September 12th 1963 at the age of 78. I hate to say it but I was pretty mean to Aunt Arda. She didn't like Roy, Mark or myself because we would pick at her. It would make her mad if we even got close to her and she would swing at us with her cane. She liked Alton for some reason but she sure didn't like us. We thought it was funny that she would get so upset and that just made us pick at her more. If I had had that part of my life to live over I would have been more loving and respectful to her. On November 22, 1963 I was walking to my first class after lunch, Mr. Warren's English class. I was running a little late and I saw a group of teachers talking in low tones. It was obvious that something serious had happened because I overheard bits and pieces of the conversation. The best I could tell was that someone had been shot. When I got to class Mr. Warren was waiting for everyone to settle down and be seated. Then he told us that President Kennedy had been shot. A collective gasp went up in the room. About this time Mr. Wade came on the intercom and repeated what Mr. Warren had just told us. He then put the microphone next to the television in the principles office and for the rest of the afternoon we sat and listened to Walter Cronkite. It wasn't long before it was confirmed that President Kennedy was dead. Kennedy wasn't universally loved in the South because of his stand on civil rights. A few kids seemed to be happy that he was dead but they were in the minority. Most of us were genuinely upset over the assassination.

  Kennedy was shot on a Friday and for four days we sat around the television watching news coverage. School was canceled for the funeral on Monday. The night of the assassination I was an usher at my cousin Judy Brown's wedding. I had an embarrassing moment when I was lighting candles and accidentally fell off the edge of the stage. Everyone had a good laugh. This weekend was kind of rough for me because it brought back a lot of the pain of losing my parents. Mama cried the whole time. Every time she would walk by the television she would start sobbing. The Kennedy assassination is when the prime time news media came of age. There was twenty four hour news coverage. Normally television signed off late at night with a rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. On Sunday morning we were at Grace Church of the Nazarene when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald in the basement of the Dallas jail on live television. This was the first time that a major news event was video taped and we watched the reruns of the Oswald shooting the rest of the day on Sunday. Little did I know the impact that the Kennedy assassination would have on the country. Lyndon Johnson would expand the war in Vietnam causing the death and wounding of many young men of my generation. It would also lead to the radical wing of the Democratic Party that is ravaging our country today. Johnson's War on Poverty and the Hippie movement together have done more to destroy the American family with the Aid to Dependent Children program, the sexual revolution and the drug culture. All of this can be traced to the Kennedy assassination.
Arriving in Dallas

Moment just before the head shot

Zapruder film of Jackie reaching for JFK's skull and brain fragments

Painting of the moment when the kennedy's arrived at Parkland hospital

Carrying the casket on Air Force One

Administering the oath of office to LBJ

Lee Harvey Oswald

Lying in state in the capital rotunda

The murder of Oswald

The graves of John and Jackie Kennedy

 Like the Christmas of 1962, I don't remember much about the Christmas of 1963 other than it was very sad. I do remember that Didi gave me a book called the Golden Book of the Civil War which I still have today. We were right in the middle of the Civil War Centennial and I read everything I could get my hands on about the war. It has been my experience that most people who are dying suddenly get better just before they die. This was the case with mama. On the last day of her life mama was very happy. She was almost like a different person. She worked around the house all day long and was in very good spirits. Later that night I was in the living room when I heard a commotion coming from mama's bedroom. After the death of Aunt Arda mama and granddaddy moved their bed into her old bedroom. Donna was hysterical and it looked like Roy and Donna were fighting about something. I looked in the bedroom and saw mama holding her chest. Suddenly she fell back on the bed. Thinking she might be dying I ran outside to the back yard and sat in the swing. I began praying as hard as I have ever prayed in my life. Soon an ambulance arrived and they rushed mama to the hospital. Uncle Bud, Didi, Donna, Roy and others went to the hospital. I stayed at home with Mark and granddaddy. He paced the floor but I begin to feel hopeful as time went on that mama would be okay. It was not to be. Late that night I heard cars drive up and I held my breath. Suddenly I began to hear wailing and crying. I knew that she was gone. I just buried my head in my lap and began violently shaking but I was numb. I just shook.and shook. I remained like that for a long time. Mama died exactly one year and ten days after mother and daddy. Ruining Mark's birthday on January 26, 1964. In my mind daddy killed four people on January 16, 1963. My mother, the baby she was carrying. my grandmother and himself.

Granddaddy and Mama on their fiftieth anniversary
Where the picture above was taken

A group picture the end of January 1963



















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