I got some discouraging news that’s going to affect the way I will spend the evening of Wednesday, May 18. The Checker Flag has closed.
Every single May 18 since I was a young man, I have found myself at that good beer joint on Clinton Highway. Sometime late in the 20th century, my old friend Jack Rentfro—journalist, farmer, and performance artist—began convening there for a singular reason. It is, as near as mortals can determine, the precise spot of the single-car accident that took the life of James Agee at 8 p.m. on May 18, 1916. That’s James Agee, the elder—the father of the author James Agee, whose immortal book about mortality, by way of that wreck, is called A Death in the Family. It won a Pulitzer Prize, of course, and has been made into a Broadway play and four or five films. Robert Preston, William Hurt, Arthur Hill, John Slattery, and others have portrayed the man who was killed on that spot.
Here’s how we got involved, as best as I can remember. Mr. Rentfro and I first got out of the car out there a quarter-century ago, when it was a quieter country road. We’d read a piece by favorite old Knoxville Journal columnist Vic Weals, who identified the spot where the wreck occurred and wrote about it.
At the time, the home of the blacksmith mentioned in Agee’s autobiographical novel was still standing, in spitting distance of Beaver Creek. Jack and I found a few neighbors who claimed to recall the blacksmith’s actual shop, which had long since been lost to highway construction. We even found a neighbor, a very old lady in a nice old house, who said she remembered the fatal 1916 wreck.
It’s not impossible. A fatal wreck in an automobile, then still a curiosity in itself, was memorable. “I’ve heard there’s a book about it,” she said.
Some years later, Jack noticed that there was a bar on the site. By way of some impressive trigonometry, he determined that due to the shifting course of Clinton Highway, the bar was on the course of Clinton Pike as it was in 1916, perhaps on the very spot where the wreck occurred. After consulting our personal oracles, Jack and I determined that we were obliged to observe the tragic event that may have launched a literary career.
The first Agee Toast was a small gathering, four or five of us. That first evening ended with a few of us outdoors playing didgeridoos to passing Clinton Highway traffic.
We always brought our dog-eared copies of the book, which caused some consternation among the regulars in that NASCAR mecca. “What is this? A book club?” one gentleman asked me, in exactly the same tone in which he might have inquired about whether it were a Socialist rally. Over the years, though, we found ourselves in the majority in that room, and Earlene, the kind and indulgent saloonkeeper, stocked certain beers just for us, anticipating a propitious evening.
As the novel has it, the wreck was caused by a missing cotter pin. Figuring it must still be around there somewhere, we poked around in the gravel parking lot out back, near the creek, and it didn’t take us long to find it. Some observed it looked more like a porch-swing hook, but the fact that it was in the shape of a question mark added much to its mystery. Each year, a different personage was honored with the Cotter Pin of Destiny, charged with keeping it in a safe and worthy place and bringing it back to the Checker Flag the following May 18. The last and perhaps final honoree was Mr. Chris Durman, guitarist and folk singer.
At each conclave, we distributed copies of the 1916 news story about the wreck, which differs slightly from the novel version. The Journal & Tribune claimed the car was in perfect working order—i.e., missing no cotter pins. The discrepancy enhanced the mystery.
In conversation, certain themes recurred. The one that gave me a headache was whether the fact that Knoxville was in the Central time zone in 1916 would cancel out the fact that Daylight Savings Time didn’t then exist. Or would what they called 8 p.m. in 1918 be like 10 p.m. today? Or maybe 6 p.m.? I have argued each side of that debate with perfect certainty.
In those first years of the Toast, the blacksmith’s house was still there, but it had begun listing to port, toward Beaver Creek. Each gathering involved a ritual crossing of Clinton Highway, while it was still light, for another visitation. It seemed in worse shape every year. Seven or eight years ago, it was clean gone.
The Agee Toast was never announced, really. People just heard about it, and came. As years passed, our band of pilgrims grew bigger, sometimes including multiple UT professors, two of Agee’s own cousins, and several musicians who performed by the dart board. In the early days, it was just a few of us sitting at a table and contemplating fate. But as it grew, attendees came to expect a program of some sort. We offered dramatic readings from Agee and related writers. Michael Lofaro read once, not long after the publication of his unexpurgated, re-ordered version of Agee’s novel. Music included mournful fiddle airs, guitar folk, hymns, drums, and once a proper string band.
As the group grew to include people I didn’t even know, I worried that we were challenging fate, driving out to this place on the highway that lacked bus service to drink beer in honor a man killed in a car wreck on the site. The bar already honored another car-wreck victim, the late Mr. Dale Earnhardt. Some wags christened our annual pilgrimage the Crash Bash. It gave me the heebie-jeebies.
Somehow we all survived.
All things pass, as Agee took pains to observe, and the Checker Flag is no more. I am disappointed, melancholic, and frankly a little bit relieved. We could never have decided to stop.