Several decades ago, when in my late 20s, I worked as a news reporter on the Gulf Coast. After several years in the news business, I was then still considered a sort of advanced apprentice, not yet a journeyman reporter.
It is no longer that way, and the general quality of news reporting reflects the change.
“Boots” Bartley, a Mobile, Alabama, homicide detective, then in his 50s, was a friend and occasional drinking companion in those days. Boots was a little over six feet tall, not particularly well-built nor good looking, but he possessed a great deal of personal charisma. He had a big gnarly face, mousey red-gray hair and a gut that hung a little over his belt. He also had a great toothy smile, soft voice and a gentle manner.
His manners were impeccable, maybe a little too formal. He called all the men sir and all the women ma’am. I was at least 30 years younger, but even after having spent considerable time with him, I never could get Boots Bartley to stop calling me Mr. Shiverdecker or sir.
He was a sharp dresser. On the job as a homicide cop he wore tailored suits, crisp white shirts and nice neckties with a perfect Windsor knot. He was the best dressed plain clothed cop I have known. He drove a late model white Cadillac, always immaculately clean.
His suits were cut a little loose in some places to accommodate the several firearms he carried. He’s the only cop I ever knew who carried a handgun in the crotch of his pants. It was a Smith & Wesson, J-frame Airweight; .38 Special, five rounds in the cylinder. His tailor left the bottom open on the right-hand front pocket of his slacks, so Boots had a couple of different ways of accessing the Smith if he needed it.
Boots loved women and women loved Boots.
There was then a popular bar near downtown Mobile that Boots attended faithfully every Friday night. He would always arrive early, leaving the Cadillac parked illegally near the door. He’d grab his corner table where he could easily see the front door and nearly every part of the large room. It was a little round table with four chairs. My first Friday night with Boots at the bar I learned to take a chair across from him, not one beside him, and I learned why that was a rule.
Those were the days before AIDS, and people were much less cautious about casual and intimate relationships. The bar was what, in those long ago days, was sometimes called a “meat market.” Much has changed. I’m not sure whether the term survives, but I’m pretty sure it is no longer politically correct.
When Boots Bartley was about finished with his first bourbon on the rocks, the regular Friday night crowd would start to arrive. Boots knew many of them. The men he knew would come to his table. He would always stand up to shake their hands, and he would usually get a hug or peck on the cheek from the man’s wife or lady friend if the guy was accompanied.
More than half the arrivals were unescorted women: single women, divorcees, happily married housewives out for “a night with the girls.” They tended to travel in pairs or packs, but not always.
At least half of the women would head to Boots’ table when they entered the bar. He called most of them by name –Miz Pitman, Miz Coburn, Miss Betty Sue, Miz Harler, Miss Tammy Fay, Miz Doyle or simply ma’am — and grinned as they hugged him, often long, clinging hugs. Then they would circulate around the room while Boots held court for the next arrivals.
The crowd would grow. The booze would flow. People would get friendlier.
Many of the women would circulate back for longer visits at Boots’ table; hence the availability of empty chairs on both sides of him. The ladies would get friendlier. Some would grope around on Boots or say, “Boots, show me your gun, baby.”
One of his admirers, a tall, flashy, middle aged redhead knew about the right front pocket on his slacks and might slide her slender hand into it. Boots would say, “Be careful down there. That gun might fire off and hurt you, ma’am, or hurt old Boots!” (The trigger on the Smith had an 11-pound pull, so there was no realistic danger of that particular gun discharging.)
During these friendly encounters while they were seated with him at the table, I never saw Boots lay a hand on any of the women, other than a friendly and respectful hand on the upper back.
Some of the younger, better looking, but less skilled men in the room would observe the attention Boots was getting and resent it, sometimes openly. Occasionally they would get loud and insulting and start calling Boots ugly names. He’d ignore it unless it got especially noisome. Then Boots would mutter, “I sure do hope I don’t have to get up from here and knock that old boy’s cock in the dirt.”
If it went on, he’d get up, his drink still in his left hand, and face the trouble-maker, saying, “Friend, I don’t want any trouble. Let me buy you a drink.” Then he’d holler at the nearest waitress, “Nurse, please bring my good friend here whatever he’s drinking and put it on my tab.” In the couple of instances when I saw it happen, the direct, friendly approach embarrassed the troublemaker, who slunk off, leaving the premises.
That method would sometimes fail. I never saw Boots strike anybody. Those who had known him longer had seen instances when it didn’t work. The unruly one would smart off again to Boots, maybe attempt to shove or strike him. In those cases, it resulted in two quick punches from Bartley’s huge right hand, the first to the gut, the second to the loud mouth’s left jaw. They said Boots wouldn’t spill any of the drink in his left hand while he took care of that bit of business. Then, it was said, he would return to the table with that big gentle grin, as if nothing had happened.
Although I never saw Bartley grope any of the women who were charmed by him, he would sometimes make comments about those who were outstanding in one way or another: “That’s a really beautiful girl.” “That lady is my age and has more grandchildren than I do. Ain’t it amazing how great she looks!” “That poor girl is awfully plain.” “That ol’ girl is worse than ugly. She’s downright ooogly.”
Boots never left with any of his female admirers. About 9 p.m., having consumed a copious amount of bourbon, he would signal for his tab. He’d be standing up when the waitress came, would pay her in cash and tip generously. He would wave goodbye to everyone, like a campaigning politician. Then slowly, very deliberately, with obvious concentration, never wobbling or staggering, he would walk to his car.
If he decided he was too drunk to get home safely, he would use the two-way radio in the car to call for help. Within a couple of minutes two uniformed cops would arrive in a single squad car. One of them would drive Boots home in the Cadillac, the other following in the police vehicle to bring Boots’ driver back to the precinct.
Usually, though, Boots would drive himself, slowly and carefully, to his home five miles from downtown Mobile, where he lived with his wife, the mother of his children.
Boots said he left the bar early because, “I need to get a good night’s sleep, heal up from all this foolishness.”
Sundays, Boots Bartley and his wife and whatever of their grandchildren had slept over Saturday night would pile in the Cadillac and drive to the Baptist Church where he was a long-serving deacon.
I’ve told this rambling tale about my late friend Detective Boots Bartley to introduce the powerful adjective “ooogly” which I learned from him. It strikes me as a simple, but worthy addition to the English tongue.
Ooogly: something that is far beyond simply ugly.
There is a genuinely ooogly building in downtown New Albany.
I refer to the old Union County jail that squats on the southeast corner of the courthouse square. I was discouraged recently when NEMiss.News reported that the county board was about to spend a lot of money from a Mississippi Department of Archives and History grant to put a new roof on the ooogly old thing.
Perhaps you’ve driven by it so many times that you have been desensitized, have ceased to be offended by how ooogly it is. I’ve been driving or walking by it daily for over 20 years and I just can’t get over it.
The jail was a gift to Union County from the federal government. The plaque on the east wall of the ooogly jail says it was built in 1939 by the “Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States, Harold L. Ickes, Administrator of Public Works.” I am sure that Union County badly needed a new jail in 1939 and was grateful to FDR.
For more than two decades we have had a much better looking and functional law enforcement center on Carter Avenue, and the old jail sits un-used, but still ooogly. Yet, we are going to spend public money putting a new roof on the ooogly thing.
The only function it currently serves is to block the view of the classic and beautiful 1909 Union County Courthouse from anyone going west on Main Street.
Why not spend the roof money to demolish the ooogly old jail and haul it to the landfill in dump trucks? I realize it’s built out of solid poured concrete and would be difficult to demolish. I realize also that the historical preservationists would have a conniption fit if they thought it might be torn down.
Having restored several century old houses, including the one we live in, I’ll put my historical preservation creds up against those of anyone I know in Northeast Mississippi. I think the fact that the old jail is just plain ooogly – and also of no use to the public – outweighs any historic significance it can claim. There is certainly no sound argument for spending 30 grand to put a new roof on the ooogly old thing.
If you had an ugly wart on your forehead, would you leave it there for no other reason than the fact it had been there for a long time, was thence an historic object?
-JWSNew Albany MS, Northeast MS news, old Union County Jail, Union County MS