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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Natchez Characters -- Cee Tee Kelly: The Perfect Storm

The phone was ringing.

Mission Impossible was on TV or maybe Bonanza.

"Hello?"

"Mister Pritchett?"

"Yes?"

"This is Cee Tee Kelly."

"Hello, Cee Tee. How're you?"

"Mister Pritchett, I want you to know that Billy Ferrell, the sherifff? He's a Russian spy."

"Oh?" My father would laugh that silent, wheezing laugh like Muttley, the cartoon dog, holding his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone receiver.

"And the mayor? Tony Byrne? He's a communist!"

"Oh, lord. What a nut," Daddy would laugh as he hung up the phone. A couple of times he even recorded the conversation. I wish I could find those old recordings. What a wonder it would be to hear the ghost voices of the past coming back over the speakers, if only for a moment.

Other times, Cee Tee (Charles Thomas) would appear at my father's office. He'd make all the same pronouncements -- the mayor and the city attorney are selling dope; the communists are taking over; the sheriff's a Russian spy.

"I wish you'd call the FBI and let them know," he'd say. Then he'd spin on his heel and walk back out.

"Wait! Cee Tee? I want to ask you something."

But Cee Tee just kept on going. Not another word.

A small Southern town just wouldn't be the same without its crazies. How come we never hear about the ones up North? Are they as beloved as ours? Are they as interesting? Or are we just better storytellers?

Around here we cherish our lunatics -- heck, sometimes we are our lunatics. And here in Natchez where just about everyone is related to each other, we find that if we aren't kind to the town nut, well...we might be hurting the feelings of a second cousin, once removed.

So we nurture them, put them out on the corner, say hello to them every morning on the way to work, pat them on the back, humor their ravings, and tell fond stories about them after they've gone to that Big Sanitarium in the sky. We laugh like mad remembering the outrageous things they said and did, and secretly hope people aren't going to be remembering us in much the same way a few years down the line. The memories of my own childhood are punctuated with several of these special folks, but none is more vivid to me than Cee Tee Kelly.

In a way, Cee Tee personifies a big part of my Natchez childhood. He was always there, disturbing and delightful and infuriating and tragic and funny, and without him, some of the magic of a small-town Southern childhood would be missing.

My memory of Cee Tee (my spelling) was of a pear-shaped little man standing on the corner of Main and Pearl Streets, catty-cornered to the Eola Hotel, twitchy and nervous, constantly in motion and combing his thin, black, greasy hair. Badly myopic eyes peered out at the world distrustfully from behind a pair of thick, Coke-bottle glasses perched on the nose of a tiny little toothless head. He sort of resembled Popeye's hamburger-loving friend Wimpy. Because -- I assume -- of his bad eyes, his face was always pocked with bloody spots where he'd nicked himself shaving in the mornings.

But his clothes....well, his clothes were carefully chosen and certain to make a statement. He always wore a brightly colored, neatly pressed shirt topped off with a big, bright tie. Polyester leisure pants, equally tidy and creased, seemed to ride up forever, practically reaching his armpits. To finish it all off, he wore clean, white, freshly buffed shoes. Yep, Cee Tee was a snappy dresser.

Knowing how bad his eyes must've been, I often wondered who dressed him, assuming it had to be a mother who loved her poor, confused child, whose madness was said to be the result of a fever he suffered as a child. It made me sad to think she might die. Who would dress him then? I later learned that he lived with two sisters, who loved him fiercely, and at times he lived over on Madison Street with his brother who worked at the post office, and who was said to be a bookie.

Not everyone was kind to Cee Tee. Young boys would sometimes taunt and tease him, and I've heard he'd chase them down and hit them with his belt as they laughed and giggled and ran away. I'd never witnessed that, though. A "good morning" from me was always met with a smile from Cee Tee, who asked how I was doing and went about his business.

Sometimes Cee Tee was on the corner and sometimes he wasn't. When his ravings got too bad, his brother would call Sheriff Billy Ferrell, whose duty it was to gather him up and take him to Whitfield,the state mental hospital 15 miles south of Jackson, for treatment. There, he probably received electroshock therapy and drugs until he was placid enough to send back down to Natchez.

"That's why he hated lawmen," said Tommy Ferrell, the late Billy Ferrell's son, who also served as sheriff in Natchez for many years.

It was this combination of Cee Tee's paranoia and the political and racial climate in small-town Mississippi during the 1960s that served to create the Perfect Storm for some comic relief in Natchez at a time when there was little to laugh about.

In 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed, violence and unrest destroyed the serenity of life in the South. The South was in an uprising and the Klan was in its heyday. There were riots and boycotts, bombings, violence and murder. Churches were being bombed. Blacks were being murdered.

The FBI opened a field office in Natchez, and staffed it with 24 FBI agents, looking high and low for troublemakers. So when poor Cee Tee came along, fresh out of Whitfield and ranting about the sheriff being a Russian spy and all the cops being "kluckers," the FBI was ripe for the picking. They didn't know he was crazy. In fact, they put him on the payroll. Let him write reports.

It's said that J. Edgar Hoover actually read reports from Cee Tee Kelly. Yee ha! Now, that is some funny stuff. We had Maxwell Smart on TV and Cee Tee Kelly in real life.

Cee Tee would often stand around at the bus depot, and when people got off the bus, he'd tell them how the town was overrun with crime, drugs and communists.  It got so bad that sometimes they'd get right back on the bus and leave.  The bus depot finally sued Cee Tee to get him to stop.  I'm not sure if it worked.

I moved away from Natchez in 1980, and don't know when or how Cee Tee died. He's one of those people I suddenly remembered years later and wondered what had happened to him. And whenever I think about him, it makes me sad. I hope there's a heaven for Cee Tee Kelly where everyone respects him, believes and admires him, and wants to be just like him. So long, Cee Tee. Thanks for the memories.


20 comments:

  1. Elodie - I'm gonna have to double my Celexa prescription if you don't stop with these bittersweet stories of my life! Lovely tribute to C.T. Yes, he was a character and a snappy dresser. Passed our house every morning and always stopped to chat.

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  2. This definately brought back a lot of memories. This poem by a dear poet friend will too.

    KRESS


    A PLACE OF MAGIC AT CHRISTMAS TIME,

    THE SPOT THAT I LIKED BEST.

    A FIVE AND TEN ON COMMERCE STREET.

    THE STORE OF S. H. KRESS.


    SEVENTY YEARS NOW HAVE PASSED ,

    SINCE I WAS I WAS JUST A LAD.

    I CHRISTMAS SHOPPED WITH A HALF A BUCK.

    WHICH WAS ALL THE CASH I HAD.


    THE DAZZLE OF THE CHRISTMAS PROPS,

    BROUGHT THE SEASONS TINGE TO BEAR.

    BIG RED BELLS WITH GARLAND CROWNS

    WERE HANGING EVERYWHERE.


    ON THE WALLS WERE PASTEBOARD CANES

    RED WRAPPED LIKE PEPPERMINT.

    A JOLLY 'MERRY CHRISTMAS'

    WAS THE MESSAGE WARMLY SENT.


    RIBBON SWEETS IN CHRISTMAS WRAP

    WERE IN THE CANDY CASE.

    AN OLD UPRIGHT VICTROLA

    PROVIDED MUSIC FOR THIS PLACE.


    LARGE BUTTERFLIES, MADE OF TIN

    WERE PULLED ALONG BY STRAP.

    AS THE WHEELS TURNED ON THE TOY

    IT'S WINGS WOULD SLOWLY FLAP.


    PERFUME FOR MOM WAS JUST A DIME

    TEN CENTS FOR POP'S SHAVE SOAP.

    A LITTLE DOLL FOR BABY SIS

    THAT HELD A JUMPING ROPE.


    BABY DOLLS WERE FIFTEEN CENTS.

    THE BIG ONES, TWO BITS MORE.

    TINY CABINS MADE OF WOOD

    HAD WINDOWS AND A DOOR.


    FAMOUS AND PRICE AND H F BYRNE

    SOLD LARGE AND COSTLY JOYS.

    S. H. KRESS, I COULD AFFORD

    FOR FAMILY GIFTS AND TOYS.


    SO MANY YEARS AGO IT WAS

    I WALKED THROUGH MAGIC'S DOOR,

    BOUGHT ALL MY GIFTS FOR FIFTY CENTS

    IN THE S. H. KRESS GRAND STORE.


    NOW, I'M OLD, THE STORE IS GONE.

    IT'S MEMORY, I ADORE.

    S. H. KRESS SOLD CHRISTMAS CHEER

    FOR FIFTY CENTS OR MORE.


    HENRY CHARLES DOHERTY

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  3. Thanks! I surely remember him, too. He came and sat next to me on the bench at Memorial Park one time as I was waiting for Mom to pick me up downtown. I was kind of scared, but wanted to be polite. He complemented my bright red shirt. I said, "Thank you." He combed his hair and Mom drove up. She said it was nice that I was polite.

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  4. Thanks so much for the poem about Kress. You can tell Henry Charles Doherty (in case he no longer lives here) that the building is still there with the name S.H. Kress carved into the facade.

    I remember Kress with the counter where you could get a shake or a Coke float. And I remember the bins with the big-women's bras and underwear. What a wonder they were!

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  5. I haven't thought of CT in years! Thanks for bringing all these childhood memories back.

    I loved Kress too -- it was my mother's favorite store.

    Thank you Elodie for all this. I am going to come back for a visit during spring pilgrimage so hope to see you then. I am just going to completely collapse in a Memory Heap when I get there. I haven't been to Natchez in 25 years.

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  6. Elizabeth, I hope you're going to stay for a nice, long visit. I look forward to meeting you. You'll be delighted to see how little Natchez has changed; yet at the same time how very much, too. It's all good.

    Elodie

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  7. When I was married the first time, we lived in Bienville Apts. C.T. lived with his sisters right next door and it was an experience I can tell you. I frequently went over and took KC to see them...And of course they cherish having a baby in the house. They were loyal and loving to C.T...and they pretty much gave up their lives to take care of him... I was so sad when I heard that he had died...but in God's House, he was finally acceptd as a creation of His Father...... jeano *:)

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  8. Thank you so much for this tribute! It's beautiful! I, too, feel sad when I think of him now. I remember him being at the mall and being teased...so sad.

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  9. LHR said:


    Oh how well I remember him, Elodie. Do you remember the man who had no legs and rolled on a platform with wheels all over town?

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  10. GL said:

    That's great writing, Elodie. I always remember CT whistling a Christmas tune, regardless of the time of year...

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  11. GP said:


    Supposedly, C.T. ws qute inteligent as a youn man,and had some iillness that caused a super high fevethat left him the way we remember him. I do know that he had an amazing knowledge of music from the Big Band era.

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  12. A.M. said:

    He used to come in the corner, afternoons, when no one was around, and actually talk to me, i remember his memory of the natchez of his youth was excellent. never comlplained of teenagers teasing him.

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  13. C.G. said:

    There was also Si, who used to sell candy in front of the Baker Grand. His put his money in a cigar box. He was bent over. My dad said he used to shine shoes. i also remember seeing the scooting man on his board.

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  14. E.S.T. said:

    I hadn't thought of CT in 30 years so was delighted to have this childhood memory brought back to me, Elodie. I sent a link to the CT post to all of my brothers - one of them used to tease CT.

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  16. The phone was ringing.
    "Is this Mike Elliott?
    "Yes it is."
    "Mike, your wife is a communist."
    "Well, I'm sorry, Mr. Kelly, but I'm not married."
    "Then she's a whore!"
    click.

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  17. Thanks for all of the childhood memories. I remember all of the ones mentioned above, as well as the lady who sold pralines all over town out of a basket. Things were so much simpler then.

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  18. For those of us who lived across the River in Vidalia, there was a young man who was eccentric like CT. He always wore white painter's overalls, with a white cap, and he carried a hammer in the loop of the overalls. He couldn't speak but would make strange noises, and he was known to chase kids with the hammer, whenever they made fun of him. I was always scared of him; so, whenever I rode my bike around the neighborhood and would see him, I did everything I could to avoid him.

    Maybe Tommy or someone else remembers him.

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  19. I also remember a very short man with a very big head who was down under the hill. We innocently called him "water head" that I now know as hydrocephalic. Does anyone remember him?

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  20. The guy with the hammer in Vidalia was Ed. And he would hit you with that hammer sometimes if you provoked him.....hence staying away was a good idea!

    CT Kelly is celebrated as a piece of Natchez's very 'colorful' history. I worked at Cole's Department Store for the Abrams family (& subsequently Sam Green) all my high school years. CT would come in and rattle off some accusations, then depart as fast as he came in. I mostly remember him wearing fire engine red pants. There was also another fella, who every day would pass our doors around 9 am, and stop in the doorway, jump up and slap his left heel, then jump and slap the right one, then go on as if nothing was odd about what he'd just done. Never could figure that one out. Probably went on for 3 or 4 years until we moved the store.

    Great memories in that store!!

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