An American Legend

Monday, June 06, 2011 Road Junkies 1 Comments

JACKSON, Alabama — The year was 1931.  The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression with unemployment soaring over 16%.  For those fortunate enough to be employed, the average annual wage was $1,850.  A loaf of bread cost 8 cents, and gas sold for 10 cents per gallon.  Federal spending for the year totaled $3.6 billion.

Amidst the economic woes, the government took a bite out of crime, convicting Scarface Al Capone and sending him to Alcatraz prison for tax evasion in 1931.  The Star-Spangled Banner became the official American national anthem, and the Empire State Building was completed.  And on June 6, in Millry, Alabama, a boy child was born.  He was named Joseph, after his father.

Joseph was destined to face some challenges in his life, which tested his mettle and forged an American success story.  When he was just two days old, the family home was destroyed by fire.  As the smoke cleared, baby Joseph rose from the ashes like a phoenix, but not before saving his parents and his two big sisters.  From that day, he was known as Smokey Joe, a nickname that would follow him for many years.

When he was a mere slip of a lad, Smokey Joe was walking down to the pond on the family farm.  His older sisters were swimming there and he planned to join them.  As he drew near, Joe heard nine-year-old Claire yelling, "Help!  Help!  A snake is going to get Sylvia!"  Joe saw a deadly water moccasin swimming toward his sister, who was tiring and about to be caught.  Without hesitation, Smokey Joe dived into the pond like a bullet, slicing into the water between Sylvia and the moccasin.  He grabbed that snake by the neck and gave it a good talking to, making it promise never to go after people ever again.  Then he tied it in a square knot and tossed it back into the water.

Smokey Joe had a way with animals.  He taught Ring, the family dog, to speak three languages.  One day when Joe was about 8 years old, he was walking in the forest near the family farm when he came across two wild horses snorting and bucking and pawing the ground.  After Joe whispered to them, they walked to him and bowed their heads before him.  He named them Red and Pinto and took them home to help his father on the farm.

Another animal who loved Smokey Joe was an old red milk cow named May.  During a thunderstorm one day, May was pushing her head through a fence to eat the greener grass on the other side when a loud clap of thunder caused her to recoil.  When she did, May's side was torn open by barbed wire.  Smokey Joe was splashing through some especially muddy puddles nearby when he heard the cow lowing.  Following the sound, he found her lying on the ground with her lifeblood pouring out.  Knowing he had to act fast, Joe used the only tool he could find.  He grabbed a bolt of lightning as it streaked to the ground and cauterized the cow's injury.  From that day on, May had a white streak down her side that had an uncanny resemblance to a lightning bolt.  And she was always loyal to Joe, following him around and nuzzling him every time she had an opportunity.

For his Eagle Scout project at age 11, Smokey Joe wanted to provide access to electricity for his family and their neighbors.  He devised a rural electric cooperative, obtaining a $5 fee from each farm family, making them members and owners of the co-op, and generating the capital needed to qualify for a loan. While he was raising the money, he designed a grid of transmission lines to transport electricity to 98% of farms in the state of Alabama.  This model he organized was replicated in other rural areas all over the country.  Later that same year, he invented a kidney dialysis machine for his fifth grade science fair project, an experiment made possible by the new electrical lines.

By the age of 18, Smokey Joe had obtained his master's degree in engineering.  Because of his ingenuity and innovation in all aspects of the electrification project and many subsequent endeavors, he was highly sought by multiple large corporations.  Edison Laboratories offered him $150,000 a year, more than Thomas Edison himself was earning.  But Joe loved his country and decided to serve in the military, turning down all the lucrative offers and joining the Army.  With his skill and reputation with animals, the cavalry badly wanted him in their ranks, but the secretary of defense insisted that the Corps of Engineers needed Joe's services more.  In his 26-year career with the Corps, Joe had many secret advisory sessions with U.S. presidents, all of whom called him by his childhood nickname, Smokey Joe.

Of his many accomplishments in the Army, perhaps the greatest occurred when he recognized that the military serving in various posts around the world needed access to the same information as well as an easy way to communicate.  He reflected back to his old Eagle Scout project and conceived a collection of networks sharing information at the local level and connected by an inter-networking protocol.  His design of this system, which later became known simply as inter-net, revolutionized communication not only for the military but eventually throughout society.  Years later, a private from Tennessee who worked in the mess hall and often delivered meals to Joe as he worked on this project late into the night falsely claimed that he had developed the internet himself.

Though this recounting of my Uncle Joe's life may be just a bit exaggerated, he has often seemed larger than life to me.  An affable nature coupled with a savoir-faire born of his expansive experiences lend him an air of sophistication not often associated with Alabama.  Full of humor and spurred by a zest for life, he continues to travel the world in search of new experiences.  With his wife Eleanor, he is often traveling and learning, as he calls it, and we all would do well to emulate his enthusiasm for the unexplored.

Pam, Uncle Joe, & Alison

When Pam and Alison, his wonderful daughters, sent out the invitation to help celebrate Uncle Joe's 80th birthday in Jackson this past weekend, there was no doubt we would be there. Who could miss out on a chance to celebrate a family legend?  Happy 80th Birthday, Uncle Joe!  We hope you continue grabbing the gusto and inspiring us all to enjoy life to the fullest.