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Remember when: Count Darling, Albert Rankin, and how ‘Bear’ got back to ‘Bama

Been savin’ this story for the week of what has been traditionally called “The Iron Bowl.” It’s an old story and one that was told to G. Sidney Waits, Jr. by his growing up friend and neighbor on Three Notch. The young Count Darling moved away to Michigan years ago, but now in his golden retirement years down in Florida, he wishes he was back home in dear old Andy! When these two get together several times a year, they come up with the wildest remembrances. It seems that a number of Andalusia families had cottages and coastal homes in Mary Esther, Florida on the Santa Rosa Sound. The Waits and the Darlings were two of these families. Some of these families in addition to Waits and Darling were Scherf, Barnes, Moates, Bass, Wallace, and Tipler. There is even an Andalusia Drive in Mary Esther.

This tale originated in that geographical place on the coast where the barges blow their fog horns at night in passing; where the buzz of motor boats is so relaxing; where many young people first learn to water ski and swim there in the sand bars; where one can fish with cane poles from the docks; where the scent of bay leaves can tell one blindfolded where he has arrived just getting out of the car and taking a deep breath of that medicinal salt air; where breezes float and swirl along the shoreline and through the front screened porches; where crabs hiding in the seaweed pinch the feet of the waders using their crab nets; where weekend visits just drift away the toils and troubles of the vacationers.

Count Darling recalled, “Our family had a cottage down in Mary Esther just a couple of miles west of Fort Walton. The Spigners, a family from Tuscaloosa, owned the house next door, and their son Skipper and I were inseparable every summer. My mother and I would come down from Andalusia the day school was out where we stayed until Labor Day when school began again. My dad would go home early Monday morning, come back Wednesday night, return to his car dealership in Andalusia Friday morning, and come back late Saturday afternoon. This was how my summers went until I was 15, and it was time to get a summer job.”

   “The summer of 1947 was like all of the ones before. Skipper and I spent each day swimming, running up and down Santa Rosa Sound in one of the outboard motor boats. We’d fish or go exploring over on Santa Rosa Island or go to Buck’s Store for ice cream or down to Prior’s Store (also the Post Office) to pick up the mail.”

   “There were other boys our age up and down the Sound, and we’d hang out with them. Some night we’d get one of the parents to take us to town to the Tringas Theater for a movie. Or maybe we’d go floundering or sometimes sit on the dock and tell stories imagining wonderful adventures. We were very fortunate lads.”

   “One day Skipper came over with some bad news. His parents were expecting guests for the next week, and they had a daughter. More to the point, Skipper’s mother said that he and I were expected to entertain her and include her in whatever we would be doing. She was company, and we were instructed to be nice and make sure she had a good time. I don’t know what the connection was between the guests and the Spigners, but I’m sure glad they were friends!”

“The mother and daughter arrived Monday. Their name was Bryant. Late in the day, Skipper brought the ‘company’ over for me to meet. She was the cutest little brown-eyed brunette I had ever seen! Her name was Mae Martin, and I was smitten right away. By mid-week we were an item, holding hands during the movie and whenever we thought no one was looking! Two is company, and Skipper became the odd man out!”

“Friday, Mae Martin told me her papa was coming for the weekend, and she wanted me to meet him. Friday night after dinner, I went over to meet ‘Papa.’ To a 14-year old, he was as tall as a big oak tree, had hands twice the size of mine and feet that were size 12 or 13. His eyes were dark and serious and his voice deep and gravelly. It took all my courage not to bolt and run. I had no idea that my new sweetheart’s papa was an up and coming college football coach, Paul Bryant. He was the coach at the University of Kentucky and had been at Maryland before that. I’d never heard of him although I was an Alabama fan and my favorite college football player was Harry Gilmer, an All-American during the mid 1940s. Nevertheless, I was impressed and awed by this giant! He was larger than life then and every time I saw him after that.”

The cottage in Mary Esther, Florida

“When the Bryants left a day or so later, Mae Martin and I traded addresses with sad promises to keep in touch. There seemed little chance that our paths would cross again, however, for many years, we kept up a sporadic correspondence, and this is sort of the genesis of this tale.”

“I attended Georgia Military Academy my junior and senior high school years. This was a fine prep school with a terrific athletic program. We were a power in the Mid-South Conference and the school attracted many gifted athletes. I ‘went out’ for football but was more of a blocking and tackling dummy than a player. Maybe even the word ‘scrub’ is an overstatement. My roommate was a star tackle and later attended Annapolis and played there. Another friend was also very good. He wanted to go to Kentucky where their coach was Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant. I wrote Mae Martin and told her about both buddies and bravely suggested that she might ask ‘Papa’ to have one of their scouts attend one of our games. Surprise, surprise – both were interviewed and one got a scholarship and played for U. K.”

   “We continued to send Christmas cards and a few letters over the next several years. Through letters we had become good friends, often sharing the good things and bad things in our young lives. We talked about loves gained and loves lost; parents that didn’t get it: and the drudgery of school. I attended Sewanee and Alabama, got married, went off to the Army, and returned home to the family business in 1956 (the Count Darling Dealership).”

   “One day in 1957, a friend of mine, Albert Rankin, an Andalusia attorney who was at that time President of the University of Alabama National Alumni Association, called and asked if he could come by for a few minutes. Sure. I had no idea what was up. Albert sat back in the chair across from my desk and with a twinkle in his eye opened with a totally unexpected question.”

   “You were a good friend of Mae Martin Bryant, weren’t you?”

“Well, yeah, a lot of years ago. Haven’t heard from her since I got married though.”

“How well did you know Coach Bryant?”

“Only met him once when I was 14 – down in Fort Walton. He may or may not remember me. I was just a friend of Mae Martin and her mom, too, who was from Troy and who had connections with my mother and dad. Why do you ask?”

“Do you think Coach Bryant would leave Texas A & M and come to Alabama?”

“Yes, I do.”

“How can you say that? You haven’t been in touch with Mae Martin since they were at Kentucky, and he is having a very successful time at A & M. What makes you think he will come?”

“Several times while they were at Kentucky, probably in an answer to a question from me while I was at the University of Alabama, Mae Martin had said that ‘Papa’ says that when Mama calls, he will come home.”

“So, based on what she said, you think he would come? You sound mighty sure!”

“I can’t tell you any more than that. I think he will come because Mae Martin used those words: he will come home when Mama calls. Yeah, he’ll come!”

“I can’t explain why I was so cocksure with Albert. I had not given this any thought but somehow I said it like I had talked with Mae Martin yesterday. Of course at that moment, I hadn’t a clue why he was asking me even though Alabama had only won five games in the past three seasons and they were searching for a new coach.”

   “’Okay,’ sez he, ‘based on our conversation, I’m going back to my office and call Mel Allen (then the Voice of the Yankees and classmate of Coach Bryant when he played and coached as a graduate assistant at Alabama), and he is going to get on a plane and fly to College Station and offer Coach Bryant the job of head football coach. And let me tell you this, if he doesn’t take it, I’ll be in serious trouble with the U of A Alumni Association!’”

   “Thank goodness he heard Mama calling and took the job! The years he was at the University of Alabama were exciting. He gave us something to cheer about. He cast a very long shadow across the entire state, even over at Auburn. My family and I ended up moving to Birmingham where Mae Martin and her family also live. We didn’t see a lot of each other, but when we did, we had a great time. I shared with her this story and just between the two of us, we decided that we deserved the credit for Mama calling the Bear home! I think he would have gotten a big kick out of this!”

   Folded neatly and tucked in my office desk is a copy of a WSFA Channel 12 Bob Ingram editorial from the fall of 1987. Through the years, I have shared this especially with newcomers to Covington County. The title is “SOME ADVICE TO NEWCOMERS.” Here is that editorial. It is still true 30+ years later.

   “We feel it’s our duty tonight to address a few remarks to you newcomers to our state. Something very strange is about to occur in Alabama. To those of us who are natives, it’s not strange at all, but it may come as a shock to you recent arrivals. What we speak of is the advent of the college football season. We know that football is played in other states, but it’s only a game in those places. In Alabama, it’s a way of life. From now until the final AP and UPI polls are released in January, football is the only way of life. Social events, marriages…yes, even funerals will be scheduled so as not to conflict with an Alabama or Auburn game.”

“And what happens, you ask, if a woman goes into labor only minutes before the kick-off of a big game? That simply isn’t done. Alabama women-folk are taught to grin and not bear it until after the game!”

Telephone calls or visits during the telecast or broadcast of games are expressly prohibited. The only exception to this rule are death messages, but only if the deceased is a member of the immediate family.”

“Another thing you need to know. You have got to take sides …you must be for the Tigers or the Tide. We don’t cotton to folks who say they’re for both teams. Even the scripture says you can’t serve two masters…You’ve got to love one and hate the other. And don’t be misled by those among us who say they are for one team but hope the other team wins every game but one. There’s one word to describe them: liars! In the closet, they hope that their guys will go 12-and-0 and your guys go 0-and-12.”

“Perhaps the best advice we can give you newcomers is this—pick the team you will be for…be absolutely obnoxious in supporting them…and by the end of the season, you might well be mistaken for a native Alabamian! And that’s the way we see it tonight.”

Do you Remember When things were any different? I don’t! Today’s the day. Put your team t-shirt and jeans on early. Get your chicken wings, your chips and dip, your sandwiches, your cheese ball, your meat balls ready – then when the pre-game radio shows come on, take you landline phone off the hook, turn off your cell phone, get comfortable with your team shaker in hand, and be prepared to place that black ribbon on your rival’s mailbox or have one placed on yours at the conclusion of the big game! All in fun, of course. Here’s a big wave from me to you in T-town!

Sue Bass Wilson, AHS Class of 1965, is a local real estate broker and long-time member of the Covington Historical Society. She can be reached at suebwilson47@gmail.com.