Of Bruce Lee, the 'Knoxville Journal'(s), and a Premature Obituary for the Agee Toast

Probably nobody recognized him, 42 years ago this spring, treading lightly but powerfully through McGhee Tyson Airport. Most Americans had seen him on TV, but he'd usually worn a mask as Kato, the Green Hornet's sidekick in the already canceled series. His starring roles in five astonishing action films, like Enter the Dragon, were still in the future.

Considered by some to be the greatest martial artist in history, he died under mysterious circumstances at age 32, at the height of his fame. Today he's a legend even to kids who were born a couple of decades later. But about four years before he died, Bruce Lee was visiting these hills, showing hillbillies how to fight.

Reader Bob Williamson ran across an old book called Fiction Into Film, in a used bookstore, and photocopied a few pages for me. The book's about the making of the Ingrid Bergman-Anthony Quinn movie, A Walk In the Spring Rain. The plot involved some fight scenes, shot mostly in the Smokies—Wears Valley, especially—and director Sterling Silliphant enlisted some expert help in choreographing them.

Written by academic Neil D. Isaacs, a New-York-born scholar then on the University of Tennessee's faculty, Fiction Into Film was published by UT Press in 1970, before Lee was any sort of legend. It outlined the transformation of Rachel Maddux's novel into a motion picture, but it does briefly describe the fight-scene choreographer. "Bruce Lee, a teacher of jut-kwon do and other oriental arts of gentle jungle living [!], was flown in from California."

What leapt out at Williamson were the photographs of a guy who was a legend to most boys growing up in the early '70s. I had friends who would claim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way, that Lee had supernatural powers, or that he was still alive. The book features three photographs of 28-year-old Bruce Lee at work in a lumberyard scene in the Smokies, a skinny, intent-looking kid with glasses and striped pants and an unusual serape-like jacket, and tousled black hair.

"Lee's plan, however, was for too good a fight," wrote Isaacs, "not a good-enough picture." The director opted for a more conventional fistfight, and sent Lee home.


Several folks responded to my remarks about the weekly Knoxville Journal's claim of "Knoxville's Only Locally Owned Newspaper Since 1839," a motto with seven words and almost as many factual and syntactical problems. Following it all the way back to 1839 requires some crazy leaps and twists. Maybe Bruce Lee could have attempted it, but he would have pulled something.

The old daily Journal went out of business at the end of 1991, and some of its survivors aren't very happy that the weekly Journal acquired its birthright. The Honolulu-based Persis Corporation owned the Journal (it wasn't locally owned in its final decade or so) but dumped all its newspapers in the 1990s to concentrate on real estate. Then an enterprising entrepreneur purchased the rights to the Journal name and logo from Persis. By the time the weekly Journal emerged about 15 years ago, with the old familiar daily's logo, the original Journal had been closed for three or four years.

I also heard from venerable journalist Ed Miller, who has studied the matter and concludes that even the legendary old daily Journal itself, which was founded in 1885, had no credible claim of heritage in Brownlow's 1839 Elizabethton Whig—or, for that matter, to the 1849 Knoxville Whig. The Journal's link to the Brownlow years are not through any actual sustained business, but through the person of William Rule (1839-1928). Arguably Knoxville's first objective journalist, sometime mayor Rule was one of Knoxville history's most progressive and admirable figures. He began his career in journalism as a young man working for Brownlow's paper. Much later he birthed the daily Journal, serving as its editor until his death at 89. But in between, papers came and went. Between the Whig and the Journal, Rule even gave up journalism for a couple of years just before starting the Journal, to try his hand at bookstore retail.

Anyway. The weekly Journal was founded around 1995. Metro Pulse, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, is older. We're planning a party.


As it turns out, I spoke maybe a bit too soon about the abrupt end of a tradition known as the Agee Toast. Since sometime in the extremely late 20th century, a group of pseudoliterary provocateurs has met at the very site of the car wreck that took the life of James Agee, the elder, on May 18, the anniversary of the 1916 single-Ford wreck. That accident inspired a Pulitzer-winning novel, A Death in the Family. It once seemed almost providential that there was a bar on the very site. A group ranging in size from five to 60 had met each May 18 to raise a glass, or a can, to the Agee heritage, at precisely 8 p.m., the time of the fatal wreck.

This spring, alas, I heard from several sources that the Checker Flag had closed, and the word was that it was going to be a package store. A couple of weeks ago in this space, we ran a little eulogy for it.

However, on May 18, I received intelligence that a new bar had opened there. It's called Beer 30. After telling everyone I wouldn't, I went out there to have a look. It's very much like the old Flag, a good, honest beer joint, a smoker of course, but remodeled to open it up and accommodate a three-sided bar and a pretty serious-looking squad of electronic dartboards.

As it happened, six other pilgrims showed up, including cousin John Agee. Some of whom, folks I never see except on May 18, hadn't heard the old Checker Flag closed. We duly raised our cans in toast at 8, as we have since the 20th century. I won't be able to escape from that annual obligation so easily.