A Heroic Effort . . .
Updated: Jan 28, 2021
By Suzanne Hudson
Photo: Bob Zellner and Joe Formichella at Felix’s Fish Camp
Upcoming Event: “Murder, Murder Creek, and the KKK” at Page & Palette’s Book Cellar, Sunday, July 8th, 2:00-5:00 pm; Live music by Chris Clifton, Gove Scrivenor, and Larry T. Wilson; Authors--Yours truly, Joe Formichella, and headliner Bob Zellner
It’s happened to me a few times, and it just happened a little while ago. The first time it happened, I sobbed a river for about an hour, grieving hard before realizing the end of the world was not nigh. Less and less cry time followed with each subsequent disaster, when I accidentally deleted big chunks of writing on my computer and was unable to retrieve them. There’s something to be said for legal pads, and I was very late to surrender them yeller pages to the Age of All Things Electronic. But gone they are.
I drafted a post about my heroes throughout the day yesterday, picking at it like a scab, combing through it like nitty, lice-infested head hair, as is my, yes “process.” I posted it last evening, even got some likes before deleting it a few minutes ago, “on accident,” as folks say these days, which raises my “grammar Nazi” hackles. But this time I cried for less than three minutes. Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s knowing what really matters. Like heroes. Like friendship. And while I’ll never recapture the magic of yesterday’s phrasing, here’s a shot at it, a heroic effort, if you will:
I wrote about three heroes of mine who have connections to the Methodist Church: Tom Butts, Tonny Allgood, and Bob Zellner (above), then I threw in Joe Galloway, along with a batch of other folks. Crap. This is no “heroic effort.” But take pity and indulge me, if you will. In a nutshell:
I give you my very first hero, from my coming-of-age years in Brewton, Alabama: one Thomas Butts, renegade minister of the 60s and beyond. He merely faced down Klansmen and openly hostile congregations of “good Christians” who opposed his fight for civil rights; regularly squired “Miss Nell” Harper Lee from Monroeville to the Wind Creek Casino in Atmore, where he actually won over a million bucks a while back, playing a penny slot; and officiated at my Fat Tuesday wedding to Joe F., held on the one year anniversary of my brother Wilson’s death. It was not a dignified ceremony. Grayson Capps and Corky Hughes played “our song”: “Give it to Me.” And, beside a late-night bonfire worthy of a shoe burnin’, Tom raised his scotch glass in an off color toast, explaining that it was a salutation he had never made, but on this rather bawdy occasion: “Here’s to Eve, the mother of our race, who daintily kept her leaves in place; and here’s to Adam, the father of us all, who was Johnny-on-the-Spot, when the leaves began to fall.”
Among the wedding party, which consisted of bridesmen and groomswomen, was our seventy-something year-old “Flower Child,” one Joe Galloway, he of the Bronze Star, a gruff, cussy-mouthed, big-hearted teddy bear, who carried a Bloody Mary along with his hippie flower. But no hippie was he (though not a stranger to the ganja); he was a retired long-time war correspondent, beginning in Viet Nam. Joe was following officer Harold Moore’s unit when they were trapped in the Ia Drang Valley for a three-day battle, the first major battle of the war, and our Joe earned that medal, rarely awarded to civilians, by going under heavy fire to help rescue gravely wounded American combatants. He and the Lt. General documented the battle in their book, We Were Soldiers Once . . . and Young, which later became the movie We Were Soldiers. And, coming soon to a theater near you, the Rob Reiner film, Shock and Awe, in which Joe G. is portrayed yet again, this time by my old heart throb Tommy Lee Jones.
In contrast to Joe’s big personality and soulful swagger I give you the singular Tonny Allgood, another Methodist minister, who quietly toils away in downtown Mobile, where his church takes in the homeless, feeding, caring for, and counseling them. On his “off” time you might find him in Montgomery, protesting on behalf of poor folks throughout the state, logging scores of arrests by admiring cops--cops who shake his hand in gratitude--and lenient judges, who can’t help but be taken by his quiet strength, dignity, and clarity of purpose. Heroes, do, indeed, come in all shapes and sizes, and if you can count a few as friends, then count your lucky stars and enjoy. And hang on to their words, however few, as in Tonny’s case, as he has no truck with the limelight or any who seek it, them there attention whores burdened by unbridled ego.
And Tonny learned at the knee of the man we want you to come out and meet on Sunday the 8th, Bob Zellner, who learned at the knee of Rosa Parks, about nonviolent protest. One of his earliest arrests was for breaking Alabama law, as one of the “Huntingdon Five,” the white college students who went to jail for just sitting down (white folks could only STAND and talk to black folks in “the good ol’ days”) with “Miss Rosa,” Martin Luther King, and other black leaders, to simply talk about race. Bob’s grandfather and father (a Methodist minister!) were devoted members of the Ku Klux Klan, although his father ultimately renounced the hate group. A well-known foot soldier of the civil rights movement, Bob was the first white field secretary of SNCC and has been repeatedly beaten and arrested, by police, state troopers, and, most viciously, by white racists. In fact, a Klan-driven mob in Mississippi nearly killed Bob and his fellow voter registration volunteers, by beating them unconscious with bats, chains, and pipes, stopping just short of murdering Bob by lynching, the rope around his neck, Bob lashed to a tree, while the Klansmen argued about whether to follow through. Lucky for us, they let him live, and he truly (white folks could only STAND and talk to black folks in “the good ol’ days”) with “Miss Rosa,” Martin Luther King, and other black leaders, to simply talk about race. Bob’s grandfather and father (a Methodist minister!) were devoted members of the Ku Klux Klan, although his father ultimately renounced the hate group. A well-known foot soldier of the civil rights movement, Bob was the first white field secretary of SNCC and has been repeatedly beaten and arrested, by police, state troopers, and, most viciously, by white racists. In fact, a Klan-driven mob in Mississippi nearly killed Bob and his fellow voter registration volunteers, by beating them unconscious with bats, chains, and pipes, stopping just short of murdering Bob by lynching, the rope around his neck, Bob lashed to a tree, while the Klansmen argued about whether to follow through. Lucky for us, they let him live, and he truly lives, with sparkling humor, unbridled enthusiasm, a sunny and innocent disposition, and the deepest dimples you ever saw. You owe it to yourself to come out and hear his fascinating and harrowing story. And as was the case with Joe Galloway, sometimes the stories about our heroes make for good movies. Bob’s tale, Son of the South, is being developed by Barry Brown, the 2018 Cannes Film Festival’s Grand Prix winner. Not too shabby.
In my gone-into-the-ether essay, my poor deceased written meanderings, I also mentioned some other heroes, the kind we all have in our day-to-day lives: nurses, teachers, firefighters and the like, any who look out for our well being, who at times put themselves in peril or even lay down their lives. They ain’t called “the helping professions” for nothing, and, while I certainly can’t say I would lay down my life (I can safely say I likely would NOT), I am proud to have at least touched a few--lives, that is--hopefully for the better, throughout a thirty-two year career as teacher and guidance counselor. The literally thousands of students, grades 7-12, who have passed through my years on this planet have certainly touched me, and I love looking in on them as adults on The Facebook (hello, there, former students: if we aren’t yet “friends,” contact me--unless, of course, I traumatized you, for which, I assure you, I do profusely apologize). And I sure as hell never thought I’d say that, as I intentionally dodged the FB corner of the internet until a year and a half ago.
Finally, in my homage to heroes, I mentioned those brave souls who have gone on, like my brother Joe, who lived a life of exemplary kindness, and my brother Wilson, who, when given his options as he faced an aggressive leukemia, said, “I want to go fishin’.” And so many others who faced down that fellow who waits for us all, that ol’ Reaper. We’ll all catch that yellow cheese wagon one of these days, and that really puts things into perspective. When I take a good long look at the heroes and friends and truly kind souls who have populated my life . . . Sure, a few toxic spirits have invaded my space from time to great long time, usually because of my own missteps. But the ones I honor here dwarf the negative, blotting out their imprint on my own soul, while I carry on, writing through it, writing it out, until it is deleted, “on accident” (or maybe in a more Freudian way) from the taps on the keyboard of my faintest thoughts. Here’s to all of our heroes, to our friends, to our brothers . . .and the way they uplift us, forever.
And thank you for giving this “do-over” it’s second chance at life . . .