Sunday, July 13, 2014

Algoma

I got my phone out to take the old man's picture,
but he was already gone.
He had the bluest eyes I had ever seen and his hair, though thin and grey, was mostly still on his head instead of only being a distant memory. I guessed him to be about eighty years old or more, and he had a presence about him, one that announced him as a man of hard-won wisdom. We, my wife and I, had just driven up to the Whistle Stop at New Houlka, MS on the Tanglefoot Trail for a bicycle ride. It was near lunch time, Saturday, July 12th, our second trip to the trail.

After unloading our bikes and pushing them around to the trail, we saw him sitting there in his quiet dignity. He relaxed on the bench in the shade, like a king though dressed in a simple khaki pants and worn blue dress shirt that was meticulously pressed but had small red paint stains on the front.

"How far you guys going?" he asked.

"Just to the next town and back. There's a whistle stop there isn't there?"

He didn't answer.

"What can you tell me about Houlka?" I asked. "What's behind that name?" These kinds of things have always interested me and when I ride a bicycle to new places, if the opportunity presents itself, I ask questions.


Penny headed up the tranquil trail towards Algoma.
"You're interested in that name?" he asked, pointing to the sign above his head. "You need to be interested in that name," he said, pointing up the trail presumably to the next town. "Now that one, it has some history behind it."

"And that one is?"

"That one is Algoma. Nine and a half miles up the trail. It used to be called Progressive City. Can you believe that? Progressive City, population 401. You can't make this stuff up."

I waited, hoping he wouldn't make me pry the story out of him sentence by sentence. Then he began to speak again, slowly like he was savoring every word. Like there was great historical significance in everything he said.

"It was the first weekend in October. We hold our annual Cross Tie Festival then. The year was 1993. You remember anything about 1993?" he asked me, peering into my eyes with his deep blue ones.

"Not really. Not off the top of my head."

"There was a presidential election going on. Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in a bus touring the country, campaigning, making speeches and they stopped at our festival. I think they were on their way to Arkansas or something."

"Well, that must have been special."

Just like the old man said.
"Oh, it was special alright. They showed up unannounced. One reason they stopped may have been the Seafood Junction, our claim to fame. That restaurant is as big as the whole town put together and people come from all over, famous people sometimes. So they show up and stop their big bus out front of the Seafood Junction. Next thing we know, Al Gore is on the tailgate of a pickup making a speech."

"You were there?" I asked. "You saw all of this?"

"I was there," the old man confirmed. "I saw it all."

"How was the speech? How was he received?"

"Do I have to tell you that this is a very conservative community? Bill Clinton and Al Gore were about as popular as the county sheriff at the chicken fights."

"Y'all have those here?" I eagerly asked.

"Forget that. He got to talking about re-inventing government. You know, you should never insult someone's intelligence. That can lead to some bad things."
Just like he said.

"So you, y'all were insulted?"

"A man named Redland Serepta, a trouble doer from way back, began a chant and in nothing flat the whole crowd, which was probably 500 or 600 because of the festival began chanting with him."

"Chanting what? What were they, y'all saying?"

"We're gunna whup them democrats! We're gunna whup them democrats! Over and over and louder and louder. The look on Al Gore's face. Priceless." The old man was smiling and he had the far way look in his eyes. "There is now a road named after Redland. You'll cross it on the trial, right up there," he said pointing with a thin, crooked finger up the trail where we were planning to ride.

"So what happened then?"

"Another one of my friends, Johnny Wallfield, he climbed into the cab of the truck that Gore was standing on the tailgate of and started the engine. I think he was going to try to shake him down by popping the clutch but them some of those guys in suits, Secret Service I guess, got involved."

He did it again. He stopped and made me ask what happened next.
Spot on again

"What happened next could really be called a riot. There was fighting, and bottle throwing and the taking of the Lord's name in vain. No telling what would have happened if that posse of State Troopers hadn't shown up with sirenes blazing and guns drawn. But before they did, Al Gore was in for one more surprise."

"What? Just tell me the story. Quit stopping. Please."

"My old buddy Clay Yeoman fired a potato gun at Al's head."

"Huh? A potato gun?"

"It's a homemade thing. Made of PVC pipe. It's attached to a butane tank that supplies the pressure. You ram a sweet potato down the front, and flip the valve and the potato goes hurling through space at about 800 feet per second."

"Really? You're not just making all this up?"

"These men I've mentioned. They all have roads named after them now. You'll see them when you ride to Agloma."

"Anybody get in trouble for all this?'

"Boy did they ever. A whole bunch of people were arrested. Redland spent some time in jail as did Johnny Wallfield. But it was Clay Yoeman who they came down the hardest on. He spent thirty days in the county jail, was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine, was sentenced to thirty years in prison, it was suspended, and was put on probation for 166 years."

"One hundred and sixty-six years?"

"Yeah. And all these guys are dead. All under suspicious circumstances."

"Seriously? This really happened?"

"Yeah. That's how come the name got changed. So many people was sayin' that if Al Gore came back he was gunna be dead, that people started calling the town Algunna, short for Al-gunna-be-dead. Then it became Algona. Then the mayor ordered some new city signs and the sign painter, who drank a little and couldn't spell good, painted Algoma. The city council changed the name and that's why it's called Algoma instead of Progressive City."

"That is interesting. So many stories. Every where you go there are stories."

"Well, you be careful who you talk to about Algoma. People are still sensitive over all this and they don't trust outsiders."

"Thanks," I said, and reached into my bike jersey to retrieve my phone to take the old man's photograph. He was gone.

The store in Algoma where we ate lunch.
Penny and I then made our way up the trail in silence. Besides the chirping of birds, I could still hear the old man's voice ringing in my head. When we made it to the famous little town that no one has heard of, we found the Whistle Stop deserted. I was sort of wishing the old man would be there waiting on us. We used the restroom and then made our way to the store where we ate lunch and cooled off. Inside the store, a few old men in overalls hung out. I wanted so bad to ask a question about 1993 and the town's name, but the old man's voice was loud and clear: "Be careful who you talk to about Algoma. People are still sensitive about all that and they don't trust outsiders." We were definitely outsiders.

We ate in silence. Penny had a chicken on a stick and I had a plate lunch of chicken, baked beans, and mashed potatoes. I kept looking out the front window and trying to imagine the events the old man had described. After lunch we left the store on our bikes and headed back to New Houlka. When we arrived, the Whistle Stop was deserted. We loaded our bikes in silence and drove home the same way neither of us mentioning the old man the whole ninety-miles back to Greenwood.