Ridin’ Around in the Dark
by bj max
Back when I was an up and coming young heathen, the Blue Flame was one of the more popular watering holes in my neck of the woods. It was the latest in a long line of cheap cinder block honky tonks built on the same concrete slab that half a dozen other joints had occupied over the years. And all of them met their demise in a blazing inferno that mysteriously ignited right after the law closed ’em down for one minor infraction or another. Like not paying the sheriff off for instance.
Located in Tipton County Tennessee, The Blue Flame, with its gravel parking lot full of potholes and pickup trucks, was a typical southern juke joint. Out front hung a neon sign with blue script that flashed “Dine and Dance” and there was dancing, of a sort I guess but dining, limited to peanuts and pickled eggs, was a bit of a stretch. Other than beer, TiptonCounty was dry but at the Blue Flame you could get anything your little ‘ol heart desired. Just lay your money down and like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat, the proprietor, Bulldog, would produce a pint bottle of anything from Jack Daniel’s to cherry flavored vodka to a crystal clear domestic moonshine. I was pretty much a beer drinker myself but I tried that cherry flavored vodka one time and it was some nasty stuff. Went down like soda pop and then snuck up on you when you weren’t lookin’.
The restroom at the Blue Flame was unique and of the open air type. Just follow the path around the side of the building to a wooden skiff resting on a pair of sawhorses and there, while going about your business, you had this magnificent view of the river and the woods beyond. A setting far more superior than the traditional restroom surroundings of dirty poems and good time phone numbers.
During the peak of the Blue Flame’s popularity, Go-Go dancers were the rage in nightclub entertainment so Bulldog built two chicken wire cages, one at each end of the bar, then had a few of these “dancers” freighted in from Memphis. With their three-foot tall wigs, hot pants and Go-Go boots, they were an immediate sensation. Overnight the Blue Flame became a “booming joint”. A place where friends could get together after a hard day’s work, relax, have a few beers and beat the hell out of each another.
Thankfully, most of the time I wasted out there has faded from memory. But there is one particular Saturday night that will stick with me forever. My ride at the time was a chopped ’55 panhead all dolled up like Peter Fonda’s Captain America. But the generator on the old girl had quit ginning and the price of a new one had me searching high and low for a pre-owned unit. One with a little fire left in the wire. In the meantime, I could still ride just so long as I got home before dark. With no generator to keep the battery juiced up switching on the headlight killed the engine so I was forced by chemistry to do my riding in the daylight hours.
So on a sunny Saturday morning, after putting a good hot charge on my battery, I joined some of my heathen friends and naturally, before the day was over, we wound up at the Blue Flame for a little R&R. It was only four in the afternoon so I had plenty of time to get in some serious socializing before I ran out of daylight.
For some reason I always had a problem tearing myself away from that old joint. Maybe it was the beer. It was always cold. And them big city gal’s wiggling and hoppin’ around in them chicken wire cages sure could make a feller’ linger. And every time I tried to leave another fight would break out and it’s almost impossible to walk out on a good fight.
Me and them good ol’ boys partied all afternoon and into the evening and what with all the drinkin’ and fightin’ going on the time just sort of got away from me. I guess it was sometimes around midnight when I remembered that I didn’t have a headlight. Being the levelheaded sort of guy that I was, I decided that I had better mosey on towards the house before it got to dark. So I said my good byes to my buddies, winked at them fancy big city gals and staggered out the door.
There was a new moon that night and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. I lived on a blacktop road seven miles east of town and trying to see down that skinny little two lane was like staring into an inkwell. But if I used the faint outline of the gravel shoulder as a guide, I reasoned, I could ease along kinda’ slow and make it to the house OK. I was motivating right along for awhile there and was beginning to feel fairly confident.. Then the shoulder disappeared. What the…? I lost all sense of direction and I felt myself being lifted from the saddle and for the first time in my young life I experienced the eerie phenomenon of vertigo. It was weird. I didn’t have a clue which way was up and which way was down. But it was kinda’ nice, floating around in space like that, til’ I hit the ground.
It took me a minute or two to catch my breath and then I realized why my navigational aid, the gravel shoulder, had disappeared. I had ridden onto an Illinois-Central Railroad crossing and dropped off the edge into the rocky median between the north and south bound tracks. I couldn’t see a thing but I did have a vague idea where the road was. I pulled myself from under the bike, picked it up and tried to push it out. This was impossible because the median was at least a foot deep and filled with loose stone. It was hard to walk on that stuff much less push the heavy Harley through it.
As I stood there in the dark wondering what to do the echo of that lonesome whistle Johnny Cash is always singing about drifted up to me on the evening breeze. Now I had lived here all my life and there was no doubt in my mind what that whistle was. It was none other than the City of New Orleans, the streamliner made famous by Arlo Guthrie, and it was headed my way at seventy miles an hour.
In my inebriated state I thought I was between the rails, not the tracks and that whistle sorta’ rattled my nerves. I imagined my beautiful bike being dragged all the way to the Mardi Gras by that speeding locomotive so I pushed and strained with all my might but only managed to move the Harley an inch or so. There was only one way to get this thing outta’ here I thought. That train would be coming around the bend any minute now and I’ll have to ride this sucker out. Not being a professional stunt man, I don’t know what gave me the idea that I could perform this amazing trick but I straddled the Harley anyway, kicked it to life, stomped her into first and with two six packs of courage under my belt, I poured on the coal.
At first the bike just sat there digging a hole, the rear tire smoking and slinging gravel forty feet in the air. But eventually, it dug down deep enough to get a grip on something and all hell broke loose. Spittin’ gravel and snortin’ fire, the Harley came roaring out of that pit like a charging bull, then leaped and bounced over the crossing. The rear tire found a dew covered steel rail and the bike spun sideways and went hurling into the rocky median on the opposite side and for the second time in a ten-minute span, I was down.
At that precise moment the City of New Orleans rounded the bend and its zillion candlepower headlight lit up the night like an atomic blast. The whistle howled a final warning and just as cool as you please, with all the logic and forethought of a man in complete control, I ran like my pants were on fire.
Clacking and clanging like some mechanical nightmare the train roared through then disappeared into the night as quickly as it had emerged. I watched the little red light on the caboose till it was out of sight then slumped down into the weeds and fired up a cigarette or two or three. It was a good ten minutes before I calmed down enough to go see about the Harley.
My bike was fine and other than a few cuts and bruises, so was I. That was a long time ago and a lot of whiskey has run under the bridge since then. My old Harley is long gone and that old honky tonk is too. After a shooting out there one night, the law closed it up and a few weeks later it burned to the ground. A big company from up north bought the property and built a factory nearby so a new joint was never built.
But that old blackened concrete slab is still out there. It’s all grown up with weeds now but if you know where to look, you can still see it from the road. If that old slab could talk. Man oh man. The stories it could tell. I guarantee you, they’d be a lot more interesting than the one you just read.