No tall tale – JB was larger than lifePublished 10:00pm Thursday, May 8, 2014
The heart of the racing documentary that I co-produced a year ago, JB Day, passed away last week at the age of 80.
But his life deserves so much more attention than what was limited to in column inches, for his obituary.
You see, JB was a self-made man and came from an era that Tom Brokaw famously described to be ‘The Greatest Generation’ and lived a life, particularly, a childhood, that would send the rest of us covering our eyes with our hands and watching, in horror, through trembling fingers.
“My mama died when I was just a baby,” JB told us during the hours we rolled film to record his story, “And my daddy was so busy farming he just couldn’t raise me, so this old feller looked after me. We slept mostly under the roof of this old barn that had come down and if it was cold, we’d just kick some leaves up under it to stay warm.”
JB was around 7 at this time, sporadically attending school, feeding his dad’s hogs, entranced with the magic that only a kid would find in the confines of an old junk yard. As he grew, he learned to work on cars, drink a little moonshine, deliver some of it as well, and when he was approaching 10 or 11, his boss told him if he needed a place to sleep, he could sleep, JB thought he said, “With that old sow.”
“I ain’t sleeping with no pig.” JB, offended, replied.
“Not ‘old sow,’” his boss retorted, and, pointing to the battered Caddy on blocks, which was to become the boy’s home for several years, added, “The old Lasalle.” Curtains were run up for the back window and JB would retire to his ‘room’ at night, in the junkyard, after a full day’s work, for years to come. He was in heaven.
For you parents who cannot even imagine allowing your children to circle the subdivision cul-de-sac on their bicycles without a helmet, you may want a stiff drink before reading the next tale we were told…
“I used to ride my bike to all the races,” JB declared, warming up. “Sometimes 50 miles or more. I’d sleep in the woods at night and, if I was lucky, the racers would see me on the road to Columbia or Spartanburg and they’d stop and give me a ride. But one time, I was at a truck rest stop and, in those days, there were these long chains that used to hang off the back of them trucks. So I waited ‘til I heard one get started up, and I snuck round the back and held on to that chain with one hand, and on to my handle bars with the other, and he pulled me along for about 20 miles or so.”
“You didn’t!” I gasped, horrified. “How is that even possible? How fast were you going?”“Oh, a good 60 miles an hour,” JB mused, not bragging, just narrowing his eyes in recollection, “The trouble was, we’d get going so fast, down a hill, that my bike would start runnin’ up under the truck, so I kept havin’ to push off from it, but, boy, we got goin’so fast that the speedometer on my bike kept windin’ round and round and then the whole thing busted off the handlebars!”
The nodding heads of those friends that sat around him during the filming all confirmed that this wasn’t a tall tale.
“When I saw that I was gonna run up under the truck, again, I swung real wide just as the truck started up the hill, and the driver saw me out of his mirror and, boy, he pulled that thing over and come after me, pulling his belt from his pants, fixing to tear me up!”
There was so much more to hear, from his bootlegging days to his own racing career to his long and loving marriage to wife, Willavene, as well as his devoted friendship with legendary racer, Tim Flock, for whom he led the funeral procession.
“When they start shovelin’ the dirt on my grave, JB,” Tim had asked of his friend when gravely ill, “I want you next to the grave, in my car, revvin’ the engine.”
“And that’s what we done, “JB said, softly. “That’s what we done.”
JB has left us now and all I can think is that this year, the “Racers Reunion” that he hosted annually at his Riverbend Old Stockcar Museum, in Easley, S.C., will be held somewhere the rest of us aren’t privy to.
But I can just imagine the laughter and stories being shared between JB, the Fabulous Flocks, Fireball, Ed Samples and Louise Smith.
And I’ve heard enough about Tim, during his wild glory days, to make me issue a bemused warning…
Ya’ll mind yourself, you hear?