I can remember it as though it was yesterday, but the truth is the Southeastern Conference ‘Skywriters’ haven’t been in a flight pattern for at least 40 years. Like the far-more vaunted Tuskegee Airmen, we thought we were ever bit as legendary but represented, if you will, the direct opposite slope. The Tuskegee Airmen won wars, we caused them. And there will never become a second week in August that I will ever forget reporting to “active duty” with my fellow ink-stained rowdies.
The SEC, then not even a shadow of the collegiate showpiece it is today, was struggling in the early 70s for more publicity and a greater “market share,” this as CBS was straining to sell advertising for the best football in the country. The SEC was a gem in the rough – everybody knew it – but what could make it take root?
Some geniuses identified the ultimate vehicle – an airplane every fall to beckon the new season in. The mandate was this – get the top 40 Southern story-tellers on the same plane, taking them to each SEC hamlet, and turn them loose to vividly illustrate nothing could compare to Auburn with Shug Jordan, Florida with Ray Graves then Doug Dickey, and, of course, Papa Bear at Alabama. The SEC athletes were far and away the best in the country and their individual stories were better than any set of Saturday afternoon numbers.
Instantly there blossomed a new-found competition throughout the South. (Today Nick Saban makes $7 million plus – ask yourself how that really happened.) At Tennessee Bill Battle laid the foundation after Dickey left in ’69 but when ‘Johnny (Mayors) Came Marching Home’ in ’77, it was Katie-bar-the door. The rest of the SEC was locked-and-loaded and – to this day – absolutely no other conference or collection of colleges can equal the SEC.
What I am trying to tell you is the Skywriters sounded the drum back in the day. There was no Internet or “market share" in the early 70s when the idea was born for the “Skywriters.” The conference was willing to pick up a huge tab for the best writers in the South to gather in Birmingham, climb on an old Martin 404 airplane and then journey from one of 10 SEC cities to the next.
And tell torrid tales they did … I’m talking by the thousands. I was the youngest ever, the only too young from a strictly-ethical standpoint. The fact was this was a hard-drinking crowd and one rich with fun and merriment, one where practical jokes were the norm and the laughter was high and constant.
One day we were at Mississippi State and it was hotter than blazes. State wanted us to view a scrimmage but instead we commandeered a couple of vans, bought much more than a couple of cases of beer from that renowned store on the Columbus Highway (“get the beer from the bottom of the cooler; it’s so cold it will snap a tooth!”.
By the time a second-round passes, a buddy named Bill collapsed, it later being learned a lack of alcohol since the night before, combined with the devastating heat, had caused our boy to wilt in the heat. We send for the Calvary, but this was before cell phones. What to do? Save Bill! Somebody found a big bowl of iced cucumber slices in a Frigidaire, so it was a genius stroke to pull off Bill’s shirt and pants and lay frigid slices on his outstretched limbs.
Up roared this surplus ambulance from the Korean conflict and a medico with two nurses and a couple of techs leaped out. The doctor couldn’t believe his eyes, and his comment entered Skywriters’ lore forever. “Which one of you witch-doctors has been treating this man!”
Now, here’s a Skywriters’ story that has never been told because some deaths needed to precede it but “Group Leader Vogler” may be my favorite. At the big send-off dinner in Birmingham, everybody would be introduced before the two-day foray and a guy named “Crash Wilson” was our pilot every year. He was super, particularly in thunderstorms and the heat cells of August, but the man would attract some weird co-pilots.
One year he had this beady little guy to ride in the right seat and, for a reason I do not know, I beckoned my table mates close at dinner and said, “You know who that really is? It’s Group Leader Vogler.
“That’s right … as a 20-year-old he flew with the Luftwaffe over Berlin and Munich,” I confided with my boys. “Shot a bunch of our guys out of the sky …. escaped with Hitler to South America and is flying this gig to get his daughter U.S. dollars for cancer treatment in Miami. Watch him in the dark, boys … carries a dagger on the inside of his left boot.”
Please, the story is so preposterous it is an obvious sham but, somehow it got legs and by the time it drifted down into our rookie’s ranks the laughter was muted. Five days later we flew into Nashville late on Saturday morning and, instead of taxing to the terminal, we were diverted to an out-hanger when some police cars and black vehicles were parked.
It seems one of our rookie writers, who I’ve never seen until this day, made a play to win a Pulitzer Prize by identifying Group Leader Vogler for war crimes when, in truth, the co-pilot was a moonlighting accountant from somewhere up near Cincinnati. I still wake up in the middle of the night laughing about it and, this week, what I’d give to be hastily packing for one last ride.