Tellico Plains, Tenn. - Charles Moulden didn’t hear the sound at first. That comes later, he explained; it takes a second or two for your subconscious to process what just happened.
For the moment, all he knew was (1) he was face-first in the gravel of a narrow road alongside Tellico River and (2) his left thigh was stinging intensely.
“It was like a mad hornet on steroids,” Moulden related a few days ago as he strode the same roadway, now paved with asphalt.
“I thought I must have gotten into some bees. I pushed myself back up on my feet and looked down at my leg. I thought I’d find some kind of huge stinger poking out.”
All Moulden saw was a hole in his pants. He squeezed the flesh beneath it. Instead of a stinger, out came a trickle of blood. Immediately, excruciating pain erupted in the back of his leg.
“That’s when I looked up and saw him again,” Moulden continues, gesturing toward a small rise in the bend of the road up ahead.
“He had stepped out from behind the bush. His arms were straight down by his side. Then he raised one arm, and I saw the pistol.”
Moulden makes a circle with his fingertips.
“Man, the end of that thing looked like it was three inches wide.
“He aimed directly at me. I shut my eyes and grimaced.”
This time, Moulden heard the gun’s report. Forty-six years after the fact, he considers that a good omen:
“If you hear the ‘pow,’ it means you didn’t get hit. By the time the sound gets there, the bullet is long gone.”
IT WAS WEDNESDAY, April 10, 1968, and the news was riveting.
One day earlier in Atlanta, 150,000 marchers followed a mule-drawn wagon carrying the casket of Martin Luther King Jr. to a service at Morehead College, shortly after his funeral at Ebenezer Baptist Church.
In Memphis and throughout the U.S., teams of investigators were sorting through tips — some intentionally misleading, as it turned out — in their frantic search for the gunman who had assassinated the civil-rights leader six days earlier.
In Chattanooga, a curfew was in effect after looting broke out following an MLK memorial service.
In the highlands of East Tennessee, however, the mood was a bit more festive, despite gray skies and sporadic showers. It was the long-awaited opening day of trout season.
Moulden, a 24-year-old brick mason from Sevierville, was among the army of anglers who turned out.
A few of these sportsmen deployed fly rods and tiny, hand-tied insect imitations in hopes of catching rainbow, brown and brook trout. The vast majority, like Moulden, used spinning equipment and an array of “live bait” — everything from nightcrawlers to doughballs to the ever-popular yellow kernels of canned corn.
Yet there was one major difference between Moulden and the other fishermen. A difference that transcended equipment and tactics. A societal difference that mattered greatly in those not-so-good old days.
He was black.
“I’D BEEN FISHING ALL MY LIFE,” says Moulden, now 70, an Oak Ridge resident and site superintendent for Summit Contractors in Knoxville. “Douglas Lake, Cherokee Lake, I was all over them. But I never had fished for trout.”
He pauses to chuckle and shake his head. “When they told me you could catch trout on corn, I was like, ‘Aw, c’mon!’ But Bill, ‘Arvilee’ and Leroy insisted it worked. They invited me to come along with them that morning.”
That would be Bill Williams, Arvil Lee Parton and his son Leroy.
Arvil ran a masonry and concrete-finishing business in Sevier County and often sought Moulden’s skills. Williams and the Partons were white but saw nothing unusual about including a black friend on the trip.
Particularly if that friend was Charles Moulden — born, raised and widely known by folks of all races throughout Sevier County.
By the standards of that era, of course, such mingling ceased at the schoolhouse door.
Moulden and his five siblings attended the all-black Pleasant View Elementary School in Sevierville. At the ninth grade, their only educational option — and that of most black students throughout the region — was to be driven into Knoxville to the all-black Vine Junior and Austin High schools.
That changed for Moulden in the fall of 1963, aided and abetted by the fact he was a gifted athlete.
In his senior year, he was in the first group of black students to enroll in Sevier County High School. As a quick, muscular Smoky Bears running back, he also was the first black athlete to play football in the old Knoxville Interscholastic League. Moulden was popular with classmates, graduating in 1964 along with a blond bouffant country music singer — another Parton, this one named Dolly.
“I never really thought anything about going fishing with white guys,” he says.
“I already had a fishing license, but I went to Carl Owenby’s hardware store in Sevierville to buy a trout stamp. On the way down to Tellico, we stopped somewhere to buy a daily permit. I remember it cost one dollar.”
Moulden doesn’t recall much else about his inaugural trip into the rugged Monroe County mountains. Not because of mental erosion during the intervening years. He simply never had a chance to see the landscape:
“Me and one of the other boys rode in the bed of Arvilee’s pickup truck. He had a camper shell on it. It didn’t have any windows, except one in the very back. Arvilee had busted up a couple of bales of straw in there, so me and whoever else it was slept most of the way.
“It wasn’t until 2010, when I rode with some friends to Tellico Plains on our motorcycles, that I even knew how to get there. I had to look it up on a map.”
THE FOURSOME ATTRACTED some unwanted attention from the start.
“It was still early, and me and Charlie were walkin’ down the road, goin’ from one pool to another,” says Leroy Parton, now 66, who still lives in Sevierville.
“This old white man walked up to us. I’ll never forget the look on his face. He had a long, white beard that must have gone to his waist. He looked at us and said, ‘You’re gonna have to git outta these mountains!’
“He glanced over at me and said: ‘Not you! Him!’ He pointed to Charlie, and then he stomped off.
“I said, ‘Charlie, what are you gonna do?’
“He shrugged, ‘Why, I’m goin’ fishin.’ ”
Even today, the mood of that unsettling moment is fresh on Leroy Parton’s mind: “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, these people down here must even hate their own mothers!’ ”
It took Moulden awhile to get the hang of drifting his bait through moving water instead of casting into the placid environs of a reservoir. Soon enough, though, everything clicked.
“I caught a couple of little ‘cigar’ trout and threw ’em back,” he says. “Then I realized I’d do better if I fished in the slow, deep holes instead of the rapids. I caught four good trout real quick.
“I had just come up out of the river and was walking down the road to find another place to fish. That’s when he drove up.”
The car that approached was a black, early-1950s model Chevrolet, Moulden recalls. It may have had some green paint on the fender or hood. But he has vivid recall of what transpired between him and the driver.
“He came all the way across the road and brushed my leg with his fender. He revved the engine real loud. Then he started cussing me. It was ‘nigger this’ and ‘nigger that.’ ”
Moulden felt an immediate flush of rage. Instinctively, his fists began to clench. In another place, he might have punched the driver senseless through the car’s open window. But he had the presence of mind to know he was in foreign territory.
“I could smell alcohol on him, but he wasn’t what you’d call drunk. He knew exactly what he was saying and doing. Finally, he said, ‘Didn’t you see the sign?’
“I said, ‘What sign is that, sir?’
“He said, ‘The sign in town that says: ‘Nigger, read and run. Don’t let the sun set with you in this town.’ ”
Moulden was all-too familiar with warnings of “the sign,” real or fictive. He’d heard them all his life. Thus, he adopted a ploy that had often worked in similarly tense situations.
He played Stepin Fetchit dumb.
“I SAID: ‘No, sir; I didn’t see no sign. I was ridin’ in the back of this here truck when we came through town. Besides, it wouldn’t have done me no good to see it ’cause I can’t read or write.’ ”
“That figures!” spat the angry driver, who then issued an ominous warning before speeding away: “You get outta here! Next time I see you, you’re a dead nigger!”
Moulden’s friends quickly gathered. Leroy asked again, “What are you gonna do, Charlie?”
“I’m tellin’ you, I’m goin’ fishin’!” Moulden reiterated, now more determined than ever.
“I said, ‘Leroy, if I paid attention every time a white man called me a nigger or threatened me, I’d be too scared to come out of my house.’
“Oh, I was sensitive to the N-word, all right. I didn’t like it. I knew how to fight. But it’s like my dad had always said to me: ‘Son, you can’t fight ’em all.’
“I told Leroy: ‘All I can do is hope the Good Lord is riding with me today. That’s the only protection I got. That’s the only protection I need.’ So I went on fishing.”
After a few hours, the party moved several miles upriver to a spot just above the old Tellico Lodge. They found a promising stretch of water. Arvil pulled his truck to the side of the road. Everyone got out.
At virtually the same moment, the black Chevrolet flew by.
“One of the boys said, ‘Charlie, there goes your buddy,’ ” Moulden recalls.
“He drove on around the bend, and I figured he hadn’t seen me. I saw a nice eddy in the river and started walking up the road to reach it.”
That’s when one of his friends uttered four words Moulden will never forget:
“Charlie, there he is.”
“I looked up and sure enough, there he stood. He was on a little bit of an incline, trying to hide behind a bush. I could see him plain as day from the waist up.”
MORE THAN FOUR decades later, Moulden’s eyes bore holes through that same rise in the terrain. He is temporarily silent. The only sound comes from the rushing river nearby. Finally, he speaks.
“I remember thinking, ‘Well, I wonder what’s he gonna do?’
“ ‘Is he gonna come out here in the road and we go fist-to-fist?’ That would’ve been fine with me. I was a boxer, and I knew he’d been drinking. I was sure I could take care of myself.
“Then I thought, ‘Is he gonna throw a rock? Bring a stick?’ The wheels in my mind were just spinning.
“I knew some people hated me for the color of my skin. Even though they didn’t know me or know what I did or anything, they were just mad at me for my color. Still, it never crossed my mind that he’d shoot me.
“So I sorta lowered my head and kept walking.”
ONE SECOND, Moulden was striding confidently. The next, his left leg blew backward just as his right leg was coming forward. His body crashed into the roadbed.
“Ain’t it funny?” he says. “I remember crushing that can of corn as I fell. Corn spewed out all over the road. My fishing pole broke. My knuckles were bloody.”
He struggled back to his feet and began looking for that imagined “mad hornet stinger.” The assailant stepped into the road, re-aimed, launched a second (albeit errant) round, pointed the muzzle of his pistol skyward, fired twice more into the air and vanished into the woods. It was over in an eyeblink.
Moulden tried to walk, but his legs betrayed him. He fell again and began crawling toward the only cover available: a steep bank to his left.
“I didn’t know if maybe he was coming back around to shoot me from above,” Moulden recalls. “I just remember lying on my back and looking up through the trees, trying to find him.”
At that very moment, the heads of two young boys popped up from the river. Moulden shouted for them to get down. They vanished, only to reappear and run by him seconds later.
“I don’t think they had anything to do with the shooting,” he says. “Maybe they were upriver somewhere, fishing with their dad. That’s the last I ever saw of them.
“My buddies had taken cover. They were hollering: ‘Charlie! Charlie! Did he just shoot you?’
“I said, ‘Yeah!’ ”
Moulden gathers himself once again as the shocking event replays in his mind. He chooses his words deliberately, every syllable punctuated by the anger and pain he felt that day:
“I YELLED REAL LOUD back over my head, toward the woods: ‘Yeah, that SON OF A BITCH just shot me!’ ”
He adds in retrospect: “I guess that wasn’t the smartest thing to say, knowin’ he was probably right above me. But honestly, I was hurtin’ so bad by then, I didn’t care if he came back around and killed me.”
The next few minutes are a blur.
Moulden’s friends were afraid to come to his aid for fear the shooter was perched above. Waiting. Pistol cocked. Aiming. Who knew?
Summoning what was left of his strength, Moulden crawled back across the road and down to the parked truck. He opened the passenger door, pulled himself into the floorboard and pushed the clutch pedal with one hand. The truck rolled rearward a few feet.
“They kept telling me how to cut the steering wheel,” he says. “I’d turn the wheel and push the clutch and move closer to them.”
Eventually the distance closed enough for his friends to sprint from hiding.
“Arvilee climbed over me and got hold of my belt,” Moulden says. “He pulled me inside. The others jumped into the bed. Arvilee cranked the engine and sped around the curve.”
About that time “a government man” pulled up in his car. Moulden doesn’t know if it was a game warden or a Forest Service worker. He does know the man wasn’t armed.
“My buddies kept yelling, ‘Give us your gun!’ The guy kept saying, ‘I ain’t got one!’ But at least he called an ambulance.”
For all the good that would do.
As soon as the situation was explained and radioed to civilization, rescue workers said no way were they coming into the national forest to pick up a black man who’d been shot by a white man — especially one who might still be hidden, poised to attack again.
“They had to drive me down to Tellico Plains (a distance of 18 miles),” says Moulden. “Once they got me loaded into the ambulance, the rest of the boys took off for Sevierville.
“I WAS RIDING ALONG in that ambulance, begging them to give me a shot for pain. Nobody would. I finally asked where we were going. The only hospitals I knew were Baptist and UT.
“The driver said, ‘We’re going to Blount Memorial.’ I asked, ‘Where’s that?’
“ ‘Maryville,’ he said.”
Moulden can’t help but laugh at his memory of that moment, terrifying as it was.
“Maryville was 10,” he says, referring to the numeral 10 on Blount County license plates back in the day.
“Ten was where the Klan was! I used to see ‘10’ on cars whenever there was a cross-burning. I kept thinking: ‘Oh, Lord! I’m out of the frying pan and into the oven!’ ”
Happily, no ill will came Moulden’s way at Blount Memorial. “They treated me real nice,” he says.
He remained hospitalized five days and was discharged on crutches. The bullet was still embedded in his thigh.
It still is.
“The doctors told me it had fragmented into at least six pieces,” he says. “They said they’d have to do a lot more damage to the muscles in my leg than the bullet itself. Those pieces cut me. They hurt me for a long time. Sometimes they still do.”
MOULDEN WAS MARRIED with one daughter. He couldn’t work. His wife applied for welfare.
“I hated that,” he says. “I’d never been on welfare.
“After I could finally get up and move around on crutches, I asked Arvilee for some work, any work. I said I’d even hose out the wheelbarrows, whatever I could do to make some money. He had just gotten the job to pour the foundation for a motel between Pigeon and Gatlinburg, so he hired me.
“I taped a board to my leg. That way, I could get down on one knee and stick that leg out. I was able to start finishing concrete again.
“The going wage back then was $16-$18 a day. At the end of the first week, Arvilee paid me $20 a day. I told him he didn’t have to do that, but he said I was out-working everybody else on the crew.”
In 1971, Moulden was hired at K-25 in Oak Ridge. He stayed at the government facility until it closed 14 years later. He worked a variety of masonry jobs after that, even had his own construction company for a while.
He retired at age 66, only to be subsequently hired by Summit. The crews he supervises have built more than 75 Dollar Tree stores all over the United States.
“The first thing I did after Arvilee paid me was to go downtown and get off welfare,” he said. “Bullet or no bullet, I wasn’t gonna be on no welfare.”