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"Death of a Troubabour" by Tom Mackin

There is no more news out of Snipes Ford, the county seat of Oklawaha County Florida. The randy retinue of rednecks, the motorcycle gang, Hells' Belles, and the other raffish clientele at the Terminal Tavern were unduly quiet. Still Bill, who moved so slow you had to line him up at a fence post to be sure he was in motion, would remain still forever.

Eulalah Singletary, the fearsome homeroom teacher, would no longer terrorize the seventh-graders. Eulalah was six and a half-feet tall, and, as one of her pupils reported, "loomed above us like a myopic praying mantis, with blue rinse in her white hair, chalk white skin, bloodless lips, little eyeballs like pen lights shining through a Missouri road map; she wore those Dr. Sholes lace-up pedicure pumps and silk print dresses from which trailed garlands of lilac water and talcum powder." Ms. Singletary had declared an eternal recess.

The local sage, Agamemnon Jones, "an icon of concupiscence and chief of the metaphysicians at the Purina Feed Store," was strangely silent, and Narcissa Nonesuch - a community organizer and newcomer to Snipes Ford, who was warned against "talking metric to decent folk" - was nowhere to be found. Gone from his usual haunts was Penrod, an enterprising hustler who took glee in dynamiting catfish in the Econlockhatchee River and selling them in bulk to Howard Johnson's for scallops. Also missing was his girl friend Elfrieda, "a woman of unslaked carnality," who offered interpretative dancing at the Terminal Tavern to endless jukebox choruses of Peggy Lee's "Fever."

Motorists from the north no longer had to fear Hutto Proudfoot, deputy sheriff of DeKalb County, Georgia, just north of Snipes Ford. Proudfoot was a Southern primitive: He wore a breechcloth fashioned from two Fruehauf mud flaps, a Styrofoam pith helmet with an STP decal on the front, Thom McAn loafers with quarters stuck in them, and carrying an ax handle personally autographed by Lester Maddox. Over his Suma wrestler bare chest hung two .45-caliber bandoleer belts with the cartridge loops alternatively stuffed with Hav-a-Tampa Jewels and Slim Jims. The innocent northerners would hereafter avoid getting his patented citations: Bumper stickers with the legend, "Eat More Possum." Hutto's pursuit car, a souped-up Massey-Ferguson tractor with Le Mans racing stripes and Goodyear polyglas, wide-boot Series-60 tires a foot and a half wide with big white letters on the side that said "Redneck," was permanently garaged behind a "Wake Up, America" billboard.

Gone too, were the rest of the Snipes Ford inhabitants, rural alchemists who spent the bulk of their waking hours designing novel ways to bleach out their used coffee grounds to sell them to tourists on the Interstate as grits. (Which explains why many northerners don't care a lot about southern cooking.)

Snipes Ford was the brain child of Gamble Rogers, a Florida balladeer, who sang of the wickedness rather than the rectitude of the fictional backwater village where "sorriness is a prime virtue." It was a also a place of pretension: The little community considered itself not only the Oklawaha County seat, but also its center of literacy. For example, the third annual Snipes Ford William Faulkner Society Convention was held in a downtown trailer park.

(Rogers met Faulkner when the novelist was a writer-in-residence at the University of Virginia, where Rogers, the son and grandson of prominent Florida architects, was pursuing a course in general studies. A great admirer of the Mississippi writer, Rogers was pleased when the denizens of Oklawaha County were occasionally compared to those of Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County.)

Otherwise, the Snipes Ford hall of learning was the Terminal Tavern, whose premises were described as a "dirt parking lot, a hangar-like building, an acre and a half of pickup trucks, chrome trailer hitches glittering in the starlight, some encapsulated with phosphorescent tennis balls."

Gamble Rogers sang of these people and places in such ruefully titled albums as "Sorry Is as Sorry Does" and "The Lord Gives Me Grace and the Devil Gives Me Style," and in concert halls and theaters across the U.S. and Canada. A tall, angular, wide-shouldered figure, he stalked the stage in his chinos and western boots, picking at his guitar with dazzling technique, then suddenly slinging the instrument by its strap behind him, launching with wide-eyed enthusiasm into his sly, waggish tales of Snipes Ford and Oklawaha County with the wisdom of a cracker-barrel philosopher and the vocabulary of an oxford don. The Atlanta Constitution called him "an American treasure... worthy of inclusion in the Smithsonian."

His style was variously described as being of equal parts carnival barker, Bible salesman and tent show evangelist. His audiences never knew that he often performed despite excruciating pain. A fused spine, the result of rheumatoid arthritis, made it impossible for him to turn his head independently. What looked like body English, was an accommodation to his physical impediment. While he once played Carnegie Hall and was a frequent visitor to the music tents and auditoriums of metropolitan New York and elsewhere, James Gamble Rogers IV was essentially a Southern troubadour. So, when he died last October 10, there was no obituary in the New York newspapers. Even though his death was tragic and heroic. The last day of the minstrel is worth retelling.

Rogers, his wife Nancy and two friends, Sid and Cindy Ansbacher, were visiting a favorite camping place at Flagler Beach, Florida, about an hour's drive from his home in St. Augustine. On the second day of their stay, after several hours of cycling, they returned to camp late in the afternoon. As they reached the tent, Rogers heard a cry from the water. Someone was in trouble. (There are no lifeguards at Flagler Beach, only signs warning bathers to swim at their own risk.)

Without hesitation, Rogers stripped down to his jockey shorts and white dress shirt with button-down collar, grabbed an air mattress from his sleeping bag and ran to the edge of the water. Flagler Beach, known as a surfer's paradise because of its rough waters and rip tides, is also dangerous because of its strong undertow. A young boy on the beach told Rogers his father, a Canadian on vacation, had been fishing and apparently wandered into the water beyond his depth. Gamble took a firm grip on the mattress and headed out from the beach. He was not a particularly strong swimmer and with his physical handicap he made slow headway. Meanwhile, several other would-be rescuers were in the surf, and they were all in trouble as the rip tide worsened and the waves were cannonading to the shore. A recent tropical storm heading north had boiled the waters of the Atlantic.

A park ranger, Chuck McIntire, was summoned from the ranger station about a mile away. A former lifeguard and powerful swimmer, McIntire peeled off his trousers and shoes and plunged into the surf. Familiar with the conditions, he let the riptide pull him out almost to the breakers where he encountered Rogers, still clinging to the inflatable canvas raft, who signaled he was all right.

The ranger went farther out but could find no one. Circling back and swimming parallel to the shore, he encountered Cindy Ansbacher who was struggling in the rough seas that by this time were running five to seven feet high. He managed to get her back to shore and turn her over to the paramedics. Exhausted, he threw himself on the coquina-strewn, sandless beach.

A few minutes later, a rescue team brought in the body of the fisherman. He was Raymond Tracey, 48, of Tecumseh, Ontario. Rogers had disappeared. Sometime later, his body was discovered beyond the breakers.

Ranger McIntire knew Gamble and Nancy Rogers well from their frequent visits to the recreation parks of Florida and was a fan of the singer's. He said, "You would have to know Gamble to understand why he would do something like this. He was a humanitarian."

The 54-year-old-entertainer's heroic effort that day has been remembered. The Legislature of the State of Florida has renamed the recreational area where the accident occurred the "Gamble Rogers Memorial Park at Flagler Beach." A plaque recalling his selfless action has been erected at the site.

But nothing further will be heard from Snipes Ford in Oklawaha County. With its poet laureate gone and no one to chronicle the mischief of its colorful inhabitants, it will fade into the mists of Florida folklore.

(Tom Mackin is a retired Vice President of ABC Television in New York City. Tom had met Gamble while he was performing in New Jersey shortly before his death.)

1991 Tom Mackin

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