Memories of Another Lost Fort Sanders Wanderer

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

Dean took up residence in a Volkswagen Beetle in the winter of 1967. The VW belonged to the boyfriend of one of Dean’s acquaintances, a girl he knew from the Nashville area where he grew up. Prior to that, he had bounced from couch to couch in various Fort Sanders apartments, staying until he wore out his welcome or until his benefactors moved on.

I met him when he walked into an early-morning gathering at his friends’ house on Clinch Avenue—his newfound home in its usual parking place at the curb in front. The house was one of those common to the area—once grand before being turned into student housing. But it had not been subdivided; the main floor and upstairs had been rented by one person, who had then subleased bedrooms to three of his friends. It still retained vestiges of its former life, including a working fireplace and the airy and loftily tagged “Florida Room” off to one side of the main room. The space, probably originally a breakfast nook, had been turned into a bar, complete with stools, and that is where we usually gathered.

Dean suddenly materialized behind a couple of girls sitting at the bar, scaring them when they realized there was a presence at their shoulders.

The friend who owned the VW saw him and said hello. Dean only said one word: “Cold.” Then he went into the living room and sat in front of the fireplace, where the remains of the evening’s fire still smoldered. The Doors were playing over and over on the turntable.

“That’s Dean,” explained the VW’s owner. “He hasn’t got anyplace to stay so I told him he could sleep in my car.” The arrangement included shower and bathroom privileges at the house. Fortunately, given the space limitations of the Beetle, Dean was small enough that he had no problem sleeping while pretzeled into the backseat.

We went back to our business of swapping stories and drinking beer and Dean was soon forgotten. When I crossed the living room, headed into the kitchen for another Stroh’s, he was still in front of the fireplace, seemingly entranced as settling logs scattered sparks. I took little notice—it was the ’60s, and falling into such states while watching conflagrations was common.

After that first encounter I would occasionally notice him on the Strip. Unlike many of the late-night regulars seeking spare change, he never seemed to be hassling anyone. Once, when he saw me in front of the Vol Market, he got my attention with another of his one-word declarations. “Hungry,” he said. I bought him a sandwich, which he took without comment.

Once, I heard later, he was rousted by the cops and arrested. He got “a little bent out of shape,” we were told. Conjecture put the blame on “bad acid.” Some said LSD was at the root of Dean’s problem: “Too much, and too much variety.” Later, someone who knew him better said that many who had known him in Nashville suspected there was a touch of schizophrenia at play.

Usually, as the night wound down, he could be found waiting for the Volkswagen and its owner to show up, sitting on the stoop of the Clinch house or on the concrete wall in front of the doctor’s office across the street.

Like most such Fort Sanders wanderers, Dean had come to Knoxville because of the university. He was from a prominent family, well-known, well-connected, well-fixed. Family plans, according to the girl who knew him from Nashville, were that he would become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a marketing whiz. But he wasn’t on campus too long before school became secondary, and then a memory.

Eventually his landlord, the owner of the Beetle, who knew someone at one of the Knoxville mental-health agencies, arranged for Dean to get a checkup. He drove him to the center and waited while he was questioned and examined. That evening, as we settled into the late-night routine of the Florida Room, Dean’s name came up. The VW’s owner then told us he had taken him to the center. What happened, we wanted to know. “They kept him,” he said with a shrug.

Chris Wohlwend's Restless Native addresses the characters and absurdities of Knoxville, as well as the lessons learned pursuing the newspaper trade during the tumult that was the 1960s. He spent 35 years working for newspapers and magazines in Miami, Charlotte, Louisville, Dallas, Kansas City, and Atlanta. As an editor, he was involved in winning several national awards. He returned to Knoxville in the late 1990s and now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Tennessee. His freelance pieces have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and numerous other publications.

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