by Randy Reynolds

The first caper of my car theft career was a simple matter. It happened in Gainesville, Georgia, 1952. I was almost three. My dad was 21. He left me alone in the car with the motor running while he darted into the dry cleaners about fifteen feet from the curb. His last words to me were, “Don’t touch the gear.”

As soon as he was gone, I touched the gear and it was game on.

As Dad picked up his suits another customer came in and said, “Whoever owns that car outside better hurry  — it’s headed down the hill!”

Dad ran out of the laundry and saw the ’52 Buick traveling backward down Myrtle Street with me standing in the front seat gripping the steering wheel. Face to face with me, he ran as fast as he could, but the distance between us lengthened with each step as the car picked up speed.

The chase came to an abrupt end when I made a sharp right turn onto Main Street, ran over the curb, bounced the Buick off a guy-wire and came to rest against the side of a building.
My next adventure in a car that didn’t belong to me was more a case of fraud than grand theft auto. I lied to get my Uncle Wint to lend me his car so that I could attend a party behind my dad's back. Wint had moved from Georgia to Covington, Louisiana, and lived at Pine Knoll, the Lee Road version of a country club. I walked from the parsonage on Kenzy Fitzgerald Road, all the way to Uncle Wint’s rented house near the second hole of the golf course. I gave him a cockamamie story about how Daddy would have lent me his car but he had to see someone in the hospital and that I was expected at a school-teacher's daughter's birthday party and it was an emergency because I had to bring the records.  (As if any kids my age would have wanted to hear the kind of records I owned or could "borrow" from the radio station where I had a weekend job!) 

Wint couldn’t have believed a word I was saying but he just smiled that sly smile of his and handed over the keys to his ’64 Buick wagon.

The party of 14 and 15 year olds was just getting underway when the phone in the girl's house rang. It was for me.  My dad ordered me to take the station wagon back to my uncle and find a way home, and his tone left no room for argument. I briefly considered disobeying him, but as soon as I hung up the phone, the girl I was there to see asked me to dance and that seemed more frightening than facing my dad, so I made up some excuse and hurried home to take my punishment.
The next time I stole a car it really was grand theft auto. My cousin Stanley Appling and I met two girls at the Georgia Camp Meeting and had a great time sitting in someone’s unlocked car throughout the evening service. (Which was sort of like stealing a car, though we didn't take it anywhere. We just sat in it.) Stanley and his girl took the front seat, me and mine had the back where we fell in love over suicide snow-cones (a mixture of all flavors.) After the service in the tabernacle was over and car owners streamed into the parking lot, we scrambled out of the car and went our separate ways, but I told the girl in parting that I'd come see her tomorrow, never mind that she lived in Doraville and we were spending camp meeting week with my dad's parents in Gainesville, about an hour's drive away.

Plan A was to borrow my Aunt Katrina’s car in Gainesville, and I pitched the deal to her while she was hanging out the wash on the clothesline between the smokehouse and Papa’s barn. I said, “Do you remember all those times when you were younger and I kept a lookout for you while you smoked Salems behind the smokehouse?”

She narrowed her eyes against the smoke of the Salem in her mouth and laughed.

“Well, now you can pay me back,” I said. “If you’ll loan me your car, it’ll make us even.”

She wasn’t about to do it, but she wanted to get the whole story. “Why do you need a car?”

“Stanley and I met two girls last night and I promised one of them I'd come see her.  It's just a little ways; over in Doraville.”

Her reaction began with her favorite word— one she used at least 90 times a day on a good day and twice as often on a bad one: “Sh*t, that’s fifty miles away, Randy!  You can’t drive that far, honey!"

I told her that I was disappointed in her and went back to the house to execute Plan B, the one where I would steal Daddy's car keys.  It turned out to be easier than I had anticipated. Daddy had left his pants hanging on a bedroom door as he napped. It was a simple matter to swipe the keys from a pocket and speed off to see Diane in Doraville.

Having never driven in traffic any heavier than that our home in rural St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, should have been traumatized by the crowded expressways, but I was in love and mere traffic couldn't keep me away from my girl.

When Daddy realized his car had been stolen, Katrina told him my plan, he called Cousin Stanley to find out the girl's name, and then called the State Patrol to report a stolen car.  Then he called me at the girl's house and told me the State Patrol was on the way to take me to jail.  I covered the 50 miles back to Gainesville in just over thirty minutes.
The punishment he meted out didn’t discourage me from stealing his car again a few weeks later at the Louisiana Camp Meeting. (Camp meeting seemed to always fill my spiritual need to meet girls and steal cars.)

The evangelist told everyone in the tabernacle to stand and lift their hands to Heaven and when my mother did so, I lifted the car keys from her purse. Then I invited a girl named Gayla on a date.

We sneaked into the car from different directions and drove out of the campground with the headlights off and Gayla crouching low in the seat. Having recently heard my Covington High School classmate Karen Goodwin read a how-to essay on "necking," I parked the car on a secluded road and tried to experience what, in young Miss Goodwin's telling had sounded so commonplace among my fellow sophomores, but it soon became clear that even First Base was out of reach. Thinking that refreshments would make up for whatever I lacked in charm, I tried that approach and was surprised to hear that my date  knew the word "yes" after all (as in, "Yes, I'd love a root beer float!") so we cruised down to Frances Barker’s drive-in and ordered root beer floats that we drank en route back to the campground while listening to the Beach Boys on the radio.

I parked the station wagon and we furtively went our separate ways, arriving back in the building just as the sermon was ending. I stood off to the side till some people started shouting, dancing in the aisles and running to the altar. As soon as my mother closed her eyes and lifted her hands in praise, I slipped into the row behind her and, unnoticed by revelers and supplicants, returned the keys to her purse.
The only other car I ever stole was when Daddy tried to ground me and I ran outside and started up the Volkswagen he was allowing me to buy from him. He got his hand on the car door, but I released the clutch and spun away on the wet grass of the front yard.

I drove it to work at WARB where, in due time, one of Sheriff Red Erwin's deputies showed up and lectured me for as long as it took for one side of Frank Sinatra’s September Of My Years album to play. I spun him a yarn about how nobody but the FBI could arrest me because I was an announcer on duty at a federally licensed radio station. He said that could be arranged, that he would call the FBI if he had to, but went on, instead, to preach a nice little sermon about obeying my father. I was especially touched by his description of what jail would be like, so I promised him I'd take the VW straight home after work and would not steal any more cars. 


by Randy Reynolds 

(This is how family history gets passed down…)

I found out about the murderer in our family, Grady Reynolds, 75 years after it happened. 

I recall that it was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons in the 1970s that I spent in Great-grandmother Chesty Reynolds’ front room where her bed was.  My grandfather Bonnell Reynolds and I were on the naugahyde sofa, my great-uncle Kermit was straddling a canebacked chair backward and “Grandmother” was in her bed just inside the front door.  A farmer’s wife accustomed to small quarters, she had always used the front room for her bedroom.  She would live to a robust 96 years of age, but at the time that she and these two sons of hers told me this story she was still in her eighties, a picture of health, propped up against several pillows, chenille spread pulled tight beneath her, a pretty quilt neatly folded over her legs. 

That was 43 years ago, and the events I learned about that day happened in 1897, so this story has been in the family for 118 years.  My dad Gene Reynolds, who is 84, had never heard it despite spending countless hours with his grandpa Allen Reynolds on the front porch out at the farm in late-night talks about family history.  Even though Allen was the murderer’s first cousin, Gene didn’t remember him ever mentioning Grady going to the gallows.

“I never even heard the name,” said Gene.

“And you didn’t know you had a third cousin that killed a storekeeper and pretended he bought the store?” I asked.

 “How do you know all this?” he asked.

“Papa Bonnell and Kermit and Grandmother told me about it back in the ‘70s,” I said. 

“Are you sure?”

“Sure I’m sure.  I got the name wrong.  I remembered it as Gary, but I found out today it was Grady—Reuben Grady Reynolds, and I just thought you could give me some details.”

“Well, I never heard of any Reuben Grady Reynolds,” said Gene.

After finishing Sunday “dinner” at my Papa Bonnell’s house that day in the early 1970s, I moved over to the couch to watch a football game on TV with Uncle Bob, who didn’t much enjoy the games, but always watched the halftime scores to see if the teams he had bet on were covering the point spread.

Uncle Strick was sitting in the armchair nearest the TV but had no interest whatsoever in the game.  He was holding my infant daughter Kristi, rubbing the top of her head, saying, “Ain’t the top of their heads soft?”

My young wife Sherry was helping Mama Maude and Aunt Willeen clear the table while my radical Aunt Katrina sat there at the table, pretty as you please, as if she had the same rights as a man to sit there and not do dishes, but nobody begrudged her the usurpation because she kept a conversation going from the table to the couch to the kitchen. She also kept a cigarette going, as did her husband Bob, from his end of the couch, and Strick near the TV.  The room was a haze of after-dinner smoke that bothered no one because it was always like that when the family got together.

Papa finished his meal by sopping the remainder of the brown gravy from his plate with a piece of chocolate cake (his favorite flavor combination) and then put a big dip of CC Snuff beneath his bottom lip before settling into his plush green swivel chair.

When the halftime recap was over Uncle Bob rounded up Katrina and Kim, and they said their goodbyes and headed home to the Sardis community.

Once everything was spic and span in the kitchen, Willeen told Strick to give the baby back to Sherry, and they collected their kids Sharon and Phil, and took off for their little home on a hill near River Bend.

Sherry took our two little girls into Papa's back yard where we lived in the “Little House” which was sort like a shotgun house in the slums, only smaller.  But we loved it because it was close to Mama Maude and Papa’s and put us in the orbit of all those uncles and aunts.

At this time, maybe an hour after “dinner,” Papa made his move.  He spit into the can beside his chair and rearranged the snuff beneath his bottom lip and said, “You know, I wouldn’t mind riding out to Mom’s this afternoon. If I put a little juice in your car, do you think you could ride me out there? That is, if you don't have anything else to do which I don't mind if you do. I don’t want to put you out any.”

“Sure,” I said.  “But keep your money.”

“No, no, I insist,” he said.

There was many a day back then when my pockets were as empty as the tank of my powder blue 1968 Mustang, so after an appropriate amount of back and forth, I took his dollar. 

Visiting the Great-Grandmother that I had always known as simply “Grandmother,” was not my favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon.  It was nice to see her and Kermit, the son who lived with her the last 30 years of her life, but I really didn’t care all that much about the back and forth between them and my Papa Bonnell over Who married Whom and  in what yearWho died when did you hear about Cousin Whomever or Aunt Whoozitz; or where is So-and-So buried?  It was all I could do to keep my eyes open.

Somehow Uncle Baylous Reynolds’ name came up and they started talking about how great it was that his son, our cousin Grady, got religion before he went to the gallows and I perked up.

Grandmother was just a young girl and not a Reynolds yet when Grady was hanged over in Jefferson, Georgia, just a few miles from The Glade, but she remembered it well.  “We knew all about it. People came from far and near.”

Papa Bonnell, who wasn’t even born till 1907, obviously knew the story. “It was a double hanging.  Him and Bud Brooks.”

Kermit, born in 1924, seemed to know as much as either of them.  “They built a 16 foot fence around the gallows so that nobody could see the actual hanging.”

“Just Grady and Bud’s families and the sheriff and a few others,” said Grandmother.  “Everybody else was there just to watch them walk from the courthouse to the fence.”

“What always got me,” said Papa Bonnell, “Was how come they bought each of them a new suit to be hanged in?  Why waste all that money?”

“Well, but I bet they looked nice at their funeral,” said Grandmother.

Kermit said gently, “Mama, do you know what happens to the human body when a person is hanged?”

Papa frowned.  “Uh, let’s not get into that.”

Grandmother showed her displeasure by uttering her strongest epithet:  “Well, I never!”

Kermit said, “They buried ‘em side by side over at the Reynolds-Barton Cemetery in Lula.”

“I ain’t been to that cemetery in years,” said Papa. “I need to ride over there and have a look one of these days.”

“Ain’t got no name or date on their headstone,” said Kermit.  “All it says is something like “Hanged, buried side by side…They robbed a grocery store and…a man was killed.”

“They was cousins,” said Grandmother.   “Grady’s mother was a Brooks and it was her nephew Bud Brooks that helped Grady with the murder.”

“Now, let’s get the story straight,” said Bonnell.  “Bud didn’t help with the murder.  He just helped split open the body after Grady shot the man.”

“I think it was Grady that split him open with the ax,” said Kermit.  “Right down the center of his back. All Bud did was help take out some of his insides and  fill up the corpse with rocks and bind it up so he’d sink when they threw him in the Oconee River.”

“That was after Grady shot him in the back of the head,” said Bonnell.

“Well, I don’t know if we need to talk about all that,” said Grandmother, briefly focusing her watery blue eyes on me.

My newsman’s instinct felt the story ending too soon, so I piped up:  “Why’d they kill him?”

“He was a wealthy store owner, just a young man, really, without any family hereabouts,” said Grandmother.  “And they heard he kept a lot of money hid in his store.  Didn’t trust the banks.”

“Grady was dirt poor,” said Kermit.  “Cuttin’ railroad ties for a living, bootlegging on the side, him and Bud both.”

Papa liked to keep a story on track.  “They had a contract to make railroad ties in the woods over near Bellton, when they come up with this scheme to kill the storekeeper.”

Kermit said, “Grady’s the one that made him an offer on the store and  lured him out of town by saying they needed to go get the money at Harmony Grove Bank.  And, oh yeah, they could do some bird-hunting the next morning.   The storekeep was an avid bird hunter.”

Papa added, “Bud wadn’t even there, I don’t think, when Grady shot the man in the back of the head.”

Kermit continued, “After they threw the corpse in the river, they went back to the store and tried to find the hidden money, but didn’t find any.  So they kept the store open, told folks that they had bought it.”

“Made a little money selling merchandise,” said Papa.

“Now, what I heard,” said Grandmother, “Was that Grady also let his family come in there and take foodstuff off the shelves.  Gave ‘em everything they could eat or carry off.  He was done divorced at that time, left his wife when he became a drunk, but he fed ‘em well for a few days there.”

“He got arrested because he didn’t know about the horse,” said Papa.  “Seems like the storekeep, I think his name was Hunt, had a stud horse that he kept in his stable on some property he owned about a mile away from the store.  This horse was his pride and joy and he talked about it a lot.  Then somebody went in there one day and saw the horse hadn’t been fed or cared for in days, no provisions had been made for it,  and that’s when everybody got suspicious that there must have been foul play.”

“Grady got arrested first and they made him talk,” said Kermit.  “He told them where to look to find the body weighted down in the river and it was still there, right where he said.  He blamed the killing on Bud and said he only helped move the body.”

“My, my, my,” said Grandmother, as if thinking about it for the first time.

“They caught Bud a few days later up in South Carolina somewhere and brought him back on the train,” said Papa.  

“A lynch mob gathered at the train station when they come back, but the leader said they was gonna let Bud and Grady go to trial. Wadn’t go’n do nothing that night,” said Grandmother.

“Grady got religion while he was in jail and he confessed everything and they was both sentenced to hang,” said Kermit. “Then Bud demanded a new trial because he said liquor made him do it, and he wasn’t accountable.  That was in March. They hanged ‘em that December.”

“It was in all the papers, Jackson County and Hall County both,” said Grandmother.  “Grady grew up here in The Glade, you know.”

“What they did was pure evil,” said Papa.  “But they got prayed through there at the end.”

Grandmother said, “Grady’s wife, her name was Martha—they called her Mattie—didn’t go see him in jail till the very last day.”

Kermit added, “But his mama and sisters kept a vigil with him at the jailhouse for over a week before the big day.  Wore their selves out praying, singing and reading the Bible with him.”

“He got religion,” Grandmother said.  “He was ready to meet his maker and made a right nice little speech for his last words.  The paper said he urged people not to drink and told them they should read the Bible and pray and go to church and they wouldn’t end up where he was, but now he was content to pay for his crime because he knew for sure he was saved.”

Papa Bonnell, who believed most of the Bible and some of the Book of Mormon, added the type of thought that he seemed to constantly be toying with:  “The killers had a chance to get right with God and confess Jesus Christ as their savior, so I believe they went to heaven.  But what about the victim, Mr. Hunt?  Nobody gave him no time to pray. He was shot in the back of the head and then split open with an ax.  What if he wadn’t already in good shape with the Lord?  Are we supposed to think the killers went to heaven and the victim went to Hell?”

The fire in the space heater hissed.  The clock on the wall ticked.  And we avoided each other’s gaze for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts.


by Randy Reynolds 

 Bonnell Reynolds’ rented house at the side of the road in Springway (in the 1930's) was backed by a 12 acre field.  As if a day spent stooping over to repair looms at Gainesville Mill wasn’t tiring enough, he came home each afternoon and worked the field with his mule of the year (purchased in spring to be sold in fall to avoid winter upkeep.)  He also had the services of his young sons—Wint, who worked to impress his father; and Gene who worked harder avoiding work than working.  

Even at mill wages, Bonnell could have supported his family without the crops he wrought from the field each year, but he would have considered it a waste to let the field lie fallow.  Besides, he was getting something more than food from the yeoman work of farming with one mule and one-and-a-half helpers.  Bonnell was getting something for his soul, fulfillment of a primal need that, if he hadn’t been born with it, must have been implanted in his youth:  he was an artist and the soil was his canvas. 

With the reins around his neck, the plow stock in his hands and a wad of snuff behind his bottom lip, he forced the mule forward.  Bonnell’s  job was to keep the plow tip buried, to walk in the boggy trench it left between the rows, and to use his voice, neck and willpower to guide the mule in straight lines over the hill and back, time after time, as long as there was sunlight.

Wint did a little plowing that could only be termed recreational.  Gene’s efforts were pure comedy.  It was a different time than the days when Bonnell and his brothers had plowed till twilight every day because their lives depended on it. 


(Photo: 1955 - Randy in cowboy hat, Papa Bonnell, Ricky, Ronda)

by Randy Reynolds 

I'm eight years old, traipsing on a windless 1957  afternoon behind my grandfather as he forces a manual plow through the hard-packed ground. There is no mule and no motor, only his own muscle and willpower to propel the primitive plow through the field at the corner of Hancock Avenue and Wildwood Drive in Gainesville, Georgia.  I want to be like Papa. I want to do everything he does. "Papa, slow down," I whine. "Let me do it." He ignores me and I feel my sense of injustice rising.

Although he pushes the very earth before him and I have only myself and my pique to carry, his long, loping hardscrabble-farmer stride carries him so far ahead of me that I know he can't hear me anymore so I demonstrate my feelings by throwing myself to the ground. Rolling over and over, disturbing several of his newly-plowed rows, I get the cool red soil all over me, I lick my lips and taste it. Not bad.

I lie face upward, not sure if the cottony clouds in a bright blue sky are moving or if the earth is. Now I'm dizzy as well as angry, waiting for Papa to come back down the row and deal with me. If he'll only stop to listen, I can tell him that I want to plow, too; that I want to be like him. I think he'll be so honored that he'll turn the plow over to me and stand back to proudly watch me finish plowing his side yard and he'll go inside to brag on me to Mama Maude and, later in the week when my daddy returns to get me, Papa might tell him about it and Daddy might be proud of me, too. That feeling is what I live for, but it's hard to come by for a little boy who happens to be the oldest child in a large and growing family, and therefore the one who gets the least attention.

I fear that I won't be the man my papa is because I've heard him say that he started plowing when he was eight years old, the age I am this day, and nobody lets me do ANYTHING yet. Papa began with one mule and a plow stock as high as his shoulders. His daddy told him to keep plowing till twilight. Papa didn't know what 'twilight' was, exactly, having never heard the word before, so he plowed till it was good and dark, just to make sure he wouldn't get a beating for quitting too soon. That night his daddy took the plow reins and whipped him for working the mule too hard and sent him to bed without supper. Deep in the night, his mama snuck over to the bed he shared with several younger siblings and gobbed lard onto the back of his shirt to loosen it from his bloodied flesh.

A half-century later, Papa Bonnell tells this story ironically. "Hell, I can't blame the old man for taking care of his mules better than his young'uns. He could always have more kids, but a good mule was hard to come by when cotton was five cents a pound."

I crawl over to the row that Papa's on and lie there watching him come toward me, pushing the manual plow, pulling it back, pushing again, pulling it back. He pretends he's going to plow right through me, and I roll to safety and sit up, licking more dirt from my lips, still liking it, feeling I'm a part of it somehow. Maybe that's what Papa feels. Maybe that's why he comes home from a hard day as a loom-fixer at the cotton mill and plows till twilight. All he says to me that day is, "Get up from there, you little skeester!" And he keeps going, herky-jerky, straight down the row, no time for foolishness.

(Bonnell Reynolds and his mother Chesty Collins Reynolds, 1970's) 


by Randy Reynolds 

The 12 acre field at Springway required a lot of work besides plowing. Planting was the bane of the Reynolds family's springtime, especially the way Bonnell did it make a little hole, drop in a couple of seeds, cover with soil, go an exact distance, make another little hole, repeat.

That day in April, 1945, when Maude came out the kitchen door without the usual spring in her step and walked slowly into the field, Wint, Gene and Willeen thought relief was on the way.  Maybe she was coming to borrow one of them for an easier chore.  The rows were crossways of the house, so she had to step high across one row at a time to get there. Arms crisscrossed in front of her apron, she held the waist of her dress on each side, pulling against the cloth. Bonnell saw the same vacant look in her eyes that had been there after their 7-week-old baby A.J. had died in her arms on January 7, 1928. It was after the hysteria ran its course that she got that look and kept it till she and Jesus got things straightened out between them. 
Bonnell could have rushed to meet her, but no need to hurry bad news. It would get to him soon enough.   

She stopped and delivered her news about a man they'd never met but whom they thought of as a friend of the family.  “Mr. Roosevelt died.”

Bonnell would never forget feeling like a ton of bricks had fallen on him. He abandoned the field before his work was done, for once, and followed Maudie to the house.

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by Randy Reynolds

5:45 a.m., my fingers hover near the mic button. I'm about to punch it and go live on the air to talk about the
next song and to promote Shirley Q. Liquor, the nurse's aide who's going to tell us one of her funny stories--this one about the Holy Ghost Revival, Catfish-fry and Liquor Throwdown coming up at her church. I'm groovin' to the Al Green song that's about to end, when--suddenly--the worst thing that can be heard on a morning show fills my earphones....


I rip off the headset and lurch out of my chair yelling, "Crap! Not again!"  (I think I said 'Crap.' I'm not sure.)

I burst through the soundproof door to the other studio, startling the almost-naked man standing on a folding chair with his head above the frame of the drop-ceiling.

"Deacon, you did it again!"

The groggy d-j who, except for his baldness, is a dead ringer for Samuel L. Jackson, bends down from the crawl space and says, "Whassup?"

"You messed with the wiring again!" I yell. "You gotta quit doing this, man!"

Deacon, one of the best deejays I have ever worked with, waves an open switchblade. "Thought it was a snake."

"I told you there's not any snakes in that ceiling! There's nothing up there but wires!"

"I hid sumpin' up here. Lookin' for it. Saw a snake."

"You've got to quit hidin' stuff in the station, Deacon!"

"Sumpin' important. And I turned around and it was a snake."

"Why don't you go to the roof, man? Get ready for your space ship?"

Deacon becomes animated, nearly falls off the chair but catches  a loop of wire and steadies himself. "You seen it? You seen it, man? It's really there! Between two stars and gettin' bigger every night. It's comin', man!"

"Well, go wait for it then. And be careful climbing up the drain pipe."

"You comin', too, Randy? You a good man. You deserve to get out of this place."

"Yeah, I'll be there a little later."

"And I.B? And Plucker? And Mr. Winky? And Shirley Q. Liquor?"

In Deacon's state at this particular time, it would do no good to remind him that I.B. Flyin', Plucker and Mr. Winky are all just different versions of me--figments of my imagination presented on my show as separate individuals--and that Shirley Q. Liquor is an Internet comedian.

"You think there's enough room for all of us, Deacon?"

"I'll make room, man. You good folks. You deserve to escape."

"Thanks, man. We'll be there. But first you've got to get your clothes on."

"I forgot where I left 'em."

"Well, I'll help you look after I call the engineer to come see what you did. Now give me your knife before you fall and cut yourself."

"Nobody gets my blade, man." Deacon closes the switchblade against his pubic area and steps off the chair. "Nobody gets my blade."