i was fascinated and watched straight through, from beginning to end, afraid to move or look away, concerned i might miss something.
It was just before noon when i opened Gail Hatcher Morris’ link. Thanks, Gail. i finished viewing as the little hand and the big hand met at the top of the Navy clock i have in my office. It took about eighteen minutes. i suspect most of you who read this will not have the patience to watch the whole thing. i don’t blame you. While i was transfixed watching, that other part of my brain was thinking this was a lot of time when i should be doing something productive. Just couldn’t do it. Transfixed.
Perhaps i was so into it because i went there way back when. i may have gone twice. It seems so. But i can’t pinpoint the other time or reason. The one i do remember is pretty clear considering it was sixty-three years ago. Oh, i don’t remember a great deal of specifics about the place.
The video presents the place as beautiful in its eerie, somewhat scary, own way. The production by Brian Siskind and Jim DeMain is itself quite beautiful. Siskind’s music is beautiful and befitting the footage. i did wonder the purpose in that “Justin Brown and the Tennessee Department of Corrections” agreed to the project.
You see, i went to the state prison in the spring of 1956, on a tour mind you. i was twelve. The occasion was McClain Elementary on West Main had a field trip for members of the safety patrol. We’re the sixth grade boys — they weren’t ready to let girls be on the safety patrol: after all, it was a different time — who had the bamboo poles with the red flags stopping traffic at the direction of the Lebanon City policeman who was there every morning and every afternoon. The trip began in the morning after all of the children were in school. i guess the fifth graders were the safety patrol that afternoon.
The second part of the field trip was supposed to be attending a wrestling match. i’m guessing that was at the Hippodrome on West End just past the Vanderbilt campus. Gone now…of course. The Hippodrome was one major large skating rink. i, however, remember it when they sat up a stage at one end, put in four hundred or so folding chairs, and held rhythm and blues reviews there while i was at Vanderbilt. In my mind, i can still see still see Ms Fox of Inez and Charlie Fox fame come out in a skin tight, gold lamé jump suit, launch into “Mockingbird,” and then in the middle of the instrumental turn her backside to the audience, bend over, and shake her tail feathers. And the man running at full speed down the aisle in attempt to meet the before mentioned Ms Fox face to face, so to speak, and tackled by a security guard about three-quarters of the way down the aisle. And Sam Cooke showing up almost an hour late and singing one song (no, i don’t remember the song) and leaving. And Jackie Wilson pushing the mike and stand toward the audience, doing a 360 pirouette, kicking the bottom of the mike stand pulling the mike back to him, making love to the self same microphone while falling to the floor, which put one young woman in a tight skirt and three-inch heels launching herself full speed down that aisle but not stopped by security and diving onto the stage into the arms of Mr. Wilson and that microphone where they proceeded to make out sans mike until the end of the song when they both went backstage.
But that was much later in my youth and the wrestling match was cancelled or there was some other rock in the road to see the wrestlers so the safety patrol went to Sulphur Dell to watch the Nashville Vols take on the New Orleans Pelicans, Birmingham Barons, Memphis Chicks or another team in the double-A Southern League.
However, the Tennessee State Prison visit was the indelible memory. We toured the grounds and saw where they made license plates and we saw the cells and the open area and the cafeteria, and the highlight of Old Smoky, the electric chair. On the way out, we stopped at the gift shop where they sold goods made by the well-behaved inmates, and i bought…Guess? Yep, i bought a twelve-inch model of Old Smoky, the electric chair. It was made of wood. The seat and back were natural wood. The arms and legs were painted red. There was black lettering on the seat back, which i think read “Tennessee State Prison.” When i bought it, there were small leather straps on the arms and at the head level for strapping in the culprit. They disappeared pretty quickly.
i cannot remember how my mother reacted when i brought it home that night. i think she restrained herself, but i do wonder what she told my father after i had gone to bed. i’ll bet a hundred dollars he laughed.
i didn’t use it very much. i do remember frying some particularly bad miniature guys, but only once or twice during my playtime. It was more of an ornament in Joe’s and my upstairs bedroom. It stayed around a long time. i’m not exactly sure when it disappeared but i suspect when Mother and Daddy cleared out the house when they moved from the Castle Heights homestead to Deer Park.
Of course, i was twelve. Boys of twelve think quite a bit differently than boys or girls at any other age i think. i remember thinking how strange that prison was and how awful it would be to be penned up there, especially if you were waiting to meet Old Smoky in a final set to. i remember thinking i wasn’t ever gonna do anything to get be in there for a longer stay. i also remember showing my bravado and making fun, laughing like twelve-year old boys do when they are around each other (if they are still allowed to do so).
As the video shows, it was a magnificent, old beautiful, place, but eerie, overbearing, yes scary.
And the video took me back to a time of innocence, a time of not knowing all i should know, a time when adults thought that would be a cool place to visit on a sixth grade safety patrol trip.
Bet they don’t do those kinds of things nowadays.