By: Jerry R. Barksdale
When I was a child and misbehaved, Mama would shake her head and say, “Uh, uh, you’re going to turn out just like Early Smith.” (Not his real name). Other mothers did the same. It was enough to never miss Sunday School and straighten up and fly right. There is no kinder way to say it.
Early was the town drunk. Daddy was no slacker himself when it came to drinking whiskey, but he wasn’t in Early’s class. When I was in the third grade at Athens Bible School, Mama left Daddy (one of several times) and we moved into one room at Grandmother Holt’s house in Milltown. It was winter time and I walked two miles each morning to school as coal furnaces belched out black smoke and soot polluting downtown Athens. After school I walked the railroad tracks back home, mainly because Mama told me not to, which made it even more tempting. My favorite activity was looking inside empty boxcars parked on the side track.
One afternoon I crawled inside a darkened boxcar, heard snoring, and when my eyes adjusted, saw a man slumped against the wall. Empty bottles of Bay Rum hair tonic were scattered at his feet. Lord, have mercy — it was Early Smith! I’d never been that close to evil. I inched closer…closer; slowly stuck out my hand and touched his leg. He woke up. “Get outta here, kid!” I scrambled out of the boxcar and hit the ground running and didn’t stop until I reached home. I didn’t dare tell Mama or she would’ve given me a long lecture on the evils of alcohol which she had experienced firsthand. At school the next day, my buddies were saucer-eyed when I told them about how I had barely escaped death, at the hands of Early Smith. They were impressed and I was very popular for a day or two.
Many years passed and, after graduating from Alabama Law School, I returned to Athens to practice. Early Smith was still alive. I saw him shuffling down the sidewalk wearing an old knee-length Army overcoat. He was humped over, head bowed, never looking up, a sad empty hull of a man. Who was he? Why did he fall so low in life?
I asked an older lawyer, Bruce Sherrill, about Early. He told me the back story. Early had graduated from Alabama Law School in the early 1920s and was said to have been a classmate of Senator John Sparkman, one of the most powerful senators in Washington. (Had I sat in the same seat that Early once occupied while a student at Farrah Hall?) “He was practicing with an older lawyer in Athens,” said Sherrill, “and began to drink and was eventually disbarred.” Losing his law licenses and the ability earn a livelihood was a knock-out punch. Maybe that’s what triggered his trip down a rat hole. Who can say? Perhaps I would have done the same.
During the late 1950s, Early was discovered by Sheriff Clyde Ennis passed out on a public bench on the courthouse lawn. Ennis arrested him for public drunkenness and hauled into court before Judge David L. Rosenau. Sheriff Ennis testified that he found Early passed out in broad daylight on a public bench. Early admitted the allegations. Slam dunk conviction, right? Not so fast.
Early pulled out the Code of Alabama and cited the definition of public drunkenness. “Any person,… drunk, appears in public place… manifests a drunken condition by boisterous…conduct, or loud and profane….
“Yo Honor, I was drunk and in a public place,” said Early, “but I wasn’t boisterous and I wasn’t loud and I wasn’t profane. I was passed out — sound asleep.” Judge Rosenau found Early not guilty, and rightly so.
As President Obama was fond of saying, “There is a teachable moment here.” When you get drunk in public, keep your mouth shut and always, always drink enough to pass out.
I’ve often wondered what the future would have held for Early if he hadn’t slid down the alcohol rat hole as a young attorney. Early didn’t aspire to be an alcoholic. He had a dream and ambition. It’s a lesson for all of us.
There are many ratholes in life – alcohol, drugs, hate, greed and blind
ambition, to name a few. We need to be careful we don’t fall in one and
can’t climb out.
By: Jerry Barksdale