I don’t have a finished piece of writing to put up here for today’s Friday Non-Dissertational. There are a few ideas I’ve had floating around, none of which I’ve begun to flesh out, and there are a few old pieces I’ve been meaning to revise but haven’t. The thing that’s most got my interest these days is stolen from a guy I knew when I was working on my MFA, a good guy named Bill Kirchner. Bill wrote a story I wish I’d written, where the protagonist sits in his car in the parking lot outside a diner, or maybe it was a bar, imagining himself in the place of the teenage chauffeur who drove Hank Williams on his last ride. I’d like to steal Bill’s idea, but change it a little. My version’s probably a lot more trite than Bill’s, but I’d like to actually put together a fictional account of that last ride and that last moment where the teenager sat in the parking lot knowing he had Hank Williams dead in his back seat, knowing he had to do something, tell someone.
The teenager was Charles Carr, an 18-year-old freshman at Auburn, who Hank Williams had paid $400 to get him to a show on New Year’s Day in Canton, Ohio. It was snowing all across the Southeast on New Year’s Eve when Charlie drove Hank’s brand new baby blue Series 62 Cadillac Convertible Coupe into Knoxville, and the two of them got a room at the 17-story Andrew Johnson hotel. Hank was already a country superstar, with hits like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Why Don’t You Love Me” and “Cold, Cold Heart”. In December 1952, there were more recent singles as well, such as “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” and “Jambalaya”. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” would not be released until after Hank’s death.
At 29, Hank was in bad shape. He stood six feet two inches tall and weighed all of 130 pounds. The night of December 31, 1952, a local doctor named Paul Cardwell was summoned because Hank had been having convulsions. He gave Hank injections of vitamin B-12 and morphine. The promoter of the show in Canton called them later that evening and told Hank that they had to be there by a certain time the following day or Hank wouldn’t get paid. Charlie had the hotel porters help him get Hank out of the hotel in a wheelchair and load him into the back of the Cadillac. They checked out at 10:45 p.m. and got onto Highway 11W, driving northeast.
The roads were bad. At 11:45 p.m., Charlie was stopped and ticketed by state police corporal Swann Kitts. Seeing Hank passed out in the back seat, Kitts commented his paleness. Charlie told him about the injections, and said Williams had drank some beer, as well.
After being ticketed, Charlie made it another 200 miles northeast to the town of Bristol, where Hank woke up briefly, and Charlie got some food. They drove on through the dark and snow.
Near dawn, around 5:30 a.m. New Year’s Day, Charlie pulled into the parking lot of Burdette’s Pure Oil Station in Oak Hill West Virgina. He turned back to adjust Hanks’ blanket. Hank didn’t respond. When Charlie touched him, he was cold.
And that’s the moment I’d want to write about, if I could get the rest of the research straight, if I knew what that road looked like and that place, sitting there in the parking lot with the huge flakes of snow drifting down in the pre-dawn darkness, seeing the yellow light on in the window of the service station, eighteen years old and knowing, somehow, you had to go in there and tell them that your passenger, Hank Williams, was dead.