“Your mother is worried. She thinks you’re becoming a gambler just like your grandmother. She says she’s scared you’re going to lose all your rent money, or something like that,” my son-in-law, Taylor, says as we stand over the craps table.
Taylor is twenty-nine. I am sixty-one. My mother is eighty-five.
I swear, I am not becoming like my grandmother, or anyone else; I am only myself. And even if I were to model myself after or try to merge my identity with someone else, I would rate my grandmother on that list way down somewhere between Ayn Rand and Roy Cohn, both of whom, like my grandmother, were nominally Jewish.
Also, I owe rent to no one. In fact, my wife and I collect rent from tenants in her workplace. My mother does not suffer from dementia, either. The grandmother in question, my paternal grandmother Inez, has been dead fro twenty-two years. My mother’s fear of her power, however, seems to be most alive and well. And I can understand her fear and worry, I believe, for I know the story behind it.
Although the more I dig, the more I discover that I don’t know that story as well as I thought, not by a long shot.
“Little Man Popwell.”
The very name conjures crime, graft, corruption, speakeasies.
Alcohol. Gambling. The Mob.
Vice in 1950’s Shelby County, Alabama, before that county became a destination you wanted to escape to if you were white, wary, and uncomfortable about the oncoming racial inter-mixing of the closest city, Birmingham.
Alabama, home of championship college football teams and segregationist politicians. Of traditional hickory-smoked pit barbecue, and fried green tomatoes. Of the Allison brothers and Talladega, memoirist Rick Bragg, and now, Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist John Archibald, whose writing on that public blasphemy, ex-Judge Roy Moore (who is suing the women who accused him of abuse and pedophilia http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/news/20180430/failed-senate-candidate-moore-files-new-suit-against-accusers), earned Archibald regular guest spots on “The Rachel Maddow Show.”
“Alabama, Alabama, I will aye be true to thee,” our state song intones, although the truth of our affairs keeps wrecking my home state’s primary vehicle, which indeed does have “a wheel in the ditch, and a wheel off the track.”
With my knowledge of my home state’s history, with my acute memories of growing up there in the turbulent 1950’s and 60’s and of the troubling figures who made it so, how should I bet on Alabama’s possible progress, its un-ironic future? And how will telling this particular story of my family help?
My hometown of Bessemer (a suburb of Birmingham) used to be a hotbed of corruption (both criminal and police), a wide open town through at least the 1980’s when I finally left, thereby missing the Bessemer courthouse bombing, another story for another audience.
In his recent account of one of Bessemer law enforcement’s more heinous deeds, He Calls Me By Lightning, Samford University historian Jonathan Bass says this about Bessemer’s sordid past:
More than eighteen saloons operated in the Bessemer business district during these years (1887-1920), and most of them were infested with the rotten sins of gambling and prostitution. Lawbreaking stalked at the doorways of such evil…Gatherings of whiskey drinkers, fallen women, and cardsharps led to frequent bloodlettings. To minimize the violence occurring inside the ornate saloons, burly bartenders forced the ruckus out onto Bessemer’s streets, where ruffians brawled, punched, kicked, gouged, bit, sliced, stabbed, shot, and died in a slew of slag, mud, blood, and whiskey…dog, bear, cock, and wildcat fights [were] held in pits near the center of town, where [miners] placed bets with their hard-earned wages. Professional gamblers set up shop in this frontier atmosphere and profited mightily from games of blackjack, craps, and five-card stud. Each day, trains arrived from Birmingham and other areas of the South with ‘gambling dandies’ aboard; travelers hoped to participate in the city’s free-flowing ‘sporting activities’ and the ‘unusual array of corruption and wickedness.’ All this activity thrived in spite of city ordinances outlawing gambling houses, cockfighting, and all games and sports of an ‘indecent character’ (Bass 21-2).
Bessemer, where my maternal grandparents lived and worked, where my mother was raised. Where I was born.
“My hometown is the greatest place I know.” So sing Aunt Bee and Clara Edwards on a mainly forgettable episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.” They sing their handwritten ditty nostalgically, as they should, though later, “rock and roll star” Keevy Hazelton, a hometown boy, soups it up to the horror of Mayberry’s matriarchy. I’ve always loved that schmaltzy episode and understood Bea and Clara’s angst when a so-called star ruins their town anthem.
I used to feel nostalgic about Bessemer, too. But nostalgia is an attempt to view again with a child’s eyes. I saw much as a child, but not as much as there was to see of the avenues of vice in my home area and its environs.
My grandmother Inez, whom I called Ma Ma, was born in 1896, in Birmingham. Of the many memories I have of Ma Ma, the most relevant one to this story is that she taught me how to shoot craps. I must have been seven or eight. We used my Monopoly dice, and Ma Ma taught me that sevens were good on the first throw and elevens, anytime. I didn’t ask how or where she learned to throw dice, what it meant to play in general, and where she played when she wasn’t with me. It was a game, and I saw nothing wrong with it especially when she said she won a lot of nickels playing.
A nickel was halfway to a comic book, was a full package of baseball cards back in 1962.
I have since learned where she played, but before I get to that story, I need to say that Ma Ma and her family moved over thirty different times during my father’s life. Why she moved so often, I don’t know. Her frequent moves seemed quirky to me when I was a boy, but they also seemed in keeping with Ma Ma herself, a woman who claimed she got into bed every night at 6:00, who quit driving at sixty-five, and who quit going outside at all when she was seventy-five, a self-diagnosed victim of agoraphobia.
Ma Ma was also a woman who freely and frequently told her grandson about her boyfriends.
This woman who, in her 60’s and early 70’s, when out to nightclubs on weekends; who kept an ongoing subscription to Cosmopolitan magazine; who thought UNICEF was a communist plot; who once defended Joe McCarthy to me when I was in grad school and learning all about the “naming names” golden era of embarrassing American history.
Yet, this woman who defended that Wisconsin thug despite all the lives he destroyed, particularly all the Jewish lives, using threats, innuendo, and public swearings; this woman who thought aliens were already living inside our earth; and this woman who refused to go to her own daughter’s funeral, once drew the line about this, in a declaration to my mother:
“The one place I vow I won’t ever live is Bessemer. It’s too wide open!”
My father remembers that when he rode the bus from Birmingham to the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, every time the bus made its regular stop in Bessemer, he swore that this was “one town I’ll never live in.”
Of course, after he married my mother, Dad lived in Bessemer from 1952 until his death in 2000. Forty-eight years. He visited the town often as a boy since his own paternal grandparents lived there. Was he against Bessemer originally because his mother biased him against it? Did something bad happen to him there? Was it “too wide open” for him, too, even in the late 1940’s?
He never gave me his reasons, yet he always seemed glad to get back home to Bessemer from work or from any of our weekly trips to Ma Ma’s. Still, it was Birmingham that he claimed to love; Bessemer was merely the place he came home to, a place Ma Ma only rarely visited even after her two grandsons were born.
It strikes me as odd that Ma Ma was intimidated by Bessemer’s vice. Maybe she had a run-in with a saloon-keeper there. Maybe she lost a lot of money in one of the city’s gambling dens. Maybe there was a man there who wanted her, chased her.
That I consider any of these alternatives viable should tell a reader all he or she needs to know.
Except there’s more.
There’s Little Man Popwell’s place, where Ma Ma was a regular.
When Ma Ma showed me how to roll dice and explained the vagaries of this innocently illegal game (she never admitted its illegality, or claimed its innocence for that matter), I understood one thing: I couldn’t always count on the “seven” to be loyal to me. Not that I used the word “loyal” then. Only now do I understand what seven promises. And only now do I understand that those standing at a craps table are not all betting with the roller. “Gambling loyalty” is truly a canonized oxymoron.
But what of family loyalty?
I know that I was not the only kid caught in the trap of jealous and suspicious familial behavior, of in-laws not trusting or being loyal to each other, of certain elders courting my allegiance to them by offering me bribes to stay at home with them or to call them often. We each have to negotiate for ourselves a way out of that trap, if we ever do get out. I was fortunate that when I got married and had children of my own, I was also willing to undergo therapy. There, I discovered the term “triangulation” as it applies to family: a mother, her husband, and his mother, for instance.
The triangulation that strangled my adolescence.
The sense of loyalty that was instilled in me; that I was staked to without understanding its odds, the nature of the bet.
When betting at a craps table, you learn quickly that sevens can be good to you on one roll but utterly destructive on another--not unlike quaint family gatherings every Sunday evening at Ma Ma’s place. What seems good and right on one Sunday, can turn mean and nasty—and perhaps worse, silent—on another.
The luck of the dice. Or of who had control of them.
My father, according to my mother, worshipped Ma Ma while my mother, according to my mother, felt belittled by her:
“When we first got married, I tried and tried to please her, to get her to accept me, to show your daddy that I was as good as she was, but nothing I did was ever good enough, never as good as what she did, or was.”
On the lucky sevens of our every-Sunday-at-Ma Ma’s experience, we’d grill burgers, play games of Bingo or Parcheesi, watch “Lassie” and “Dennis the Menace,” and have ice cream sundaes. On the ride home, maybe a detour through glittering downtown Birmingham, a stop at Kiddie Land in Fair Park, or at the local drugstore for another pack of football cards or a comic book.
On the “craps” Sundays: a ride home in the car, dark shadows enveloping my brother and me in the back seat. A “discussion” over whether or not we could play football in our own front yard, mother for, but father against because we’d,
“…trample the grass. I work too hard to watch my grass get destroyed!”
Which led to,
“Well if you feel that way, then why don’t you just go live with your mother! That’s where it seems like you’re the happiest.”
I was nine or ten on this Sunday night, and as my mother slunk against the passenger door and my father got frighteningly quiet, I was certain they would divorce.
They didn’t, but the trips to Ma Ma’s every Sunday continued, because the only way to win is to keep playing.
Or so I thought.
Ma Ma taught me to roll dice on a day I spent alone with her, a day over summer vacation. Using those hard plastic red dice, she rolled and rolled and let me roll, too. It was fun, and we used pennies, and whether I won or lost, she let me keep all the pennies in the end. She, or my Aunt Carole, would take me to the village Rexall afterward so I could use my pennies to buy a comic book. Always Batman, the law and order vigilante.
Maybe it was this same day. The games were put away, and I was sitting on Ma Ma’s plastic-covered sofa waiting for Dad to come get me.
“Where is your daddy?” Ma Ma was beginning to boil. “He’s late. He better get here soon because I have to go. I have a date!”
My dad arrived soon after, but Ma Ma was still angry. She barely acknowledged him and ushered us out of her apartment. Though I was young, the message to me was clear: Ma Ma had a boyfriend just like our babysitter, Mary Margaret, the fourteen year-old girl who lived down the street from us, did.
The other clarity: I was not welcome when Ma Ma’s boyfriend arrived.
Occasionally, Ma Ma would show me pictures of the men she called her “boyfriends.” These, though, were glossy headshots of talk show DJs across America. There was one in Boston, in Philadelphia, in New York, and Chicago. They all signed their photos, dedicated not to the one they loved, but just to “Inez, with great affection.”
Recently, Mom told me more about one of Ma Ma’s real boyfriends, maybe the one who came over that day after Dad and I left:
“His name was Jack Mendelsohn,” she said. “And once, she showed your daddy and me a gift he got her: a silky negligee and matching robe.”
I assume she “modeled” her gift for Jack. Ma Ma had to have been seventy at this point, yet she still focused on what was sexy, what was seductive. And make no mistake: she was seductive. I wonder now what my daddy thought when his mother showed him the negligee that her boyfriend gave her? What must he have felt? How did this sight affect his love for her, his loyalty to her?
Yet I know he had a way of misreading her, or not seeing or hearing what she did or said. I experienced it firsthand.
On the cassette tape where she recorded her life story, and which Dad and I heard for the first time on the way home from her funeral, she described the house parties she used to have in the 1920’s and 30’s, complete with games, music, and dancing. On the tape, she doesn’t say if my grandfather was at home, at work, or if he was there:
“Oh, we’d all dance, and the men loved dancing with me. They loved my flaming red hair and getting up next to my bosoms.”
Dead or not, one’s grandmother’s bosoms are potent things.
My dad, who only chuckled during our listening, played the tape later for my mother, who, out of Dad’s hearing, remarked,
“I’m not surprised, and I’ll tell you another thing. One night we were at her apartment playing bridge, and your daddy did something to make her mad. They were partners—they were always partners—and maybe he overtrumped her or maybe she just didn’t hear his bid. Anyway, the next thing I know, she called him a ‘liar,’ and told us all that he had been a liar ever since he was a little boy when he said he woke up one night and saw a strange man standing in the hallway wearing nothing but his underwear.”
My mother paused a moment, “I know one thing, your daddy might have worshipped her, but he was not a liar!”
“She was having an affair?”
“That’s what I think.”
It’s a funny thing, your, my, grandmother’s life. I never knew my grandfather, so Ma Ma was an island for me. Alone. Why shouldn’t she date? And what if she was having an affair back then? Why should I care?
I saw her every Sunday afternoon from infancy until I was eighteen; on Thanksgiving and Christmas days; on those days I spent alone with her in summertime. I thought mainly that she was fun. What did I know of her world, her desires? Or even what her marriage was like?
I do know the troubles with her triangular marriage still bothers my mother now, twenty-two years after Ma Ma died. I know that it still disturbs the history of what she had hoped would be a loving marriage to my dad, even though he’s been dead for seventeen years. Maybe the better question is why does it still bother me? Everyone else who is part of this story has crapped out by now.
What I do know is that from the time I started college, my mother started confiding her hatred for Ma Ma to me, though I had felt uneasy about it, sensed her ill feelings in the years before. When she confessed that hatred, I felt divided, split. I didn’t hate Ma Ma, but felt horribly disloyal to my mother if I ever spoke well of or did something nice for my grandmother. I didn’t know how to describe that feeling then; now I’ll say it felt like doing something illegal, something like crossing the county line to go to some gangster’s den. Something done without permission; something that I would never get permission to do if I was ever bold enough to ask for it.
Or something like examining Ma Ma’s Cosmopolitan one late August day and finding Raquel Welch in her own skimpy lingerie, a still from Bedazzled. Ma Ma snatched that Cosmo out of my hands and stuck a copy of The Plain Truth, some sort of Biblical digest, in them instead.
“You can’t be looking at that, Buddy,” she said, even though it was out there in plain sight, within my grasp. I lusted after Raquel Welch for years, but from that scene on and even now, I can’t envision that 60’s sex bomb without also seeing my grandmother who, of course, also loved her lingerie.
Now that’s quite a lesson, triangulation. I’d give it a “four” on the craps table: a three and a one.
Six the Hard Way
“Buddy, I was so worried that you were going to lose all your money at that dice table. It’s just how Ma Ma lost all her grocery money.”
My mother has become a habitual worrier. She dates this change in her
attitude back to the summer of her hysterectomy, 1971. She used to be more carefree, she says, and in my memory of her before the operation, that seems right.
After all, long ago she once spent a Saturday night in a gambling den.
Here, now, at The Greenbrier, the posh resort in the West Virginia mountains, though she’s been playing the penny slots, she worries about me at the craps table where my son-in-law Taylor is showing me how to roll properly, and accurately detailing what the rolls and bets mean.
You have to be a guest at The Greenbrier to play. There are no bridges here leading to the entrance, no steel cages or peepholes to keep out unwanted players. A mere $400 a night per room will get you in.
I started the night betting with $60, and now I’ve doubled it. When my mother walks up and tells me she lost her money fast, though she had gotten up to $60 herself, she hovers a minute longer.
“This just scares me.”
I wonder: does she know me at all? Does she think I’m a speculator? A habitual gambler? A man free and easy with his money?
In no other way do I remotely resemble my grandmother.
Unlike that woman, I am a natural red head, though my color has dulled considerably. And most unlike her, I am neither selfish nor unnaturally self-absorbed.
As my mother’s words resound, Taylor looks me over, but he isn’t thinking about any similarity between members of my family. It’s simply my turn to roll again.
My daughters escort my mother to her room, finally. I could cash in and put her at ease for the time being. But I’m having fun at this table with my son-in-law. When I decide to stop, I am up $350. Taylor tells me I’ve quit too soon, because the next roller is a virgin to the game. Indeed, she rolls four or five seven’s in a row, and squeals louder each time that precious and fickle number comes up. If I had stayed, I would have won $40 or $50 more. But I’m content. I wish Taylor had been, but that’s craps for you.
The next morning I report my winnings to my mother. She’s glad for me, but I don’t think she’s any less troubled by what she saw the previous night. Indeed, old risks die hard.
Holding Your Bet
My parents married in October 1952. I was born in July 1956. I am their oldest child. I was raised in the house where they were married, the house my mother grew up in. As if my parents’ residential backgrounds weren’t already different, there is this other factor: my mother is Protestant, my father, Jewish. This difference explains why they married in my mother’s house. Before the marriage, they agreed that their children would be raised in my mother’s Methodist church, but that they would ask my father’s Birmingham rabbi to perform their ceremony. Dad’s rabbi balked, however, at the children-being-raised-Christian agreement. It took them a while to find a rabbi to officiate. Bessemer’s rabbi refused, too, so finally, a Montgomery rabbi, Rabbi Blachschlegel, agreed.
Ma Ma resented something about all of this, though specifically what is anyone’s guess. She was not a faithful temple attendee; for God’s sake, she used to accompany my Aunt Carole to nightclubs like The Boom Boom Room on Friday and Saturday nights. My mother believes Ma Ma viewed their marriage as just another way Dad might escape her clutches—that being married, he would no longer be so readily under her thumb.
That his loyalty to her would be divided or would reside somewhere away from her.
That he might have reason to tell about things he experienced growing up. Things he saw.
Strangers in his house.
My mother was scarred by the first years of her marriage, so she is prone to seeing triangulated binaries when they aren’t really there. When she learned that I had gotten married in secret, her first words to me were:
“Well, your hers now,” as if my loyalty had to be as divided as my father’s was.
Still, her scarring is real.
Ma Ma refused to go to any of my parents’ engagement parties or my mother’s bridal showers. She did go to the wedding. I’ve seen the photos, one of which used to sit on her bedside table. There she is, holding on to my grandfather, George, and standing to the side of my wedded parents. Next to her, are my dad’s sister Carole and his brother Shirleigh. Everyone is smiling, almost as if they all got along and truly liked each other.
Almost as if they thought this photograph would be all anyone would know of them, or remember.
My mother has an album of wedding photos, but this portrait of my father’s family on supposedly the happiest day of his life is not included in her book. I don’t know what happened to that picture after Ma Ma died. I think I’d like to have it, though I wonder what I would do with it? It would feel strange to place it in my house, and also strange not to, this this portrait of a family as happy people, this captured memory from my parents’ wedding night, October 1952.
The House Rules.
I have other photographs, though.
Go forward six months to the spring of 1953, a Saturday morning in May.
“Mother wants us to take her to Little Man Popwell’s tonight,” my dad says to Mom.
That my mother agreed to go amazes me. That her mother, my Nanny, didn’t succeed in stopping them, amazes me more. Until that day, neither of my parents had ever been gambling. They didn’t drink, but they weren’t prudes because they went to New Orleans for their honeymoon. Or maybe that was just an Old South thing to do.
My mother tells this story of the first time she ever set foot in a liquor store, the state-controlled liquor store on Bessemer’s First Avenue. It was 1966, and she had been given a new pound cake recipe, one that called for Apricot brandy.
“If my daddy were alive and knew I had gone into that liquor store, he would have died or killed me!”
But she survived, and the pound cake was incredible.
She wouldn’t go into The Stadium Grill, either, even though it was just a hamburger joint that also sold beer across the street from Bessemer Stadium (Home of Champions), because Nanny told her that a man had once been shot there. Nanny also refused to go to Cliff’s Barbecue just a block away from the stadium because she claimed that the owner and chef, Cliff himself, once had TB. Nevertheless, my mother took my brother Mike and me to Cliff’s often. I loved the cheeseburgers and the jukebox, which had scrolling window units at every booth. To my knowledge, nothing there ever made me sick, except when I realized that the back window existed only to serve the Black clientele who could not, of course, dine in.
So my mother was what you’d call careful, though not completely temperate. Her idea of a night out consisted of finer things: supper at Bessemer’s Bright Star or Birmingham’s Joy Young, a show at the Alabama or Ritz, dancing at The Club high atop Red Mountain. On many occasions I watched her get dressed to the nines, my glamorous mother, and my dad escorting her, dressed in a dark suit and black wing-tips. Dad loved the movies, though expensive dinners gave him the heebie-jeebies. He tried to please his wife, to take her to the best places, but like my mother, he passed on anything seedy or dangerous.
None of this mattered, however, when it came to Ma Ma, who, outside of Bessemer, never met a place that wasn’t too wide open, thrilling, seedy, or prone to being raided.
Dad was incredibly loyal to his mother. He once argued with me that the name of the Tex-Mex country singer was Freddy Bender, not Fender, because Ma Ma told him so. I don’t know that I ever convinced him otherwise. He was equally loyal to his job, working for Ma Ma’s brother-in-law, Mose, and his son, Arnold. Dad worked for over thirty-five years at their business. By the end of his twenty-sixth year, he was making $28,000. My mother says that after they got married, Dad got a fifty-cent per week raise, and given his yearly salary in 1977, I’d say that adds up right.
There is just something about family: often the better you treat them, the harder and swifter they crap on you.
So on this Saturday night in early May 1953, Dad chose loyalty to his mother over safety. He drove the three of them deep into the rural woodlands of Shelby County.
To go gambling.
I ask Mom now if she remembers now how to get to Little Man Popwell’s.
“I have no idea, but I can tell you that it was way out in the woods, and you had to cross some kind of bridge to get to his house. You knocked on the door, and they could see you through the peephole, and if they knew you, they’d open the door. And they let us in immediately.”
Ma Ma, it seems, was a known quantity.
My mother’s memory is true.
I verified it when I obtained a photo from Ebay, taken in 1951, showing four Birmingham policemen raiding Little Man Popwell’s casino. In clear focus is the steel gate they had to walk through, enclosing them from all sides and from above. The front door has a grilled window and another door behind it where, presumably, the peephole rests. A bare light bulb hangs above, and the policemen are wearing raincoats and felt hats. Though they are out of their jurisdiction (Birmingham is in Jefferson County, not Shelby where this raid took place), apparently they had a search warrant issued by Shelby County authorities. Also from what I have learned, such raids of Popwell’s premises occurred regularly.
Once inside, Mom remembers that the three of them went down into the basement where all the gambling tables—craps, blackjack, poker, and roulette—were set up and running.
“You daddy and I just stood there watching Ma Ma go from table to table. It seemed like we were there for hours. All we did was follow her around. We never played. She tossed the dice like she had done it a million times. Finally, she lost all her money and we could leave. I was so tired that night after we got home, and so was your daddy. He said he’d never do that again, and we didn’t.”
They definitely didn’t, for exactly a week later, as they were leaving the Alabama Theater after a showing of some beautiful movie, the paper boys hit the Birmingham streets, hawking an extra edition of The Birmingham News, proclaiming that Little Man Popwell’s club had been raided, and Little Man himself, arrested.
“What if it had happened a week earlier when we were there?” my mother asks now.
What indeed? My parents, raided, arrested, criminally liable for their associations.
My mother doesn’t remember the date of the raid, but I have it. It’s easy these days to find random facts, incriminating stories about your own familial past. Short routes to a place you might call home, or somebody’s home anyway.
Somebody like Julius Oral “Little Man” Popwell.
The major raid at Little Man’s, the one that fate spared my family from experiencing by exactly one week, occurred on Saturday night, May 9, 1953, according to a story by Bill Mobley in the April 3rd, 1954, edition of The Birmingham Post-Herald. The raid occurred at
…Popwell’s Shelby County retreat just off the Florida Short
Route…The fortress-like Popwell living quarters were raided by
Birmingham police…an acetylene torch was used…to burn through
a steel wire cage protruding from the front door. A hole was also
burned through the steel front door when Little Man tried to argue
the legality of the raid (“‘Little Man’ Sentenced to Year, Day: Guilty Plea Made Without Trial,” BPH, Saturday April 3, 1954, 1-2).
Apparently, between forty and fifty “guests” were arrested that night and ordered to pay $50 plus court costs when they appeared before a judge in nearby Columbiana, which is Shelby County’s seat. Popwell himself was sentenced to a year and a day in prison and made to pay $250 in fines plus court costs. He pled guilty to “displaying gambling equipment” (“‘Little Man’ Sentenced…”).
The stuff of legends, and there’s more: according to a story in The Poker News, despite his arrest, Popwell continued playing various forms of poker until his death of cancer in 1966 (“From the Poker Vaults: The Pride of Alabama,” www.pokernews.com). This source also declares that stories about Popwell’s generosity were legendary. Described by many as “honorable,” Popwell once allowed a Birmingham toy manufacturer to pay off his enormous gambling debts “…in toys, which Popwell then distributed to the poor children living in the hills just outside of Birmingham.” Many considered him a “soft touch,” and “local bank officers” would often travel to Popwell’s gambling den “to buy large quantities of change, which Popwell stored in 55-gallon barrels in the basement.” Still, on any given gambling night, there was often as much as “$1,000,000 spread over his tables” (“From the Vault…”).
Born on June 1, 1912, Popwell grew to stand five feet six inches and weigh well over 300 pounds. In 1996, thirty years after his death, he was voted into the Poker Hall of Fame (“From the Vault…”).
Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Life gets curiouser.
That Poker News story listed Little Man’s dwelling as being in Leeds, Alabama, a suburb of Birmingham. I ask my mother about this.
“No, it wasn’t in Leeds,” she says. “It was somewhere in Shelby County.”
Sometimes hard work pays off to the diligent, and sometimes the diligent get lucky. Sometimes we hit our very strange number, and though a “3” in craps is…”craps,” three’s are important to the location of Little Man Popwell’s gambling joint.
When I Googled “Leeds, Alabama,” naturally my first hit was Wikipedia’s entry. View Wikipedia with suspicion all you want, but this entry solved the mystery:
“Leeds is a Tri-County Municipality located in Jefferson, St. Clair, and Shelby counties,” although it is principally a part of Jefferson County. Leeds’ more famous citizens are former Auburn and pro basketball star, Charles Barkley, and former Major League pitcher, Dixie Walker.
Sadly, Wikipedia fails to mention Julius Oral “Little Man” Popwell.
My mother describes Popwell’s place as being “in the middle of nowhere.” Roughly 11,000 people reside in this nowhere-land, according to the 2010 census, less than that during Little Man’s run.
I am intrigued, though, by the “Florida Short Route” moniker. Where have I heard that name? It seems that my daddy used to call some road the Florida Short Route. Again, I ask my mother:
“Oh yes, I know that. It’s the old way everyone used to take to Florida, before the interstates. That’s highway 280.”
US Highway 280 begins in Birmingham and travels south through Shelby County and on down. It’s a major corridor into what was termed in the 1970’s, “Alabama’s fastest growing county.” Much of Shelby’s growth, if you consider the date the term was coined, was due to “white flight.” Regardless, I remember my father’s pointing the route out, and when he did so, all I could imagine was that if we could just drive over the next hill, I’d be able to see the beach. I assume that we did take the Florida Short Route on our trips to St. Petersburg. I have no memory, however, of the Alabama part of the route, except for random thoughts of the gas stations we might have stopped at to fill up, to release, to drink “Co-Colas” and eat cheese crackers.
So next, I Googled the Florida Short Route:
Before interstates and four-lane highways, U.S. 280 was the quickest drive from Birmingham to Florida’s beaches and the only route to outlying areas such as Chelsea. The winding road was so traveled by sun-seeking tourists it earned the lasting name of Florida Short Route, as denoted by a billboard from a Tallahassee motel that pointed 287 miles south.
A branch of U.S. Highway 80 and running 390 miles from downtown Birmingham to Blichton, Ga., the route branches off to go south and east through Georgia to Florida’s Atlantic coast. Still today, U.S. 280 south of Birmingham shows up on road maps as Florida Short Route.
In addition to being the quickest way to Florida, early U.S. 280 was the only route to Birmingham for residents in Chelsea, Columbiana and other nearby towns.
‘It seemed like it took hours to get to my grandmother’s house,’ recalls Sandy Crumpton, the Shelby County Historical Society’s archivist, who grew up in Columbiana and remembers riding through the famous 280 Narrows and over the mountains to Grandma’s house in west Jefferson County.
The Narrows, the picturesque Yellow Leaf Creek gorge section of the old highway, had nicknames including ‘War Eagle Highway,’ as it leads to Auburn University, and ‘Blood Bucket Road’ because of the accidents on the narrow roadway, said Bobby Joe Seales, president of the Shelby County Historical Society.
Many vehicle accidents occurred on the Narrows’ winding curves, and its hills and hollows hid whiskey stills back when store-bought liquor was forbidden or too far away. Reportedly, a gambling casino was once located along the Narrows, Seales said (Italics mine). Historians from half a century ago also reported that the rocks in the Narrows were the oldest found in North America at that time (Jackie Romine Walburn, “The short route to Florida,” 280 Living, July 29, 2014, http://280living.com/people/the-short-route-to-florida/).
Whiskey stills, hollows, and a gambling casino. I saw none of those on our trips to Florida when I was a boy. I didn’t know then just what I was looking for.
But I wonder now if my dad did? If, when he pointed out this route and drove on it, he remembered or thought of Little Man’s place? If that Saturday night in 1953 stuck with him—the fact of his mother’s gambling, the nearness of his and my mother’s arrest? While he seemed amused by his mother’s love of all gambling games—and she had weekly canasta, pinochle, and bridge games with the cronies in her apartment complex—and while I remember his saying that she liked to gamble, he never told me about this casino night. Neither how he felt about it, nor that he went there at all.
Nor did he ever tell me his thoughts about Ma Ma’s gambling away her grocery or rent money.
The one lament he spoke of was that while he was in World War Two, fighting the Nazis in Patton’s Third Army, Ma Ma hocked his clarinet and used the funds to go gambling. She sold his comic book collection, too, but losing the first issues of Action and Detective didn’t bother him as much as losing his precious clarinet, whose sound he duplicated the rest of his life with his own whistle.
I can never know how much this, or anything Ma Ma did, bothered him. Such are the stakes of loyalty. So very high, and costly. So secretive. And so eerily quiet.
I got the details of my mother’s trip to Little Man’s as we drove home from The Greenbrier. I admit that I had fun, that rolling dice had its definite highs. But these are superficial moments, far different from the moments I truly love: hearing and telling the stories of our lives. My family is trying to keep me from revealing certain salacious tales. They’d like me to swear that I won’t reveal sensitive details about them.
But I can’t swear to that. Actually, giving up gambling would be far easier.
I am also incredibly pleased that my mother thoroughly enjoyed her weekend at The Greenbrier; she finally got to stay in the posh resort of her dreams. Clearly, though, my grandmother’s action--her distorted self-absorption and her gambling--so long ago, still give my mother nightmares.
Gambling, at least, is still illegal in Alabama, at least concerning casinos, craps and poker tables, and, it seems, gas stations where just yesterday in Lauderdale County, thirteen people were arrested for operating illegal gambling machines.
Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly “…says there was more than $40,000 in the 128 machines seized. He says it’s believed that money was gathered in a 24-hour period. The 13 defendants each received a suspended one-year prison sentence. They were also ordered to pay $100 for each gambling machine in their possession, with a cap of $500” (http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/news/20180510/13-plead-guilty-to-operating-128-gambling-devices).
Despite this incident, you can bet on any major sporting event in the state as long as you know whom to speak to (in the 1970’s, a beloved neighbor who worked at that same Bessemer liquor store of the apricot pound cake incident). We bet college football parlays. My dad paid a dollar on these occasions, and once, he correctly picked nine out of ten games, against the spread, and won $20.
There is also the dog track in Eutaw, Alabama, which has been there since the early 1970’s, and which also houses other wagering games; somehow, betting on greyhounds doesn’t seem to bother anyone, as if something legitimate is transpiring, as if we’re promoting good wholesome fun.
I think now about The Narrows, that twisting stretch of county road to Little Man Popwell’s, “where many vehicle accidents” occurred, travelled late at night by three people I loved, one of whom at least had been having fun at the expense of the others. Despite Ma Ma’s losses, on that night they truly were lucky.
For what if my parents and Ma Ma had gone to Little Man Popwell’s a week later and been arrested? Where would they have been taken? What would have been their fines, and what would have happened to their reputations? My father’s job? My mother’s place in Bessemer “society?”
Furthermore, since Ma Ma was the instigator, had they been caught, would she have paid the fines for all three of them? Since she “knew people,” could she have wormed her way out of being arrested? And if so, would she have tried to get my parents off, too? Or just my dad?
Or finally, just herself?
Would her loyalties have run deep enough to protect those who loved her, or at least tolerated her, or would she have hedged her bets as closely, exclusively, and selfishly as possible?
My son-in-law Taylor says craps is the game where the players have the greatest odds of beating the house.
So knowing that, knowing that craps was Ma Ma’s favorite game, I’ll go ahead and bet anything that loyalty to the “house” or anyone living in it was never her chief concern. She bet against it all her adult life. So I’ll even double that bet, for I understand the terms of it now. She would have sacrificed all in order to get what she wanted: a good time, her son’s singular loyalty. After all, it was just for a thrill. It was just a game of chance.
There is one last life irony in this story.
Ma Ma lived by herself until she was ninety-eight years old. Finally, she couldn’t take care of herself any longer, and she had run off every live-in aide my dad had hired. So he moved her into a “home,” Plantation Manor, out 4th Avenue, on the old Tuscaloosa highway.
In Bessemer, where she died the following year just two months short of her 100th birthday.
About the Author
Terry Barr is the author of Don't Date Baptists and Other Warnings from My Alabama Mother and We Might As Well Eat: How to Survive Tornados, Alabama Football, and Your Southern Family (Third Lung Press). His work has appeared in Cleaning Up Glitter, storySouth, The New Southern Fugitives, Call Me [Brackets], Wraparound South, Under the Sun, Coachella Review, Flying South, and Eclectica. He lives in Greenville, SC, with his family.