LAST CALL

January 9, 2017

So we left Tupelo and ended up here

(Chapter 1)

By DICK GENTRY

I saw Tupelo’s most famous homeboy twice before we left. Elvis. I was standing on the courtyard between the junior high and the high school and there he was sitting on a table beyond a window in the basement of the junior high. A couple of guys were watching him strum a guitar.

We had talent shows at school then. Performances ranged from tap dancing and piano playing to singing. Mostly girls. But Elvis sang “Old Shep” about a dog and accompanied himself on his guitar. The only reason I can remember was because my neighborhood buddy Fred White sang it repeatedly for a few days. “…When I was a boy and Old Shep was a dog…” I didn’t see Elvis again except in movies.

When I started typing all this down a Tupelo friend who was his classmate told me Elvis used to sing and play for Mrs. Camp’s eighth-grade class during breaks. Elvis soon moved to Memphis with his mom and dad and became famous. His childhood home is now a mecca for fans on Elvis Presley Drive.

When he was growing up, his birthplace was known as East Tupelo. That’s before big Tupelo gobbled it up. Before anyone heard of him, his house was on Old Saltillo Road. With very little traffic then, it rambled through the countryside and eventually hooked up with U.S. 45 north near Saltillo, and not far from tiny Guntown, Mississippi—where an old family cemetery there, according to some of my cousins, contains the remains of John Wilkes Booth.

The road is highly developed today, but at the time I returned from the Marines in 1959. my late Uncle Leon and I could park out there on the road and guzzle bootleg beer practically undisturbed until dawn. We were lost men at the time. Spiritually.

When my Tupelo friends Jack Bowles, Billy Crabb and I graduated from Marine boot camp at Parris Island in late summer 1955, four years earlier, our first stop while waiting for the Greyhound was a bar in Beaufort, S.C. Jack walked over to the juke box and then came back with a startling announcement: “Elvis Presley has a record on this thing!”

My first assignment in the Marine Corps was Sea School in Portsmouth, Virginia. At the time the cruisers, battleships and aircraft carriers had detachments of Marines aboard. I was assigned to the USS Randolph, a carrier. We provided security for the ships while in port, manned the anti-aircraft guns, ran the brig, guarded the nuclear weapons and dressed up in our dress-blue uniforms as honor guards to welcome dignitaries. I did this for 11 months and a miracle occurred which changed my life.

This is embarrassing to admit now, but I flunked typing class twice in high school.

The First Sergeant, a grouchy old bastard hanging on for his retirement, asked if anyone knew how to type? The regular administrative assistant, a buck sergeant, was being transferred. I held up my hand. I managed 11 words per minute. I won. My life changed forever. No more honor guards, no more guard duty deep in the bowels of the ship, no more midnight shifts. I managed the guard roster, the days off, the liberty roster. When one of the detachment members wanted a day off, a shift change, or a special favor, he was told: “Ask Gentry.”

The first talent required for success as a lowly grunt is brown-nosing and kiss-assing skills. I won’t explain what that means because to the novice, it sounds disgusting. But, used in the appropriate manner it can be genius. And I was. The detachment brass. Captain Heman J. Redfield, commanding officer, and First Lieutenant Franklin A. Hart Jr.. executive officer, were both offspring of Flag Officers—that means admirals or generals. They were career officers and we were frightened.

The main ingredient in the Corps is duty. If your officers believe you are squared-away, loyal and competent—even when you are conning them—then there is reasonable chance of success. Captain Redfield promoted me to corporal and I actually began to take my job seriously. After my two-year tour on the carrier, I was assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station at Cherry Point, N.C. Most members of the detachment went to Camp Lejeune as ground pounders in the infantry.

On my arrival at Cherry Point, I reported to the administration building and was told to see the administrative chief. Somewhat bewildered, I walked in and learned the sergeant in charge was from Mississippi. Praise God.

“We’ve been waiting on you, Gentry!” he said. “That’s your desk right over there!” The enlisted men walked over and introduced themselves. My job was to assign every enlisted man below staff sergeant to a unit in the Second Marine Air Wing. And I did. And I was soon promoted meritoriously to Sergeant.

And all of this happened because I was able to type 11 words a minute back on the USS Randolph. Headquarters Marine Corps in Washington had a billet to fill in Cherry Point for a clerk-typist in G-1 (administrative) and my MOS (job description in the Marines) had been changed on the USS Randolph by Captain Redfield. It was a crap game and I won.

I never saw Captain Redfield again. He was really something. He was wounded in Korea and lying on a stretcher behind the lines when an artillery shell landed nearby and ended his manhood forever. I never knew this at the time. His marriage failed, but he kept on with his career, ending up as a covert operations expert with the CIA, as a Marine Colonel. He married again, to a woman CIA operative. I would guess platonic, but I have no idea. The North Koreans cost him his manhood, but he was one hell of a man.

After many years, I was reunited with several of my former Randolph buddies, mainly Tom Scott, a retired Georgia State Trooper, and teacher Gene Harvey of Seattle. We have had numerous reunions. I still maintain a close friendship with Lt. Hart, who performed valiantly in Vietnam and retired a decorated Colonel. I have been a guest at his Saint Simons Island home numerous times over the years.

Back on the carrier, one of my friends, Gene Cook of Beckley, Virginia, could sing and play the guitar. I bought an old one, and Gene and I would often go sit in the empty supply room where I learned to cord my guitar and sing a little. It turned out to be something akin to my 11-point typing score, because it changed my life again in ways I would never have imagined.

 

 

Bill Minor’s column

March 3, 2014

BILL MINOR: Statue incident, new book on riot coincide   

      Posted on February 27, 2014 by in Opinion     

      

    

BILL MINOR

BILL MINOR

James Meredith, the state’s bewildering civil rights icon, again became national news as the focus of racial conflict centered at the University of Mississippi. And this time, he didn’t even set foot on the campus.

By coincidence, an oddball book just arrived dredging up events of Meredith’s 1962 riotous entry to the university. The author, Dick Gentry, said he was an eyewitness and contends that both news media and federal and state accounts of the “Battle of Oxford” got the story muddled.

The major difference in the Meredith-Ole Miss story this time is that Mississippi authorities are arrayed behind him and not against him. Many today agonize to recall that the state’s governor back then literally precipitated a mini-Civil War in a desperate attempt to bar one black student from enrolling in the all-white university.

A bronze statue of Meredith now stands near the Lyceum, the university white-pillared landmark which became the epicenter of the 1962 riot. When several youthful students on an ill-advised lark one night draped a noose around the statue’s neck and draped it with a Confederate emblem, they triggered a new round of racist-tinted news involving the school which for four decades has sought to shed an image as one of the last bastions of the old Confederacy.

OK, the book: Gentry writes he was a student on campus the explosive night of Sept. 30-Oct. 1, and viewed proceedings with an ex-Marine buddy, both fortified with a six-pack of beer. Gentry is not your ordinary rah-rah college student. From Tupelo, he was just back from a four-year hitch in the Marines before enrolling in journalism at the 1962 summer session, finding himself as interim editor of the Daily Mississippian.

In his self-published book, “Under Fire at Ole Miss,” Gentry claims the actual number of rioters on the campus when federal marshals at 8 p.m. fired tear gas was much smaller than many news accounts indicate. However, Gentry agrees with one key point in most reports: the riot grew worse when 200 state highway patrolmen were unaccountably pulled off campus entry points and outsiders streamed into the grove. In all the years since, the consensus of those of us reporters who have sought to nail down who gave the withdrawal order is that rather than Gov. Ross Barnett himself (he was not there), the order came from a four-man delegation of high-ranking legislators, led by Sen. George Yarbrough of Red Banks, that the governor had sent to represent him. All the lawmakers are deceased.

Gentry at least did some digging, going to visit Barnett’s son, Ross Jr., a Jackson attorney. The younger Barnett told him the former governor had never discussed the Ole Miss events with him before he died.

The redoubtable James Meredith, now 80, gave Gentry an interview at his home in north Jackson. The gem Gentry took away from his visit with Meredith was “…only two people there knew it was all a game. Me and Ross Barnett.”

That one stacks up pretty well with what Meredith told reporter Alan Blinder who wrote the New York Times’ lengthy piece about the defiling of his statue on the Ole Miss campus. Said Meredith: “It (the statue) is a false idol and it’s an insult to me.” He added that the statue should be moved off the university’s campus.

And you wonder why he never has been elevated by the black community as a hero comparable to Medgar Evers.

Syndicated columnist Bill Minor has covered Mississippi politics since 1947. Contact him through Ed Inman at edinman@earthlink.net.

Remembering the days of vine and roses in Ole Mississippi

March 3, 2014

Dick Gentry
When I was only 7 years old living in Tupelo, my late, great Uncle Clyde Smith, a WWII Navy vet and Merchant Marine his adult working life, brought home an old goat one day. I was ecstatic. Uncle Clyde hooked him to a small goat cart, and I was off. But he had a mean streak, and he butted me. So he was sent away to old goat heaven.
Now after almost 70 years I have been butted again by another old goat.
Bill Minor, 92, is one of Mississippi’s most respected and honored journalists. He still writes a syndicated column published in many newspapers in the Deep South. Unfortunately, his column appeared in both the Jackson Clarion Ledger and the Tupelo Daily Journal last week. Here are the parts of his column with which I took offense.
I can take criticism. I wrote a column myself for most of the 40 years I worked as an active newspaper writer and reporter. It’s always open season on columnists.
Here’s what darlin’ Bill wrote that got my goat:
“…By coincidence, an ‘oddball’ book just arrived dredging up events of Meredith’s 1962 riotous entry to the university. The author, Dick Gentry, said he was an eye witness and contends that both news media and federal accounts of the ‘Battle of Oxford’ got the story muddled.”
No problem with that, although I documented everything I said except for any personal comment. Rage on.
“The major difference in the Meredith—Ole Miss story this time is that Mississippi authorities are arrayed behind him and not against him (Meredith),” says Mr. Bill.
I don’t think I said that, but that is his interpretation. Okay.
“OK, the book: Gentry writes he was a student on campus the explosive night of Sept. 30-Oct. 1, and viewed proceedings with an ex-Marine buddy, both fortified with a six-pack of beer. Gentry is not your ordinary rah-rah college student. From Tupelo, he was just back from a four-year hitch in the Marines before enrolling in journalism at the 1962 summer session, finding himself as interim editor of the Daily Mississippian.”
One thing about that remark: Yes, I was a relatively new student. The journalism department chooses the summer editor (at least they did in the 1960s) and I was chosen because of my feature writing ability and my prolific submission of articles to the newspaper.
Unfortunately, it was a recurring nightmare for me because all of the journalism classes were cancelled that summer and I was alone trying to produce a daily newspaper. I survived. Soon, a new editor and staff returned. Had the riot occurred a month or so earlier, well, who knows?
The ex-Marine buddy he mentions was my high school friend and fellow Marine, the late Jack Bowles. He was the younger brother of my other late dear friend born in Tupelo, State Senator Billy Bowles, who was on campus that night as a Mississippi National Guard Private.
It was during our foolish attempt to approach Billy behind the Lyceum that we were shot at by an unknown sniper. I mentioned this in class and it was passed on to Hoover’s boys. They paid me a visit.
First question they asked a shaken Dick Gentry was, “We understand you saw someone with a .22 rifle.” At the time, I believed it was a higher caliber.
My wife Martha was present at the interview. When the two FBI agents left she said, “I was afraid they would search our house.” The baton that Jack took away from a Marshal was hidden under our bed. Jack was one tough SOB, and, like me, never raised a hand against anyone that night-except to defend himself that once.
Bill Minor is not a Meredith fan. He is familiar with Meredith’s recent comments to a godly New York Times writer, Alan Blinder: “The statue is a false idol and it’s an insult to me.” Minor then comments: “And you wonder why he never has been elevated by the black community as a hero comparable to Medgar Evers.”
Meredith made similar statements to me when I interviewed him about the incident (on Hottytoddy.com).
So all this grazing by Minor is fine by me. Fair comments.
Then he must have awakened from his afternoon nap and wrote this: “In his SELF-PUBLISHED BOOK—Under Fire at Ole Miss, Gentry claims the actual number of rioters on the campus when federal marshals at 8 p.m. fired tear gas was much smaller than many news accounts indicate…”
I stand by that, but then he took a swipe at me by calling my book “self-published.”
I don’t know if he intentionally denigrated me or if he needed another nap, but that is not true. The book is published by my British publisher Ebooks-UK.com, which publishes ebooks and paperbacks under its woodlord department (Yes, the “w” is intentionally lower case).
You may call me a nitpicker. I have no problem with self-published books, but mine was not. It might have been if my publisher hadn’t produced it, but he did, along with my first book, also for sale at Amazon.com. I’ve had comments from friends who ask, “So, what’s the big deal?” It is hard, if not impossible, to get most book sellers to stock self-published books.
Minor knows what the big deal is because I called him in from the field this past week and respectfully chewed him out as best I could. Okay.
One of my favorite people over the many years has been Bill Minor. He visited the Daily Mississippian during my tenure as summer editor and gave us a badly needed political article. There was huge photo of us on the front page. I’ve treasured that and he was just a kid himself then.
That’s it. Thanks for reading. I’ve got to go now. Someone’s ringing the dinner bell. Maybe a quick nap…
-30-

MACHINE GUN KELLY ROBS TUPELO BANK

January 2, 2014

Tupelo Daily Journal, anniversary edition, May 21, 1995
MACHINE GUN KELLY BROUGHT INFAMOUS VOCATION TO TUPELO
Dapper gang hit bank for $17,000
By Phyllis Harper

George “Machine Gun” Kelly was the most infamous bank robber ever to visit Tupelo, where he and four accomplices pulled off a well-planned crime, but it was a year before their identity was known.
At 2:45 p.m. on Sept. 28, 1932, they robbed the Citizens State Bank of $17,000. The modus operandi included careful plans and scouting of the locale.

Kelley had ties to Mississippi, having been a student at Mississippi State College at one time. His wife Katherine had been raised east of Saltillo near the Lee-Itawamba County lime.
Kelly and his wife, posing as ordinary citizens, spent two weeks prior to the robbery in the home of Mrs. James Kincannon and her daughters, Kate Kincannon and Bess Daugherty, according to Tupelo historian Olivia Napoli (I have always heard that Ms. Napoli was one of my dad’s first girlfriends. They entered a Pepsi slogan contest together and were almost winners. I knew her well and she was one of Tupelo’s most interesting people. Last I saw her she was in a nursing home in Pontotoc with my Aunt Dorothy Smith. That was years ago). RIP Olivia. Okay, continuing…

During the two weeks (with the Kincannons) Kelly set the stage for the robbery of the bank on the northeast corner of Main and Spring Streets. (I think it’s still there). Kelly and his wife went shopping, bought groceries, and took walks and no one suspected for over a year that Kelly had pulled the daring daylight job. Road blocks in four counties at the time failed to produce a clue.

(You may have read my emails which said Basis Crockett, Tupelo policeman and our next door neighbor, chased him out of town, which I believe is true. He lost him. Mr. Crockett, by the way, plays an important role in my upcoming book, UNDER FIRE AT OLE MISS, which give my recollections and conclusions about the Ole Miss riot of 1962).

The men, thought to be five in number, took their positions in the lobby and commanded those present to hold their hands up. Employees of the bookkeeping department were herded into one ar3a and forced to lie face down on the floor. All the others were ordered to enter the safety-deposit vault. Lee County Sheriff Will Kelly said in a newspaper report the day after the robbery.

One of the men asked for Clyde Riley, cashier, and was told that Mr. Riley was not in the bank at the time. So Homer Edgeworth, teller, was pressed into service and forced to help put currency into the sacks. Della Fair Reese and S. P. Thurman entered the bank during the robbery. When Miss Reese saw the man with the machine gun, she laughed and said, “For a minute I thought you were holding up the bank.” In this story, repeated by Tupeloans for years to com3e, the expression on Miss Della Fair’s face changed when one of the robbers put a gun to her head and told her to get into the vault.

The holdup was conducted with dispatch, the sheriff reported, and the bandits were soon gone, but not before taking an additional $165 from the Rev. S.V Hicks who had just withdrawn it from his account.
“The men were described as being of neat appearance and considerate of their treatment of the victims. They made no display of nervousness and gave evidence of being experienced bank robbers,” the sheriff said.

Eighteen years later, Kelly died of a heart attack while serving time in Leavenworth in Kansas, where he was sentenced for kidnapping oil millionaire Charles Urshel. His wife was serving a life term in Vest Virginia, for her part in the same kidnapping.

It was not known until after his arrest for the Urschel kidnapping that Kelly, who was on the country’s most-wanted list, had planned and exited the Tupelo bank robbery.

Among those Tupeloans left with memories of meeting the machine-gun toting robber face to face were Margaret Lumpkin Motley, Gamble Stevens, L. T. Wesson, Thad Shannon, Brit Rogers Jr., and C. E. Gentry.

(I’m not sure who “C. E. Gentry” is? Lots of Gentrys in nearby Fulton and Alabama… By the way: How many times in my far-flung travels have people ask me if I knew Bobbie Gentry and did I know where the Tallahatchie Bridge is? Yes I do for the latter. Have thrown rocks off the Tallahatchie Bridge.
As for Bobbie Gentry, I know her real name is Roberta Streeter and she was born and raised in Houston, MS. I don’t even know if she’s ever been to Tupelo, but I suspect so. Tupelo is the actual center of the Universe. I once knew people in Houston, MS, so maybe Roberta stole my name!
What’s hilarious is that I had every Marine in my detachment convinced in the mid-1950s that Bobby Gentry was my big sister—you know she mentions Tupelo in her Ode To Billy Joe. At the recent reunions, they still ask me about it. I even show them a photo of my old home in Tupelo and point out the upstairs window (the attic) was her room. I’m not sure they believe I’m just joking…