July 2008

On Feb. 27, 1939, the Commercial Club of Science Hill High School issued a 4-page publication titled, “Commercial News,” a periodical originated in the previous year. This organization, comprised of 27 students participating in business courses offered by the school, met each Thursday morning during “club period.”

Outgoing officers were Dorothy Wilcox, Editor-in Chief; Alice Garland, Assistant Editor; Nellie Moyers, Social Editor; Theresa Bayles, Class Editor; Frances Stone, Club Editor; Dorothy Scott, Secretary; Virginia Livingston, Assistant Secretary; Robert McKee, Business Manager; Miss Newton and Mr. Maddux, Faculty Sponsors. Incoming officers were Harry Burdick president; Louise Richardson, vice president; Dorothy Scott, secretary; Alice Garland, treasurer; and Frances Stone Club Reporter. The club’s Social Committee was comprised of Merle Cross (chairman), Theresa Bayless, Helen Mettetal and Jewell Vest. The Program Committee consisted of Theresa Bayless (chairman), Jewell Vest and Mildred Lowe.

Five topics were featured in the magazine, the first being “Traits of a Secretary.” Students conducted a survey of area businesses to determine what secretarial traits were most desired by their bosses. Accuracy topped the list; secretaries needed to spell perfectly and pronounce people’s names correctly. The second most important trait was assuming job responsibility without having to be closely supervised. 

Under “Class News,” it was reported that the second period typing class was comprised of beginners. Of the 24 members in the class, Mary Louise Meredith was deemed the most outstanding student. Another one, Jim Ellis, was razzed for having missed several days of classes and still using the old “hunt and peck” method. 

The seventh period typing class members proved their skill by averaging 38 words a minute. Other scores were first period, 36; fourth period, 30; and fifth period, 31. The girls were said to be superior to the boys. 

Under another title “Antique Typewriter,” Giltz Corley brought to school an old-fashioned 50-year-old typewriter that had belonged to his grandfather. Unlike most devices, it used an inkpad instead of a ribbon. The letters were on a cylinder instead of individual keys that rotated to the desired key before striking the paper. The result was script that resembled beautiful handwriting.

The second period shorthand class set a standard for students to read 100 sentences in 15 minutes (or 50 in 8 minutes). Theresa Bayless was recognized for reading 50 sentences in four minutes. John Gregg, creator of the shorthand method in 1888, authored the students’ shorthand book. One club member wrote that Mr. Gregg had worked in a grocery store during his youth and, during slack hours, practiced writing shorthand on brown paper bags. The bags were so rough that it was difficult for him to make an angle between two letters. This challenge resulted in his developing blends of elliptical figures and straight lines.

One Commercial Club member, Mildred Stout, offered an amusingly comment about shorthand saying that she thought the subject should be taught in the first grade so students would not have to learn the traditional way to write.

The final section of the publication, “Cracks from a Dark Corner,” closely resembled student gossip pages from a typical high school yearbook. The newsletter’s editor ended the publication with these words: “Well, I’ll say good-bye for this time. I’ve already told too much, but don’t you say a thing about what I’ve told you.” Mums the word, Dorothy.  

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In 1952-53 while in Mrs. Alf Taylor’s fourth grade class at Henry Johnson School, I was introduced to the game of marbles, soon becoming an avid devotee of the sport.

The instant our teacher escorted us to the east side playground for recess, several of us boys immediately began organizing a marble game. I cannot recall ever seeing girls engage in the competition; it was definitely a boy’s amusement. The first thing we did was to choose classmates with whom we wanted to play. I seem to recall that two to four people made an ideal match.  

The site of the contest had to be carefully selected. It needed to be free of grass, weeds, rocks, clumps of dirt and debris. Most of our games were held in the clay dirt along the east backside of the playground next to the Fox residence. Once having found an ideal spot, we played on it repeatedly. On rare occasions, we used the sidewalk, but a paved surface was rough on the knees compared to softer ground. Besides, playing in the dirt was more fun for us tough guys.

After we selected our players and located a spot, it was time to get down to serious business. Using a stick, we first drew a one to two foot diameter circle in the dirt. Marbles varied in color from the bland to the very beautiful “catis eye” (referred to as “cat’s eyes”) that were made of clear glass with a swirl of color inside. We each put an agreed upon number in the ring, after which they became common property.

We took turns shooting a special marble, appropriately called a “shooter” or “taw, from anywhere outside the large circle, trying to knock one or more marbles out of it. We always had a couple of special “shooters” that we would not part with at any price.

Shooting a marble required the use of your thumb, index finger and middle finger. The middle and index fingers held the thumb and marble in place together in a cocked position until the player was ready to propel the marble forward. The shooting hand had to touch the ground while shooting; failure to do so resulted in an infraction called “fudging,” resulting in the individual losing his turn.

Whenever a marble exited the ring, it became that player’s possession. If you knocked a marble out of the ring and the shooter stayed inside the circle, you continued shooting from where it landed. Driving two or more marbles out of the ring with one attempt was called “dubs.” Anytime your shooter exited the circle, your turn was over. The game ended when all marbles had been cast out of the ring.

There were two varieties of the sport. One was “funsies” (playing for fun), where every participant went away with the same number of marbles that he had when he began. The other was “keepsies” (playing for keeps) that allowed you to keep all the marbles you shot out of the ring. The latter option was later considered by many schools to be a form of gambling and, consequently, not permitted.

I stored my marbles at home in an old Easter basket. When I took them to school, I carried them in an old sock. A status symbol on the playground was for us boys to parade around with marbles bulging from our pockets, indicating we were big game winners. This self-directed recognition was all we ever received for our efforts.

My marble playing days rolled away after I began attending Junior High School in the mid 1950s. Regrettably, I parted with my basket full of marbles by hitting each one with a wooden baseball bat, spraying them into a vacant lot adjacent to our Baxter Street residence. My pleasurable sport of yesteryear became passé.  

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When I was about seven years old, my mother and I were walking in the vicinity of McClure Street just off W. Market and observed a man on the opposite side of the street who appeared to be under the influence.

As the hapless high-stepping chap staggered along, one of his feet literally slapped the pavement as if he had no control over it; the truth was, he didn’t. I asked Mom what was wrong with him. While I cannot recall her explanation, I now suspect that he likely was a victim of a malady known as “Jake Leg,” a term describing someone affected by ingesting large quantities of Jamaica ginger, a product containing a high concentration of alcohol. 

In early 1930, newspapers in the American South and Midwest began reporting an unidentified new paralytic illness that was affecting relatively large numbers of people. Oddly enough, the problem was not that prevalent in other areas of the country. The assignable cause was soon linked to Jamaica ginger, an advertised medicinal tonic legally marketed and sold as a remedy for a number of illnesses.

“Jake,” as it became known, had been in use from about the time of the Civil War. With the passing of the Volstead Act in 1919, the production of all commercial alcohol was forbidden in the United States with one notable exception – medicinal products.

Over the next several years, 50,000 to 100,000 people, mostly males, were permanently crippled with partial paralysis from the drink. The problem quickly crept into hobo jungles along railroad tracks of the affected routes. Compared to whiskey, Jake was much cheaper and had higher alcohol content. The product sold between 1920 and 1930 caused no significant health problems other than the usual alcohol related concerns.

The dilemma occurred when manufacturers decided to add an industrial plasticizer to the drink known as TOCP, which was mistakenly thought to be harmless. The tasteless, odorless and colorless additive was put in the drink to mask the high alcohol content detected during government tests of the product. Also, Jake was highly adulterated with molasses, glycerin, and castor oil to lessen the objectionable ginger taste, making it somewhat more palatable to consumers.

Jake leg caused neurological damage to the body particularly to the spinal cord. The first visible sign of it was a gradual paralysis that affected the lower extremities, thus giving it its name. As a rule, the condition was temporary but sometimes became permanent and even fatal.

The plight of these sufferers became the subject of numerous country songs with such titles as “Jake Leg Blues,” “Jake Bottle Blues,” “Jake Walk Blues,” “Jake Leg Wobble,” “Got The Jake Leg Too,” “Jake Leg Rag,” “Alcohol and Jake Blues,” “Jake Liquor Blues” and “Jake Walk Papa.” Artists of that era included Lemuel Turner, The Allen Brothers, The Ray Brothers, Byrd Moore, Narmour and Smith, Tommy Johnson, Ishman Bracey, The Mississippi Sheiks, Daddy Stovepipe and Mississippi Sarah, Asa Martin and Willie Lofton.

After the Food and Drug division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture took a serious aim at the problem, the popular drink became illegal, but many habitual users skirted the law and managed to locate supplies of it.

After about six years, Jake Leg became history. Today, only the scratchy echoes of the old songs taken from worn out 78-rpm records remind us of the affliction of yesteryear: “You're a Jake walkin' papa with the Jake walk blues; I'm a red hot mama that you can't afford to lose.” 

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I received a letter from Lynn Williams, former chief engineer at radio station WBEJ in Elizabethton, saying he fondly remembers their remote broadcasts from atop Elizabethton’s Dutch Maid Drive-In on Elk Avenue.

“As engineer,” said Lynn, “I took care of the nuts and bolts of the operation, but was not averse to donning another hat, such as the ‘Musical Penthouse’ production. This was a creation of Bill Hale, a ‘ball of fire’ program director and future station manager. In 1956, I agreed to operate the studio equipment at night during the on-location program.”

According to Lynn, WBEJ transmitted Monday through Saturday nights from 7 pm until sign-off at midnight. The engineer recalled several announcers from that era: Curley White, Jim Berry, Ed Howze, E. Lee “Leaping Lee” Brown, Larry Hinkle and Harold “Hap” Henley Ziggy Ziggy Higgenbottom. Hap was the well-liked host of “Hap’s House in Session.”

The Dutch Maid penthouse, a four-foot by six-foot enclosure above the eatery, had plate glass windows on four sides, allowing outside patrons to observe the announcer. A bright florescent light fixture was mounted on the ceiling, making the disc jockey even more visible from below. The transmitting booth contained only the necessary equipment to play records over the air.

Climbing to the broadcast penthouse was no easy task. The announcer had to unsteadily scamper up the backside of the building, while carefully hanging onto the guttering and downspouts. This dicey inconvenience was deliberate; it kept people from going up to the booth and disturbing the deejay or falling off the roof.

A gold painted galvanized water bucket was used to accumulate song requests. It was routinely lowered and raised by the announcer to collect song titles from diners. A large wooden box contained 100 45-rpm records, representing the top hits of the day. These unbreakable vinyl platters had to be returned to the studio each night lest the sun’s heat ruin them the next day.

Williams further commented: “The brightness of the penthouse attracted oodles of flying bugs, forcing the announcers to make a choice – keep the door closed to keep out bugs and endure the heat or open it and let in cooler air and bugs.

“The station scheduled a 30-minute break at precisely 10 pm. I gave the news, sports and weather from the main studios. This allowed the deejay to ‘shinny’ down the drainpipe, visit with fans and get something to eat. Occasionally, he was late returning to the booth, prompting me to segue records until he arrived back at his post. This gave the illusion to listeners that the music was coming from the Dutch Maid. I occasionally chatted over the air with the remote disc jockey, but I was incognito known only as “Prof,” preferring to remain in the background.”

Lynn occasionally invited high school students into the studio through the unlocked door to play some of the ‘break time’ records. He taught them to operate the equipment and even helped a few obtain a license to work in radio. Fifty years later, he still recalls some of their names: Jim Luther, Don Swanner, Doug Greer and Bob Coffman.

The Dutch Maid remote continued intermittently until its demise in 1964. Lynn concluded his letter by saying: “It was a great time and it is too bad that it all came to an end. Sadly, most of the people I worked with at WBEJ are no longer living.” Like so many pleasurable things in life, they so quickly and quietly slip into yesteryear never to return. 

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