By: Kevin Slimp
A.J.’s disappearance raises questions in the Valley
A week had gone by since A.J. Fryerson’s letter to the editor concerning Buford Levitt’s new gas pumps was published in the Lennox Valley Hometown News. Iris Long, editor, thought it peculiar she hadn’t received anything from A.J. in the week since.
A.J. could be counted on for at least one, and sometimes two or three, submissions each week. She didn’t always include a letter from A.J. on the opinion page, but Iris couldn’t remember a week since his memorable letter of August 2, 1991, that she hadn’t received at least one dispatch from the town complainer.
In that missive, A.J. was angry with the Valley’s sole law enforcer, Chief Dibble. It seems during his first month as chief, Dibble stopped Fryerson for failure to come to a complete stop at Bearden’s Corner. This was before the town’s only red light was installed, and the four-way stop kept drivers from crashing into each other in front of the Baptist church.
A.J. was full of himself that day, writing, “Perhaps Chief Dibble was so focused on his chocolate donut that he failed to realize I stopped for a full seven seconds before turning right at the corner.”
“The law,” he continued, “requires just three seconds before making that turn.”
Fryerson was confident of the timing because he remembered singing the classic line from the 1980’s hit, “Come On Eileen,” while he waited to make his turn.
No one living in the Valley at the time has forgotten the crescendo of his classic letter:
“I have listened to ‘Come On Eileen’ 23 times this morning, and I can write with certainty the line lasts a full seven seconds.”
He went on to make several additional comments about the chief’s eating habits and suggested an appropriate nickname for Dibble might be “Chief Drib-ble,” resulting from “all the chocolate dripping down his chin.”
No one is sure what, if anything, Chief Dibble said or did in response to Fryerson’s tirade, but it was six weeks before A.J. submitted his next letter, and he hasn’t written a negative word about our beloved police chief since.
Iris had lunch at the Hoffbrau that day, taking the opportunity to ask her waitress and friend, Jessie Orr, if she had seen much of Fryerson over the past week. It was common knowledge A.J. was a daily customer at the ‘Brau. Long couldn’t begin to remember the number of letters he had written complaining about something that “just didn’t taste right” during one of his meals.
“I haven’t seen A.J. since last Wednesday,” Jessie answered. “It was right after I read his letter in the paper. I told him no one was gonna side with him against Buford Levitt.”
“And you haven’t seen him since?” queried Iris.
“I figured he was sick or something,” offered Jessie. “I can’t remember the last time he missed two days in a row.”
“Maybe he is,” Long responded.
Iris was a veteran journalist, and she wasn’t about to create unnecessary drama. After all, A.J. could be sick. Or maybe he took a trip, as unlikely as that seemed.
As she finished drinking the last sip of her coffee, Iris thought about the many enemies Fryerson had made over the years.
Even so, she could not have realized A.J. had submitted his last letter of 1998 to the Hometown News.
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The list keeps getting longer
Yes, A.J. Fryerson complained about everything, and the number of folks on his “bad list” increased by the week. There’s a funny thing about collecting such a long list. Chances are, a lot of those folks included A.J. on their bad lists as well. Sooner or later, people would say, something bad was going to happen to A.J.
The September 8, 1998, edition of The Hometown News included A.J.’s latest discourse. Not a week went by that Fryerson didn’t write a letter to the editor, and on slow news weeks, they often found their way onto Iris Long’s opinion page.
His latest rant had to do with the only gas station in town, Buford Levitt’s Sinclair Oil. The problem with complaining about Levitt’s was obvious to anyone in the Valley. Along with Perry Pratt, Buford was just about the most liked and respected merchant in the community. A.J. wasn’t going to attract many allies.
His latest diatribe had to do with the way the gas pumps kept track of his purchases. It started when Buford introduced “self-service” pumps at his station in 1997.
Prior to that, customers would pull into the station, order their gas, and pay the attendant. More times than not, the rotating cylinder would turn over by a penny or two, but the attendant always charged only what the customer ordered.
Buford replaced his old gas pumps during the same period he introduced self-service. Instead of the old cylinder models, Levitt’s now had electronic pumps with digital displays that indicated the amount of gas purchased.
This apparently upset A.J. to no end. He penned his letter on Monday, September 7, and dropped it off at the newspaper office, saving him the cost of a 32-cent stamp.
Unlike most Valley residents, Iris saw A.J.’s rantings as harmless. She figured she was doing the Valley a favor by letting him blow off steam in the paper rather than finding a more violent method of expressing himself. And sometimes, as was the case with this letter, she found A.J.’s thought process rather amusing.
“Dear Hometown News,” he began. “I have been a customer of Sinclair Oil for more than 30 years. When I purchased my first car in 1963, I bought my first tank of gas from Buford Levitt himself.”
Like many of A.J.’s letters, this one started out peacefully enough. But as was often the case, his tone quickly changed.
“What I want to know is,” he continued, “when gas pumps went from calculating the cost of your gas to robbing you like a slot machine in Las Vegas?”
The crux of the matter came down to the precision of those new pumps.
“Before Sinclair got those new pumps, you knew what your gas was going to cost. Now, you might as well close your eyes, because those numbers keep on rolling until they decide to stop on their own!”
He went on to call Buford the worst kind of thief: one who would steal from his neighbors and friends.
Yes, A.J. Fryerson made a lot of enemies, and as his list got longer many folks figured it was only a matter of time before he complained about someone who wouldn’t take it as calmly as Buford Levitt.
The letter to the editor on September 8 would be the last anyone would hear from A.J. in 1998. Yes, he liked to complain. But as the good folks of Lennox Valley would soon discover, A.J. had just complained for the last time.
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August 2017 Archives
“The Ultimate Complainer”
If you lived in Lennox Valley during my childhood, you were familiar with A.J. Fryerson. And if you knew A.J. Fryerson, you knew one thing above all: He complained about everything.
I don’t mean just a few things. I mean everything.
He complained because the Valley didn’t have a traffic light. Then, when the town installed its first light on Bearden’s Corner, he complained about that.
He complained because he couldn’t get a beer at either of the town’s eating establishments. Then, when the town held a referendum and the Hoffbrau started serving beer, he complained about that.
He complained because all the “preachers in town” were “older than dirt.” Then he complained when the Lutherans called Brother Jacob, and he complained even louder when he learned the young pastor preached in his bare feet.
Simply put, A.J. lived to complain, and like most folks who complain all the time, hardly anyone noticed when A.J. got hot under the collar.
He was the most frequent caller on “Renderings with Raymond,” and after Raymond took a break from airing his show following his mayoral defeat, A.J. complained about that.
Iris Long, editor of The Hometown News, had a love-hate relationship with A.J. On one hand, she would tell her friends A.J. was “dumber than dirt.” On the other hand, Fryerson could be counted on to provide at least one letter to the editor each week. Although no one gave much, if any, thought to A.J.’s rantings, they would pick up the paper to see what he was complaining about this week.
Vera Pinrod liked to say, “A.J. Fryerson could start a fight in an empty house.”
Once, after he spewed out a tirade on Raymond Cooper’s show, Lori Martindale told the crowd at Caroline’s Beauty Salon, “A.J. is two pickles short of a jar.”
That brought a good laugh from everyone including Sylvia Snodderly, who was seldom known to crack a smile.
Sometimes A.J. would go overboard. Instead of making people laugh at how ridiculous he could be, there were times he would make folks downright angry. Like the time he had his oil changed at Floyd Phibb’s Auto Service. Floyd owned one of two auto repair shops in town and was loved by everyone. Well, everyone except A.J.
In 1997, two weeks after having the oil changed in his 1991 Ford Taurus, A.J. began to notice loud squeaking in the back of his car. He ignored it for weeks until finally, while driving down the steepest hill in Lennox Valley, his brakes failed. He went off the road and ran directly into the front porch of the home of Marvin and Delores Walsh.
That was the beginning of one of A.J.’s most memorable tirades. He was convinced, and spent months letting everyone know, Floyd had overfilled the oil in his Taurus, causing it to “spill over” and spread to the back of his car, “leaking like a sieve” all over his brakes.
He threatened to sue Floyd, writing eight letters to the editor and making more than 40 calls to Raymond’s show to talk about his brakes. Eventually, every lawyer in Spring County refused to take A.J.’s case.
Yes, A.J. Fryerson complained about everything. That ended, however, in late 1998, when A.J.’s complaining suddenly stopped.
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Juliet Meets Her Match
“There are no accidental meetings between souls.”
1998 was a hard year for Juliet Stoughton. Sure, she almost single-handedly ended the political ca-reer of would-be mayor Raymond Cooper, seriously contemplated a protest at the Baptist Church, and made two close friends in Sarah Hyden-Smith and Iris Long. The truth is, however, there were things going on within Juliet her newfound fame couldn’t camouflage.
She had nothing against Tangi Blevins, but she just couldn’t sit any longer, listening as the pseudo-superstar sang those famous lyrics by Dolly Parton:
And I will always love you
That’s all I have
And all I am taking with me.
Juliet left the fairground stands rapidly, making her way past the ticket booth and vendors selling corn-dogs, cotton candy and funnel cakes. She walked quickly, her only thought being how whe would soon be anywhere besides there, surrounded by all those happy people.
Juliet was an avid reader. Ancient history had always been her favorite subject. She thought a lot about something Plato said. “Love is a serious mental disease,” he explained.
Juliet used to believe Plato was too busy thinking elevated thoughts to understand something as simple as true love. Now, she was beginning to understand what he meant.
Finally, nearly out of earshot of the concert, Juliet took a turn in the direction of the fair exit. In just a hundred feet or so, past the Chamber of Commerce display, she would be safe, or so she thought. As she hurried, Juliet kept her eyes on the ground, taking long steps to keep her pace.
That’s when it happened, like a scene from “The Way We Were,” with Robert Redford and Barbra Streisand. The 1970s tale shifts between four different time periods as two young lovers meet and break up in college, only to be reunited, and married, years later.
“Juliet?” the familiar voice said.
She looked up to see Chris Rhodehouse, the man she once considered her soulmate, directly in front of her.
“You look great,” he said, seemingly as surprised as she was.
“What are you doing here?” Juliet asked. “I mean, I never took you as a ‘fair’ kind of person.”
“My company has a booth in the Exhibit Hall,” he answered. “You must not have gone in there or you would have noticed.”
He asked how she was. She said she was fine. The truth was she felt anything but fine at the mo-ment. He told her he saw her name in the newspaper.
“Did you really run for mayor?”
Juliet didn’t have much to say. Or perhaps she just couldn’t get the words out.
He told her he missed her, and thought of her a lot. Juliet sensed he might be waiting for her to say the same.
After a moment of awkward silence, she spoke. “You know, Chris,” she began, “it’s been really nice to see you.”
“Would you like to get a soda or something?” he asked.
“No, actually, I was just rushing to the ladies’ room so I could get back to the concert.”
Chris was surprised by her newfound interest in country gospel music.
“It was nice seeing you,” Juliet said just before turning toward the ladies’ room just 20 feet to her right. “Take care.”
Suddenly, Juliet realized she was in the mood to see the rest of the concert. Upon entering the stand area, she noticed Iris Long taking pictures for the newspaper. She slipped in beside her new friend.
“I’m surprised to see you here,” Iris noted with a friendly laugh.
“Well,” Juliet replied with a grin, “I wanted to see what all the excitement was about.”
She was just in time, as Tangi reappeared on stage for her final encore:
Turn your radio on,
and listen to the music in the air.
Turn your radio on and glory share.
Turn the lights down low,
and listen to the Master’s radio.
Get in touch with God, turn your radio on.
Just then, she remembered a quote by her favorite modern author, J.S.B. Morse:
“A broken heart is just the growing pains necessary so that you can love more completely when the re-al thing comes along.”
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Fair transforms hostile atmosphere to
Heaven on Earth
The mayoral election seemed a million miles away on Friday night at the Spring County Fair. With “Silver Tongue” firmly entrenched in his role as leader of the Valley for two more years, it was as if the good folks breathed a collective sigh as they caravanned en masse to participate in the most anticipated county fair performance in memory.
I somehow managed to get up the nerve to invite Mary Ann Tinkersley to attend the show with me. I wasn’t sure if she was as excited as I was about our first official date. We had been exercising sheep together for the better part of four months, and in my thinking it was just a matter of time before we became “official.”
Although Springfield, the county seat, had a much larger population than our town, it seemed as if almost half the crowd was from the Valley. Perhaps the bigger city folks didn’t understand the star power of Tangi Blevins.
Springfield radio stations had been playing Tangi’s biggest hit, “Turn Your Radio On,” several times each day during County Fair week. Even Raymond Cooper, firmly entrenched in the battle of his life, made it a habit to begin each day by playing the song as his station came on the air.
Husbands in their flannel shirts and boots, and wives in their finest jean skirts were dressed for a night on the town. It was probably the biggest date night in years for the folks of my hometown. Even my mom and dad got dressed up for the occasion.
Not everyone had a date. I noticed Juliet Stoughton walking through the fair gate alone as I stood in line to buy a funnel cake for Mary Ann. I figured she was meeting someone, or perhaps she needed a night on her own after the long campaign. Being new to the area, my guess was Ms. Stoughton probably didn’t understand she was participating in one of the biggest nights in Valley history.
Like every big-time concert, the warm-up act preceded the main event. Little Lori Tolliver wowed the crowd with her banjo playing and pitch-perfect voice. When she belted out “Stand By Your Man,” her 12-year-old voice filled the outdoor arena. Her triology of sentimental favorites, including “Roses for Mama,” “10-4 Teddybear,” and
“Blind Man in the Bleachers,” left barely a dry eye among the audience sitting in the folding metal stadium seats.
Being the true showperson she was, she lifted those same spirits with the finest banjo version of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” heard to this day.
The audience was beside itself as Tangi Blevins and the Heavenly Hosts made their way to the stage. It was years before I realized the irony as she kicked off her performance with a song made famous by the father-daughter duo, The Kendalls:
“Heaven’s just a sin away,
Oh whoa, just a sin away,
I can’t wait another day,
I think I’m giving in.
Though I’d love to hold you tight,
Oh whoa, be with you tonight,
But that still won’t make it right,
‘Cause I belong to him.”
In true gospel fashion, the Heavenly Hosts, two 20-something backup singers in mid-length denim skirts with chevron patterns and yellow boots, pointed toward the heavens as they sang, “‘cause I belong to Him.”
Tangi knew how to put on a show, and there was no way she was going to sing her biggest hit until late in her performance, possibly as an encore.
Midway through the show, I felt Mary Ann lay her head against my shoulder as Tangi sang the Dolly Parton classic, “I Will Always Love You.”
As I looked over toward Mary Ann, I saw Juliet Stoughton from the corner of my eye. It looked like she might be crying. I suppose a love song, sang by a true artist like Tangi Blevins, can do that.
A moment later I looked back and she was gone. I figured she’d gone to the concession stand to get a funnel cake. It was several years before I realized how wrong I was.
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How will Valley residents respond to Cooper’s defeat?
The morning following “The Great Valley Runoff” was perhaps the oddest moment of my growing-up years. It was as if we were surrounded by fog as we began that late August Friday.
The Hoffbrau was filled to capacity, with folks lined up at the door waiting to snag one of the coveted tables. The smell of bacon, eggs and coffee filled the air as voices reached almost deafening proportions.
You could tell who was seated at each table by the conversation. Cooper supporters seemed stunned. Many wondered if the previous evening had been a bad dream.
Bland supporters were boisterous, laughing and acting as if their mayor had the election “in the bag” all along. At 7:34 a.m., “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland entered the ‘Brau, shaking hands with well-wishers and beaming from ear to ear.
It was obvious many, myself included, felt relief the election was behind us. Even though I wasn’t old enough to vote, I had been pulled into the drama of the election just like everyone else in the Valley. It was as if a heavy weight had been lifted and our town could return to normal, as if there is such a thing.
As the morning passed, the conversation shifted from the election results to other matters. Word was beginning to spread that Vera Pinrod’s quick exit from the ballot count was a result of pneumonia.
There was much concern when Mrs. Pinrod left her left her election coordinator’s post in an ambulance on Thursday night. The good folks of the Valley were thankful she hadn’t suffered a heart attack or stroke, but knew pneumonia is dangerous, especially for someone of advancing years.
Farmers seemed to be taking a rare morning off to enjoy a late breakfast and a break from the stress of the previous months. A few had attended wrestling matches at the Spring County Fair on Thursday evening. I overheard Boyd Sanders telling his companions he was certain he had heard a snap as Dory Funk Jr. tightened his “spinning toe hold” on the Sheik.
It was good to see my community discuss something besides the election. I took a breath and thought about Mary Ann. She was so happy when she received the blue ribbon just two days earlier at the Spring County Fair FFA competition. She and I had exercised our sheep together for months as we prepared for the annual event.
My entry, Archibald, didn’t place, but it was just as well. My reward was seeing Mary Ann elated as she hugged Snowflake, then rushed over to hug me.
By lunch, the town was buzzing about other matters. Undoubtedly, the most important was an appearance by Tangi Blevins & the Heavenly Hosts later that evening at the fair. Throughout the day, cassette and CD players were humming the tune:
Turn Your Radio On
And listen to the music in the air.
Turn Your Radio On, heaven’s glory share.
Back at the radio station, things weren’t quite as lively. Raymond had cancelled his show on Friday afternoon, instead airing syndicated network programming.
Elbert Lee Jones, Marvin Walsh, Earl Goodman and Raymond sat around the station conference table in stunned silence for hours, interrupted now and then by an outburst by Marvin or Earl.
“I just don’t believe it,” Marvin lamented.
Earl chimed in, “It can’t be real. It all started when Vera left and that newspaper woman was put in charge.”
“You have to demand a recount!” Walsh shouted toward Raymond.
Cooper didn’t respond. At 4:30, he stood up and left the building. His followers sat in silence for a few minutes.
At the Hoffbrau, Iris Long sat with Juliet Stoughton.
“What’s next for you?” Iris asked.
“You know,” Juliet responded, “I think I’ll go to the fair. I hear there’s a popular singer there tonight.”
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Fight to the Finish!
Wrestling match takes backstage to political drama
After Raymond Cooper received the first seven votes of the ballot count, Iris Long wondered if she was the only voter who cast her ballot for Dick Bland.
Halfway through the count, Vera Pinrod made the decision to call a 10-minute break. After 382 votes had been tallied, Raymond Cooper led with 205 votes, compared with 177 for “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland. Because it was a run-off election, write-in votes were not allowed.
There was a definite buzz in the VFW section, as Cooper supporters anticipated an overwhelming win. Word also spread throughout the crowd that Dory Funk Jr. had defeated The Sheik at the Spring County Fair using his signature move, the spinning toe hold.
Marvin Walsh, overcome with emotion, shouted, “It looks like true Americans are carrying the night!”
As the break approached the 15-minute mark, folks took their places as they sensed history taking place before their eyes. After five more minutes, Sheriff Dibble approached the microphone.
“Due to a medical issue, Mrs. Penrod will not be able to continue,” Dibble announced. “Diane Curtis is driving her to Spring County Hospital.”
A murmur grew throughout the crowd. Suddenly, the election count was a bit less important. Vera was like family to everyone in the Valley.
Dibble went on, “Mrs. Penrod said to tell everyone she would be fine, and she requested that Iris Long take her place counting the ballots.”
“What?” exclaimed Elbert Lee Jones.
Earl Goodman had thoughts of his own. “No way!” he shouted.
A sharp glance from Chief Dibble in their direction quickly calmed things down.
He then looked in the direction of Iris, who had been tallying the vote on her own reporter’s pad. “Mrs. Long, would you continue the vote count?”
You wouldn’t think a hardened news reporter would get nervous, but Iris stammered, shocked by the turn of events. “I guess so.”
Long took Vera’s seat in front of the crowd. Chief Dibble placed the ballot box in front of her, and she withdrew a slip of paper.
“Bland!” she shouted with as much energy as she could muster.
“No way!” shouted Walsh.
Dibble had about as much as he could stand. He quickly made his way to Marvin, said a few words only Walsh could hear, then made his way back to the stage. Marvin quickly became unusually subdued.
“Bland,” continued Iris. Then, “Bland,” again.
You could feel the heat rising from the VFW section, but no one dared say a word with Dibble at full attention.
As the count continued, the tallies on each side of the board became closer. At one point, Iris stopped to catch her breath.
That’s when Beatrice Justice spoke just loud enough for most in the crowd to hear her.
“Romans 2:11,” was all she said as if she, too was out of breath.
Perry Pratt, almost to himself, but again loud enough for most to hear, uttered “They’re tied.”
Indeed they were. With 742 votes tallied, Bland had caught Cooper with 22 ballots left. The room became silent, waiting for Long to continue the count.
As those final 22 votes were tallied, Chief Dibble no longer sought to quiet the crowd. With every ballot, there was a roar which grew louder with each slip Iris pulled from the box.
“Cooper!” Iris yelled. Then, “Bland!”
The count went back and forth, much like the match between Gorilla Monsoon and Jerry Lawler taking place at the fairgrounds.
With one ballot remaining, Cooper had 381 votes. Bland had 382.
Would there be a second run-off? Could there really be a tie?
As Dibble again attempted to quiet the crowd, word spread that Lawler and Monsoon fought to a draw in their match.
Iris pulled the final ballot from the box. Dibble needed try no longer. You could have heard a pin drop in the room.
Iris looked at the ballot for what seemed like minutes, but was only a few seconds. Putting her hand to her chest, she read the name on the paper, “Bland.”
It took a moment to sink in. Raymond Cooper had been defeated by two votes.
“It’s a fix!” screamed Walsh. “Iris Long has fixed this election!”
Like most others, I stayed in the Town Hall for several minutes, realizing I had just witnessed history in the making. This was quite possibly the most exciting night in the history of the Valley . . . so far.
Kevin Slimp makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee these days. Contact him at email@example.com.
July 2017 Archives
Who will it be?
It’s now or never for Raymond Cooper
The morning of “The Great Valley Runoff,” I listened at the breakfast table as my parents discussed their options while considering how they would cast their votes.
I think my father, who sold books by day and repaired TVs in our basement at night, summed up how many good folks of the Valley felt when he said, “I’m not sure it’s worth the time it takes to vote.”
Raymond began “Renderings with Raymond” in earnest at 7 a.m., five hours earlier than usual. He kept saying something about his public duty to keep the town informed, but most folks realized he was trying to gain a few votes in an election that was getting closer by the minute.
“Silver Tongue” Dick Bland held a campaign rally on the town square at 8 a.m., hoping to influence any voters sitting on the fence. He kissed Christine Schmidt’s baby – noting it was quite possibly the most beautiful baby he had ever seen – and shook hands with the 40 or so folks in attendance, making his final attempt at convincing Juliet Stoughton’s adherents to follow her wishes and cast their ballots for him.
You would think the county fair, 11 miles away in Springfield, would cut into town activities. However, Caroline’s Beauty Salon and the Hoffbrau, both normally quiet on Thursdays, were hubs of activity. Most people, it seemed, were sick of the campaign, but weren’t sick of talking about it.
Raymond tried in vain to get Brother Jacob to offer a prayer during the show, but his minister was “extremely busy” with pastoral duties away from town all day.
Eventually, Cooper turned to his “Book of Famous Prayers,” offering up this petition, yet not revealing the words came from Gen. George Patton, “Graciously hearken to this soldier who calls upon Thee that, armed with Thy power, I may advance from victory, and crush the wickedness of my enemy and establish justice among men.”
Though Cooper was not a popular figure among the regulars at Caroline’s, most bowed as Raymond prayed.
“He may be a schmuck, but he does have a way with words,” Essie Kennemer noted.
Knowing folks on both sides of the political fence would be calling his show that day, Raymond asked Marvin Walsh to man the phone and determine which calls he had “time to take” on the air.
At 6 p.m., Sarah Hyden-Smith, Iris Long and Juliet Stoughton monitored events from a booth at the ‘Brau, where they ordered supper and discussed the events of the day.
It was bound to be a smaller turnout at this week’s 7 p.m. ballot count, as Thursday night was “Wrestling Night” at the Spring County Fair. This year promised an especially exciting show as stars from the past, including The Sheik, Jerry Lawler, Gorilla Monsoon, and Dory Funk Jr., highlighted the card.
By 7, barely 100 folks gathered in front of the Town Hall for the vote count. Chief Dibble announced, “Due to the smaller turnout this week, we will attempt to allow everyone inside the proceedings.” Then with a gruff voice added, “No chaos,” as the crowd filed in.
Little did he know how prophetic his words would be.
Vera Pinrod, election coordinator, addressed the crowd. “Votes cast totalled 764.”
An audible mumble rose from the crowd. That was 170 fewer votes than were cast a week earlier. Could most of Juliet’s supporters have stayed home, refusing to support either remaining candidate?
“You’ve got this one in the bag, Raymond!” shouted Elbert Lee Jones from the rear corner of the room.
A quick stare from Chief Dibble stopped Jones in this tracks.
Silence overtook the room as Vera began her ballot count.
“Cooper!” she roared, looking at the first ballot. “Cooper!” she shouted again.
Pausing as she looked at the next ballot, she lowered her volume. “Cooper,” she said.
Iris Long shook her head as she tallied the votes on her note pad. She realized this was going to be another long night.
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or divine intervention?
During my lifetime, I’ve been invited to the White House for dinner with the president, dated an actual princess from a real country, walked across the Rio Grande to swim in the hot springs of Mexico, lived through two earthquakes and driven through more tornadoes than I can remember.
Hardly anything surprises me these days, but that wasn’t the case in August 1998. None of those things had happened yet and I was still open to unexpected wonderment.
As I stood just inside the entrance to the Fair Pavilion, I watched as “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland lifted Raymond Cooper, still covered in dirt and hoof prints, from the Pavilion floor. In spite of my youth, I realized something substantial had just taken place.
In one brief moment, Raymond Cooper, adored by many and loathed by others, was transformed from near superhero status to mere flesh and bones. His quick thinking to insinuate blame upon his opponent and the elite media might have placated his most ardent supporters, but for others it was an eye-opening experience.
Could it be Raymond Cooper was not the intellectual giant many of us had assumed? Was Iris Long right all along? Had Cooper created his own reality and manipulated his listeners into believing things that weren’t true?
It’s amazing how many things can go through a young man’s mind at a moment like this. I wanted to get back to Mary Ann and our sheep, as FFA judging was only hours away, but I couldn’t help but think something important had just happened. Like most others in the Pavilion, I stood stupefied for what seemed like hours but was probably only seconds.
By dinner time, most everyone in the Valley was discussing what has been referred to as “the great pig panic.”
As one might expect, Raymond was more than a little flustered as he attempted to fill the remaining two hours of “Renderings with Raymond.” The afternoon was supposed to have been a celebration of Cooper’s many accomplishments but instead became a muddled attempt to explain what had just taken place.
Mayor Bland, manning his own campaign booth less than 50 feet away, told his supporters the episode reminded him of a story in the Bible when Jesus cast a demon into a herd of pigs, who then stampeded to their own deaths.
“I am a simple man, not a theologian,” Bland told those gathered, “so I am not suggesting that Raymond Cooper has any affiliation with demonic forces.”
Then, after a pause, he added, “I would suggest, however, that discussion might best be held in conjunction with your family and clergyman.”
No wonder they called him “Silver Tongue.”
None of us had ever seen Raymond so discombobulated. For the next two hours, most of his show was comprised of his most ardent supporters sharing their theories concerning the stampede.
Earl Goodman reported seeing a mysterious figure in what appeared to be a “Stick with Bland” t-shirt near the gate holding the pigs just before the attack. Elbert Lee Jones said it was common knowledge that pig farmers were big fans of Bland.
In bed that evening, I thought about the FFA judging that afternoon. I thought of how pretty Mary Ann Tinkersley looked in her Round House overalls. And I wondered, just wondered, if those pigs – demon-possessed or not – might have ruined Raymond Cooper’s plan to be our next mayor.
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Some say it was an act of God. Others claim it was a political conspiracy. Fair officials blamed it on a faulty latch.
Whatever the cause, it was exactly 12:17 p.m. on Wednesday, August 26, 1998, when no fewer than 11 full-sized, potentially prize-winning pigs escaped Livestock Barn B and stampeded straight toward the entrance to the Spring County Fair Pavilion.
Raymond Cooper, making a surprise live appearance at the fair to host “Renderings with Raymond,” was deeply engrossed in his opening monologue concerning the corruption of “so-called Mayor Dick Bland” and his “dirty” administration.
“I assure you,” Raymond shouted into his microphone while dozens of adoring fans looked on, “I am going to stand tall with the good folks of the Valley and clean up the mess that my alleged opponent has created!”
Then, bowing his head, his mouth almost touching the microphone, he continued, “And I want to express my humble gratitude to the Good Lord above, who has bestowed so many blessings upon my candidacy.”
The last thing anyone remembered hearing before the ensuing onslaught was Marvin Walsh shouting, “Amen!”
At least one observer later told Iris Long, editor of The Hometown News, it reminded her of a rushing flood. Still others compared it to a scene from Braveheart, when Mel Gibson, playing the role of William Wallace – a 13th-century Scottish warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward – followed by a hoard of screaming warriors, attacked the British army with blazing precision.
Iris Long, on hand to photograph Mayor Bland greeting fair-goers as part of the opening festivities, could barely believe what she was seeing. She seemed to be one of the few in the audience not surprised by Cooper’s appearance. It was just the type of thing she had come to expect from him.
In her five decades of journalistic experience, however, nothing had prepared her for what was taking place in front of her eyes.
As the crowd rushed away from the path of the charging swine, Raymond Cooper could scarcely believe his own eyes. As if in a trance, he stood frozen as the sows moved ever closer.
The swarming pigs seemed to take aim at Raymond, as if guided by some external force. Charging closer still, they moved directly toward Cooper, knocking him to the ground in their stampede.
Not one to let an opportunity such as this escape, Mayor Bland quickly rushed over to Raymond, who was covered in dirt and hoofprints. Extending his hand to lift Cooper from the ground, the mayor paused momentarily.
“I knew that my opponent was skilled in slinging mud,” Bland bellowed.
“But I had no idea he was so adept at wallowing in it.”
Iris focused her trusty Nikon at the two men: Cooper, still barely rising off the ground, and Bland, smiling giddily as he lifted Raymond to his feet.
We rarely saw Raymond Cooper dumbstruck in 1998. For a moment, though, those reassembled stood in silence, wondering if their champion was uncharacteristically at a loss for words.
Finally steady on his feet, Raymond spoke words only he could devise at such a moment. “I find it mighty interesting that my opponent just happened to be so close when those pigs were released from their secured pens.”
Bland started to respond, but Cooper cut him off.
“I also find it peculiar,” looking toward Iris Long, “that the principal representative of the elite media just happens to be here as well.”
Iris could barely believe her ears. He was doing it again. Raymond Cooper was going to convince his supporters this was planned all along by the powers and principalities aligned against him.
Turning to leave, Iris heard Beatrice Justice, standing behind her, mumble something.
“Matthew 7:6,” Beatrice said, then repeated, “Matthew 7:6.”
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Valley residents demand
Mary Ann Tinkersly sat one row to my left and one seat ahead of me in algebra class during the spring of 1998, and no amount of studying was going to make up for the confusion she created in my brain cells each day during fourth period.
In June, Mary Ann and I began walking our lambs together in anticipation of the FFA judging at the upcoming Spring County Fair. My lamb, Archibald, was looking fit. Mary Ann’s entry, Snowflake, was in pristine condition by the time August rolled around and was a favorite to win.
The most memorable days of my growing up years occurred in late August 1998. The anticipation was palpable as three historically significant events converged at one time and in one place.
First, the mayoral election. Everyone expected the election to be concluded prior to kicking off the county fair on Wednesday. But there we were, still listening to Raymond Cooper broadcast the evils of the Federal Reserve System, as well as those of his opponent. The front page of The Lennox Valley Hometown News, normally filled with stories related to fair competitions and visiting celebrities, was filled with articles about the previous week’s ballot count and Juliet Stoughton’s decision to bow out of the upcoming run-off, allowing “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland to face Raymond Cooper “mano a mano.”
Second, the scheduled appearance of Tangi Blevins and the Heavenly Hosts Friday night at the fair. Each year in late August, most of the excitement, especially among the Valley’s female population, was reserved for the lineup of pseudo-celebrities who made their way through the county fair circuit, and 1998 was no exception. Not since “Mr. Sound Effects” Wes Harrison visited Spring County in 1983 had a celebrity of this stature made an appearance.
It was hard to imagine which was subject to more discussion, the fair or the election, as Wednesday began. Iris Long, editor of the Hometown News, wrote as much in her weekly editorial.
“Every town,” Iris began, “deserves a week each year to take a break from the ordinary. What better way than to watch our youth display their prize-winning animals, ride a Ferris wheel, or see our favorite entertainers in person?”
“This week,” she continued, “we will enjoy our fair, but at the same time we have important business at hand.” She was, of course, writing about the mayoral election.
“Let me suggest,” she wrote, “we face reality and see Raymond Cooper for who he really is.”
She went on to detail Cooper’s antics, from the egg price-fixing scheme to his conversion at the Lutheran church.
“Join me,” she continued, “in voting for Dick Bland for mayor of Lennox Valley.” She concluded her editorial, “When election day is over Thursday evening, we can all take a collective breath and enjoy our children, our fair and our community in the way they are meant to be enjoyed.”
The third memorable event was, of course, the FFA judging. As much as I had prepared for this day, in my heart I wanted Mary Ann to win. As I sat in my stall trimming the wool on Archibald’s legs, I could see Mary Ann brushing Snowflake after bringing her in from a bath.
The livestock were kept in a barn next to the Pavilion, which housed displays from gutter companies, real estate agents and the John Deere dealer from Springfield. The Pavilion was usually relatively quiet, with folks walking through to look at displays and fill out cards, hoping to win a used car, ironing board, or some other valuable prize.
The fair gates opened on Wednesday at 11 a.m., allowing folks to wander through and look over livestock before competitions began at 2 p.m. Generally not much happened before the competitions, but this was no normal year. At noon there seemed to be a commotion in the Pavilion, and everyone began to head that way.
When I got to the Pavilion, I could barely believe my eyes. There was Raymond Cooper, beginning his live broadcast of “Renderings with Raymond” from the Spring County Fair.
As an excited fair-goer handed her baby to the candidate, Raymond pronounced, “You know, I’ve heard Dick Bland doesn’t like babies.”
Seated at a table next to the standing Cooper, Marvin Walsh bellowed, “I heard he hates puppies and kittens, too!”
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June 2017 Archives
They are trying to steal my election!
The special edition of “Renderings with Raymond” took the Valley by surprise Monday morning. Most folks expected fireworks on the first show following Juliet Stoughton’s huge announcement on Friday, but even his most loyal followers didn’t expect their champion to begin three hours earlier than usual.
Following a rousing rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, recorded in 1983 by Tangi Blevins and the Heavenly Hosts, Raymond introduced Lutheran pastor Brother Jacob, who reluctantly offered a prayer to begin the show. Inviting Brother Jacob was a tactical maneuver meant to sway any “fence sitting” Lutheran run-off voters to move into the Cooper camp before the Thursday vote.
Cooper thanked the young pastor, then added, “Surely the Lord is on our side,” turning down Jacob’s microphone before he had a chance to respond.
It had been a harried three days for much of the Valley as folks discussed the surprise announcement by mayoral candidate Juliet Stoughton on Friday evening. Citing a little-known passage in the Lennox Valley Election Code written in 1948, Juliet withdrew from the run-off election within 24 hours of the Thursday ballot count, allowing “Silver Tongue” Mayor Dick Bland to slide into her spot and run head-to-head against Raymond Cooper six days later.
“I cannot believe” shouted Cooper as he began his show, “that woman thinks the good folks of Lennox Valley are naive enough to follow her orders and cast their votes for our so-called ‘mayor’ of the past four years!”
The phone lights were already blinking. Raymond had increased his phone lines from one to four during the campaign season to accommodate the increased traffic of callers. Marvin Walsh and Farley Puckett were helping out by manning the phones.
Although the youth were busy preparing their prized sheep and rabbits for the Spring County Fair set to begin the next day, and Valley women were testing their recipes one final time, the drama surrounding the upcoming vote kept most listeners glued to their radios.
Cooper was concerned. History is filled with politicians who kicked off loud, boisterous campaigns filled with grand ideas. Like many such campaigns, he had attracted a loyal following. As is often the case, however, the more time passed, the more folks began to realize Raymond’s platform was made up of make-believe issues and empty promises.
Realizing she had no chance to overtake Cooper in a run-off election, Juliet asked all her supporters to cast their ballots for Bland. She made a special plea to those who had voted for Mickey Mouse, Ima Goose and Ronald Reagan.
Cooper recited a laundry list of “powers and principalities” who were conspiring to take what was rightfully his. They included Iris Long and the rest of the elite media; the Federal Reserve System; Chief Dibble and his friends in Washington; Sarah Hyden-Smith, a newcomer who had come to town with her hyphenated name and dangerous new ideas; and Juliet Stoughton with her political machine.
He had a surprise of his own, however. Waiting on the line to speak with Raymond was none other than Tangi Blevins, who hadn’t heard the tirade preceding their conversation.
Raymond praised the gospel-singing celebrity scheduled to perform at the fair on Friday night, then followed with a question, “May I ask you something personal, Tangi?”
Not waiting for an answer, he continued. “Given the choice, would you vote for a puppet of the wealthy elite, hand-picked by the media and federal government,” pausing momentarily, “or would you vote for a God-fearing, humble servant of the people?”
“If those were my choices, I suppose I’d vote for the humble servant of the people.”
Quickly thanking Tangi before hanging up the phone, Raymond leaned into the microphone and softly said, “There you have it. Right from the mouth of America’s biggest gospel celebrity.”
Leaning over Cooper’s shoulder, toward the microphone, Marvin added, “I believe that’s our first endorsement of the day, Mayor!”
Sitting by the radio in her rocker, Beatrice Justice whispered knowingly, “Proverbs 16:18.”
Female candidate really thinks she has a chance?
Cooper: “That woman is living in a dream world.”
Two days earlier, it was assumed by just about everyone in Lennox Valley that attention would turn on Friday morning from the mayor’s race to the upcoming county fair.
However, as word swiftly spread across the Valley Juliet Stoughton was holding a rally on the town square at 6 p.m., folks wondered just what her campaign strategy was going to be.
Shortly after their early morning meeting with Iris Long at the Hoffbrau, Sarah Hyden-Smith and Juliet could be seen rushing to the Hometown News office. Soon af-ter, they were seen leaving just as quickly, carrying leaflets.
The leaflet, printed with black ink on green paper, included large bold letters spelling, “ATTENTION, JULIET STOUGHTON SUPPORTERS!” across the top. Below were the words, “Rally at 6:00 p.m. on the town square.” In smaller letters near the bottom of the page was the admonition, “Please spread the word! Tell your friends and family members!”
No one was surprised by the primary topic of conversation on “Renderings with Raymond” that Friday afternoon. Before discussing Juliet’s rally, however, there were a few other matters to cover.
Both Earl Goodman and Marvin Walsh were on hand. One caller after another praised their heroism and patriotism for having been arrested in defense of their fearless leader, Raymond Cooper. Both described their precarious evening at the mercy of Chief Dibble. Having been locked in a cold, damp jail cell, they each described fearing they would not live to see the light of day.
“Dibble is a puppet of the liberal media!” Walsh shouted into the microphone.
“He is obviously on the payroll of Juliet Stoughton and her minions,” countered Goodman, not sure what a minion really was. “And besides, from my cell I saw him make at least two long-distance calls. I could only assume he was calling his superiors in Washington for instructions.”
At Caroline’s Beauty Salon, patrons sat patiently as Raymond and his crew could be heard ganging up on local officials. Friday was the busiest day of the week as cus-tomers prepared to look their best for Sunday services.
“I’m starting to think I never should have voted for that Raymond Cooper,” declared Diane Norris as she listened to him ridicule his political opponents and anyone who agreed with them.
“Marvin Walsh always was a blow-hard,” observed Terri Countermine.
One by one, Caroline’s patrons expressed dismay at ever thinking Raymond Cooper would make a good mayor. It was like they had been hanging onto Cooper’s words by a delicate thread which was becoming more frayed.
Meanwhile, Raymond was in his glory, discussing his future regime. The corruption of the past would be gone. The reign of terror led by “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland was near its end. The totalitarian rule, beholden to federal agencies, was almost a thing of the past. Peace and prosperity were at hand, and Cooper would lead his listen-ers to the Promised Land.
And what about Juliet Stoughton and her 6 p.m. rally on the town square?
“It’s just another attempt to make a name for herself,” Cooper barked to the cheers of his studio guests.
By 5:30 p.m., the doors to most of the Valley’s shops were locked. Caroline, cleaning up her shop, could see a crowd, mostly women, gathering on the square. Soon, however, Caroline noticed a few men arriving, obviously to see what this mischief-maker had up her sleeve.
At 6:05, more than half the Valley was assembled in front of the steps to the town hall. A hush came over the crowd as Juliet walked to the top step and addressed the audience.
“Citizens of Lennox Valley,” she began. “Thank you for taking the time to be here this afternoon.”
“Anything for our next mayor!” came a shout from the back of the crowd.
This brought more shouts and applause from those gathered before Juliet continued, “I have a plan, and I think it might work.”
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The Perfect Scheme
Faith Hill unknowingly inspires underdog
When the good folks of Lennox Valley began to stir on Friday morning, many wondered if the events of Thursday evening had been a dream. Let’s face it – most of the previous six months seemed like a nightmare, so why should election night have been any different?
As coffee began brewing and phones began ringing, it was soon apparent Thursday night had not been a dream, and there were more questions than there had been just 24 hours earlier.
Did Juliet Stoughton really keep Raymond Cooper from winning the election outright, forcing a run-off? Did Earl Goodman and Marvin Walsh really get arrested for disturbing the peace after rushing the stage following the mayoral election count while shouting at the election officials? Did anyone bail Goodman and Walsh out, or were they still sitting in the lone Lennox Valley jail cell?
Iris Long slept less than three hours, working past midnight in an unsuccessful attempt to get interviews with all three candidates. She also attempted to interview Chief Dibble, but he would have none of it. He had just prevented a riot from overtaking our peaceful Valley, arresting two of the town’s leading citizens in the process.
The Hoffbrau opened at 6:30 a.m. for breakfast, and Iris was there when Sarah Hyden-Smith and Juliet Stoughton arrived at 6:35. All three were exhausted from the events of the previous evening, but none as tired as Iris. She was, after all, older than both her cohorts combined.
The run-off was a mere six days away. While it seemed reasonable to assume Stoughton could keep her voters, it was absurd to imagine all of “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland’s supporters coming over to her side. Plus, there were the eight votes for Mickey Mouse, Ima Goose and Ronald Reagan with which to contend.
Other than the noon to 3 p.m. time slot, the ‘Brau played music from the “three towers of country power” in Springfield. Jessie, ‘Brau waitress, couldn’t tolerate Raymond Cooper more than three hours each day, even if his voice was only heard during commercial breaks and during “Swap Shop” outside of his “Renderings with Raymond” time slot.
As they contemplated Juliet’s next move, they could hear Mark Chesnutt singing in the background:
“It’s a little too late, she’s a little too gone.
She’s a little too right, I’m a little too wrong.
Now would be the time to change but it’s a little too late.”
It was then Jessie pulled up a chair from the adjoining table and placed it at the end of the trio’s booth. Jessie was, after all, the first person to suggest Juliet run for office, so she felt she had a right to be a part of the election team.
“You know,” Jessie began, “I wasn’t always a waitress.”
Juliet and her friends sipped coffee as they listened respectfully.
“I used to own the diner on Highway 11.”
Iris, who had been editor of the Hometown News for as long as anyone could remember, spoke up. “That’s right. I had forgotten that. It was so long ago.”
“Yes, 27 years to be exact,” offered Jessie.
“What happened?” asked Sarah.
“I had three children and a husband back then. I realized I could either own a diner, or I could be happy, but I couldn’t do both.”
“But don’t you regret giving that up?” Juliet asked.
“Well,” Jessie paused for a moment before continuing, “I realized some people are born to run businesses, and some people just don’t have the stomach for it. That was me.”
“What are you trying to say, Jessie?” Iris inquired. “That Juliet doesn’t have the stomach to be mayor? That she should just give up and let Raymond Cooper win?”
“I’m not trying to say anything,” Jessie offered with her local drawl. “I’m just telling a story.”
At that moment, another song began playing:
“All my life I’ve been pleasin’ everyone but me. Waking up in someone else’s dream.”
“Faith Hill,” noted Jessie, “seems like the happiest person in the world. But when she sings a song like that, you realize it hasn’t always been easy for her.”
With that, the group stopped talking and listened as Faith finished her song. Juliet realized for much of her life, she had been living someone else’s dream. She also knew those days were past.
“It’s going to sound crazy,” Juliet said, “but I know what I’m going to do.”
Kevin Slimp, Lennox Valley author, now makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Could this really be happening in our Valley? It took a few moments for the results to sink in, but eventually bedlam erupted in the town hall following the mayoral vote count. Iris Long, editor of Lennox Valley Hometown News, checked and rechecked her figures against those on the board. Vera Pinrod and the others on stage frantically clicked the keys on their calculators, making sure they didn’t miss any votes. When Chief Dibble walked to the microphone, you could have heard a pin drop in the room. “Election Coordinator Pinrod has an announcement concerning the vote,” Dibble barked. “We must have complete order in the room. I repeat, we will maintain order. We will not stand for any disorderly outbursts.” No one was sure who “we” were, since Chief Dibble was the only police officer in Lennox Valley. The crowd acquiesced, just the same. Vera began, “We have counted and recounted the votes. The numbers we reported a few minutes ago are correct. Raymond Cooper received 466 votes.” Shouts of “Yes!” were heard from the Cooper section of the room. Order was quickly restored when Chief Dibble glared directly at Marvin Walsh, the primary culprit. “Mayor Bland,” Vera continued, “received 229 votes, and Juliet Stoughton received a total of 231 votes.” An audible murmur began to rise throughout the hall but quickly dissipated as Vera spoke again. “Counting the eight votes cast for write-ins, we have a total of 934 votes. The leading vote-getter, Raymond Cooper, received 466 votes.” The VFW corner erupted in a chorus of “Mayor Cooper, Mayor Cooper, Mayor Cooper!” A hard look from Chief Dibble restored order as Vera continued. “We’ve calculated the votes four times, and the result is the same each time. Raymond Cooper is two votes shy of a majority. We will conduct a run-off election between Raymond Cooper and Juliet Stoughton, who received two more votes than Mayor Bland, one week from today.” Iris Long took pictures of the melee following the announcement. Rhonda Goodman, standing outside with the majority of folks who weren’t selected to watch the election festivities inside the town hall, listened to the proceedings over speakers hastily erected on the hall steps. It was then she heard a familiar voice from inside the hall. There was no doubt about it. It was her husband, Earl, yelling, “It’s a sham! You are puppets of the Federal Reserve System! This will not stand! This will not stand!” Marvin Walsh joined in the fracas by rushing to the edge of the stage and shouting at the election coordinators. “We want a recount! You are tools of the federal government! We demand a recount!” Within seconds, the door to the town hall opened, and Chief Dibble exited the building behind Marvin Walsh and Earl Goodman, who were handcuffed to each other. Iris Long followed, taking pictures as quickly as she could focus her trusty Nikon, as the men made their way to the police station across the square. Over the noise of the crowd, Father O’Reilly barely heard the voice of Brother Billy Joe Prather over the speakers. Apparently, he was trying to restore order by asking the room to bow in prayer. Unfortunately for Brother Prather, it sounded like there weren’t many folks in the mood to pray at the moment. Just then, the doors to the town hall opened again. As the crowd watched, Raymond Cooper emerged. Several in the crowd began to chant, “Cooper, Cooper, Cooper!” Raymond stood there appreciatively, finally quieting the crowd by motioning with his hands. “Friends. I know that many of you think what happened tonight was a travesty of justice. I must admit, I have my doubts about what just took place in there. But this is America, and we have no choice but to abide by the wishes of the election coordinators.” Much of the crowd began shouting, “No! No! No!” until Raymond continued. “I’ve asked Worley Fain, chaplain of our Valley VFW, to lead us in prayer.” “Good Lord,” Jessie, waitress at the Hoffbrau, muttered just loud enough for Cooper to hear. “That’s the spirit!” shouted Cooper. “Do you hear that, Chaplain? They’re starting without you.” Kevin Slimp makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Count comes down to the wire
Iris counted and recounted the votes during the five-minute recess. It was difficult to concentrate with a room full of Valley residents, all loudly sharing their thoughts concerning the ballot tally.
Half the votes were counted, and Raymond held a considerable lead. With 53 percent of the vote so far, Cooper could win the mayor’s race outright if things continued to go his way.
Cooper and his supporters had been worried Juliet Stoughton’s late entry into the race might hurt his chances of collecting more than 50 percent of the votes, a necessity to avoid a run-off with the obvious second choice, Dick Bland. There was concern Bland might fare better with another week to campaign. Thankfully, it looked like Cooper’s tactics had worked and enough voters were frantic about the Federal Reserve System to carry their champion to victory.
Juliet had already surprised everyone by collecting 19 percent of the vote thus far. Though still far behind Bland, who was selected on 29 percent of the ballots, she had no reason to be ashamed. Apparently Cooper had angered enough of the electorate to throw 91 voters her way.
As the last chorus of “One Day at a Time” blared from the boombox on stage, Vera Pinrod brought the room to a hush as she roared, “Stoughton!” A tally was placed under Juliet’s name on the board.
A few Cooper supporters hissed, then giggled, to indicate their lack of concern. Their candidate needed only 47 percent of the remaining votes.
Outside, where hundreds of good folks gathered to listen to the proceedings over speakers in front of the town hall, a voice shouted, “Yes!”
It was none other than Jessie, the waitress at the ‘Brau, who originally suggested Juliet should place her name on the ballot.
“Cooper!” shouted Vera. Then, “Stoughton!”
More cheers, mostly from females, erupted from outside.
“Cooper!” Vera roared.
“Stoughton,” she continued. “And another vote for Stoughton!”
Twelve votes were tallied before Vera finally shouted, “Bland!”
There was a murmur throughout the room. Iris looked at her count. Still far behind Mayor Bland, Juliet was showing momentum, and the room was filled with speculation.
“Cooper! Stoughton! Stoughton! Bland! Stoughton! Cooper!” Vera shouted the votes purposely as the count reached the 90-minute mark.
Iris continued tallying votes on her reporter’s pad, but she gave up trying to keep up with the count as Vera called out names almost faster than Iris could mark them on the page.
Finally, like a runner sprinting to the finish line, Vera read the names on the final stack of ballots.
“Cooper!” she shouted. Next she yelled, “Bland!” creating a stir from the Baptist section of the room, eerily silent since the mid-count break.
“Stoughton!” Vera drew a deep breath. “And the final vote is for Juliet Stoughton.”
Farley Puckett was beside himself as he looked over to see his wife cheering along with other women gathered outside the town hall.
Iris went over her notes as most of the crowd inside the hall attempted to tally the votes in their heads.
Chief of Police Buford Dibble eyed the crowd carefully, looking for any signs of a potential riot while Vera and the two precinct coordinators scratched their chins as they peered at the tally board and looked over their notes several times.
The crowd silenced as Vera approached the microphone.
“The final vote is as follows,” Vera began. “Dick Bland: 229 votes.”
The crowd took a collective breath.
“Raymond Cooper: 466 votes.”
A murmur turned into conversations before Chief Dibble quieted the audience.
“Juliet Stoughton: 231 votes.”
“Mickey Mouse, Ima Goose and Ronald Reagan had eight votes between them.”
“Oh, my!” Iris whispered as she double-checked her figures.
Beatrice Justice, overhearing Iris, turned to her and said, “Ecclesiastes 1:2.”
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May 2017 Archives
Tight race makes for odd bedfellows
On a riser at the front of the room sat a large whiteboard with the names Bland, Cooper and Stoughton across the top. A fourth column with the word “Other” fit along the right edge. Tallies were recorded by Maxine Miller, who used a large black marker.
To begin the process, Vera Pinrod shouted, “Cooper!” twice. Two tallies were recorded under Raymond’s name as the VFW section of the Town Hall, which included 14 members of the local group, cheered in anticipation of the expected landslide victory of their champion.
Cooper, always confident, grinned knowingly. It was a good start for the “Man of the People.”
Their cheers came to an almost immediate halt as Vera shouted, “Bland,” reading the name on the third ballot.
The anticipation was palpable. Inside the room, 100 lucky lottery winners waited. Outside, speakers were set up so those not fortunate enough to get inside could hear the proceedings.
Before the vote count began, Vera announced there was a record turnout to mark ballots in the mayoral race. In the previous election, just the usual 800 or so good folks of the Valley turned out to vote. According to the records of the precinct coordinators, a total of 934 voters had marked ballots on this election day. That was all but four of the registered voters in the Valley.
“Cooper!” Vera shouted, followed by cheers from the VFW section.
“Bland!” she continued the count, as Iris Long jotted the vote results on her reporter’s note pad.
After five minutes of tallying, the board indicated 24 votes for Raymond Cooper, 19 votes for “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland, and no votes for Juliet Stoughton.
Raymond began to breathe more easily as his concern that Juliet’s last minute entrance might harm his chances of getting a majority of the votes, which was needed to win the mayor’s race outright, dwindled away.
Finally, at the 5:07 mark, Vera shouted, “Mickey Mouse!” and the crowd broke out in laughter. Mickey, along with Ima Goose, Ronald Reagan and a few others, generally received a dozen or more votes, but wasted ballots were much less common during the 1998 race. It was obvious one vote could make a difference.
The laughter subsided as Vera announced the name on ballot 45, “Juliet Stoughton.”
There were no boos or cheers, as had been the case every time Cooper or Bland received a vote. There was just an audible sigh emanating throughout the room.
Finally, Marvin Walsh, watching from the VFW section of the room, shouted, “I guess she had to vote for herself!” as several folks inside Town Hall and outside on the front steps laughed in response.
Not everyone laughed, however. Outside, Earl Goodman’s laugh quickly subsided as his wife Rhonda, who was sleeping separately from him for only the second time in their marriage, glared at him with a look that sent chills up his spine.
“Stoughton!” shouted Vera, calling out Juliet’s name again.
Raymond received the next vote. Then, Mayor Bland, then two votes for Juliet. There was a mumble throughout the Town Hall. The VFW section was noticeably silenced.
At the 51:49 mark, Iris noted half the ballots had been counted. She quickly looked over her note pad as Vera announced a five-minute recess before the tally would continue.
Iris had been very careful as she jotted down the vote count. After 467 votes, the tally looked like this:
Dick Bland: 137
Raymond Cooper: 234
Juliet Stoughton: 91
Mickey Mouse: 2
Ima Goose: 3
Outside, Farley Puckett turned to his wife and said, “How can there be 90 people stupid enough to vote for that woman?”
From the look on his wife’s face, he realized Earl wasn’t the only man sleeping alone in the Valley tonight.
Read more about the good folks at LennoxValley.com.
Ballot count takes center stage in Valley
In Lennox Valley, election nights were generally drab affairs, with tight results a rarity. Usually, the good folks of the Valley booted the old mayor out with the same lackluster fanfare used to welcome the new leader into office.
However, 1998 was no ordinary year, and like so many other things, the mayoral election didn’t go according to script. If it wasn’t enough the Valley was split between a fairly respected incumbent and the town celebrity, Juliet Stoughton’s last-minute entree into the campaign created enough drama for two episodes of “Murder, She Wrote.”
Heated debates made their way to dinner tables. Wives slept separately from husbands, pastors ignored the campaign for fear of controversy, and there was a general uneasiness which didn’t befit the small-town friendliness for which our small town was known.
Traditionally, a handful of Valley residents were on hand to witness the counting of ballots at the Town Hall. Our Town Hall wasn’t like the palatial governmental buildings in larger cities. It included a small reception room with four seats rarely used, the mayor’s office, the office of the chief of police and Assembly Hall, where Valley Council meetings were held each month. Tightly packed, the room might have accommodated 100 people. It hadn’t dawned on anyone that most Valley residents would show up to see the ballots counted.
Polls closed at 7 p.m., and the ballot box from each precinct was carefully delivered to the Town Hall under the watchful eye of the precinct election coordinator and two Valley Council members. As the coordinators approached the building, you’d have thought they were carrying precious jewels as the crowd silenced in awe.
Once the boxes were safely inside the building, Chief of Police Buford Dibble appeared in front of the entrance with his bullhorn.
“Citizens of Lennox Valley,” he began. “In an attempt to maintain control during the ballot count, we will allow only 100 persons into Town Hall to view the proceedings.”
“Who decides who gets in?” barked Marvin Walsh, local egg farmer and Raymond Cooper supporter.
Chief Dibble continued, “Each adult will be given a piece of paper with a number on it. We will call out numbers until we have reached the limit of 100 in the room.”
“Does that include the people counting the ballots?” shouted Elbert Lee Jones.
A hushed conversation took place between Dibble and the Valley election coordinator, Vera Pinrod.
The chief continued, “100 persons will be admitted to watch the proceedings. This is in addition to the election coordinator, the precinct coordinators and myself.”
“What about the press?” asked Iris Long from the back of the crowd.
After an even longer discussion between the chief and Vera, Dibble blared over the bullhorn, “The 100 persons admitted are in addition to the election coordinator, the precinct coordinators, the three candidates, members of the press and myself.” Then after a pause, “Persons not of voting age will not be admitted.”
Folks squealed like lottery winners as their numbers were called. Marvin Walsh was in. Rhonda Goodman was not. Billy Joe Prather, pastor of First Baptist Church, was in. Father O’Reilly was not.
On a riser at the front of the room, a large whiteboard with the names Bland, Cooper and Stoughton across the top secured everyone’s attention. A fourth column with the word, “Other,” fit along the right edge. Tallies would be recorded by hand with a large black marker.
“Cooper!” shouted Vera.
A tally was marked on the board under Raymond’s name.
“Cooper!” Vera shouted again.
Iris Long made a mental note of the count while shooting pictures with her 20-year old Nikon.
“This is going to be a very long night,” thought Iris.
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Last Man Standing
Raymond takes no prisoners in final hours
In all my days growing up in Lennox Valley, I can’t remember a day as tense as Thursday, August 20, 1998. Old-timers still say the tension could match any moment in Valley history, before or since.
As Raymond began hour six of the special edition of his daily show, “Renderings with Raymond,” listeners continued to hang on to his every word. One caller after another praised Cooper’s leadership as he stood up to the elite media and government authorities who blocked his way along every path.
Raymond had been hinting all day there would be a special surprise during the sixth hour of the show, as he welcomed a different guest at the top of each hour. Guests had already included Farley Puckett, owner of the local hardware store; Earl Goodman, postal carrier and the first to “nominate” Raymond for the mayor’s office; Vera Pinrod, president of the Auburn Hat Society; Brother Jacob, who left quickly after explaining to Raymond that something had suddenly come up five minutes into his appearance as Cooper took his hand, asking the young associate pastor to pray a prayer of victory; and Worley Fain, chaplain of the Lennox Valley VFW.
Raymond asked Chaplain Fain to prepare a prayer in advance, suggesting he might use one Cooper had penned himself, but actually came from his bedside “Book of Famous Prayers.”
“Dear Lord,” began Worley, “You know our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the government authorities, against the powers that be, against the forces of darkness, and against the spiritual forces of wickedness that surround us.”
Father O’Reilly and Lars Svendsen, senior pastor of Lennox Valley Lutheran Church, made a habit of having a late lunch every Thursday afternoon at The Haufbrau. As they dined on Reuben sandwiches and sauerkraut, each sipped on his favorite brand of lite beer.
As did most businesses in the Valley, the ‘brau played “Renderings with Raymond” on the sound system as diners enjoyed their meals. As Chaplain Fain began his prayer, the clergymen almost spit beer from their mouths as they recognized the words from Ephesians, Chapter 6.
The men admitted to each other they hadn’t been to the voting booth yet. Lennox residents were divided into two precincts. Residents who lived within the “town” precinct voted in the Fellowship Hall of First Baptist Church. Raymond had mentioned on several occasions the location held an unfair advantage for Mayor Bland, who was a member there.
Folks who lived in the “country” precinct voted at the VFW, located on Highway 11. Cooper never seemed to notice the same could be said about the polling location of the country precinct. You would be hard pressed to find a VFW member who wasn’t solidly in Raymond’s corner.
As was often the case, the two veteran parsons took their time, enjoying the solace of conversation between close friends.
Jessie, waitress at the ‘brau for longer than anyone could remember, quizzed her customers. “Who do you think the surprise guest will be, padres?”
She called all the local clergymen “padre,” except Brother Prather, who took exception to the colloquial tone. She had yet to settle on a nickname for Sarah Hyden-Smith.
“It’s not me,” quipped Father O’Reilly.
“Me, either,” added Pastor Svendsen, “although my shadow,” sarcastically referring to Brother Jacob, “took advantage of the limelight for a brief moment this morning.”
The three hushed as Raymond began hour six of his show.
“Our guest for this hour needs no introduction,” Raymond began. “I have on the phone none other than Dean Morris, who starred as Deke McClellan in ‘Don’t Shoot Nellie!’ which is quite possibly the most memorable first-season episode of ‘Walker, Texas Ranger.’”
“Good Lord,” sighed Father O’Reilly.
“It sounds like you’re doing mighty important work in Leonard Valley,” began Morris. “Those folks are sure lucky to have you on their side.”
Cooper responded with words that seemed totally authentic to his listeners, “I’m humbled.”
The part-time celebrity was on and gone within three minutes, but Raymond Cooper was certain Dean Morris had just put him over the top.
Hostile campaign forces Goodmans to sleep separately
Election Day finally arrived. Thursday, August 20, 1998, was perhaps the most awaited date in Lennox Valley history. In a year filled with anticipation, featur-ing visits from celebrities of all types, the mayoral race between current mayor, Dick Bland, and his opponent, Raymond Cooper, had created a greater stir than any event in the 148-year history of the Valley.
Who would have thought an election could draw more attention than Todd Cecil, celebrity evangelist from Joplin, Missouri, or an appearance at the upcoming Spring County Fair by Tangi Blevins & the Heavenly Hosts? Perhaps the only event to rival this campaign was the appearance of the first female pastor in the Valley just two months earlier.
Knowing the majority of ballots were entered near the end of the day, Cooper wasted no time in swaying any fence-sitting voters. Raymond began his daily show, “Renderings with Raymond,” three hours early, at 9:00 a.m., under the guise of informing the public of any breaking news on Election Day.
The morning buzz at Caroline’s Beauty Parlor focused on one topic: Juliet Stoughton’s campaign rally on the square just 18 hours earlier. With the help of Rhonda Goodman and Caroline (who were both persuaded to attend the rally after hearing Stoughton supporters referred to as “stupid” on Cooper’s Wednesday show), along with Jessie Orr, waitress at the Hoffbrau, more than 120 women – plus a handful of men – showed up to hear Stoughton speak. You might remember it was Jessie who originally planted the idea of running for office in Juliet’s mind as she sipped tea at “the ‘brau” just a few weeks earlier.
As customers discussed the rally, “Renderings with Raymond” could be heard playing on Caroline’s speakers.
Realizing Farley Puckett’s “stupid” comment might have hurt his standing among female voters, Cooper attempted to heal any wounds by tending to the sensibili-ties of women listeners.
“I believe a woman has just as much right to run for mayor as anyone else,” Raymond muttered as he began hour two of his “special edition.” “However,” he con-tinued, “it’s obvious that a vote for Stutin,” purposely mispronouncing Juliet’s name, “is a wasted vote in this race.”
“What kind of name is Stutin anyway?” interrupted Raymond’s guest, Earl Goodman. “It sounds kind of Russian to me.”
Unbeknownst to the listeners, Earl and Rhonda Goodman slept separately the previous evening for the first time since her mysterious impetigo attack seven years earlier. Earl could not believe his wife of 32 years had been swayed by that “conniving woman.”
Raymond was acutely aware that he needed more than 50 percent of the vote to win the election outright. If Juliet could acquire enough votes, she could force a runoff between him and Bland. Even though Cooper had a substantial lead in the Spring County League of Women Voters poll, he could feel his support shrinking with each passing day.
The poll showed him with 39 percent of the voters on his side. If he could draw just half of the 28 percent who declared themselves “undecided,” he would win the election handily.
“If she were to get just a few votes,” continued Raymond, “she could force a runoff between me and Sliver Tongue,” purposely twisting Bland’s nickname. “And even though I would defeat the so-called mayor easily, it seems like a huge waste of taxpayer time and money to hold another election next week.”
“Just think of all the things that money could be spent on besides an election,” Earl chimed in.
“That’s right,” said Cooper. “I’d hate to think of all the extra taxes our voters would have to pay to stroke the ego of one self-centered woman.”
“The women of our city need to talk to their husbands. Voting against them is like wasting both of their votes,” shouted Goodman.
“You know, Earl,” offered Raymond, “after dealing with our corrupt Valley government for years, I believe you are the only public servant we have that makes any sense,” referring to Goodman’s role as mail carrier to the good folks of Lennox Valley.
Several listeners thought they heard a sniffle as Earl whispered, “Thank you, Mr. Mayor.”
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April 2017 Archives
Voters for woman called “stupid” by Puckett
On Wednesday, the day before the “Election of the Century,” Lennox Valley was captivated by the series of events that had transpired the previous night. The Hometown News front page photo of Elbert Lee Jones rushing the stage, being held back by Marvin Walsh and two other Cooper supporters, summed up the evening pretty well.
The story to the left of the photo was just as compelling. Results of a poll by the Spring County League of Women Voters indicated Raymond Cooper’s coronation wasn’t as sure as many thought.
Raymond still held a significant lead with 39 percent support in the poll. Current Mayor “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland was nine points behind. It was that undecided vote which had Cooper concerned.
Without Stoughton, he would easily pick up enough undecided votes to reach a majority, but Juliet’s entrance into the race changed things.
Cooper wasn’t concerned about Juliet beating him. It was obvious she wouldn’t be one of two candidates in a run-off, assuming things went that far. She could, however, force the race to continue for another week, subjecting Raymond to another week of campaigning while he watched his lead decline with each passing day.
It would take more than a last-minute entry into the race to frighten Raymond Cooper. He always had a plan.
Cooper began his show with the usual rendition of “I’m Proud To Be An American,” followed by a prayer taken verbatim from his “Book of Famous Prayers.” It was an especially powerful prayer to kick off the Wednesday show, including some words from Psalm 109: “They surround me and say hateful things; they attack me for no reason. They repay my love with accusations, but I continue to pray.”
In a late night meeting with his “advisers,” Marvin Walsh and Farley Puckett, who would serve as Raymond’s guest on Wedesday’s show, Cooper came up with his plan.
“Issues!” shouted Raymond. “We need more issues.”
The trio whittled down a list of a dozen or so compelling issues to three. On Wednesday’s show, Raymond didn’t waste any time bringing those issues to light.
“Dick Bland has run this city through fear and intimidation for too long,” Raymond shouted into the microphone. “That is going to stop when I am mayor. Just like everyone has a voice on this show, every citizen of Lennox Valley will finally have a voice in government when I am mayor.”
Rhonda Goodman was in the chair at Caroline’s Beauty Salon when Juliet Stoughton, candidate for mayor, walked in. Juliet was carrying a stack of flyers and asked Caroline if she could put one in her front window that looked out over Bearden’s Corner. Caroline told her to place as many as she wanted in the window.
Juliet seemed relieved. “I haven’t had much luck. Most folks won’t let me put them in their windows. They always say they have a policy against political flyers, even though they usually have one of Raymond Cooper or Dick Bland in their windows.”
Rhonda asked to see the flyer, then read the words aloud: “Mayoral Candidate Juliet Stoughton will appear on Bearden’s Corner today at 4:00 to share her vision for Lennox Valley with the public.”
At that very moment, “Renderings with Raymond” was back on the air after a commercial break for Massengale Funeral Home. All three ladies paused to hear how Raymond would begin his second hour.
Before Cooper could do more than welcome listeners back, Farley chimed in, “It’s hard for me to believe,” his volume rising, “that anyone would vote for that woman.”
Cooper responded, “She’ll get a few votes. She’s probably made a few friends in town, and women might be quicker to fall for her nonsense.”
“I suppose you’re right, as usual,” answered Puckett. “Thank goodness most of our Valley women aren’t stupid enough to vote for her.”
“Dick Bland has been a barefaced puppet of the elite media for too long!” shouted Cooper. “It’s pure and simple socialism.” He continued, “And a vote for that woman is a shameless wasted vote!”
“I’ll be there at four,” Rhonda told Julia after catching her breath.”
Caroline chimed in, “Me, too. Can I have a few of those flyers?”
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Welcome to Lenox Valley
Powerful Words - Underdog attacks make-believe issues
For a while it seemed as if the mayoral debate might have ended before it began. After prayers by Raymond Cooper and Dick Bland incited a near-riot in the Methodist church fellowship hall, voices quickly dulled to whispers as Juliet Stoughton took her place behind the podium.
As the cacophony quieted, Stoughton took a moment to regain composure before introducing herself.
“Hello. My name is Juliet Stoughton,” she began. “I know most of you don’t know me, and you are probably wondering what I am doing on this stage with the other candidates for mayor.”
“We sure are!” shouted Marvin Walsh to the delight of his fellow Cooper supporters.
Cackles were heard in the VFW section as TV-6 meteorologist Matt Pinkin attempted to take control by reminding the audience the timer would restart at 60 seconds due to the interruption. That silenced the crowd. No one likes being chastised by a famous celebrity.
Juliet continued. “I’m here,” pausing to catch her breath, “because I remember all the wonderful stories I was told about this place.”
You could have heard a pin drop as the audience absorbed those simple words.
“I heard of this Valley, filled with wonderful people. I was told they were hard-working, friendly, gentle people. I couldn’t wait to see this place and meet these people for myself. I was excited because this Valley would be my home.”
Murmuring could be heard among the crowd. “That’s right,” someone uttered, just loud enough to be made out among the audience.
“Imagine my surprise when the first voice I heard was a voice on the radio.” Juliet thought it best to exclude her previous soulmate from her early impressions of the Valley.
The spectators were on the edges of their seats as everyone, even the children, knew that Stoughton was referring to Raymond Cooper, host of “Renderings with Raymond” and candidate for mayor of Lennox Valley.
“This voice was neither gentle nor kind,” she continued. “It was mean and hateful.”
Elbert Lee Jones had heard enough. He was about to shout something, probably neither gentle nor kind, but was subdued by his fellow VFW members who realized Juliet would get a fresh 60 seconds if she was interrupted again.
“I am here,” she said quietly, “because I want the Lennox Valley I dreamed of, the Valley made up of hard-working, friendly neighbors. I want to work toward making our Valley a better place for everyone.”
Matt Pinkin reminded Juliet she had 10 seconds remaining on the timer.
“I want a town concerned about real problems, not make-believe issues like rising egg prices and the Federal Reserve.”
For a brief moment, the room was silent. That’s when Rhonda Goodman rose from her seat and began applauding. Her husband, Earl, the mailman and the first to suggest on “Renderings with Raymond” that Cooper should run for office, turned to his wife with a stunned look on his face.
Other women in the audience began to stand and applaud. After a few seconds, there were 20 or more women, plus a couple of men, on their feet and clapping with Rhonda.
The main headline on the front of Lennox Valley Hometown News the next morning read “Newcomer Turns Heads” with the subhead, “Sharp criticism of fake issues incites crowd.”
Two photos graced page one. The dominant photo, underneath the headline, showed all three candidates on stage during the coin-flip to determine who would speak first. A little further down was a picture of Elbert Lee Jones rushing the stage, being held back by Marvin Walsh and two other Cooper supporters.
The only other story on page one included the results of a poll conducted by the Spring County League of Women Voters, which coincidentally included no members of the Lennox Valley Auburn Hat Society:
- Mayor Dick Bland: 30 percent
- Raymond Cooper: 39 percent
- Juliet Stoughton: 3 percent
- Undecided: 28 percent
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Welcome to Lenox Valley
Tempers Flare - as prayers become personal
The excitement in the Valley was palpable that Tuesday evening as the good folks made their way to the fellowship hall of the Methodist Church for what would soon be known as “The Debate of the Century.”
The atmosphere was similar to that of a county fair or street carnival as members of the VFW waved signs proclaiming, “Down with the Federal Reserve!” while the Ladies of the Auburn Hat Society passed out lemon cookies to children trying to hang on to their parents along the crowded walkway.
Campaign attire revealed the sentiments of those in the crowd. Raymond Cooper’s supporters proudly wore “In Your Heart, You Know He’s Right” buttons, while those of “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland’s adherents proclaimed “God’s Own Man.”
Absent from the festivities were any signs of support for the Juliet Stoughton, the last-minute candidate who tricked Cooper and Bland into taking part in a debate just two days before the mayoral election. I suppose it was hardly a surprise as only a handful of Valley residents had met Juliet in the year since she moved to the Valley.
Iris Long hurriedly finished laying out Wednesday’s issue of Lennox Valley Hometown News, leaving only space for a front-page photo and story about the debate. Next to the debate story she listed the results of a just-completed poll of Valley voters under the headline, “Valley Poll Full of Surprises.”
Iris left the newspaper office and hurried over to the debate site carrying her well-worn camera and note pad. This election was the biggest story of her long career and she wasn’t about to miss the fireworks about to take place at the Methodist Church.
Neither Lennox Valley nor Springfield was big enough for a network-affiliated TV station. However, students at Spring County Community College were on hand to broadcast the debate over the local cable access channel.
Using her influence as secretary of the Spring Valley Chamber of Commerce, Vera Pinrod made arrangements for Matt Pinkin, meteorologist at Channel 6 News, to travel the 60 miles to Lennox Valley to moderate the debate.
All the ingredients were present for a slugfest of historical proportions. The candidates lined the stage in three chairs, with Mayor Dick Bland in the center seat. A single podium graced the stage, blocking those along the center aisle from seeing Bland clearly. A microphone was mounted on the front of the podium connected to a portable speaker on the floor below.
Moderator Pinkin took the stage, provoking an almost deafening roar from the audience. Celebrities were rare in the Valley, although 1998 saw more than its share between TV evangelists and performers at the county fair.
As the crowd watched in silence, a coin was tossed determining who would speak first. Raymond Cooper would be first, followed by Mayor Bland, then Juliet. The moderator told each candidate to make a one-minute opening statement.
Cooper approached the podium as a sizeable portion of the audience cheered. Looking over the assembly, he paused, then asked everyone to bow their heads.
As everyone except Iris Long lowered their heads, Raymond began to pray, “Let not the foot of pride come upon me, and let not the hand of the wicked drive me away. There the doers of iniquity have fallen. They have been thrust down and cannot rise.”
His fans were beside themselves. Their champion once again was led by God to deliver a heartfelt prayer. That it came straight from Raymond’s “Book of Famous Prayers” was unknown to them.
Dick Bland was a seasoned politician. Not to be outdone, as his 60 seconds began, he also asked the audience to pray with him.
Quoting directly from Judges 15, “Silver Tongue” prayed, “Lord, I have been smitten by the jawbone of an ass.”
That’s when things began to get out of hand. Cooper supporters took the prayer personally as Bland loyalists cheered the mayor on. It was obvious the meteorologist was in over his head.
Just when it seemed that the debate might have ended before it began, the crowd hushed as Juliet Stoughton took her place behind the podium.
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Welcome to Lenox Valley
Gen. Cooper gets help from Private Ryan
Undoubtedly, the two chief forms of entertainment in my hometown in 1998 were politics and church, in no particular order. If we wanted to bowl or play miniature golf, then a trip to Springfield, the county seat, was required.
Professional wrestling came to town a couple of times each year. Most of the wrestlers were from Springfield or some other nearby town, and we’d recognize them if their masks happened to slip. My favorite wrestler was “Lightning” Hugh Light.
Light was a master in the ring. Tall and wiry, he used every ounce of his 170-pound frame to outmaneuver his more sinister opponents. In April of 1998, I ran into Lightning at the Rexall drugstore in Springfield, as he filled the racks with the latest magazines.
I asked why he was putting magazines on the rack and he told me that was his job. In an instant, professional wrestling lost some of its luster and it’s never been quite the same for me since.
We did, however, have one other form of entertainment in the Valley: The Majestic Theater. With only 1,200 residents, there wasn’t enough business to keep a theater open every night, but on Friday and Saturday nights plus Sunday afternoons, the good folks of Lennox Valley could plop down $2 ($1 for children) and spend two hours escaping reality.
With only one screen, movies came and left quickly. Most movies played only one weekend at the Majestic and were replaced with a new title the following week. An exception to that rule was “Saving Private Ryan,” which was in its third week – a record in the Valley – in August 1998.
Callers to “Renderings with Raymond” had come to refer to their hero as “Gen. Cooper,” as “Saving Private Ryan” infiltrated the minds and hearts of Valley residents during the movie’s run. Cooper, having never served in the military himself, was happy to take on the honorary mantle.
“I cannot compare to the heroes in that great movie,” Raymond would say. “But like them, I’ve dedicated my life to fighting the forces of evil and destruction right here in our Valley.”
With the election just two days away, and the debate of the century only a few hours away, Cooper was in his prime during the Tuesday show.
Asked how he felt about a poll being conducted by an unknown organization in Springfield, Raymond reminded the group there were many “outsiders” who hoped to disrupt his campaign and he was sure this was another ploy by the elite media to steer attention away from the issues.
Now that egg prices were no longer discussed on Raymond’s show, no one was quite certain to which issues he referred. Whatever they were, his faithful fans wouldn’t let anything or anyone dilute their enthusiasm.
While most good folks of the Valley were glued to Cooper’s show, Iris Long was busy pasting up pages of the Lennox Valley Hometown News which would hit the stands the following day. She had already decided the main headline would relate to the debate, now only five hours away. She would have a four-column photo of the candidates behind their podiums with the main headline across the top of the page. Underneath the photo, she left plenty of space clear for a detailed report.
Other than the debate story, Iris left room for only one other piece – an article detailing the results of the just-completed survey of Valley voters. Iris wasn’t as young as she once was, and sometimes she found it necessary to stop whatever she was doing and take a breath. This was one of those moments.
While Iris thought about the huge story about to take place, Raymond used the last hour of his Tuesday show to remind listeners to consider their options wisely. He had recently begun referring to Mayor “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland as “Sliver Tongue.”
“He is as sneaky as a snake,” Cooper liked to say about his rival.
He ended the show by reminding his listeners, “It wouldn’t be right for me to use this radio platform to influence your voting decisions.” Then, after a pause, “Just vote your conscience, remembering two of the candidates in the field have no conscience.”
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Who’s the Valley’s favorite candidate?
Now that Sarah Hyden-Smith and Iris Long had carved out a platform for Juliet’s last-minute mayoral campaign, it was time to talk strategy.
There was no budget for an expensive ad campaign. After all, Juliet’s most menacing opponent owned the town’s only radio station, and being the ethical journalist she was, Iris couldn’t just give Juliet free space in the newspaper.
Fortunately, ministers and editors are generally skilled wordsmiths, and Sarah and Iris knew words pack a punch. As Iris saw it, their only hope was to engage Cooper and “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland in a public debate.
“Surely,” Long said while in deep thought, “there are more people in the Valley like us.”
Hyden-Smith agreed. “Most folks have just heard Juliet added her name to the ballot. They have no idea what she stands for.”
Iris concurred. “Let’s face it. There have got to be dozens – maybe hundreds – of voters who feel the same way we do. We need to let them know they have a choice.”
“But I’ve never debated,” Juliet interjected. “Do you think my inexperience will make me look foolish against two seasoned speakers?”
“You’re a smart woman, Juliet,” Sarah shot back. “That’s what will come through.”
The group knew that getting Silver Tongue to debate would be easy. He loved to speak on stage. Getting Raymond behind a podium, however, would be more difficult. It was Juliet’s idea to call Raymond the next day, during his Friday “Renderings With Raymond” broadcast, to challenge him publicly.
Juliet stayed up half the night, thinking about her call to Raymond. She would need to trick him into agreeing to a debate. Raymond was no dummy. He knew he was a clear favorite, and debates are generally meant to benefit the underdogs. Her words would be crucial.
Friday marked six days until the election. Caroline’s Beauty Salon had its usual crowd, as women of the Valley prepared to look their best for church services on Sunday.
As usual, the radio played “Renderings With Raymond,” while customers sat under hair dryers and in seats along the large window looking out over Bearden’s Corner.
At 2:20 precisely, as Vera Pinrod was about to say something concerning the evils of Harry Potter, who she had recently begun referring to as “the devil’s son,” the room grew silent as Raymond announced, “Let’s take another call.”
Juliet began her call just as she had prepared, exuding confidence, “Yes, Mr. Cooper. This is Juliet Stoughton.”
Obviously surprised, Cooper seemed more amused than concerned by her call. “Is this the same Juliet Stoughton that is alledgedly running for mayor of Lennox Valley?”
Expecting that response, Juliet was ready. “Yes it is. The very same.”
“Well, how can I be of service to you today, Juliet?” Cooper said almost coyly.
“I would like to challenge you to a debate next Tuesday night.”
“A debate?” Cooper chuckled. “Miss, I know that you are new to the complexities of campaigns, but there are only six days left until the election. I’m quite sure this last-ditch effort of yours couldn’t even be planned in such a short period.”
Juliet was ready. “Mr. Bland said you would say that.”
“What do you mean by that?” asked an obviously perturbed Cooper.
“I made the same challenge to him this morning. He said he would be happy to debate, but you would be afraid to face me on stage. He said you would probably make up some excuse about it being too close to the election date.”
“Listen here, missy,” Raymond almost shouted into the microphone. “You name the place and time, and I will be there to show you what a real mayor looks like.”
Iris and Sarah both smiled as they sat together by the radio as Juliet answered, “Tuesday night. Seven o’clock. At the Methodist Church.”
For a moment, Raymond Cooper was speechless. But just for a moment.
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Pre-election parties highlight candidate disparities
With seven days remaining until the mayoral “Race of the Century,” groups gathered throughout Lennox Valley to cheer on their candidates.
“Silver Tongue” Dick Bland held his campaign gala in the First Baptist Church Fellowship Hall, where 200 supporters gathered to celebrate his upcoming victory. Red, white and blue streamers hung throughout the room, alongside photos of Bland glued to letter-size sheets of red, white and blue construction paper. All who gathered knew Silver Tongue had at least two advantages in the race. First, he hadn’t angered many good folks over the past four years, which was quite the accomplishment for an incumbent in the Valley. If it hadn’t been for the furor over egg prices and the Federal Reserve System, folks would have been hard-pressed to name any issue that divided the community over the previous four years.
Bland’s second advantage was self-evident. Everyone in the room was quite certain that God was on Dick’s side. After all, he was a loyal church-goer, with 17 years of Sunday School perfect attendance pins to show for it. With God on his side, the mayor was a shoo-in.
The gala began with a somber yet powerful prayer by the church’s pastor, Brother Billy Joe Prather. That was followed by a rousing rendition of “Onward Christian Soldiers,” sung by the attendees and accompanied by Loraine Sutherland, First Baptist Church pianist.
Two miles away, on Highway 11, there was another celebration taking place. The VFW was the perfect spot for Raymond Cooper’s “Campaign Bash,” as he had referred to it during his radio talk show for the past five days. There were no prayers at Raymond’s celebration. There were no choirs or hymns. There were, however, tipsy veterans mixing alongside Raymond’s most fervent supporters. And, instead of hymns, the two cracked speakers in the jukebox blared “All My Exes Live in Texas.” To be fair, there were a few inebriated celebrants singing along.
Juliet Stoughton, known until recently as “Claire” to the few folks she had met in the Valley, held a less animated event than her opponents. Supported by her friend and pastor, Sarah Hyden-Smith, along with Iris Long, editor of The Hometown News, Juliet listened as the two of them discussed campaign strategy, all the while knowing her chances of winning were someplace between slim and none.
Fortunately, Iris and Sarah were able to convince Juliet not to make the annual First Baptist Church Men’s Breakfast and Turkey Shoot an issue in the campaign. Long shared that she planned to endorse a candidate in the upcoming edition of The Hometown News, and pancakes and turkeys didn’t make for a suitable campaign platform.
Other than a story announcing Juliet’s campaign in the previous edition of the paper, there had been little notice of her candidacy. Cooper, obviously aware her chances of winning were miniscule, ignored Juliet’s campaign after initially reacting to the news when she entered the race. “Silver Tongue” seemed content to focus on his main adversary, Raymond Cooper.
With Cooper running on the slogan, “In your heart, you know he’s right,” borrowed from Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and Bland sticking with the rallying cry from his first race, “Stand with Bland,” Juliet needed a catchy and memorable slogan, something to cause voters to recognize she was a viable candidate.
That’s when it came to her – “Vote for the egg-cellent, egg-citing candidate, Juliet Stoughton!”
“That’s funny,” quipped Sarah.
“I love it,” Iris chimed in. “It’s funny, and it reminds voters of Raymond’s involvement in the egg scandal.”
Four hours later, reading over their notes one last time, Iris declared, “It just might work.”
Meanwhile, Cooper acted as though he hadn’t a care in the world as Juliet’s troops discussed campaign strategy.
All the while, Raymond laughed and danced with his adoring fans as George Strait sang, “And that’s why I hang my hat in Tennessee.”
Kevin Slimp currently makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Contact him at email@example.com.
February 2017 Archives
Valley Clergy Unite
“Evil must be stopped,” warns Pinrod
Every fifth Friday of the month, which generally comes around about four times most years, the clergy of the Valley would gather together for lunch. Over time, the gathering came to be known as the Ministerial Alliance of Lennox Valley.
To outsiders, meaning just about anyone who doesn’t work for one of the Valley churches, the words “Ministerial Alliance” bring thoughts of important discussions concerning major theological and ethical issues. The pastors are careful to be sure the meeting is included in each of their respective church newsletters, and the good folks of the Baptist, Catholic, Lutheran and Methodist churches can feel relief that their shepherds are guarding against any corrupt influences that might infiltrate their community.
To the clergy of the Valley, however, the Ministerial Alliance basically means a chance to have lunch together and compare notes about what’s going on in their congregations.
So it was on July 31, 1998, the ecclesiastical leaders of the community gathered together for lunch. One danger of announcing the meeting so prominently was that members of the community often requested an opportunity to address the Alliance, usually to bring to their attention some moral concern requiring their collective wisdom and guidance.
It didn’t take long for the pastors to realize the necessity of planning a “business meeting” after lunch to allow members of the community to address the group. Otherwise, the respected leaders would never be able to discuss politics, sports or other matters of great importance.
This would be the first Alliance meeting for Sarah Hyden-Smith, and she approached the date with a combination of excitement and trepidation. After all, she was the first female to enter the all-male fraternity of ministers in Lennox Valley, and she was concerned she might not be welcomed with open arms.
Sarah was pleasantly surprised by her reception. All her colleagues, even those from churches that didn’t allow female clergy, offered their sincere welcome and quickly made her feel at home.
She had considered bringing the subject of the annual Men’s Breakfast and Turkey Shoot at First Baptist Church to their attention, but thought better of the idea. After all, what concern of hers was it if men wanted to have a meal together and shoot paper plates? Maybe after a year, the time would be right to address such things before the group.
Father O’Reilly was the first to welcome Sarah as she entered Betsy’s Diner on Highway 11, just north of the VFW. The group usually lunched at Betsy’s, instead of the Haufbrau, to keep the Baptists and some Methodists from getting upset at their pastors for eating at an establishment that served beer.
Most of lunch was spent discussing the upcoming election, with Father O’Reilly taking a good bit of ribbing for having the only church without a candidate on the ballot.
“Looking at the candidates,” quipped the good father, “I’m thinking I should round one up.”
Following lunch, the group began their business meeting in the “social room” at Betsy’s. The social room was a fancy name for four tables that could be separated from the rest of the diner with an accordian-style folding wall.
There was one item of business on the meeting schedule, a presentation from Vera Pinrod, representing the Auburn Hat Society.
“You might remember,” Pinrod began, “earlier this year I brought an item to your attention about a scandalous book being read by many of our children.”
Being new to the alliance, Sarah had no idea what book Vera was referring to.
“Harry Potter,” continued Pinrod, “might be the most dangerous element to prey upon our youth since Dungeons and Dragons was banned from official school activities in 1987.”
Being a fan of Harry Potter, Sarah almost giggled before catching herself.
Vera continued, “I have spoken to both Raymond Cooper and Mayor Bland, and both agree that something must be done about this menace. I’m sure you will give this issue the prayerful consideration it warrants.”
Lutheran Pastor Brother Jacob, sitting next to Sarah, leaned over and whispered, “Welcome to Lennox Valley.”
Never Before! Cooper silenced by shocking news
Raymond Cooper’s plan was simple on Wednesday as he began his daily program at noon on Talk Radio 88.3. As had become his custom, the show commenced with Lee Greenwood singing “I’m Proud to Be an American,” followed by a heart-warming prayer by Raymond.
Just a few hours earlier, as Claire sat across the booth from Sarah Hyden-Smith, sipping hot tea and memorizing the Hoffbrau’s breakfast menu, neither she nor Sarah had any suspicion this conversation would alter their friendship in so many ways.
Eventually, Claire lowered her guard enough to share something she had been hiding from her new friend. “I need to tell you something. Something really important.”
“OK,” responded Sarah in a caring tone.
She explained that her old life was much different. Before moving to the valley, she had a good job. She was involved in several community causes. Then she dropped the bombshell. “Claire is not my real name. My real name is Juliet Stoughton. Back home, everyone calls me ‘Jules.’”
After the shock wore off from her friend’s confession, Sarah asked if there was anything else she’d been hiding.
“No, just the name. I met a girl named Claire in college. She was the most confident, smartest person I’d ever met. After my ex-fiance left, I decided to use her name, hoping I could be more like her. After all, nobody knew me here. They still don’t. Well, no one except you.”
After the prayer, Raymond began a stirring discourse concerning the importance of honesty in the press. Cooper knew that by now almost every listener would have read the morning edition of Lennox Valley Hometown News, and he was none too happy about the words Editor Iris Long used to characterize his election campaign.
“Perhaps,” Cooper barked, “the alleged editor has an ulterior motive. Maybe there is more to her negativity than meets the eye.”
Raymond welcomed Farley Pucket, to the show. Pucket owned the local True Value Hardware Store and was Cooper’s biggest advertiser. Raymond knew where his bread was buttered and trusted Farley to agree with his opinion on most any subject.
“Did you get a chance to read the so-called editorial in the paper this morning?” Cooper quizzed his guest.
“I feel,” answered Pucket, “it’s the duty of every citizen to keep up with the goings-on in their community, but it’s getting harder for me to read the biased opinions of that so-called editor every week,” continued a riled-up Farley. “I’m just about ready to cancel my subscription.”
“Have you,” asked Cooper, “heard any rumors about Long planning to enter the mayor’s race?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me none,” answered Pucket. “There’s no other explanation for the way she is defaming a fine man like you.”
With that, Cooper opened the telephone line for his first caller. It was none other than Vera Penrod, secretary of the Spring County Chamber of Commerce, as well as president of the Lennox Valley Auburn Hat Society.
After a brief introduction by Cooper, Penrod spoke in a disconcerted tone, “I just came from the county courthouse, where I was going over the list of vendors for this week’s farmers market.”
Vera stopped to catch her breath before continuing, “That’s when it happened.”
“That’s when what happened, Vera?” asked an interested Cooper.
“There was a young woman there. I’ve seen her in town once or twice. Her name was Juliet Stoughton.”
“Go on,” prompted Cooper, hoping for the kind of gossip for which Vera was best known.
“She was there to place her name on the ballot for the Lennox Valley mayor’s race. She had that new woman preacher with her.”
This might have been the first time Raymond Cooper found himself totally speechless. There was at least ten seconds of complete silence before a recorded commercial for tiller repair kits at Pucket’s True Valley Hardware began playing.
Upon his return to the air 30 seconds later, Cooper was loaded for bear. “Who is this Juliet Stoughton?”
“I wonder,” Farley chimed in, “if she could be an employee of the Federal Reserve System.”
“I smell trouble,” said a worried-sounding Cooper. “The last thing our valley needs is a tool of the media running for public office.”
Six days could shape future of the valley
These might have been the most memorable six days of my teenage years. Between Friday, July 17, and Tuesday, July 21, 1998, Iris Long had broken the egg price-fixing story wide open; Raymond Cooper had quickly devised a sinister scam to convince his listeners he wasn’t involved in the price scandal; the good folks of the valley learned one of the biggest gospel groups of all time would be playing at the county fair in just four weeks; and both Elbert Lee Jones and Marvin Walsh had publicly rededicated their lives to the Lord during the contemporary service at the Lutheran Church.
In case you are counting, that’s five days. Then there was Wednesday.
Iris Long knew Raymond Cooper’s cover story was a sham. It has been said all is fair in love and war, and Raymond had no time for love while he was still deep in the trenches of an election battle. Like any good journalist, Iris believed in the public’s right to know. She would include the facts on the front page, with her own thoughts on the Opinion page.
After writing and rewriting the lead story headline more than a dozen times, Iris finally settled on:
Cooper Lays an Egg Following Price Fiasco
Many readers didn’t wait for copies to arrive in their mailboxes later in the day. They rushed to the nearest paper box, dropped in their quarters, took a moment to absorb the headline, then read and reread every word of both the front-page story and Long’s editorial on page four.
Iris knew that most sentiments would remain unchanged. It would take more than a few words from the “biased media” for Cooper devotees to turn on their champion. Most “Raymondites,” as they had come to be called, couldn’t understand why the media, which included only the Hometown News in Lennox Valley, was so prejudiced against their faithful, humble servant.
Didn’t Iris Long realize Cooper had a profound religious experience and faithfully attended the contemporary service at the Lutheran Church each Sunday? And it wasn’t just Raymond. His example had led others, most notably Elbert Lee Jones and Marvin Walsh, to turn their lives to the Lord.
As hard as it is to imagine, there were folks in Lennox Valley who hadn’t even read the morning paper and had no idea who would be performing at the county fair.
As Claire Lapella sat across the booth from Sarah Hyden-Smith, sipping hot tea and memorizing the Hoffbrau’s breakfast menu, neither she nor Sarah had any suspicion this conversation would alter Claire’s life in so many ways.
Eventually, Claire lowered her guard enough to share her recent feelings of loneliness. Her soulmate’s memory wouldn’t go away. Every song seemed to be about him. Every TV show and movie increased her pain. Here she was, after one year, in a strange place with only one friend, Sarah, and no sense of hope in sight.
She explained to Sarah that her old life was much different. Before moving to the valley, she had a good job. She was involved in several community causes. “Claire Lapella,” she said before reducing her volume to a whisper, “made a difference.”
Jessie Orr had been a waitress at the Hoffbrau for as long as anyone could remember. She had that special talent for hearing everything without hearing anything. Along with this talent, she had the knack for knowing when to butt in and when to keep her distance. This was the perfect time to butt in, she thought.
“It says in today’s paper there’s still time for someone to get their name on the ballot for the mayor’s race.”
Neither Claire nor Sarah understood the connection to their discussion.
“You’ve been here a year. You’re obviously over 28 years old. Maybe you should consider running,” Jessie explained to her befuddled patrons.
Conversation stopped as Jessie took her time refilling the cups. Sarah and Claire paused to digest the possibility of a “Lapella for Mayor” campaign.
“You know,” said Sarah, “that might not be as crazy as it sounds.”
As Raymond, Elbert Lee and Marvin huddled together across the square at the radio station to read Iris Long’s editorial, little did they know that looming just over the horizon might be a bigger problem than a few cracked eggs.
Kevin Slimp now makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Write to Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org
Soulmate memories haunt Claire Paletta
Loneliness lasts. It never completely goes away. It is the one emotion that seems to make its way into the hearts of almost every man and woman sometime during a lifetime. Sure, it can be masked. Other people and interests partially fill the void, but now and then loneliness seems to find its way back when least expected.
Claire Paletta knew all about loneliness, and for some reason, it had just dawned on her an anniversary was approaching, an anniversary she would just as soon forget. August 4, 1998, would mark one year to the day since Claire moved to Lennox Valley to be with her soulmate, Chris Rhodehouse. And as soulmates often do, Chris soon left her to be with his soulmate, a younger woman he met while attending a national leadership conference for book dealers in Des Moines, Iowa.
Claire was no stranger to loneliness. Married at 21, she found herself 32 and single with no children 11 years later. In the 12 years since the divorce, Claire had tried dating a few times. This was before computer dating became the rage, and it was a little harder to find potential suitors.
At one point, she thought she had found the one. That all changed when she learned the one she was so sure about had secretly planned a romantic cruise for two to Hawaii, and she wasn’t invited. To make matters worse, she found about the trip on her own, four days before the happy couple set sail on Hawaiian Cruise Line’s ship appropriately named “Independence.”
Claire thought she would never get over the experience, but time is a funny thing. As William Shakespeare once wrote, “Better three hours too soon than a minute too late.”
Eventually, she marked what she later called “the Hawaii event” to experience, thankful that she found out before it was too late and she was married to a man who might secretly take other women on ocean voyages.
A year later she met Chris Rhodehouse. Blond and blue-eyed with a big smile, he looked the part of a future soulmate. They met, interestingly enough, at a personal growth conference in Nashville, Tennessee. Claire was there to hear her favorite self-help guru speak on “Attracting the Positive and Deflecting the Negative.” Chris was working at a vendor’s booth, selling copies of the speaker’s latest book to excited buyers.
Fresh from a session titled “Finding Your Soulmate,” Claire stood five deep in line, waiting for her turn to buy a copy of “Colossal Steps.” She felt sure she would return two hours later when, for ten dollars, she would meet the author as he signed her just-purchased copy.
Little did she know that less than a year later, she would be packing almost everything she owned and moving to a small town three states away to be with her real soulmate. After all those years, Chris was worth the wait, or so she thought.
Claire sat in her living room, shades partially pulled so the room was a bit dark, listening to her favorite singer from her teen years:
There’s something in my eyes, you
know it happens every time
I think about a love that I thought
would save me.
While Claire thought about the past, Iris Long was busy finalizing the pages for the next day’s edition of Hometown News. After writing and rewriting the headline more than a dozen times, Iris finally settled on:
Cooper Lays an Egg Following Price Fiasco
On the Opinion page, Iris penned an 800-word editorial titled, “Is There Anyone Out There?” In paragraph three, she wrote, “Surely there is someone worthy of leading our valley into the future without lies, tricks and deceit.”
She added that Dick Bland was a “fine man,” but would have a hard time defeating Cooper.
She reminded the voters it wasn’t too late. The statute for mayoral elections allowed candidates to place their names on the ballot as late as 21 days before the election. That meant there were two days before the deadline.
“The qualifications are as follows: At least 28 years of age, no felony convictions, and a resident of Lennox Valley for 12 months.”
Kevin Slimp now makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee.
January 2017 Archives
Annual event lures stars to the valley
In 1937, Albert E. Brumley wrote a catchy gospel tune titled “Turn Your Radio On,” which was eventually recorded by dozens of artists and groups includ-ing Skeeter Davis in the 1960s and Ray Stevens a decade later.
Like many hit songs, “Turn Your Radio On” reappeared from time to time, possibly because radio stations loved playing the self-celebrating tune so much. There was a time when radio stations didn’t begin each day until sunrise, and many of those stations in small towns across America began their days with that favorite gospel melody.
While it was recorded numerous times by well-known artists, no one had a bigger hit with the song than Tangi Blevins & the Heavenly Hosts. When Tangi sang the chorus, you knew she meant every word:
Turn Your Radio On
And listen to the music in the air.
Turn Your Radio On, heaven’s glory share.
Turn the lights down low
And listen to the Master’s radio.
Get in touch with God, Turn Your Radio On.
While a lot of folks in the valley were fixated on the upcoming mayoral election, there were others who had their thoughts focused on another major August event: The Spring County Fair.
For teenagers like Mary Ann Tinkersley and myself, the fair meant getting our sheep ready for the annual FFA judging, a big milestone for small-town youth. Most of the excitement, especially among the female population, was reserved for the lineup of pseudo-celebrities who made their way through the county fair circuit each year.
Some fair headliners were bigger than others. No one will ever forget Tim Jones, the Tom Jones impersonator, who caused more than one fainting spell as he sang “She’s a Lady” in 1977.
If I tried to name the biggest star to grace the stage at the Spring County Fairground before 1998, it most likely would have been a toss-up between 1985’s Boxcar Willie, who catapulted to fame as an overalls-wearing hobo selling records during afternoon Brady Bunch reruns, and “Mr. Sound Effects” Wes Harrison in 1983.
But on Tuesday, July 21, 1998, the primary focus of attention shifted from weekend news of the spiritual rededication of Elbert Lee Jones and Marvin Walsh during the Sunday contemporary service at the Lutheran Church to the posters being hung in store windows along the town square.
Who would believe it? In just four weeks, Tangi Blevins, along with all four Heavenly Hosts, would be appearing live on stage at the county fair. This could just be the biggest star to appear at the county fair since Boxcar Willie. This surely made the 11-mile journey to the county fairgrounds worth the effort.
Raymond Cooper, thankful for anything that would temporarily divert the community’s attention away from the recent egg-price scandal, found an old 45 in the record vault left from the previous station owner. Earl Goodman, delivering mail to homes on 3rd street, noticed the tune playing as he walked past each screen door on this warm summer day:
Turn Your Radio On
And listen to the music in the air.
He thought it was odd, since Raymond Cooper generally gave his daily Federal Reserve Report at 2:45. Whatever the reason, Earl couldn’t get the song out of his head the rest of the day.
And to think – all this happened as Iris Long pasted the headline as she made the final touches to the next morning’s edition of The Lennox Valley Hometown News.
Just like most big events in the summer of ‘98, chatter about Tangi Blevins would wind down in favor of something much bigger.
Iris Long inhaled, then exhaled, as she made the final touches to the front page.
Kevin Slimp now makes his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. Contact him at email@example.com
Helen Walker loves to scream . . .
With the news surrounding Sarah Hyden-Smith, first female pastor in Lennox Valley, and Raymond Cooper’s conversion at the Lutheran Church, one might think the other churches on the town square took a back seat during the summer of 1998. But the good Lord works in mysterious ways, and during the summer of ‘98, it was more true in the valley than in most places.
Sure, the Methodists and Lutherans might have been hogging the limelight at the moment, but it hadn’t been long since Todd Cecil, world-famous TV evangelist, graced the stage at First Baptist Church, and plans were already being made for the annual Baptist Men’s Breakfast and Turkey Shoot.
Don’t think the Catholics were suffering from lack of attention. Unlike their Baptist brethren, the good folks at All Saints Catholic Church didn’t need celebrities or firearms to have a good time. They knew their faith, which had lasted twenty centuries, depended on tradition rather than big one-time events to keep the flames fanned. And no tradition was more important than Friday night bingo.
Yes, every Friday night most valley Catholics, as well as a good number of Lutherans and Methodists, filled the parish hall for the chance to scream, “Bingo!” and walk home with cash and other valuable prizes.
Probably no one enjoyed bingo night more than Helen Walker. Helen had been playing bingo at All Saints for as long as anyone could remember. She always showed up early, right at 4:55, and took her place on the first row, left of the center aisle.
It was important that Helen get her front row seat because, well, she couldn’t hear as well as she once did. It was all she could do to make out the faint letters being called out over the parish hall sound system. Her hearing was so bad, in fact, that almost every week she would hear some of the numbers incorrectly, thinking she had made bingo when she really hadn’t. Over time, other players began allowing Helen to think she had won, rather than go through the arduous task of explaining to her what had really happened. Anyway, most folks thought it was cute that Helen went home every week thinking she was a big winner.
Helen particularly liked the “special” games played each week. Two or three times each Friday, the caller would yell, “Catholic bingo!” and Father O’Reilly would come to the stage and pull a random card out of a box next to the caller’s microphone. Each card corresponded with a different “Catholic” version of bingo.
Helen’s favorite was “Rosary Prayer Bingo,” although she was often confused by the caller’s words. Just last week, she had confused “Glory be to the Father” with “Hail Holy Queen” and walked off with the $20 jackpot.
This was a special bingo night, as valley mayor “Silver Tongue” Dick Bland was on hand to call one game. With his roaring voice, it would be less likely that Helen would win during his game.
Showing up at bingo was a calculated risk for the mayor. He was a member of First Baptist Church, which normally gave him a distinct advantage on election day. But with the election just five weeks away, Bland found himself in the fight of his life against challenger Raymond Cooper.
Bland decided it was worth the risk, possibly upsetting some of the voters at his home church, where games such as bingo were frowned upon. He hoped his Baptist base would understand his predicament while he picked up a few votes among bingo night regulars.
On any other Friday night, Raymond Cooper would show up to disrupt the mayor’s limelight. However, this was no normal night. While the lights were bright at All Saints Parish Hall, other lights were shining down the street at the radio station as Cooper met with Marvin Walsh and Elbert Lee Jones to find a way out of the mess they had made earlier in the day when they spilled the beans about the cause of egg price inflation in the valley.
“I sense,” Raymond told his fellow conspirators, “that the Lord is about to shake up Lennox Valley Lutheran Church this Sunday like it’s never been shaken before.”
At that very moment, the excited voice of none other than Helen Walker could be heard in the distance as she shouted, “Bingo!”
Kevin Slimp, author, visits more than 150 cities each year in his travels. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Once again, the truth shall Set Raymond Free!
The ladies in Caroline’s Beauty Salon were on pins and needles after hearing Raymond Cooper, host of the daily radio talk show, “Renderings with Raymond,” utter the chilling words, “I have the biggest news flash in Lennox Valley history,” just after Vera Penrod announced that Elbert Lee Jones and Marvin Walsh were scurrying into the radio station across the street.
While all the good ladies in Caroline’s were getting their hair just right for Sunday services, Iris Long, editor of Lennox Valley Hometown News, was sitting down at her desk to write what might be the most important story of her career.
With four days before Hometown News went to press, Iris knew it would take a miracle for Marvin and Elbert Lee to keep the news from Cooper that Jones had just confessed to being part of an egg price-fixing scheme hatched by none other than Raymond Cooper himself.
That’s when Long heard Raymond’s announcement about the upcoming news flash. Her heart sank. She had dealt with the valley’s most prominent celebrity long before he bought the town’s only radio station and ran for mayor. Cooper was notorious for getting himself into trouble and, just as quickly, finding a way to escape the consequences of his actions.
Iris took her fingers off the keyboard and waited. There was nothing more for her to do.
Back at the radio station, the frantic atmosphere had calmed a bit. In the background, the old gospel hymn “Trust and Obey” played. Raymond had told his listening audience seconds earlier that he had been inspired by his conversation with the previous on-air guest, Brother Jacob, to play a few gospel tunes. In reality, he needed time to scheme.
A few moments earlier, as Jacob exited the station’s front door, Marvin and Elbert Lee almost knocked the young pastor over as they hurried into the lobby while “top of the hour” commercials were playing over the air.
“What has gotten into you?” blared Raymond as his winded friends caught their breath.
“Elbert Lee has gone and done it this time,” Marvin shot back. “He told that newspaper editor that you were behind the egg price deal.”
“Exactly what did he say?” asked Cooper.
Marvin answered, “He said it was ‘that radio man’s fault.’”
“That was all he said?” asked Cooper.
“Wasn’t that enough?” Walsh shot back.
Cooper told everyone to calm down. “Give me a minute to think,” he said coolly.
And think he did. Raymond always had an idea. The more trouble he seemed to get out of, the more his listening audience praised him as their champion. Cooper knew he just needed the right angle.
As the final hymn played, Raymond heard the words of the gospel favorite just as his listeners heard it, “Be of sin the double cure. Save from wrath and make me pure.”
As the final chorus of the hymn played, Raymond went over the plan one last time with the two farmers. Elbert Lee was having such a hard time staying calm that Cooper finally told him to go sit in the lobby.
Word had spread throughout the town, and more than two-thirds of the good folks of Lennox Valley were sitting by their radios waiting for the news flash.
“Welcome back, friends,” Raymond began. “I now know why the good Lord led me to play those calming tunes a moment ago. He must have known what was about to happen.”
Iris could hardly believe her ears. Just how was Cooper going to get out of this mess?
Cooper continued, “I’m siting in the studio with Marvin Walsh and Elbert Lee Jones, two respected farmers and leaders of our community. They’ve come to me, wanting to confess something to all the good folks in our valley.”
You could hear a pin drop in Caroline’s Beauty Salon as everyone listened.
“It seems,” continued Raymond, “that my prayer earlier in the show caused these two to do some real soul searching. Elbert Lee just told me they felt led to come here to tell the citizens of our community that, while largely due to issues with the Federal Reserve, they feel some responsibility for the rise in egg prices over the past two years in our community.”
Iris sank in her seat.
Kevin Slimp is a writer currently living in Knoxville, Tennessee.
Hold for breaking news ... Egg case Cracked Wide Open
I’ve always said that gossip in Lennox Valley was born in one of three places: Maxine’s weekly column called “Rumor Has It,” Raymond Cooper’s radio show, or Caroline’s Beauty Salon.
Being a Friday afternoon, every seat in Caroline’s was filled, and all the hair dryers were humming as the good ladies of the valley prepared to look their best for Sunday services. Some would call it coincidence that the women were trying to discuss Maxine’s latest installment of “Rumor Has It” as “Renderings with Raymond” was playing in the background on the ancient sound system. All three ingredients were in the mix for a gossip-fest of gigantic proportions.
There’s a tradition among gossip columnists called the blind item. When a columnist gets a juicy tip but doesn’t have a reliable source, as was often the case in “Rumor Has It,” a blind item is sometimes applied. Maxine used this technique frequently, describing in detail something that had happened to someone in the valley without revealing any names.
For example: “What single minister in Lennox Valley was seen having lunch with another ‘supposedly’ single pastor at The Hoffbrau last Monday?”
The salon was full of customers trying to discuss Maxine’s column while listening to Raymond as he concluded his second hour of programming with Brother Jacob as his guest.
“I believe we are,” exclaimed Raymond, “cut from the same cloth, Brother Jacob.” Then, after a dramatic pause, “Wouldn’t you agree?”
Jacob attempted to sputter some words, but Raymond cut him off before he had a chance. “We should do this again,” continued Raymond. “It’s a nice change to have someone with me to discuss theology.”
Not that anyone noticed besides Jacob, but his contribution to the discussion amounted to a total of three minutes and twelve seconds during the second hour of Raymond’s show. He secretly hoped he’d never be subjected to such torture again.
Vera Penrod, who was under the hair dryer closest to the window overlooking Main Street, interrupted the discussion about “Rumor Has It” as she noticed something peculiar happening across the street.
“Look at that Elbert Lee Jones and Marvin Walsh scurrying into the radio station like a couple of mice,” she said in a distasteful tone. “They almost knocked over that young Lutheran pastor. I wonder what they’re up to now.”
A hushed tone suddenly covered Caroline’s as everyone waited to hear what Raymond would have to say after the “top of the hour” commercial break. Vera broke the silence as she said, “I wonder if Elbert Lee and Marvin have some breaking news.”
Top of the hour commercial breaks generally lasted four minutes on Cooper’s show. The salon assembly couldn’t help but notice when the commercial for Massengale’s Mortuary played a second time.
Eventually, after seven minutes, Raymond returned to the air. “You know,” he uttered, “that visit with Brother Jacob has me feeling extra spiritual this afternoon. I think this would be a good time to play a few gospel songs for our listening audience so you can share in my sacred moment.”
Inside the radio studio, emotions turned frantic as Marvin explained how Elbert Lee had spilled the beans to Iris.
“Exactly what did he say?” asked Cooper.
Marvin answered, “He said it was ‘that radio man’s fault.’”
“That was all he said?” asked Cooper.
“Wasn’t that enough?” Walsh shot back.
The customers at Caroline’s listened intently as Raymond returned to the air, following “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing.”
“Friends,” began Raymond, “I have the biggest news flash in Lennox Valley history.”
Kevin Slimp lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Learn more about Lennox Valley at lennoxvalley.com.