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22 July 2010

"The Phenix City Story" / Providing Entertainment & Relaxation to Our Boys in Uniform Since 1925 / "The Wild Bunch" @ the Phenix City Drive-In with corn dogs / "Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny" / Oh show us the way to the next whiskey bar / Oh don't ask why / For if we don't find the next whiskey bar / I tell you we must die

Click image for larger, friendlier.

Ah, okay, the fundamental description in the movie is / was true.

The Chattaoochie River meanders north to south through the huge Army reservation of Fort Benning, and forms the border thereabouts between Georgia (east) and Alabama. Fort Benning has had a metric shitload of soldiers since forever, and around such huge military populations "Army towns" spring up, which don't just provide necessary commercial services to the soldiers, but typically grow to become parasitic towns, earning wealth from soldiers' weaknesses, transience and regular paychecks, offering prostitution, gambling, and predating and victimizing soldiers however they can.

Columbus is the Army town next to Fort Benning in Georgia, and that sucked pretty bad (a night of its finest dining ended you up at the I-HOP), but since the 1920s, Phenix City, Alabama went straight for the jugular, and became a dangerous place for unwary soldiers to wander around in. When soldiers ran afoul of some Den of Vice in Phenix City, the town cops locked him up and held him for "ransom" until the Army bailed him out with $$$. Between the World Wars Patton commanded and devloped tank warfare at Benning, and one time the shakedown racket pissed him off so bad he rolled into town with tanks, aimed their cannon at the jail, and got his soldiers back (without having to blow up the jail).

At various times in the 1930s - 1950s (when the movie was made) the whole town was declared Off Limits to Army personnel (that didn't deter the soldier Fun Seekers too much), and when I was there -- 1969-70 -- you could go, but our First Sergeant strongly advised against it. I like Fun as well as the next soldier, but I don't like being drugged and mugged and stabbed and shot and ending up in some sleazeball Alabama jail. Columbus had entertainment sufficient for me and my buddies (if one of us could scare up a car).

Around the time the movie chronicles, corruption got so bad in Phenix City (enormous untaxed vice profit was at stake) that the chief of police walked up the courthouse steps and shot the district attorney to death, or so legend goes.

But finally Phenix City started attracting not just state but national attention, magazine articles, etc. (I just saw the flick the other day and remember a screen featuring Phenix City on the cover of Look, with a lurid headline.) A consensus was growing that even in Alabama, the Wild West was supposed to have ended around 1890, but guns and all, it was still a wild place in the grip of a permanent local violent gangster establishment. And most of its victims were US soldiers -- which made it a Pentagon concern as well.

How it cleaned up -- the flick was 1955 and I was a soldier there 15 years later -- I don't exactly know, but it hadn't cleaned up overmuch. It was common knowledge in the barracks not to go there if you absolutely didn't have to. If you just drank in a Phenix City bar at night, you were asking for it.

To be fair to this fine upstanding Christian town and its heritage of providing entertainment and relaxation to lonely soldiers, I can only remember one occasion I had to go there at night -- the Phenix City Drive-In was first-running Peckinpah's "The Wild Bunch," and I was determined to see that sucker, and fast. (Within a month, Warner Brothers yanked it back and butchered it brutally; it was only restored to Peckinpah's magnificent original within the last decade.) One barracks buddy had a big old sedan and I promised him and all who piled in a Unique Entertainment Experience, so we went, saw a magnificent movie in pristine condition, ate corn dogs, and suffered no misadventure. We Survived A Night In Phenix City, Alabama. (No easy trick.)

Around 1985 I did a stint in a Boston hospital, and on my ward chatted up a woman and her young daughter with deep Southern accents. She said they lived in Phenix City, Old Veteran Bob explained he knew it well, she blushed rather deeply, but effusively assured me that Phenix City had finally morphed beyond Lawlessness, and was now a safe, fine place to raise a family. Either she was telling the truth, or lying her brains out.

I sure ain't going there again, I don't care what they're showing at the Drive-In.

For further details, catch a performance of Brecht and Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny," about the Alabama town where Everything is for sale, and there's only one crime: Not paying the bill. (It's a capital crime.)

Sound ON
right-click: OPEN IN NEW WINDOW

Teresa Stratas sings "The Alabama Song" from "Mahagonny"


PatFromCH said...

According to a survey conducted by the Swiss Army several recruits and soilders were found either intoxicated, drunk or both on their way home. Army personnel on trains drinking pint cans and passing reefers is / was a frequent view for train passengers for years. All the same wherever you go.

I first heard the Alabama Song performed by the Doors, I never understood why this band is so popular. What I didn't know is that the song will be performed in english even in a german production of Mahagony. Here is a version from legendary swiss band The Young Gods:

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