Monthly Archives: November 2014

“The Next Metro Pulse”

I’d like to believe all well-intended publications can find a market, and I think it’s likely that all the evocations of the late alternative weekly known as Metro Pulse by other alternative-publication efforts are well-intended. Based on the unexpectedly tremendous support we’ve gotten since the layoff, I gather the closure of Metro Pulse has been almost as traumatic for some readers as it was for the staff.

It’s no fun to lose your job, but if you do, it’s flattering that you’ve left such a chasm that people rush from all directions to fill it, even when it’s people you hardly know. As far as I can tell, the folks who are leading the efforts you might have heard about are all nice folks.

However, I feel obliged to point out one or two details omitted in some of the broadcast-news reports about these efforts to revive the spirit of Metro Pulse. One launch in particular has been getting a lot of press in the last couple of weeks. They’ve gotten so much attention that several friends have congratulated me on my new career with the Hard Knox Independent.

That’s one of the problems with short-form journalism. It allows people to jump to conclusions.

That paper may turn out to be a worthy enterprise. The more alternative weeklies there are, the livelier a city seems. However, although they’ve announced they’re going to publish a few former Metro Pulse contributors, including one recent columnist, it should be clear that the people who are running the Hard Knox Independent project have no association with Metro Pulse.

I’m just stating that as a point of information. They’re probably nice folks, as I said, and I wish them luck.

Meanwhile, I’m happy to announce that several actual former Metro Pulse staffers, including some who have played important roles in establishing that award-winning weekly’s reputation since its early days in the 1990s–often against great odds–have been quietly working on a significant project that they believe will be a good and perhaps essential thing for this community.

Tonight, no details are ripe enough for public consumption—the participants are trying to establish a solid foundation for something that will last for many years—but look for further announcements in the next couple of weeks.

The New Library Calendar: Selected Annotations

The Knox County Public Library’s new Knoxville history calendar, “Knoxville Remembered,” is out, featuring one rare photo for every month of the next year. Even in 2015, which at this writing is the Future, we can never escape our past.

It’s all fun to look at, including a rare photo of the UT Rats, the jazz-age freshman basketball team, and an agreeably Pagan-looking springtime dance celebration.

A couple of the pictures demonstrate Knoxville spectacles that are sometimes hard to describe and harder to believe. They open with a period photo of Clinton Highway’s landmark Airplane Filling Station, built in 1929, when Lindbergh mania was still high. The building, perhaps unique in the world, was never more esteemed than it is now, recently restored and celebrated.

Where some bloggers would merely post the calendar’s photos, ridiculing copyright issues and stealing the impact of beholding the actual library calendar, which is a fundraiser for the staff association, I will describe them with words. It’s not just because I don’t have a camera.

More unbelievable may be February’s pin-up. I tell people that the Regas building used to be a very large building, the big Hotel Watauga, a ca. 1900 building of five stories and change, with multiple businesses on the sidewalk level, including a drugstore that was bigger than the original Regas restaurant.

When I tell that story at that site today, I’m never quite sure people believe me. The February picture proves it.

Take the calendar down under the highway, at the northwest corner of Magnolia and North Gay, say howdy the regulars down there—and don’t worry, this is one part of town where nobody minds if you do something peculiar—turn to February, and have a look for yourself. The top of the old arched grand entrance is still visible there, if not much else.

Over the years, Regas got bigger and bigger, and everything else shrank. As the passenger-train business atrophied, the hotel closed (it had been among many other things, the longtime home of Knoxville’s most eccentric bachelor, legendary attorney John R. Neal, defense attorney at the Scopes Monkey Trial. In the early 1960s, the three upper levels of the Watauga were demolished, leaving something like a ranch-style version of the building. Regas, which was originally just about one percent of the Watauga building, was eventually the whole thing. In fact, Regas eventually covered the space of two big hotels, considering its parking lot was the site another hotel altogether, the once-famous Atkin, which is also visible in the picture.

June offers a great shot of the old Knoxville Brewing Co., at McGhee and Chamberlain, which if I’m not mistaken was founded about the same week as Lawson McGhee Library. In this case, there’s nothing left of the brewery at all. It’s in an area half-obliterated by the highway, between downtown and Mechanicsville, that was recently known as the Spaghetti Bowl, a sort of secret arts community that launched the First Friday concept here. But the old brewery lives in this photo, which shows an extremely ornate mule-drawn parade float attended by brewers wearing Prussian-style helmets, under the banner of “King Gambrinus.” It all looks very Old World, and old-fashioned, except for a modern sentiment: “DRINK KNOXVILLE BEER / IT’S A HOME PRODUCT / HOME MANUFACTURE IS BEST AND CHEAPEST.” Even in the 1890s, there was a buy-local movement, and the KBC was counting on the city’s locovores.

When I was a kid, Chilhowee Park hosted a permanent roller coaster called the Mad Mouse. It wasn’t the first one there. September brings us a 1935 photo showing “the Twister,” a roller coaster erected there on the shores of the little lake in 1927, plus a small Ferris wheel and another circular-swing ride.

You can get the “Knoxville Remembered” calendars at Union Avenue Books, Mast General Store, the History Center’s gift shop, and most of the cooler retail outlets.

Corrections and Amplifications, Part 1

In my “October Notes” blog, in which I made some pedestrian speculations about the future of print, I remarked that some magazines never made a profit, and never expected to. The New Yorker is famous for never having made a profit since it was launched in 1925. Owners support it like they’d support a yacht, just because they enjoy owning it. It’s famous for that business model, if you can call it that. Through all those years of Robert Benchley, James Thurber, Joseph Mitchell, Dorothy Parker, E.B. White, John Updike, and company, it was famous and appreciated but not actually profitable.

That’s the story, anyway. It’s not publicly traded, and it’s hard to nail down their numbers, but people in the know, including New Yorker editors, have cited its failure as a business model for years. I hadn’t checked on The New Yorker’s fiscal health recently, but assumed that the 21st century wouldn’t be doing any favors for any old print publication, much less a remarkably old-fashioned weekly that never has splashy ads and in fact has much more print than pictures. But as my resourceful colleague Cari Gervin, who keeps up with nearly everything, pointed out, New Yorker editor David Remnick has recently been claiming that the magazine has been profitable since about 2002.

I wanted to use The New Yorker as a great example of the fact that print doesn’t have to make a profit. But now it turns out to be an even better argument for the idea that print is not dead. It’s profitable, and somehow becoming more profitable in the era of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

If the Internet is killing print, the matter is at least complicated.

In the story about Leola Manning’s hair-raising song “Satan is Busy in Knoxville,” which first appeared in Brunswick/Vocalion’s St. James Hotel sessions of 1930, I found the newspaper descriptions of the murders described in the song, but mentioned that the criminal dockets from that era were lost, and we didn’t know how the case was disposed. The day I was there, that was the assessment of the clerks on hand at the Knox County Archives.

However, my friend Phillip Smith, who works in that office—he also serves as the umpire of local vintage-baseball games–did some digging and found some back-alley routes to the verdict in the case of the fatal bread-truck hijacking near Knoxville College. Not only that, he found the transcript, about three inches thick, saved for unknown reasons. Most such documents from that era are lost.

Will Harris, a “light complected colored man” of Mechanicsville, had been at Greenway’s Pool Room at College and University, and a witness testified he was going to go out and get some money somehow. Another witness who Harris allegedly threatened with his .44 pistol was a Knoxville College student, and a member of a prominent local family. Most surprisingly, as Phillip pointed out, the two men arrested for the murder of Amanda Toole, who’s also mentioned in Leola Manning’s song, play a minor role in the court case, as characters in jail with Harris. I didn’t devote the hours it would take to pore over the whole transcript, but may someday. It looks like it would be a fruitful subject for a thesis. Few blues ballads are so well documented.

At Norris Dryer’s memorial reception at the Standard on West Jackson Avenue last Monday, city policy chief Bill Lyons made a surprise appearance and announced that indeed there would be a plaque on the historic bell. It was one of Dryer’s pet peeves, in his later years, that the old City Hall bell was there for people to gawk at without having any idea of what it was, and why it was considered significant enough to put on a pedestal. In the era before radio, city authorities used the bell to signal emergencies, from big fires to train wrecks. It was important to Norris that people know these things. Now the city is on record, working with the Central Business Improvement District, for promising to supply that plaque soon.

And I’ve gotten several requests for my 2004 cover story about riding the Amtrak Crescent with Scott Miller and his then-band, the Commonwealth. It was probably the biggest adventure of my middle years, and for better or worse, the longest story ever published in Metro Pulse, weighing in at 12,000 words. That was after a good deal of judicious trimming.

It was one of those stories I got a request for once or twice a year, but maybe because I mentioned it in my “19 Boxes” essay, I’ve gotten more requests than usual just lately. I used to be able to find links to it—at one time, it was out on Instagram–but as I remarked in the essay, links aren’t as eternal as we used to suppose. For a few weeks, I could only apologize.

However, Ian Blackburn, co-founder of Metro Pulse, longtime systems manager, and originator of one of America’s few all-local crossword puzzles, found an electronic copy.

I know there’s surely some groovier way to hyperlink it by merely colorizing words. Forgive me. The blogging business is still new to me, and I’m taking baby steps. But see if you can cut and paste this here link:

It includes a very brief reference to Scott’s opening band on a couple of his dates, a then-obscure band from North Carolina called the Avett Brothers. I watched them play in an upstairs bar in Charlottesville, and I’d be lying if I tried to claim, almost 11 years later, that they impressed me with their potential. To be honest, I was just wishing they’d get on with it. The crowd was thinning out as they played, and I worried that it might vanish entirely before Scott came on. Maybe they improved their act.

The Vols’ Second Martyr

Despite all the clichés–“that’s one for the books!”—sports history books are pretty rare, and don’t get read much. Even with a subject as popular as the Tennessee Vols, you could fit all the published pages about that team’s deep pre-TV-era history into one very slim volume.

Hence, today’s Vol fans might not know that a couple of young men have given their lives, or a big part of them, in service to the Big Orange.

I’ve seen only a couple of books that even mention the Vol martyrs. Hence, even if you’re a Vol fan, and an especially smart one, there’s a good chance you’ve never even heard of Herbie Tade.

We’re hearing more and more about the dangers of America’s most popular contact sport, especially in the region of head injuries and brain damage. It’s something fans have tried hard not to think about, for more than a century.

A long time ago I wrote a story about Bennett Jared. Sports trivia champions know that name, that of the only Vol ever to die as a result of a football game. In 1915, during a Vanderbilt game at Nashville’s Dudley Field, the 20-year-old substitute halfback from Buffalo Valley, Tenn., found himself on the wrong side of a pileup. Everyone got up but Jared. He was paralyzed for life. He died at home, 21 months later. I don’t know whether he would have cared whether he would be remembered as the Vols’ first martyr.

But it turns out that he’s not the only one. Recently, looking for accounts of a vaudeville extravaganza at the Tennessee Theatre, I found one more name I’d never heard.

The 1935 season was one of the odd seasons when the head coach, Major Neyland, was called away for army duty. For years, there had been rumors of senators intervening, contacting President Roosevelt to be sure that Major Neyland, a West Point grad and career army officer, wouldn’t be assigned to some post far from Knoxville. In recent years, he’d been formally stationed in Nashville, while coaching the Vols with an incredible winning record. But in 1935, the Vols’ luck ran out. Neyland got orders to pick up and move to the U.S. base in Panama. Sportswriters called it “the Neyland Situation.” Taking over for him at Shields-Watkins Field was assistant coach Bill Britton.

It was obvious early on that 1935 wasn’t going to be a great year for the Vols. UNC beat them 38-13, the Vols’ worst drubbing since a run-in with Vandy 12 years earlier. Alabama beat them 25 to nothing. When they went to Lexington to play the Wildcats there on Thanksgiving Day, the Vols were 4-4, and trying to salvage a winning season off an off year. Word was that Major Neyland might be back for the 1936 season, and even Coach Britton likely greeted that rumor with hope.

In 1935, the Vols were more casual about Thanksgiving and also about Shields-Watkins Field. With the Vols away, their turf was going to be the battlefield for the high-school championship of Knoxville, before 10,000 fans, between the Knoxville High Trojans and the Central High Bobcats. It got almost as much pre-game attention as the Kentucky game.

Herbie Tade was a junior center from Paducah, playing his second year with the varsity squad. A dark-eyed, serious-looking kid with a big mop of dark hair, Tade could have passed for a young swing bandleader. He was, they said, “one of the best-liked boys on the Hill.” Today, students expect money from home. In Knoxville, Tade lived in Humes Hall and worked odd jobs to send some money back to Mom and Dad in Paducah.

He wasn’t very big for a center, 186 pounds, and though some described him as “tall,” he doesn’t look tall in team pictures. But his teammates talked about his “guts.” He’d been written off once before. In 1934, doctors told him he’d never play again, after a seriously broken shoulder bone. Through sheer grit, he got past that and rejoined his teammates.

He played both offense and defense, and was known as a “60-minute man.” Borrowing the Ida Cox blues term that referred to something altogether different, in football a 60-minute man was a player who was out there for every play of an entire game.

Tade didn’t always start that season, but he was due to start in the Kentucky game. He was popular with his teammates, who said he was the likely captain in the 1936 season.

Some sportswriters were predicting a close game at Lexington’s Stoll Field. Coach Britton was wary of Coach Chet Wynne’s Wildcats. Some Vols were out with injuries, including captain Toby Palmer–and the Blue and White was motivated. “Kentucky has been pointing for this game nearly all season,” he said. “Those Wildcats should be hard for us to handle.”

Britton’s fears were well-founded. Kentucky dominated the game. The Vols never scored, in fact never got past the Kentucky 28 yard line. Late in the fourth quarter, Kentucky led by three unanswered touchdowns and seemed on the verge of scoring a fourth. It was third down, goal to go on the two, and Tade, at center, faced a rush led by fullback “Suitcase” Simpson, who reportedly “hits the line like a stone crusher.”

“He wouldn’t stand for it,” a Knoxville sportswriter wrote that night. “The Wildcat ball-toter was stopped on the Tennessee six-inch line—by a mass of Vols.”

The goal-line stand left a pileup of exhausted players. They all got up except for Herbie Tade. A teammate asked him, “Did they knock the wind out of you?”

Remarkably, he responded. “No,” Tade said. “My head hurts.” It may have been one of his last full sentences. His teammates carried him off the field. Just as he reached the bench, Kentucky, on fourth down, scored its fourth touchdown. By that time, they said, Tade didn’t know what was going on.

Most of the 15,000 fans didn’t know how seriously hurt he was, but his coaches could tell it was very bad. They took him to Lexington’s Good Samaritan Hospital. There, doctors observed that Tade’s skull was fractured in front, just above his eyes.

Doctors didn’t offer much hope. They described a fractured skull with cerebral hemorrhage, plus spinal injuries.

They called Tade’s parents in Paducah–they hadn’t been able to make it to the game—and told them their son might not survive until dawn.

Word got out that Tade was unconscious on the operating table but “swinging his arms as if making tackles.”

The Knoxville Journal rarely ran big football headlines on the front page, but the next morning’s paper ran the big black banner headline, TADE NEAR DEATH; VOLS LOSE 27-0.

“Herbie Tade may die,” wrote a Journal reporter, “but that’s not among his delirious worries. He’s still playing football for Tennessee, and when he was helped off the field, Tennessee hadn’t lost.”

Back in Knoxville, where as Tade lay perhaps dying, Knoxvillians packed the Tennessee Theatre for a midnight show, the Oo-la-la Contintental, featuring 55 scantily clad beauties, including “40 French Models.”

A cadre of Knoxville’s wealthiest, including Charlie Lindsay, flour mogul J. Allen Smith’s son Powell, Robert S. Young, and Alfred Sanford, pledged their help. “Ascertain which doctors in the country can be of the best help in assuring Tade’s recovery,” they demanded, “and bring them to Lexington at the quickest possible moment. We’ll stand all expenses.”

Maybe one or more of them remembered another on-the-road loss, 20 years before. Tade’s fate seemed an alarming echo of the Bennett Jared story. Then, too, there was no astonishing feat, no individual collision that made fans cringe. Just one young man at the bottom of a pile who didn’t get up, and who never got up again.

Emergency surgery, with repeated spinal taps, saved Tade’s life, if not all of it. He spent some time in the UT infirmary, the “hospital” in Weston Fulton’s old house. (For the moment, that early 20th-century house still stands on Volunteer Boulevard, but despite several years of community pleas to save it, it’s soon to be demolished for the expansive new student center.)

Tade’s case evaporated from the sports pages, but in 1936 became an issue in political races. One politician in particular, Ernest Britton Cross, a state representative from Knox County, demanded that UT pay for Tade’s injuries. “If the university can pay $12,500 for a football coach, it can afford to take care of that boy,” Cross said. The figure he cited, considered exorbitant by many, was Neyland’s rumored salary. (Adjusted for inflation, it would be over $200,000, and many considered that an absurd salary for a college football coach.) Cross cited $50,000 as a likely compensation for a permanently injured player.

Back then, a university’s responsibility in that regard was unclear. Cross’s campaign on Tade’s behalf prompted editorial columns across the nation. Tade’s fate, and who would pay for it, became a subject of debate.

After seeing a specialist in New York, with no encouraging word, Tade ended up back home in Paducah, under his parents’ care. In Knoxville, his name disappeared from the press.

Tade was partially paralyzed for the rest of his life, unable to speak or reliably recognize friends. He died at the age of 56, of pneumonia, a hazard for paraplegics, a few days short of the 35th anniversary of his injury.

That update on his condition got only slight attention in Knoxville’s sports pages in 1970.

Tade’s death happened to coincide almost exactly with the death Zora Clevenger, the Vols’ first successful coach, who died that week at the age of almost 89, and dominated both dailies’ sports pages’ limited space for reminiscence. Also competing for space was the announcement of the Heisman Trophy, won that year by Stanford’s Jim Plunkett, who bested the Southern favorite, Archie Manning.

The brief final updates on Tade’s condition, 35 years after the heroic goal-line stand, offered little information on how the Vol hero’s long retirement, except that he could hardly speak, but had enough comprehension to follow the fortunes of the Tennessee Vols.

Today, it’s hard to find information about Herbie Tade. There’s no file on him at the library. It’s hard to find anyone who’s ever heard of him. He was one for the books, maybe. But nobody reads the books, and in fact, nobody writes them.

The Anarchist Guide

Last Saturday afternoon, a few dozen people were crowded into the front parlor at the antebellum Mabry-Hazen House on Dandridge Avenue. That fact in itself was remarkable. The parlor, stocked with delicate-looking porcelain, rare old books, and obscure tintypes of people who died over a century ago, is always off limits to visitors. It’s there just to look at across a Plexiglas barrier. Online, there are dozens of pictures of the rooms at Mabry-Hazen, but they’re all views from the corridor.

But Saturday that barrier wasn’t even there, and all these folks were standing right in the room itself, like the Mabrys did when they had another unexpected funeral there, as a shaven-headed newcomer demanded that visitors come into the parlor and sit on the ancient furniture, drink from the ancient tea set, pick up those ancient books and thumb through them.

The man giving the orders is Franklin Vagnone. He advertises himself as an anarchist.

Among historic homes, the Mabry-Hazen House has always stood out.

It’s not just that the family was prominent. Businessman Joe Mabry would be well-known to regional historians even if he weren’t the person most responsible for establishing, in 1853, Market Square, which is in 2014 our most popular and exciting public space. He did that just before he built his elaborate and distinctive home on this east-side hilltop. Considering that “General” Mabry looms so large in Knoxville history, it seems almost like a gothic novelist’s flourish that he and two of his grown sons were killed in Gay Street gunfights. The shot that felled General Mabry in 1882 was likely audible from this house. Caskets of the slain Mabrys once rested in the front parlor.

The house remained gothically dramatic into the middle part of the 20th century. Joe Mabry’s granddaughter, “Miss Evelyn” Hazen, was involved in producing the Harbrace Handbook, a strict grammatical guide used by college freshmen nationwide–which belies the fact that she was central to the most explicitly lurid sex scandal in Knoxville in the 20th century. Then she lived here mostly alone, like Dickens’ Miss Havisham, but perhaps with more animals, breeding rumors that are hard to sort apart today. If the Mabry story were a mass-market pulp novel, there are editors who would suggest toning it down a little.

The house is well-run by a foundation appreciative of its story. Its docents tell it well, the parts that kids might overhear, anyway, and allow visitors access to the rest, by way of a book about Miss Evelyn’s specific legal complaints about the sexual desires of one reckless young man.

Last Saturday the house became the first local test case for a brash new approach to historic houses. For decades since its opening, the Mabry-Hazen house has been accessible to the public mainly by its corridors. You can step into each room only a couple of feet, and view the original antebellum furniture, the gorgeous marble fireplaces, the family silver and porcelain tea services, the mid-19th-century books, the puzzling tintypes. But you can’t touch any of it.

“Come in!” the shaven-headed Yankee demanded. “Sit on the chairs!” For an anarchist, he’s on the bossy side.

He’s kind of a famous one, though, author of The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums. It has infuriated the curators of historic homes from coast to coast.

Vagnone was invited by Knox Heritage, and among historic-home sorts, it was a big deal. Several custodians of local history were in attendance. Among the guests was Dan Brown, an officer with the Tennessee Historical Commission, who drove over from Nashville just to witness this spectacle. Calvin Chappelle, executive director of the Mabry Hazen House, was an awfully good sport about the whole thing.

He was sometimes abrasive, and the presentation he gave just before that exercise seemed to suggest some telltale manifestations of attention-deficit disorder, but Vagnone gives our old history cages a hearty rattle, with his essential question, “Why do historic sites suck so much?” He cited an alarming-sounding decline in visitation to arts and cultural institutions, 23 percent between 1992 and 2008, and it doesn’t help that there are more of them than ever.

He brings up some fresh and maybe essential ideas. Some of us enjoy museum houses as they are, enjoying their perhaps idealistic stories, respecting their careful distance, but many, perhaps most, don’t have the patience to stare at a rocking chair or a corner cabinet full of silver.

Vagnone’s lesson of what he calls “twisted preservation” is an important corrective. There’s perhaps not a very good reason not to touch, say, a marble mantelpiece or an 1850s book of poetry, provided you don’t have motor oil on your fingers. And there’s no excuse whatsoever, he says, for no-photography rules. Photographs of nearly everything are so universally available online, he says, as to make copyright infringement meaningless, and modern flashes don’t bother anything. It’s a good point.

He also criticized houses that idealize or sanitize their subject. He contrasted Jefferson’s Monticello, as restored, with some contemporary visitors’ accounts of it as a sometimes shabby place, in Jefferson’s time, with stuffing oozing out of the chairs and leaks in the roofs. Vagnone supposes that was the true and consistent look of Monticello. Obviously, though, if the roof was always leaking, Monticello’s famous dome wouldn’t have survived. All our ceilings spring leaks now and then, and we get them fixed.

Even if Monticello were a hellish pigsty, you could argue that it might be appropriate to present it as an Apollonian ideal, especially considering Jefferson’s own idealism, which was once important to the founding of a nation.

By abolishing the Monticello approach to history, though, Vagnone’s advice might result in narrowing and limiting the available experience, and, paradoxically, foretell a new kind of historical homogenization, which may be underway already.

Vagnone emphasizes the importance of giving the visitors a glimpse of historical figures’ personal lives, their elemental biological functions, and specifically their sex lives. He outlined the “Corset shows” at one of New York’s oldest homes, the Morris-Jumel mansion, which is older than anything in East Tennessee except for the Indian mounds. The rare colonial landmark that once served as a headquarters to George Washington is now a venue for risqué romps, a sort of avant-garde vaudeville dance celebrating the several lovers of Aaron Burr.

It’s true that for centuries, even published biographies never remarked on any subject’s sex life. Maybe puritanical squeamishness was part of it, but also part of it was a plausible belief that whom the subject had sexual intercourse with, and how often, was not necessarily every random reader’s business, and moreover not necessarily a major factor in the subject’s contribution to society. For the last 40-odd years, it’s been very different, even to the degree that a certain dwelling on the subject’s sex life, even speculatively, is almost required. If a writer goes to the trouble of writing a biography in the 21st century, chances are the sex part is pretty juicy.

The new movie about Stephen Hawking is–a surprise to some theoretical physicists who know his work–a love story, with little about his ideas. And I suspect people who never did have sex lives to speak of, like George Bernard Shaw–a great, important, and often very funny essayist, novelist, and playwright, in spite of the lack of evidence he ever actually had sexual intercourse–may never be the subject of a movie.

The term “Disneyfication,” which came up in the discussion of pristine house museums, provides some irony. About 20 years ago, Walt Disney Studios started ladeling some proto-Vagnone-ish elements into their cartoons for children, especially in the seemingly limited realm of fart jokes. Are there Disney movies today that don’t seem to gratuitously break the rules of Disney movies 50 years ago? Today it’s required, so much part of the formula that parents who once relished fart jokes can find them tiresome.

Even Disney’s no longer Disneyfied. Maybe nothing is.

Throughout culture, especially in movies about deep history, the stench and slop of life is emphasized beyond the inspiration that was the reason the stories were originally told. It’s the way we’ve been telling stories for the last generation or two.

Listening to his talk, I thought of the contrast between Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, from 1938, and the Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood, from 1991.

I liked both movies. The Kevin Costner version had one thing right. Robin Hood, if he existed at all, likely didn’t wear tights, and probably didn’t deliver clever quips at nearly the sparkling rapid-fire rate Errol Flynn did.

After I saw the Costner version, I said, “Ooh, the cinematography. That sure was realistic, and sometimes gross. What’s for supper?”
But the Errol Flynn version, which I’ve seen a dozen times, still makes me want to go out and run around in the woods, to learn to use a bow and a rapier, to say clever things under stress, to challenge the ensconced powers that be, to leap and laugh at fate.

Both good movies, but that’s the one I’d regret never seeing again.

If you’ll allow a digression from a digression, Flynn’s version actually seems more inspired by Shakespeare–not just the tights, a Shakespearean convention since the 19th century–but also in terms of its dialogue, very obviously written and rehearsed, and not in any way realistic, or typical of its time. But still, in its own way, effective.

Nobody accused Shakespeare of realism. As a general rule, people don’t speak in iambic pentameter. Even in his plays based on historical characters and events, it’s hard to tell that realism was ever his goal.

I like the idea of making historical houses more accessible. Historic houses should be centers of community engagement, when possible. They should be interactive, they should be socially relevant. Kids should be able to touch more than they’re allowed to. Certainly these rooms were never so precious when people lived here, and there’s nothing authentic about velvet ropes or Plexiglas.

But if we Vagnonify everything, including the stories, is it possible they’ll be just as predictable as everything he denounces?

The ethic has already been slipping in around the edges, even here in Knoxville, sometimes in very healthy ways. In recent years, I’ve enjoyed moonshine garden parties at Blount Mansion, and vintage baseball in the big field behind Ramsey House (with many fans arriving by way of our only passenger train!). Those were unquestionable successes, and made the history sing.

Others I’m not as sure about. Vagnone prioritizes “conjecture, gossip, and rumor” in the service of telling a compelling story. A few years ago, I took a tour with my daughter, with a docent who didn’t know I sometimes wrote about local history. She was talking about the founding of our state in 1796, specifically the constitutional convention held in downtown Knoxville. She didn’t say anything about what made the constitution remarkable, though there are several remarkable things you could say about the first Tennessee constitution, like the fact that it demanded that no foreign government ever control the Mississippi River—a bold statement, when Spain and France controlled Louisiana–and that it allowed free black men the right to vote. But what she told us was how the men who signed the first constitution in 1796 must have stunk to high heaven, because they were wearing wigs and waistcoats, and Tennessee became a state on June 1, when it’s always hot here, and they were surely sweaty and stinky. She thought that was pretty funny, and was pretty sure we would, too. But making the signers stinky because it’s hot requires a little finesse. Congress approved Tennessee’s constitution on June 1, but the local event, the drafting and signing of the constitution, took place in the dead of winter. They signed it in downtown Knoxville on February 6.

It’s a date now forgotten, but, for Tennessee’s first 50 years or so, February 6 was celebrated as the state’s birthdate.

I didn’t correct her. Making things hot and stinky seemed important to her, and maybe to the rumor-and-conjecture approach to history. There was plenty of soap sold on Gay Street in those days, as well as perfumes for both men and women. Maybe our founding fathers stank in spite of it all, even in the winter, and maybe the fact they stank makes the constitutional convention more interesting to schoolchildren. Will they remember anything else about it?

Part of what Vagnone is recommending for museum houses is part of a trend that’s been making its way into most other parts of mainstream culture for more than a quarter century. He is, in essence, demanding that museum conform to the current popular preoccupations with the grunting and grinding of our mortal lives. And maybe historic houses do need to do that to survive. If we don’t let people walk on the oriental rug, or take a selfie in front of the antebellum silver, or sit on the notorious old sofa, in this era of declining museum-house visits, they might all fall apart anyway, because nobody will want to help pay for keeping them up. And some variety’s bound to be healthy.

It was, at least, an interesting afternoon.

19 Boxes

It took me the better part of four days to get all my 19 years of stuff into 19 boxes. The number is coincidental. I don’t box things by year. And then began the longer process of consolidating it to fit into a much-smaller place, the room which was long my daughter’s bedroom.

Among the things in those 19 boxes are 19 years of curios sent to me by readers, some of them described as loans, at the time of conveyance, some of it gifts. Century-old promotional booklets, bricks from demolished landmarks, rare posters and photographs of interesting people, a Fort Sanders Minie ball or two, souvenir caps and cups and bandanas, a bottle-opener from Dugout Doug’s Record Store, a room key to the legendary old St. James Hotel. Maybe the most unusual thing I have is a bronzed McDonald’s cup that jazz/blues maverick Howard Armstrong used to dip a drink of water from a creek he knew as a boy in Campbell County. I’m afraid some of the conveyors have since died. If you’re still among us and want anything back, let me know. I’m going to keep a lot of it, and I won’t throw any of it away. But soon, a lot of the bulkier stuff is going to the McClung Collection, not because I don’t like it, but because I don’t have room for it here, and can probably find it easier there.

And there are also 19 years of books, books acquired for research, books sent in for review, hundreds and hundreds of them. Of all the detritus of a dead job, books are the easiest to deal with. You can split them up, rearrange them, stack them, display them, tuck them in crevices, shelve them, sell them. I’ve already taken five boxes of books to McKay’s, and made enough for a very posh dinner at Café du Soleil—or to pay the utility bill, which is the more likely alternative this month.

And then there are the 19 years of files, which present the biggest dilemma. There are a couple of boxes of correspondence. If you sent me something paper in the last 19 years, and signed it, I probably saved it. It’s likely I don’t need your letter anymore, but for all I know you may be famous someday, and I want my grandkids to be impressed that I knew you.

In the early days of e-mail, I used to save printed copies of the pertinent e-mails, the ones from mayors and congressmen and authors and friends. How will historians of the future be able to write the narratives of our era if they don’t have access to our e-mails, just like previous generations had access to our letters? I don’t know. Maybe we’re just more ephemeral than previous generations, and maybe we should get used to that fact. We advertise ourselves more frantically than any previous generation ever did, maybe because we know that because we’re not leaving even a paper trail. We’re the most vaporous generation in modern history, soon to be even more utterly forgotten than our forefathers.

Anyway, last week I started to throw all the e-mails away wholesale. But peeking in, I kept finding interesting and surprising ones. I threw away a few, but put most back in the box.

There are files of real letters and post cards. I was still getting four or five a month, some from exotic places. I can’t throw those away, especially the handwritten ones, the ones it looks as if it took someone’s great-grandmother hours to write and carefully correct.

There are contracts for freelance projects, dozens of them. How long am I obliged to keep those? I can picture sweating in the witness box, as a prosecutor grills me. “You mean to tell us you didn’t even keep the contract?”

There are general subject files. In recent years, frustrated with how often I wasn’t able to find odd little stories and details that I remembered running across at one time or other, I devoted a file-cabinet drawer to a general subject file of things I mostly hadn’t written about yet, but expected I would someday. There’s a file about fires, about gunfights, about Italian immigrants, about 19th century baseball. It was just getting to the point of being useful.

And then there’s the bulkiest category, the story files. I didn’t even bother to make files for most of the couple thousand columns and short pieces I wrote for Metro Pulse, but cover stories required that level of organization. When I was hired in 1995 I was told that I was to write a cover feature of 3,000 to 5,000 words, every four to six weeks. Sometimes they were longer. My longest one, a narrative about riding the Amtrak train with Scott Miller and his band in 2004, was 12,000 words. Some books are shorter. But that one didn’t even need a file, just one Moleskine notebook that I carried with me everywhere we went. (Speaking of, I’ve also got about 40 Moleskine notebooks, or their cheaper equivalents, all of them with interesting stuff scrawled in them and used economically, both sides of each page. I love Moleskine notebooks, and have always been thrifty with them.)

Anyway, my rule of thumb was that a story was no cover story until I’d interviewed at least eight people, not counting library work (and all thorough feature stories require library or Internet work). But some called for many more than that, and I saved the notes for all that. Every cover story left a combination of useful and useless pieces of paper, and all these years, I never took the time to differentiate. I just put all the notes back in the current story file, called it done, and moved on to the next one. And over the last 19 years, I wrote about 200 of those cover feature stories.

Those are the ones I’m going through today. You’d think they’d be the easiest to discard; after all, I completed each story, had it published in print and online, and it either caught people’s attention or it didn’t. Some of them are available online. Many of them aren’t anymore. Most of them are still legible in library files. You can read through the yellow.

How people would respond to each story was nearly impossible to predict. In 2000, I wrote a story marking the 30th anniversary of the student unrest of the first half of 1970, the Knoxville 22, the UT student strike, Peter Kami, Billy Graham and Nixon. My story uncovered little new information, didn’t say much that hadn’t been said before, but it struck the chords we try to strike with every feature story. I heard from hundreds of people about that one, from all over the country, and kept hearing from them for years and years afterward. The last comment I got about that story, via the Metro Pulse e-mail account, was just a few months ago, from another witness who’d been there.

I’ve written a couple of stories that I thought would make people’s heads explode. One, comparing national and micro-local data, seemed to prove that we vote liberal or conservative not just reflecting race, income, church membership, but–maybe more than any other factor–how close we live to our neighbors. The farther away you live from your neighbor, whether you’re a rich suburbanite or a poor farmer, the more likely you are to vote Republican. The closer you live to your neighbor, whether it’s in the projects or in a downtown condo, the more likely you are to vote Democratic. After some labor, we created color-coded maps of Knox County, one showing population density, one indicating relative voting habits. The high-density areas always vote Democratic in presidential races; the low-density precincts always vote Republican. And the lower the density, the higher the Republican vote. The comparison, I thought, was astonishing, and would catch the attention even of readers who didn’t have time to read the long story.

People take their politics personally, and had visions of my story shifting the paradigms of how people talk about politics. I daydreamed about that story launching a series of conversations on the political TV and radio talk shows, generating dozens of phone calls and e-mail and commentary and invitations to speak. I also expected a little sputtering outrage. It came out in late October, just before the 2008 presidential election.

Instantly I got a message from a local TV producer. And I was asked, once again–to meet a cameraman in a graveyard and tell some spooky ghost stories.

And here’s that file. Maybe it’s still a great story, and I just didn’t tell it right. Should I try again someday? If I do, maybe I’ll need this file. I put it back in the box.

All these damn files still hold sources and contact information that I don’t have access to through my old work computer anymore. Most of them contain documents that might be interesting to somebody’s thesis project someday, or to another story I might write. But looking around, I don’t really have room for them.

Some of them are reminders of an era at Metro Pulse that seems almost like a dream, the era when some reporting jobs were adventures, involving light undercover work and overnight trips. When we started in the ’90s, the cities of Chattanooga and Asheville were both getting national and even international attention for their downtown revivals and unlikely sudden liveliness. I knew both cities superficially, from afternoons spent there on the way somewhere else, but I had never really dwelled in either. But their sudden success seemed remarkable, and maybe relevant to Knoxville. They were both cities once considered decaying industrial cities, both of them previously considered conservative Republican cities, and each of them smaller than Knoxville. They seemed to suggest something about our possibility.

I got hotel rooms in each, and visited as a spy, hanging around in museums and libraries and municipal offices and bars, to see if they had any ideas good enough to steal.

The two made an interesting contrast. I spent about week in Asheville, back in 1995, as your Metro Pulse correspondent. Asheville was much more oriented toward young adults, late nights, and esoteric interests. They had sidewalk sculptures and used sometimes glancing associations with a heritage to make the place interesting. F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Thomas Wolfe. None of those literary immortals liked Asheville very much. The Fitzgeralds, who were never there together, just separately, were particularly miserable. Except for Wolfe, who grew up in Asheville, none of them stayed there very long or did productive work there. Zelda died in a fire in an Asheville insane asylum. But in the 1990s the city used their spectral stories to make a run-down old furniture town seem glamorous, exotic, and really interesting, and they succeeded.

And in Asheville I was particularly amazed at a big pizza place in an old building, entered right on the sidewalk, that had lots of different kinds of beer, and live music and, every single night, happy crowds at big tables. It was called Barley’s, and it was like a fantasy. In 1995 I could only imagine how cool Knoxville would be if it had something like that.

I spent a week working on another MP story in Chattanooga in 1997. Chattanooga was much more family oriented, its anchors vacation attractions funded by major philanthropy. Everybody knew about the new aquarium, but they also had an impressive art museum, decades old but getting new attention. They kept their old baseball team near downtown, with major improvements behind it, just as we were losing ours. Chattanooga had an amazing network of dozens of miles greenways, actually used by the citizens hourly. (That was back when Knoxville had just one greenway, a couple of miles long, and when I rode my bike on it, as I did almost daily, I rarely saw anybody else. Things have changed dramatically in that regard, and I’ve been happy to report on it. I didn’t think it possible that 17 years later we’d have outdoor amenities that might rival or in some cases surpass Chattanooga’s.)

And Chattanooga’s brewpub was then much more popular than ours. It all seemed to be working into their vigorous experiments with innovative urban design. While Knoxville’s leadership seemed woebegone about the necessary death of downtown cinemas, Chattanooga was proving a modern multiplex could work very well, and we touted it. Chattanooga was not as lively after dark as Asheville was, but was proving that free live music in a public space would be successful in bringing people out once a week. (We hadn’t tried that yet.) Just then their most surprising development was that closing a mile-long bridge to automobile traffic, and opening it to pedestrian traffic, became a magnet in itself, a challenge to walkers, and somehow energized the forgotten northern shore of the river. But what amazed me was how they were coupling much of it with fiscally conservative Republican philosophy. Getting people to concentrate downtown saves public money. It all seemed relevant to Knoxville. And over the next few years, if we didn’t steal the ideas of Asheville and Chattanooga, we learned from them.

Roving as a lone stranger in a strange town was almost as much fun as doing the same thing in Europe when I was 22, when I unexpectedly first started thinking about my hometown as an interesting place. But I didn’t have to travel even as far as Chattanooga to find interesting surprises.

A lot of my feature assignments, about South Knoxville–where people told me straight-facedly that they hadn’t been “to Knoxville” in years–or East Knoxville, or Fountain City, or Maryville, or Pigeon Forge, or Concord, or Seven Islands, seemed to prove to me, anyway, that they are all distinct and exotic places, if you look at them just beyond our familiar assumptions. And no one knows what’s on the bottom of our own river, but there are lots of stories and theories, and I got some learned people to speculate about that in 1999. It was one of my favorite subjects.

Even familiar, mundane, Kingston Pike has interesting stuff beyond the signage, and an extraordinarily interesting history. They all have surprising histories, and remnants of those histories. These Metro Pulse assignments were ways for an impecunious traveler to see a representative part of the world without the bother of an airplane flight or a motel room.

But the weirdest cover story I ever wrote for Metro Pulse was when I talked publisher Joe Sullivan into sponsoring me to drive to Iowa, purely for the purpose of letting me describe the second-biggest Knoxville in the world. Knoxville, Iowa, almost 800 miles away, proved to be the most exotic adventure of all, a small, old-fashioned town with an old-fashioned courthouse and a one-screen movie theater and tree-shaded streets that happened to be the home–right downtown–of an international sprint-car-racing mecca called the Knoxville Raceway. Attending the races, which were held almost every night for weeks in the summertime, was a Knoxville tradition, kind of like a cleaner, more orderly version of the Tennessee Valley Fair.

Iowa’s Knoxvillians were polite but not necessarily impressed that I was from Knoxville, Tennessee, a city several times the size of theirs. None of them cared much about SEC football. They’d never heard of Neyland Stadium, and when I described it to them, they seemed puzzled. Surely their Knoxville Raceway was a bigger deal. And, truth be told, it probably entertained more people per year than Neyland does. And, as it turned out, the Raceway had more of a reputation in Australia. Some Iowans had heard we’d once had a world’s fair. But as far as they were concerned, their Knoxville was the main Knoxville in the whole world. The pride of this small town in the Iowa countryside awed me.

What surprised me most was how people there pronounced the word, “Knoxville.” At home, people tended to include a nasal whine with it. I grew up hearing, “That’s Knoxville for you”; “Well, what do you expect, in Knoxville.” Bringing up the word was often a way to show you were better than your environs, that you’d been other places, that you deserved something else.

But in Iowa, the same word had a fresh ring to it, and a little bit of an exclamation point. I’d never in my life heard the word “Knoxville” pronounced with such pride as I did in this much-smaller town in Iowa. They said “Knoxville” like some people say “America.”

I don’t know why, but somehow it gave me hope. At least we weren’t doomed by our name.

That trip, in particular, seems like a dream now. Did I really do that? This file, and nothing else in my house, proves I did. I put it back in the box.

See, I’m really not making much progress.