Search This Blog

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Natchez Characters -- Cee Tee Kelly: The Perfect Storm

The phone was ringing.

Mission Impossible was on TV or maybe Bonanza.


"Mister Pritchett?"


"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.