The last time Speedy was fired from the Journal came on a Friday afternoon when he was arrested for public drunkenness a hundred yards or so from the office. At the time he was working night police, 5 p.m. to 2 a.m., a position he had been given when he was hired back after his previous firing.
After parking his car on the Church Avenue viaduct, Speedy started for the newspaper building. A policeman noticed his wobbling and stopped him. When the cop asked if he was drunk, we learned later, Speedy argued that he couldn’t be drunk because he was on his way to work. A couple of the paper’s engravers saw the arrest and told the city editor. And Speedy was fired again.
Speedy picked up his nickname when he was a star running back at a Knoxville high school. He received a football scholarship to UT where he quickly distinguished himself with his beer-drinking skills.
When I met him he was years away from his athletic-star days, divorced, and, during periods of sobriety, a dependable mainstay of the Journal’s reporting staff. As a copy boy, I occupied the space immediately in front of his desk, a position that meant I was privy to his insights about his fellow reporters and, more importantly, the bosses. I quickly learned that he was smart and possessed a rapier-like wit.
One of his fellow reporters was known to everyone as the laziest person in the newsroom—treating story deadlines as suggestions. Speedy referred to him as Chained Lightning, a sarcastic moniker that was soon taken up by everyone else.
Unfortunately, Speedy’s periods of sobriety became shorter and shorter—he was fired from the Journal three times during the seven years I worked there. He was taken back because of his skills and his contacts.
Speedy was not the only newsroom employee who had a problem with alcohol. Some I had first-hand dealings with, others, long since gone, I only heard about because of their stunts.
One of the latter, whose nickname was Streetcar, once flustered a new church reporter while he was involved in a face-to-face interview with a prominent Knoxville preacher. Slipping up behind the reporter, Streetcar gently kissed him on the head. The preacher then tried to listen to the embarrassed reporter’s explanation without joining the laughter from nearby staffers.
Streetcar’s last dismissal came after he disappeared while working on a story in Cocke County. He and a photographer were sent to the county seat, Newport, for interviews. At some point, the photographer explained when he got back to Knoxville, Streetcar had stopped at a bootlegger’s to get a drink. After waiting for a couple of hours at their agreed-on rendezvous point, the photographer drove back to Knoxville alone. Streetcar finally showed up at the office several days later to find that his desk had been cleaned out.
Decades later, when I was living and working in Atlanta, I became friends with the writer Paul Hemphill, a veteran of newspapers himself. When he heard I was from Knoxville, he immediately asked if I had known Streetcar, who by then had been dead for years. It seems he was a legend in Atlanta as well. He had, I learned, been fired at several newspapers around the South. He died in obscurity, a not-quite-forgotten drunk, at a relatively young age.
Another hard-drinking former Journal character later fashioned an illustrious career in broadcasting after giving up alcohol. Working in sports, he, too, had disappeared while on an assignment. Months later, a friend from Knoxville recognized him on a downtown Birmingham street, drunk, and managed to get him back to a relative in Tennessee.
Unlike Streetcar, he managed to stay sober, eventually establishing himself as a respected major-league sports broadcaster.
Such stories were recounted in late-night sessions around the copy desk, with the rim-rats and other late-shift veterans adding credence by their own inebriated actions.
Too, there were the composing-room denizens who passed through the newsroom on their way to the backshop. The saddest was a printer who carefully maneuvered to the composing room by holding his hands out to touch each side of the long hallway to his workplace. Years earlier, I was told, he had drunk an adulterated product known as “jake,” which was produced during Prohibition and led to a kind of paralysis of the limbs.
Among the other hard-drinkers were two long-time rim-rats, banished to the copy desk because of their drinking and resultant unreliability. One was excellent at his job, no matter if he was drinking. He lived in the mountains about 40 miles from the office and sometimes would stay the night at my house instead of making the long drive home. During the night, I would be awakened as he noisily made his way to our bar for a drink.
The other rim-rat drinker eventually followed in the footsteps of Streetcar, dismissed from the newspaper one last time and several months later found dead on the street.
Speedy’s last dismissal led a cohort and I to go over to his apartment a couple of days later to check on him. He was there—along with a girlfriend—and assured us that he would be okay. And, after taking the cure, he stayed sober for several years.
My sister knew one of Speedy’s female friends, and she would give me reports when I would be visiting Knoxville. It was from her that I learned that he had died at age 56.
From watching Speedy and the others I realized early that I did not want to end up like them, and started limiting my alcohol intake, another of the many lessons of my Journal tenure.
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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