Food For Thought

Food For Thought

If you weren’t around for the Atlanta Federal Prison riot, November, 1987, you missed a hum dinger. A thousand prisoners rioted with knives and took 100 hostages without permission. National and world press were all over the story. I thought of this caper as the Gone With The Wind of prison riots, a massive challenge for the FBI, the Bureau of Prisons, and many other federal agencies.

The Birmingham FBI SWAT team was ordered to respond immediately, along with many other field office SWAT teams, crowned by the Bureau’s first round draft picks, the Hostage Rescue Team. I had friends on other SWAT teams as well as on the HRT. I was confident that the FBI had fielded the very best professionals to resolve this life threatening hoedown.

But first, my partner, Don Wright, and I watched the inmates burn down a third of
the prison during the frosty first night we were there. Don and I sat in the front seat
of our FBI vehicle just outside the walls of the prison, feeling the heat from the massive moonless blaze. We were one of the first SWAT teams to arrive at the prison since Birmingham was only 150 interstate miles from Atlanta. We were spread thin at first, waiting for more cavalry to arrive.

The animals took over the zoo. The rioting inmates were mostly Cubans straight out
of Castro’s prisons and mental wards, curiously admitted to the U.S. by President Carter after getting bad advice from some quarter. The Bureau set sail with its armada of Spanish  speaking agents to begin telephone negotiations with the rioters. I finished last in my high
school Spanish class and was not allowed anywhere near the phones.

As more and more SWAT teams arrived from as far away as LA, NY, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, all splendidly outfitted in black ninja uniforms, helmets, and impressive weapons, the Federal force accumulating, massing like the 20th Maine at Little Round Top, day 2,
Gettysburg. We were ready to storm the prison walls.

On a hill far away, no that’s a hymn. On a hill across the street from the main
gate to the prison grounds, was a build-up of reporters and cameras from around the globe. More importantly for agents, just inside the gates to the prison grounds, was a carnival of smiling, joyful civilians from the Salvation Army and the Red Cross, happily erecting their abundant
tents and kitchens stocked with beguiling fruit, donuts, sandwiches, and cookies. Agents chowed down to supplement the excellent food that we received from non-rioting prisoners in the prison cafeteria, with one holdout, Agent Ashley Curry, our team sniper, crack shot and a savvy, seasoned agent.

“I’m not eating any of that damn prison cafeteria food,” Ashley said. “Everybody knows what cons do to prison food, peeing and spitting into it and worse. Count me out. I’ll eat in the tents, thank you very much.”

It took two weeks to end the Atlanta prison riot. Everyone stood down without a single injury to the hostages, law enforcement or the prisoners. Before leaving for Birmingham, Ashley and the rest of us thanked the terrific people in the tents at the Red Cross and at the Salvation Army.

“Where did y’all get that wonderful food?” Ashley asked one of the servers.

“From the prison cafeteria,” she replied.

A Moment With Alabama’s Bear

A Moment With Alabama’s Bear

What do mining camps in southern West Virginia, the borough of West Chester in the suburbs of Philadelphia, and University of Alabama football coaching legend, Paul “Bear” Bryant, have in common? Me.

My father was a successful football coach on both the high school and college levels, my mother a splendid elementary school teacher with a nose for the English language. Dinner table conversations for my brother, Bob, and me as lads featured books and whether passing the football was a good thing or not. There were discussions about when we would finally have color in our TV to match the crimson of Alabama’s football jerseys. Although we
didn’t live in Alabama, we knew of Bear Bryant because Dad revered him and his teams at Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Bama, where austere work, preparation, and smarts unleashed frenzied hell on opponents. “Never quit,” Dad and Mom
told Bob and me, whether mowing grass, giving an oral report at school, or defending your goal line.

I decided as an undergraduate at American University, Washington, D.C., that I was going to law school to enhance
my credentials, whether I practiced law or not. I considered law at American U., West Virginia University, Villanova University, and the University of Maryland, until one day an attorney convinced me to abandon the snows and cold of my youth and attend his alma mater, the University of Alabama School of Law, where the enchantments of warm weather and genteel spirits of the deep South would capture my soul. “You’ll love Tuscaloosa, Jack,” he said.

I did, and do.

My first week in Tuscaloosa, August, 1966, just before law classes started and not knowing anyone in the state of Alabama,
I marched into the Quad located office of Coach Bryant and stood before his secretary, the keeper of the gate and
his shield against people like me wasting his time. “I’m Jack Owens,” I crooned, “a freshman at the law school. I would really
like to have a pass to football practice. I won’t give away any secrets.”

The kindly secretary looked at me as though I had just announced that I was an Auburn fan. Before she could say “no”, I hear a deep cough from around the open door to Bryant’s office, followed by a bass cleft, gravelly but kind voice, “Give him a pass.”

I learned later that you just didn’t walk into Bryant’s office out of the blue and request a pass to practice. You had to be connected and cleared to have such a coveted item signed by Coach. Ignorance, you see, has worked for me many times over the years.

Thereafter, until he died in January, 1983, Coach Bryant sent me a yearly pass to practice, which I used at every opportunity. I met him many times on campus and when I headed a four man delegation from the Birmingham PD and Birmingham FBI to film a public service announcement in his office, September, 1975. He was never too busy to talk or return my phone calls. My brother said that I was a  shameless name dropper.







Beyond Embarrassment

Beyond Embarrassment

You have to choose your parents carefully. I did. So did my younger brother, Bob.  Congratulations, Jack and Bob.

I proudly carried my father’s full name on my birth certificate, Jack Allen Owens, Jr. I was known as Jackson as a lad, son of Jack as it were, in order to reduce confusion at home when Mother  called out to me and not to my dad. Still, Mom, as mothers do, would summon my brother and me,  with joint names, blunting out, “Jack-Bob,” or “Bob-Jack,  get in here this second!” Or, “Jack Allen,” stop throwing things at Bob. Usually though, I was simply, Jackson, to family and friends until we moved to West Chester, Pennsylvania, 1956, the loveliest borough  in the land, where, going through puberty, I started fresh with a big boy name, Jack.

In the early 1950’s, my family and I lived in an apartment on the campus of Concord College, the Campus Beautiful atop a mountain in the quaint village of Athens, Mercer County, southern West Virginia, removed from the hollows and busy coal fields. Dad coached football and ran the men’s dorm. Families did not lock their front or back doors in Athens, windows were raised in warm weather to acquire the fresh, unpolluted Appalachian mountain air or you could step outside at night and collect a field of stars that took your breath away. No one owned or needed a home air conditioner. There was no local police force and no crime that I knew anything about. Bob and I parked our bikes and sleds outside most nights. Athens was not a place that required the services of the FBI.

On the very first day of my 4th grade after Labor Day in the six room, two story red brick school house in Athens, I joined my classmates of long standing, all of us having started first grade together. Especially my two best friends, Jerry Peck and Howard Austin. Our teacher, a gentle soul who’s name I’ve sadly forgotten, started our new school year by announcing that each member of the class would individually stand and read the title and the first line of a song from our songbook. We began. I nervously awaited my turn.

“Jackson,” my teacher called out.  I stood, heard her assign me a page number, opened to that page, somehow neglected to read the song title, and blurted out in full throat and fleeting confidence, “She’ll be comin’ round the MAINTAIN  when she comes.”


I don’t remember sitting back down. My face cracked and glowed red. I was greeted with a howling silence from my classmates unlike the roaring applause I would receive a year later when I botched my public piano concert, bowed and walked off stage.


I would have melted into my shoes if my feet hadn’t been so small.

My brother always said that I choked under pressure. 

Bowing Out

Bowing Out

I once owned a farm in Africa. Sorry, wrong story.

I once resided in the small college town of Athens, West Virginia, home of Concord College, where my father coached football, taught physical education, and ran the men’s dorm on campus. Mother helped out with the dorm, a den mom to the male students. The early ’50’s were easy and graceful.

My parents, younger brother, Bob, and I lived in the apartment attached to the dorm, a splendid life during my Athens Elementary School years. Snows were deep and the summers close to heaven in the high elevation Appalachian Mountains. You could see your breath for many months during the long winters.

Every kid in town had a sled and a bike. I lived for sledding down the steep Girls Dorm Hill and riding my bike around campus and into Athens. There was a movie theater in town, admission a dime, a grocery store and a drug store, a Methodist church that we attended and one for the Baptists two blocks away, a gas station and a cemetery on the road to Princeton, and a barber shop operated by Mr. Litton. When I needed a haircut, I dropped in and casually advised Mr. Litton that my parents would pay him later.

Our town telephones were party lines, a first down for investigators if party lines had existed during my FBI career. Bob and I listened in on our neighbors when Mom wasn’t paying attention, keeping our breathing down,  careful not to cough, fart, or drop the phone to go pee.

Mom and my grandmother, Nanny, played the piano daily at home and at church on Sundays. Nanny had also accompanied  silent movies in the 1920’s while my grandfather, Big Daddy, ran the projector. We sang at home, hymns or whatever was currently on the charts on The Hit Parade on TV. Bob deliberately sang off key to annoy everyone. I also embraced the trombone at an age when my arm could not reach 7th position on the slide.  We were a music family.

I took piano lessons from the elderly and legendary Miss Halroyd, who lived alone in a magnificent house not far from the elementary school. She was a gentle and soft spoken soul with remarkably beautiful hands and elegant fingers. She seemed to play without touching the keys. Many kids in town took lessons from her twice a week, taking turns to leave school and walk to her home.  Looking back, Normal Rockwell was hiding around town and secretly painting everything we did.

Miss Halroyd hosted an annual evening spring concert to display the piano prowess of her many students. The event was held on the auditorium stage at Concord College and was attended by college and elementary school faculty, towns people, and children from all over. Everyone dressed up. The selection that I chose to play when I was age 10 was the old spiritual, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen.”  I practiced and memorized the piece till I had it cold. We did not use sheet music, performing without a net. I was listed in the polished program as Jackson Owens, my pet family name.  

I waited backstage for my turn, nerves crawling yet confident. I walked onto the brightly lit stage in front of an audience of hundreds, knowing that my brother was out there being pinched hard by my mother to keep him from laughing.  I wore a spotless sport coat, dark pants, Sunday shirt, wide tie, brown shoes and closely cropped hair thanks to Mr. Litton, a budding FBI agent if I ever saw one. I faced the audience, smiled and formally sat down on the piano bench, shoulders erect to correct my naturally stooped posture. I slowly placed both hands over the piano keys, lowered my fingers and began to play, “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen,” AN OCTAVE TOO LOW! Thrown, befuddled, struck stupid by all those lower notes, cast adrift by the piano devil, I abruptly stopped playing, stood, walked to the front of the stage, bowed deeply and with absolute professionalism like I’d seen on the Lawrence Welk Show, and formally walked off stage into the dark embrace of backstage, enveloped in thunderous applause that smothered the gagging laughter of my brother .    

Becoming Invisible

Becoming Invisible

When the FBI becomes involved in a serial killer investigation, it’s a hum dinger as my grandmother, Dolly “Diddle” Dailey, used to say from the depths of coal country in southern West Virginia. She also predicted that I would grow up to be tall and have my grandfather’s marvelously thick hair too. She was wrong.

I and fellow FBI agent, Greg, were chosen by our bosses to represent the Birmingham FBI Field Office in the massive local, state, and federal law enforcement efforts to capture the serial killer who had been terrorizing Atlanta for 2 years. Several dozen black children, mostly teenagers, had been murdered. It  was May, 1981.

Greg and I drove to Atlanta in separate Bureau cars and immediately met with agents in the downtown Atlanta Field Office. We were briefed and then provided a profile of the killer written by agents in the Behavior Sciences Unit at the FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia. We were looking for a black male, single, between the ages of 25 and 29, who would be a police buff, drive a police-type vehicle, own a police-type dog, either a German shepherd or a Doberman. The killer was going to dispose of the bodies of the victims in the Chattahoochee River, a major waterway on the western boundary of the city. We were assigned to teams for all night surveillances of every bridge over the river for 2 weeks. Greg and I were given different bridges to cover.

We checked into a downtown motel then immediately helped ourselves to a splendid gym on the campus of Georgia Tech University. As night fell, we began the first of 14 dust to dawn surveillances. I was with 2 Atlanta police officers, great guys full of humor and savvy, love of music, sports, and law enforcement war stories. We hit it off and became fast friends.

Greg and I joined up after each all nighter to have breakfast at the International House of Pancakes before hitting the sack for 4 hours (we were young and full of it) then dressing in our sweats to enjoy the marvelous athletic facilities at Georgia Tech, including their gyms, running tracks, and tennis and racquetball courts. We sun bathed with students  in the bleachers of storied Grant Field football stadium, snacked in campus cafeterias, watched varsity baseball  games, and became Ramblin’ Wrecks as the nights and days droned on.

By the middle of the second week of surveillances, my police partners and I had settled into a pleasing routine of staring at  our bridge over FM radio and breaking away in twos to have coffee and food at a nearby Waffle House around 2 am. We were on  howdy do terms with the waitresses. We dressed down in jeans with wind breakers to conceal our weapons and radios, the very essence of plain clothes professionals. We were cool, confident, and fully alert, game for anything. Police and FBI presence at the bridges was a closely kept secret from the public and media. We reveled in our lack of law enforcement appearance.

I joined one of the cops and headed to the Waffle House. The other policeman had the “eye” on the bridge. We settled into a familiar booth and struck up a conversation with one of the waitresses, who took our orders, leaned in, smiled,  looked around, looked around again and whispered, “Ya’ll catch that guy yet?”

Cutting Up

Cutting Up

It’s 1977 and I’ve been an FBI agent for 8 years. I’ve beaten the odds after manipulating the Bureau’s Office of Preference system, being lifted from FBI Denver to FBI Birmingham in  the fall, 1970, after a glorious year in Colorado, a lowly First Office Agent subject to being flung anywhere into the American Republic at the whim of The Transfer Monkey at FBIHQ, who, blindfolded, throws darts at a map to cast agents’ fates to the winds.

I pay no mind to the righteous wisdom that if you want to transfer West in the FBI universe, you list an Office of Preference in the East. If the North is your desire, you write South under your name and take your chances because The Transfer Monkey magically lands darts in the very opposite direction from where you list you want to serve.

I consider this approach with reproach and list NOTHING, nada, no preference at all for any of the FBI’s 59 Field Offices. I’m a vacant lot on the Bureau landscape, surely a surreal experience for The Monkey, creating uncertainty, angst, incomprehension, and migraines when he lets fly the dart with my name on it.


Birmingham, sweet Alabama, is my next assignment, exactly where I want to go, 48 miles from the University of Alabama School of Law that anchors the southeast corner of the Quad on campus in Tuscaloosa, where 3 years of toil and terror earn a JD in 1969 and the juice to enter on duty in the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I am the aurora borealis, a bright guy and vigorously assume my place in the agents’ bullpen where we spring forth to hunt down federal bad people in The Magic City in the Heart of Dixie.

It is in this highfalutin state of mind that, in the spring, 1975, I’m at an apartment complex on Hanover Circle  on the south side of town and come upon a citizen who is locked out of his apartment. Do you FBI guys know  how to make an entry into an apartment?  He points to a sliding glass window at the bottom of the picture window  in front of his apartment living room. Surely easier to conquer than the heavy, bolted front door.   

I puff up and direct him to stand back while I defeat the sliding glass window and make everything hunky-dory. I do not reveal that I have never forced open a sliding window in my entire career or in my life. Nor been taught to do so by the Bureau wizards.

I kneel and bend to the task, full of vigor and spit, fiddle and diddle the sliding glass, lost in my own omnipotence,  the very agent who bamboozled The Transfer Monkey at HQ.

The sliding window suddenly yields in my hands, permitting the citizen to reclaim his apartment.

It takes 14 stitches to sew up my left palm in the Emergency Room at St. Vincent’s Hospital. I yield O Negative blood all over the place.

I was blinded by the dazzle of my own self.

Driving In Neutral

Driving In Neutral

In 1975, when Bruce Springsteen and E Street exploded on the music scene with “Born To Run,”  I exploded on the Birmingham radio scene when my beloved VW Bug and I faced a shitstorm driving home  during rush hour after a day fighting crime and/or evil in the FBI.

Put-putting south on an incline through The Cut in the Red Mountain Expressway out of the city, my Bug humming on all rear engine cylinders, my tiny dash board AM radio gushing with traffic advisories from various helicopters, I was dumbstruck by what happened next. The adorable manual floor stick-shift broke off in my hands about 2 inches above the floor. I looked down in disbelief. Worse, the stick had broken off in neutral gear, casting me into traffic oblivion.   

How cruel. 

I could not drive forward or drive in reverse! I came to a halt, hit the brakes to keep from coasting back into  a  long line of vehicles behind me in the left lane, their  loud, angry horns assailing me. Plus, I was in deep shadows, stuck beneath the wide Highland Avenue overpass across the Red Mountain Expressway. I had descended into Hell.

Motorists shook their fists at me as the AM radio helicopter shouted a bulletin warning drivers that a mess was piling up on the Red Mountain expressway south. The car, the culprit, the villain was hiding under the Highland Avenue Overpass and could not be identified. The coward. With as much dignity as I could muster, I turned off the engine, manually closed the sunroof, got out, locked the door and bravely escaped across three lanes of shouted profanities, middle fingers at full staff, shaken fists, death threats and menacing teeth as the Southern race can so eloquently produce in a football minute.

If they had only known that  I was armed but not dangerous, heading home after another successful mission for God in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, just one of them, not a warckaloon, just a guy who ate peanut and mayonnaise sandwiches and who was kind to bad weather, they would have reacted to my predicament in an understanding, charitable, and saucy way.  Sure enough.