“Sammie Mays is a Category 5 literary hurricane. Here’s a full-force gale of stories about the adventures that earned her the nickname ‘The Gonz’ and a place as the honorary mayor of Key West. ‘Damn the Carnations’ has the added attraction of making you reconsider your approach to toilet flushing. The book is full of piss, vinegar, wisdom and advice for living the good life.” –WILLIAM McKEEN, Professor & Chair, Boston University, Dept. of Journalism
by Mayor “Gonzo” Sammie Mays
from Damn the Carnations: Full Speed Ahead
It finally happened. I have been asked to throw my straw hat into the political arena, and while I’m no stranger to politics I figure they must be running out of fools for fodder.
My earliest childhood memories of being raised in the Deep South center around Election Day. Nary a Sunday would go by that the family wouldn’t gather under the shade of the granddaddy oaks – along the shoreline of the mighty Mississippi Gulf Coast – for hot boiled crawfish, cool jazz, cold Dixie Beer, and steamy Southern fried politics.
At the budding age of two I made my political speech debut from the back of an American flag-draped flatbed tractor trailer truck where I was skillful in the cute kid routine while asking for votes. It was truly the good ole days when a man’s handshake was his word, and kissing a baby and the gift of a quart of fine shine was simple Politics 101.
Originally from New Orleans, my family was the first of three families to settle the coastal French community of Pass Christian, Mississippi – the Kennebunkport of the South (home of the South’s first yacht club and the United State’s second light house). While attempting to escape the city’s filth and disease, it wasn’t long before a mass exodus out of New Orleans engulfed the tiny town. Pass Christian boomed, and moonshine and murder fueled the economy.
The first to ever be elected chief of police in the “Pass” was the legendary moonshiner of the Deep South, Bravo Woodcock. During the days of prohibition a moratorium was placed on sugar and when a load crossed over onto the Mississippi Gulf Coast from the sugarcane fields of Louisiana, Bravo’s posse of good ole boys – armed with rifles and badges – would confiscate it. The sugar would be transported to the Kiln, an even smaller community in the backwoods where large quantities of Grade-A Moonshine were produced and shipped out in 18-wheelers bound for the speakeasies of Chicago.
Until this day it has remained a closed secret that Al Capone lived a comfortable and lavish life on the Mississippi Coast. Protected by the law, the elusive mobster and police chief were silent partners. Many years later the Kiln would become known as the birthplace and training ground for Green Bay’s legendary quarterback Brett Favre but, for this era, it was long-armed lawman Bravo Woodcock and his unrivaled brew that were legend.
A man’s man and politician’s politician, Bravo Woodcock was revered as a tough no nonsense business man and charismatic lady’s man. However, the lady’s man part of his charm didn’t sit so well with his passionate wife Clara Belle. As the chief’s wife, and proprietor of the Audrey’s Club, Clara could literally get away with murder – and some say she did.
As a kid I remember the fat days when the Mississippi Gulf Coast was all but “family” owned and operated. My mother, Audrey, was elected to the all-important county seat of Election Commissioner. Her commitment was to make sure the family retained control of the coast, and that she did – undaunted by the threat of a thirty-year prison term for doctoring ballots.
My uncle was the sheriff, another uncle the county supervisor My cousin was the mayor, another cousin the medical examiner, another cousin the coroner We were a tight-knit, well-placed Southern family.
It was from the whispers of children my own age that I first heard the family referred to as Dixie Mafia. Once during Sunday school the teacher asked the class, “Who makes the sun shine?” Hands went up and the kids collectively answered “God!” The teacher then asked, “Who makes the moon shine?” Hands went up and the kids collectively answered “Bravo Woodcock!”
On numerous occasions I witnessed my grandfather doing business with New Orleans Sicilian Mafioso Carlos Marcello – the man conspiracy theorists suggest may have ordered the hit on President John F. Kennedy.
The suicide rate in my small hometown was nothing short of a phenomenon – at the time the largest per capita throughout the United States. So, between you, me, and the lamppost, there was this unspoken code that if you reneged on your agreement with the family you were given forty-eight hours to tidy up your business, write a loving note to the wife and kids and kiss your ass goodbye. The manner in which you decided to take yourself out was strictly up to you. Besides, there was too much paperwork involved in murder and, well, too many murders and the feds showed up. Bravo and the good ole boys had other business to tend to. They were smart to avoid the attention.
Momma inherited the family’s late night gambling hall and on Sunday’s would sleep late, while Bravo, on occasion, would stop by the house and take me to the yacht harbor for breakfast.
As a kid I was taught to be seen and not heard, so while neighborly townsfolk stopped by the table to shake Bravo’s hand and pay their respects, I’d just sit and listen while watching the shrimp boats unload the night’s catch.
Soon a pattern began to emerge, for it would be no less than an hour of just having finished breakfast with Bravo that he and I would be bellied-up to another table, having breakfast yet again – and then again and again and again. The same scenario would play out a half dozen times or so in a single Sunday morning. It struck me as odd that the ladies would prepare fried mullet and grits, which curiously happened to be Bravo’s favorite. For the sake of Pete where were the beignets? Stuffed to the gills, impossible to swallow another bite as Bravo and I stood up to leave something else unusual occurred each time the men shook hands in saying their goodbyes money would be
discretely passed with Bravo always the beneficiary.
As we took the long way home, driving along the scenic white sand beach route, with quiet intrigue I watched as Bravo lit one of his trademark cigars and I studied the satisfaction that overcame his face as he smoked it. Never once inside the cab of that old Ford pickup truck did he look my way – and then out of the blue, without bothering to soften the rigidness of his voice, he adamantly stated: “The only thing that gets a duck in trouble is its bill!”
I had been learning lessons all my life, lessons I was convinced other children didn’t have to learn and I knew, because of things I saw, to take seriously all that came from Bravo’s mouth. It sounded threatening but was it? Perhaps it was just the normal tone of his voice. I wondered if I told my mother would she have approved of the lessons her father was teaching. That day was my official warning from the grandfather and I understood that if I followed the family rules I’d remain safe and out of trouble – there would be no slow riding and sad singing in our household because of something I said. In some peculiar way I felt as if I were being groomed for something, but for what I did not know. It was a lot to digest for a kid. To this very day I carry the breakfast lesson with me.
Jimmy Buffett once got sideways with a Biloxi nightclub owner and member of the Dixie Mafia when he began dating the incarcerated Dixie Don’s Darling. I guess what Buffett didn’t realize was that just because one goes off to “college” they can still reach out and touch that certain someone.
Fortunately for Buffett the family wasn’t all that big into forcing lowly musicians into suicide, so they just put the word out on the Strip not to hire him anymore and for a musician, that pretty much takes the wag out of the tail. (Refer to Buffett’s song: You’ll Never Work in Dis Bidness Again)
In the old days of the great Mississippi Gulf Coast those who were lucky enough to catch a break were allowed to slip out under the radar. Word was that Buffet skedaddled for Texas.
We all know that was then and this is now. The days of those colorful characters are all but gone while the mighty Mississippi Gulf Coast booms as an international destination for family fun and legal gambling. As for me, I think I’ll just stick with enjoying the spoils of being the official Honorary Mayor of Key West. As flattered as I am to have been asked to run for public office, I’ve lived and learned my lesson in politics. However, if I were foolish enough to stick my neck out on the campaign choppin’ block, I think my platform would have to be: “A lobster in every pot; a mojito in each hand; a three-day paid weekend – every weekend, and affordable beach houses for all!”
Oh and you don’t have to use the lead on me ‘cause I’ll take the silver!