BLUES FOR THE
Author: Dan Pollock © 2003
We we're getting very popular around the northern Alabama area after I joined the group. We even started venturing up to Chattanooga, Tennessee’s legendary “9th Street”, the land of blues great, Bessie Smith and again, I was told that I was the first white guy to venture there and our tenure on 9th Street will be explored in another chapter. I'm not saying that I was the reason for the increased interest in the band but I think the addition of the guitar to the group was the catalyst. That's not to say that the band wasn't great and already getting notice before my arrival but I think adding guitar was just what the band needed. Lloyd was already a married man with a family and was working full time. So were Ted and Sonny. Frank and Jack were full time students majoring in music at Alabama A&M College, located in Normal, Alabama right next to Huntsville and Uncle Sam certainly had his hooks in me, so procuring other gigs beside our usual proven haunts, like The Elks and Bigger 'n Seay's Upstairs Club presented a problem. Enter our "Booking Agent/Manager"
For the life of me, I can't remember his name but he was the only black policeman on Huntsville's force then and was a token of it's society. A really nice guy, who believed in equality and believed in us and he thought he could make an extra buck or two by booking us at some different venues around the area. The only problem with this arrangement was his total lack of experience in dealing with club owners and promoters, which isn't an easy task for a seasoned veteran. He wasn't really good at giving sound advice either and he was involved in my very naďve incarceration, thinking he was helping me with what he thought to be sage advice on the merits of the Constitution and the American Justice System. I'll call him "Mr. Blue", as in blue uniform and I first met him while playing one of my early gigs at the Elks Club.
I still didn't have any transportation yet and getting to and from the gigs to the base was difficult and could get expensive in a hurry if I used the base taxicab service. Frank graciously complied to my request of him in providing a ride or two for me to some of the gigs or rehearsals until I had enough time in residence at the base to get a loan for a car at the Federal Credit Union. I had met a lovely woman named Nedra that worked at the PX on base through another GI, named Jim Morrisey who worked with me in Headquarters Personnel when I wasn't gigging. This guy had a beautiful 1957 Corvette and would sometimes let me take it for a serious cruise or two. Wonderful car! He was bedding a chick off post who had a roommate that turned out to be Nedra. She wasn’t committed to anyone at the time and Morrissey’s little arrangement looked pretty good to me, so I then became determined to be her “companion” because, as I said before, I had mostly been hanging out on base and had just met the guys in the band and Pap. It was mostly like a page out of "Bull Durham" where these women would pick a GI to hang with during his tour at Redstone Arsenal and you got all of the benefits of shacking up, to use an old term but an additional benefit of seeing other women just as long as you paid her portion of the room and board. I guess my being a musician was intriguing to her because with that and some “sweet talk”, it didn't take long before I was moving some of my belongings over to her place and ditching the clamor of a military base. Those gals were into some interesting things and I would be safe in assuming that they were a little ahead of their time. For a young guy, freshly on his own and just back from Korea, suffice it to say that it was lewd and lascivious and worth every penny of that room and board!
I'm pretty sure it was a Friday night and it was clouding up for a nice rainstorm. This was in September of 1964 and I hadn't yet been introduced to northern Alabama's severe weather yet. There was either a gig or a rehearsal and I had arranged for Frank to pick me up at Nedra's and he came over around six o'clock in his 1950 Ford. His car always brought back fond memories because a 1950 Ford had been our family car, a green two door coupe just like Frank's and it was the car that my dad taught me how to drive in. Pap Rice was along for the ride and as they pulled up, Frank lightly tooted the horn for me to come out of the apartment. Nedra went out and told them that I arrived late from work and that I was just out of the shower and I was shaving. She asked Frank and Pap to come on in. She should have known better by having lived there for a few years and she was originally from Tennessee too, so having told them to "come on in" presented a serious problem for Frank and Pap who were well versed in the ways of Jim Crow. Remember, I'm in Alabama now, not California and the civil rights strife is in full swing and hordes of freedom riders, counter sitters and voter registration people are arriving in the state and the indigenous white people of “The Sovereign State Of Alabama” were taking all of this in and starting to get real pissed off! Being new there and being from California, I thought nothing of it either and was yelling from the bathroom in the rear of the place for them to take a seat and I would be right out. All I was wearing were my military khaki pants and a face full of shaving cream.
I think I had been staying there for a little over a week and I had just found out the night before that there was a third roommate that shared the apartment. Until then, I was under the impression that it was just Nedra and Jim Morrisey's chick that are living in this place. I was told that she worked a couple of jobs and we’d hardly ever see her. She mostly slips in at night and is gone the first thing the next morning and is hardly ever there. It shouldn't but her name escapes me too with the passage of time.
She just happens to come home that evening to retrieve something in a hurry from her room. All the while I'm shaving, I'm unaware that Jim Morrisey's chick is attracted to Pap and she hits on him. "Sweet Chocolate Brown" as Richard Pryor would put it. Pap was a handsome man with a fine brown frame, so I can see why she was attracted to him but she's been there a few years too and she should have known better. Pap had been around the block a few times and knew the consequences but maybe the allure of a white woman at that particular place in time is what caused him to abandon his defenses and turn into a buck in rut. Who knows? Suffice it to say that everyone involved should have known better.
Nedra is in the kitchen preparing snacks and I'm in the back shaving. As far as I know, Frank and Pap are patiently waiting on the couch and I’m hurrying to be ready to leave. Nothing could be more demure. As the elusive, third roommate is passing through the living room going to her room, she sees two niggers in her apartment. Frank sitting on the couch by the front door in the living room and Morrisey's girl laying on a couch or some kind of portable bed across the room, swapping spit with Pap while he’s laying over her.
So, roommate three turns around and goes next door to the manager's apartment and calls the cops, telling the dispatcher that her two roommates, both white, are getting raped by two niggers! I first become aware that there's a problem when Frank is hurriedly coming down the hall towards the bathroom telling me that the "PO-LEESE IS HERE"! I come rushing out of the bathroom, still wearing only my khaki pants and some remnants of shaving cream and head for the front door. As I come into the living room, I see a middle aged woman in an old terry cloth bathrobe and curlers in her hair standing in the doorway with some blonde chick that turns out to be roomate number three and maybe eight or nine policemen including one short, fat one approaching me and declaring, "I'm Dutch Holland". "Who are you"?
He starts asking me my name and if I’m stationed at the Arsenal. As he’s grilling me, I'm getting more than a little worried and that nauseous feeling starts to take hold at the bottom of my gut. Dutch gets Frank, Pap and me to sit down on the couch and has Nedra and Morrisey's chick stand against a wall across the room. The interloping third roommate is standing next to the ugly ass woman wearing the tattered terry cloth robe and curlers at the front doorway, who turns out to be the manager. After we tell him who we were and where we were from, Dutch Holland leaves us and goes over to get the story from roommate three and the land lady who are the reporting parties and his backup officers are just milling around while I'm getting real busy trying to stuff a switchblade knife that I had been carrying, down the crack of the sofa cushions in an effort to hide it. But the girls had thrown some type of Afghan spread over the sofa, trying to cover some frays or stains and I couldn't get it out of sight down between the cushions. Frank and Pap are now staring at the knife with wide eyes, knowing they'll point to either one of them as it's owner but all I could do was slide it behind me and I was literally praying at this point that no one would have to take responsibility for it.
I had brought the knife back from my tour of duty in South Korea and it was buried at the bottom of my footlocker at the arsenal. No one ever checks your footlocker as an E-5 and I never had routine or surprise inspections. But a little bit of fear goes a long way and I dug the switchblade out after a couple of gigs at Bigger 'n Seay's and The Elks Club. At this point, that switchblade was no longer my protector but now my accuser, shouting loudly, "he brought me here"! "He's the one that was carrying me around", all because I couldn’t ditch it with that spread thrown over that couch. Now I'm stuck in a malaise that I had no control over, carrying a switchblade knife, running around with them "niggra's" and most probably an accessory to a rape charge.
At this point, Dutch Holland asked Nedra and Jim Morrisey's chick who lives in the apartment? Nedra said she did, Morrisey's chick and roommate number three lived there. She doesn’t even mention me or Morrisey and I pipe in saying, "I live here too". With that, bathrobe and curlers louts in saying, "He don't live here......he's just shackin' up"! "He's the one that brought them niggra's over here". "Hell, we don't even allow niggra's 'cross our lawn.....that's how we do our own laundry"! I’m shouting something back at her as my fear is now turning to anger. Old Dutch gets us on our feet from the couch and some of his boys in blue are approaching, as if they’re maybe going to cuff us. When he stands me up, he blurts out, "hold it boy's.....looks like we got ourselves a pig sticker here". With all that was going on, I had almost forgotten about the switchblade that I was practically sitting on and a grimacing sigh was uttered by all three of us when Dutch Holland spotted it. "Well now, looks like we gonna have to take y'all in for carryin' a concealed weapon and disorderly conduct". I still don't know to this day whether they were probably going to let us go when they were sure there was no rape being committed but when that switchblade was spotted, the whole mood changed. As they're taking us away, I'm still applying disparaging remarks upon bathrobe and curlers as we're going through the front door and they march us out to the street and place us in the backseat of a squad car.
It's starting to drizzle and there's rain coming while I'm watching Dutch and his boys gather in a circle on the front lawn, somewhat like a huddle in a football tones, almost whispering ."Ain't this a trip....I'm going to jail", I mutter in the backseat. Frank never takes his eyes off of the group of southern cops on the lawn and says very distinctly, "you better hope and pray real hard that they're taking us to jail"! What? It never dawned on me that any place other than jail is where we would be taken. Then I remembered the three civil rights activists that had just been murdered in Mississippi by the police. Man, for a moment there, it seemed like I was stuck in mud and couldn’t move but then it slowly began to become clear and then my mind took off like a jackrabbit. Out to some swamp maybe or some ditch or landfill. A tree or just taken out to some cotton field and shot. I hadn't put two and two together yet that the burgeoning civil rights movement was threatening their way of life and I hadn’t forgotten the statement made eons ago that the south would rise again. Blacks and whites mixing, in almost any kind of setting was a big no no below that “Mason/Nixon Line”! As my anger slowly dissipated, it was quickly replaced with the fear that first struck me, augmented by that sickening adrenalin feeling in my gut again when you suddenly anticipate something very unpleasant is about to happen. Automatically, my teeth were clinching together and I was starting to get sweaty. My mouth was so dry I could barely swallow. Lots of things were racing through my mind and I was trying to think rationally. Maybe we could reason with them if the worst should be true. But no. I'd been in Alabama long enough to know that there was no way in hell anyone was going to reason with these rednecks, so I decided they wouldn't get the satisfaction from me and I didn't say another word as we pulled away from the curb and started our journey into the unknown. As the good Lord and fate would have it, they evidently decided that this wasn't the time or place, so off to the Madison County Jail we went. That cold, gothic building was almost a welcome sight when we were led in and taken to booking. Certainly better than some rural, moonshine road. It was raining hard now. Maybe that saved us.
We were photographed and fingerprinted and taken to the lockup. When we reached the cell area, we were separated and I was thrown in with a couple of white, hobo type looking guys and Frank and Pap disappeared to the "colored" section. Even the jail was segregated. I took the top bunk of one of two bunk beds in the cell that was nearest the window. I climbed up to a bare stained mattress with no blanket or pillow. I curled up in a fetal position with my ass against the wall and trembled from the cold and rain. I kept straining to look out of the barred window for something to focus on that was outside the confines of my cell but the pouring rain was all that I could see.
I kept chanting to myself, "this is America....you've got nothing to worry about..........this is America....you've got nothing to worry about". My dad, ever the idealist, had drilled that into me since my youth that if ever something like this should happen, you're in America. You are an American citizen with inalienable rights. If you are innocent, there's nothing to worry about because the truth will always see the light. He believed in logic and reason and mathematical certainties. His favorite pastime was playing with a slide rule for God sakes! I was praying that he would come and get me. Save me from this nightmare as he had before on a couple of occasions when I was a teenager. But I was twenty one years old now and in the Army, so I had to face the fact that no daddy was coming to my rescue anymore. I've got to face this one by myself and I would surely have the support of the Army's Judge Adjutant General's Office. Man, was I in for a surprise!
I laid there awake all night, shivering from the dampness and cold. The two hobo guys sharing my cell with me never bothered me that night and had gone to sleep hours ago. All of my belongings, except my Khaki pants I was wearing at the time of my arrest, were confiscated from me. Damn, I could use a cigarette! I wasn’t about to ask these two if they had one to share. Maybe it was a good thing. These guys were probably smokers too and I would probably have to deal with them over any property I may have and I wanted no part in that. You can’t imagine what races though your mind when your locked in a dungeon. I never once dozed off during this whole ordeal and my mind had been motoring all night, anticipating my plight when I hear a rustling and the slamming of heavy doors and an officer comes and gets me to take me for some type of arraignment or plea entry. Morning had finally arrived and I was trying to hold on to hope that maybe I would be released and they had realized that it was all a big mistake. The night before, all three of us had agreed in the back seat of that squad car to plead innocent and fight the charges. As I was brought into the courtroom, I noticed that Frank and Pap were blatantly missing and I found out later that they had pled guilty and paid a fine. Remember, they grew up here and knew there was no way they were going to beat the rap, so instead of months on a chain gang, they paid their fine and put it behind them, all except Frank’s mom who didn’t speak to me for months for getting her son into a jackpot!
Then Mr. Blue finds me and begins telling me how there’s a change in the air and how I could do something about it. ´”Plead not guilty, man”, Mr. Blue encouraged me, so when they called my name, I was connecting with my dad’s reason and logic and the matter of fact, sensible request Mr. Blue was making of me. “Not guilty, Your Honor”. My First Sergeant, Earl G. Spicer, a white G.I. who hailed from Andalusia, Alabama was in the room and went my bail, pending a trial. I was rather uncomfortable seeing him there because through all of this crap, I totally forgot how double jeopardy applies when one is in the military. Great, I was going to be railroaded by these bigots to a chain gang and when my time would finally be up, I’d have to answer to the charges from the US Army too! As luck would have it, ‘ol Earl, my “Top Kick” was well versed in the ways of Jim Crow too and knew that I had been unjustly charged, other than the switchblade fiasco but it was obvious that they had gained entry to the apartment illegally and that would be my out. All I had to do now was go down to the Judge Advocate’s Office and secure an Army lawyer for my case.
I was almost laughed out of the office when I reported there. “Why son, we haven’t won a case down in that courthouse for over twenty years”, I was told by some lieutenant who was the office manager. “It’s not worth our time or yours”. “Pay your fine and be done with it and be more careful the next time you go off post”. Even the United States Army didn’t stand a chance there. I called a few law offices in Huntsville from the phone book with the same results. It was panic time and it was looking bleak. If I’m going to continue with righting this wrong and further, be a participant in the long struggle for civil rights in this region then I’d better start remembering all of the Perry Mason courtroom dramas I had watched over the years with my dad. Good ‘ol dad! If ever I needed him it was now and I couldn’t help being angry with him for not being there. I still couldn’t get that off of my mind. I’ve got to fight this one alone and nervously went about securing Dutch Holland as my one and only witness.
Two weeks later, I was at the Madison County Courthouse, as prescribed, to try “my case”. When I walked in, there was Mr. Blue waiting for me on the bench at the side of the gallery. As he was approaching me, I couldn’t help but notice a big, loud, red, white and blue Dixie flag draped over the entire wall behind the judge’s bench with the American flag, quietly displayed on a standard to the right, on the floor. With that sight staring me straight in the face, I knew I was in big trouble before Mr. Blue even began his diatribe. He went on about mostly the same things; my rights as a citizen, this is the "U.S. of A" and “power to the people”, ad nauseum. I was starting to tremble. What did I get myself into? Damn, I’m headed for a chain gang for sure. Didn’t actor, Robert Mitchum make the best of a chain gang in Georgia? I guess I’ll just have to be able to make the best of one in Alabama. I was sinking low.
When my case was finally called, the bespectacled old judge had me introduce myself to the court and call my first witness. I don’t remember anything about any opening arguments. I don’t think they use them in Alabama. I called Dutch Holland to the stand from a subpoena and asked him how he gained entry and what probable cause he had to arrest me for anything? With that, the old judge slams down his gavel and looks at me and says, “need I remind you sir, that this officer is not on trial here……YOU ARE”! I meekly sat back down in my chair at the defense table. Wasn’t it the great litigator, Clarence Darrow who said that “anyone who represents themselves in court, has a fool for a client”? I firmly believe in that philosophy but for the life of me, I couldn’t get anyone to accept my case and like the fool in the old adage, I represented myself into oblivion! I should have thrown in the towel as Frank and Pap had because there was no way you could win. But I had never really done anything before this trial that really required any courage and I just knew in my heart that what they were doing was wrong and I convinced myself to grow some balls and try to right that wrong. You can't blame a guy for trying.
The judge further inquired if I had any other questions of this witness? I said no. “Do you have any further evidence or witnesses”? No again. He slams down his gavel and says, “for carrying a concealed weapon......one hundred dollars or one hundred days”. “For the charge of disorderly conduct….one hundred dollars or one hundred days….pay the clerk”! That was it. No muss, no fuss. I didn’t have the money either and my old top kick, First Sergeant, Earl G. Spicer from Andalusia, Alabama was there and kicked in the fare for the fines and I paid him back with payments after about three months. He informed me on the way back to the base that the Army would not be pursuing charges against me in a double jeopardy rap. James Baldwin had recorded well what Del said that Alabama in those days was like being in another country.
After a few weeks while we were playing our usual haunts, Mr. Blue comes around again and informs the band that he has secured a great gig for us at some place in Gadsden, Alabama not too far from Huntsville and we’re going to get twenty five dollars per man, an unheard of sum in those days for a bar band in that area of the country. We were excited. Imagine $25.00 per man. Let’s put this jail thing behind us and make some music.
The "some place" turned out to be “The Sportsman” and we had never heard of it. You know how people think it’s odd when a recording artist can’t remember a recording they made in their career or an actor that can’t remember a certain film they were in? Imagine how hard it would be then for a road musician to remember all of the endless one nighter’s that they’ve put in? To be honest about it, I’ve forgotten a great deal of the places that I’ve played in over the years but The Sportsman sure ain’t one of ‘em! Besides we needed a change of venue and that money was awfully tempting so we agreed to appear there the following weekend. None of us realized then that almost forty years later, that those two gigs are still one of the main topics at our get together sessions.