Pretty Boy Floyd and the Tommy Gun
by bj max
Here in the south, guns are pretty much accepted as a way of life. Now before you go gettin’ all bent out of shape, let me assure you that this is not a pro-gun story. It’s not an anti-gun story either. It’s simply a story that happens to include both guns and motorcycles. Hey, what could be more fun? And guns really are a way of life in the south. In fact, I don’t think I know a soul who doesn’t own some kind of firearm and most of us honestly regard this ownership as a part of our heritage.
When I was growing up in rural West Tennessee, we had several guns in our home. There was a .38 cal. Smith and Wesson hand gun, a twenty-two single shot rifle and a variety of shotguns in various gauges. All were used for huntin’ except the handgun. It was my Dad’s and he wore it to work. And from about the age of twelve or thereabouts, I had full access to the rifle and shotguns and I hunted, unsupervised, all the time. I would get off the school bus in the afternoons, walk the quarter mile to our home, grab a baloney sandwich, a shotgun, a pocketful of shells and strike out for the woods in search of squirrels or, depending on the season, to the fields for rabbits.
Spawned by our love of firearms is a southern curiosity that sometimes amazes outsiders. The Gun Show. Now a Gun Show is not really a show but more of an ordnance bazaar because everything there is for sale. Memphis hosts three or four of these munitions markets a year. Folks come from all over the south and spend thousands of dollars on guns and accessories at these shows. It’s really amazing in this day and age that they haven’t been outlawed by now but it’s a southern tradition and southern traditions, like boiled chitlins’, don’t go down easy.
When it came to guns, my old pal Floyd DeVasier thought bigger was better and his weapon of choice was a gangster favorite, the Thompson machine gun or “Tommy Gun”. But Floyd’s was not the real thing, not the gun of lore. Oh it was a Thompson all right and it looked exactly like the submachine gun made famous by Chicago mobsters in the thirties but with one subtle little difference. His was the model 1927A Thompson Automatic Carbine. In other words, it was not fully automatic. But it was still a menacing weapon having a theoretical capability of firing 100 rounds of .45 cal. ammo per minute. An awesome machine for sure. I had the pleasure of firing it one day into the dirt floor of Floyd’s old shop. I walked several rounds from one end of the tin building to the other just as fast as I could pull the trigger. Every round kicked dirt plumb up into the ceiling and the noise and clatter it made was fantastic. And like a vintage Indian, the Thompson was a beautiful machine. But, in the wrong hands, a deadly machine as well.
Floyd was a redneck gun nut if there ever was one as well as an avid motorcyclist. Redneck gun nut. Now there’s a redundant statement. Anyway, Floyd and I had a bunch of friends whose personalities mirrored ours. In other words, they were worthless and no-account just like us. We were all drinking buddies, had been for years and we all rode motorcycles and we all owned a gun or two. Consequently, this mutual love of guns, motorcycles and beer steered us to the Hatchie River quite often for a little socializing and target practice, one of our favorite pastimes. Our route was a one-lane pig path that had been hacked out by hunters and it snaked its way around trees and sloughs for four miles or so before arriving at a clearing on the banks of the river. Known formally as Ray’s Camp, the clearing was settled by another one of our worthless friends as a place of repose after a night on the town. The encampment consisted mainly of an old car seat, the blackened remains of a fire with a cast iron wash pot sittin’ in the middle of it. Nothing fancy mind you, just the bare essentials needed for sleeping one off.
On arrival at the camp we popped a top on a cool one, locked and loaded and started blazing away. There was a family of turtles living in the river and being a natural target they would normally dive for cover at the sound of gunfire. But these particular turtles, recognizing us from previous plinking sessions, barely bothered to look up because they knew we couldn’t hit the side of a barn when we were drinkin’. In fact, they seemed to sincerely enjoy the breeze stirred up by the bullets as they whizzed by over their heads.
On this particular day Floyd was supposed to join us on our target practice session. But he never showed and, him being half blind, we got worried that he may have run off the road or something. Turned out, he had been stopped by a State Trooper. Eyeing the sub Thompson on the seat beside Floyd, the young Trooper decided that it had to be an illegal firearm even after Floyd explained that it was a semi-automatic. But the Trooper wasn’t sure and instructed Floyd to follow him to the courthouse so they could get this straightened out. Floyd pleaded with him but the Trooper stood firm. The law was the law.
Well this really blew Floyd’s skirts up. He now realized that not only was he going to miss some quality time with us but he was also going to miss the quality beer that went with it and this ruined his whole day. So, in frustration he pointed an imaginary Tommy Gun at the trooper and said, “Bang bang you sorry little (expletive deleted )”! Now Tennessee State Troopers are not known for their riotous sense of humor and this guy was no exception. He promptly arrested Floyd and hauled him off to the jail.
By the time we learn of all this, Floyd has already made bail but the Thompsons legality was still in doubt and it remained incarcerated. The judge said he would study the state’s gun law’s and make a decision at a later date…In the meantime, the Thompson would remain in custody and Floyd would, as it turned out, have to get by without his Tommy gun for almost three months.
On the day of the hearing, Floyd arrived on his ’48 Harley panhead, got lucky and found a parking place near the court house entrance. The importance of the occasion wasn’t lost on Floyd either. This sort of pomp and circumstance deserved the best and he arrived sporting a brand new pair of Duckhead overalls and his Sunday go to meeting brogans that were polished to a glistening luster. I never seen him look so good. Had his hair combed and everything. Me and several of his heathen friends showed up to lend moral support but the courtroom was so crowded we couldn’t get in and had to be content lounging around the front door, smoking cigarettes and getting in everybody’s way. There were several cases on the docket that day but nothing serious. The huge crowd was there, not because of any big trials or anything, but because it was the middle of summer and the crops were laid by. The farmers and farm hands, with nothing to do, drove into town when court was in session to keep from being bored to death.
After we waited for what seemed like an awful long time, but probably wasn’t more than a half hour, we got fidgety and decided that we could best support Floyd from the pool room across the street so we ambled on over there. From our perch on the barstools we could not only keep an eye on the comings and goings at the courthouse but we could drink beer as well. After the first round we all agreed this was a lot better plan and we settled in for the duration. Three beers later Floyd finally emerged from the courthouse and the smile on his face and the Thompson in the crook of his arm told the story. The judge had determined that under the Tennessee Code Annotated the gun was perfectly legal so long as it was kept in plain view and, since the Thompson was laying on the seat next to Floyd at the time of his arrest, he was in the clear. The Thompson was ordered released from custody immediately and returned to its rightful owner forthwith.
Floyd was thrilled by the judge’s decision and couldn’t resist rubbing it in a little. So he waited around awhile and when the arresting Trooper finally appeared, he fired up the Harley. The clatter of the V-twin drew the Trooper’s attention and at that moment Floyd placed the Thompson into the crook of the handlebars and lashed it down, then pulled away from the curb and commenced to make several victory laps around the square. What a sight. This 300 pound man wearing a brand new pair of Duckhead overalls, chuggin’ around the square on that old Harley springer with a genuine Tommy Gun strapped to the handlebars. Everybody stopped to watch. On the last lap Floyd grinned and saluted the young Trooper then peeled off onto North Maple and headed towards home. Someone standing on the curb at the corner yelled, “Well look comin’ yonder. Looks like Pretty Boy Floyd”.. And from that moment on till his dying day, Floyd was known as….. Pretty Boy Floyd…