Sunday, March 2, 2014

Why I almost 'went home' to Clarksville but didn't and other tales from the crypt

From my unpublished files comes this column I wrote at 6:29 p.m. December 3, 2011. At the time, the web site in Clarksville, Tennessee, was asking me to write a regular column for them. After all, I had won national honors for my column-writing and my editing when I “grew up” in Clarksville, spending 14 wonderful, smoke-and-booze and news-flavored years working for the state’s oldest newspaper. I had been trying to get my old employer, The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper, to pay me to do regular revisits to that city my heart never left. When that didn’t work out (details below), I approached Clarksville Online. Been courted by them, but that hasn’t worked out either. This was the sample column I wrote them, back when I was told they wanted me to write for them. But that never materialized. Nobody loves you when you’re down and out, I guess. But you might like reading this column, keeping in mind the twists-and-turns – professional and highly unprofessional -- of its history. ***********************************************

CLARKSVILLE, TENNESSEE -- Me ‘n’ old Skipper sat on a bench. It was hot in Clarksville. Boy was it hot. But it bothered me a lot more than it did Skipper. A guy who has spent his life wandering the high seas and the carnivals of the world is accustomed to discomfort.

The grammar was intentionally bad in the lead of my July 4, 1982, Clarksville Calling Card column in The Leaf-Chronicle newspaper.

And while I wrote of many people and places and things – most especially the people who call this wonderful old city home – during my 14-plus years at the newspaper, this one lead and the column that followed it remain dear to my heart.

At night, when I can’t sleep, I’ll often think of that day that I introduced readers to Okey Stepp, a dreamer and pal, a hard-smoking old fellow who had a dash of Kerouac mixed in his Zane Grey-meets-P.T. Barnum soul.

I’m not going to detail the adventures I had with Skipper here. If you’ve been around Clarksville for awhile, you’ll know that I wrote about Skipper perhaps a half-dozen times in my many years of writing Calling Card three times a week and a column I entitled “bits & tidbits” on Saturdays in the L-C.

Did a lot of writing about folks in Clarksville, from Little League to the grave to the Negro leagues and Babe Ruth’s most-vicious foe in the old newspaper that I called home all those years ago. My time at the L-C began when Gene Washer (remember him?) hired me to work for the sports department.

After a couple years I became sports editor, then assistant city editor, special projects editor and, beneath two steady hands – former managing editor Max Moss and then former editor Dee Bryant Boaz – I was associate editor for many years.

My six-days-a-week sports columns were what enticed the late Tony Durr, the editor in the early 1980s, to put me out there as general interest columnist, a long-haired public face of the paper. I loved that, as I loved the paper.

Still love Clarksville. I left to learn more about journalism, to live near an ailing mother and to make friends and write about the people of Nashville, another town I love. Not many places where a guy can make friends with Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Captain Midnight, Louise Scruggs, Willie Nelson, Eddy Arnold, George Jones and Kris Kristofferson.

So I don’t regret that move at all. Love Nashville and my little home above a creek. A home, by the way, that was attacked viciously by the Great Nashville Flood of 2010. (Shameless self-promotion here: the story of that flood and its impact on me, my family and old pals Bob Dylan and Barack Obama may be previewed and purchased for your Kindle, iPad, iPhone or PC at

But this column isn’t about Nashville, necessarily. Nor is it about Clarksville, really.

It’s just my way of saying “hello again” to the Queen City of the Cumberland. I’ve never left you, at least not in my heart.

There’s not a thing that I’ve done since the rainy evening of February 1988 when I cleaned out my desk and carried the contents to the old Silver Beast (my oft-featured old Saab) that wasn’t in part shaped by my experience in Clarksville and at the state’s oldest newspaper.

Some of that love of people in Clarksville and Nashville, I hope, will be reflected in this new exercise for Hank Bonecutter’s Clarksville Online.

I’ve long wanted to “return” to Clarksville, to talk with all of my friends here and to make new friends. And I actually do sneak in, now and again, for a plate of flapjacks or just to wander the streets that still carry that delicious and musky river aroma.

Go to Guthrie, Kentucky, too, mainly to see my dear friend, Bill Longhurst, or visit the spirit of Kent Greenfield and his friend (and fan of my writing) Robert Penn Warren.

But I live in and love Nashville. So, this is an opportunity for me as a freelance writer to try “coming home” in this new digital venue.

Freelance? Didn’t I say I was gone to Nashville to learn and to have fun newspapering in that city? Actually, it was a pretty successful career. Until the hatchet-waving folks began to take control in so many parts of the economy, including my beloved industry. I’d only wanted to be a newspaperman ever since I was a kid.

That ended when I was “bought out” (nice term for being paid to be escorted to the door on Porter’s Alley) 4½ years ago, just ahead of the massive layoffs that have turned most newsrooms into echo chambers for dead men walking. Oh yeah, dead women walking, too.

I hope they keep walking a long time, by the way. Hold no ill will toward newspapers. Please allow me one more kiss before dying. It’s just that the lousy bastards didn’t want me anymore, which, of course, in Korporate Amerika remains their choice.

Anyway, a couple of years ago I approached the local daily here, my dear old L-C, about writing a column again, a slice of life, or even a sort of letter from Nashville, to the folks in my old “hometown.”

Wouldn’t have cost much, I reckoned. And perhaps readers might like it. Might even help circulation in an era when most newspapers are losing subscribers.

Don’t know if that’s true here. I hope not. I do know that back in February 1982, for one brief Sunday or maybe two, we went over 24,000. How that compares with today, I can guess, but I’ll not do that.

No need to go into details here as to why the L-C didn’t welcome me back as a correspondent.

Sometimes things don’t work out.

Enter old Sawbones… I mean Bonecutter … Hank called me a week or two ago -- we’d spoken a few times through the years -- about trying this out.

He’d seen Facebook pictures of me and some old friends, most of them folks who participated in newspapering when the old L-C rocked and rolled, enjoying flapjacks down at G’s, a frequent stop on early Sunday mornings in the 1980s.

Among our main missions on that recent visit to G’s and Clarksville was to spend time with an old and dear friend, Scott Shelton, who has been battling mightily, and with his wife, the lovely Elise, another comrade from the ink wars … though she escaped decades ago and now answers questions about school bells, snow days and pants on the ground from predictable media.

Those of you who know Scott know he’s been ill. But he’s a tough little badger. In any case, Hank, also a friend of Scott’s, sent me a note and wondered if I might begin writing occasionally for Clarksville Online.

He said I could write pretty much what I wanted to write about and he’d figure out if it is worth paying me anything. If you think you’ll visit this web page to read my meanderings, please let ol’ Hank know. Perhaps he’ll want me to keep doing it… and pay me more. Personal checks also are accepted.

So I thought I’d start this new and treacherous endeavor with a love letter to my old friend, Skipper, who would have been 100 Oct. 24. Long dead, his body donated to Vanderbilt, it’s been many years since you all “knew” him as the old fellow in the pocket T-shirt, smoking menthol 100s and waving from the bench outside the Royal York Hotel. I wanted to find out who this guy was, too, back in 1982, so I sat down on the bench and asked him. His nickname was “Red,” but he told me I could call him “Skipper.” It was the beginning of a special friendship.

I won’t go into the tales he told me or even detail our years of smiles and tears of friendship. But I do know that it made me feel good to have this old friend I could seek out for wisdom on the bench outside the old hotel. And he introduced me to others who lived there as well.

Some of them became column topics. Others became friends I’d drop in on if trying to escape the cold winter winds blowing down Third while bound for my car, the previously mentioned Silver Beast, that I always parked by what once was Pedigo Hardware.

And you folks showed your grace and gentility, as so many Queen City residents began to holler “Hey, Skipper!” as you turned off Madison onto Third and saw him on the bench. With a wave of his arthritis-gnarled hand, he returned the greeting, the kindness.

“Don’t know what you ever saw in an old skid row bum like me, Timmy,” he’d say. “But I’m glad you are my friend. And I never seen anybody who could drink as much coffee as you.”

Well, that was in my 40-cups-a-day prime, now whittled to six or seven. And the smokes I shared with Skipper, butts pitched in the street because that’s what you did back then, also are long gone.

Returning a second to the topic of my friend, Scott Shelton: His dad, the late Bill Shelton -- one of a corps of my “personal advisers” on column topics and news coverage – was a dear friend of mine. He also constantly lectured me about giving up the smokes, a newsman’s constant companion. Scott says he’d be proud of me for ending a 30-year habit more than a decade ago.

Still, the meeting with Skipper and the first few paragraphs of that column are forever with me, a constant reminder of the love for the old man and for this city.

In fact in the farewell column to Clarksville in 1988, I invoked that opening “boy was it hot” phrase.

And when Skipper died in the winter of 1992, I wrote a column about him for the old Nashville Banner, my first locale after leaving The Leaf-Chronicle.

And again I used the phrase. When the Banner died – a paper I truly loved for it was as local as a big-city newspaper could be – I finished the column with that phrase and its profession of love for an old man, a dead newspaper and a mortally ailing profession. I know this new “chapter” of writing in Clarksville could only last a week, months or years.

Regardless, it will be sort of a free-form a collection of thoughts, letters from Nashville, political and musical ponderings, memories of Clarksville and -- I hope -- antidotes to cynicism. To launch it, then, I need to remind folks of Skipper. Yes, this city has changed.

The old Royal York, a concrete monument to drifters and wandering souls, now is no longer. It is filled with apartments. And the bench also is long gone.

But the other day as I wandered down Third Street, bound for pancakes and laughter with my old friends -- Scott, Jerry Manley, Rob Dollar, Rick Moore, David Ross and Jim Lindgren -- I could not help but look at that vacant spot where me ‘n’ old Skipper sat on a bench.

I can’t remember too much else about that early July afternoon 29-plus years ago.

One thing for sure, though. It was hot in Clarksville. Boy was it hot.


(UPDATE: My dear friend Scott Shelton, who recently would have turned 60, died two years ago. I still miss him. Let it suffice to say, he didn’t go quietly and often complained to me about his mistreatment at the hands of furniture store owners, lawn-crossing kids and Republicans. Most of my other friends remain alive, for now. As do I. For what it’s worth. No one in Clarksville, the newspaper or the web site, ever began running a column by me again. And I thought this was pretty damned good, so, hell, I’m running it now. Love, Tim)

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