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Vernon Derrick

By Steve A. Maze

     Arab, Alabama

It never ceases to amaze me whenever a perfect stranger walks up and asks, “How’s Vernon?” I don’t have to ask, “Vernon who?”

One doesn’t have to be from Arab to know that they are talking about one of the greatest musicians to ever come out of north Alabama. And if you’ve ever heard him play the fiddle or mandolin, you will immediately know that they are asking about Vernon Derrick.

The first time I ever saw him perform was at the Hank Williams Museum in Montgomery. Like others in the audience, I was mesmerized as the beautiful melodies flowed from Derrick’s fiddle.

No one can coax sounds from a stringed instrument like Vernon Derrick. One can almost hear a train rumbling down the tracks or listen to it screech to a halt as he rubs the bow across his fiddle while playing “Orange Blossom Special”.

His fiddle work can be lightening fast or as soft as a gentle breeze … but always with the unique style of a master musician. Regardless of the beat, the notes always come straight from his heart. You can almost visualize a tear rolling from the bow of his fiddle when he plays “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”.

To say that music has been a major part of his life would be an understatement. Derrick takes great pride in the fact that he has been able to make a career out of his musical talent, and that he has also appeared on stage with some of the greatest performers in country music history.

And I take great pride that Vernon Derrick lives in my hometown of Arab.


                 Click Photo to Enlarge

Vernon Derrick was born November 7, 1933, in Grant, Ala., the youngest of Elbert and Alice Kirkland Derrick’s five children. He moved to the Eddy community at age 8 and he attended school at Arab.

Most of his family members were musicians, and he would be no exception. Derrick was only 4 years old when he became interested in music, but he didn’t start playing until the ripe old age of 5.

“One morning my older brother, R.B., had gone to work,” Derrick says, “and I decided to get his fiddle out and try to play it. Unfortunately, I broke the hair out of the bow, and my brother told me in no uncertain terms not to fool with his fiddle anymore. I didn’t pick it up again until I was 14 years old.”

Later on, though, his brother loaned Derrick the fiddle until he could get one of his own.

Derrick never had any formal music training. He plays by ear. The closest he ever got to a music lesson was at age 5 when his parents let him and his older sister stay home from church. His sister took the opportunity to teach him three basic chords – D-G-C – on the mandolin.

Derrick eventually learned to pick out a few songs on the fiddle as he and his family listened to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night on the radio. That was the prelude to his dream of one day to play on the Opry.

Some of his favorite performers at the time were Bill Monroe and Curley Fox.

“I really learned to play the fiddle by listening to Fox’s old 78 records,” he says. “I would play ‘Fire on the Mountain’ and ‘Black Mountain Rag’ for hours on end.”

A few years later, the great fiddler Tommy Jackson would turn out to be Derrick’s mentor. Jackson was famous for playing fiddle instrumentals such as “Cherokee Shuffle.” He was also a big-time session guy in Nashville, backing up recording artists such as Ray Price.

By age 10, Derrick was playing on local radio stations WGSV in Guntersville and WAVU in Albertville. He was also playing and winning mandolin competitions which were held at local fiddler’s conventions.

By age 13, he had learned to play virtually any instrument with a string attached. In fact, he had become so proficient that he was able to back local singing artists with a variety of instruments.

Derrick soon picked up all of the trademarks of a professional musician. He learned to play an accompaniment so the instrument would not drown out the singer. He was able to play a tune with a delicate touch, or strum the loud resonating sounds of an introduction or firm beat.

Beyond Pickin’ and grinnin’

He played with a variety of groups over the years, but by 1954 he was performing with “The Toll Grinder’s Band,” which accompanied “Big Jim” Folsom’s campaign for governor of Alabama. He also played with Folsom’s band called the “Ham Sacks” when Folsom made an unsuccessful bid for governor in 1962.

In 1959 Derrick attended a country music show held at Ryan High School and headlined by the popular country music duo, Flatt & Scruggs. Before the show began, Derrick and Lester Flatt got together for a jam session. Both Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs liked Derrick’s showmanship and asked him to go on a short tour with them. They played several stage shows and performed on a couple of television programs in Tennessee and Virginia before Derrick returned home.

Derrick was a regular with the Stanley Brothers by 1960, and three years later he joined Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys. He also backed such artists as Lefty Frizell, Stonewall Jackson, George Morgan and Merle Travis.

The young musician had already made quite a name for himself when he got to fulfill his lifetime dream. In 1968, Derrick took the stage at Ryman Auditorium with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys and performed on the Grand Ole Opry.

“It really meant something to play the Opry at that time,” Derrick recalls. “The great performers are really the ones who started the Opry. To be able to stand on the same stage where Hank Williams, Sr., Bill Monroe, and many other great artists have performed was very special.”

Derrick not only performed on the Grand Ole Opry, he received an encore from the audience almost every time he was featured on an instrumental. But it wasn’t just Derrick’s musical talent that got the encore; it was his dynamic stage performance.

“I had played with Woody Shelton and the Shelton Brothers during the early ‘50’s,” Derrick says. “One day, Woody told me not to hold back, and to turn loose when we got on stage. The audience gave me a standing ovation when I did, and I continued from that day forward.”

Like many singers who are unable to fully express the emotions of a song without using their hands, Derrick wouldn’t be able to play a note if his feet were tied together. But when he taps his foot to the time of the music, twirls his bow and jumps up on a chair or nearby table while hitting a fast lick, the crowd comes to its feet.

“I want people to feel what I am doing on stage,” Derrick says. “In the beginning I thought my mother would like my stage performance, but I wasn’t sure about my dad. I was sort of reserved and didn’t do it for a while. I was afraid the audience would think it was vulgar.”

No way. The audience is delighted when he hops across the stage on one foot wearing an ever-present smile on his face.

Playing with the Hanks

Derrick became acquainted with Hank Williams Jr. while playing with Jimmy Martin’s band. Hank and Derrick would sometimes go back to the dressing room for an impromptu jam session.

In 1982, Derrick became a member of Hank Jr’s Bama Band and remained with him until 1988. He can be heard on 11 or 12 albums with Hank Jr. including the “The Pressure’s On,” which contained two #1 hits, “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down”.

“I loved working with Hank,” Derrick says. “We’ve always been friends and have even gone hunting together.

“I think he is the top male entertainer in the business. I don’t feel he has ever gotten the credit he deserves for being the quality entertainer that he is.

“I don’t see Hank and his manager, Merle Kilgore, much now, but I still consider them good friends. I can honestly say that they treated me well when I was a member of the band, and I have the utmost of respect for them both.”

But Derrick’s link to the Williams family did not end when his stint with Hank Jr. concluded in 1988. Derrick was playing at the Grand Ole Opry in 1995 when he received a call that Hank Williams III –whose given name is Shelton – needed a fiddle player in his group. So he began playing with Hank III in 1995, and remained with him until 1999.

“I think a lot of Shelton,” Derrick said. “I have known him a long time. In fact, he was just a kid when I was playing with his dad. He’s very talented, and I think he could have a bright future in country music if that’s what he wants to do.”

Derrick came back to Arab in 1999 to look after his sister, Dee Derrick, who has been ill. His wife of more than 20 years, the former Joy Sutton, has also experienced some health problems, and Derrick felt he needed to stay closer to home. He is quick to point out the important role his wife has played in enabling him to pursue his music career.

“Joy has always understood what I do and never asked me to quit throughout the years,” Derrick says. “She has always backed me in my career and stood by me. A musician or recording artist has to have that kind of support since being on the road all of the time isn’t easy on either one of you.”

Can’t say ‘retirement’

Lately, Derrick has been playing local engagements while caring for family members. Just what the talented musician will ultimately do is still a matter of speculation – even for him.

“I may go back on the road with one of the top country artists if I don’t form my own band,” Derrick says.

Retirement isn’t a word Derrick feels comfortable with. He still enjoys performing in front of an audience, and the audiences still enjoy watching and listening to him perform. And that’s about what you would expect from someone who has spent his entire life making music.


“Single Handed

 

By Steve A. Maze
Arab, Alabama

Keith Maze
Click Photo to Enlarge

“He can’t die,” I said to myself while sitting alone in my office in stunned silence. I first reacted to the devastating news with shock, but sadness and anger quickly overcame me in the next few minutes.

  “I’m older than my brother, and he’s not supposed to die before me,” I mumbled out loud while hanging up the phone. “I’m supposed to go first.”

  My mother, Betty Maze, called right after I hung up the phone. As I expected, she was panic stricken and about to call someone who had seen a doctor that she thought could help my brother. Shortly after, being unable to reach them by phone, she frantically drove to their house in a futile effort to get the doctor’s name.

  I drove home from my office in a daze, barely remembering how I had gotten there upon arriving. I walked into the kitchen where my wife, Brenda, was standing. She asked what was wrong before I could say a word. She had seen that same look on my face a week earlier when we had lost a loved one in a tragic automobile accident. It was only the second time I had worn that look on my face (before or since), and both had occurred within seven days of each other.

  I filled my wife in on the news as best I could since I had not spoken directly to my brother, Keith. The caller to my office did not tell me that he was going to die, but related in a frantic tone that he had cancer … and it was bad. Still, the word “cancer” instantly translates into “death” when mentioned around the average person, and I was no different from anyone else. None of us, however, were prepared for just how bad his condition would be.

  I called my dad, Marlon Maze, who had spoken with my brother, but did not know any details. He told me Keith was on his way over to his house, and added that he would call me after talking to him. The call came a short time later. Keith was on his way to our house. He wanted to tell us the details in person.

  I peeked frequently out the window of our living room in hopes of spotting him turning into the driveway. Even though it only took a few minutes, it seemed like an eternity before I saw his car coming down the road. I watched anxiously as Keith and his wife, J.J., walked up the front porch steps.

  My brother did not mince words while grimly relaying what the doctor had told him. He had a rare form of cancer that was apparently caused by an injury he had suffered on his job. He told me the type of cancer he was suffering from, but I had never heard of it. I couldn’t even remember how to pronounce it. I did remember one thing he told me, however. That form of cancer was terminal most of the time.

  “Regardless of how much time I have left,” Keith said bluntly, “I’ve got some things I have to do.”

  He was worried about his job. How could he make a living if he was unable to work? He needed to get his affairs in order. He needed to … well, he needed to do a lot of things.

  After Keith and J.J. departed, my wife and I drove over to my dad’s home. Dad was sitting in a recliner and holding a cigarette in his hand when we walked in. A curl of white smoke made its way to the ceiling as he stared blankly at the wall.

  “We’ll make it somehow,” he said. “We’ll buy some old cars to sell if he can’t work.”

  The word “we’ll” was very appropriate. Cancer is something that affects the whole family, not just the individual fighting the disease. And “we” were ready for the fight ahead.

The first sign

  That phone call to my office in February of 1995 came after my brother had already endured five years of medical treatment after being accidentally stuck in his hand with a sharp object at work. It was no big deal at the time. Being a typical man, he just wiped the blood off and forgot about it. He also didn’t bother to file an accident report with his employer. That would become a “big deal” later on.

  The onset of a severe and persistent throbbing in his right hand shortly after the accident occurred were the first sign of problems that Keith would face. First, his thumb began to draw inward toward the palm. Later, there was numbness in the tips of his fingers – an indicator that blood was not circulating properly in his hand.

  He went to see a doctor about the problem. That doctor sent him to other doctors who in turn sent him to others. All of them treated his condition as a vascular disease since there was practically no blood circulating in the thumb. The pain in his hand and particularly in his thumb, continued to increase in severity.

  “I begged them to take the thumb off,” Keith recalls with a grimace,” but the doctors said they were in the business of saving limbs and digits, not removing them.”

  Fourteen operations on his hand and wrist over the next few years brought no relief. By the end of the last surgery, the pain was unbearable. Keith’s persistence eventually paid off and the thumb was removed. The pain temporarily subsided and scars from the surgery were healing nicely when he made a routine follow up visit to his doctor two weeks later.

Epithelioid sarcoma

  As required, tissue from Keith’s amputated thumb was sent to a lab for a biopsy. The tissue sample had to be resubmitted three times before the final diagnosis was completed, and the doctor did not have good news when my brother arrived in her office.

  “She told me I had multiple tumors in my hand,” Keith recalls. “She said it was epithelioid sarcoma … cancer.”

  Epithelioid sarcoma is among the rarest form of cancer. It only affects people between the age of 20 and 40, and is easily misdiagnosed due to its rarity. There were only 270 known cases of that particular type cancer known in the United States at the time of my brother’s diagnosis.

  The only alternative was to amputate the hand to within six inches of his elbow in order to cut above the scar tissue from previous surgeries, and hopefully remove any other tumors hiding that part of the arm. Six months of chemotherapy treatments would follow the operation.  

  He was also told the survival rate for patients suffering from with epithelioid cancer are low. There were no guarantees from doctors that the aggressive procedure and follow up treatment would work. When asked how long he had to live, doctors told Keith they didn’t know. That’s when he decided to update his will and get his business affairs in order.

  Keith began taking chemo within 30 days of his hand being removed. He was one of four patients being treated at Kirkland Clinic in Birmingham for epithelioid sarcoma at the time. None of the other three patients survived.

  The chemo treatments were not pleasant and the reaction to the medicine shot into his veins was immediate. He could barely make it to his car in the hospital garage when the sessions were over, and would lie down in the back seat as J.J. drove him home. He normally spent three days in bed before feeling well enough to stir around the house. Two weeks later, just enough time to recuperate, he would be back at Kirkland for another treatment.

  “The type they gave me was called Adriamycin RDF,” says Keith. “It is also known as Red Devil. The side effects from the chemo were tough. My hair fell out. I had extreme vomiting, and also lost my sense of smell.” 

  My brother weighed 168 pounds when he began taking chemo. When the treatment ended his wiry frame was down to only 115 pounds.

Time to think

  Being inactive for the first time in his life gave Keith time to think back on the past, as well as what lay ahead. He recalled his childhood days when our family had a gospel quartet. He and our parents sang, and I played the piano. I never could sing well. Still can’t. But Keith could. He started singing at age 8 when we attended West Side Baptist Missionary Church in Arab.

  Never one to be shy, Keith would jump up on stage with his pre-pubescent, high-pitched voice and let ‘er rip. Even at that young age, he was an entertainer and enjoyed the young girls swooning after him. Yep, they do that in church as well when good looking guys are on stage. Our family quit performing together after my wife and I were married in 1974. Keith was 14 at the time.

My brother never lost his interest in music, however, and rediscovered it years later. At first, he just got together with a few friends for picking and grinning sessions. He was a great singer, but also had a desire to learn the guitar. One of his friends in the group offered to teach him. The friend’s name was Kerry Franklin, an exceptional songwriter and guitarist who has performed with many bands over the years.

Click Photo to Enlarge

  Pretty soon, Keith was performing in Franklin’s band. Shortly after, the trouble with his hand began. Of course, the ensuing amputation ended my brother’s dreams of being a guitarist. Still, he had developed quite a following as a singer and was in great demand locally. He performed at many large and small venues in north Alabama, and even made a few television appearances.

  “It was real important to me to have a hit song when I was younger,” Keith reflects, “but I don’t think about that anymore. I found out that there’s a lot of other things more important than a hit song.”

  My brother thought about his many friends who supported him during his illness. Debbie Cornelius, a friend since childhood, would drive to his house and give him haircuts (until all his hair fell out due to the chemo treatments). Kerry Franklin came by almost every day to play and sing for him. Co-workers took up money and sent it to him. Although he was drawing temporary disability payments from work, there would be no compensation for his job-related injury since he had failed to file a report when it occurred.

  Keith also thought about others who had physical problems and agreed to perform at three benefits for Children’s Hospital. Naturally, he was especially touched by the children who were suffering from cancer.

  Later, after his chemo treatments had ended, he was well enough to capture first place honors at a Loretta Lynn Talent Show held in Hurricane Mills, Tennessee. And once again, young ladies were drawn to him. Several even rushed the stage and tried to grab his hand as he performed. He instinctively reached down to them, but that turned out to be a mistake. They wouldn’t let go – one in particular.

  She did not know that Keith had only one arm since he was wearing a very authentic looking prosthetic device. My dad and I were sitting in the audience when I shouted, “She’s going to pull his arm off!” Keith managed to get loose from the overzealous fan, but I sure would have liked to have seen the expression on her face if that artificial arm had come off in her hand!

Life after cancer

  In 2001, my brother recorded eight original songs that were written by friends Kerry Franklin (now a member of Country Music star Ken Mellon’s band), Jimmy Reeves, Joe King, and our cousin John Stone. It is only now that these recordings have become available to the public. The CD is available through Stages Entertainment, a music store managed by Keith’s son, Shane, who is now following in his father’s footsteps and is a member of the Stages Show Band. In fact, Shane is the one who urged his dad to put his recordings on a CD.

  “It took three years, but I finally put them on a CD titled ‘Single Handed,’” Keith says. “I’m really proud of it, and hope everyone that listens to the CD enjoys it. The response has been excellent so far.”

  Keith is now unable to work from severe back problems unrelated to the cancer. He still undergoes annual check-ups to make sure there has been no reoccurrence of epithelioid sarcoma, and has remained cancer free for the past nine years.

  My brother is very grateful to all of the people who helped him through his ordeal, but has a special place in his heart for Dr. Kenneth A. Jaffe, a specialist in the orthopedic and oncology field, who now works at HealthSouth in Birmingham.

  “I consider him a hero,” says Keith. “Dr. Jaffe was brought in to identify the type cancer I had. He saved my life, and has been my primary doctor ever since.

  “I am thankful to be one of the very few patients who survived epithelioid cancer. I prayed every day during my ordeal, and now I thank God every day that I am alive. I am a very fortunate person.”
 

Editor’s Note: Readers can email Keith Maze at stages@otelco.net. To order a copy of his new CD, send $17 (postpaid) to: Stages Entertainment, 2506 U.S. Hwy. 231 South, Arab, AL 35016. Visit the following website for more information: www.stagesentertains.com


Public Enemy Number One

By Steve A. Maze

     Arab, Alabama

There is an empty table at the Dairy Queen in Arab, Ala. Until recently, a sign on the table read: “Reserved for the Rices”.

The Rices, Cyrus and Doris, have been patrons of the popular restaurant for many years. In fact, the charming couple has been as much a part of the Dairy Queen as the restaurant fixtures themselves. The never ending flow of employees and customers stopping by “their” table to visit with them was testimony to that.

Sadly, Doris will be the only one seated at their table in the future. Cyrus Rice passed away on April 8, 2003.

I was one of the steady stream of acquaintances that could never resist stopping by the Rice’s table to chat. I hoped that Cyrus, always dressed in a coat and tie, would tell me about an incident that he experienced in 1934. It was a story that he had told me many times, yet one I never tired of hearing.

 

The morning began routinely in the tiny hamlet of Arab. It was warm and raining, typical weather for an early spring day. The Great Depression was raging and most people were attempting to scratch out a living by sharecropping or working their hard-scrabble farms in and around the small community. Days were filled with hard work, but little excitement.

Townspeople followed fascinating newspaper and radio accounts of gangsters wreaking havoc across the country and the G-men who chased them, but Arab’s citizenry were content to have the exploits happen elsewhere. They would rather read or listen to accounts about the killers – not come face to face with them. By midmorning all of that would change.

A strange encounter

Then 21-year-old Cyrus Rice began his job at Griffith’s Drug Store by six a.m. each morning while the store’s owner, Dr. Walter Griffith, worked from his office next door. After opening up, Rice began his daily routine by sweeping out the store. He was usually alone since customers didn’t normally come in at that early hour unless there was an emergency.

It was raining, as it had been for several days, and Main Street was a quagmire. Rice soon turned his attention to the dried mud on the walkway in front of the store.

The morning stillness was abruptly broken when two people in a sleek, black automobile came roaring up South Main. The car’s engine was racing as exhaust backfired from the tail pipe. The driver spotted Rice sweeping the walkway and stomped the brake pedal. A spray of mud and gravel immediately began to splatter across the front window of the store. Dr. Griffith heard the commotion and came running from his office.

“What in the hell are they doing?” he barked.

“We’re fixing to find out because they’re backing up,” Rice replied.

The Model-B Ford slid past its target, but the driver reversed his course and backed the car up with the passenger door parallel to the store front. An apprehensive Rice tried to seek refuge inside the drug store, but that was not to be. A short, blonde-haired lady burst from the passenger door and grabbed him by the shoulder.

“You ain’t going nowhere,” the blonde snapped, a cigar stub showing from the corner of her mouth as she anxiously looked up and down the street.

“I want six Red Dot cigars and a pack of rubbers,” she said while herding Rice and Dr. Griffith into the store.

Dr. Griffth sent Rice to get the cigars while he retrieved the contraceptives. Rice cautiously walked between the soda fountain and cigar counter while trying to keep an eye on the arrogant blonde. Strangers came through town frequently, but none so demanding as this lady. She was hyper, feet never at rest and constantly looking about as if expecting trouble.

Rice retrieved the 25-cent pack of cigars and handed them to her. She spit the cigar stub from her mouth and mashed it out with her foot. Rice wasn’t appreciative of her messing up the freshly swept floor but said nothing.

“How about mixing up a Coke for my friend in the car?” she said more like a command than a request.

Rice carefully observed the lady as he mixed the soda. She wore a red tam hat that allowed her strawberry-blonde hair to slightly show. A red skirt extended to her ankles and something resembling an old purse was hidden underneath her white, long-sleeved blouse. A huge, light-colored handbag with pistol-shaped bulges distending from it completed her attire.

But what Rice noticed most was how dirty the lady was. Not in the normal sense, but filthy dirty. Her face, hand and clothes were almost as filthy as the profanity that occasionally spewed from her lips. Red lipstick matched the rouge on her cheeks, and she would have been pretty had she not been so dirty.

Dr. Griffith appeared with the contraceptives just as Rice finished mixing the soda.

“How much do I owe ya?” she asked.

Dr. Griffith added up the bill and told her the sum. She reached into the bag and paid cash for the purchases.

“You got curb service?”

“We do,” Rice replied while placing the soda on a tray as he attempted to walk past her toward the front door. The petite blonde promptly shoved him against the soda fountain with an elbow.

“Wait a minute,” she commanded. “I’ll tell you when you can go.”

The lady proceeded to the front of the store with Rice following behind her. She opened the door slightly, peeked through, and cautiously glanced up and down Main Street. Apparently satisfied that everything was okay, she stepped through the door and directed Rice to follow her.

The driver

Rice trailed her to the driver’s side of the car and attempted to hook the tray on the door.

“Don’t put anything on the car!” the blonde screamed as she gave the soda jerk another shove with her elbow.

She grabbed the Coke and handed it to the man sitting behind the steering wheel of the idling automobile. He was racing the engine in a sporadic manner to keep it from going dead; the rain hampering its performance.

The young man was as filthy as his companion and his clothes unkempt. He slouched down, didn’t look up, and never moved his hands that were firmly clasped around the steering wheel. The man wore a long-billed, brown hat pulled down over his eyes. It was hard to tell, but he many have been wearing sunglasses. He sported a tan coat and trousers, white shirt with an unbuttoned collar, and no tie.

“Son, is there any money in that old bank?” he asked while pointing toward the Bank of Arab. The bank had not yet opened at that early hour, but was doing better than many banks of the Depression era. Sensing something was amiss, Rice laughed and replied, “No, that bank’s been busted for years.”

“I told you so,” the young lady sneered at her partner.

“What’s the quickest way to Birmingham?” the man asked.

“Well, you can go back the way you came, or turn beside the bank and go through Cullman,” Rice answered.

Rice then followed the lady around to the passenger side of the car and noticed a sawed-off shotgun lying on the floorboard. She sat down in the front seat and slid the 12-gauge between her feet.

Rice was able to get a better look at the car from that vantage point. While appearing to be new, it was muddy and dirty. The interior looked as if it had been lived in and was filthy. Rifle-shaped objects bulged from underneath a tarp on the back seat.

Without saying another word the driver spun the car around in the middle of Main Street. Once again, the back tires of the car spewed a mixture of mud and gravel toward the drug store before speeding by the bank on its way toward Cullman.

“Oh my God, there they are!”

Rice and Dr. Griffith discussed the couple’s strange actions, but quickly forgot about the pair when the delivery truck arrived later that morning from Gadsden. They immediately began unbundling the latest issues of True Detective and True Story magazines.

“Oh my God, there they are!” Dr. Griffith exclaimed as he glimpsed a magazine cover.

There on the front cover of True Detective was the strawberry-blond and her companion.

“We had better lock up and go home in case they come back,” the doctor quickly added.

Their fear subsided after 30 minutes, however, and the store was reopened.

A few days later, the FBI visited Arab to inquire about a couple suspected of robbing a bank in Tarrant City, Ala. The agents pulled out photographs of the pair in question and showed them to Rice and Dr. Griffith. They identified them as the couple that had been to the store the day after the bank robbery, and told them about their earlier run-in with the man and woman.

The FBI related that they had chased the desperados up Highway 231 toward Oneonta before losing them. The gangsters had apparently spent the night in their car while parked behind the Brooksville Post Office, and eluded capture when lawmen were forced to temporarily call off the search. Not only had the rain made the muddy roads virtually impassable, bloodhounds had lost the scent of the bank robbers trail as well.

Public Enemy Number One

Area residents were shocked to learn the faces shown on the magazine cover were considered Public Enemy Number One! Even though they had not made it to the number one spot on FBI posters, the tremendous amount of publicity they were receiving at the time certainly made them so in the hearts and minds of citizens across the U.S. As it turned out, Arab had been visited by Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

On April 29, 1934, the outlaws stole their last car, a gray Ford V-8, form a roofing contractor in Topeka, Ks. The pair drove 7,500 miles over the next 24 days. One May 23, 1934, they were killed in a hail of lawmen’s bullets near Gibsland, La. According to some accounts, there were 184 bullet holes in their car of which 80 made their mark on the infamous duo. Their reign of terror was over.

Word of the gangster’s demise spread quickly and the death scene was over run with souvenir seekers. The unruly mob grabbed items from the car and personal items from the blood-soaked bodies of the criminals. Some attempted to cut locks of Bonnie’s golden hair, and one man brought a jar of alcohol with him in which to put Clyde’s trigger finger after he attempted to sever it with a knife.

Cyrus Rice didn’t get a souvenir when he met the infamous duo. Instead, he came away with something many never live to tell about – a face-to-face encounter with Bonnie and Clyde.


 

Ralph Hammond

By Steve A. Maze

     Arab, Alabama

  Successful movie and television actors are famous people that most everyone is familiar with. The same is true for professional athletes, singers and musicians. But with the exception of those in their chosen field, and a handful of voracious readers, successful writers are “famous” people that no one knows.

  One of Arab’s most distinguished citizens is like that. Well, sort of. Over the years, his diverse life has allowed him the opportunity to establish relationships with many people from a variety of geographical areas. And, of course, he is someone that all of us in Arab instantly recognize when running into him at the post office or the L-Rancho Café. Yet, none of us really “know” him. I think it’s more of a matter of not being informed rather than not knowing, but that’s not surprising since this humble gentleman isn’t one to boast about his many achievements.

  Ralph Hammond was born on February 1, 1916, in Valley Head, Ala., the youngest of five children born to Bleve and Alice (Holleman) Hammond.

  Hammond attended preschool in Valley Head until the structure burned down around 1920. His mother then taught him at home for two years until a new school could be built. In the meantime, Bleve Hammond put a bed on his Model-T and drove his older children, as well as about 20 other Valley Head students, to school in Fort Payne.

 When Hammond started back to school he had progressed to the point that he was able to skip the first grade and begin in the second. He was double promoted in grades three through six, and only spent a total of three years in grammar school.

  “My mother set a wonderful foundation,” Hammond says. “I learned to read early and voluminously. During the summer months I would read an average of one book per week. When I read all of my family’s books, I would read from our neighbor’s larger library. I fell in love with language, and reading and writing were part of it.”

  Around the age of 16, Hammond wrote his first newspaper column titled “Thoughts ala mode”, for the Fort Payne Journal. The popular column ran for the next two years, along with several feature articles that Hammond penned.

  He graduated from high school in 1934 with no career goals in mind. The nation was in the depths of the Great Depression and Hammond helped out on the family farm for a while. The teenager later got a job at Kresses 5&10 cent store in Chattanooga where he earned $10 per week. The pay was good for that period of time, but Hammond was terribly frustrated because he wasn’t furthering his education.

  “I went home one weekend and the pastor of the Methodist church took me to Snead College in Boaz where I got a scholarship working in the library,” Hammond recalls.

  He served as President of the student body while at Snead but it was in his role as editor of the college newspaper, “Snead Chimes”, that he would be able to conduct one of his first interviews with film star Jeanette McDonald who was performing at a concert in Birmingham in 1939. In the following years, Hammond would interview and come to know many people of celebrity status.

  It was also around this time that the Dekalb Times newspaper editor noticed Hammond’s columns in the Fort Payne Journal. He asked the young college student to write a weekly column for his newspaper, and Hammond earned a dollar a column when he penned “Around the Cracker Barrel”. He supplemented that income by delivering dry cleaning for other students.

  Hammond spent two years at Snead before leaving to attend Berea College, a liberal arts school, in Berea, Ky. Berea is a prestigious college with no tuition but everyone who attends has to be an “A” student, and 80 percent of them pursue scholarships for a PHD. Hammond’s education was preempted, however, in 1942 when he was drafted into the U.S. Army after his third year in college.

  “I started out at the 3rd Army Headquarters in Ft. McPherson, Ga., and spent nine months there as a clerk typist since I had taken shorthand and typing at Snead,” Hammond says. “I later trained in the communications field for a year in Ft. Monmouth, NJ.

  “Arriving in England, a personnel officer noticed that I had four years of writing on my service record and I was assigned as a military war correspondent in the Public Relations headquarters.”

  Hammond began with the rank of corporal, but was soon promoted to technical sergeant (five-stripes).

 

Ernest Hemingway

  There were approximately 4,000 commercial correspondents working in Europe for newspapers and magazines during WWII. All of them had to go through the PR office in London to get their assignments, and that is where Hammond met the future author of “The Old Man and the Sea.”

  “Hemingway was not too well known at the time,” Hammond says. “He came and went like many other such writers – nobody paying him more attention than any of the others. I never had a lengthy conversation with Hemingway, but found him very personable. He was open, friendly and humorous.

  “I saw him getting out of a taxi one morning with his head bandaged up and asked what had happened. He told me that he had drunk too much toddy the night before and fell out of a taxi door.”

  Hemingway always wanted to be in the center of the cyclone wherever he went. In fact, he asked to go on a bombing mission over Germany and wanted to be in on the D-Day invasion. “I’m waiting for the bombers and the boats to start the action!” he told Hammond.

  Even with the business of war going on around them, the two correspondents managed to find time to discuss writing.

  “Hemingway told me that Mark Twain had the biggest influence on his writing,” Hammond states. “He always wanted to pen yet a better story than the one he had done before. He wanted that one perfect sentence.

  “Hemingway was really a down to earth person. Even though he had spent several years in Paris, he loved to have a home base in which to relax and let his inner juices flow. He was able to do that later at his home in Key West, Fla., with his many cats curled around his ankles.

  “He was a man who cared only to be a man, and not the literary saint that some admirers elevated him to be.”

 

T.S. Eliot

  It was in his role as a military war correspondent that Hammond telephoned T.S. Eliot, a world famous poet whose work “The Waste Land” put him on the literary map in earlier years. 

  “It was a cold winter night when I visited him at his London flat in 1944,” says Hammond while leaning against the arm of his chair as he recalls that chilly evening. “He was very gracious and kind, and put me at ease.”

  At first the two talked about trivialities; London’s foggy bottoms and cold water flats. Eventually, the conversation was directed toward Eliot’s work. After hours of serious discussion about his body of poetry, Hammond spoke up and said, “I don’t care what the literary world heaps accolades upon you for, because I love you for your ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats!’”

  Eliot all but exploded with laughter at the remark.

  “So you like my cats!” he mused. “Well, so do I! I don’t have any affinity whatever for dogs, but I love every cat I ever saw … and the rowdier they are, the better I like them!”

  “His humorous side came out that night,” Hammond smiles. “He was born in St. Louis, and I think he was just so happy to have someone from the states to visit with him.”

  Big Ben soon stroked the midnight hour and Hammond departed Eliot’s London flat. Not only did the war correspondent leave with an autographed copy of the composer’s book, “T.S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1935”, but also with a lifetime of memories.

 

Gertrude Stein

  Hammond’s headquarters was moved to Paris shortly after its liberation and it was there in 1944 that he met celebrated author and poet, Gertrude Stein, best known for penning the line “A rose is a rose is a rose.”

  “The GIs lionized her for her book ‘Brewsie and Willie’,” Hammond states as one of her admirers. “The book was a tribute and payback to all the GIs. No writer ever came closer to capturing the very heart and soul of the GI than Gertrude Stein did in that book.”

  Hammond arranged for the GIs to have an evening of celebration with the famed writer. The event was not only a tribute to Stein, but gave the soldiers a needed psychological break from the effects of battle.

  Two soldiers picked Stein up in a jeep at her countryside home where she was taken to the Paris’ Grand Hotel. The famed composer of words mixed and mingled with the GIs at the party where she later stood at a makeshift podium and spent hours talking about her literary life. Hammond added a delightful spark to the evening when he turned to the special guest during a question and answer session and purposely asked, “Miss Stein, what is a rose?”
  Wild cheers went up from the crowd as Stein began to smile. “Let me turn the question to you,” she replied. “Indeed, what is a rose?”

  “A rose is a rose,” stated Hammond without hesitation.

  “Ah! Merci beaucoup!” she yelled. “Indeed, a rose is a rose is a rose, a rose forever. For everyone knows that a rose is a rose is a rose!”

  All bedlam broke loose as the GIs yelled and cheered and clapped their robust hands as if Paris itself was again liberated. Stein laughed the loudest of anyone. She was with her adoring GIs and relished every moment of it.

  Of all the writers and artists that Ralph Hammond met while overseas, his personal favorite was Gertrude Stein. When asked why, he simply states, “She was a rose.”

 

Pablo Picasso

  Hammond had picked up the love of art while taking oil painting in high school and frequently visited the Louvre Art Museum in Paris during his off time. During one of his visits the GI mentioned to a member of the Art League that he would like to meet Pablo Picasso. She called and made an appointment for him to meet with the famous artist and sculptor at his home.

  It was Picasso’s 64th birthday when Hammond’s camouflaged jeep drove up to 7 Rue des Grands-Augustins on October 25, 1945. Picasso was alone that particular day, and personally greeted his guest at the door.

  “Picasso spoke a little English and I had picked up the French language while I was in Paris,” Hammond says, “so we had no problem communicating. He was broad-smiled, chatty, and aglow with enthusiasm that day. He poured out genuine hospitality to me, serving me tea and cookies while I slipped him a gift of rationed coffee and chocolates.”

  The world’s most famous painter of modern art escorted the GI through his expansive residence and into a third-floor studio where many of his creations were brought to life.  Piled upon a table and several chairs in the artist’s studio was a dense profusion of his recent work. The artist pointed it out piece by piece, explaining it all step by step. Suddenly, he stopped before a commanding plaster form of “Man with a Sheep”, and asked Hammond what he thought of it. The war correspondent responded that it looked like the Good Shepherd. Picasso caressed the figure with his hand and said, “You may be right.”

  Some critics now say that particular piece is the single most important sculpture done in Picasso’s lifetime.

  “And here I was seeing the piece in its inception before the museum-goer ever had a chance to fix eyes upon it,” Hammond exclaims.

  The GI spent the better part of a day with the renowned artist but there was one regret. In anticipation of his visit, he had purchased a small portfolio of Picasso’s paintings in order to get them signed. Unfortunately, Hammond forgot to bring them with him and never had the opportunity to see Picasso again.

 

Nelle Harper Lee

  When Hammond’s stint in the military ended he attended the University of Alabama in 1946 on the GI Bill. It was there that he first met the lady who was to become the author of “To Kill A Mockingbird.”

  Harper Lee was editor of the school magazine “Rammer Jammer” while Hammond was writing a weekly column for the college newspaper “Crimson White”. Both publications shared one room and Hammond was able to work with Lee the entire year that he attended the University of Alabama.

  “Nelle was the best friend I had in school,” Hammond says with a wave of his hand. “She was very intelligent, but a down to earth person. Nelle was lot of fun to be around, and a group of us would often get together to go to ballgames and things like that.”

  Hammond’s first book, “My GI Aching Back”, was published while he was attending the University of Alabama. The book described his war time experiences, and Harper Lee ran one chapter of it in the “Rammer Jammer”.

  The friendship between Hammond and Harper Lee has lasted for more than five decades, and they still correspond three or four times a year.

  “If you are a friend of Nelle’s,” says Hammond, “you are a friend for life.”

 

Carl Sandburg

  After completing his senior year at the University of Alabama, Hammond went to work for Alabama governor “Big Jim” Folsom beginning with the 1947-1950 term, and again from 1956-1959. Hammond filled a variety of roles for the governor during his two terms, including that of Chief of Staff, Press Secretary, and speechwriter. One newspaper bestowed him the well-earned title of “one-man staff”.

  Carl Sandburg was a writer/lecturer of celebrity status, well known for his poem “Fog” and other works, when he traveled to Montgomery in 1948 to lecture at several colleges in the state. He stayed at the Jefferson Davis Hotel during his visit, and Governor Folsom asked Hammond to be Sandburg’s official state escort.

  “Sandburg told me that as a 20-year-old boy he spent a year hoboing and working odd jobs across the Great West,” says Hammond as he reveals a little known fact. “That’s where he collected old songs and ballads that later became his famous book, ‘The American Songbag.’ I think he liked to sing ballads almost as much as he enjoyed writing and lecturing.”

  Governor Folsom also asked Hammond to arrange a meeting so he could meet the famed poet.

  “I ushered him into the governor’s private chamber and never before have I seen a stranger more warmly received by the governor,” Hammond says.

  Folsom and Sandburg shared story after story for more than an hour. Eventually, the conversation drifted to Abraham Lincoln, a man that Folsom greatly admired and read about extensively. “I’m amazed you know so much about Lincoln,” Sandburg said to the governor.

  Folsom laughed and with his great hand waving against the air, said, “I’ve read a lot of books about Abe Lincoln, in spite of the fact that some Alabamians would tell you that I can’t even read!”

  Sandburg laughed at the fact that Folsom was willing to make himself the brunt of such a joke.

  Hammond arranged for a professional photographer to take some photos of Sandburg during his trip to Montgomery. He later mailed the poet a set of the portraits, as well as an extra set for Sandburg to autograph for him. Hammond never received them, however, and wrote Sandburg to inquire if he had gotten the photos.

  Sandburg replied that he had signed the portraits and put them back in the mail, and even offered to sign another set if Hammond would send them to him. Hammond never mailed the prints but still has the letter of response from the legendary lyricist, as well as many fond memories of the week that he spent with Carl Sandburg.

 

William Faulkner

  In 1949 Governor Folsom received an invitation from the governor of Mississippi to attend the world premier of “Intruder in the Dust”, a movie that had been made from William Faulkner’s latest novel. Folsom did not enjoy such social activities, however, and asked a delighted Hammond to represent the state of Alabama at the three-day affair.

  Faulkner guarded his privacy staunchly and was never one to seek publicity. Earlier that week he had already passed up a dance and parade in honor of the movie, and several people were mumbling that the elusive author would be a no-show at his first-ever press conference. In fact, most did not believe that he would even appear at the movie premier.

  Faulkner did, however, make a reluctant appearance at the news conference as did Hammond and a score of reporters and photographers. The future Nobel Prize winning author was sporting a two-day-old stubble of beard and clad in rumpled slacks, thick crepe-sole casual shoes, and an ordinary tweed jacket with a white T-shirt underneath. His appearance perfectly expressed his disdain toward the whole affair.

  When one brave reporter asked what “Intruder in the Dust” was all about, the disenchanted Faulkner suggested that he read the book or watch the movie that night. After the hubbub died down and the media began to drift away, Hammond got an opportunity to speak with Faulkner who was perched atop a desk.

  “What do you think they’re all after?” Hammond asked.

  “They’re after the publicity factor … after a headline to go with it!” Faulkner snapped. “It’s all a race for press exposure!”

  But the scribe seemed to lose the edge off his hard demeanor while talking to the soft-spoken Hammond when the Alabama representative told Faulkner that they had something in common since their fathers had both operated livery stables.

  “Well, you can say that our fathers were on the go,” Faulkner replied, a comment that especially delighted Hammond since the famed author was not known for his humor. “I like your part of Alabama,” he continued. “In a way it’s much like northern Mississippi. In fact, I’ve used some Alabama background in some of my stories. And I’ve even commented at times that all I really do is write about my poor Alabama kinfolks!”

  Hammond also managed to get the novelist to give him some tips for beginning writers. “Read all you can and write all you can,” was his advice. “And only write about what you know in your own backyard.”

  To the surprise of many, Faulkner showed up at the premier held later that evening. Hammond sat with Faulkner’s wife and Aunt Bama at their table during the event, but did not get the opportunity to once again speak with the revered author. Still, he never forgot Faulkner’s departing words to him at the press conference earlier in the day, “Take care of my poor Alabama kinfolks!”

 

William Spratling

  William Spratling was born on the Spratling Plantation near Gold Hill, Ala., just a few miles north of Auburn where he graduated and later taught architecture. In 1927, he moved to Mexico after falling in love with the country during an earlier visit. As a master of design and sculpture, he revived the silver industry there, which had fallen to the wayside during the Great Depression. At one time his business employed more than 400 Mexican artisans in the making of fine silver and jewelry.

  Around 1948 Hammond made a trip to Mexico and visited one of Spratling’s shops. He didn’t know much about the master craftsman at the time, but purchased several pieces of his silver. Ten years later, Hammond and his family took a trip to Mexico and got to meet Spratling in person.

  “Bill wasn’t just a jewelry designer,” Hammond says, “he also had one of the largest private collections of pre-Columbian art in the world. In addition, he was writing a column for the New York Herald Tribune about the culture of Latin America.”

  Hammond came to the conclusion that it was time for Auburn University to give Spratling an Honorary Doctor’s Degree, and three years later the Auburn Board of Trustees agreed with him.

  Spratling flew up from Mexico and spent three days with Hammond and his wife in Arab before the ceremony on December 14, 1962. With the temperature registering four-below, Hammond and the skilled craftsman set off on their 150-mile journey to Auburn.

  Even though Spratling was to be the honoree at Auburn, Hammond warned him that he would be bombarded with questions about William Faulkner over the next few days. Spratling and Faulkner had known each other well in their younger days, and even shared an apartment together at the French Quarter in New Orleans when they were both struggling writers.

  The press and photographers were waiting on the pair when they arrived at the University Motor Lodge where a press conference was scheduled. The first reporter rushed up to Spratling and said, “They tell me you knew William Faulkner – tell us about him!” The silver and jewelry master turned to Hammond with a sly look of disgust and said, “I should have known!”

  As Hammond had predicted, Spratling was repeatedly asked about Faulkner during the trip to his alma mater over the next two days. But it was Spratling who was on everyone’s mind when he received his honorary degree from Auburn University during the mid-winter graduation ceremony.

  “He told me that it was the greatest day of his long life,” said Hammond as his blue eyes stared out into space as if reliving that evening.

  Two days later Hammond helped load Spratling and his bags into a taxi as he left for the Columbus, Ga., airport. As the taxi pulled away, Spratling rolled down the window and yelled, “You were so right my friend – they all wanted to talk about Faulkner!”

  William Spratling was killed in an automobile accident in 1967.
 

  In his first year as an army correspondent, Hammond traveled 27,000 miles on assignments in England, North Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In fact, there are several “firsts” in his distinguished military career. He was the first enlisted man to be assigned as a military correspondent in England; the first enlisted man to set up a military press camp in Normandy after the D-Day invasion; and the first Army war correspondent sent to the Battle of the Bulge on a writing assignment.

  But don’t let the fact that he worked in the PR Department mislead you. His job wasn’t just to interview celebrities or throw parties for Gertrude Stein. He was a soldier first and a military correspondent second.

  The danger was real for all soldiers who served in the armed forces, and several correspondents/photographers were killed or wounded while performing their duties. Hammond was awarded five battle stars for his participation in the five major campaigns of the European Theater.

  Colonel Justus “Jock” Lawrence, Chief Public Relations Officer of the European Theater of Operations, talked about the admiration he had for war correspondents in his book of personal memoirs. Though there were many, he chose to mention only two – a beloved commercial correspondent by the name of Ernie Pyle who lost his life in the war while on assignment, and military correspondent Ralph Hammond. One sentence in Lawrence’s book offers a glimpse into the role that Hammond played in the war. “Ralph Hammond is a fine example of the press staff who brought these stories to the people at home, despite great personal danger to themselves.”

  The roving correspondents helped to boost morale not only for GIs overseas, but their loved ones back in the states. Their articles about the ordinary GI Joe were sent directly to newspapers across America, and provided first-hand accounts to family and friends of what the soldiers were doing.

  “The soldiers nearly always received the story clippings from home,” Hammond explains while touching his fingertips to the bottom of his chin. “I’ve met soldiers who’d show me well-worn clippings about some story I’d written about them months earlier. The sole purpose of the section was to tell as many stories of soldier heroism and merit as was possible, and toward the peak of the war 2,000 stories weekly were mailed to newspapers all over America.” 

  Hammond moved to Arab in 1954 while “Big Jim” Folsom was about to start his second term as governor. That year Hammond married the former Myra Leak, and the couple was parents to two sons – Ben, from Myra’s previous marriage, and Jim who was born in 1956. Myra Hammond passed away in 1992.

  Hammond was appointed to the U.S. Study Commission by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1959, and served for six years in that role. He later worked with his father-in-law in the cotton industry.

  For almost 50 years Ralph Hammond has been an encourager, a promoter, a mentor, and a leader in our community. It was no surprise that Arab’s citizenry elected him as their mayor in 1963, and it was through his diligent efforts during two three-year terms that significant changes in the future progress of our city were made.

  Among his numerous writing achievements, Hammond has been president of The Alabama State Poetry Society, The Alabama Writer’s Conclave, and the National Federation of State Poetry Societies. He also served as Poet Laureate of Alabama from 1991-1995.

  Counting both his published and unpublished works, Hammond has authored 18 books. Among them are “Ante Bellum Mansions of Alabama”, and “Vincent Van Gogh – A Narrative Journey”. In addition, four of his collections of poetry have been awarded The Alabama State Poetry’s Society’s “Poetry Book of the Year.”

  But it was in his book, “Personal Encounters”, that the skilled penner of prose captured the heart of this writer. The book is the basis for this article and offers a detailed look at seven of the many famous people that he has met during his lifetime.

  It was after he signed a copy of “Personal Encounters” for me that I first realized Hammond had picked up a few traits from those mentioned in his publication. While autographing my copy of the book he marked through his printed name on the title page and signed his name above it. “T.S. Eliot told me that’s the way you’re supposed to autograph a book,” he stated with a smile.

  In fact, Hammond is a combination of all the people that he writes about in his book. He always wants to pen a better story like Ernest Hemingway; studious and lover of poetry like T.S. Eliot; relishes each moment in life like Gertrude Stein; art lover like Pablo Picasso; explorer of life like Carl Sandburg; and a great writer like William Faulkner.

  Even at the age of 87, Hammond keeps a pen next to his pillow and a note pad on the nightstand beside his bed in case he wants to record a thought that comes to him in the middle of the night. “I do my best writing between four and six a.m.,” he says.

  Along with his many activities over the long years, Hammond has held a place for God in his life. For 28 years he taught a Bible class at Arab’s First United Methodist Church, and one of his more recent books is titled, “Poems of the Spirit.” It contains 108 spiritual poems that he has written across the years. He’s even set to hymnal music about 20 of his poems, some of which have been played and sung by choirs at several churches. Hammond is always quick to remind listeners that every song was a poem before it was ever set to music.

  Though his achievements are many, Ralph Hammond is the last to expect praise but the first to give it. He continues to be a mentor for struggling writers in their attempt to learn the art, or for those who wish to pen a better story than the one before. He is also a staunch advocate of adults reading to their children since the foundation for his writing came from a mother who home-schooled him several years before the term originated.

  “When you love language,” Hammond says, “language will love you back.”


 

Homer Hickam
Speaks to Guntersville
Friends of The Library Group

By: Dwight Hayes

Best selling author, Homer Hickam, spoke to a packed auditorium at the Guntersville Recreation Center Sunday afternoon and presented a often humorous, sometimes poignant view into his life as a young boy growing up in Coalwood, West Virginia in the late fifties and early sixties.

These stories of his boyhood were the basis for the best selling book Rocket Boys which made the New York Times best seller list in 1998 and became the basis for the 1999 movie, October Sky.  Listening to Hickam relate the stories provides a picture window into the influences that formed his teenage years and later his careers.

Hickam, whose fourth grade teacher said "Homer, someday you're going to make your living by writing" has written eight books as well as numerous articles for magazines and periodicals such as the Smithsonian Institute's Air and Space magazine and the Wall Street Journal.  The book, "Sky of Stone", written in 2001, is scheduled to be a made-for-TV movie.

Hickam, who enjoyed a notable career in the space industry as an aerospace engineer, and whose first book, Torpedo Junction was published in 1989 by the Naval Institute, never planned to write a memoir of his early life.  In fact he says that it was a chance call by Pat Trenor, an editor from the Air and Space magazine which started the process.  Trenor called one evening asking if Homer could supply a 2,000 word article by the next morning.  Having nothing readily available, Hickam began to search for an idea.  The idea for the article came when Hickam remembered a box containing two items from his teenage years which his dad had sent just before his death in 1989.  The items, a rocket nozzle paperweight and his National Science Fair medal sparked long forgotten memories and the article was written in 90 minutes. 

After receiving the article Trenor called to say that half of the office was laughing and half was crying after reading the manuscript. The editors quickly realized that this was no ordinary story and asked Homer to expand the article, and eventually came the idea for the book as publishers and movie companies began to contact him with offers.

Hickam describes his hometown as a "pure company town".  Coalwood was a coal company town much like the "mill towns" found in many areas of early Alabama.  The coal companies owned the land, homes, stores and even churches of the towns.  Each preacher, hired by the company was often of a different denomination than the last.  Hickam says that they often went from Baptist to Methodist to Pentecostal.

Every adult male was expected to work in the coal mines and the adult females were expected to marry the young coal miners.  His father Homer Hickam, Sr. was the mine supervisor and had plans for Homer, Jr. to become a coal company employee but his mother, Elsie had other ideas.

Elsie Hickam was a very independent woman who graduated from Gary High School and briefly moved to Florida where she dated a tall handsome young man named Buddy Ebsen (later of Beverly Hillbillies fame), but Homer, Sr. succeeded in convincing Elsie to marry him and returning to West Virginia.  Their second child, Homer, Jr. was born February 19, 1943 and caused a stir by being the first baby from Coalwood born in a hospital rather than at home.  Elsie was determined to have her baby in a hospital but Homer, Sr. considered this to be "putting on airs" and refused to take part, even refusing to carry Elsie to the hospital or visit for several days until delivered an ultimatum by Elsie.  Finally arriving at the hospital he simply walked in and said "Elsie that is the ugliest baby I have ever seen" and walked out.  Not to be outdone Elsie promptly named the new baby Homer Hadley Hickam, Jr.  Elsie quickly began to call her youngest child her "little Sunny".  Later the schools changed the spelling to Sonny and the nick name stuck.

Homer began his writing career in the fourth grade when he and Roy Lee Cook decided to start a town newspaper.  He quickly learned that people wanted to read about people, even small, seemingly insignificant things.  Homer once reported about watching a woman trying to kill a snake in the creek while the other women stood by in fear.  The woman managed to slip on a slippery rock and ended up head over heels in the creek and emerged screaming that a crawdad had bitten her.  Homer described her movements as "Crow Hopping".  The only problem was that the woman was Elsie Hickam.  Homer says that he quickly lost his mother quickly cancelled his First Amendment rights regarding the newspaper.

Homer's father felt that big brother Jim was the only child worthy to attend college and that Homer would follow in his footsteps at the coal mine.  However, an event half way around the world in 1957, set things in motion that changed not only the world but Homer's life as well.  The Russians launched the first orbiting satellite called Sputnik.  Homer and his friends read that Sputnik was going to fly directly over Coalwood and decided to watch for the satellite at the appointed time.  Word quickly spread and soon the Hickam yard was filled with the curious from all of Coalwood.  True to the reports, Sputnik flew over at the appointed time.

In the 10th grade at Big Creek High School, Homer participated in the band and had a reputation for being a somewhat lazy student.  But it was there that he met a teacher who had a profound effect on his life.  Miss Riley, barely four years older than the students that she was teaching at the time, taught Chemistry and Physics.  Riley, knowing of the "Rocket Boys" infatuation with rockets realized that the boys had more to offer Coalwood than high school football stars and coal miners.  It was her encouragement coupled with that of Elsie Hickam that spurred Homer and his friends to attend college and live their dream.

Homer and his friends began to dream of building rockets and quickly set about commandeering the necessary components for their first rocket.  With rocket in hand, Homer and friends set out to fire the rocket from his mothers newly built rose garden fence on a cool clear night in October.  Things didn't go exactly as planned.  A witness described it as very bright and pretty, but the resulting explosion not only lit up the sky but took out a large part of the fence.  Fence aside, Elsie, sensing her son's potential sat down with Homer and told Homer of his father's plans for his future.  Elsie confided that she had saved enough money for Homer to attend college.  But because Homer, Sr. had to co-sign the check she challenged him to build a working rocket to show his father that he was worthy of going to college.  After, trial and error and failures, Homer and the other Rocket Boys succeeded in building a working rocket.  Their final rocket, Auk-31 (all their rockets were named after the Auk penguin which can't fly) was ready to launch when a murmur went through the crowd that Homer, Sr. was in the crowd.  Homer and the other Rocket Boys asked Homer, Sr. to ignite the rocket and after some coaxing finally succeeded.  As the rocket soared out of sight Homer's father danced with excitement.

The war being fought between the parents of Coalwood children and the coal mine expectations was slowly being won.  Eighty percent of the kids in Coalwood went on to graduate and attend college after that.  The coal mines began to die a slow death and today, Coalwood which boasted approximately 2,000 citizens during Homer's youth now number about 400.  Many other coal company towns have died and disappeared.

Coalwood, has preserved much of their history and celebrates the Rocket Boys story each year in October.

Hickam and his wife Linda now split their time between their home in Huntsville, Alabama and one in the Virgin Islands.

To learn more about Homer Hickam visit: http://www.homerhickam.com/

All Photos by Dwight Hayes & Leilani Hayes





 

 
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