By DAN WHITTLE
I’ve always loved history.
Specifically, I love well-written history … such as that shared recently about infamous American outlaws “Bonnie and Clyde” by fellow Middle Tennessee newspaper columnist Mike Vinson, one of those rare gifted writers who breathes interest and new life into his columns laced with history.
My late great friend, Steve Fitzhugh, also loved history, and made history when he helped restore historic Sewart Air Force Base property to Smyrna/Rutherford County jurisdiction and management in the early 1990s.
Steve also manifested a legendary marvelous and mischievous wit, as shared one evening while dining with our lovely wives at Smyrna’s historic Omni Hut restaurant.
“I personally witnessed Bonnie (Parker) and Clyde (Barrow) after they made a substantial financial withdrawal from our bank in Lancaster, Tex., where I grew up as a boy in the 1930s,” Steve (1924-2009) echoed back in time. “But I cracked up when I saw the movie titled “Bonnie & Clyde” back in 1967, for it had their old car speeding away from the bank with tires squealing and churning up a cloud of dust …
“In reality, what I saw as they left that bank, was a slow-moving old vintage two-door coupe that probably wouldn’t do over 40 MPH with a tailwind,” Fitzhugh noted. “As a mere boy, I couldn’t believe my eyes, when I realized I was witnessing a significant tidbit of Americana history when lots of folks held those Great Depression-era gangsters in high esteem, since they robbed the banks that were foreclosing on millions of impoverished fellow Americans.”
But, it was later, while reading the newspaper in Lancaster, Tex., where Steve was born, that he realized the “history” he’d witnessed was a tad bit more than a “tidbit” bank heist that later became historic Americana criminal folklore.
“When I told Dad I’d witnessed the getaway car from the Bank of Lancaster robbery, I’m not sure he believed me,” Steve recalled. “But when the next day’s newspaper came out, we realized I had actually seen the infamous Bonnie and Clyde making their getaway after robbing the bank.”
Columnist Vinson’s penned words helped describe America’s most famous era of “gangstering” during the Great Depression era.
“Ironically enough, a good portion of mainstream America viewed these bank robbers as heroes, not villians. Why so? Because the bank robbers were taking back from the banks what the banks had taken from mainstream America.
“Note: It has been written that as of 1933, Public Enemy No. 1, John Dillinger, was the ‘most popular’ person in America, more popular than baseball star Babe Ruth and President Franklin D. Roosevelt,” Vinson clarified.
I dearly miss my late great friends Steve and Ann Fitzhugh, who shared her own interesting “tidbit” of colorful local history that evening back at the Omni Hut.
“When Steve first got stationed here in Smyrna, at Sewart Air Base, he was often gone on long dangerous flights, delivering wartime supplies to our soldiers in Korea,” Ann noted back across the decades when Sewart was “base camp” to between 5,000 and 7,000 military personnel at any given time.
“We had rented an apartment at what is known in Smyrna as the ‘Cheney House’ that was not far from Sewart Air Base,” Ann continued. “One night, when our son (Murfreesboro resident) Mike (Fitzhugh) was still just a little boy, we kept hearing unexplained noises and happenings in the Cheney House. Finally, I could stand it no longer, for I thought the house was haunted. On one late and scary night, I gathered Mike up and we bolted from the house to never return.
“When Steve got back from flying his latest mission over the Himmelayan (The Hump) Mountains (world’s highest mountain range located in Asia), I made him go back and get our furnishings out of the Cheney House,” recalled Ann, who left our earth in 2002 at age 77.
Their son, Mike, recalls that long ago night when his mother thought there were ghostly “bumps in the night” at the historic Cheney House that dates back to the 1800s.
“I remember that last night at the Cheney House well,” noted Mike, now age 68. “I clearly remember when my terrified mother carried a hammer in her hand as we dashed out to get in our old car back in 1950.”
I love history, especially when it’s happening up close and personal.
I visited Ann a few minutes before she died shortly after Christmas Day 2002. Our last shared words were: “I love you Ann.” She responded thusly: “I love you Dan.” Ann passed a few moments later, with loving family all around her.
History lives here.
And thanks Mike Vinson for helping me recollect sweet memories of my history-making up close and personal friends…Steve and Ann Fitzhugh.