Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Vick's Hotel

One summer when I was about eight, my grandfather, Victor Allen piled his best friend, Major John S. Cohen and me into his big sedan, driven by Bud Nuckolls, my grandfather’s childhood friend and now chauffeur.

Bud was what is now appellated as "african-american", but Bud would have been appalled at that. He thought of himself as "A Georgia Man."

We were to go to Andrews, NC, where the Allens had friends in the same sort of business...Leather manufacturing. I think their name was Cofer. The name "Bill Cofer rattles around in my ancient skull.

Roads through the blue ridge mountains in Georgia and western North Carolina were not great in 1933. I know, however, that to get to Andrews, we had to go through either Murphy or Franklin, North Carolina, and I am not sure which way we went.

So I am not sure which town this happened in.

We stopped at a large four-story structure with a rambling veranda all around the first floor. Big Brumby rocking chairs, just like the ones at Vick’s house, where I lived, in Buford, Georgia, dotted the front veranda.

(I always called my Grandfather "Vick", which pleased him immensely, and horrified all the white employees at the factory in Buford, and delighted all the black citizens.)

Well, it was in the middle of the day, and since there was no hostelry in Andrews, Vick wanted to get all the overnight arrangements settled before we went on to Andrews to see the Cofers.

He and Major Cohen and I went in the hotel’s lobby and Vick went to the desk.

"We want to register for tonight," he said. "We’re going to Andrews and we’ll be back late. There’ll be Major Cohen, and Me, and GloryBoy there (he nodded at me) and I want a cot or a pallet in one of the rooms for my chauffeur Bud Nuckolls...."

"Nope!", the skinny bald man in the Calvin Coolidge collar interrupted:

"We don’t cater to Jews and Niggers!" He barked emphatically.

"Uh...I beg your pardon," Vick said, suppressing his redheaded temper with a purpling face.
"But," Vick went on, levelly, "Major Cohen is editor of the Atlanta Journal newspaper...and Bud Nuckolls and I grew up together. He’s NOT a ...."

"I don’t give a damn if he’s the king of Siberia, and your nigger is Hailie Selassie’s brother," (Italy’s Mussolini was planning to invade Selassie’s Ethiopia at the time) I done told you now..We ain’t having no Jews and niggers in this hotel...."

And he was still frothing and spewing as Vick grabbed me by the hand and pushed Major Cohen out onto the veranda, and down the steps and into the Buick.

Then he went to the courthouse, went inside, and came back out and gave Bud some directions. Then, he went into a brick building and stayed in there for what to me seemed like a long time.
Major Cohen smoked a cheroot, and hummed and told me a story about a bank robbery he covered as a reporter. Bud was sweating, mopping his brow.

When he came back, Vick was singing "Shall We Gather at The River", but not the words, really. Vick always sang all of his songs and hymns with the words "DOH-RAY-MEE" placed in exactly the right places. You had to be there, I guess.

Anyway, he was as happy as I ever saw him.

He got in the car, cut and lit an Antonio y Cleopatra cigar (pure Cuban, made by Pennino, in those days).

"Back to the hotel, Bud" he ordered, puffing eagerly, an grinning.

Bud Nuckolls turned and glared at Vick silently. "Let’s go... NOW", he said firmly.

When we got there, Vick herded us up the veranda again, insisting that Bud Nuckolls accompany us into the lobby.

The skinny hotel man started actually shouting: "I Told you, Mister. No Jews and no niggers in my hotel...Can’t you..."

Vick placed his left hand on the scrawny wrist of the innkeeper. I knew that iron grip well, from when his right hand wielded a very small, limber peachtree switch when I hid a thumbtack in his favorite "throne".

"This is not YOUR hotel anymore, sir!" Vick laughed gleefully, waving a blue-clad official document before the fellow in his grip."I just bought it from the bank. You are in arrears and I am foreclosing right now!"

(It was, you remember, 1933. Everyone everywhere in America was "in arrears"

"Now, how about those rooms, and a cot for Bud Nuckolls?" Vick asked amiably.

That was the trip to the mountains that shaped my life. I always wished Vick hadn’t sold that hotel back before he died six years later. I had to find my own place in Hiawassee in 1949.

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