Friday, December 31, 2010

Henry Dotson - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

An installment story about my hometown in North Alabama.

Hartselle, Alabama is like most other places of 12,000 or fewer souls in the South. Most everyone is moderate to middle class, as the area prospered only when the Tennessee Valley Authority came in the 1930’s to change our area from an agrarian economy to a service economy. With the advent of the aerospace and defense industries in a nearby county, our hometown evolved into a bedroom community.

Folks live here, but work and spend their day elsewhere. Because of this suburban evolution, we have lost the days of porch sitting and story telling, now that we commute and no longer really know our next door neighbor. That doesn’t mean that funny things don’t happen here, but that fewer connections are available to tell them. This is a story from my hometown:

My travels throughout the county allow me to meet many people. Some not so interesting, but on that rare occasion I run into someone with a really cool story. One of these was from Mr. Henry Dotson, I shall name, the Greatest Whuppin’ Story Ever Told.

Mr. Dotson lives in the southern part of Morgan County, within a stone’s throw of the Morgan-Cullman County line. At the time of our meeting, over a difficult land line between him and his adjoiner, he was at least 90 years old. He learned that I was from Hartselle, and proceeded to tell me this story, the Greatest Whuppin’ Story Ever Told….

Sometime in the late 1930’s early 1940’s, Hartselle was a major trading center for the residents of rural Morgan County. Falkville and Lacon, (yes it was actually a town at one time, and the pathways at Trade Day are actually platted streets where houses and businesses once stood) were waning and not very active. Everyone came to buy their dry goods in Hartselle. Mr. Dotson’s father had passed away sometime in his teens and he had to become the head of the household at an early age.
From accounts by others, Mr. Dotson was probably the strongest man in the County. Eyewitnesses to this day claim to have seen him lift and hold a blacksmith’s anvil at arm’s length for an impressive period of time. That is an incredible feat even for today’s steroid-induced WWE participants. Mr. Dotson had to work his family’s farm and eek out a living in the way most farm families in the day did. He had to grow up fast and had little time for fun.
One morning, his mother asked him to make their monthly trip to Hartselle to pick up the few things that a sustenance farm family needed to get them through the month. Things like coffee, sugar, flour, and various hardware that they could not manufacture themselves. Henry loaded up the family’s raggedy Model A Ford car and headed to town. When he got to town, he ran into a man whom he knew. He knew this man because his father and the mans’ father had a feud going on. Mr. Dotson would not identify the man, because as he said “they are still a prominent family in Hartselle”. Now, I don’t think Mr. Dotson had been to Hartselle in many years, as in at least 20, so I cannot imagine whom he was referring. Well, the man decided to settle the feud right then and there on the dirt Main Street of Hartselle.
To this day, Mr. Dotson could not remember what the feud was about, but someone’s honor was disparaged, so a fight was about to commence. Henry thought about what was about to happen and decided “to take a beatin’” because he was in their family’s only vehicle, and they had no money to come get him and bail him from the Hartselle Jail. Mr. Dotson got a pretty good whuppin’ on Main Street in Hartselle for everyone to see. He didn’t fight back, and took a pretty thorough beating. Afterwards, he picked himself up, patted off the red clay dust in his overalls from the Hartselle street, and went to the police station. He asked the chief and sole policeman what the amount was for a fine for fighting in the street. Apparently at this time, this situation came up often enough that City Council action had been taken and an Ordinance had been passed. Henry learned that he fine was $25.00, a fortune to someone of his limited means.

Henry returned to the farm with his goods and spoke no more about what had happened in town, so as not to worry his aged mother. He did, however, get a second job at the nearby sawmill, loading logs into the breech of the planing saw. He worked his family’s farm from sun up to dusk, providing as before, but worked at the sawmill in the evenings for twenty-five cents per day. Sawmill work was not easy, and over the course of the summer and early fall, he had built himself up to be a physically large and powerful man.
All the while, keeping his home responsibilities.

He saved up the $25 he needed and returned to Hartselle, later that year for the normally scheduled dry goods retrieval. He walked down Main Street and sure enough, found the man who had fought him earlier. Mr. Dotson said that the man did not recognize him at first, because Henry’s physique was remarkably different than before. Sort of a Charles Atlas bodybuilding course that had gone too long. Henry called him out and laid the greatest whipping on him that the folks in Hartselle had ever seen. The man’s brothers apparently came out to jump Henry, so he whipped them, too. An Old Testament beatdown, like never seen before or since.
After the punishment had all been handed out, Henry went to the police department and slapped his $25 on the counter to pay his fine. The kindly police chief told him that the man “had one coming” and to keep his money. Henry bought his goods, and with some of his new wealth, a new washtub and board for his Mom, and returned home to the farm.

Only in Hartselle can you get the Greatest Whuppin’ Story Ever Told. I cannot image what the recipient of this was going through. His friends telling him, “Hey, Henry’s coming to beat you up, but he’s got to save up first!”