At the Friends of Literacy awards banquet at the Crowne Plaza hotel last month was a sight even the evening's contingent of veteran newspapermen had never witnessed: The unusual-looking guy in front was wearing an elegant dark suit and a bright red tie, topped with a red handkerchief. This was the same guy who, protesting a newspaper office's dress code, once showed up at work in a tie and no shirt.
Jim Dykes was, 20-plus year ago, the most read, most quoted, most feared newspaper columnist in East Tennessee. His column was called "Without a Paddle," a name perfect for a Dykes effort in part because of the implied obscenity. Dykes called things like he saw them, ridiculed many, and bowed to no man.
His famous eyebrows still assert themselves like poisonous caterpillars, but he is no longer the formidably burly galoot of a man he was at, say, 70 or 75, the man rumored to have fought a bear to the death, for the claws. Cancer has sapped him, reduced him by almost half; now, he could pass for a standard-sized man. He had trouble rising at the banquet, but his son, David, helped him to the front, where he accepted the night's biggest award, and spoke from a chair to the large and formal hall, to a group that included educators, students, football legend Johnny Majors, judges, nationally known novelists, some in tuxedos. He spoke only a few words in his trademark growl. "It touches me," he said. "It really does. And I'm not easily touched, as you bastards know."
He was there to receive the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame Lifetime Achievement Award. It's been a lifetime like no other. When he talks about it, you wonder how much to believe. Dykes is a proud but discriminating liar. But put it through the filter, and you can easily believe that he has been, in his 78 years, a miner, a logger, a sailor, a security guard, an electrical tower jockey. He's been a telephone man, a professional stage actor, a Vol linebacker, and very briefly, a rodeo rider. And for about 26 years, he was a newspaperman.
"I've had at least 35 jobs," he admits. "I've done a lot of damn stuff."
He remembers most of it. Jim Dykes spends much of his time these days at Condorhurst, his beloved home of almost 50 years often described, with some poetic license, in his columns. The mostly handbuilt house has a wraparound porch and, painted black, it glowers at an inlet of the Little River. It's not remote, as some maybe pictured it, in a Rockford neighborhood that looks as if for the last few decades it's been budging reluctantly from rural to suburban.
Inside, Condorhurst is finished in knotty pine and has the weekend feel of a mountain cabin or hunting lodge. Everywhere are relics of a singular life: hanging on a wall, an ancestor's Wild West-era cowboy spurs, African masks, the bear claws that are the subject of that personal legend of inter-species combat, Mexican figures, Western scenes, a large antique picture of the Titanic. And on shelves, Dykes' carvings. He's an artist in wood: a historically accurate ferry boat, several varieties of decoy-quality ducks, a heron, a coot, and fanciful fish, some piscatorially correct, some entirely imaginary. A masterpiece, a striped sea bass, hangs appetizingly in the kitchen.
He claims he's given away most of his carvings, but he's still adding to his home decor. "I'm proud of my new acquisition," he says, talking about the one bit of furniture conspicuous through the window as you drive up. It's a giant ceramic skull, roughly the size of a Weber grill. "I got that for $29, can you believe that?" he says. "I just had to have it."
He speaks of few people reverently. Maybe only one. He talks about his wife, Peg, who died six years ago, as if she were in the room to hear it. "Of the five women I know of in the world who are stone beautiful, she's one," he says. "And she was up until the day she died." His son, David, a husky, broad-shouldered guy like his dad, left home long ago, and had lately been teaching in Mexico, but came back to help take care of his dad. Jim and Peg had four other kids, and helped raise a few more.
His bedroom is conveniently supplied with 20 or more hats, which he dons to fit his mood. Sometimes he favors his Mao hat, with the red star. Today he's wearing a black Greek fisherman's hat. He now lacks the strength to carve like he used to, and doesn't stand up for long, but he does not tire of telling stories. He can talk for hours.
Dykes spent his first 11 years in idyllic circumstances, in Townsend, hanging out by the Little River. He was the pilot of his own little boat, and the envy of his neighbors. A youth of boating, hunting, and fishing in the mountains folded in with his strong association with the Cherokee. His great-grandmother, Ganteneega, was believed to be a granddaughter of Junaluska, the Cherokee chief betrayed by Andrew Jackson. Dykes cites Indian blood on three sides, and refers to himself as a Cherokee.
In those days tourists motored up in chauffeur-driven touring cars, on long loops from Knoxville to Gatlinburg, to see the newly opened Smoky Mountains. "My sister and I would stand there and make disrespectful faces at the tourists. They thought we were cute. They'd stop there at the house and take pictures. Weeping willow, white house. They couldn't resist that. I lived there, I got to see this every day. Can you imagine a kid that truly and deeply loves beauty, being dragged away from that? Away from that cliff, away from those mountains? It was cruel!"
He was 11 when his family moved to Alcoa, and he hated the industrial town as it was in the '40s. In high school, he encountered his nemesis. "High-school algebra," he says. "It has brought low many a brave lad."
At 17, he got angry at an algebra teacher he still describes as a "sadist, an utter sadist." When she humiliated him at the chalkboard, he walked out of class, thumbed a ride to Knoxville, and joined the Navy. It happened to be early in the Korean War.
Assigned to a destroyer in the Pacific, Dykes became a "teleman," a teletype repairman. He learned it by taking them apart and putting them back together. ("They're complicated f--kers," he says.) Beyond that, he did a lot of chipping and painting. "People ask, was my ship in combat? Yes, but I wasn't. I didn't approve of it, so I didn't do shit. I just fooled around on the ship." Borrowing books from officers, he read Steinbeck, Hemingway, and Frank Yerby, the black historical novelist. Thomas Wolfe especially impressed him. And he read Plato, in paperback.
In Hong Kong he got a Navy tattoo on his arm. "I'm not at all proud of it. Not proud of myself for getting it."
"What I was on was called a Kiddie Cruise. You join when you're 17, stay until your 21st birthday. They let me out two months before my due date, said shit, who needs him." At age 20, Dykes was a veteran.
He did bring back something more useful than the tattoo, his Navy electronic communications smarts that landed him a job with the telephone company in Los Angeles, living with a prosperous uncle in Compton. He was selected to wire the Hupa Indian reservation. "They thought since I was a breed, I could get along with them better," he says, adding that it was a naive assumption. "I disliked those bastards as much as they disliked me."
Dykes didn't get along much better with Los Angeles whites. "Got drunk, got in fights," he says. "Wrecked our damn truck. You know how that goes. Maybe you don't, but I do too well. Finally after the second wreck, drunk, they fired my ass."
He found work "mining" a 13-mile high-pressure water tunnel through hard rock to hydrate Southern California. Working his way up from the lowest position, mucker, to chuck tender, to miner, to shift boss, all underground. "We took water from our beautiful little Trinity River right through Hoadley Mountain, 13 miles to Whiskeytown and down to the valley of California so the decent people who lived down there in the valley could flush their nice clean toilets with our river water. We thought that was wonderful. Of course, like rednecks anywhere we thought it was great, we got a f--kin' job out of it, you know. Forgetting that the job is over, the river's gone.
"I'll admit, I've admitted to few people, God I love to build things. I just love to build things like that. You feel like, ‘Man, I can conquer the f--kin' world.' You realize you're f--kin' everything up, but you're human, and therefore you hold six different opinions without any real conflict."
Returning home, he attended UT in two short, impatient bursts, and earned a spot as a linebacker for the Vols. Though never a star, he claims to have launched Johnny Majors' career by serving as his foil in practice. "I'd wrap my arms around him, stupidly, and he'd take my skin off, then butt me in the face with his helmet. My teeth are still loose from that." He adds, "even Majors agrees with me now, I'm the one that made him an all-American."
But bored with school, he married a student from Luttrell named Peg, and returned for a time to the West Coast. He talks of logging, mining, connecting phone lines—he doesn't keep a resume handy to offer dates and sequences—but while he was out there, he began moonlighting in show biz. In small theaters in Northern California, he was known for his comic turns. He tried the Mariposa Rodeo, of which he'll just allow, "I was bucked off and hurt."
Looking toward home, he applied for a job with TVA, when the agency was stringing the valley with electrical wires. "I needed a job, man. I could do steel work, and I could climb poles. I was a dumbass, but I could do that."
Dykes also answered one last acting call offering work near his home. He got offered a job as Robert Preston's stand-in, in the on-location film production of All the Way Home, the play based on James Agee's Knoxville novel.
"TVA called the same f--kin' day," he says. "I didn't know whether I did right to take the TVA job, or if I should have gone back to the stage." He's still conflicted about it, 50 years later. "I didn't [take the movie job], but that's what I say, I wish I had." He pauses for just a second, and adds "and I'm glad I didn't. Who knows what's going to happen."
TVA put the erstwhile thespian to work on its steel towers. "We had pouches of bolts and spud wrenches. Punch a hole in there, wiggle it around, and put a bolt in, take another spud wrench and tighten it up. It was hell on earth when it was cold. I'm not dextrous, so I'd have to handle these bolts ice cold with my bare fingertips. But on a spring day with the sky blue and a white cloud, I just about wept. Just about wept. It was so beautiful, and I thought, I love this. I love walking this row. I love belling steel."
He bought a small house overlooking the Little River, and expanded it, room by room over the years. He settled down, somewhat.
But in 1965, Dykes, a father of several, had his Road to Damascus moment. He was working on a tower over the Hiwassee River near Cleveland. "I was on top of a 200-foot tower over a precipice down to a 200-foot-deep river down there. And I thought man, that's a long way down there. People look like bugs down there. I was tying in a static line, just a bare steel cable. Static electricity doesn't hurt you. They say. It was splitting the backs of my hands when I touched it, that spark, it'd take a straight course, wherever it went, split out the skin. And with the wind-chill factor, it was about 10 or 20 below. And I thought there has got to be another way to make a living. And the clouds opened up: ‘Of course there is, you dumb c--ksucker.'" he says, recounting the voice from on high. "But first you gotta tie in that damn static line. Don't hurt yourself.'"
That weekend he presented himself in the office of his home county's leading newspaper, the Maryville Times. On that Saturday, only a circulation manager was in the office. He admitted he had no reporting experience or a high school or college diploma. The startled staffer gestured to a typewriter and suggested Dykes write something. "I can't type," Dykes responded.
"You can't type. And you want to be a newspaperman?" he asked.
"Yes, I do," Dykes responded.
"All right," said the staffer, perhaps just hoping to appease the big stranger. "Pencil and pad, right here, write whatever you want."
He wrote a story about Tellico Dam, and how the Indians seemed to be finally winning against the white man. At that time, the long-planned TVA dam was hitting snags, some having to do with the fact that it would inundate important historical Cherokee village sites.
"My tribe, we run the rest of the bastards off because it's our river to start with."
Though the paper's editor, Dean Stone, favored the dam, he was impressed with the young man's style, and hired him.
Dykes opposed the Tellico Dam until it was completed in 1979. "I fought that bastard until I was bloody as a bull."
He doesn't consider himself opinionated, exactly. "I try to be right," he says. "I really do try to think, okay, cut everybody some slack. But get on the good guys' side. And I really do think with Tellico Dam I was on the good guys' side."
After a couple of years at the Times, he says, "the Sentinel sent its tentacles out. And they withdrew them quickly when they found out I had an 8th-grade education. But I took a test, and they sent their tentacles out and grabbed my ass. I take tests pretty well." For the News Sentinel, he reported on TVA stories, FBI stories, plus certain court trials. The trials he recalls were particularly heinous: four people shot at the Kodak bank, or three whose throats were cut in a drug deal gone wrong in Morristown. "Those are the kind of trials I would get. Apparently they thought me and those trials matched up pretty well."
Along the way, he did learn to type, "in a rudimentary way." He was pretty well known as a reporter in 1980 when he took a job with TVA, which paid better, and wrote for Inside TVA, a company newsletter. In stark contrast to most corporate organs, it was irreverent and sometimes critical of its host. The paper won national awards during Dykes' tenure, but lasted only until Marvin Runyon's expense-cutting tenure as chairman. "I found him despicable," Dykes says. "He was a bully and a coward." The TVA job provided Dykes with a loophole to escape the two Knoxville dailies' agreements not to poach each other's writers. He got a column with the more freewheeling Journal, writing the personal weekly column "Without a Paddle."
The column was unlike any other in local newspaper history. Dykes commented freely on local politics, business, culture, and the human condition. One early target was the 1982 World's Fair, which he criticized, ridiculed, and eventually came to enjoy.
The week the Fair opened, he described his turf in a column. "I have strolled the pavements of this scruffy little river city for 15 years, covering wrecks, trials, shootings, elections, speeches, rallies—always a street reporter, never, or hardly ever, on the desk. I consider it my little village. The space between Henley Street and State Street from Regas to the Gay Street Bridge is my territory and I have come to be very fond of the place. Gossiping with judges and lawyers, bankers and bums, cops and gamblers—I'm on a friendly insult-trading basis with many downtown blacks, whites, Greeks, Jews, and other ordinary citizens and rednecks.
"I consider Knoxville a ‘she.' I guess I love her. Like a mistress.
"But now, it's as if some gaudy dude had blown into town and turned her fickle little head." He compared the 1982 Worlds' Fair, the Knoxville International Energy Exposition, to Burt Reynolds at his smarmiest.
"Ah, hell! I know Burt will cut out in six months and leave her with red eyes, and she'll want me back. And I'll pet her and say, ‘It's all right, honey' and ‘I knew it was just a fling.' But I also know that things will never be quite the same."
Ten months later, just after the Butcher bank collapse made national news, he enjoyed an irony: "There was a time when us Doubting Thomases voiced the fear that most of the rooms in the several new hotels built for the fair would stand empty of all but cobwebs and mouse droppings. But no sooner was the fair over than help was on the way. Hundreds of FDIC bank examiners descended on the city and began their campaign to keep hotel rooms booked and taverns filled.... Even after the fair, Knoxville is still on the map, the talk of the financial world."
He tried to approximate the Cherokee Trail of Tears, afoot, and had to give it up when he got word of a family emergency, but it was good fodder for columns. He speculated about the Shroud of Lonsdale, discovered in a Cas Walker grocery bag, in which was wrapped the body of Billy Ray Callahan, shot in a bar on Clinton Highway in 1954. The event is also prominent in the novel Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy. "I'm one of the few people that has his home phone number," says Dykes of the elusive Pulitzer laureate, "and I don't mind people knowing that, because I ain't giving it to 'em. He doesn't want it, and what good would it do me to go around being his betrayer. I prefer not to be betrayed, and I do not betray if I can help it."
Dykes and McCarthy are within a few weeks of the same age; both dropped out of UT in the '50s, but didn't know each other then. They met 40-odd years ago when Dykes, wandering afoot from Condorhurst, dropped in on the unknown novelist working in a little house in the next holler. "I asked for a kind word and a drink of whiskey."
"I'm considered to be a grump or something; I don't think so. He's considered to be a recluse," Dykes says of McCarthy, "but he's one of the funniest son of a bitches that ever lived. I mean hilarious when he gets on a storytelling roll with strangers in a bar. He's a curious person, in a way many writers are."
In 1984, Dykes earned a cover profile in Knoxville's city magazine, Citytimes. The cover portrait accentuated his prolific eyebrows to such a degree some thought it had been faked.
The Journal published his collection, Without a Paddle, in 1987. Dykes dedicated it to "Miss Peg, the Chatelaine of Condorhurst" and conducted his first book-signing in the basement of the venerable Gay Street landmark Harold's Deli. It sold thousands.
His era was not the city's proudest, especially after the Butcher collapse, a time when downtown's potential for revival seemed wildly speculative. "I loved it, it was my baby, it was my living, you know. God, it was just wonderful. I was having too much fun to make any judgments about whatever shape Knoxville was in. To me, it was in great shape!
"Things went wonderfully well—until the Journal went under like a German battleship."
That was in 1992. He wasn't yet 60, and didn't intend that to be the end of his career. "If the Sentinel had asked, I would've," he says, "but I wouldn't go ask them. And I suppose the editor was a bit scared of my potential liability." He has done a little freelance, including, years ago, occasional contributions to the weekly Journal. Since then, he has withdrawn from regular journalism. He's had some family tragedy; besides his wife, a daughter died a few years ago. "Dope," he says. "It's bad shit, man. They didn't seem to realize how completely and totally dangerous this shit was." He says most of his neighbors have lost a child to illegal drugs, whether to death or prison.
He's still a liberal with a wide libertarian streak. He refers to the legislation of the FDR and LBJ years as "common decency," and reviles Reagan and his successors for rolling some of it back. He reserves special contempt for George W. Bush, "an utterly nasty little man, a filthy little creature."
The present U.S. Congress, he says, is "for the one percent, man. The utterly rich. And why shouldn't they be, if they're total cynics, because that's where the money is."
Dykes has little use for the 21st century's conveniences, makes fun of the world-changing technology du jour: "Facebooks and piss books and kidney books and hockey chops and whatever the hell else they got. I don't want to sound like the old guy who says we did it much better in our time. But even though it was a pain in the ass, we did it much damn better in my time."
Later he amends that statement, recalling business-minded publishers who forced coverage this way or that to please advertisers, even in newspapers' prime. But he decries the spreading USA Today format, "these little articles stuck here and there. There's no continuity, it doesn't hold together. It doesn't jive as a community vehicle. We're floundering around, trying to find a formula to make newspapers work, and haven't found it yet."
He keeps up with the news, though, and with current authors. Bill Bryson is a favorite: "God, he's funny. I hate to say, I wish I was as goddamn smart as he is."
He swaps his Greek fisherman's cap out for a black flat-brimmed black hat, like a Navajo hat but flat on top. "The roving cowboy," he remarks. He sleeps with a loaded .32. "Say that he doesn't want to shoot anybody," he says, "not out of moral consequence, but out of the fact that the victim might have cousins or a brother, and they'll sue. And how many damn people am I gonna have to shoot, just because I shoot one dork."
He still gets out now and then when a friend comes by for a jaunt. A few weeks ago, he was dining at the Waffle House on Alcoa Highway, when a waitress remarked that he looked like Hunter S. Thompson. Dykes argued that he didn't look a thing like Thompson, to which she responded, "Well, you look like a gonzo journalist. What did you do for a living?"
"You're not gonna believe this," he answered, "but I was a gonzo journalist."
And he was, at that, a fearless and freewheeling newspaperman who described life as he found it.
He's enjoying the recent accolades. "I am a highly important person, and people are absolutely enamored with my life, and fascinated with my being. If they even have any idea who the f--k I am." Why? "Because I tell the f--kin' truth, I hope that's why." He keeps it in context.
"I suddenly find myself highly popular, and extremely talented. And I realized, be careful, Jimmy boy, do not buy this. Because as soon as this is over, everybody pulls up stakes at this tent, loads up the saddles and takes off down the road. And I'm sitting here thinking, I was famous. What happened?"
Everywhere at Condorhurst is legible matter: old New Yorkers, a compendium of The Onion, and his own notes, scrawled in pencil or ballpoint pen. Once a columnist, always a columnist, long after the last weekly deadline. Many of his notes are on cardboard panels of Pall Mall cigarette cartons. He no longer smokes, but they do make a handy medium for epigrams:
"Every Christmas the devil has a savory meat pie. He makes it of lawyers' tongues."
"The reason so many are ready to believe in great, intricate conspiracies is that most people suspect that everyone else is more cruel and clever than they are, and they're about right."
"If your soul starts to itch, does that mean it's getting well?"
"Anybody who isn't afraid of dying is not having any fun in the here and now."
He also writes songs, including one on his own condition:
I hear a hammer in my ear
I feel a rumble in my bowels
I know the spirit's moving deep within me
From my swollen ankles
to my sagging jowls
I got the cancer-belly blues...
And on the back of a crossword-puzzle cover is a poem:
My scheme was vast
But just by half
I laid my plan
And heard God laugh.