This article originally appeared in Volume I, Issue II of StoryBoard Memphis Quarterly in March 2022.
Your correspondent takes you to events that occurred in February, March, and April of 1962. You will witness a horrific plane crash, hear the cheers as an important hospital opens, take pride in the engineering marvel that was the Harahan Bridge, and sift through the remnants of a restaurant fire.
“It Passed Right Over my House”
On February 1st, Memphians were shocked to learn that wealthy Coca-Cola executive J. Everett Pidgeon, Jr. had died in a plane crash southwest of Whitehaven. Pidgeon and his flying instructor Edward A. Scott boarded a World War II surplus AT-6 plane and took off from the DeSoto Air Park Flying Field on Stateline Road. Eighteen-year-old Charles Lamb was standing in his backyard on Horn Lake Road when he heard the plane overhead. “It passed right over my house heading northwest….It was about 1,000 feet up and climbing. The engine sounded OK when it passed over me, but just after it passed over our house the engine just quit.” It soon crashed into a pasture on the Louis Beckett Farm, spun into a ditch, and burst into flames. When emergency crews arrived at the farm, located near the intersection of Windsor and Tulane Roads, they found both men’s bodies burned beyond recognition.
“This is the Greatest Day of my Life”
Four days after the deaths of Pidgeon and Scott, entertainer Danny Thomas stood in front of the newly-constructed St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and spoke before 9,000 people. “This is the greatest day of my life. If I should die this minute, I would know why I was born.” The mayor, congressmen, and the governor of Tennessee spoke, but the real celebrities were the children in the audience. Composed of every race and ethnicity, they symbolized St. Jude’s commitment to treat every sick child, regardless of background. One of those attending the dedication was 16 year-old Ann Hill of Ashland, Mississippi, who suffered from anyatonia, a disease that weakens muscular control. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Hill raised over a thousand dollars for the hospital. When the proceedings ended, Danny Thomas walked up to Ann Hill and kissed her on the cheek. When a photographer asked him to repeat the kiss, Thomas obliged, saying “I’m not doing this to have my picture made. I’m doing it because I love her.”
“It Almost Hit the Bridge Floor”
At 8 o’clock on the morning of March 13th, Captain Joe Langford was piloting the tugboat Caleb H., pushing several barges down the Mississippi River. As they passed under the Harahan Bridge, the first barges, carrying 2,800,000 pounds of lead, smashed into one of the granite piers near the Tennessee side. “That big barge just stood up on end. When the lead fell off, it shot up like a cork out of water. It almost hit the bridge floor.” The Commercial Appeal reported that the granite pier “withstood the impact of millions of pounds of lead like an all-American linebacker shrugging off the charge of an opposing fullback.”
“I’ve Got a Fortune Burning up in There”
Shortly after 11 pm on March 19th, Ruth Akres finished cleaning Pappy and Jimmie’s Lobster Shack at 2100 Madison Avenue, and walked out of the restaurant. She then noticed that the building was on fire. Turning on the alarm, Akres was soon joined by 12 firefighters and the owner of the lobster shack, L. C. ‘Pappy’ Sammons. As he stood dejectedly watching his restaurant burn, Sammons murmured, “I’ve got a fortune burning up in there. I couldn’t replace it in 100 years. It’ll cost me $200,000.” Opened in 1947 by Sammons and his partner Jimmie Mounce, their Lobster Shack quickly became a popular local eatery. One of the reasons for its success was the ramshackle atmosphere of the place, filled with curios and souvenirs collected by Pappy over the years. These included an Italian glass chandelier, twenty violins, two hundred antique clocks, and several hundred guns. “I don’t know when I’ll reopen. It looks like I’m a broke old man and it will take a lot of money to rebuild,” Pappy lamented. He was able to reopen, although he lost half his seating capacity. In 1979, Pappy died just after his 100th birthday and the Lobster Shack closed a year later.
“Like I’m Getting the Extra Money”
A fare increase of two pennies, from 16 to 18 cents, to ride Memphis Transit Authority buses went into effect on April 1st. Many passengers resented the increased cost and were not shy about expressing their displeasure. May Wellington, a nurse who lived at 1877 Madison, stated that “It wouldn’t be so bad if we got better service. But I always have to wait around and I’ll probably have to wait longer now and pay more.” Bus driver R. S. Roberts had his own problems. “Most people pay 16 cents and I have to tell them it costs two cents more. They look at me like I’m getting the extra money myself. And a lot of them have to dig around for more pennies or get change.” According to the transit authority, the rate increase was to pay for air-conditioned buses that were purchased during the summer. As I write this in 2021, the cost of a bus ride in Memphis is $1.00, and they do not accept pennies.
Monday, April 30, 1962
Flipping your television dial to WMC Channel 5, at 8:00pm, you could watch an episode of The 87th Precinct, in which a stenographer’s life is in danger and New York police officers provide protection. On WREC Channel 3 at 8:30pm, The Andy Griffith Show featured, according to the TV Key review, “a stumbling, clumsy cousin of Deputy Barney Fife…Barney’s eyes pop at the amount of damage his cousin can cause and decides to take action.” On WHBQ Channel 13, the night’s episode of Ben Casey involved a smallpox outbreak.
That’s the way Memphis was…in February through April of 1962.
Wayne Dowdy is a senior librarian and archivist at the Memphis Public Library and Information Center. In 2015 he was awarded the Tennessee Historical Commission’s Certificate of Merit for his book On This Day in Memphis History. His most recent book is Enslavement in Memphis.