The Flying Machine

dick-hinson1Rerun From February 14, 2007

It’s the early 1900’s. Imagine that you are alone in a remote small field in Jackson County. Without a sound, a strange machine comes down from the sky and careens to a crash landing. A figure resembling a human slowly emerges and looks toward you . . . finally, he calls out: “Where am I?” Shortly, you’ll understand the answer! This incident actually took happened in our county almost a century ago, and deserves to be documented.

The story begins in Dothan, where a young “daredevil” of the time had acquired the first airplane in this entire area. A friend of mine, the late Paul Anderson, was also a Dothan native. In later years, the then-elderly pilot shared this experience of his first “long-distance” flight with Anderson. The Alabama flier had been contacted by Marianna officials to bring the first “flying machine” in for a landing at the annual Jackson County Fair. This history-making event was slated to be the highlight of the week-long exhibitions. In those times, the fairs were held in the block now occupied by the former Marianna High School.

Now we must acknowledge that none of our citizens had ever seen an aircraft, and many others refused to believe that any man-made machine was capable of flight! In those pioneer days, there were legions of “non-believers”.

On the appointed afternoon, the crowd gathered at the fair. Horses, mules, and oxen were securely tied to the hitching racks. Meanwhile, the Dothan pilot checked his watch and cranked the small engine. He estimated an hour’s flight time to Marianna, and strapped into the exposed seat in front of the engine. All went well until he flew past the village of Campbellton. The engine began to sputter and eventually went out as he passed over the former location of Webbville. Spotting a small field carved out in the woodland, the pilot banked into a landing approach. Gliding down in silence, he braced for a rough landing.

Shaken and disoriented, he remained in his seat for a few minutes, trying to remember his bearings. Removing his leather helmet and goggles, he climbed out of the damaged craft and sees a man standing motionless and awe-struck across the field.

“Where Am I?” he called out. The old man shouted”

“Lord Jesus, you are back on EARTH! If I hadn’t seen you coming, I wouldn’t have known who you are!!... Then, he fell to his knees. . .

Meanwhile, at the fairgrounds the natives were getting restless. The officials had no way of knowing that the downed pilot of the ultra-light aircraft was trying to explain that he was not on a divine mission! It was the next day before the word filtered down to Marianna.

Another year would be required to bring the first plane in for a local landing! The pilot which made this attempt did not re-apply for the job . . .


Reminiscing The Last Donkey Baseball Game in Marianna

dick-hinson1What could be more fun and relaxing than attending an evening game of Donkey Baseball in the dismal Fall of 1936? The local newspaper offered free tickets to the top twenty readers who could submit the longest list of words using the fourteen letters in “Donkey Baseball”. The tickets were 50 cents, and dictionaries came off the shelf.

As it turned out, it would be like winning a ticket on the maiden voyage of the Titanic. However, bad surprises were almost guaranteed during the dark years of the Depression.

For the game, the high school football field had been converted to a baseball diamond. The field was located near the intersection of Guyton and Liddon Streets, adjacent to a present softball practice field. The Federal Works Progress Administration “(W.P.A.)” had built bleachers along the western side of the football field. This organization, created to provide depression-era jobs, was filled by willing workers who had little or no construction skills. The bleachers had a framework of iron girders with heavy pine planks bolted in seating rows. With a height of thirty feet, the spectator capacity was several hundred. Atop tall poles, electric lights had recently been installed. The “WPA” laborers had been busy.

As the name implies, normal baseball rules apply in “Donkey Baseball” with one comical exception: After a hit, all players must ride donkeys. The stubborn little animals have a mind of their own, and might run in any direction or refuse to move at all. On balance, it is a scenario of mass confusion and frustrated players. The crowd provides shouted advice with much laughter. The opposing teams were comprised of Rotary and Kiwanis Club members, all well known locally. The two organizations were sponsors of the game.

With the enthusiasm of a ten year old, I arrived early, clutching a winning ticket. Climbing to the top row, I didn’t intend to miss any of the action. As the bleachers filled, a group of about 10 or 12 senior boys stayed close together as they made their way up near my perch. Settling in shoulder to shoulder, they appeared to have their own agenda. Halfway through the game, they made their move. Locking arms, they began to throw their weight from side to side, swaying in unison. Weeks earlier, they had discovered that they could cause the empty structure to rock. Now, with the weight of the crowd, the sway would provide some “Added fun and excitement”. At first, there was no motion, but the big teenagers kept at their team effort.

As time passed, the first slight movement to the south could be detected, followed by a somewhat longer sway toward the north. As the momentum increased, the spectators suddenly became silent. There was no laughter. The teenage “rock team” sat motionless and frightened, but it was too late. “The die had been cast,” and the bleachers seemed to have acquired a life of their own. In the long final sway, the iron framework began to snap with the sounds of firing shotguns. The groaning structure balanced upright for an optimistic and short-lived few seconds. It then proceeded to crash toward Kelson Avenue like a giant house of playing cards! Some three hundred occupants were thrown about and under the debris.

Along the rear of the bleachers was a field of tall corn. Several top row occupants chose to take the 30 foot leap. One hapless customer misjudged his jump and landed on a group of terrified “substitute” donkeys which had been tied behind the bleachers. I stood balanced on a long loose plank which I planned to ride like a surfboard to a smooth landing somewhere below. That was a poor decision and I still carry the scar to remind me.

In the following confusion, the word was passed to carry the injured to Dr. Albert Baltzell’s small hospital on the corner of Russ and Lafayette streets. There, he would examine and dispatch the walking casualties to one of the other four physicians who opened their offices. They all worked through the night. There was a mix of lacerations, fractures and abrasions in addition to one or two permanent injuries. It was termed a miracle that there were no fatalities.

Bear in mind that medical expense insurance and benefits were unknown. All such expense was “out of pocket”, and in 1936 those pockets were almost empty. Now imagine how all this would play out in 2007. We could have a new contest to see who could compile the longest list of defendants and co-defendants. . . A personal injury attorney’s dream!!! For better or worse, the public reaction was almost unanimous, and a poignant reflection of the typical mindset of the times. It went like this: “It was simply a case of a teenage prank getting out of control. The accident was neither intended nor foreseen, and should therefore be forgiven.” When dust cleared and all was said and done, not a single complaint ever came from an occupant of the bleachers. The average person was accustomed to “hard luck” and unexpected setbacks.
Perhaps, some say, our residents were too accustomed to not complaining. There’s certainly nothing wrong with requiring standards for public safety. Nobody recalls where the bleacher builders went for their next job. They didn’t request a recommendation. . .

Well, that’s the way the evening went at “the last Donkey Baseball Game” a long time ago. . . I wonder why we never had another one?


Reminiscing Nature

dick-hinson1October 25, 2006 Times Edition

At the end of his career, Albert Einstein was asked to identify the most complex subject that he had ever tried to understand. The group of newsmen settled in for a long and complicated reply. The one-word answer from the genius was: "Nature".

The reporters may have been puzzled, but those I have known who spent lifetimes working and living in the outdoors would say, "You're right. Welcome to the club, Dr. Einstein!" Meanwhile, the writer is still struggling to understand the roles that animals play in the equation.

My earliest memory is looking through iron bars. On the wall next to my crib was a painting of a sleeping boy who had gotten lost in the woods. Not to worry. Patiently sitting and guarding the little kid was the large and loyal family dog. You somehow knew that everything was going to be O.K. Day after day, I studied every detail of that picture. Thus imprinted, my lifelong close relationship with dogs has followed.


I point this out since some readers might see an example of animal cruelty in an event which occurred many years ago in Liberty County. Bear two facts in mind: 1) The incident involved an emergency situation, and 2) These were working animals. Totally unlike pets, instant obedience to commands are necessary for the safety of all team members.

Before the "fencing laws", livestock could be turned loose in the swamps and forest. It didn't matter who owned the land. If not fenced out from a particular
parcel, the animals had legal "free range" to roam and graze wherever they chose. From time to time, the cattle owners needed to locate and round up the animals for updated inspection and branding.

Offering round-up services were teams of men, horses and dogs. In Liberty County, there were two such teams, which competed for the jobs. However, to fulfill this unusually large contract, they decided to pool their resources and work together for the first time.

On the appointed morning, the two groups assembled. The leader of one team was a man named "SEAB". The other team was led by "Bill". One of the trucks contained a single cage large enough to transport all of the dogs. Each pack had one "catchdog", a special cross breed of bulldog with longer legs than the English bloodline. While the other dogs drove the herd, a bulldog might be assigned to catch, throw, and hold a particular animal which was disrupting the direction of the herd. Frequently, these rebels were large bulls with dangerous horns.

The star performer on SEAB's team was a famous catch-dog known as "Buster". He demanded respect from the "rank and file" dogs, including being the first to enter any transport cage. Not being aware of this procedure, a member of Bill's team began loading an unsuspecting hound past the bull dog. Without warning, "Buster" launched a savage attack, seizing the dog by the neck.

SEAB shouted for his bulldog to release! There was no response, with the powerful jaws shutting down harder with each command.

The men stood in tense silence, aware of the Liberty County protocol. It goes like this: In the West, you don't take another man's horse. In the South, you don't take or even Scold another man's dog! Bill, the other team leader, quietly asked, "SEAB, do you want me to make your dog release?" SEAB hesitated . . . It was obvious that the helpless hound's life was measured in brief minutes. "Yes . . . yes, if you can" SEAB cried. Bill leaned down and gave his command to "Release". It fell on deaf ears. In one swift motion, Bill picked up a long lightwood knot and swung it down on "Buster's" thick skull! The big dog rolled unconscious to the ground. Nobody moved or spoke. Then SEAB shouted: "Blast you, Bill . . . You have killed my dog!" Bill replied, "Well, if I did he wasn't much good like he was . ."

dick-hinsonBoth the catch-dog and the hound survived, and led long and active lives.

However, theincident was not totally forgotten. The men frequently commented that "Buster" was quick to follow any later instructions that Bill ever gave him . . .

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