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. 

Winning While Losing

Winning While Losing

I stared into the middle of a dark mud puddle and decided what I was going to do when I grew up. I was 5 years old.

My red and while plastic toy boat floated in the deepest middle of the puddle where you could snag tadpoles if you were bent on that. But I wasn’t. Instead, my future danced in my imagination and in my landlocked West Virginia soul. I was going to be an officer in the  United States Navy. Thrilled, I mentally laid my plans for a future aboard a warship, a glorious  prospect indeed.

But first, I had to start first grade in Maybeury, a coal camp along Route 52, McDowell County, West Virginia, where, not long after having an epiphany in a mud puddle about my destiny, I heroically fought off a malicious attack by a foul rooster eaten up with malignant meanness.

I have never wavered in my love for the Navy and for steel gray warships. Growing up in West Virginia,  then in West Chester, the loveliest borough in Pennsylvania, I collected books on ships, nautical history, and  battles at sea featuring the American and British navies. As the son of a football coach and a player myself,  I indulged my fantasy of playing football for the United States Naval Academy.

Then one day in the hallway between classes when I was in 8th grade at West Chester Junior High School,  I clocked a dude for insulting West Virginia. I was immediately suspended and sent home, where, alone and angry at school, I collected two pair of clean socks, mounted my bicycle and ran away from home. I peddled 35 miles to the  gates of the Philadelphia Navy Yard to join the Navy.

The Marines guarding the gates to the Yard listened to my story, smiled, asked my age, 14, and gently sent me away.  Deflated, I called my parents from a phone booth on South Broad Street. They drove to Philly and collected my bike and me. My mother praised my decision to include fresh socks in my quest to join the Navy, but scolded me for not taking underwear.

Four years later, Annapolis rejected my application for admission to the Class of 1966. Heartbroken, but with the support and love of my family and friends, I went in another direction. Which led to the School of Law at the University of Alabama and a 30 year career in the FBI. Sometimes you have to lose in order to win. However, the Bureau, unlike the Navy, did not provide socks and underwear.



Not Being Famous

Not Being Famous

Once upon a time in the long ago ’80’s, there was a grand white cat we named Bush. I first laid eyes on him when he was a kitten just finding his legs, a tiny white bush,  one green eye and one blue eye. My wife, Pat, gave five dollars for him at a Birmingham store and brought him home in a box. He grew.

Pat brought other cats home, different colored ones, none of them white. Bush took care of them like a mother. They all died or ran away. Bush stayed. And grew.

Bush let Stacey, Laura, and Molly do anything they wanted with him. They dropped him on his head. They dropped him on his back. They sat on him and held him upside down. They pinched him and stepped on his feet. He stretched out on the floor and let them rub his tummy. He  kept growing.

We had mice when Bush came. Then we had no mice. He brought home birds and moles and  chipmunks, laid them at the foot of our French doors in the back facing the side of the mountain where we lived. Pat scolded him for killing birds and small animals. He never ate them, just left them for us to see. His trophies. How the world he snuck up on any creature was beyond me.  He was all and completely white in a sea of mountain green. He stood out lying motionless in the grass  and weeds. Stalking.

One day Pat called me to the backyard. She and the girls were laughing. Bush was standing on our shoulder high  brick wall holding his head regally high and his tail straight out. He was a cat version of a bird dog, gently holding an uninjured chipmunk in his mouth, Bush motionless in front of a Chipmunk Crossing metal sign that I had planted in the grass months ago.

“Don’t let Bush move,” I yelled. I bolted inside and grabbed a camera that I kept loaded with film for candid photographs  of my 3 beautiful, athletic daughters and a chipmunk in Bush’s mouth next to a Chipmunk Crossing sign. I imagined my photo appearing in Life Magazine and winning first prize in a worldwide contest. I was going to be famous. I was.

I stepped back into the sunshine, raised the camera ready to snap a classic. Bush was still standing on the wall, large and majestic as always, one green eye and one blue eye. The chipmunk was gone.

“Bush let him go,” Pat said, giggling. The girls were jumping up and down, laughing.

You just can’t lay plans for becoming famous.



Crime Prevention

Crime Prevention

The FBI, local and state law enforcement from throughout the U.S., as well as Scotland Yard in London, believe that it is better to prevent crime than solve it. This came home to me in 1975 when FBI Director Clarence Kelly selected 8 agents, two apiece from four field offices, to join with 8 police officers, two each from four cities, to form 4 man teams to develop citizen participation programs to prevent  crimes through self-help efforts. My friend Leon Sizemore and I were chosen by Director Kelly to represent the  Birmingham FBI, embedding with the Birmingham PD under Chief James Parsons, joining officers Joe Warden and Earl Melton, two of the city’s very best in blue. Leon and I loved this assignment, which lasted two years.

The Birmingham Crime Prevention team addressed burglaries. We did countless speeches and appearances before civilian groups and the media. Here are two tips about preventing burglaries.

First, don’t tape notes to your front or back doors that announce that you are gone and when you will be returning home. If you really must pen a note before you leave home, write this:  “Be back in 2 hours. Don’t worry about the snake. He usually doesn’t bite.

A construction site in California was burglarized almost nightly. In frustration, the foreman nailed up a large sign that read: “No trespassing! Anyone found here at night will be shot!” The chief of police received complaints about the sign from citizens and asked the foreman to take down the sign. He did, replacing it with this: “No trespassing! Anyone found here at night will be found here in the morning.”