Last week, I began recalling a long trip home one summer that I took from east Tennessee.
One of the good things about being on standby in the Atlanta airport is that you have plenty of dining options. P.B. (Publisher Boss) and I went with the best, which of course you know are those world famous Krystal hamburgers.
It had been awhile since I had eaten one of the little square burgers and to make up for it, PB and I ordered the 4-Burger Value Meal, with fries and a drink, all for under six bucks.
I finished my meal and leaned back in my chair to continue the waiting game, watching the frantic rush of travelers moving through the concourse like blood through an artery.
P.B. paced nearby, on his cellphone with Mrs. P.B.. When he finished the call he walked through the non-standby ticket holders with a new spring in his step. He told me that Mrs. P.B. had come up with a wonderful idea. She told him that if we could get a flight to Memphis that she would drive from Little Rock and pick us up. I love Mrs. P.B.
While PB worked on this new project, I pulled out a book about the history of Johnson City that the Tennessee Press Association had given convention attendees. On one of the pages near the front was a photo of a familiar looking quarterback.
It was the old ball coach himself, Steve Spurrier, when he was playing for Science Hill High School. Spurrier was a three-sport star for the “Hilltoppers,” in football, basketball and baseball.
But as interesting as that was, it was the picture on the opposite page that amazed me. It was a grainy black and white photograph that the caption said was taken back in 1916, of an elephant that had been executed by hanging.
Mary was an Asian elephant who weighed more than five tons and she was the star of Charlie Spark’s “World Famous Shows.” She was huge, three inches taller than P.T. Barnum’s famous “Jumbo.” Before their performance in Kingsport, Mary and the other elephants in the show were paraded through the town. Mary’s handler was a drifter named Walter “Red” Eldridge. The story goes that Mary stopped to taste a watermelon rind she spotted on the ground and Red prodded her with a stick, which turned out to be a bad move.
Mary picked the man up with her trunk and flung him against a wooden stand. Then she walked over to where he lay and stepped on his head. The townspeople’s terror soon turned to outrage and Sparks knew he would have to give them satisfaction or find a new line of work. He made the decision to execute his star in spectacular fashion by getting a large derrick crane from the railroad and placing a chain around Mary’s neck and slowly lifting her off the ground. The first chain broke, but they tried again and soon Mary’s life was ended in a bizarre and cruel fashion. She was buried there in Erwin, Tennessee, next to the railroad tracks.
P.B. brought me out of my grief by telling me he had gotten us on a plane that Northwest claimed would have us in Memphis by 5:30. After boarding, we took off and the stewardess offered us pretzels or peanuts and a beverage. For five dollars you could get a beer, some wine or a mixed drink, which helped my attitude.
Soon, P.B. and I were walking out of the terminal and into the warm Memphis evening. Mrs. P.B. was already there, waiting for us and I told her she was my new hero. She laughed, but I wasn’t kidding. Two hours later she pulled into my driveway, near sundown, on the year’s summer solstice.
It seemed somehow fitting that we finally arrived home after a 12-hour day of travel on the longest day of the year.