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Patterson for Alabama
The Life and Career of John Patterson
By Gene Howard
The University of Alabama Press Copyright © 2008 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
Looking for a Rainbow in Phenix City
It is characteristic of human nature to discount recognized risks when making critical decisions and focus instead on promising aspects of a venture. And it was this characteristic that led Albert Patterson to move his family to Phenix City, Alabama. In 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, he decided to live and work in a town remarkable for its violence and corruption. The move would create within his family a life of contrasts between good and evil and bring them to a historic confrontation with the town's century-old decadence. But those who knew Patterson well understood that he was not a reckless person. He would not expose his young family to the criminal environment that thrived on the banks of the Chattahoochee River — not without good reason.
Albert Patterson saw in Phenix City the possibility of financial success, something that otherwise seemed out of reach at that point in his life. In exchange for that opportunity he would accept whatever risks came with living there. Patterson wanted a better chance at succeeding in the legal profession. For five years he had struggled to establish a law practice in Alexander City. The Depression was not the best time for starting new careers or business ventures, and nothing indicated that the future would be any different. So on a hot summer day in 1933, after telling his wife that he was driving over to Russell County, Albert Patterson went to get a better feel for Phenix City.
He saw something he hadn't seen for a while in Alabama: a thriving economy. Streets were crowded with shoppers, and the town, as well as neighboring Columbus, Georgia, across the Chattahoochee River, was bustling with business and trade. The difference from Alexander City and the rest of Depression-era Alabama was startling. Patterson spent the morning riding around Phenix City and Columbus, and he took a walking tour through the Russell County courthouse that overlooked the river. He was impressed with the downtown and looked at some homes in the Pine Hill neighborhood. It didn't take him long to decide that his prospects would be decidedly better in Russell County — even if it was a showplace for corruption. Back home late that afternoon, he told his wife, Agnes, that they were moving to Phenix City. Without hesitation she agreed, and the family began packing their meager belongings.
The Pattersons — Albert, Agnes, and their three sons — moved within days so that Albert could restart a law career that had thus far been disappointing. Their kinfolk in Tallapoosa County didn't want them living in a place like Phenix City, and back home at the family farm in Goldville in northern Tallapoosa County, Albert's father, Delona Patterson, warned him that he didn't know what he was getting his family into. Nonetheless, the Pattersons left Alexander City reasonably aware of what they could expect in Phenix City. In any case, Albert and Agnes felt they were in no position to be overly particular, and they believed they could safely live and raise their family there.
Throughout the South dirt farmers and cotton mill workers scratched and fought for survival during the Depression while inhabitants of Phenix City prospered. The reason was geographic: The town lay just across the Chattahoochee River from the thriving metropolis of Columbus, Georgia, which owed a major share of its prosperity to Fort Benning, the nearby army infantry training base. The Phenix City-Columbus area teemed with commerce and industry, apparently unaffected by the economic disaster that had all but stalled the economy of the rest of the nation. It was this stark difference that Albert Patterson saw when he drove over from Alexander City looking for a place to relocate a law practice that was going nowhere.
Five years earlier the family had left Opelika for the same reason, after Patterson's first attempt at a law career stalled. Alexander City proved to be no different; few clients had hard cash to pay for his professional services. Albert Patterson had a row of German machine-gun bullets permanently embedded in his right leg and he managed to keep his family supplied with the bare essentials with a World War I disability check of less than one hundred dollars a month. Debts piled up because all too frequently he was paid for his occasional legal work with farm produce, homemade syrup, or chickens.
The Pattersons' life had long been a mixture of hard work, near poverty, and the sacrifices that Albert and Agnes made to acquire an education. To help the family overcome their financial straits, Agnes Patterson taught elementary school. Their eldest son, John, had a Birmingham Post paper route. With the money he made, he bought his own clothes, charging them to the account he maintained at Froshins, a downtown department store.
Even with family help, Albert Patterson saw little hope in continuing to wrestle with problems that were clearly beyond his control. One bright moment occurred during the Alexander City period, however. A group of townspeople elected him spokesman for a four-car caravan that traveled to nearby Warm Springs, Georgia, to encourage New York governor Franklin Roosevelt to seek the presidency on the Democratic ticket. According to Judge Jack Coley who coordinated the visit, Patterson spoke commendably. Yet not long afterward he decided it was time to move on.
Albert Patterson found his rainbow in Phenix City. Within a decade, he had achieved the kind of personal success that had previously eluded him. The city of about twenty-five thousand had a reputation as the most sinister place in Alabama, perhaps even the South. Seemingly, it had always been that way. One historical narrative said the town had been named Girard at an earlier time, and described it as "a loosely organized community in the 1800s that became a refuge for gamblers, murderers, thieves and drunks trying to escape the law across the river in Columbus. It bloomed as a colony of villains who cohabited with the Indians and reveled in corrupt freedom, making regular criminal excursions into Georgia and returning to sanctuary in Girard." The surrounding population, the account went on, was highly indignant at the behavior of the depraved villagers, and referred to it as "Sodom," the city on the plains of Jordan notorious for its wickedness.
The rutted dirt streets of Phenix City were crowded with young soldiers, college students from nearby Auburn University, and visitors looking for fun and excitement. Revelers had their choice of virtually every kind of vice: open debauchery, booze, gambling, prostitution, narcotics. There was even an abortion ring. The town was economically dominated by the underworld characters that masterminded the rackets. The same band of hoods held the local government in a death grip and, through judicious payoffs, kept state and federal authorities from interfering. For Albert Patterson, Phenix City's primary sources of income — crime and corruption — meant legal work and plenty of it; soon he was able to settle his Alexander City debts.
Albert Patterson had fought in a world war, returned home crippled for life, and become an educator in an effort to develop a respectable professional career. He taught school, even in one-roomers. He turned to law in his late thirties, spending summers at Cumberland Law School in Tennessee, working on his law degree in hopes of finding success in another profession.
John Patterson was twelve when the family settled in Phenix City. Small of stature like his mother's people, the Bensons from Sunny Level, he was entirely content with the rural adventures to be found in small towns and on his grandfather's Goldville farm, where he had been born on September 21, 1921. John found Phenix City seductive. He explored the forbidden streets and alleys, often playing war games with his friends on a hill south of town, referred to as either Confederate or Ku Klux Hill. At the time John was unaware that his great-grandfather John Love Patterson — a conscripted miller from Hackneyville — had helped dig the rifle pits when the Confederate Army rallied one final time to fight what some consider the last battle of the Civil War. A better-than-average athlete, Patterson developed a passion for baseball, playing all the positions. Articles in the local papers noted that his bat often provided the margin of victory for his team.
Young Patterson was predictably awed by Phenix City and neighboring Columbus, which he considered one big town. "There was always something to do. Columbus was the center of a lot of sports activity, baseball and football games," he recalled. It was a stimulating world for a teenager. Ignoring his parents' warnings and determined to satisfy his curiosity, he spent his spare time downtown hanging out at honky-tonks, flophouses, and clip joints like Heavy's Place, the Manhattan Club, the Silver Dollar Cafe, Pat Murphy's, and the most celebrated dive of all — Ma Beachie's Swing Club. He watched bartenders rebottle unconsumed beer and knew bar girls and whores on a first-name basis; he also knew that the Bridge Grocery did not have as much as a can of sardines on the premises. In a short time Patterson became friends with the colorful characters up and down the strip that ran along Fourteenth Street, the only paved street in town and the one that brought the nightly trade over from Columbus.
None of this changed his work habits, however, and he soon found work at King's Grocery in the downtown business district. King's was one of several stores in a local chain that offered delivery service. John earned ten to fifteen cents a trip delivering boxes of groceries by bicycle around the two cities. A large poolroom, where gambling was the primary activity, was across the street from the grocery store; a whole battery of slot machines lined the walls and the proprietor took bets on professional baseball. It became John's favorite haunt. He spent his spare time betting on baseball, playing the "bug" — the lottery — and dropping nickels in the slots.
Growing up in Phenix City was distinctly different from growing up almost anywhere else in 1930s America. A normal American childhood customarily revolved around a combination of family, school, and religion of some sort. John Patterson came of age in a place where huge sums of money were wagered; sex, whiskey, and drugs were openly for sale; and local authorities profited by looking the other way. Living with widespread corruption, Phenix City citizens had learned to accept the town's character. John Patterson went to school with the children of the gamblers, madams, and casino owners and didn't find anything unusual in his relationship with them. Respectable families attended church (surprisingly, there were more churches than honky-tonks) and warned their children about going down to the strip. Still, many of the boys took their lunch money and played slot machines conveniently installed in a grocery store across the street from the school, provided with wooden stools so the smaller children could reach the levers. In spite of the appearance of moral chaos, the environment didn't seem to affect the children, who tended to look at the town's strange character as normal adult fun and games.
John Patterson had positive elements in his life: Sundays spent with his family at Trinity Methodist Church, his father's professional standing in the community that came to include a seat on the local school and draft boards, and his mother's teaching career. Nevertheless, John seemed drawn to the dark side of town in defiance of his parents' admonitions. A favorite amusement was to go downtown with some friends and hang out at the bars on Fort Benning's payday. The youngsters watched as a steady procession of soldiers entered the bars then left with one of the working girls. John also had a more than casual relationship with one of the whorehouses in the North Highlands section of Columbus, often spending summer evenings swinging with the girls on the front porch and earning pocket money by running errands for the madam. From 1933 through 1939 John Patterson tried to balance two dissimilar worlds: the one in which his stern and demanding father tried to keep him from mischief and ruin and the one that offered easy money and excitement.
Except for a hobo adventure that he and his friend Sidney Pelham took at age sixteen — a grand southeastern tour made by thumbing and riding the rails — Phenix City was the most formative experience of his youth. This was also when his independence became more pronounced. He was a good student, excelling in English and math, but he also played cards, shot craps, and drank wildcat whiskey in a small coppice at the edge of town. In the summers, he and neighborhood boys fished in the rapids at the river's fall line. He didn't smoke and the last time his father took his razor strap to him was when someone told on him for drinking at Charlie's Frog Eye Saloon. "He beat the hell out of me," Patterson remembered. The razor strap was not Albert's only form of punishment. Whenever the Patterson boys broke a family rule, they were made to lie under their parent's bed for extended periods of time. That was particularly embarrassing when the boys were almost grown or the family had company over for a visit.
John's first experience with adult frustration came in his senior year of high school, when he tried to discuss postgraduation plans with his father. Except to say that he wanted his son to go to college, Albert brushed aside further discussion of the subject. John wanted to go to the University of Alabama, but he needed his father's financial support, support that John thought Albert was avoiding. John was offered another choice when the owners of King's grocery chain asked him to manage one of their stores after graduation. John was reluctant to accept the offer because he did not want the grocery business to be his life's work. He wanted advice and a financial commitment from his father.
He waited, often talking with his mother about his discouragement, yet anticipating that his father would eventually address the matter — but nothing happened. Eventually, John realized he had to make his own career decision. The only choice besides college or the grocery business was the military, which had held a fascination for Patterson since he came to Phenix City. He had toured Fort Benning for special events and was impressed by the sheer size of the installation. The fort, named after Confederate general Henry Lewis Benning, was experiencing a massive construction boom during Patterson's initial visits. Federal work projects directed by the Roosevelt administration enabled the army to convert what had been an old plantation into a first -rate infantry training school. It would eventually encompass 187,000 acres, with about 12,000 of those acres in Alabama. John ate in mess halls that served more food than he had ever seen in his entire life, and he took particular interest in long rows of cannon in the artillery units. "This appeared to be the only real choice I had at the time," he recalled. "Even at graduation time my father never said a word about college, which was very upsetting. So I began thinking more and more about the military." Military service was not unheard of in the family. Albert had been wounded in an assault against the Germans at Saint-Etienne during World War I, and been decorated for his service, and two of John's great-grandfathers were Confederate Army veterans.
John first attempted to enlist in the navy but was turned down because he was too young. Dejected, Patterson kept his job at the grocery store, resentful of his father's seeming indifference. Many evenings he entertained himself with the nightly activity along the strip, occasionally dating one of the girls from the Pine Hill neighborhood where the Pattersons lived, idly marking time as he waited for something to give his life a more meaningful turn. Finally in March 1940, dismayed that his life was going nowhere and with war under way in Europe and Asia, he walked over to the Columbus post office and enlisted in the army. Since he was still not of enlistment age, he had to have his father's signature, a requirement that seemed ironic to him: "I walked back to my father's office and waited outside like any other client until he could see me. He studied the paper for some time and looked at me only briefly. He agreed to sign the enlistment paper under one condition; that I stick it out to the bitter end, come what may. I agreed, and that night I slept at Fort Benning."
Excerpted from Patterson for Alabama by Gene Howard. Copyright © 2008 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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