Tuesday, May 26, 2009

THE LONNIE WOODUM STORY

ODE TO JIGGS
The Lonnie Woodum Story

Fifty five years is a long time. But Bob Evans hasn't forgotten his best friend. He can't. Hardly a day goes by that Bob doesn't remember the good times in the Brooklyn neighborhood and at Washington Street School. Those places are all but gone now, but Evans still remembers the days when 'Jiggs" Woodum was a young boy, free of all care, running like the wind, with his whole life in front of him. Little did either of the young men realize that Jigg's life would soon end in the second worst non battle naval disaster in American history.

Lonnie Gene "Jiggs" Woodum was born to his biological mother, Miss Mary Thomas. Miss Mary was a well-built attractive woman with a beautiful bronze complexion," Evans remembered. Mrs. Gussie Woodum raised Lonnie as her own son and gave him her name. Evans recalled that Mrs. Woodum was a strong mother figure to the boys and girls in the neighborhood. Mrs. Gussie, when she wasn't working in her restaurant on South Jefferson Street next to the Express Office, kept the neighborhood kids in line. "Often he and I would fight," Bob remembered, "and she would let us," Evans said. Bob usually came out on the short end of the stick after the pugilistic playing was over.

Just how Lonnie came to be known as "Jiggs," is unknown even to his best friend Bob. It could have come from the comic book strip, Maggie & Jiggs, or maybe it was just one of those names that kids make up. The nickname stuck and Jiggs quickly became a legend around Washington Street School and in Brooklyn, the name for a neighborhood bounded on the west by South Jefferson Street and Rowe Street and Belfry and Gray streets on the east. He was strong and fast. He could outrun any kid in Brooklyn.

The inseparable Jiggs and Bob played with their close buddies Curtis Kinsey, Douglas Williams, and Ernest Smith, all of whom were separated by five months in age. They played basketball together when they could find a goal. They played football together, except for Curtis and Douglas who played for Washington Street School, the forerunner of Oconee High School.

As Jiggs began to grow, Evans noticed that Jiggs was a fully developed with sprinters' legs, a small waistline, and large muscular thighs which went along with his strong upper body frame. "Jiggs was born with speed," Bob recalled. His coaches noticed. And, Jiggs was invited to join the football team at Washington Street in 1950. Although he was only a second-string halfback, the young Jiggs often played with the junior and senior starters. Not only a talented football player, Jiggs possessed a powerful pitching arm to compliment his blazing speed on the baseball diamond. Evans, the Oconee High School Historian, rates Woodum as one the three fastest athletes in the history of both Washington Street and Oconee High Schools.

In 1951, Jiggs, rotating in and out with the other halfbacks, helped his team to win the championship. His last season for the Oconee Trojans came in 1952 when he started at halfback. Jiggs often mentored Evans and other young players by giving them constructive criticism and suggesting better ways to carry out their assignments. But Jiggs wasn't just all about football. He liked to play jokes when he got the chance on his fellow teammates.

Sometime shortly after his eighteenth birthday, Jiggs enlisted in the United States Navy. His country still at war, Jiggs wanted to do his part. Bob Evans remembered Jiggs coming home after a Mediterranean cruise aboard the U.S.S. Bennington. "He brought me some exotic cologne and two terry cloth shirts with a printed photo of the aircraft carrier," Evans fondly recalled. "He jokingly told me that the cologne would really attract the girls, which it actually did," his old friend said. Jiggs, possibly in hopes that Bob would join the Navy too, told him about the military life, its benefits and the pleasures of travel. Today, Bob Evans remains proud of Jiggs, the sailor, the American patriot.

Jiggs was assigned to duty as a TA aboard the Bennington, a World War II Essex style carrier. The Bennington had been assigned to duties in the Mediterranean Theater, where American military presence was still necessary in post war Europe and with the emerging troubles in the Middle East.

It was a average morning on May 26, 1954. The crew of the Bennington was beginning to go about their duty of conducting flight trials from the carrier deck. At 0611 hours, a series of explosions racked the forward third of the ship. Total terror ensued. Many of the men aboard were just waking up from a good night's sleep. It was not a drill. Richard Pope remembered a black man, possibly Jiggs, coming down the ladder to sick bay. Completely naked, his clothes burned off his body, the man begged Pope to go and help his buddy. Those were his last words. He died in the arms of the operating room corpsman. "In my mind, he was a hero. Whether he ever received a medal, I can't say, he was not easy to identify," Pope recalled in 1992.

When the final casualty counts were taken, one hundred and four men, including Jiggs were dead. One hundred and thirty-nine others were injured, and some suffering terrible burns over their entire bodies. Jigg's body was brought home and buried beside that of his adopted mother, Mrs. Gussie, in Dudley Cemetery in Dublin.

But Jiggs wasn't just a athlete or a sailor. He was a singer. Jiggs sung the tenor parts in the Oconee High School choir, which won many competitions during those years.

Jiggs sung the tenor parts in the Oconee High School choir, which won many competitions during those years.

Not every graduate of Oconee High School knew Lonnie "Jiggs" Woodum. But, they do know his words. Jigg's lyrics were selected to become the words for the Oconee High School alma mater; "School of love and charity, we lift our voice in praise to thee. And in our heart you are the best, we'll always love you O.H.S.. So I'll fight and win what 'er the battle be. The blue and gold thy sons shall 'er defend. And loyal to the voice of love attend,
Oconee, Oconee, Oconee, I love you."

Lonnie Woodum's non combative accidental death was none the less brave, none the less tragic. Jiggs was a victim of a war, the Cold War. And, because we were robbed of his friendship and his talents, we were victims as well. So, on this Memorial Day, let us remember Jiggs and the hundreds of other Laurens Countians who have given their lives so that we can be free.

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