Roy Exum: The Great Suitcase Prank

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

Mikie has been a riverman all his life. He has grown up on the Tennessee River and has hunted, trapped and fished the banks around Chattanooga for almost 70 years. He knows more about nature’s birds and animals, its flowers and its trees, than any college instructor that there was and we need to throw in that he’s a crack shot with both a rifle and pistol, too.

But he also has “an evil twin within” who loves the first day of April more than any other day of the year and it was on a day like today many years ago when he pulled what might have been the greatest prank of all time. You wouldn’t think it from looking at him but there are five guys who’ll never forget one evening on Market Street.

Some say Mikie enhanced his meager income many years back as the wheelman for some moonshine distillers in the north end of the county but he’s never talked about it. Instead he told me with his own lips about the time he found a magnificent bobcat in one of his traps and tried his hardest for nearly a year to turn the terrifying creature into a domestic pet.

Mikie’s bobcat – some call them a lynx – was a magnificent specimen and a far cry from an ordinary house cat. His weighed over 30 pounds and stood over two feet tall at the shoulders. Its body was about three feet long (not including the bob of a tail) but the thing had a horrible disposition, attacking anything that came in its path. Mikie’s wore a heavy collar and a sizeable chain and while the cat stayed in an old dog house, Mikie could never get close enough to nurture any kind of friendship. “Meanest one thing I ever saw!”

After about nine months of chaos – even big dogs wouldn’t dare come near the tree where the thing was tied – Mike got four friends wearing thick coats and heavy gloves to help him throw a rug over the shrieking feline. Battling claws, fangs, spittle and vile hissing, the frantic men finally wrestled the crazed cat into a big Pullman suitcase. Mikie had bored some air holes into the ends of the heavy suitcase so the cat could breath and just before sundown he loaded the huge case in the back of his truck. The game was on.

This was over a quarter-century ago and things were different in Chattanooga. The best hotels in town were the Read House and the Hotel Patten yet there was another, almost where the Choo Choo now stands, that was reputed to be something of a cat house. Yes, different species perhaps but nonetheless Mikie’s destination.

Back then it was not uncommon to see luggage on the sidewalk outside a hotel. People still come and go but back then most people wouldn’t bother another’s belongings. Mike deposited the loaded suitcase about 50 yards from the front door so a bellman wouldn’t grab it and then drove his truck a block away where he could wait to see what might happen as the night wore on.

It just so happened that the Buick Motor Division, at the time, was making a huge car called an Electra 225. It was about three parking-spaces long and had a lot of flash. Even a used Two-Twenty-Five was in high demand by the slick rollers back in the day and the hip name for the car was aptly “A Deuce and a Quarter.” As Mikie watched, a bunch of men riding in one such shiny carriage spied the big suitcase sitting by the curb and slowly drove past as darkness descended.

Law, they could hardly miss it, a big yellow Pullman with two wide green stripes, but after about five minutes the big car made another pass, this time the men inside casing the street for a possible owner while speculating the errand suitcase was filled with dollars, diamonds, cognac, or cigarettes. Surely it held something a man could sell for some dough on “Big Nine,” which used to be the greatest street in the world when those big Buicks would vie for attention.

On the third pass the big Electra 225 glided to a stop at the sidewalk and a lanky guy about six-foot-six jumped from the back door, wrapped his hands around the luggage and shoved it towards the reaching hands in the back seat. As the “Deuce” eased back into traffic, Mikie’s truck fell in about three cars back because he knew things were gonna’ get testy in a big hurry.

The robbers got about two blocks but then, as they glided towards a green light at East Eleventh, the Deuce came to a screeching halt in the very center of Market Street. All four doors exploded open and grown men, screaming bad words and shouting for the Lord Almighty at the same time, went flying in as many directions as there are numbers on a clock. Oh, who but Mikie would have ever envisioned such a sight!

The opened suitcase came tumbling out and a grey blur – the bobcat – was last seen going about 60 miles an hour in a muscled sprint towards Cameron Hill and the river beyond. Obviously one of the men who had made the nab had greedily popped the latches in the dark of the big back seat and, from what Mikie could see, the clawing cat had made three or four split-second revolutions inside the car in the lengthy seconds it took to stop.

The headliner was hanging down and everybody inside was visibly bleeding from fearsome scratches and bite marks. The occupants approached the idling car with due caution, lest the monster’s brother or mother was still inside the darkened interior, and one even got down on all fours to make sure the thing wasn’t lurking under the car for one last bite.

The police arrived and no one could explain what happened, where the suitcase came from, or how it got inside the Deuce and a Quarter. So everybody was ordered to move on and traffic was soon untangled. Mikie still laughs about it and says the morale of the story isn’t just to stay away from bobcats or another person’s belongings.

“Don’t fool with nature. A man ain’t designed to open a strange suitcase.”

And that goes double on April Fool’s Day

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