A fateful encounter with a historic intersection

by Jack Neely

A couple of weeks ago, working on the Johnson impeachment column, I was puzzled to run across a contemporary newspaper caricature showing a disgruntled President Johnson glowering at Congress and wearing his right arm in a sling. There was no explanation of why his right arm was in a sling. His enemies—and that was everybody, at one time or another—called Johnson "His Accidency," but it was a joke about his means of arrival in office, not his broken arm.

I don't have room to talk about accidencies. I knew it was cold that day. I'd seen the icicles on the traffic lights. Strolling down Market Street, I'd just talked to Teri at Crescent Moon, who was closing early, just before lunchtime. Her charming cafe is located below the street level, at the bottom of a concrete ramp. "I don't need any lawsuits," she said. I puzzled about what she meant, but I was a young man in a big hurry, and didn't have time to stop and chat.

Heck, this sidewalk wasn't even slick. I'm a pretty nimble guy, anyway, and that day I was wearing good rubber-soled shoes with docksider-style traction. I loped on down Market and turned left on Cumberland, dodging traffic at the intersection of Gay as deftly as Peerless Price. I wheeled right onto the sidewalk, toward the bank. Then I stepped on a black metal grate and the whole world fell sideways.

When the sidewalk charged up at me I tried to fend it off with my dependable right elbow, which had successfully blocked sidewalks in the past. When it hit, I felt that familiar electric-fence pang you get only in your funny bone, and I heard something like a crack, but I thought I might just as well pretend I didn't hear it. I knew nothing was broken. My bones don't break. I was always the only kid in the wrecked wagon at the bottom of the hill who didn't get hurt. I'd hopped freight trains, slid down mountainsides, slamdanced at hardcore punk shows, been sideswiped by a semi, skied on solid ice down 17th Street, and I'd never broken a bone. That crack I heard was probably just this old sidewalk settling.

But at the moment, lying at the corner of Gay and Cumberland, I just wasn't in a mood to get up. I relaxed there on the metal grate that felled me, hearing nickels and dimes roll out of my pocket and drop through the grate, falling and bouncing around somewhere far below me in dark Underground Knoxville. I imagined them bouncing into some electrical turbine down there, shorting out some massive circuit, blacking out the city. I found some comfort in that image.

I lay there feeling ancient, crippled, historic. I thought about all the other men who'd lain wounded around this one intersection. Charles Douglass, the outspoken Unionist shot by overeager Confederates a few weeks after Fort Sumter, the war's first casualty here. Confederate General Clanton fell here in this same intersection, shot by a drunk Unionist six years after Appomattox, but not necessarily Knoxville's last Civil War casualty.

And I thought of Andrew Johnson in that mysterious sling. This was near where Sen. Johnson braved assassination threats to give a pro-Unionist speech to the crowd in early 1861 when a Confederate band tried to drown it out with "Dixie" and a newly-formed regiment dispersed Johnson's tough crowd.

A day later I was in a room right across the river at Baptist Hospital, on painkillers with a big metal screw holding my errant elbow onto the rest of my ulna, watching TV. Flipping past dumb talk shows, I came to Channel 11, which was a static, continuous live shot of the 800 block of Gay Street. In the center of the screen was that dang grate where I fell. I wondered whether someone lying in this bed yesterday had watched as I went down, and grinned.

When I emerged from my bleary Demerol haze, I gamely tried to finish my Andrew Johnson column, holding Hans Trefousse's 1989 biography in my left hand. Johnson was governor of Tennessee in 1857 when the train he was riding in Georgia derailed, plummeting down a hillside. Johnson broke his right elbow. An Atlanta surgeon set the bones, but they didn't heal right. He saw another doctor who broke it again for him and started over, but that didn't work, either. A famous Philadelphia surgeon tried again and couldn't help. Johnson spent much of the last 18 years of his life—including his entire presidency and impeachment—in chronic pain, scowling a lot, drinking a lot, unable to use his arm for long, requiring secretaries to write for him. I read about this propped in bed with my writing arm bandaged and swollen purple, lying like a dead cat on a pile of pillows. It wasn't precisely what I wanted to hear.

I hope to turn out better than His Accidency did. People sometimes ask me what era I'd prefer to live in, assuming it would be some time in the past. But they didn't have modern bone surgery in Johnson's time. Then again, they didn't have steel sidewalk grates, either.

I typed that column with my left hand. When I realized my first draft heavily favored words spelled entirely on the left side of the keyboard—like drat, vexed, craw, retread, cad, warts, scat, and, my favorite, grate—I figured I'd better scrap it and start over.

Anyway, by moving around the keyboard and propping my Johnsonian elbow on a telephone book, I figured out a way to type, if slowly. But history's a disarmingly athletic pursuit. I haven't figured out a way to crank the right-handed microfilm machines in the library, or juggle tomes in the aisles, or take legible notes. All this is by way of apologizing that this column's going to have to come off the top of my head which, I hope, is still in reasonable working order.