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Memory mashup–Homewood seniors pen and peddle a new book

January 23, 2015
Johnny Mack Brown and Joan Crawford publicity shot for Montana Moon.

Former Crimson Tide half-back Johnny Mack Brown and Joan Crawford publicity shot for the film, Montana Moon.

His film career would descend to low-budget westerns in the 1950s, but Dothan’s Crimson Tide running back Johnny Brown was a Hollywood leading man for decades.

His dashing good looks led him in 1927 to a role opposite Mary Pickford in her first “talkie “and on to major studio contracts and roles alongside John Wayne, Joan Crawford and Clark Gable. Some time after his 1969 Alabama Sports Hall of Fame induction, Brown picked up the phone to call a fan seeking his autograph. Forty-five years later, Bob Nelson remembers that call in a chapter of Proceeding Over the Mountain, a collection of personal memories by members of the Homewood Senior Center.

“I saw him on TV giving the acceptance speech, one of the finest I’d ever heard…his eloquence and genuineness struck me,” Nelson writes.

Book cover, Proceeding over the Mountain

Book cover, Proceeding over the Mountain

Nelson is one of 40 authors who have contributed 88 stories, most of them less than 1,000 words each, that capture emotional and sometimes historically significant memories from their personal pasts. What started as an extra-curricular activity soon spawned a writing class, editorial debates, and new perspectives into each others’ lives, said Center Director Aimee Thornton.

“I was amazed by the variety of stories and the topics,” she said. “People were willing to talk about things I wouldn’t think they’d even be involved in.”

Bennie Charles in paratrooper training. Charles befriended Elvis Presley during basic training in Ft. Hood in 1958.

Bennie Charles in paratrooper training. Charles befriended Elvis Presley during basic training in Ft. Hood in 1958.

In “The King and I,” member Bennie Charles recalls being drafted in 1958 and completing basic training in the Second Armor Division at Ft. Hood, Texas, with fellow inductee Elvis Presley. Charles said Presley hung out with the regular guys, using his special allowance of a personal car to take them on weekend day trips, and once to Tijuana. Presley—who had PRESLEYCOLORjust finished filming the movie King Creole—was frequently recognized and would perform songs just for the asking. The famously generous singer “always insisted on picking up the tab,” Charles writes. “I never had to pay for anything.”

Charles, who is black, tells in another story how he traveled from Pittsburgh to Ft. Hood by bus with 12 white inductees, who elected him “captain” to shield him from any racial incidents in the deep South. Presley, he said, also showed no signs of racial or social prejudice.

“I was proud to call him a friend—he was almost like a brother; he never showed any sign of prejudice toward anyone.”

Overhearing so many stories—some of them startling—during the course of her work gave Thornton the idea for the book. The stories tend to fall into two categories, historically accurate retellings, such Frances Carter’s World War II account of modifying B-29 fuselages for the home front, in Rosie the Riveter, or personal narratives about childhood and teen years.

A mass baptism at Turkey Creek stirred one of 13 stories by Bobbie Hunt.

A mass baptism at Turkey Creek stirred one of 13 stories by Bobbie Hunt.

Many hark back to rural and austere scenes of the Depression: sewing flour-sack dresses, snaring rabbits and fish for food, wearing a “fat back” poultice, and preparing hominy from corn washed with lye.

In contrast, author Jackie Hoffman recounts the national treasures she passed on her way to grade school in Newport, Rhode Island: The first United States lending library, the Touro Synagogue, oldest in the nation, and St. Mary’s church, where JFK in 1958 married Jackie.

Others tell about a first kiss, a stint at reform school, forbidden honky tonks, and a missionary’s tale of remaining pure (with difficulty) in a cross-country trip with a beautiful female colleague.

In one expertly told story well under 300 words, Betty Mann tells how her husband, who is deaf and was signing a Sunday school lesson one warm morning, reached in his jacket for a handkerchief and pulled out a pair of her panties instead.

“Most of the stories were written; but many others were dictated,” said Thornton, who contributed her own stories, one about her grandfather. “I take after my granddaddy, who was gregarious. I like to hear stories and tell them,” she said.

Bobbie Hunt remembers counting the "baby graves" in Rogers Cemetery in north Jefferson County.

Bobbie Hunt remembers counting the “baby graves” in Rogers Cemetery in north Jefferson County.

Member and contributor Carolyn Roberson collected the stories and Thornton was editor. The project took nearly three years, in which Bobbie Hunt, 89, the writing instructor and the book’s most prolific contributor, said she didn’t think she’d live to see it published. That day arrived [publishing day].

Paperbacks are $14, with a signing event scheduled Feb. 20 at 11 a.m. at the Homewood Public Library. For more information or to purchase a copy, call the Homewood Senior Center at 205-332-6500.

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