Collard festival farmer changes direction

Savannah Morning News

Aug. 16, 2015

Veterans are a tight bunch. They find each other. They help each other.

Still, I doubt Vince Pinault was ready for Robert Johnson the day the Promised Land collards guy drove in with his 1952 three-on-the-floor Ford pick up truck. There was no problem with the truck’s V8 engine though Johnson rarely takes it faster than 45 miles an hour. The rusty running board is still intact. So are the hubcaps and split rims – all original. No, Johnson had another request.

“I wanted to turn the front bumper into a cartoon character,” said Johnson, better known for the annual Collard Festival he and his brother Willie ran for 15 years on their 33-acre farm in Port Wentworth.

He wanted a little “dental work” on the front bumper. A couple weeks later after Pinault cut, painted and screwed on the steel image, Johnson got it: four oversized slightly uneven teeth on the top, four on the bottom. If you think the image looks like a character out of the Pixar film, “Cars,” you would be right. Johnson saw the character in a cartoon book. Except he wasn’t happy with the name “tater mater.” Ever the farmer, he calls his a “tow mater.”

Pinault, who served in the Army for 27 years, opened his Alfred Street business, American Veterans Restorations, three years ago. Most of the people who work there are veterans. He says he only likes to work on cars manufactured before 1980. “They’re veterans, like myself,” he said.

Sixty-three years ago, Johnson, a flight engineer and mechanic in the Army, paid $70 for the Ford truck when he was returning to Savannah from Fort Campbell, Ky. Back then the vehicle was bright red. Now it’s a fashionably rusty red. Now the paint job boasts patina and the same lusty shapes cars and trucks used to have.

Johnson knows a little something about vehicles himself. At one time he set up shop on Montgomery Street to sell fresh sugar cane juice. Instead of bringing a team of mules to move in circles and extract the juice the old fashioned way, Johnson moved parts of the cab and the seats of his 1971 Ford (another oldie but goodie he had), found some chains and belts he had lying around and connected them to the engine and transmission. Then he brought in some steel rollers and connected the whole thingamajig to another truck he brought along.  Somehow (I’m not sure how), when he started the engine and shifted the transmission he could feed the stalks of sugar cage into some steel rollers and watch the juice come a’ flowing.

He attracted a crowd. People like fresh cane juice. People know the real thing.

He got the same crowd at the five-minute collard-picking drill he and his brother Willie sponsored at their annual Collard Festivals, which in the end turned into a bone fide parade and community event. At his house in Cuyler-Brownsville where Johnson converted the empty lot across the street to a city farm of collards, rutabaga, turnips and cabbage, he drew another crowd.

Now when people see his truck and the “teeth” and the eyes on the dash sunshade, they want their picture taken with Johnson. That’s ok during the day but at night he parks it inside a garage, “not because anyone might want to drive the vehicle but because the truck is made of solid steel, perfect for salvaging.”

While the image of oversized teeth might be humorous now it wasn’t always that way. In Vietnam Johnson flew Cobra helicopters. Back then the teeth had another purpose.

“We wanted people to be afraid if they saw them,” he said. “It worked too.”

When he got out of the Army Johnson worked as a mental health counselor at Charter Hospital, became a longshoreman, and drove a school bus. These days he still wears a Promised Land shirt but this one also says, “Uncle Bob, in training.”

What are you in training for, I ask.

“Learning,” he answered. “I’m open to learning anything new.”

Savannah might have a horse race yet

Savannah Morning News column

Aug. 9, 2015

A pulse. I’m beginning to sense a pulse. It’s a faint one, somewhat ill defined, but it’s there. All this in Slovannah, Georgia. On the eve of an aldermanic election, we could have ourselves a horse race. All this in the hot and sultry time of year known as the Dog Days when it’s hard to know who is more droopy, who is feeling more desultory, more wilting, our once towering sunflowers or our sorry selves, just waiting for a break in the weather. But still. It’s a pulse. It’s something. These occasional blips of discourse, of discussion, usually cycle around some egregious crime (plenty of those of late) and the waves of meandering tourists (plenty of those too, especially in the summer, after some major newspaper article extols the virtues of our fair city).

Or an upcoming city election when people begin to think about new blood, new possibilities. Even diehard fans of the lowly Chicago Cubs are allowed stirrings of hope in the spring. This is our spring.  Go Cubbies. Go new blood.

Hear, hear: The deadline for the “declaration of intent” to run for an aldermanic position is Sept. 4. The election is Nov. 3. It’s not that far away.

By now we’re so used to the same old incumbents dragging the same old political yard signs out of storage we don’t think twice about it. The signs are dusted off and stuck in the ground and that’s it. No one knocks on your door. No one comes up with a platform. It’s not that big of a city to do these things. Maybe the signs are new (they look the same to me). I pass them and I think, “Her again? Him again? Really? But why?” Council meetings are tedious (although sometimes theater). They’re repetitive. You do know a liquor license is a right not a privilege, right? (Or is it the other way  around?) The Council does a lot of approving, amending, appreciating, commending, reconsidering, but mostly commending.

Some renegade candidates like Murray Silver – our own Donald Trump – have been conducting an energetic debate on Facebook in his run for mayor. He’s talking. That’s refreshing, if unvetted. But is he a collaborator? Can he work well with others? Does he know Roberts’ Rules of Order? We don’t know. Other possible mayoral candidates – can you say Sonny Dixon? – have had their names floating around with no commitment. Come on, Sonny, take a stand. Give us something to chew on. But where are the rest of you? Where’s someone like Marjorie Young, a well-connected, well-spoken public relations guru whose got moxie, organizational skills and humor? Marjorie, are you ready to throw your hat in the ring?

For my money – and my vote – I’m ready for something radical. How about a Council of all women? A million studies have shown how much better women work in groups than men. They talk; they don’t grand stand. They delegate; they don’t hog the ball. We can still have male consultants (if they’re smart, if they have something to bring to the table). We know women are used to making a pittance of a salary so there’s no problem there.

How about a Council of women and millennials? These are young people born between 1980 and 2000. Note to Mary Ellen Sprague (someone who does do her homework): we’ll grandfather you in.

For my money – and my one vote – I’m waiting to hear something new. We’ve given downtown over to out of town corporate hotel owners, to an excessive number of tour groups, to a nonprofit college that doesn’t pay taxes. But Savannah is more than just downtown. It’s a big old city of people, parks, children and old folks. It seems to me City Council spends more time approving liquor licenses than anything else. Can’t that be done at another time with less grandstanding? We can change our charter. We can do whatever we want. Hey, we can eliminate parking meters. Think what grand publicity that would bring. We can take those well-trained meter maids and meter men (and they are well trained) off that task and turn them into citywide ambassadors. “May I help you find something?” “Are you lost?” “Here, let me help you with that GPS.” They can become the eyes and ears of our police force. We can give them some bright uniform where they would stand out, something to fool the miscreants. We can borrow the slogan New York City uses: See something, say something.

We can address poverty (the elephant in the room) – 28 percent the last time I looked – if we want.

The good news is people are starting to talk about these things.

There is life in the old city yet.