October 18, 1900: My grandfather’s birthday. It was just a few months after legendary railroad engineer Casey Jones was killed in a train wreck and later immortalized in song. My grandfather, George Dewey Pittman, became a railroad man, too, on the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad, or the GM&O, as most people called it. Granddaddy eventually became Master Mechanic in charge of the mechanical shops in five of the states where the GM&O operated.
In 1954, he and my grandmother moved from Louisville, Mississippi to Jackson, Tennessee, with the Iselin shop as his GM&O base until he retired in 1971. I was born October 19, 1956, just one day and fifty-six years after Granddaddy, as we often joked. He was a hero to me and instilled a respect and fascination of railroads in me that exist to this very day. Jackson was also the last home of Casey Jones. Granddaddy took me to Jones’ home and museum so many times when I was young that he was issued a lifetime free admission pass to the museum.
On Christmas and summer visits, one of the thrills of my life was going to the railroad shop with him. He had bought an old Ford from my dad to take to “The Shop” so grease
and debris wouldn’t get on the prized Buick Special that he and my grandmother loved so much. I remember piling into that old Ford, leaving Arlington Street and heading for The Shop where mechanics, engineers and office staff got to know me by name. “This is Leslie, my pride and joy,” he would beam to them as he pointed to me.
Granddaddy would take me up into the cabs of diesel locomotives with the engineers and let me blow the whistle. Or into dusty old cabooses where I could climb up into the cupola and look out as if I would soon radio an engineer about matters of a train’s operation. Once, he took me from Jackson to Humboldt in the cab of a GM&O RS-3 diesel engine when he was checking something up the line. To me, that ride was better than any jet airplane, ocean liner or even a moon rocket trip could have been.
I feel that music right down to my toes
My grandfather also loved music. As a young man, he was a big fan of Jimmie Rodgers, The Singing Brakeman. Later, while he still loved country music, he became a devoted fan of the Lawrence Welk TV show. And until he died, he talked about the time my grandmother made him take her to see that Russian “sympathy awkstra” that came once with much fanfare. My mother used to make me watch Leonard Bernstein’s classical TV broadcasts on Saturday afternoons and when Granddaddy visited us, he would switch to the Wilburn Brothers, Porter Wagoner and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs’ shows the minute she left the room.
When I was a kid with a toy guitar, I used to stand right in front of our old Zenith black and white TV set and pretend I was on with Lester and Earl or Porter. Granddaddy loved that. Once, due to the vibration of that big television, I said, “Granddaddy, I feel that music right down to my toes!” He remembered me saying that the rest of his life and when I started playing real guitars in high school bands, he often reminded me of it.
After almost fifty years with the GM&O, Granddaddy retired and moved to Pascagoula to live with my mom, step-father and me. I treasure the many hours spent with him during my high school and early college years. He helped me learn to drive in his big Buick (this one was a 1967 Riviera) and we often took spins out Old Highway 90 where he would buy fresh tomatoes from a farm stand he knew about. He taught me how to pick the best ones and how to shell black eyed peas and butter beans, which my mother “flat knew how to cook,” as he used to say. As we shelled and talked, he reminisced about his youth, including the thrill he had as a young man when his musical hero Jimmie Rodgers drove through Louisville in a shiny Stutz Bearcat automobile.
As my high school graduation approached, Granddaddy told me he wanted to buy a new guitar for me as a present. I picked an Ovation Legend, which was stolen the next year. So he bought me another one to replace it and I still play it, forty-two years later. Granddaddy died in 1976 and I’m glad that he got to see me play that guitar on WLOX, the Biloxi television station. He often told me that he knew in his heart that I would be playing it in Nashville, Tennessee, someday.
On October 18, 1981, five years after Granddaddy died and the day before my twenty-fifth birthday, memories and emotions inspired a song I wrote about him called Dewey’s Tune. I always play it on his birthday whether I’m on a stage or in my house. I hope you will listen to it and download it free by clicking here.
Dewey’s Tune ©1981 Words & Music by Les Kerr; from the CD Southern Sound Sessions
Learn more about Les Kerr’s music, books and appearances at www.leskerr.com
Blog text and photos Copyright 2011
Jimmie Rodgers clipping from the collection of Les Kerr