During a time when toughskin blue jeans, button-down shirts, and flat-top haircuts were all the rage, Gene Odom and Ronnie Van Zant became best friends. Growing up on the same block, Ronnie and Gene fished, played football, and dreamed together. Years later, one of the boys would become famous—and the other would stand by his side through thick and thin. This is the story of two young men from the same neighborhood, school, and world who together, discovered the meaning of true friendship.
As Ronnie’s dreams of becoming a professional musician finally became a reality, Lynyrd Skynyrd began selling out arenas and became famous for not only their music, but also their substance abuse. After Ronnie offered Gene a job as a security officer for the band, he embarked on an unforgettable journey into a world like no other. But everything would change in October 1977 when the plane carrying the band plummeted from the sky.
Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant, and Me … Gene Odom provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpse of what it was like to be friends with one of the biggest rock stars of the 1970s and how a friendship between two childhood buddies stood the test of time.
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Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant and Me ... Gene Odom
By Scott Coner
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Scott Coner
All right reserved.
"If You want to talk Fishin; That'll be okay."
The phone started ringing while it was still dark. He looked over at the alarm clock and crawled out of the perfectly warm bed. As he answered the kitchen phone, the voice on the other end said, "Are you ready to go yet?" He smiled a sleepy smile. His buddy, Ronnie Van Zant was ready to go fishing. Gene looked out the window over the sink. The street lights allowed him to see that the wind was calm and the car hoods were dry up and down the street. He grabbed a bottle of RC cola out of the refrigerator and went back to the bedroom closet to put on some jeans and a tee shirt as quietly as possible. He didn't want to wake his wife, Brenda Joe, and little Melissa. He grabbed his wallet, kissed his wife on the cheek, and headed out to the car port to gather his fishing gear. He could hear the truck coming up Mull Street as he picked up his tackle box. He nearly dropped everything as he turned to leave the garage. Maybe later today would be a good time to talk to Melissa about how to use the kickstand on her bike.
The truck stopped in the middle of the street. Gene opened the truck door to be greeted by a long haired rock 'n' roll star that was truly glad to see him. "How's it going Buddy?" The radio was playing "Silver Wings," and Merle Haggard sounded like he meant every word. As the truck ambled slowly around the corner, it was just like it had always been. Two young men from the same neighborhood, the same school, the same world. Yet the dreams were different. Life can sure throw some curve balls.
It seemed like yesterday that these same men were just teenagers, barely 15 years old, "jukin' "at some neighborhood party, trying to act cool, hoping to meet a girl. Any girl ..." How is life on the road? You know you're gettin' pretty well known for tearing up hotels. Doesn't that hurt the bottom line just a little bit?" Ronnie looked a little bit embarrassed. "Man, those hotels are like being put into some kind of prison. We spend day and night together and sometimes you just want to blow off a little steam, you know? The music is all that matters anyway. And maybe bad press is better than no press." Gene just laughed and said, "You are gettin' press, there ain't no doubt about it. I'll tell you one thing, when this music thing slows down, if it ever does, we ought to get you into politics. You know people hear what you're saying in those songs. We could get you to be governor and maybe I could be like a fishing ambassador or something."
The water was slick as glass when they dropped the boat in. There was a sliver of pink showing in the eastern sky. It was going to be hot, but not until later in the day. Right now, all things seemed perfectly aligned to catch a fish.
"I stopped by Claude Hamner's midway grocery store yesterday. That "Curtis Loew" song has really put some smiles on some faces around here. I'm not really used to hearing Skynyrd when I'm buying bologna for my lunch at work." Ronnie laughed and said, "I can't believe all of this is happening myself. Me and Gary and Allen were talking about it the other day during sound check. It seems like yesterday we were running around the block, throwing rocks and sneakin' cigarettes.
A mullet jumped out of the water making a splash 50 feet from the boat. "You know I can feel that bass swimming our way right now. One of us is going to catch a monster."
Ceremoniously, the water broke across the top as Ronnie's pole nearly fell out of his grip. "Gene! I've got something on the other end of this thing!" It truly was a trophy and Gene had never seen his friend happier. It was May 1977.
The following poem was written by a young Gene Odom not too long after the Lynyrd Skynyrd plane crash. He had apparently started writing as a type of self- induced therapy. This poem and several others appeared in a book written by Gene titled "Lynyrd Skynyrd I'll Never Forget You". (Ten thousand copies were made and self- published by Gene. While traveling with the groups The Rossington Collins Band, The Allen Collins Band, and finally Molly Hatchet, Gene sold the books after the shows)
The bird still flies around my home
The fish still hangs on the wall
That old truck still runs the same
And I'm just waiting on your call
Those 4:30 calls we used to make
To wake each other up
Are not forgotten to this day
And probably never will be
The poles are now gathered with dust
The boat sits idle and free
Fishing trips I take these days
are not what they used to be
I lay and stare at the phone
and wait for it to ring
All of a sudden I remember
I'm only in a dream
"Tuesdays Gone with the Wind and Tomorrow doesn't look much better"
Gene Odom was born in December 1948 at Duvall Medical Center. Life was pretty good. Ansal and Annie Odom were apparently committed to repopulating the earth. Gene had four brothers and six sisters. A typical day in the neighborhood consisted of playing football in the old church lot across from Claude's Midway Grocery store, cutting grass at home or for someone down the street, or just doing what kids did in 1950s America. Life was still new and innocent and lately, that seems pretty refreshing.
When Gene was 17, he and a friend, Harold Osteen, went jukin' on a Friday night at the National Guard Armory on Wilson Boulevard on the west side of Jacksonville. Gene, being the outgoing personality that he is, didn't need but a couple of cups of grape kool-aid to get out on the dance floor. When Gene busts a move, it is always the "west side shuffle". (That was always and still is his dance.) He asked a pretty little brunette to dance, and she must have had some great moves of her own because Gene asked her out the next night, and the night after that. They would go to the movies, go dancing, and sometimes just go for a walk. Although Gene had quit school and started working as an iron worker, Brenda was still in school. She was 16 and Gene was a 17-year-old man of the world. Brenda's father worked for the Florida Parks Service and took a job opportunity near Pensacola. Brenda's family relocated to the Florida Caverns State Park, about 250 miles west of Jacksonville. That was a very sad day for both Gene and Brenda. After about a month of letters and a few phone calls, Gene talked a friend of his into a road trip over to Pensacola, Florida. When Brenda and Gene reunited they realized that they truly were in love. Gene asked Brenda to come back to Jacksonville and marry him. He would continue to work and she could finish high school. I'm sure Brenda's parents weren't thrilled with the idea, but she did indeed return to Jacksonville as the new Mrs. Odom. It was 1967. She settled in to her new role easily. She kept a clean home, was a great cook, and had the gentle, loving spirit all men dream of.
1968 came like a lion. Vietnam was raging, and America was not sure how to handle it. Gene's friends were being drafted left and right. Gene just kept his head down and kept working. The Odom's hoped that the army wouldn't draft married men, but if needed, Gene would proudly serve his country.
Work got slow and Gene was laid off from his job. Gene looked around for more work, but the local economy was slow. The logical thing to do was fish. One day while Gene and Ronnie Van Zant were bank fishing, Ronnie offered him a job at the auto parts store he was managing for his brother in-law on 103rd street. His first day at work wasn't a great one, but it was memorable. While delivering parts in the company's VW Bug, the shifter got jammed in 2nd gear and cost $125 to repair. Ronnie threw his hands in the air and said, "Only you, Gene Odom." Gene decided not to tell Ronnie that he had been speed shifting when the problem started.
Ronnie had put together a band with four of his friends from the neighborhood including Gary Rossington, Allen Collins, and Bob Burns. During the summer of 1969 they were playing parties and small clubs. Due to the late night practices, Ronnie would ride the 10 miles to work with Gene and catch a little extra sleep. Gene would swing by Ronnie's apartment that Ronnie, his wife Nadine, and their little girl Tammy shared. One morning on their way to work, the left rear tire came off the rim of the delivery truck they were driving. The truck fish-tailed and was nearly on it's' side in the median on Emerson street. Ronnie woke up scared to death, but after seeing Gene gain control of the vehicle, he commented that Leroy Yarbarough would have been proud. Gene's legs were shaking, and his only comment was something about cleaning out his britches and getting a new tire.
"Rebel Flags and Racecars or just Gone with the Win"
The crickets were playing their song in a 1961 shantytown. Porch lights were on up and down the street. Laughter and country music could be heard somewhere in the distance. If you listened closely, you could hear the purr of a Chrysler engine that had been dropped into a 1934 Ford. Leroy Yarbrough was demonstrating his magic to two of his biggest fans. "Boys," he would say, "I'm gonna' drive this piece of crap like I stole it this Saturday night at the Jacksonville Speedway, and when they ask me how I done it in the winners circle, I'm gonna tell her that Gene Odom and Ronnie Van Zant taught me everything I know about racing junk cars on a dirt track. And when I reach over to kiss that beauty queen, I'm gonna tell her that Gene and Ronnie said hello." The little boys' eyes just lit up with excitement. To Gene and Ronnie, Leroy was the king. And at that very moment the king was doing something to the engine that was going to make every other driver at that track wish they had never heard the name Leroy Yarbrough. Gene Odom was trying his best to stand as tall as he could when he spoke to his hero. "After you win this weekend, where will you race Leroy?" "I don't know for sure Gene, but I've been waiting my whole life for this day. This is all I've ever wanted to do and I'm gonna make the most of it. A man needs to follow his dreams."
Ronnie Van Zant had fallen silent. His young eyes looked off into a distance no one else could see. He was also a dreamer. He knew deep down in his heart that he too would live out his dreams. But for now it was pretty cool to be hanging around the garage with his best buddy and the man with a plan, the great Leroy Yarbrough.
The Sinclair Oil clock on the wall showed that it was nearly 10:00p.m. It was time for the boys to get home before somebody got worried. Annie Odum was a protective mother, and it was best if she didn't have to come looking for one of her kids.
Leroy made his dreams a reality in the coming years. He would win many races in his short career. In 1969, he won NASCAR's "Triple Crown" – the Daytona 500, the Firecracker 400, and the Southern 500 at Darlington. Nobody knows for sure what happened to Leroy. He had had too many wrecks to begin with, and it has been said that he was bitten by a tick on a camping trip in 1971. He developed Rocky Mountain spotted fever. He changed after that. The fire in his eyes was replaced by a sad distance. The surefooted cockiness was replaced by confusion.
Gene has told me of the day that he ran into Leroy in the summer of 1980. Leroy was picking up soda bottles in the very ditches that Gene himself had picked them out of twenty years earlier and bouncing around living with different family members. He recognized Gene and said, "I'm sure sorry to hear about our old buddy Ronnie. I'm just out here trying to get me some drinking money." Gene gave Leroy five dollars and left his childhood hero, carrying a desperate sadness. All the mental institutions and overeducated doctors in the country couldn't bring the great Leroy Yarbrough back from the edge of darkness. He was truly one of the great ones. It seems odd to me that you don't hear his name mentioned in the NASCAR circles these days. Americans seem to only want to remember happy endings.
Gene gave me an old writing tablet that he had written poems in during his time of healing following the plane crash. I felt like the following poem fits well with this chapter.
Turn the Pages
I would like to go back to my boyhood days
Football and baseball and that old hot rod craze
A moonlit night on that cold dark lake
Scaring all the girls with that black rubber snake
If I could turn the pages back fifteen years
Before all the broken hearts and so many tears
Back to my bicycle and fishing pole
Skinny dipping in the old swimming hole
Before the tragedies that have occurred
Feelings that were shattered by just a few words
Back when I used to run home and check on my mother
Playing football and baseball with my older brothers
Those days are gone and they are over and done
Only in my mind will they ever return
If I could turn back the pages back fifteen years
Before all of the broken hearts
Before those many, many tears
written by Gene Odom (1977)
"Summer of Love?"
In April 1969 Gene and Brenda's friends were still being drafted. (Ronnie Van Zant didn't need to worry because his ankle was full of pins necessary after a 1966 neighborhood football game injury.) Gene came home from the auto parts store on May 10, 1969 and was greeted with his draft papers. Brenda was scared and as Gene held his young wife, she looked up and asked "What are we going to do?" Gene just shrugged his shoulders and said, "Go whoop some Vietnamese butt". But before the butt-kicking could start, there was a certain hair stylist waiting with a pair of clippers at Fort Benning, Georgia. A lot of hair hit the floor that day and blue jeans were traded in for army fatigues. The next eight weeks would be tough. Georgia was breaking its own heat records during the summer of '69, and more than a few soldiers couldn't quite make the three mile run in formation. But just as always, the army turned a busload of softies into tough, trained killing machines. Following boot camp, Gene was allowed to go home to Brenda for six weeks. The time went by quickly. The first of August brought some good news. Instead of going to Vietnam, Gene would be sent to Germany for his final destination. Anywhere was better than a jungle with bullets flying around.
About 2:00 a.m. one morning, an army sergeant walked through the barracks calling out names. Gene's name was called and within the hour he was aboard a C-130 transport plane en route to Germany. The plane stopped at the coast of Spain, then Ireland, finally landing in Frankfurt, Germany. Because of his previous welding experience, he was given a job as a welder. That position had opened up for him because the pre-existing welder had lost his life due to a drug overdose. Following his stint as a welder he was given the opportunity to work as a parts runner. A parts runner was an individual that was responsible for making sure other mechanics had all of the parts required to do their individual jobs.
Gene had spent 1 year, 11 months, and ten days in Germany. During the last ten days of his stay, or his "clearing out time", as it was called, Gene was involved in an accident playing baseball. He had slid into third base and twisted his ankle to the point of being sent to Nuremburg Hospital. This resulted in a 10% disability income from the army.
"Married with a Child"
Upon getting back to America as a civilian, Gene got back into iron working and Brenda worked as a waitress. In 1972, Brenda gave birth to their first daughter. She was like an angel sent down from heaven. Arriving two months premature, she fit in the palm of Gene's hand. She had beautiful red hair and was perfectly healthy. They named her Melissa Jean.
During this time, Gene worked all over Florida and Georgia as an ironworker. If he was at home, he would often work with his father on a small, wooden boat off the edge of Cumberland Island in the St. Johns River in the evening. This area of warm water fed into the ocean and was a significant running ground for shrimp. It was not uncommon to catch 700 to 800 lbs. a night using a simple cast net.
Excerpted from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Ronnie Van Zant and Me ... Gene Odom by Scott Coner Copyright © 2011 by Scott Coner. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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