In a comment last week, EmmaJ pointed to something I had never seen or heard tell of: “The Georgia Rambler.” Every week Charles Salter, a columnist for The Atlanta Journal, used to get in his car, drive somewhere in the state of Georgia, and ask the locals, “Who is the most unforgettable person in this town?” The stories he gathered—and there were some remarkable ones, as you might imagine—became the basis of a weekly column called “The Georgia Rambler.”
This past summer, the NPR radio show This American Life replicated the experiment. They wrote the names of the 159 Georgia counties on slips of paper and drew nine out of a hat (an Atlanta Braves cap, naturally). Then they sent nine producers to those nine counties to ask Charles Salter’s question: “Who is the most unforgettable person in this town?”

The result was a very entertaining radio program. In an idle hour, you might want to give it a listen: click here to hear it.

EmmaJ warns that there is a moment of inappropriateness at about 15:30, when a fellow is swimming across a lake while smoking a cigarette. So you might want to skip ahead at that point. I hesitate to mention this for fear that some readers of this blog will skip straight to the 15:30 mark. [Digression: When I was little, my cousin Jason (the one who got in trouble with the SWAT team for shooting pigeons on the roof of the Houston Mall) went to see Jaws II. His eyes were aglitter when he got back: “Want me to tell you all the cussing parts?” he asked.)

Anyway, the Georgia Rambler is the inspiration for this week’s Audience Participation Friday. Who, dear reader, is the most unforgettable person in your town? I know what you’re thinking: aren’t people from small-town Georgia at an advantage in this exercise? Maybe so. All the more reason for those of you who aren’t from small-town Georgia to show us what you’ve got. I know, for instance, that at least one of this blog’s regular readers lived in Wasilla, Alaska for many years. If she didn’t meet some unforgettable characters, I’ll eat my hat. There’s at least one reader who lives in Austin, Texas, a town that seems to think that all its residents are unforgettable.

So there: let the unforgetableness begin. Who is the most unforgettable person in your town?

Thanks again to EmmaJ for the idea.

  • js
    1:41 PM, 8 October 2010

    I don’t have long to write an interesting story or anything, but I will say there are a few memorable folks from my hometown. First one, would be Elvis. The King of Rock and Roll! Who could ever forget Elvis? I also never forget what I was doing when he died. I was watching Brady Bunch and specifically remember Jan alone on the driveway solemly bouncing a ball because she was feeling left out, the tv show was suddenly interrupted and a news anchor man shouted the news of Elvis’ death. At the same moment, our doorbell rang and my friend from across the street shouted “Elvis Presley is DEAD!” Another memorable person from Memphis is Prince Mongo. He was a crazy citizen that wore funny clothes and always ran for Mayor. He was always in the news for doing bizarre things and had his own pizza shop. One day he pulled up next to us at a red light and hopped out of his decorated jeep and did jumping jacks. We were so excited to see the Prince in person!

  • js
    1:43 PM, 8 October 2010

    A memorable person from Nashville is a guy we named the Happy Walking Man. He used to walk and wave to cars up and down Woodmont Blvd. every day for years. I’d see him at the Target at White Bridge then again later at 100 Oaks Mall. I miss the Happy Walking Man. Not sure what happened to him..

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:48 PM, 8 October 2010

      We call that guy Mr. Happy. I thought he had disappeared too, but we’ve seen him a couple of times lately on West End, by the new Publix and Sweet CeCe’s. He’s a little more subdued, but he’s still spreading the joy. I know that was exciting, JS, to see Prince Mongo in the flesh. My kids go nuts like that whenever they see the proprietors of Baja Burrito.

  • Aaron Roughton
    2:17 PM, 8 October 2010

    Yes yes. Austin has its share of unforgettable people. And I’ve learned that Austinites are dern proud of their own. Once I asked “Stevie Ray who?” and got round house kicked. Austin also has a slogan: “Keep Austin Weird.” (I never got around to making the bumper stickers for my suburb: “Keep Cedar Park Normal.”) The poster person for the Keep Austin Weird campaign is a homeless man named Leslie Cochran. Austin isn’t a small town, but we have “run into” Leslie on several occasions. He tends to make his presence known. There is Leslie iPhone app, full sized cutouts of him at several downtown thrift stores, and even a Leslie For Mayor campaign. He and I have a few things in common. We were both born in Florida. We both attended Florida State University. And we both ended up in Austin. But that’s exactly where the similarities stop. You can read about Leslie on this Wikipedia page:

    I wouldn’t recommend any further Googling of him, because he is most often photographed without pants. But he is definitely unforgettable, in sort of an icky, can’t-wash-your-hands-enough type of way.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      3:06 PM, 8 October 2010

      Sorry to hear that Leslie lost the mayoral race, Aaron. I’m sure he would have kept things weird. In the 70s, Macon, GA, had a memorable mayor named Ronnie Thompson. You may remember him as Machine Gun Ronnie. The nickname came from an episode in which he arrived on a scene of civil unrest and fired a gun in the air. Most mayors would leave that sort of thing to the police, but Ronnie Thompson was a hands-on kind of guy. I’ve read that the gun was a carbine rather than a machine gun, but somehow the legend grew that he fired a machine gun at rioters, and apparently he liked it that way. He also bought an army tank for the city. He got it at a military surplus store and painted it red white and blue, if memory serves. Ronnie Thompson may have to get his own blog post. Sneak preview: it will involve a bunch of Canadians recruited for the Macon Whoopees hockey team being paraded down Cherry Street on the red white and blue army tank.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller
    6:01 PM, 8 October 2010

    Famous or infamous, the most unforgettable citizen of Whittier, California, was President Richard Nixon.
    If you ask about someone still living, the position is up for grabs but in my mind it would be our paper’s former editor, Bill Bell. He still writes a weekly column out of his retirement—one I love because he has such a folksy voice. You could almost imagine Whittier is still a small town isolated from the big city of LA twenty or so miles to our west.


  • EmmaJ
    4:40 AM, 9 October 2010

    Always glad to spread the word about good stuff!
    I’m gonna have to give this “unforgettable person” question some thought…

  • sally apokedak
    8:35 PM, 9 October 2010

    I have to admit that Wasilla didn’t have anything to stand up to Leslie Cochran or Prince Mongo. I thought I had come up with a great character until I Googled those two. Now I feel like Grady after the Ugly Boy Contest at Greasy Cave. Out-crazied by a bunch amateurs from small southern states! Who’d’ve thunk it? I’d have bet the farm on Alaska as surely as Floyd bet it on Grady! In fairness to the big state up there, I have to say there are only five hundred thousand people there, so all the crowded states down here have an unfair advantage. Alaska is surely the craziest per capita. (I’m comforting myself over losing the World’s Craziest Character Contest by thinking that, anyway.)
    Probably our most memorable character was Wild Bill.

    I drove by his property every day, where, all along the road front, he had billboard-sized signs telling us that judges and lawyers belonged in hell. But Bill was ambitious for a wider audience, so he took his show on the road, dragging flatbed trailers around town. The trailers were full of signs covered in ditties, which called his readers to rejoice in the promise that one day God would hurl all lawyers and judges into the Lake of Fire. (Yes, you guessed it: The poor fellow had lost a lawsuit and was slightly bitter.) Bill would drop a trailer off in front of the courthouse and go back to hook another one to the back of his truck. Or he’d trade in the truck for his double-decker bus. The bus and the truck (and all the vans) were covered with witty poems that went something like this: God hates liars and lawyers. Their works smell, so they’ll burn in hell. These poems were dramatically illustrated with colorful flames licking the words. One of Bill’s trucks even had a toilet mounted on the roof of the cab. (Talk about a striking illustration for the thoughtful poem Bill had written.God knows lawyers are sh**. That’s why he’s gonna throw ’em in the pit. (I couldn’t find a picture of the toilet, but Google did come up with this picture of the back end of one of his vans.)

    Bill thought of himself as a poet and a prophet, while the rest of us thought he was merely unhinged. But now that I have some distance I can see that he was really a misguided artist, clubbing his audience with the message that was burning a hole in his brain.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      2:49 AM, 10 October 2010

      Sally, why would you apologize for Wild Bill? This guy’s fantastic!

  • sally apokedak
    4:06 AM, 10 October 2010

    Yes, Wild Bill was fantastic. But he didn’t have the leopard print women’s underwear thing going on. I think that Leslie person out-crazied Wild Bill, fair and square.
    Bill did have that toilet on the truck, though. Toilets seem to come up quite often in conversation over here are Jonathan Rogers dot com. What’s the deal with that? Bill should maybe get extra points for the toilet.

  • EmmaJ
    4:18 AM, 10 October 2010

    Sally… “spittoons of organized slime”? Now that’s… creative.
    So, Jonathan, I gave your challenge a little bit of thought. I live in a community of really interesting people, many of whom are also really eccentric people. However, today I have chosen not to describe one of the interesting eccentrics of my adult life. No, we’re going back in time a bit.

    Al was a friend of my father, also sometimes employed by my father as a sub-contractor in his construction/remodeling business. The “sometimes” arises from two facts: 1) the nature of the work itself is intermittent and inconsistent and 2) as I remember it, Al was not given to the pursuit of steady employment for the purpose of financial remuneration. No sir, Al was a free man. Which brings me to the first of many intriguing factoids about my dad’s pal: Al and his family (I remember him talking about a wife and daughter, at least) had given up working for their bread and carved out a pleasant taxpayer-funded existence for themselves. At some point in the past he had happened upon this great discovery, cast himself upon the social welfare safety net and found it amazingly comfy. He spoke of this matter with great satisfaction. To his credit, Al was definitely a man of simple tastes, not the greedy sort. I don’t think he spent his days zoned out on cable TV with a bowl of Fritos, either. Rather, Al invested his time in the pursuit of education and art.

    Al was (and I assume, still is) a writer. He had self-published several thick volumes of short stories, and bestowed upon me several CDs containing his work. I cannot recall the particular content, but I remember that the stories were uniquely wacky. And that he sometimes quoted himself at the beginning of a new chapter, in the way that one would quote some sage scholar. I am almost sure that extraterrestrials figured prominently in the narratives.

    Al was (and again… I assume, still is) a great aficionado of intergalactic culture. Like my father, he addressed us on these matters in earnest, matter-of-fact tones. Accounts expounded upon for the benefit of the previously ignorant. Al was always ready to spread this enlightenment – he was a talker. And he would talk to anyone who would listen, regardless of their response or level of comprehension.

    When Al was working for my dad, sometimes he slept in a rusting hulk of a van that he parked in our front yard. In spite of Al’s congenial nature, my mom found his early morning presence somewhat alarming, but he was an otherwise low-key guest. As low-key as a guy who parks an old van in your front yard can be, I guess. (And here I should add… when I say “front yard”, don’t imagine manicured lawns. Picture the kind of front yard that a feechie-family might have, if feechies lived in rural northeast Ohio. So, now you know that Al’s van was not as anomalous as it sounds. My dad had an uglier one parked there in the driveway which could not list the ability to move as among its assets.)

    As I have said, Al was not greedy. He was a man of generous spirit and many other good qualities, including kindness and sincerity. When I was in the market for my first vehicle, he gave me and my dad a ride to some out-of-the-way suburb so that I could check out a car, and kindly bestowed upon me his best advice and philosophy of used-car purchasing. In fact, we never would have become acquainted with Al had it not been for one particular act of sincere obedience on his part. Legend has it that some long-time friends of our family originally became acquainted with Al when he was instrumental in the salvation of one of their relatives. Al was part of a prayer group that was handing out tracts outside of a Jehovah’s Witness convention/revival meeting and struck up a conversation with one of the attendees, a man who has been faithfully following Jesus ever since.

    Al… a simple and complex fellow all at once. My description does not halfway do him justice. He was one bizarre character, in the truest and kindest sense. He failed to convince me that aliens originally populated the earth or that blood-sucking monsters lurk south of the border, but you can’t fault a man for trying.

    • Jonathan Rogers
      3:32 PM, 11 October 2010

      EmmaJ, all I know to say is Thank You. This is the kind of brilliance I was hoping to elicit when I instituted Audience Participation Friday in the first place. Al reminds me of some of the old boys my brother-in-law told me about when he ran a small sawmill. Often his workers would show up for work until they had made enough money to get the lights turned back on or to make a child-support payment. And their excuses for missing work! One guy showed up late one Monday afternoon (instead of Monday morning) and said it was because he had been to a family reunion in Florida and a distant relative had siphoned all the gas out of his car.

  • EmmaJ
    5:04 PM, 11 October 2010

    Well thanks, Jonathan! But the real credit belongs to Al, for being himself. And to my father, who is the type to appreciate all sorts of people. And aliens.

  • Steve S
    10:33 PM, 11 October 2010

    St. Petersburg FL has many worthy candidates, but I have to go with Ted Kresge: karate master, evangelist, and architect of truly the most over-the-top Christmas light display imaginable. To get a sense of the grandeur and ambition of his vision, imagine what it would take to force Clark Griswold to say, “Well, that really is just too much.” Then imagine something 10 times larger and more elaborate than that. But don’t take my word for it:

    From a newspaper story about members of his Gospel of Truth ministry who were accused of sexual abuse (the charges were later dropped):

    “Before he founded his ministry, Kresge was a businessman and a karate instructor. In the 1970s, he opened 11 karate schools around Tampa Bay and taught more than 10,000 students. After watching a movie called The Late, Great Planet Earth narrated by Orson Welles, Kresge began studying the Bible with his wife and came to believe the apocalypse was near. In 1977, the Kresges began decorating their Oakdale street home for Christmas. By last year, the extravaganza included several polar bears, computer-operated lights on the Christmas tree, and fiber optic trees, one of which had more than 150,000 lights. The house drew national media attention, including publicity on NBC’s Today Show and HGTV. Around the same time he began putting up the display, Kresge printed thousands of pamphlets proclaiming the end of the world, and bought advertisements in major newspapers that said “Deadline 1981,” and “Mockers Beware!” By the early 1980s, Kresge established a church, complete with Sunday school and morning and evening worship services.”

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