by Tracy C. Brown
Today is the eve of Labor Day weekend. Labor Day is often referred to as the unofficial end of summer and beginning of autumn. The arrival of autumn means many professional archaeologists and their students have already submitted papers and are making plans to attend the annual meeting of the Southeastern Archaeological Conference (SEAC) in Greenville, South Carolina (November 12 -15, 2014). The newly arrived autumn sun angle and the upcoming SEAC meeting brought to mind a brief but humorous personal encounter with a famous American archaeologist at the 1976 SEAC meeting in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
The maple leaves were orange and the clouds above were white at The University of Tennessee (Knoxville) in November 1976. It was time to head out for the SEAC meeting. As is still the case today, undergraduate and graduate archaeology students were on limited personal budgets, and it was most economical to pool resources and travel to the meeting in small groups. Dave McMahan had a dark green Ford Torino that was in good working condition, and he graciously consented to let me (Tracy Brown) and Wayne Roberts tag along on his trip to Tuscaloosa. On this particular trip, Dave quickly discovered that I was harboring a dark personal secret, one Wayne had already discovered the hard way on a previous road trip to visit with James Cambron in Huntsville, Alabama. As Wayne so aptly put it, “Tracy’s bladder must be the size of a walnut.”
The 1976 SEAC meeting was held at the Ramada Inn in downtown Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and it was very well attended, probably because of its central location in the southeast and some very important presentations on the meeting schedule. One of these was a hold-your-breath-and-wait summary presentation by Jeff Chapman on his recent Early Archaic excavations at Icehouse Bottom. Another was a highly anticipated summary presentation by distinguished southeastern archaeologist Dr. Arthur Randolph Kelly on his past excavations at the Ocmulgee National Monument in Macon, Georgia. For those of you who might not be familiar with the late A.R. Kelly and his work in southeastern archaeology, you can catch up by clicking on the following biographical sketch:
The Ramada Inn was crowded―to say the least. Multiple students were staying in small hotel rooms, and sleeping conditions reminded me of a ferret pile in a pet shop. My first night in one of those rooms was uncomfortable and almost sleepless, so I arose early in hopes of a peaceful, quiet, and lonely breakfast in the large hotel restaurant downstairs. It was not to be. I was stunned by the enormous crowd already gathered for breakfast. Every chair at every table was occupied, and the spaces between tables were chocked full of standing archaeologists who were sipping coffee, chomping on Danish rolls, and jabbering with their colleagues. The restaurant was hot and uncomfortable, clouds of tobacco smoke drifted through it, and the noise level was very high―almost deafening. I thought: “Oh great, no sleep and now no food.” Then a miracle dropped from the heavens.
The diners at one table stood up all at once and left, and just as quickly, a restaurant worker wiped down the table. I shot for that table and claimed it. Here was my opportunity for a peaceful, lone, quiet breakfast. I had been seated only a few seconds when I suddenly noticed someone towering over my table. Glancing up, I encountered an old man in blue jeans. He was plump in the middle and crowned with greasy strings of gray, shoulder-length hair. It was A. R. Kelly, and he needed a chair for breakfast just as badly as I had a few moments earlier. Without really asking, he just pulled out a chair, plopped his bottom into it, and started talking to me. I am not sure how long the conversation lasted, but I do recall being the first to leave the table after finishing breakfast.
Much to my surprise, later that day, other UTK archaeology students would walk up to me and say, “Wow!!! You were having breakfast with A.R. Kelly this morning!!! How did you ever swing that?” They also wanted to know what the two of us had talked about and what rare gems of old-days-in-archaeology knowledge he had deposited in my ears. I said little to nothing in response.
Recently, my old tripmate (Wayne Roberts) retired from his job as Head Archaeologist for the South Carolina Department of Transportation. On holidays and other occasions, Wayne and Carol come to the Knoxville area for a visit, and our family meets them for dinner and an evening of catching up. (Just like with Dave McMahan, our kids know him as “Uncle Wayne.”) Wayne and I also have long talks about various things on the telephone.
This past winter, just as a snowstorm was blowing into the Columbia area, Wayne and I had one of those long telephone conversations. During that conversation, he reminded me of my famous breakfast with A. R. Kelly. Once again, I was asked to recall the details of my in-depth discussions with Dr. Kelly on that fateful morning in 1976. I explained to Wayne that our talk went something like the following throughout our entire breakfast together:
A.R. Kelly: I tjgh kltj ltpylkg the ployitgfr yropthmt lkwrtylm.
A.R. Kelly: Wifllsldm cmhd jeoe kjfmn xnsn sgge weeks hdoplc xmnb.
A.R. Kelly: Tpol rkfldmnsb svvcdh dlfofi dhsgavc in the sbmfdl glglflksm nsbedb fjgklbllll.
Tracy: Uh huh?
A.R. Kelly: Kshsgd ftehkdl fljhdh akkieuet Ocmulgee wtfdndlsj hegbs yqwpmz 1938.
Tracy: You don’t mean it? Well, I’ll be.
A.R. Kelly: Well, kslshb cnvfd djbwfs frefkl fhhppl on the kdxmbb vsggs ls jdgvwt shjdkcnn.
A.R. Kelly: In about pldjrp utn gklsm cbbr uyds eow msbxvv cckllr xmszn Lamar.
Tracy: I have to go now Dr. Kelly. Have a nice day.
A.R. Kelly was a rather quiet and soft-spoken person, and in his early morning grogginess, he was apparently unaware that the intense noise in the restaurant was drowning out nearly every word he said. I could not even hear myself talk in that place, so I wonder to this day if he was able to hear even the little bit that I said.
Nonetheless, I did learn an important lesson from my breakfast with A.R. Kelly, and it has paid off in spades for me over the years. If you ever need to have a really serious and meaningful conversation with someone, never do it in a crowded, noisy place. Pick some place comfortable and quiet.
Have a safe and happy Labor Day weekend!!!