Friday, December 31, 2010

John Sparkman Day - Part 2 - By Lee Y. Greene, Jr.

The Big Day arrived and Hartselle was overwhelmed. Mom and the other ladies in the Jaycees drove to the airport in Huntsville and picked up dignitaries that travel with the Democrats. The ABI agents in the area had made large illicit liquor raids the night before, since they now had tremendous manpower in North Alabama. Mom saw the boxes and crates of booze on the tarmac at the Huntsville airport, and asked the ABI agent nearby if it was safe to leave all that liquor there. The agent replied “Look around you lady, do you think anyone’s gonna mess with this?” She said that she saw snipers on every roof at the airport buildings. “I guess not” she replied, to which the agent grinned.

Norman Lear and John F. Kennedy Jr. and others rode in our family’s fake wood-paneled Buick Elektra station wagon from Huntsville to Hartselle and back. John explained to the entourage that was in the car how the TVA changed the area and that it was an example of how government could work to improve impoverished areas. To his credit he was fairly young at the time and surprised everyone with how knowledgeable of the area he was. As a note, the account from my Mom of this exchange has always given me the fundamental platform of the Democratic Party. Like them or not, the upper crust of the old party firmly believed in the power of big government and how it could be used for good. The country did not agree, and voted in Ronald Reagan in 1980.

Schools were let out in Hartselle and the parade began around mid morning. I was in the Boy Scouts at the time, so our troop marched together. At that time, at the Junior High School gym, a special invitation only dinner was being prepared. My Mom was he greeter at the door, flanked by two Secret Service agents. The agent in charge told her to point out anyone she did not know personally. After a few minutes, an African-American man approached and held out his invitation. Mom didn’t know him, and said “ Sir, do you mean like that guy with a gun?”. As they approached, his coat opened, revealing a pistol. They went into overdrive and subdued him outside in a flash. As it turned out, he was a newly elected sheriff in South Alabama and wanted to come see his hero, Ted Kennedy. He wore a sidearm all the time, and did not think to leave it in his car. They immediately verified his story, and let him in, sans pistol. In the anteroom at the lunch, Ted Kennedy’s staff had prepared a specifically required snack for him, consisting of an apple cut into 8 pieces and American-produced cheese, which John Sparkman found first and ate prior to Mr. Kennedy’s arrival. At the same time, Mrs. Sparkman had flushed her expensive corsage down the toilet and was asking the Jaycees to get her a new one.

After the parade, the entourage went to the Civic Center for the main attraction, the reason for this whole deal, the bust unveiling. The press corps that traveled with Ted Kennedy had one member, in rotation, for every stop, that was to be given access to the nearest telephone to broadcast the news to API/UPI that he had been shot. This job was called “Death Watch” and it was agreed ahead of time whom did what if that occurred. The Kennedy campaign folks knew of this macabre practice and actually assisted in getting the telephone set up at every venue. Sen. Kennedy’s personal physician also traveled with him. There was a “Death Watch” line at the HJHS gym, as well.

The distinguished guests sat on the stage and the audience was seated on the gym floor in yellow stacking chairs. Mr. Sparkman gave most of his speech to the other stage guests instead of the audience. He was in advanced age at this time in his life. Lillian Carter said a few words, then it was time for Mr. Kennedy. As Ted spoke, two members of the audience stood and started heckling him about housing in Philadelphia or something. I was in the audience one row in front of these two guys, and watched the Secret Service and FBI deftly subdue and remove these two from the gym. It was pretty cool to see the agents in action, although most everyone was thinking the same thing when they stood and start shouting. Bob Schofield, seated on the stage exclaimed, “Oh my God they’re gonna shoot him” and ducked behind Mrs. Sparkman on the stage. With the hecklers removed, Mr. Kennedy finished his remarks, actually announcing his candidacy for the Presidential race for 1980, shook hands and departed to the next stop, a special lunch.

The special invitation only lunch was set up for Sen. Kennedy, his mother, Eunice Shriver, Sen. Sparkman and his wife, Mrs. Lillian Carter, and John D. Long, the Hartselle mayor. The guests had lunch prepared by Russell Priest, who was excited to have Sen. Kennedy enjoy his meal. The MCHS chorus sang and a few local people spoke. Mrs. Josephine Puckett was asked to speak about Sen. Sparkman as she was a classmate of his. She was unfamiliar with public speaking and promptly put the microphone to her ear (like a telephone) and began speaking. Someone immediately corrected her and she continued.

The night before, the FBI and Secret Service had “bomb swept” the entire Civic Center, HJHS gym and all of the route along Karl Prince Drive between the two venues. They brought bomb sniffing dogs and tore through the centerpiece floral arrangements that the Jaycees had paid for. Prior to the event, everyone in the venue had to have their names given to the FBI and full background checks were performed. If you were in the chorus in 1979, you have an FBI file.

Just as the whirlwind of reporters and campaign people arrived, they left. A vast amount of undercover work, planning, and effort by many Hartselle people, for one day of ceremony, then, gone.
This event showed me how powerful big government can be. With a phone call from the White House, heaven and earth could part. The FBI showed up in force, running laps around town every morning and
the U. S. Secret Service was an extremely thorough security detail, and not just the earpiece wearing guys around the President. These guys were dressed like Hartselle folks, shopped in our stores, and ate lunch in our town for weeks and we never knew they were there. Hartselle survived and quietly returned to normal, with a newly named Sparkman Civic Center to enjoy.

Mr. Sparkman passed away in Huntsville, AL, in 1985.