Roy Exum: Swimming With Jim Morgan

Monday, January 21, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I’ve never talked much about this – it is too close to bragging – but in my teenaged years I was a good swimmer. I loved being in the water and maybe the greatest compliment back in the day was when new UT swimming coach Ray Bussard offered me a ‘full ride’ with the Vols. Are you kidding me … by then I was into tobacco, alcohol, convertibles, and girls in angora sweaters - there was no way I wanted anything to do with two-a-day practices under an absolute tyrant.

When I aged-out of the Chattanooga Swim League, I still adored the water and, by hook and circumstance, I got in with the Red Cross (Lowell Bennington) and zipped straight up the ladder teaching lifesaving. I was a water safety instructor, an instructor of water safety programs, and soon I had a bunch more designations. I promise, I loved it.

Understand, this is about 50 years ago. The new Orange Grove had just opened on Derby Street. It had a swimming pool and I was lucky enough to teach life-saving to the Orange Grove PE faculty. They were required to take part, but Lloyd Ray Smith helped me make it the funniest, most heartwarming, and successful class I ever taught.

UTC had a great pool in the Maclellan Gym building, and I certified a bunch of WSIs there. Of course, I had known Jim Morgan from years before and the UTC physical education staff was a scream ... are you kidding me, Warren Averitt and Roy Stinnett in the same deep end! Lordy, pass the oxygen.

About the same time, I was rising up the bubble in the new Free Press sports department. Winter in a sports department is awful. If you don’t have a ‘hot’ basketball team there isn’t much to make you scratch. Out of default, I began to cover Coach Morgan’s wrestling Mocs. Understand, I was their same age and I loved them each and every one.

I remembered so many from high school ... Randy Faires, Jim Glasser, Billy Burnside, Buddy Martin, Steve Highlander, Mike Craft, and oh you Turner Jackson, you! There were others who won matches by one point or made weight under a half-pound that gave me ulcers but Jim Morgan was the glue between the pages. He was also among my very best friends, on the short list of people in sports I have most admired and – best of all – he coached me for years in the art of life.

Jim died last week. He hadn’t been much the same after Sis passed and, of course, when his son James David died way too early, a huge chunk of Jim went missing. He didn’t talk much about his early years growing up in Ducktown, but claimed a scholarship to McCallie saved his life, which most certainly was not true. Jim could have been anything he wanted to be with his tenacity, his character, and his bless-ed being.

But rather than become an admiral in the Navy, a money tycoon in New York, or a cattle baron in Montana, he chose coaching wrestling to the luckiest kids ever and once he schooled them in character, tenacity and being all they could be, each and every one was a guaranteed winner both on and off the mat. This isn’t any smoke. I watched it. I saw it. When the UTC wrestling team showed up, they never brought a “gimme.” They’d simply beat your brains out.

A lot of times, and this was long ago, Jim and I would get together with athletic trainer Sandy Sandlin, maybe the most legendary of any at 615 McCallie Ave. other than Scrappy, and we would walk down to the small cafeteria at Campbell’s Clinic for the best table conversations ever. When I got word Jim had died, I instantly thought of Sandy and how wonderful it will be when Jim and Sandy let somebody like Billy Sunday, Babe Ruth, or Amelia Earhart sit at my place at the table … don’t worry, my seat is saved, as Sandy used to cackle, “it’s your soul we are worried about!”

I remember one year, sometime in early spring a half century ago, I got a phone call from Red Cross headquarters, Washington or wherever. It seemed the Department of Defense had asked the Red Cross about teaching some heroes from the Viet Nam battlefields who were missing limbs. I had precious little experience, outside of a workshop weekend the summer before, but they were more interested in me because I was the same age as the wounded soldiers and had a reputation for laughing a lot.

The plan was to do six two-week camps around the country. A lot of it was motivational and there was a prosthetic team from Fort Hood who could adapt anything. The closest to me was Black Mountain, N.C., and I told the coordinator I had taught advanced water safety to the best motivator on the planet, a college wrestling coach.

By the time the dust cleared I was down for two weeks in Black Mountain, a long weekend at College Park, Md., and another in Shreveport. But on the Black Mountain faculty was James Weldon Morgan and, because it was a Department of Defense deal, the stipend was generous.

So off we got to Black Mountain … having no idea what to expect. Jim and I always talked about it being the best experience ever. The soldiers were upbeat, kidded one another unmercifully and would try anything – that first week I had to go deep to pull some guy up. Usually not being able to breathe is horribly traumatic … to these soldiers it was all part of the fun. As Jim Morgan later said, “If I could harness these guys’ guts, we’d win every match!”

I can’t recall the exact place where we were, but I’ll never forget there was a pair of huge Newfoundland dogs. A Newfoundland, (think big St. Bernard)  has a built-in instinct that every person in the water is drowning. The dogs, mighty swimmers, will tightly circle until you grab the hair of its coat, then the dog beelines to the shore.

One of the first mornings I was explaining the dogs’ instinct and this fun-loving sergeant from the Midwest quips, “That let’s me out … my hands are gone.” I immediately retort, “You still got your teeth, Cap’n Courageous … get a deathly case of lockjaw on that canine and live for another day!” (By the second day everybody had a T-shirt, “You still got your teeth, Cap’ Courageous!”

Every night, about 30 minutes after all had settled down, Jim would whisper, “Let’s go… “ and the two of us would venture down a well-made trail to this little spring that bubbled up from the rocks. Jim would feel around for a bottle of libation and we’d fetch our hidden “unbreakable” cups. We talked a lot about philosophy and other matters. We talked far more in earnest about if we should have a third glass and it was uncommon how easily we could agree.

It was a wonderful interlude, a grand way to cap the day, until the first Friday.  I’d just lit my second Marlboro Red and Coach was pouring seconds when … “what was that!” I whispered back that I had no idea but that we have visitors. We never carried a flashlight because usually there was enough ambient light for us to make our way.

KA-bam! Whatever it was just killed a young tree. “We ought to ease out of here,” whispered coach but I differed. “The minute we move we’re made,” I whispered. “We ain’t got a gun, a spear, a 911 number but,” I raised a dripping rock, “we can stone anything … Let’s just be dead-dog still …  and, coach, if something really were to happen, we’d look real dumb to have two empty cups. Pour freely, my man!”

That’s when Jim gets tickled … and I saw the bear. “Ten o’clock. I’m thinking 250 – maybe 300,” I whisper. “Don’t see any cubs … that a good sign … but if that (expletive) is hungry, that’s a bad sign.” Morgan starts laugh and, lo and baked potatoes, here comes that thing straight towards us --- briars and sharp sticks not withstanding - and, man, the creature is in a sprint. “Coach, here’s the play. Just as he comes over the hill, we are gonna’ run to his roar, screaming and yelling. I once read an animal won’t eat anything crazy. Get ready!”

Morgan can’t stop laughing. He’s dysfunctional. My man has let his grip slip. He’s reaching hysteria and I’m hunting stones like the Biblical King David. We’re facing a man-eater and here we are, trying to pick rocks that look lethal. Makes no difference, the thing is on us. It crashes into me and Coach, he dives between me and the bear. And then, the greatest wrestling coach I have ever known, high school or college, utters a four-letter expletive that is beyond compare.

The beast whirls, pouncing on me, and – what! – oh my mercy!! It is one of the noble dogs that will save a drowning man’s life but Newfoundlands don’t know jack squat about terror resulting in heart attacks.  I told Jim, “Now I know why they are scientifically known as SOBs.”

Golly, to know that Jim Morgan and I have reminded each other for the last 50 years about being attacked by that bear is a true slice of my life. When the time comes for me to sit again with Jim and Sandy in a lunchtime cafeteria, I’ll still be able to recall a second-by-second attack of the bear. Priceless.

And Jim, that what’s called in life as pouring freely … for an entire lifetime, as I’ll attest, Jim Morgan has never failed to pour freely. Selah.

Jim Morgan
Jim Morgan
- photo by M.A. Locke

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