The Secrets of the Hopewell Box
Stolen Elections, Southern Politics, and a City's Coming of Age
By James D. Squires
Vanderbilt University Press Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
The Powder Puff Boys
From my point of view, eye-level with the pistols on their belts, my granddaddy Dave and his friends were big and dangerous men. I learned to tell one from another by the guns they carried. Blue-steel automatics and nickel-plated revolvers, some stuck handle-up in belt holsters and others hung upside down under their arms in shoulder harnesses.
When I closed my eyes—which I did sometimes to hide my discomfort at being the only kid among them—I could still tell them apart by whether they smelled of sweat, cigarettes, spicy after-shave lotion, or a new haircut. And in my mind I ranked them all by their boots and shoes—whether they were scuffed and unkept, or polished like my granddaddy's until you could see yourself in them. I'd been told so many times how he'd kept his shoes that shiny even during something called the Depression, when he'd worn out the soles and had to put cardboard in them every morning when he went out to walk the streets looking for work. He said you could always tell a lot about people by the shoes they wore.
When I was a boy of four or five he took me with him to the sheriff's office uptown at the courthouse on Nashville's public square, which was the most exciting place I'd ever been. The sheriff was my granddaddy's best friend, Garner Robinson, who wore a friendly grin and a white cowboy hat cocked over his right eye. He was so big that my granddaddy called him "Fat Pappy" when nobody else was around. Garner's office was narrow as a bus. It was a tunnel of ringing telephones, laughs and curses, and roosters strutting with sharp-pointed badges on their chests and creases in their pants sharp enough to cut.
Handcuffs and clumps of keys hung from their belts. Billy clubs, blackjacks, or long-handled flashlights filled their fists, which always seemed to be clenched before my eyes. They brought in red-faced men with tattoos on their arms and their hands manacled behind them, white around the wrists. Everybody looked tough and like something was about to happen.
Their words were menacing, too, usually about "sonofabitching judges," "fucking corpses," and "goddamn niggers." They spoke of wrecks on the highways, blood on the walls, and shacking up. They grinned when they talked about "pussies," which I thought were cats, so I grinned, too, not knowing why until I was older.
I saw these same men over and over, not only at the sheriff's office, but at the Phillips-Robinson Funeral Home near where we lived, which the sheriff and his family owned. His men worked there, too, not in their patrol uniforms but in neckties with suit coats over their pistols.
Hands in their pockets or clasped behind their backs, they stood in circles in the vestibule, on the porch, farther down on the sidewalk, or out back in the ambulance shed, usually with the sheriff in the center.
At the crackle of a shortwave radio, one or two of them would break off and speed away in a red Cadillac ambulance, lights flashing and siren screaming. They'd come back with details of heart attacks and descriptions of an old lady who had choked on her food or a kid who had fallen through a glass window. Sometimes they brought back more than fodder for talk. There were naked bodies in bloody sheets or swollen blue ones that had been fished out of the Cumberland and delivered in rubber bags. Those from the morgue had tags on their toes and all were laid out on the tables to be "prepared"—for what I was not exactly sure. How tough grown-up men have to be, I marveled, to drive the big cars so fast, to argue with and curse one another while carrying loaded guns, to grab hold of whatever task confronted them, unafraid even of touching the disfigured and putrid dead.
The coroner, sloppy old Dr. Core, would show up in the back room and peer down over his glasses at the new arrival. Inevitably, one of the funeral-home guys would inquire as to his medical opinion. "Well, what happened to him, Doc?" they'd want to know.
"He died," Core would deadpan.
"No shit," they'd all say, laughing as if it were the first time he'd ever said it.
Each of "those who have passed" had his or her own room and was laid out for viewing in a casket at one end with undertaker chairs lined up in rows in front, and flowers around the sides. Sometimes my grandfather would sneak away from the group, and then I would spot him hiding among the flowers. He would make a loud noise with his mouth to make it sound like the corpse was breaking wind.
Everyone would laugh but Garner, who told them not to because "it will only encourage the silly sonofabitch." Then he would put his hand on my head and say, "I hope you grow up to have more sense than your granddaddy. I don't know what I'm going to do with him."
"Why don't you arrest him? You're the sheriff," I always asked.
"I think I'd rather shoot him," Garner would say, patting the pistol at his waist and giving me a wink. Then, with his huge hand clamped on the top of my head, he would march around me like I was a maypole. "For a kid you make a good walking stick," he'd say.
Garner made a point of introducing me to everybody, which was the only thing I didn't like about being around him. He would say, "This is Dave's grandson—Billye's oldest boy, James." No matter how hard I tried not to, I always looked down at my feet, which always caused my granddaddy to speak sharply to me.
"Look 'em in the eye, boy. When somebody talks to you, always look 'em in the eye." Then I wanted to crawl under the rug. Having flattened me with words, he would right me again with them. "Except when you're in the barnyard, of course. Your granddaddy has stepped in some mighty nasty stuff when he was looking people in the eye instead of watching where he was walking."
Even Jake joined in the laughter. Of all the men around my grandfather, I was most afraid of Jake Sheridan. He was not gruff, but he had a sharp, serious face that showed little time for other people's children. He was not big but when he said something all the other men listened, and everybody did what he said, even my grandfather, who never talked back or made jokes like he did with Garner. Jake spoke mostly of money and precincts, voting machines and election days, which meant little to me at the time.
Long after Garner wasn't sheriff anymore, we would stop in the parking lot of Jake's motel and my grandfather would go in "to see the man a minute." Sometimes, a Cadillac that I knew to be Garner's would be parked there, too. And I would wait in the car outside imagining that the meeting going on in the motel was like those I had witnessed in the sheriff's office, the three of them gathered around an old desk with Jake whispering to someone on the telephone while Garner and my granddaddy eyed each other knowingly. Secrets, I supposed, about money and guns, fast cars, election days, and dead people, the kind of talk that demanded someone stay outside to act as lookout.
It was not until I became a rookie reporter for
Nashville's morning newspaper, The Tennessean, that I learned what they had been up to all those years. The pages of my own newspaper carried the startling disclosures: Garner Robinson and Jake Sheridan and the other dangerous men of my boyhood were the heart of a dastardly ring, a group of devious and corrupt politicians, a machine like the infamous Tammany Hall crowd in New York and "da" organization of "da mare" of Chicago, Richard Daley.
Now it finally made sense. No wonder Jake had seemed so ominous. He had been the big boss, a shadowy, behind-the-scenes manipulator who for two decades pulled the levers that made the city work. He had been the Svengali to Garner, who had gotten himself elected to more offices for more years than almost anybody else in Tennessee. And both had gotten rich in the process.
And as for my own granddaddy, no wonder he and I spent so much time waiting in restaurant parking lots or outside motels for quick meetings with strangers. No wonder he had disconnected the dome light inside his Pontiac, so it would not illuminate his face when other people climbed in and out of the car at night. No wonder he sometimes drove without license plates and had a garage full of cases of Coke and whiskey and new automobile tires. He had indeed been a leader of the machine's gestapo, quick to violence, not only capable but guilty of killing in the interest of racism, corruption, and political power.
The implications of all this were slow to dawn on me, but eventually they did. Whatever these men had been, I knew firsthand. As a boy and as a man I had known them and all their friends—the cops, the gamblers, the bootleggers, the saloonkeepers, the preachers, and the ward heelers. I saw them with their wives, with other people's wives, with the waitresses and barmaids. And I had grown up with their children. Their secrets were mine. I had been inside the machine without ever seeing it as such. Whatever else I was or would become, I had been part of it—one of them. Whatever I knew, they had taught me. For I had spent my childhood at the knees of the bosses, in the laps of the front men, and in the hands of the enforcers.
As an adult, I observed and wrote about them as if they were strangers and not the family of which I had been a part, as if becoming a reporter had somehow severed me from my roots and blessed me with a detachment from which I could view and judge them objectively.
I was not objective then, though I tried to be. Nor can I be now, some thirty years later. But I can tell what I saw and heard all that time, how it looked through eyes that saw it all up close. To the Robinsons I would always be "Billye's oldest boy"—nothing else. All of my life Garner and my granddaddy had talked politics in front of me as if I were another cop or an ambulance driver, and they never stopped when I became a reporter. Likewise, I never once reported a word I heard, although I was tempted constantly. It was one of those conflicts that couldn't be resolved so therefore was better left unacknowledged.
However subjective the prism of my hindsight, the story of my grandfather's friends is a remarkable tale of American politics. It is more than the story of a classic machine that demanded tribute, stole elections, and engaged in practices that by today's definitions would be considered corrupt to an extent beyond even a newspaper's imagination.
It is an epic saga of the urban revolution in America and the birth of a two-party South. It is a crucial chapter in the life of a city that became the breeding ground for the civil rights movement and the launching pad for what is perhaps the most significant political development of the century—the equalization of voting rights that shattered tradition and remade the country's political map.
Moreover, it is a case study in the power of the three most irrepressible forces in politics—class struggle, racism, and personal friendship—and a forty-year journey down the potholed road of change in American life with one of the damnedest crowds that ever traveled it.
The car was like the man at the wheel—shiny and fast. It was part of the Tennessee Highway Patrol's prewar fleet of black-and-cream Fords, a 1942 that had been stored unused for two years. By the time it was finally rolled out of mothballs and assigned to Patrolman Dave White, the new tires that had come with it had been taken off and used on another car. His new car was wearing old tires, which irked him. He promptly found a set of new tires on an old patrol car and pulled an unauthorized swap. This earned him a three-day suspension without pay, which might have stalled somebody else's career. But not Dave's.
His car had the old worn tires back, but there on his sleeve, just above the elbow casually extended through the open car window for anyone to see, was a set of brand-new gold sergeant's stripes, as much a testament to his political stroke as to his law enforcement prowess. The war had not been too bad to him after all.
Actually, when he thought about it, each of the two great wars had brought him prosperity. What his family gained after the first had been wiped out by the Great Depression. But now, after the second, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki still echoing around the world, life was better than ever. Drafted at age thirty-seven, he had returned to a job better than the one he'd left. All about him were the trappings of a dream come true. Around his waist and over his shoulder was a shiny black Sam Browne belt with a swivel holster and in it the polished blue-steel walnut-handled .38-caliber revolver that was standard issue from his employer, Governor Jim Nance McCord. On his chest and above the glistening black bill of his olive green gabardine hat were twin gold shields that authorized him to enforce the laws of Tennessee.
Sgt. Dave White shined the badges religiously, along with each copper-nosed bullet in his gunbelt. And in the spit-polished, round-toed black boots on his feet he could see his own reflection, the face of the person his wife Sallie regarded as "the best-looking man I ever saw." Dave was tall and lean, with black hair, prominent cheekbones, and deep-set, unreadable eyes. He always dressed to kill, favoring three-piece suits of gray gabardine in winter and cream-colored linen in summer, with two-tone shoes or boots of fine leather. His one clearly unflattering physical feature—a set of prominent pee-pot ears—he worked hard to disguise with snappy felt fedoras or sailor straws. One winter he chose a suit in a deep maroon, which he topped off with a white felt hat. And just before Christmas, the village newspaper warned children that "Santa Claus might not be coming because Dave White has his suit." But one thing the women all agreed on was that Dave looked his best in a uniform.
Sergeant White thought so, too, and leaned out the window to catch a glimpse of his own reflection in his side mirror as he eased the Ford along Donelson Pike, a narrow lane ten miles northeast of Nashville, not far from the airport and the bluffs of the Cumberland, toward the intersection with Highway 41, the Murfreesboro Road. The August sun was climbing into the late-morning sky. With it the humidity rose inside the patrol car. The only air stirring was the warm wind whipping through the open windows and the dashboard vents. He knew from experience that the minute the car stopped moving his sharply creased olive gabardine uniform pants would begin sticking to his thighs and the starched freshness of his shirt would start to melt. But as he approached the bus stop in front of Central State Hospital, the end of the line and turnaround point for city buses, he realized that stop he must.
Central State was Nashville's only mental institution, a state-run asylum. Crouched a scant one hundred feet off the Murfreesboro Road behind barred windows and barbed-wire fences, Central State resembled a small prison. Sergeant White could not remember a week passing since the day he became a policeman in 1937 when he had not been there on some business having to do with the criminally insane. During the thirties, he had helped get a whiskey-crazed cousin admitted there, and he never passed the place without visions of old Will Henry, straitjacketed, sitting atop a chest of drawers, pretending to be driving a car, imploring visitors to "give me five gallons of gas and check my oil." By the time they had wrung all the alcohol from Will Henry and sent him off on the straight and narrow to become a famous preacher, Dave White knew the doctors and inmates by their faces, if not their names. He knew hospital rules and procedures, too, and as he passed the bus stop that hot August day he thought it unusual for a patient in white inmate's fatigues to be out on the curb with a shovel on his shoulder.
Sergeant White made a U-turn in the middle of the Murfreesboro Road and went back. The patient he had seen was a lifelong hospital resident, a mildly retarded man trusted to work in the yard, with whom he had frequently exchanged the time of day. The man had a tooth missing at approximately the same spot in the front of his mouth where the sergeant had capped one of his own completely in gold, a little jewelry for his smile. The contrast had since become a grinning joke between them.
"What are you doing out here with that shovel?" Sergeant White asked the patient.
"Cleaning up shit," the patient grinned. He pointed his shovel at the green-and-white bus stop bench. On the ground beside it was a substantial pile of human feces. The flies had begun to buzz it.
"Goddamn," said the sergeant. "Who did that?" (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Secrets of the Hopewell Box by James D. Squires. Copyright © 2012 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
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