By SKIP TUCKER, Alabama Daily News Featured Columnist
As a determined supporter of conservative interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, it was my intention today to laud the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court almost certainly will reflect that opinion for the foreseeable future.
However, relentless pressure from an adoring public for another Graveyard tale (thank you, both of you) puts me in mind of an incident that intersects these things by reminding me of a great American, Trav Lee Keeton, and the night of his fight for his civil rights and the U.S. Constitution.
That the incident began in a graveyard as Halloween approached is a happy coincidence.
By the bye, more than one person has asked me if my stuff if true. It is. It might be, occasionally, that I remember big but 99 percent of what I tell you is fact.
What it is, is that I grew up in a small town of wild, tough, unruly young men with not much to do and sometimes mischief raised its head.
One of the wildest was Trav Keeton, tough as the handle of a pickaxe and quick with his fists. Former captain of our football team and without fear, he still was referred to by many as captain, and he wore the term well. He was a patriot.
Mind the night in ancient Thornton Cemetery, on the edge Carbon Hill, when the captain was challenged.
If it seems strange that the rowdy would gather at a cemetery to party, remember that there were no saloons nor dance halls. A cemetery was a nice, safe out-of-the-way-place to gather for festivity and not bother others nor be bothered, except for an occasional complaint about loud behavior. Mostly, the locals were dead, you know.
Old Thornton is a friendly little cemetery with a couple of steep hills and a comfortable cul-de-sac with a good dirt road leading to it. Its distressed chain link fence, with rusted ironwork gate hanging askew, likened to many of its residents.
The sale of alcoholic beverages was illegal in the county, which created a booming business and premium prices for bootleggers and moonshiners. It was rare to be more than ten minutes from a friendly back door. Some bootleggers delivered.
One perfect temperate autumn night in the South, a full moon beamed from a cloudless sky. The Milky Way was a big road in the heavens, and a light breeze gently rustled the yellowgold leaves in Old Thornton, where Trav had called the boys to gather.
There was a refreshing nip to the air which lent vitality and purpose to the party and its dozen guests. Boasts were made, bold stories were told and challenges were delivered. Conversation became more animated than just somewhat. About midnight the first fistfight broke out, and the captain saw that the party was taking on depth and vigor.
Something there is, though, that does not like a good time and, just as the celebration of life was cresting, the boys ran out of beer. A pall was cast on the cemetery. But it was brief. The group ponied up funds and the gallant Keeton headed for the nearest oasis.
“Twenty minutes at the outside,” he said. “Don’t nobody leave.” There was little danger of that, and Keeton soon returned with a fresh case of beer.
No one was there, with but a single explanation. The captain acted at once.
At the Carbon Hill City Jail, a small boxy building of concrete block and a single cell, the desk man looked up as the door swung open and Trav purposely walked in with his hands in the air.
Sure enough, he could hear the boys in the back cell lustily begin the second verse of Bringing In The Sheaves.
“What are you doing here, Trav,” the night man said tiredly.
Keeton threw his wallet and keys on the desk and started taking off his belt.
“I’m here to give myself up,” he announced.
The night man, no stranger to the captain, wearily said, “Go home, Trav. I’m in no mood to mess with you. We’re full.”
Affronted, Keeton said, “I want to be with my friends.”
The night man said, “Go home.”
Keeton said, “What you going to do if I don’t, put me in jail?”
The desk man meaningfully looked at the night stick hanging nearby and said, “Don’t mess with me, Trav. I’m tired and I sure don’t want to have to get up.” This inference was not lost on the captain.
“I think you have stomped on my civil rights and the Constitution of the United States,” said the captain, raising himself to his full 5’11”.
“Get outta here, Trav, or we’ll discuss stomping.”
With dignity, Keeton gathered his things from the desk and went to the door. He turned and magnificently pointed his finger at the desk man.
“You will hear from my attorneys,” he said, and stepped into the night.
Happy to have ended the confrontation without exertion, the desk man drowsed, only soon to be startled awake with fresh exuberance from the back.
He walked back, looked, and walked outside. Let us remember this was the sixties. Air conditioning was rare and mostly non-existent in Carbon Hill. The jail had one small barred window.
And there was the captain, busily handing cans of Bud through the jail window. He smiled a radiant smile and held out his arms as the night man reached back for his handcuffs.
Soon after, basking in the admiring glow of his friends, and having defended his civil rights and the U.S. Constitution, Capt. Trav Lee Keeton, that great American, smiled a satisfied smile.
He proudly led the group in a spirited rendition of God Bless America as the tired night man sought sleep.
(Next week: A Modest Proposal)
Skip Tucker was editor of the Daily Mountain Eagle in Jasper, then communications secretary for gubernatorial folks like George McMillan, Charlie Graddick and Jim Folsom. He ran Alabama Voters Against Lawsuit Abuse for in Montgomery for 15 years. He has published one novel, Pale Blue Light, a spy thriller set in The Civil War. He’s now a regular contributor for the Alabama Daily News at www.ALDailyNews.com.