Foundation for a Trouble Maker
The personality traits that led me to become one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted fugitives and the most wanted man in America could be seen at a very young age. It began with an active curious mind, and a sense of adventure. When I was six, I watched a telephone repairman fix a line at the top of our telephone pole. After the repair, he connected a lineman’s phone to bare wires and then dialed the number for his repair center to test the line. Seeing this I said to my mom, “If I had one of those we’d never have to pay for long distance calls.” This simple exchange sums up how I have thought my entire life.
At the same age I began bringing home live snakes. Mom was raised in Texas so was okay with snakes as long as they were dead, but dad despised harming anything without a good reason. He also had a thing about caging anything, so he released my pet snakes back into the woods. It wasn’t long before Mom told me to quit playing with snakes, which I interpreted to mean I couldn’t bring them home. At seven I caught a diamondback rattlesnake too big for my small body to handle. I had a good grip on her head but her large body had wrapped around my small arm. The snake was strong and angry, so I couldn’t control her well enough to release her. I could have killed her, but I had adopted dad’s belief of not harming anything, so my only choice was to bring the rattler home. Mom was not pleased. Dad came home from work to save both the snake and me. He said he was impressed with this snake, then put her in a box and drove far away to release her.
My mom and dad’s different view of snakes stems from their different background. Mom grew up in Texas with a dad who worked the oil derricks. Mom’s first job was on an oil derrick, shooting the many snakes drawn to the oil derrick’s lights at night. She was an expert shot and she didn’t care for snakes. It’s not surprising mom wasn’t into my snake hobby. Dad grew up on his family’s working farm in Augusta, Georgia. His dad was an Austrian with an impressive pedigree who was forced to flee his native country as a child. Grandpa Waagner was a sophisticated and complicated man who spoke seven languages and listened to German opera on an ancient phonograph. He was also a simple man who taught me to milk a cow, ride a mule, shoot a gun, and to respect nature. Just like he taught his children. There were plenty of snakes on his property, but they didn’t kill them. Even the big king snakes often found in the chicken coup eating eggs were carried to the woods and released. His lessons were the same as my dad’s, so they stuck with me. Neither man would kill a mouse unless they had good reason. He passed those lessons on to me at an early age. This is why I never killed the snakes, even though my friends made fun of me for it and my mom didn’t like it.
A few years later I would learn that my dad wasn’t really my dad. My birth dad was Billy Joe Clay. Clay and my mother married young, with my mom giving birth to my sister in 1953. Terry Jane Clay died when she was five of brain cancer. I was two at the time, so I have no memory of her. After she died my parents divorced and we moved to Aiken, South Carolina to live with mom’s parents. But her parents weren’t really her parents either. Mildred, who everyone called Mickey, was my mom’s mother, but Jack Ash was the man she married after divorcing mom’s real dad, the oil derrick guy. I only met mom’s biological dad once, but my impression was that he wouldn’t like me bringing home live snakes either. He was more likely to pay a bounty on dead ones.
So when I was six, the man that I thought was my dad was an easy-going country boy with a degree from the Richmond Military Academy. This man drank very little, was home every night, was a pillar of the business community in Savannah, and was one of the finest men I ever knew. His dad taught him how to be a good man, something he tried to teach me. The not killing animals part stuck, but little else.
Before I came under the influence of Karl Waagner, mom and I lived with her parents for a year, then across the street from them. They were Mildred and Jack Ash. Always Mickey and Jack to everyone, including my brothers and me. Never grandma. I didn’t know her real name for thirty years. I knew Mickey and Jack over many years, but never knew them well. They were stable. From my birth in 1956 through their death nearly fifty years later, they lived in the same house and had the same phone number. Jack worked the same job until his retirement. Mickey smoked and drank constantly. Jack didn’t smoke and rarely drank. Mickey was an attractive woman with a high fashion sensibility who only wore dresses, most of them short. Jack was simple and solid. They couldn’t be more different, but somehow it worked well for them.
My family fell outside of regional societal norms. Most Southerners of the period attended church. It isn’t called “The Bible Belt” for nothing. Surprisingly no one in my life went to church, except Jack, and he went only on special occasions, and he went alone. My dad’s parents were salt of the earth types, but not once did I hear them reference church or God. Mickey never attended church. Nor did my mom, until much later, and I don’t recall Karl ever mentioning church.
Everyone I knew outside of my family smoked. In the early 60’s smoking was an accepted part of society. It was natural. You could smoke everywhere and every place you went people were smoking. But in my family Mickey was the only one who smoked, and she chain smoked. Mickey was a heavy drinker. Mom drank, but not a lot. Karl drank even less. Karl’s parents only drank buttermilk and water. No wine or beer in their house. Never ever. Nor did any of them curse. For the most part they were a straight-laced group. With the exception of Mickey who drank, smoked and often called me “A little shit,” a handle I earned.
Mickey quickly learned that I needed to be tied down. They had a large back yard completely bordered in good fence. I think I was five when I started escaping her back yard. That fence was nearly twice my height, making it a challenge, not an obstacle. Mickey was patient with my escapes and subsequent escapades, but she lost it with me when I found a friend and brought him home. She didn’t mind me having friends, but she didn’t like this kid because he was “colored.” That was her nicest term for blacks. This event earned me the only spanking she ever gave me and it was a good one. Mickey didn’t like blacks. To my knowledge she was the only one with a strong racial opinion in my extended family. That too was odd. Early 1960’s South Georgia was immersed in racism, but rare in my family.
The South still had its racist infrastructure. I recall seeing three bathrooms at every gas station: Men, Women, and Colored. The “Colored” bathroom never had a door. Yet in my family we had a black housekeeper named Bertha, who was more family and friend than paid help.
Bikes & Pigs
For my seventh birthday I was given an English Racer bike. A three speed with a speedometer. It was the coolest thing I had ever seen, much less owned. Having a speedometer on your bike was like owning an Oculus Rift today. I ran into a parked car the day I got it. I was doing twenty-three miles an hour. I know this because I was going as fast as I could while looking at the speedometer instead of watching for parked cars. A few weeks later I was hit by a moving car in front of my school. This one was hard enough to knock me unconscious. A month later I rode my bike from our home on Mississippi Avenue all the way to downtown Savannah, a distance of ten miles. In front of Savannah’s downtown fire station, I was hit by another car while watching my speedometer. I went over the top of this car too, but wasn’t knocked out. The bike survived (they were tougher in those days), so I tried to push it off and get away, which wasn’t to be. One of the firemen that had run out to check on me bowled at dad’s Major League Bowling Lanes and he recognized me. Against my objections he took me into the fire station and called my dad. Dad came and got me, but told the fireman to keep the bike. I wasn’t allowed to have another bike. Ever.
Not able to ride a bike I went back into the woods to play with snakes and explore the woods. During one of my excursions I found a long dead horse. Its bones had been scattered by wild pigs, which were known to be in the woods. The bones were interesting, so I tried arranging them on the ground to look like a horse. I was intrigued by the horse skeleton, so I brought it home over several days. When my Mom found the horse bones she was less than excited about my new hobby. I got the feeling she would rather I went back to playing with snakes. Somehow the bones ended up at school where it became a class project. We drilled holes in the bones and used wire and two by fours to assemble a full standing horse skeleton. It was almost as cool as having a speedometer.
I always knew there were wild pigs in the woods I explored daily. I’d seen signs of them, like the scattered horse bones, but to this point I hadn’t actually seen a wild pig. Both mom and dad had warned me to stay away from them, but I’d fed Grandpa Waagner’s pigs, so I wasn’t’ worried about wild ones. The first time I encountered wild pigs it was three small ones. A bit big to be suckling’s, but not grown either. Compared to Grandpa Waagner’s stock, these were baby pigs. Mom had insisted I didn’t bring home any more live snakes or dead horse bones, but she hadn’t said anything about baby pigs. I figured they’d be a perfect addition to our back yard and playmates for our lonely Beagle. When I got too close they started squalling. I was surprised how loud they were. When I got closer they took off running. I gave chase. About two minutes after the wild pig chase began I was certain they were babies, but only after meeting momma and daddy pig.
Since that day, wild pigs have always scared me. They are fast, strong, and lethal. They’ll also eat people, which is just wrong since we eat them. That morning I learned how dangerous a wild pig could be. As soon as I spotted the large hogs I took off running and would have ran home saying weeweewee all the way, but they were too fast. The momma pig knocked me down. That’s when the daddy pig squared off with me displaying his impressive tusk. I was on the ground and in serious trouble. I groped around for a weapon and found a fist size rock. It was a good throw, hitting the daddy pig on the end of his snout. The rock upset him greatly, but the second that he was startled gave me the time I needed to get up and run. They caught up and knocked me down again. This time I bounced up immediately and climbed a close tree. The pigs kept me up there for several hours, but as the sun climbed in the sky and it got hot they left. When I got out of the tree I filled my pockets with rocks and picked up a stout stick. From that day on I went into the woods with rocks and stick. The next time I ran into pigs I was able to run them off. There were several such occasions, but I’d learned my lesson; don’t run from wild pigs because they are too fast, and have weapons ready at hand. Never again did I try to take a wild pig home.
Swimming with Snakes & Alligators
Behind a large wooded area was a place we kids called “The Mud Flats.” A couple of times a month this flat, barren area would flood with salt water from a nearby tidal channel. The water would recede with the next tide, leaving a mud surface with hard packed ground beneath. It was a great place for a six-year-old to run and play. The mud dried fast under the South Georgia sun, but a dry mud flat was almost as fun as a muddy one. It took some courage for me to run all the way across the mud flats since it required crossing several saltwater channels, but one day I succeeded in making it to the woods on the other side. There, in unexplored woods I found a swimming hole. It was deep, fresh water, which was unusual in a salt water marshy area. It was also dangerous because it held a resident alligator.
Living in Savannah, gators were not unknown to me, so I knew to respect gators more than snakes. The gators I’d seen before I saw from the safety of a car or boat. This was the first one I had encountered alone in the woods. He was huge. Not just a six-year old’s imagination kind of huge, this gator was a monster. He was also old, with large chunks of skin missing, like he’d lost a few fights.
The swimming hole sat down in a deep bowl. You could get into it from any side just by jumping in, but the only way out was a shelf of land on the opposite side from where I stood. The problem was the old alligator laid on the small shelf when he wasn’t in the water. I wanted to keep the swimming hole my secret, but I couldn’t swim in it without help, so I rounded up a few friends. We managed to “find” a rope, which we tied to a tree and dangled down into the water. Even with a rope to climb out of the water there were problems. On the gator’s patch of land were small shrub bushes thick enough to conceal him from view at water level view. So once in the water we couldn’t tell if the gator was sunning in the dirt or swimming with us. Our solution was to leave a lookout up top to watch the gator. When the gator went into the water the lookout would shout a warning and we’d climb the rope to safety. With the rope and lookout in place I jumped into the water. I went first since it was my discovery.
Read more of Clay’s adentures in the full text of his autobiography, A Life Wasted.