Dear Vance: What can you tell me about a teenager named Johnny Cole, born with a very unusual handicap, who worked as a shoeshine boy here in the early 1960s?
— T.H., Memphis
Dear T.H.: Whenever I feel sorry for myself, I read about people like Johnny Cole, and — oh, who am I kidding? I still feel sorry for myself, whenever I check my meager bank account. But I certainly admire the grit and determination of this rather remarkable young man.
Cole was born in Memphis in 1960 with, as you said, a "very unusual handicap." He had no legs. I found some old newspaper clippings about him, and his background is quite vague. There is no mention of his parents; he was raised by his grandmother, Mrs. Zona White, and grew up in the old Hurt Village housing project (since razed to make way for the Uptown development).
At an early age, Cole learned to get around the neighborhood by "walking" on his hands, since his arms were actually longer than his body. And he made the newspapers — not because of his handicap, but because of his accomplishments. The young boy learned to ride a bicycle by lying down flat on the seat, steering the handlebars with one hand while pedaling with the other! Just the thought of it tires me.
A Commercial Appeal reporter wrote about this, and Cole, then 13, told him, "I saw my cousin — he has legs — riding on his stomach one day. So I asked him to hold the bike for me to try, and I was able to balance." The CA story pointed out that Cole's old bicycle was just about shot. So kind-hearted Memphians chipped in and bought him a couple of brand-new bikes. I'm sorry to admit that none of the generous donors were named Lauderdale.
Then the U.S. Navy had a better idea. Sailors at Millington pooled their funds and bought Cole a go-kart. "We found out he'd already received several bicycles, so we decided, why not get him something motorized," Robert Bussell, an aviation machinist mate, told reporters. The result was a bright orange go-kart with a special seat and hand controls.
"This thing really goes fast, and it's easy to ride," said Cole. "I can't start it by myself just yet, but my grandmother helps me."
Cole dropped out of sight — or at least out of the newspaper files I searched — for several years. He turned up again in a 1978 "Strolling" column by the Press-Scimitar 's Eldon Roark, who wrote that the young man — now 19 years old — had been traveling around the country. "People are afraid to pick up hitchhikers," said Roark, "but not Johnny Cole, because people aren't afraid of him. When people see him sitting on his skateboard, thumbing for a ride, they are touched by his predicament."
Cole's grandmother, it seems, had moved to Savannah, Tennessee, and after working for years as a shoeshine boy in a North Memphis barbershop, the young man was on his own. "For the past few years, he has been beating around the country, a pack on his back, working at whatever jobs he could get," wrote Roark. "He is amazingly active. He can do carpentry, paint — sure, he can climb ladders! — service autos, or work as a salesman."
When Roark found him, Cole had briefly returned to Memphis and was staying with friends, but he had been unable to find work here, so he was hitting the roads again. And unfortunately, that's the end of his story, as I know it. I searched newspaper files and found no further mention of him. By this time, he would be in his early fifties, and I like to think that — despite all the odds against him — he beat them, found a job, and finally settled down someplace he could call home.
Dear Vance: While cleaning out an old trunk, I discovered a faded newspaper clipping about a British war hero found dead in Arkansas, who was to be given a full military funeral at Elmwood. Did this actually happen? — B.F., Memphis
Dear B.F.: Yes, but not at Elmwood. This is a very strange and somewhat disturbing story. Your 1928 clipping tells about a well-dressed man in his forties, whose body was found in an abandoned shack across the river in Crittenden County, Arkansas.
Police quickly determined that the poor fellow had been murdered. Papers and letters left on the body identified him as William Patrick Alagham Andrew, a former British soldier who had fought valiantly in World War I.
"His name, his war service, his decorations, and his discharge are recorded on papers found on the body," said the old Commercial Appeal article, "but what lands have known him, what vicissitudes have tried him in his eight-year odyssey which began with his demobilization in England in 1920 is unrevealed, except in fragmentary addresses, memoranda and letters, philosophical observations scribbled on the backs of soiled envelopes, and a few verses of war poetry, all found on his person." Andrew, it seems, had served as a private in the machine gun corps and received two wound stripes (the British equivalent of our Purple Heart), the General Service War Medal, and the Victory Medal. The police had no suspects in the crime, and how this soldier ended up dead in a lonely cabin in Arkansas intrigued local reporters. I found other clippings, which indicated they researched his background rather thoroughly. Because of his war wounds, he had been admitted to two hospitals in London after the war. He carried a receipt for an expensive watch purchased in Buffalo, New York, though no watch was found on him. A letter tucked in his clothes was a negative response to his request for information from various towns in England and France about a woman named Yvonne — perhaps a wife or girlfriend? No one, it seems, knew her. At the bottom, Andrew had scribbled, "The days drag on and clouds keep out the sun, and thus the heart may break, yet brokenly live on."
He wore nice clothes and had, apparently, not walked to the cabin. Police surmised that whoever robbed and killed him also took his automobile. In the end, everyone was stumped. Other letters on his body contained "only fragmentary addresses, affording no clues of his past," wrote one reporter. For days, his body lay in Thompson Brothers Mortuary, "unclaimed and friendless, awaiting the location of possible relatives."
Those relatives never turned up, and his American brothers in arms decided that this decorated veteran deserved something better than a pauper's burial. Memphis Post #1 of the American Legion raised funds to pay for a full military funeral.
Newspapers reported that "honorary pallbearers chosen from veterans in Memphis will tenderly bear their dead comrade to his last sleep, a volley will be fired over the grave, and a bugler will sound the taps — the soldier's requiem." That same newspaper story said Andrew would be buried at Elmwood.
Not true. Elmwood has no record of such a burial. Neither does Memorial Park or the National Cemetery. After some diligent searching — okay, it took a few phone calls — I determined that Private Andrew was actually laid to rest in Forest Hill.
There was just one problem. Forest Hill records show that he was buried on March 11, 1928, in Section 11, plot number 703. Cemetery maps, however, don't show a plot 703; their numbering stops in the 400s. Unwilling to give up, I journeyed out to Forest Hill and, braving a spring thunderstorm, tramped up and down the rows of graves, searching for Andrew's marker. I looked at more than 400 tombstones in Section 11, in the southwest corner of the cemetery behind the mausoleum (above), but never found it. It's quite possible that he was buried without a headstone, but in death, as in life, William Patrick Alagham Andrew remains a mystery.