Roy Exum: ‘Hot Rod’ Has Passed

Wednesday, December 27, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

John Talley, famously known as ‘Hot Rod’ due to his “need for speed,” departed this planet in California last week. Due to declining health, the effervescent character – and he was every bit Technicolor -- never got to return to the Chattanooga he loved but he has pictured it and its people every single day for over 70 years. I grew up with John and, trust me, throughout his life he would run a tight race against anyone who claimed to know more people at any location he happened to be found. President Barack Obama himself granted John a personal executive pardon from the federal corrections system two years ago back after Betty York Headrick and George McKee organized a tremendous plea. But this isn’t about the unfair sentence, Hot Rod was the funniest, most upbeat and positive guy who ever walked the halls of The Howard School.

At his peak, ‘Hot Rod’ was a prized and highly-successful ambassador for Beasley Distributing, at the time the Budweiser representative in Chattanooga, this before the family sold it to the highly-regarded Hand family from Knoxville. But don’t fret, everybody at the home office in St. Louis knew him and the word was they named a Clydesdale after him – Hot Rod the horse was in the first brace and he, always on the right side, was the one that actually led the other seven horses on the team in huge parades all around the world. “That guy with the reins is for show … the horse ‘Hot Rob’ does the work!” Least ways that's what John claimed, even confiding the Dalmatian who barked atop the wagon was named “Tally-Ho,” this in further tribute. (Actually the dog was first named “Tally-Howard,” to give his Hustlin’ Tigers a nod, according to John, but the “ward” got cut off automatically by the name-tag machine – it was too long for the dog’s collar. Thus, it was “Tally—Ho!”)

‘Hot Rod’ was mentored in advanced retail techniques at Beasley by John Keene, Reuben Lawrence, “Mr. Walt,” and “Bird,” according to a brief history given by Allan ‘Oop’ Smith before his unfortunate demise several years ago. Oop said John was so successful in fighting off competitive beer brands in the market place that his reputation grew implausibly. Get this – John was soon recruited to become a somewhat clandestine pharmaceutical representative. It was a perfect fit. As he made his appointed rounds for Beasley, it was only natural that his secondary role as a manufacturer’s representative immediately flourished beyond his dreams.

While the name of his pharmaceutical company was never revealed and other reputed representatives did not return calls. (It was whispered they were Arabs and couldn’t speak English.) No matter – cash talks. It was further believed at the time Talley offered the highest-grade kilos of cocaine in the history of Tennessee, 34 other states, six foreign counties and one Commonwealth. Please, John would never dabble in the stuff himself but realized the opportunity … “the want in so many of my friend’s faces” …and the lucre of huge cash tempted him worse than the Biblical Delilah. When it was discovered he had no license nor permission nor business selling the white powder, he was marched before a cold court that manipulated and allowed a three-strikes-you’re-out sentence on an unchallenged guilty plea!

Forget that Hot Rod never carried a gun, readily admitted his guilt to avoid a trial, that he never ‘kilt’ a soul, and couldn’t talk to any Arab if he wanted to. He served a longer term than most convicted murderers. Our justice department now understands that the heavy sentencing was wrong but Hot Rod, a decorated Viet Nam veteran, was interred by his country for 29 years before President Obama personally pardoned Talley during his final year in office. (Today the same caper might settle for 28 months.)

John grew up on Lookout Mountain and began his career in the hospitality venue at the age of 12. Under the direction of the pioneering restaurateur Jimmy Dodd, he began peeling potatoes but within two weeks he was cooking European cuisine, which you and I know to be French fries. His dramatic climb was interrupted by the Viet Nam War and he was inducted into the Army, this at the bequest of his “friends and neighbors,” who taught the future beer sales ace about a far different kind of draft.

Everybody assumed John would spend the war in a mess tent – his hamburgers were that wonderful. But the keen-eyed Army officers immediately latched on to his jovial spirit, his lust for friendly camaraderie, and his ability to overcome his childhood shyness. I’m telling you, John Talley could talk himself into anything and out of nothing. In less than 48 hours after he had zipped through basic and advanced training, his feet were walking in the dust of Viet Nam. Convincing his Army superiors that he was a dauntless warrior and patriot, two officers called him out of the ranks, placed him in a Jeep, and off to the helicopter pads they rode.

“Yep, sure can … I can fly choppers! Anything that goes fast is my game,” he said after being whispered by a confederate, “Pull the stick back, you go up. Push it forward you go down. Stir it side to side and you go round and around.” John replied, “No problem there … I’ve seen too many games won by Chubby James to know that’s it!”

He was immediately assigned to a medical evacuation unit but they had all of the pilots they needed. John was instead issued a .50-caliber machine gun and told, “The starboard door is your new kingdom.” He promptly accepted the position and, in a very true and real way, his bravery and buoyant approach at life saved countless American lives. This is no joke … I’ve held the medals (although the one that says on the back -- Bronx 400-dash champ, 1956 -- is a bit suspect.)

As the Evac chopper would near its point of extract, the heroic Talley would open the starboard door of the helicopter and then, sitting in a high perch so that the wounded could be loaded below his cover fire, Talley would lay down a wall of intense 50-caliber resistance. He would drape at least two belts of .50 caliber ammo around his neck and would often brandish his sidearm if he ran out of the bigger bullets. Understand, when the Evac chopper arrived, John was sometimes the only friendly fire available and, oh, our boy could dish it out faster than a short-order cook!

What you don’t realize is when the descending bird would hover just a few feet off the ground, the eyes of every enemy combatant would be drawn to the machine gunner in the starboard door. Due to the roar of the chopper and the heavy wash of the rotors, the duly roped-in Talley would fire back at anything that flashed. Seconds after the chopper would lift, John abandoned his weapon and, unasked, became a medic’s aide, hear “Last Rites” with tears pouring down his face, and witnessed the savagery of war in a way only we can imagine.

When he got back home, his friends remembered he’d never talk much about it, the medals he had quietly stowed away. One reason he never mentioned it was because he was jabbering and laughing about other stuff – his war experiences never had a chance. Bob Beasley picked John up the day he got home but instead of returning to the beer-route truck, his executive life began. He was an account representative and wrote more orders than Trump has in his first year.

Sometimes he would walk in a crowded bar and scream at the barkeep, “Give everybody in here whatever it is they are drinking ‘on the house’ but make sure each knows it is courtesy of Budweiser!” Oh, he was a marketing savant.

His sudden success is what is believed to have caused the cocaine interlude and choked away his eventual run for Mayor. He soon commandeered every federal prison he would call home and, towards the end, he had surgery for cancer, got his knees replaced, had his heart rebuilt and a lot of other repairs. Reuben Lawrence claims Obama’s signature only helped get him released. “The truth is the government couldn’t afford his medical bills. Hot Rod wasn’t bashful about getting his parts fixed.”

What’s more, when he finally walked free he had almost 30 years of deferred Social Security, GI benefits and said over the long-distance line he figured he was the 33rd wealthiest man in California. He strongly considered trying to buy the San Francisco 49ers. But he would have paid every penny he had just to be able to ride down Watauga Lane on Lookout Mountain on his bicycle and kick it into a slide-stop where Massey’s once stood.

We must never judge Hot Rod on the fact his pharmaceutical venture went south. Instead remember him laying down heavy fire so our wounded would live another day. Think of him slipping his brother’s blood on the metal floor of that rolling helicopter as he tried to hold a bag of plasma high. John did far more for our country in Viet Nam than our country did by trying to lock him away for too long a time. Ever since he got out, he was in constant contact with the crowd at Bear’s Barber Shop and they’ll tell you they’ve never heard him so happy. No complaints, no regrets.

But me, I will always remember the nights at the Imperial Drive-In down South Market, listening to ‘Hot Rod’ laugh and carry on with the likes of Big John Isbell. We’d sit in the corner with our quarts of Falstaff as Chattanooga’s own Impressions would sing of happy times on the juke box. Those nights were so rich and, hey, it was five plays for a quarter.

* * *

A Memorial Service will be held for John Talley by his extended and much-beloved Chattanooga family this Friday at the John P. Franklin Funeral Home, located at 1101 Dodds Ave., 423 622-9995. Anyone needing further information is invited to contact his dear friend, Vicki Mathis, at Don’t send flowers, you bring them…. You can fake that you care; you cannot fake showing up.

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