Armed and Irritable

In Restless Native by Chris Wohlwendleave a COMMENT

Late one morning in 1969 I was awakened by a persistent knocking on my front door in Fort Sanders. A quick glance through the bedroom window revealed an official-looking sedan on the street in front of my house.

I lived in the next-to-last house on Clinch Avenue, number 2303, in the block just as the street ends at the berm supporting the railroad tracks. The tracks cross Cumberland Avenue and continue into the yard where Volunteer Boulevard makes its turn to the east.

I went to the front door and found two men in suits. One asked if I was Christopher Wohlwend. I answered in the affirmative and then said, “How can I help you?”

They identified themselves as being from the University of Tennessee police department. I told them that I was not a UT student (I had graduated a year or so earlier). Sheepishly, they then explained that the woman who lived next door had been calling the home of the university president, Andy Holt, complaining that her UT-student neighbors were spraying pepper into her house.

They then asked if I minded, to humor my neighbor (there was only a shared driveway between the two houses), if they came inside for a few minutes.

I let them in and explained that my roommate (at home in Nashville at the time) was a UT student, and that the elderly neighbor (I’ll call her Mrs. Parker) was always throwing crazy accusations around the neighborhood. She had taken a particular dislike to my roommate when he had moved in a couple of months earlier.

There were nods from the two cops; she had been calling the department with various complaints for a couple of years. But, they added, somehow she had recently obtained Dr. Holt’s home phone number and the situation had gotten out of hand.

After a few minutes, the officers departed, and I escorted them down the sidewalk—an effort to ensure that my neighbor saw that they had made an official visit to 2303.

Mrs. Parker’s reputation in the neighborhood had been cemented a few months earlier when the young couple who lived in 2301 heard what they believed was a gunshot and saw their cat hightailing it back home from the direction of Mrs. Parker’s backyard. She was standing on the back stoop with a pistol.

There ensued a shouting match, and I was informed of the suspicion of Mrs. Parker’s being armed shortly after I moved in.

She confronted me—without any visible weaponry—within a month after I took up residence. The party marking my move-in produced a crowd, and, thanks to the jukebox I had installed in the house, the music was loud, helping broadcast the raucous celebration.

Mrs. Parker yelled at the guests who were on the front porch, then called the police. Two officers arrived and advised me to keep the party inside.

From then on, Mrs. Parker saw to it that the black and white city-police car was a regular visitor to 2303 on Saturday nights. In fact, on one visit, the cops told me that they might as well just add my house to their regular weekend beat.

Upset as she became when we were partying, Mrs. Parker was not shy about asking me for help. And that led to a reversal of the usual confrontation—I sent the police to her house.

One afternoon she knocked on my door and asked if I would help her flip the mattress on her bed, as it was too heavy for her to do it by herself. So I followed her over and into her bedroom. On the nightstand next to her bed was a .38 revolver, bullets visible in the cylinder.

The next day I informed one of my co-workers at the Knoxville Journal, the city editor, who was married to a policewoman familiar with Mrs. Parker. His wife paid her an unannounced visit, and saw the .38. Mrs. Parker was warned about firing it. She denied that it ever left her bedroom, insisting that it usually stayed in the drawer of the nightstand.

I was told about the visit, and the pistol and warning. Mrs. Parker continued the pepper-spray accusations against my roommate until he moved out. Mrs. Parker then advised me not to get another roommate. I did her one better—I moved to South Knoxville, leaving 2303 to a new houseful of UT students.

On a recent Saturday afternoon I drove by 2303—judging  by the group on the front porch, it is still a residence to students. And Mrs. Parker’s house had gained a couple of ungainly, tacked-on additions since the late ’60s—I assume the present owner decided to do as the other neighbors and provide housing for UT students.

I didn’t hang around to see if the police were still regular visitors.

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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