Monday, September 28, 2015

Saturday Songs of the South 3: I Just Love Beating Their Asses-- Geoff Rockwell and the Georgia Dawgs

Not all songs of the South on autumnal Saturdays are representative of some great catharsis or emotional realization. Sometimes, these songs are just good, old-fashioned, straightforward expressions of love, loyalty, and a little bit of ass-stomping fun. Such is the song of Georgia alumni and Paul Finebaum fan and Twitter feed fanatic Geoff Rockwell, who—like me—can trace his super fandom back to a single game.

Geoff, who graduated from the University of Georgia in 1986 was an undergrad in Athens for three years. That meant he missed the glory days when Herschel Walker ran all over the competition and into the Heisman book of legends. But the game that destined him to live and die a Dawg fan pre-dated his time at UGA. That game took place on November 19, 1982 between the University of Georgia and Auburn University at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Herschel Walker was a junior, and that game is a legendary  SEC contest.

“I was planning to go to school at Georgia and my wife and I had gone to see the game,” Geoff remembered. “Larry Munson was the guy who did the radio call for Georgia then. I wasn’t a student yet, but I was soon after. Herschel Walker was in the game.”

Unless you’re a longtime SEC football fan, you might not realize that Georgia and Auburn have an incredibly storied historic rivalry. In fact, it is the oldest rivalry still played between schools in the Deep South. The first game was played in 1892, and the series record illustrates the absolute contention between the universities.

The record is 55 Auburn wins, 55 Georgia wins, and 8 ties.

Hard to get more even than that.

In the 1982 season, Georgia was vying for its third consecutive SEC championship, and as the football schedule neared its end the Auburn team was one of the last teams with a chance to ruin their so-far undefeated season.

“I do not hate Auburn University,” Geoff qualified. “I have been to Auburn many times. I work with Auburn people; know a lot of Auburn people—good people. So I don’t hate Auburn.”

Geoff paused and the grin on his face was easily heard over the phone line and four states. “I just love beating their ass. It’s just a big rivalry for me. Most Georgia people have Florida as their big rival. My big thrill is beating Auburn University. It’s kind of like a border war between our states.”

The game was close and hotly contested, but in the fourth quarter the Dawgs led 19-14 after a touchdown drive featuring 8 runs by Herschel Walker. With 2:39 left in the game, however, Auburn had returned the favor with a drive of its own. The Tigers were on the Georgia eleven-yard line, with a soon-to-be superstar of its own—young running back Bo Jackson—and four fresh downs.

“Larry Munson was one of those legendary play callers, like John Ward at Tennessee,” Geoff said, thereby earning many brownie points with me since John Ward yelling “GIVE-HIM-SIX!” is the ringtone on my phone. “He said, ‘Hunker down, you Dawgs!’ That’s what we had to do—hunker down for those four plays to win the game. That’s what made that play call so legendary.”

On first down, Jackson was brought down for a loss of two yards. On second down, the Auburn quarterback Randy Campbell was sacked. On third down and twenty-six, Campbell completed a nine-yard-pass, giving the Tigers one last chance—a fourth and fifteen. Campbell dropped back to pass, but his throw was slapped away in the end zone with :49 left on the clock. Georgia’s victory was capped by Munson yelling, “Look at the sugar falling from the sky!”—a prophecy fulfilled when Georgia went to the Sugar Bowl to play Penn State for a shot at the national championship.

“We won in the last few second of the game. That’s what made the play call from Larry Munson so great,” Geoff said. “One of those moments, you know. Beat them at Auburn. Herschel Walker was a junior. Won the Heisman and left for the USFL. He was one of the first college players to leave early for the pros left and they made a big deal out of that.”

Although Georgia didn’t win the 1982 national championship, it was the third straight year they went undefeated in conference play. Herschel Walker finished the game with 177 yards rushing, which made him the first junior to surpass 5,000 career rushing yards and basically made him a lock for the Heisman Trophy. That mid-November victory in Jordan-Hare is still remember as the seminal game in the long life of the Auburn-Georgia rivalry.

“We didn’t do so hot with Bo Jackson after that,” Geoff added. “He ran over us pretty good for a year or two.”

That one game thirty-three years ago cemented Geoff’s devotion to Georgia football, a devotion that remains unchanged to this day. “1980 was the last time we won a national championship, I hear it all the time. We have a good coach, we win ball games—but haven’t won it all since then.”

He paused for a minute, reflecting perhaps on his currently undefeated Georgia Bulldogs and the test they will face this weekend against an always tough Alabama Crimson Tide. “I don’t hate Auburn,” he repeated for the third time. “But man, I sure do love beating their asses.”

That makes total sense to me. Every good song has to have rhythm, and what better rhythm can there be than hearing eleven guys from your school knock your rivals on their backsides? The only accompaniment that might be better is the subtle sifting of sugar, as it falls from the clouds scudding over Jordan-Hare on a grey, windy November day. 

Author's note: For more about the 11/19/1982 meeting between Georgia and Auburn, check out Looking Ahead While Looking Back, Georgia Auburn 1982, the full game on YouTube, or the highlights with Larry Munson's play calls. You won't regret it--it's a fabulous piece of SEC football history!

If you have a Saturday Song of your own, drop me a line at kaantira(at) I'd love to hear it, and who knows--I may use it in a future post! See you next week with a new song to sing!

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Bell Witch--The REAL Legend, Part Two--TheExplosion of a Phenomenon--The Birth of "Kate", The Bells and How They Coped

In my last post, we talked about some general information surrounding the Bell Witch haunting--the area, the Bell family, the community, and how the paranormal events began. Now we're going to extend that a little further, and take a look at how the Bells began to cope with the notoriety once they revealed their secret first to their community, and then the world. 

But first, let's talk about Kate.

By the time Rev. Johnson encouraged the Bells to share their family secret and to invite others to witness the phenomena, the entity had already begun to torment them. As Richard Bell said in his journal, written some forty years later:

Mr. Johnson listened attentively to all of the sounds and capers, and that which appeared like someone sucking air through the teeth, and smacking of lips, indicated to him that some intelligent agency gave force to the movements, and he determined to try speaking to it, which he did, inquiring, "In the name of the Lord, what or who are you? What do you want and why are you here?" This appeared to silence the noise for considerable time, but it finally commenced again with increased vigor, pulling the cover from the beds in spite of all resistance, repeating other demonstrations, going from one room to another, [it was]becoming fearful.The persecutions of Elizabeth were increased to an extent that excited serious apprehensions. Her cheeks were frequently crimsoned as by a hard blow from an open hand, and her hair pulled until she would scream with pain. Mr. Johnson said the phenomena was beyond his comprehension; it was evidently preternatural or supernatural, of an intelligent character. He arrived at this conclusion from the fact that it ceased action when spoken to, and certainly understood language...{Our Family Trouble, Bell}

From the beginning, therefore, it was obvious that whatever this spirit was, the potential for communication was there. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First off, spiritualism as we know it didn't become widespread or popular for another twenty plus years. Kids weren't sneaking off to have seances, and the concept of spirit communication was neither commonplace or familiar. There weren't mediums who claimed to speak with the dead--that didn't become the norm until after the Fox sisters grew famous for spirit communication starting around 1848, and wasn't popular in the US until the Civil War resulted in so many deaths. The pioneers in northern Tennessee were much closer to the Salem witch trials than they were to the Ghost Adventures or  TAPS paranormal investigation groups of today. But second off, and I think this is more important to this particular story, what followed this initial assessment of Rev. Johnson and the Bells was evidently a period where the entity learned to speak. 

If you think about it, that's almost more creepy than the paranormal stories we hear today. Because the Bells, with the assistance of Rev. Johnson and their neighbors, began to encourage the entity to communicate, in a remarkably short time that spirit had figured out how to channel its energy into the creation of speech. Richard Bell continues:

By this time, the mystery had gained wide notoriety, and people came from every direction, the house being crowded every night with visitors...and neighbors persevered in their efforts to induce the witch to talk, calling on it to rap on the wall, smack its mouth, etc., and in this way the phenomena was gradually developed, proving to be an intelligent character. When asked a question in a way that it could be answered by numbers, for instance, "how many persons present? how many horses in the barn? or how many miles to a certain place?" the answers would come in raps, like a man knocking on the wall, the bureau, or the bed post with his fist, or by so many scratches on the wall like the noise of a nail or claws, and the answers were invariably correct.

Using knocks to answer questions is a technique still used by paranormal investigators today. But back then, there were no paranormal investigators. As we've already seen, the Spiritualist movement and medium-conducted seances were still several decades in the future. But even two hundred years later, there is still a cause and effect that we can identify.

As more people came and interacted with the entity more frequently, it gained more power. There's a fairly standard theory within the paranormal research community that spirits have to draw energy from somewhere in order to affect the real world--people, appliances, even the warmth of the air. That's the accepted explanation of why batteries so frequently drain at haunted locations.

But then, and most probably as the result of the increased energy from which the spirit could feed, the spirit began to talk. The first words of the entity are not recorded, but before long it was able to answer the question Who are you and what do you want?" At first, the voice which  had begun as a whisper but had now strengthened until everyone in the house could hear it easily, said,"I am a spirit; I was once very happy but have been disturbed." {Bell} But before long, the spirit had a second, more inflammatory response. When another local minister, Reverend James Gunn engaged it in a conversation and demanded to know its origins, the spirit replied:

I cannot trifle with a preacher or tell you a lie, and if you must know the truth I am nothing more nor less than old Cate Batts' witch, and am determined to haunt and torment old Jack Bell as long as he lives.

Here is where the real difference between the early 19th century and the modern day comes into play. Cate Batts was a neighbor of the Bells, and unfortunately was one of those types of people of whom nothing bad can be said but that no one really likes despite that. Married to a disabled man, Mrs. Batts had taken over the management of their farm and was extremely good at it. The Batts were well-to-do as a result of her skill, and that's the kind of success that would definitely put the backs up of the men in the area. This era was closer to the Salem witch trials than it was to today, and for the superstituous, the stupid, and the supremely sexist members of the community, hearing that 'old Cate Batts' had a witch made a lot of sense. How else to explain how a woman was able to thrive in a man's world? No doubt if the Batts were genteelly starving in their cabin, the whole populace would have appreciated Mrs. Batts for being a helpless female saddled with a worthless husband and a passel of no-good kids.

At any rate, after this pronouncement by the spirit, it became commonly referred to as Kate. And so, from this point on, so will I.

By this point, word of the witch was spreading like wildfire through the scattered communities of the region. Kate began to develop a distinct personality. One of the strangest foibles Kate had was a strong knowledge of and apparent devotion to Christianity. She enjoyed getting into scriptural debate with the ministers of the neighborhood, and could easily quote chapter and verse to back up her arguments. She also loved singing hymns, which she did to soothe Mrs. Bell when she was ill, and also at Sunday services which she attended along with the family. If the minister delivered a sermon she approved of, Kate could be heard thumping invisible hands on the wall and shouting, "Amen!"--no doubt to the serious disturbance of the entire congregation.

But Kate soon developed into one of those church ladies--the self-proclaimed moral arbiter of the community who relished tattling on wrongdoers.Ingram explains:

Kate the witch never slept, was never idle or confined to any place, but was here and there and everywhere, like the mist of night or the morning sunbeams, was everything and nothing, invisible yet present, spreading all over the neighborhood, prying into everybody's business and domestic affairs; caught on to every ludicrous thing that happened, and all of the sordid, avaricious meanness that transpired; diving t he inmost (sic) secrets of the human heart and, withal, was a great blab-mouth (sic); getting neighbors by the ears, taunting people with their sins and shortcomings, and laughing at their folly in trying to discover the identity of the mystery...

All I can really say about that is--damn. That must have really sucked. Ingram continued:

The avaricious were careful not to covet or lay hands on that which belonged to their neighbors, lest Kate might tell on them. No man allowed his right hand to do anything that the left might be ashamed of--

Yes, I laughed at that too. If Kate were here, she'd be telling on me for having a dirty mind.

--No citizen thought of locking his smokehouse or crib door, nor of staying up through the night to guard his hen roost or watermelon patch...No incident out of the regular routine of everyday transactions occurred that the witch did not know all about the affair, and would tell the circumstance to someone in less than an hour.  

Richard Bell corroborates this with specifics:

A man, whose name I will call John, put in, remarking that he did not believe there was any sin in stealing something to eat when one was reduced to hunger and could not obtain food for his labor. Instantly, the Witch perniciously inquired of John "if he ate that sheepskin." This settled John. He was dumb as an oyster, and as soon as the subject was changed he left the company and was conspicuously absent after that. The result was the revival of an old scandal, so long past that it had been forgotten, in which John was accused of stealing a sheep-skin.

This warlock was indeed a great tattler and made mischief in the community. Some people very much feared the garrulity of its loquacious meddling, and were extremely cautious, and it was this class whom the invisible delighted in torturing most.

 So at first, Kate was almost a kind of...well, a catalyst for good in the community. People were afraid to misbehave because it was quickly apparent that there was NO chance they'd get away with anything. As a result, I'd be willing to bet a lot of pettiness and even violence was averted, especially since if a person didn't really care that everyone knew his 'sins' Kate was likely to start beating the crap out of him just to make a point.

Which she did on several occasions. More on that later in this post.

At any rate, words of Kate and the goings-on at the Bell farm spread like wildfire. People started to travel hundreds of miles to try and see this phenomenon for themselves. That's no small feat. Think about it. Even now, if you want to visit the Bell farm, you have to drive to the middle of nowhere. There are no hotels in Adams, no campgrounds, no bed and breakfasts--nowadays, you'd have to stay in Nashville, Springfield, or Clarksville, which are all 15-50 miles away. Back then, of course, even a trip from Clarksville would have been a full day's journey. People just started showing up at the Bell's front doorstep, wanting to see the witch.

If that happened today, the homeowner would probably call the cops. But back then, the world was different. When these total strangers barged in on the Bell's privacy,  the Bells housed them, stabled and fed their horses, and fed the people too. He never charged anyone a dime. Apparently those "guests" rarely went away disappointed. Kate never had much of a problem showing off to the crowds.

But those strangers weren't familiar with Kate's ability to ferret things out about people that they might not want known. Richard Bell tells one story that speaks strongly about the consequences of poor behavior.

A stranger showed up at the Bell farm one night who introduced himself as Detective Williams. He told John Sr. that he'd come a long way to investigate the haunting, and because he had experience in spotting sleight of hand or other tricks thought he'd be able to expose the truth of the "witch" if they gave him the chance to try.

Father bid the gentleman a hearty welcome, telling him that he was just the man that was wanted. "Make my house your home, and make free with everything here as if your own, as long as you think proper to stay," said Father, and Mr. Williams politely accepted the invitation and hung up his hat.

For that night, and the following day, however, Kate was unusually quiet. Mr. Williams, on the other hand, was not. His favorite topic was himself, and all the amazing adventures he'd had exposing frauds and criminals. By the second night, Mr. Williams was talking even more freely, and he began to insult his hosts.

He said to a coterie of gentlemen who were discussing the witch that he was convinced that the whole thing was a family affair, an invention gotten up for a sensation to draw people and make money, and the actors were afraid to make any demonstrations while he was present, knowing his profession and business, and that he would most assuredly expose the trick. One of the gentlemen told Father what Williams had said, and it made him very indignant. He felt outraged that such a charge should be made without the evidence, by a man professing to be a gentleman, to whom he had extended every courtesy and hospitality...and in a rage he threatened to order Williams from the place immediately.

Just at this juncture, Kate spoke, "No you don't, old Jack; let him stay. I will attend to the gentleman and satisfy him that he is not so smart as he thinks."

That night, the house was packed with people. Everyone sat around the fire, waiting for the witch to speak, but she didn't say a word and there wasn't a single bit of spiritual activity anywhere in the house. Mr. Williams began to boast again that the witch wouldn't appear again as long as he stayed. Mrs. Bell brought out several straw mattresses for her guests to sleep on. So the lights were blown out, and everyone settled down to go to sleep.

But as soon as the house was quiet, Kate decided the time had come to teach the arrogant detective the lesson he so richly deserved.

Mr. Williams found himself pinioned, as it were, to the floor by some irresistible force from which he was utterly powerless to extricate himself, stout as he was, and the witch started scratching and pounding him with vengeance. He yelled out to the top of his voice calling for help and mercy. Kate held up long enough to inquire of the detective which one of the family he though had him, and then let (sic) in again, giving him an unmerciful beating while the man pleaded for (his) life. All of this occurred in less than two minutes, and before a candle could be lighted--and as soon as the light appeared, the pounding ceased but Kate did a good deal of talking--more than Mr. Williams cared to hear. The detective was badly used up and the worst scared man that ever came to our house. He sat up on a chair the balance of the night, with a burning candle by his side, subjected to the witch's tantalizing sarcasm, ridicule, and derision, questioning him as to which of the family was carrying on the devilment, how he liked the result of his investigations, how long he intended to stay, etc. As soon as day dawned, Mr. Williams ordered his horse, and could not be prevailed upon to remain until after breakfast.

And that, my friends, is why I tell you that there was absolutely no need for any Hollywood production company to add to the Bell Witch story. If a movie was ever made just about what really happened, it would be the scariest darn movie imaginable. Aside from the physical abuse Richard Bell describes, stop to consider the emotional and psychological trauma Kate inflicted on that admittedly scummy dude who imposed upon the Bells and then was slimy enough to insinuate that they were not only faking the whole thing for profit--which, considering the fact that they were housing and feeding him for free was a remarkably stupid thing to say--but also that these money-grubbing schemers were too chicken to try their fake ghost tricks while he was in the house! She beat him, yes, but two minutes of invisible ass-kicking couldn't possibly have been as traumatic as the whole, long night he spent, shaking in a circle of dim candlelight, while a disembodied voice verbally destroyed him in front of the family he'd so grossly insulted as well as the captive audience he'd spent all evening bragging about himself to.

The diabolical cleverness of all this is amplified even more by the fact that this was a plan. Remember, Kate let him stew for a day and two nights--probably affording the family the first night of good sleep they'd had in months--without doing anything to betray there was a real entity in the house. And then, when John Bell was going to throw the ingrate out, she told him not to and that she'd take care of him herself.

So when you put all this together--the spirit's ability to learn to speak, its seeming omniscience involving the community, its familiarity with Christianity, its frequent tattletelling on people, knowing if not the thoughts then the general faults of anyone in its sphere, and finally the skill with which it planned and executed punishments upon those who tried to abuse or cheat the Bell family--you come up with something so bone-chilling that it cannot be ignored. This wasn't some residual haunt, endlessly replaying an event from its life on some perpetual loop. Kate was a sentient, maturing, and intelligent being, with likes and dislikes just like us. But Kate was also a supernatural  being, possessed of some inexplicable power that even with all our technology we are completely incapable of explaining.

And any being, alive or otherwise, who could set up and execute the plan with which Kate ensnared and then punished Williams for is, in a word, dangerous. As the Bells and their neighbors were to discover, Kate was both single-minded and complex--and she always devised a way through which she would achieve her ultimate goal.

Tragically, Kate almost always got her way.

Author's note: When I quote directly from a source, I try to turn off my inner editor and leave the peculiarities of the nineteenth century grammar and spelling intact. Believe me, while I can write very long sentences, my editorial eye cringes at sentences with 200 words and 60 semicolons. It hurts. But, if I directly quote a source, I think it's important to leave the wording and even the terrifying punctuation exactly as the original writer first put it down. Also, I'm going to use the correct spelling of Cate Batts's name with a C, and the entity will be Kate. Cate Batts was as much a victim of the haunting as the Bells, and I think the differentiation needs to be made between the woman and the witch.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Bell Witch--The REAL Legend Part One: How The Most Infamous Haunting in History Began And What Makes It Unique

All right, let's start off with a little information and a few ground rules. 

I grew up on the outskirts of Clarksville, Tennessee, about 15 miles away from the mega-metropolis of Adams. Adams is TINY. It basically consists of an old-school convenience store, a couple of churches, a railroad crossing and a turn of the century schoolhouse that was once an antique mall and now is a center of all trades. Rural does not even begin to describe that part of Robertson County, and it's that part of Tennessee where farms extend as far as the eye can see on either side of the road.

But there's something else in  Adams--a unique industry that cannot be claimed anywhere else in the world. It consists of two graveyards--one public and one hidden--a cave, a room in the schoolhouse-cum-community center, and all that aforementioned farmland. That industry was launched in 1817, on the farm of the community's most prosperous land owner, John Bell, when his family became the victims of what is arguably the best-documented paranormal event in American history. Of course, I'm talking about the Bell Witch. You already knew that because you're smart and read the title. The Bell haunting is historically significant for a couple of reasons. First, it is the only such episode ever investigated by a state government and deemed to be supernatural. And second, the Bell Witch's most famous encounter was with Old Hickory--Andrew Jackson, before he was elected President. 

As of late, though, the Bell Witch is gaining new notoriety. In fact, the reason you're reading this blog is most likely because you googled the new reality show on A&E Cursed: The Bell Witch, or saw the truly excruciatingly bad and non-researched movie An American Haunting or last year's Ghost Adventures episode where they were the first paranormal television show to investigate the Bell Witch Cave. But I have to tell you--anytime you add film cameras or Hollywood to a story, the 'reality' portrayed isn't always the reality. 

Aside from growing up in the area, I have a couple of other legend advantages. First off, I started researching the Bell Witch legend in the 1980s while I was in college. I knew the longtime owner of the farm where the Bell Witch cave is located for years--he was a farmer, my dad owned a farm store--and so I was able to learn a lot of what happened in the decades his family had been on the land. While I was attending Austin Peay State University, the famous playwright Arthur Kopit was brought in as the first artist-in-residence for the Center of the Creative Arts. While he was at APSU. Kopit wrote a play based on the legend that the theater department produced. I contributed research for that project. And finally, I have had my own paranormal experiences in and around Adams, both when I visited the owner of the Bell farm like a proper young adult (which included a couple of all-night investigations in the Bell Witch Cave) and when I visited the Bell farm like a stupid and lawbreaking young adult in the middle of the night (when I could find the hidden Bell cemetery through corn fields, woods, and even in bad weather. What? It's only a mile or so from the road...) 

Sic transit gloria... Yes. I was one of those kind of kids.

At any rate, there are my bona fides. I plan to write a multiple post blog series that will incorporate the historical facts behind the Bell Witch legend, along with anecdotes regarding paranormal activity in and around Adams from people I interviewed as well as my own paranormal experiences on what was the Bell land. So--ready to get started?

There are three primary source materials for the Bell Witch legend. First is the 1934 book "The Bell Witch of Tennessee" written by the physician and direct descendant of the Bells, Charles Bailey Bell. This source is important because it contains the memories of multiple Bell family members who had experienced the haunting. Second, and probably the more expansive source is M.V. Ingram's 1894 book "Authenticated History of the Bell Witch (and Other Stories of the World's Greatest Unexplained Phenomenon)". These book also include "Our Family Troubles", a previously unpublished journal written by Richard Williams Bell, who was the next-to-the-youngest son, being around seven when the haunting began.(Richard Bell's account was written from memory some forty years after the haunting ended, and is the only known account produced by any of the Bell family who were present during the haunting.) In my opinion, the Ingram book is the better source. His understanding of the haunting was perfectly summed up on the cover page of his book. Ingram billed the story as being about "the mysterious talking goblin that terrorized the west end of Robertson County, Tennessee, tormenting John Bell to his death."

That right there, folks, is a succinct and horrifically accurate description of what this legend entails. The entity talked--in fact, carried on full conversations with whoever happened to be present--and possessed a distinct personality and agenda. And that agenda was simple: the Bell Witch existed to torture and eventually murder the Bell patriarch, John with a secondary mission of forcing his daughter, Betsy, to not marry Joshua Gardiner, a young man with whom she 'had an understanding'.

And that's exactly what happened.

That's the simple, unvarnished truth of the matter--and that's why I'm writing this blog series. There's absolutely no need to exaggerate what occurred on the Bell farm during those years when the entity was torturing the family. In the end, what's the most important thread of this story is very straightforward--the Bell family was haunted by an entity who said from the very first utterance of words that it was there to torture and kill John Bell, Senior. So let's chuck all the BS and relate the legend, simply, as it was originally recorded by witnesses. I'll throw in anecdotal tales from my research in Adams from the 1980's, 90's, and 2000's and my own paranormal experiences. But all the speculation, the hyperbole, the 'dramatic license' crap? We'll leave that to filmmakers.

There's no witchcraft in this story. The experience of the Bell family was a haunting, plain and simple. But this haunting was so spectacular, so incredible, so infamous that for several years people from all over the world traveled to the Bell farm to witness the antics of this entity. Being simple, God-fearing folk, they didn't call the bizarre things going on a 'haunting', and I doubt they even knew what a 'poltergeist' was. They identified it as a witch, and that led to some serious ramifications for one woman who lived in the neighborhood. You know how in every neighborhood there's one woman who's so mean that no one likes her? In 1817 Adams, that neighbor's name was Cate Batts, and the 'witch' claimed to originate from her. And so the entity came to be called--and answer to--the name Kate. Therefore, I'll refer to her the same way, and use the feminine pronouns when referring to her.

I do have one hypothesis to put out there, however. Looking back 200 years, we do have to consider that Kate was a manifestation of some demonic entity. There's no way to prove that theory, unfortunately. There has not been at any time. as far as I know, any formal investigation or acknowledgement of the Bell Witch by a religious organization or representative. I think the ongoing paranormal events in Adams today really are nothing more than a haunting, and that any diabolical influence left with the original entity's well-documented departure. I have no idea who or what is haunting the cave, farm, the old Bell school, or the structures on the original Bell lands now. But if I had to make a guess, I do think the original witch was either a demon or an entity working on behalf of one. The abilities demonstrated by Kate are unmatched to this day, even by the most famous hauntings in the world like Amityville or the Enfield poltergeist, and are in my personal opinion indicative of something much stronger than a regular run of the mill ghost.

If there is such a thing.

So let's begin.

In 1804, John Bell brought his wife, Lucy, and their growing family to settle in Robertson County, Tennessee on the banks of the appropriately named Red River. The Bell family were well-to-do back in North Carolina, and so John Bell was able to carve out an extensive property in what is now the tiny bump in the road named Adams. The Bells had a large family, with two daughters--Esther and Elizabeth--and a horde of sons--John Jr., Jesse, Drewry, Benjamin, Zadok, Richard Williams, and Joel, and became one of the leading families in the region. {They also owned several slaves--which is a historical fact and an important part of the story so I'm not going to gloss that aspect over, okay? Don't blame me--I'm just the writer.}

The two oldest sons served under Andrew Jackson in the War of 1812--a fact that will become important later. The older daughter, Esther, was married and in a home of her own when the haunting began. The younger daughter, Betsy, was thirteen--an age that proponents of the poltergeist theory cite as being significant, especially as she was specifically targeted as the secondary victim of the witch's anger. But what makes the poltergeist theory suspect, in my opinion, is the fact that the inciting incident for the haunting didn't happen in the house, in Betsy's range of potential influence. That first encounter happened literally in the middle of one of John Bell's huge cornfields, in the fall of 1817, followed by a series of other outdoor sightings experienced by various other members of the Bell extended family.

John Bell was walking through the field with his gun--as any smart pioneer would do back in the untamed wilderness that made up the majority of Tennessee--when he suddenly came face-to-face with a bizarre black animal. The creature--which he finally identified (dubiously) as some kind of weird feral dog--was just sitting in the middle of a row of corn, staring at him. The silent confrontation went on for a few moments, until John finally shot at the thing and it ran off.

A few days later, his young son Drewry--we'll call him Drew--ran across a huge black bird that he originally thought was a turkey. He ran into the house for a gun to kill it, and when he came back the 'turkey' was still sitting there, watching him. As he got closer, he realized that this bird wasn't a turkey. For one thing, it was too big and for another it was completely black. As he got close enough to raise his gun, the bird flew off.

Not too long after that, Betsy was walking in the woods with the younger children, when she ran into a pretty little girl dressed in green swinging high up in the branches of an old oak tree. The little girl wouldn't acknowledge their calls, and before long she disappeared. Soon after that, Betsy encountered a strange woman near their house. She spoke to her, and the woman disappeared.

One of the Bell slaves, Dean, was married. His wife, Kate, belonged to one of the Bell's neighbors, so every night Dean went to visit his wife. After the above events, a strange black dog began to show up in the middle of the road at the exact same place every single night. It would go the rest of the way with Dean to his wife's cabin and then disappear.

To this day, there are sightings of strange animals in and around the Adams area--something I experienced for myself during the most significant paranormal encounter I ever had there.

More on that in a later post.

In the winter of 1818, the manifestations moved into the Bell house. Don't fall into the trap of thinking this was some grand Southern plantation, by the way. I've been to the sinkhole where the remnants of the Bell homestead collapsed and we are not talking about some pioneer mansion here. In fact, it was used as a corn crib not too long after the haunting ended, which should give you a pretty good idea of its size. The house was big for its time, most likely, and because the Bells were prosperous may have possessed some finishing work their neighbors couldn't afford--like glass windows, perhaps siding over the original logs or plaster on the inside walls. But that was probably it. The upstairs was divided into at least two rooms--one for the boys and one for the girls that Betsy occupied alone since the marriage of her sister--and perhaps a third bedroom space, which would have been used by guests or if it was the Bells' turn to board the schoolteacher. John and Lucy Bell slept in a room downstairs. Within a few weeks from the commencement of the haunting, every single room in the house experienced some sort of phenomena.

The haunting progressed slowly into a kind of daily torture. At first, the Bells heard scratching and rustling-- Richard Williams Bell described it as a sound like "a rat gnawing on the bedpost". The boys would light a candle so they could kill the rat, but when the candle flared to life the scratching stopped and there was no rat--or gnaw marks--to be found. The scratching noise moved to the walls, and was quickly followed by knocking then beating on the outer walls of the house. The knocking moved to the front door, as if someone was banging loudly to wake the household. But when someone went to the door, there was no one there.  As soon as whoever'd investigated went back to bed, the noise would start right back up and frequently last through most of the night.

The Bells were keeping these disturbing events quiet. At first, they thought they were being tormented by some mischief-maker in the neighborhood, but it soon became clear that no one else in the community was having these types of troubles and that the disturbances were increasing in frequency and severity. The entity was now making sounds like a person about to speak--sounds like the smacking of someone's lips, gulps, choking sounds, or someone clearing their throat. Richard reported that now blankets were being pulled from the beds, that sounds like big stones rolling down the roof overhead, chains dragging on the floor or chairs being knocked over were now keeping the family awake night after night.

And then, finally, the entity began to physically abuse people in the family. Richard wrote that he 'felt my hair beginning to twist, and then a sudden jerk, which raised me. It felt like the top of my head had been taken off.' (Our Family Trouble, Richard Williams Bell) The entity began to systematically terrorize Betsy, who as the only girl at home had the dubious distinction of a room to herself, pulling her hair, slapping her face, and pinching her. Then John Bell Sr. started to display the first symptoms of the spirit's enmity and the strange physical ailment that would eventually lead to his final illness, His tongue would abruptly stiffen--which he described as feeling like a piece of wood was stuck sideways in his mouth--and while it was like that he couldn't eat or talk.

The worsening situation in the Bell home had reached the breaking point. For around a year, the family had kept the phenomena secret, but now the nightly torture had escalated to such a level that they no longer could. They needed answers, but had no idea where to go for them. But being a pioneer family with strong roots within their church, they had an idea who might be able to help.

So, John Bell told the family minister, James Johnson, what was going on, and invited him to spend the night at he Bell farm to witness these goings-on for himself. Rev. Johnson and his wife came, and that night before everyone went to bed he held a service for the Bell family. Through dinner and the rest of the evening, the entity had been quiet--which, if you think about it, is an even more cruelly refined torture than what they'd been experiencing. 1818 is not that far removed from the witch trials in the grand scheme of things. Can you imagine what the Bells were thinking? Here they've finally confessed to their minister what they've been suffering through, and when he gets there the damn ghost doesn't do a damn thing! Imagine them sitting through an early 19th century prayer service, desperately afraid of what's tormenting them but even more afraid that it'll leave them alone that night and not do anything. I mean seriously--which option would you pray for?

But the quiet didn't last any longer than it took for the family and their guests to snuff out the lights and go to bed. The spirit began its nightly rampage, going from room to room and finally landing into the guest bedroom where Rev. and Mrs. Johnson lay, listening to all the noises. The entity jerked the blankets from the bed, shocking the good Reverend, who sat straight up in bed and demanded that the spirit "reveal itself and tell for what purpose it was there". (Ingram, Authenticated History of the Bell Witch) Subsequently, Rev. Johnson, in talking the matter over with the Bell family, became convinced that whatever was lurking in the shadows was some kind of intelligent being. After all, he pointed out, the spirit certainly understood language and when it was spoken to all other activity ceased for a moment, as if it was listening. He thought that the entity could probably talk. He encouraged the Bells to let the news of what was happening to them spread, and bring other people into their home to witness and therefore document their experiences. The Bells took his advice, and they surely didn't have a clue of what would happen to them as a result. The next few years saw the Bell household packed to the rafters, as first their neighbors and then hordes of people--wholly uninvited, unannounced, and unknown--descended upon their farm to see this spectacle for themselves. The Bells housed and fed every single guest, and it must have cost them so much, especially back in those days when every morsel of food on their table was produced through months of back-breaking labor from the entire family. They were basically running a B&B for nonpaying guests.

But there was a bigger consequence of Rev. Johnson's first visit. His belief that the spirit could communicate with them led to what is probably the most fascinating aspect of the haunting. For within a short while, the witch learned how to talk. Not whispers in a sound range above or below the auditory range that is a human's ability to hear. Not EVPs or moving a planchette or knocking once for yes, twice for no. The single-most unique element of the Bell Witch haunting is that Kate learned how to talk, to shout, to sing. She carried on long conversations with guests, she repeated two religious sermons taking place at the same time but seven miles apart word for word, she sang songs to soothe Mrs. Bell when she was ill, and sang bawdy songs at John Bell's funeral.

Let's put that into perspective. There are a lot of paranormal research groups out there, and information is more readily available on the subject now than ever before. I've spent the last couple of days chasing leads, trying to find any haunting that parallels the Bell case solely on the basis of an entity being able to converse with any and all people it chose to, in front of witnesses. I can't find a single one. Oh, sure, there's lots of documented cases where a person hears a disembodied voice once or twice. But Kate, once she began to talk, never shut up. She talked off and on, all day, every day--through Betsy's breaking of her engagement, through John Sr's death in 1820, until she departed over three YEARS after her first words. And when she returned as promised seven years later, she was talking like she'd never left at all--leaving a series of remarkable prophecies in her conversations with John Jr in 1928 that were documented by his son.

And when Kate talked, everyone could hear her. Her conversation with General Jackson occurred in the middle of the forest with scores of witnesses--and they were miles from the Bell farm when it happened. She showed up at other people's houses, at church, during community events--in short, wherever or whenever she pleased. There was no equivocation in any witness testimony either. They all, universally, corroborate the fact that Kate had vocal interactions on a daily basis as if she were, in fact, another person sitting in the room. That fact alone elevates this haunting to a level that is unmatched historically.

But all the source materials agree on one thing. After Rev. Johnson declared that the entity was some kind of intelligent supernatural being, the Bells and visitors began to encourage it to speak. Richard Bell described the process that led finally to a conversant entity:

"...visitors  persisted in urging the Witch to talk and tell what was wanted, and finally it commenced whistling when spoken to, in a low broken sound, as if trying to speak in a whistling voice, and in this way it progressed, developing until the whistling sound was changed to a weak, faltering whisper, uttering indistinct words. The voice, however, gradually gained strength in articulating, and soon the utterances became distinct in a low whisper, so as to be understood in the absence of any other noises. I do not remember the first intelligent utterance, which, however, was of no significance, but the voice soon developed sufficient strength to be distinctly heard by everyone in the room. This new development added to the sensation already created. The news spread, and people came in larger numbers, and the great anxiety concerning the mystery prompted many questions in the effort to induce the Witch to disclose its own identity and purpose..." (Our Family Trouble, Bell)

 This description is, in my opinion, overlooked by paranormal investigators. Ever since Harry Houdini was busting fraudulent mediums who hid their creative husbands behind secret panels in the wall to whisper grieving widows out of their pensions, the paranormal field hasn't given much credence to the concept of spirits verbalizing. The Bell Witch case is unique, and to my mind it begs the question--if simple American pioneers in early 19th century Tennessee can encourage an entity to learn to talk, how hard would it be for paranormal researchers to do the same now, with the advantages technologically that we have--as well as not having to worry about the neighbors using you for firewood if you succeed?

So now, the Bell Witch was talking, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Seems like a good place to end this first installment. So think about it, really consider how this supernatural event began to take shape for John Bell and his family--and next time we'll dive into some ridiculously detailed information of how the Bell household rather quickly turned into the pioneer version of a three ring circus--complete with chaos, tragedy, and the heartbreak of young love denied.

 Gentle Readers--I've linked to source materials that I encourage you to check out. If you have any questions or comments to add, please do so and I'll be happy to answer them as best I can--or point you in the right direction if I don't know the answer. The Bell Witch haunting is a huge case history, coming up on its 200 year anniversary and as long as Adams remains haunted that file will just continue to grow. 

Friday, September 18, 2015

Songs of the South: Famous Finebaum Caller and Alabama Fan Phyllis from Mulga's Touching Story About Bama Football, Gene Stallings, and How They Saved Her Son

Sometimes, the element that changes a casual fan into a fanatic is not straightforward. That element can be intangible, sometimes even unidentifiable. But I've found though years of associating with fans who live, breathe, eat, and die with their football teams that there's always a story, a single moment in time that takes a fan from just simply enjoying of the sport to a psychological and emotional involvement with their team that elevates the entire experience for them. Today's post is actually the original Song of the South, the story that inspired me to write this series, because it involves ordinary people who found a way to make their indirect association through Alabama football into something really extraordinary. 

This Song of the South begins with a feisty little lady named Phyllis from Mulga, Alabama. If you follow the SEC or watch ESPN, you know who she is.

Phyllis is perhaps the most famous caller on the Paul Finebaum show which, as pretty much all of you know, is a daily devotion of mine. I set up my writing sessions so that I can have that four hour block off every weekday--mostly because there's no way I can write when Finebaum's going on in the background. Phyllis is a big part of why I am addicted to the show. She is a die hard Alabama fan, known mostly for her rants against self-satisfied sports media types like Colin Cowherd. Last year, she sneeringly referred to him as Colin Cow-turd, and apparently that really bothered him because he hasn't stopped talking about that yet. 

When a caller to a radio/SEC Network show makes it onto SportsCenter because Colin Cow-turd is butt-hurt that Phyllis from Mulga called him a mean name, you know that caller has some serious chops. 

To tell Phyllis's story--and I'll try to do it justice--we have to start at the beginning, and that's fifty-odd years ago. Phyllis's father was a huge Alabama fan, and brought up his five sons and daughter to be the same way. Her dad was in the military, and throughout all the moving the family remained devoted to the Crimson Tide. Phyllis's father died at the age of forty-four, when she was just seventeen. But until the end, he commanded his children to carry on his love for Bama--and they did. At his funeral, all the flowers were crimson and white, and all six kids continued to cheer for the Tide. So through the Bear Bryant years of the 1960's and 70's, Alabama football was an important facet of life. The family came together for games, and as the kids got married and had kids of their own, they passed that love on to the next generation. 

In 1978, Phyllis had a son, Jesse*. Unfortunately, there were complications with the birth, and when he was born he suffered from oxygen deprivation. Jesse was rushed to ICU so they could get him breathing on his own. The trauma of his birth caused mild brain damage, which for Jesse manifested in a neurological condition called familial tremors on his right side. Familial tremors are similar to Parkinson's disease and cause a patient to shake, uncontrollably and sometimes rapidly. The condition can worsen through emotional stress, or when the patient is trying to perform motor skills that require precision--like eating with silverware, for example. Such a condition is trying, but for a child it carries a special kind of hell. With Phyllis's son, that hell began when he started school. 

Kids can be nasty little critters, unfortunately, and Phyllis's son learned that when he started going to school. As the days went on, Jesse grew to hate school because the people in it were cruel to him. The other boys would bully him, sometimes right in front of teachers who did nothing to protect the child. For example, when Jesse was nine, he was sitting in his seat on the bus and the bullies grabbed him by the hair and dragged him back into the next seat. Then they ganged up on him, making fun of his shaking. 

The little boy had no friends, no hope, no outlet. And while Phyllis and her husband tried everything they could think of to help their son, Jesse sank into a serious depression. During that time, Gene Stallings was hired as the head coach at Alabama. Stallings was one of Bear Bryant's famous "Junction Boys" when he was the coach at Texas A&M, and had worked for the Bear as a defensive assistant coach for both the 1961 and 1964 national championship teams. So Stallings was familiar to Phyllis and her family, as he was to most of the Crimson Tide faithful.

One day, Jesse carried his lunch tray to the table where he sat, alone, every day. As he was opening his milk, his right hand began to tremble and he spilled his milk. So while he was trying to control the tremors so he could drink his milk, a table full of boys came over to make fun of him. One of the little monsters jumped up on the table and shouted, "Hey everybody! Come over here and watch Jesse make a milkshake!"

When Jesse got home, he was crying his eyes out. Phyllis sat him at the table trying to soothe her sobbing son. "What's wrong, Jesse?"

"Mom, I want to die."

Hearing a child say such a thing is the kind of thing that freezes a mother's heart. Phyllis instantly exclaimed,"Don't you say that! Don't you ever say a thing like that!"

"But I do, Mom. If life is going to be like this, I don't want to live it," the boy cried, and then he told his mother what had happened in the cafeteria. 

That was the final blow. Phyllis and her husband knew their son was in trouble. They took him to the doctor, who immediately sent the entire family for therapy. Jesse needed help, not only learning to cope with his disability but also the crushing depression that was the natural after-effect of the bullying he endured at school. Their therapist recommended that they enroll their son in a school where he could receive full-time therapy, and they did. Jesse could only come home on the weekends, and they tried to make those visits home special. For this family, that naturally involved Alabama football. Every Saturday, the family would allow the familiar rhythms and excitement of football to draw Jesse back into the family fold. It was now 1992, when Alabama won the national championship, and Jesse's love for Tide football grew into a serious hero worship of Coach Stallings--like many of the boys his age in Alabama did that fall.

Jesse remained away at school for a year. When he returned home, he was coping better with his disability physically. But when he returned to school, the bullying started again. Phyllis was forced to watch as her son's depression intensified, and desperately tried to think of something--anything--to help Jesse get better. 

So one day in March of 1993, she picked up the phone and called the athletic department at the University of Alabama. When she said she wanted to speak to Coach Stallings, they put her through to his secretary. Phyllis asked if it would be possible to send Jesse a signed picture of the coach. "My son needs a hero," she explained. 

The secretary replied, "I will take this to Coach Stallings personally. I'll be praying for y'all." Phyllis hung up the phone and that was that. She had no way of knowing when--or if--the coach would grant her request. 

Three days later, a poster tube arrived in the mail. The autographed poster was of Coach Stallings standing in the middle of the football field. Jesse was delighted with the poster. The autograph read: Jesse, thank you for being my friend--Gene Stallings. 

A lot of stories like Phyllis's would end here. But not hers. This is where the story grows, entwining this woman desperate to help her troubled son with the Alabama head football coach--and, as any SEC fan knows, the head football coach of the Crimson Tide is actually the most powerful man in the state as long as he holds that job. Phyllis and Jesse were blessed, really, that Gene Stallings was that man. For Stallings, father of a son with Down's Syndrome, understood what mother and son were going through. And for him, a simple poster just wasn't enough. 

A few days later, the coach's secretary called Phyllis back. Stallings wanted to meet Jesse. So Phyllis, along with her excited son, older daughter, and two of her grandchildren, drove from Mulga, a little town outside Birmingham, to the University of Alabama football office in Tuscaloosa. They waited in the office with the secretary. "All of a sudden, the door opened and the biggest man I've ever seen in my life was standing there. He was so tall I thought he'd hit his head on the top of the door. My mouth fell open and so did Jesse's."

Before anyone could say a word, Jesse bolted across the room and hugged Coach Stallings around the legs. He looked up at this tall, kind-looking man and blurted, "Coach, do you really want to be my friend?"

Coach Stallings looked down at the boy and said gently, "What are you talking about, Jesse? I already am your friend."

Stallings sat down with the entire family, "He sat there and talked about football and talked to Jesse like he was grown up," Phyllis told me. "I could see right then a relationship was born. We were there for over an hour. He'd brought Johnny, his son with Down's Syndrome, to meet all of us and he was the most precious person I’ve ever met. After we went home, I saw the lights go off in Jesse’s eyes." 

"Mama, I want to be the kind of man Coach is. He's a good man," Jesse said. 

"Yes, son, he is. But you're special too."


"Because you are who you are, I got to meet my hero today too," Phyllis told her son. "Because he wanted to meet you."

That spring day in 1993 was the beginning of a relationship between the big, kindhearted football coach and Jesse. "In my closet, there's a big gold envelope," Phyllis said. "In that envelope are fifty-seven letters that Coach Stallings sent to Jesse. They're not lengthy. Sometimes it was simple, like  Jesse, I was just thinking of you today. You keep your chin up and make today a good day! And Jesse would write him back, and Coach would answer every letter."

When Jesse went back to school, he told some of his tormentors that he'd met Coach Stallings, but none of them believed him. So in one of his letters, he asked the coach what he should do about the bullying. Stallings responded by sending another package. One of the pictures they'd taken the day Jesse and Coach Stallings met was blown up poster-size, and with it Stallings had written: Jesse,  I want you to take this to school and show them that they are wrong. I am your friend and this proves it. 

He also sent him a copy of the newspaper article after Alabama had won the national championship. There were seven pictures in the paper--pictures of the entire football team. And every player on that team had autographed the paper for Jesse.  Here’s something to take to school!  Stallings wrote. 

Jesse took the poster and newspaper to school, and all of a sudden his entire life changed. Now the other kids wanted to know him because--wonder of wonders!--Jesse knew the head football coach at the University of Alabama! They were friends! 

And from that point on, they left him alone.

"Because of Coach, Jesse got through to those kids at school that were bullying him. They turned around on a dime. They never bullied him again," Phyllis said, and I could hear the smile in her voice through the phone. "Jesse would tell them, 'Coach don’t care if I shake.' And the kids said, 'We’re sorry. We shouldn’t have done that.'

"Even one of the teachers who'd stood by and let those boys bully my son said, 'I saw those posters. I saw that newspaper. Chris is a mighty special child for Coach Stallings to do this.'

"'He’s not just special, he’s important,' I told her."

And once the story is put into its proper historical perspective, Stallings's actions become even more amazing.

"He had the defending national championship football team about to start spring ball, but he found the time to take Jesse in his arms," Phyllis said, her voice breaking. "Coach Stallings gave my son self-esteem...self-worth. Jesse followed his example. Coach told him not to get into drinking, not to do drugs. 'You can become somebody,' he told him. 'I'm depending on you to be a good son, like you've always been.' Now Jesse's a happy young men. I owe all that to Coach Stallings. He wasn't just a coach. He was a lifesaver. My husband and I were lost; brokenhearted. We didn't know what to do. Coach stepped in and gave my son a hero when he needed one the most."

Not every child with difficulties like the ones Jesse faced has a happy ending. Coach Stallings's own son, John Mark, died of a congenital heart defect in 2008. The coach chronicled his relationship with Johnny in a book he co-wrote with Sally Cook entitled Another Season: A Coach's Story of Raising An Exceptional Son. (Which is, by the way, an amazing read. I highly recommend it.) Every time Phyllis took Jesse down to Tuscaloosa, Coach Stallings would bring Johnny to meet them. "Coach‘s son was important to us. When you got hugged by Johnny, you got hugged. When he walked into a room, it all just got mellow. I was so proud that Coach Stallings got him to come each time we were there. That was one of the most blessed things—that we got to meet him too.

"When Johnny died it just broke our hearts. I couldn’t even stand the thought of how Coach Stallings and his wife felt. I couldn’t fathom it. When I talked to Coach again I broke down telling him I was so sorry. He said, 'The Lord has plans for all of us. Johnny wasn’t supposed to live til ten, but he showed them. He had a good life.' But I could tell his heart was torn into pieces." 

One common theme I've found while listening to these Saturday Songs is how these teams, these schools and the people who love them find ways to do extraordinary things. Gene Stallings is an honored and highly respected man who has done great things throughout his life. On the University of Alabama campus is The Stallings Center, which is the home of the RISE school and its program designed to help children with disabilities from birth to age 5. The Stallings Center, established in 1994, now serves as a model for similar programs across the nation--partially funded by the golf tournament Coach Stallings hosts annually. And the playground at the center is named after his son.

But that's a big thing, something that in and of itself demonstrates palpably the positive influence Gene Stallings has. What makes Phyllis's story so poignant, so important, is the fact that while a bundle of fifty-odd letters, a few meetings, and some signed pictures might not seem like a big thing to the rest of us, for Jesse it was a monumental thing--an important thing. For Jesse, meeting Gene Stallings opened the door for a miracle--and that's an impact that cannot be quantified or dismissed. That miracle kept Jesse from becoming a statistic, it taught him how to find and make friends, and showed him that you can stand up to bullies and walk away the better man. That miracle has resulted in the continuing relationship between Stallings and Phyllis's family even today. "I talked to Coach Thursday before last. First thing he said was, 'How’s Jesse? You tell him I think of him all the time.' When I told Jesse, it just made his day. How can you be a better man than that?" 

When people hear Phyllis explode on the Paul Finebaum Show, they probably don't give too much thought about why she loves the Alabama Crimson Tide as much as she does. She's not the kind of fan who can dissect football down to the X's and O's, or who can debate whether a dual option quarterback is better or worse than a traditional pocket passer. In fact, I've intervened online when some truly ignorant cretin is rolling out some horrible comment about Phyllis on Twitter. (Yes, I know...don't feed the trolls. I just can't stop myself...) Phyllis is a bigger person than I am. She doesn't care what anyone says about her. All she cares about is that Bama wins, and the bigger the better. And woe betide--yes, the pun is intentional--the poor schmuck (famous or not) who disses her football team or its coach. In fact, her long-running on-air relationship with Paul Finebaum began when he was making Finebaum-esque comments about Stallings on his show, and she started calling to ''straighten him out."

"I’ve always been fiery for the Tide," Phyllis said. "A lot of people think it’s me cheering for the team. But it’s about what the University of Alabama gave to me, without even knowing that they did. Coach Stallings and Alabama football are what caused all that to happen. When Coach helped Jesse, he helped me. When he helped my son, my spirits lifted and I was a much better person for it."

So even though I bleed Tennessee orange and white, I have to admit--Phyllis's story has given me a small warm fuzzy spot for Alabama. But only for 51 weeks a year, and never during the seven days that include the third (or fourth) Saturday in October when we annually play. 

But for Coach Gene Stallings, who took the time to help a young boy find his way out of a dark labyrinth of torture and teach him how to grow up into a happy, well-adjusted young man who is the absolute pride of his mother's life...well, that warm fuzzy is now huge, and limitless. Because of the love Gene Stallings bore for his own son with special needs, he was uniquely qualified to share that love with another youngster who desperately needed a hero. Stallings became that hero not only for his own son, but for Phyllis's son and for Phyllis as well. 

Phyllis is right. How could anyone be a better man than that? Perhaps--just perhaps, Gene Stallings is a hero for all of us.

Roll Tide. 

*The name of Phyllis's son has been changed at her request. So because  I was so moved by his story, I substituted the name of my year-old grandson, who also had a rough start to life. 

More Saturday Songs of the South are coming--the tales of how regular college football fans fell in love with their schools. You can check out my own Song of the South here. If you have a Song of the South you want to share, email me at kaantira(at) with your own story, and I may tell yours in a future post.

For more information about Coach Gene Stallings, you can check out his official website.

To make an online donation to The Stallings Center RISE program, head over to their site. And if you can, please donate. Let's pay it forward in the name of this amazing man and his extraordinary capacity for love. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Bin Laden's Real 9-11 Purpose Being Fulfilled Today

Hard to believe isn't it?

Fourteen years ago this morning, my then-fiance, now-husband woke me up with, ''Celina, you need to get up. Something bad's happening." I was still working in restaurants at the time and had closed the night before, which meant I didn't get home from post-work bar stool occupation until around 3 AM. Normally, nothing would have dragged me out of bed before noon.

But that day was different. That day, I went into the living room of our itty bitty house in time to watch the first World Trade Center tower fall. 

Every generation has a moment of history they remember always with absolute clarity. I'm not talking about personal history, but national or cultural or global. My mother remembered watching the Nazis roll into Paris when she was four, for example, and could describe everything she experienced during the course of that day from the fear to her father's anger to the smells of food coming from the kitchen of the restaurant he owned to the unnatural, sullen silence of the Parisians who watched, glowering, at the goosestepping army. My generation has a lot of those moments both good and bad--Watergate, the Miracle on Ice, the Challenger explosion, the Reagan assassination attempt, Live Aid--I could go on probably for a long time about all of these events. But only one do I envision over and over again.  Only one intrudes on my dreams at night. Only one is seared on the backs of my eyelids so that I relive it every year on the same day. 9-11. The 2001 part is unnecessary. It's just 9-11, the darkest day in modern American history.  Our Pearl Harbor. And even as the name "Pearl Harbor" incites a low, dark, growling kind of nationalist pride tempered with defiance and honed by anger, so too does 9-11. 

Both will do so for a long time. But patriotic anger has the natural habit of converting into something else, building slowly and silently within our nation's culture, and I fear that's what is happening now in the US.

One of the advantages of living in America is that no one is stupid enough to attack us overtly. They don't send ships to try to blockade our coastlines--mostly because there's not a navy in the world that could possibly hope to succeed at doing so. Planes need bases to take off, land, and refuel from, and we'd see anyone coming a long time before they got into our waters these days. But terrorists with box cutters, seeking not money or concessions but death and the ability to deal death to thousands of others--well, we can't always see those guys coming. Despite our technological and financial superiority, we'll never be able to either. As the Boston Marathon bombing proved, all the espionage innovations imaginable aren't going to detect a pair of men with a grudge and a homemade bomb filled with screws and sharp metal. That's the new reality of our world, a reality that hadn't really been considered before 9-11-2001. 

How long will this reality remain in place? The wars in the Middle East continue unabated, as they have since Israel became a state in 1948. Refugees from Middle Eastern countries are trying desperately to emigrate to another country--any other country--and, much like what happened after the concentration camps were liberated in Europe after Germany's fall, the European nations aren't all that interested in helping out. The Americans aren't interested in helping out either. According to the New York Times, the US announced a few hours ago that we would increase our intake of Syrian refugees "at least" to10,000 over the next year. The height of irony is that Germany has opened its doors where the US would not. Germany's numbers? They will accept half a million refugees a year. Other European countries--

France--24,000 over two years
Great Britain--20,000 over five years
Norway--8,000 by 2017
Finland 1,050 this year 

And what makes this truly tragic is the undeniable and ugly edge of racial profiling that is being wielded here, as evidenced by this same New York Times article: 

The announcement brought a variety of reactions that underscored how the refugee crisis has become another polarized political question. Aid groups called the administration’s action a token one given the size of the American economy and population, while a number of Republicans warned that Mr. Obama was allowing in potential terrorists. “Our enemy now is Islamic terrorism, and these people are coming from a country filled with Islamic terrorists,” said Representative Peter T. King, Republican of New York. “We don’t want another Boston Marathon bombing situation.”

Flabbergasted yet? This, our new reality, is the direct result of that September morning fourteen years ago. I went to sleep on September 10, 2001 still thinking that American claims to sanctuary and political asylum were sacrosanct. Unchangeable, because that concept was the foundation of American autonomy. 9-11 changed all that. When those planes slammed into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, when American passengers took their fate into their own hands and overpowered the terrorists on their plane before disintegrating upon contact with a Pennsylvanian field, the arms of America closed. No longer were we interested in offering refuge to the "wretched refuse" of any "teeming shore". Only non-Middle Eastern shores would provide immigrants deemed to be safe for inclusion in the US.

Not real fond of immigrants south of the border either. Makes me wonder--there's been a lot of talk in the past year about the Black Lives Matter movement. President Obama has referenced it himself. But I just have to assume that brown lives do not matter, just as Jewish lives didn't matter before WWII--and Holocaust survivors' lives didn't matter all that much post-war either. Didn't know that, did you? Thousands of lives could have been saved from the death camps if the US or UK, for example, had allowed Jews to immigrate from Germany and Austria in 1938-39. After the fall of Nazi Germany, British ships turned away vessels with hundreds, thousands of Jews from the Middle East for several years. Once the UN granted Israel statehood, the UK pulled every single man, machine, and ship out and left Israel to fend for itself. They stood absolutely alone. Even the US under Truman embargoed the sale of arms and ammunition to any country in the Middle East. In order for Israel to survive, it would have to do so without the help of any other country. 

So we've got a history of doing things like this before. The Statue of Liberty, which stands so proudly in New York Harbor, is now a fallacy, a broken, forgotten icon of an ideology that was destroyed in a wave of paranoia and prejudice only thinly veiled by political double speak. Emma Lazarus's poem, once so inspiring to so many, might as well be the ingredients list on a box of cereal anymore. 

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door.        

The golden door was slammed shut fourteen years ago today. While I understood the necessity of doing so back then, I don't see why such isolationism should still exist today. And it wouldn't, if it wasn't for the bean-headed ignorance of politicians like NY Rep. King, continuing to stir it up. 
Because see--here's the thing: Bin Laden's goons didn't just destroy buildings or New York City. The planes weren't his victory over us. This racial profiling, these paranoid ideologies and delusions of danger are his real victory. He conquered us, not with violence but with fear that makes our nation reject the very principles upon which it was built. 

His victory is now, today, in our living rooms and schools and shopping centers and government. HE created the fear, and upon that foundation of terrorism we allowed our government to construct this thought process that when we let people into the country, we are bringing in potential terrorists instead of citizens. 

It doesn't seem like fourteen years ago this morning, the Twin Towers fell. If only we'd known then what was being dragged down with them, would our course have changed? Or would we still find ourselves here, trying to publicly justify why we should keep families fleeing from a never-ending war outside our borders?

I'm not even sure if I want to know the answer to that question. 

So I'll watch the memorial services, as I always do. The reading of the names, the bells chiming, the whole and sickening replay of that day's events unfurling seamlessly in my mind's eye. I will say a prayer for those victims, as I always do. And I'll wonder how long the Statue of Liberty will remain, gleaming upon her pedestal, before hypocrisy tears her down. 

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Cupcakes Belong In The Bakery, Not The Power 5

So last weekend college football started, which made my life instantly pick up speed. My University of Tennessee Volunteers started off well, if a trifle erratically, with a 59-30 drubbing of Bowling Green State University. Don't be fooled, though--BGSU has a high octane offense with players that will be playing on Sundays in a year or two. They hung around for most of three quarters and a long weather delay, but when Butch Jones decided to put the game on lockdown, it was locked down. So the Vols got a win against a quality opponent, and a wake-up call on the defensive side of the ball before heading back to Knoxville for a huge home opener against Oklahoma. 

UT fans were lucky. We were treated to a real football game, instead of the dreary cupcake smashing that usually introduces us to a new season of the sport we love.  We also got to witness one of the most absolutely ridiculous moments in NCAA history.

Mike Minns...dude, you're my hero.

But I have bigger fish to fry, so get to the sideline and put your darn shoe back on. And take an acting class. No one believed that you were hurt.

No one.

Back on track--

Major FBS schools schedule absolutely outmatched squads to start their seasons off with a bang. Just a quick check of last week's scores will illustrate my point. Georgia Tech beat Alcorn State 69-6. Georgia stomped Louisiana-Monroe 51-14, while Ole Miss annihilated UT-Martin 76-3. None of the fans who went to or watched these games enjoyed the actual thrill that is a football game. And no, not even my Vols are blameless here, with the Mean Green of North Texas  or the Western Carolina Catamounts on the schedule.

And what in the name of bleeding hogs is a catamount anyway? If it's a big wild feline like a cougar, why not call themselves cougars instead? Catamount just doesn't sound intimidating at all. In fact, catamount makes me think catamite and that's just wrong on so many levels.

Sorry. Let me get back on track.

Big school fans got to tailgate, yell a lot, and witness the tiny FCS lambs getting led into the slaughter. Small school fans didn't even have the pre-game delusion that their teams could win. Beyond getting to see their team on television--and the athletic department cash in big checks as their payout for willingly jumping up on the altar of  "automatic wins" against schools with better athletes, coaches, facilities, alumni base, and everything else. 

So what do these cupcake matches do? Seriously--what good is there in having a Miami or an Oklahoma beat up on a school whose team is half their size? 

Proponents will tell you that it's great for the smaller schools. They get that big payout, for one thing. UT-Martin, for example, took home $1.2 million for their participation as the Rebels' crash test dummies. The players from those small schools get to be on TV, and if they make a great play--and survive it--their name might just pop up on ESPN. 

The bigger schools, on the other hand, get a W to kick off their season's record. They must really crave those W's; they're paying millions of dollars for each one. As each team is playing 8-9 conference games out of 12 games total on the season, that means they're forking out a minimum of $3 million bucks every year to smaller universities. 

Don't get me wrong. Not every FCS opponent is an automatic win. Remember this?

I still love that App State win over Michigan. Ranks as one of my top ten games of all time and one of only two that doesn't involve the Vols. What's the other? As if you have to ask--

A few big schools like Washington State found out this past weekend that it can happen to them as well.

But for the most part? Big time power 5 conference schools have no business scheduling a FCS opponent. The games aren't enjoyable, the risk is greater than any possible reward, and an automatic W doesn't really do the team any favors. They gain more positive benefit from scrimmaging against themselves--first string O against first string D and so forth. And let's not forget, a FCS school might not be able to beat their SEC or PAC 12 opponent, but they sure as heck can ruin their season regardless.


Injuries can happen anytime, anywhere. Regardless of who a team is playing, football is still a contact sport. Even when you're running up the score on an inferior opponent. Several FBS powerhouses lost key players to season or career-ending injuries while beating up a FCS school. Makes you wonder if the easy win was really worth it if you're, say, Pitt for example, whose running back James Conner ran for over 1700 yards last season. Against Youngstown State, Conner sustained a torn MCL and is going to lose the entire 2015 season.  In their win over Rhode Island, Syracuse lost their star quarterback Terrel Hunt for the season. But the scariest injury by far was to Clemson wide receiver Mike Williams.

Williams collided with the goalpost while scoring against I-AA foe Wofford and fractured his neck. Fortunately, he didn't sustain a spinal cord injury and should recover fully. But let's put this into perspective.  The touchdown that could easily  have ended Williams' career or life was part of a 49-10 victory over a Wofford team that has not defeated Clemson since 1933. Mike Williams was ranked as one of the nation's top ten receivers pre-season. And this injury happened early, in the first quarter, when Clemson's first string offense was stomping all over the Wofford defense.                                                
A defense Clemson's third string, walk-ons, and redshirted freshman could have defeated fairly handily.

Every time a guy straps on a helmet and goes out to play football, there's a risk. College players know the risks. They train extensively to build up muscle groups and prevent serious harm--which may have actually saved Williams from a worse fate last Saturday. But you have to ask yourself--what in the hell was he doing out there in the first place? Why did this guy and all the others who got injured last weekend lay it all on the line for a game that, in the end, matters absolutely nothing in the end? Is the win really THAT important?

Saturday during the pre-game shows, I expressed some of my opinions on this via Twitter, and a Missouri fan jumped all over me when I said that as a fan, I just do not enjoy watching any big school annihilate a smaller one. I don't care what anyone says, if your team is winning 76-3 there's really no urgent need to watch. He thought I was for thinking that cupcake games serve no purpose.  "Keep on pounding them! Pile up the points! The bigger the score the better the team!" And when I brought up injuries to star players as a reason for these kinds of games, he went off. Apparently he was tired of listening to people whine about losing starters to injury. Football isn't for the weak, it's a man's game etc etc etc.

Wonder if he feels a little differently now?

On Saturday, Mizzou lost both their starting center, Evan Boehm, and their starting running back, Russell Hansborough, to right ankle sprains playing against Southeastern Missouri in the Tigers' first offensive series. Both will be back this season, but not likely for a few weeks--and once those two players were injured Mizzou's offense struggled to move the ball on the ground--which led to quarterback Maty Mauk proving that the inconsistency he displayed last season is still a huge problem as the Tigers limped to an ugly 34-3 victory. Mizzou is just lucky that SEMO couldn't score against--

No. That's not right. There was no luck involved. Mizzou paid for a 1-0 start. They purchased that automatic win. Unfortunately, though, it cost more than however much money they shelled out to entice SEMO to take the L and go home richer. It cost them a couple of players too. If they're lucky, Boehm and Hansborough are back before Mizzou's SEC schedule kicks off with UK on September 26, then hits South Carolina, Florida, and Ole Miss--four games during which I can promise you that the starting center and star running back are absolutely essential for the Tigers to win.      

In the end, these power 5 schools and their athletic directors are going to have to ask themselves if the price they paid was too much for those guaranteed wins.

And hope that the price doesn't become much higher for some player, his family, and team. Mike Williams was lucky. He's a player on a football team with top notch training and facilities, and receives the kind of care that helps to protect him from devastating injury on the field. But someday, in a power five vs. I-AA game, a player without t hose advantages, a player from the smaller school, a player who's playing for love of the game and for getting an education as opposed to getting drafted into the NFL may not be as lucky as Mike Williams.

I can guarantee you that when that day comes--and it will--the price will be way too high.