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Rambling Raymond defied death on a Harley

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To my memory, it had no railing to keep them from coming out of the top. I thought those planks were gonna come apart. The centrifugal force of their motorcycles is what held them on to the wall. It was an amazing sight to see: two guys riding the walls on motorcycles. It was quite an experience but scary for me. He did some things that you wouldnt think of him being the person that would do it, Grissim said.


Much of the information that Haley has gleaned about her late father that reflects his tenure, probably somewhere between 1932 and 1935 with Nashville aviation pioneer Gasser, did not come from his lips but rather from aged newspaper clippings and posters.


One rather exploitive, white and bloody-red poster screams the news: Thrill Drivers featuring Dare Devil Raymond Word in a death-defying act of rolling a Plymouth car. See the Plymouth crash. If you have a weak heart, we advise you not to see this crash at the fair grounds.


Another bill reads: Louie Gassers Thrill Drivers: Featuring Raymond Word A gamble with death rolling over Plymouth car.


And a Watertown poster dated March 24, 1935, speaks: See Raymond Word ride his motorcycle through a flaming board wall. Free admission. (Entrepreneur Gasser made his money by charging the adventurous in the crowd a buck apiece for rides in his airplane.)


One newspaper headline announces: Thrill Drivers perform dare-devil stunts at Warner Park; and the article reveals that Word can be seen in action as he rolls over in the automobile, and that a crowd of over 10,000 is expected.


One reporter noted that included in the performance will be the famous Plymouth crash, where Raymond Word rolls over in this car after attaining a speed of 70 miles per hour. Sometimes Word has been forced to make several attempts before getting the car to start rolling, but when he finally accomplishes the feat, it is said to be a breath-taking event.


While Word, who died in 2001 at 90, never talked about his stunt show act to his daughter, he did share a few tricks he pulled.


He was flying with a friend, coming back from an air show. They decided to buzz Lebanon on a Sunday morning, Martha recalled. In those old planes if you flew upside down, the oil burned and smoked, and it looked like the plane was on fire. That had all the people from the churches in Lebanon looking up at them, and someone called the police and told them a plane was going to crash. The sheriff met them at the Lebanon air field and told them that if they ever came back and pitched that stunt, hed put them under the jail.


Martha grew up a tomboy on Cleveland and Westwood Streets in Lebanon and received a .410 shotgun from her father as a Christmas gift when she was 12.


Daddy always expected that I could do anything. He taught me to ride a motorcycle, shoot a shotgun, to hunt with him and his Dad and to drive a car. I had to be able to change a tire before I could drive. In essence he taught me to try anything and to be self-sufficient. Martha never saw his cycles, but she possesses a circa 1935 photo of father astride a custom-built Harley-Davidson that he told her was green with lots of chrome. He courted his wife-to-be, Doretta Grissim, on that cycle.


Daddy rode all over the place on his motorcycle, Martha said. Once he was going to see a girlfriend in Chattanooga on that motorcycle. It had four gas tanks. There was a thumb valve that he had to manually switch and turn for the fuel. He got to a long stretch of road and saw two state troopers way down the road. He thought, I think Ill just blow them off the road.


He went past them doing 120 miles per hour. They came after him, and he knew they couldnt catch him. Then his gas started stalling, and he couldnt get the valve to open and had to stop, and by then the highway patrol caught up with him.


The younger man asked him how fast he was going, and he answered, I was moving on. The older one wanted to take him to jail, but Daddy convinced the younger trooper to take his motorcycle for a ride, which he did, and he let Dad go.


As wild as he was, he would fly on a motorcycle, said Lebanon native John Haley, the son-in-law of Rambling Raymond, but as an older man he was as gentle a man as youve ever met. Youd not believe he ever tried anything like that.


Daddy always loved airplanes and motorcycles. He did fly planes, Martha said. She retired after working as a consultant in information technology for Deloitte Touche, Rogers Group, Metro Nashville and Vanderbilt Medical Center. Daddy was a skillful driver, never having a wreck.


One of Raymond Words best friends in his later years was a neighbor, Nancy Tucker Roder of Lebanon.


He was like an adopted father to me. He and (his) wife lived in a condo behind my late husband and me, Roder said. When my husband (Mr. Tucker) passed away, he become like a surrogate father to me. He was the most gentle, perfect man and had the most pleasant, sweetest smile. I just adored him.


He told me that he was part of this show and that he rode motorcycles and walked on the wings of an airplane in the show. One time he bought me a little replica of a classic motorcycle that he said reminded him of the one he used to race on.


He would come over to my house on Saturday mornings and bring sausage and biscuits from Hardees, and I would make the coffee. He never told me that he was known as Rambling Raymond. He showed me a picture of himself on the motorcycle.


It shocked me when I learned that he was in a stunt show, Roder admitted. To think that he was daring enough to be a wing walker on a biplane and ride motorcycles in a stunt show. That wasnt the Mr. Word I knew. I just didnt have any idea.


Martha and her father were a perfect father and daughter team. There was something very special between them. He was just a wonderful, wonderful Christian man.


Another pal of Words in his final years was Nashvilles Joe Covington. The two met and became fast friends over coffee and conversation at the Hardees in Old Hickory


He used to love it whenever a motorcycle would show up. That was the end of Raymond. He had to go look that cycle over and check it out. He loved those motorcycles more than anything, Covington said.


In those stunt shows they would drag him behind the cars through fire. I asked him, Did you ever get hurt? He said, Yeah, I got hurt, lots of times, but he enjoyed it. He had the heart of a lion. I dont think he was scared of anything. I think he was the neatest dude I ever met.


Born in 1911 in the Wilson County hamlet of Greenvale, Word moved with his family to Statesville at 9 and later to Watertown where he played on the high school football and basketball teams.


His first public job as a boy was polishing shoes at Sullins Barber Shop inWatertown for a dime a shine. He also delivered Nashville Banner newspapers and worked at Dudney Chevrolet Co. inWatertownfixing punctures and selling gasoline for 15 cents a gallon. After graduating from high school, he opened a filling station.


Martha guesses it was around 1932 that he must have enlisted with Gasser and his Thrill Drivers and Flying Circus. After he left the stunt work, he worked in sales, delivery and production for Coca-Cola and Royal Crown Bottling Co. from 1936 until 1942 in the Midstate area.


Word went to work at Smyrna Army Air Field in the spring of 1942 and was inducted into the Army Air Force in 1943. In the early 1950s he became a production manager at Lux Clock in Lebanon.


Martha describes her father as a dapper dresser who stood 5-foot-11, had a slender build and a head of dark-black hair.


His word was his bond and having a good name was important to him, she said. He had a great sense of humor, was patriotic and unselfish and a great storyteller. He was a great fisherman and a charter member of the Sportsmans Club.


He always had a pioneer or adventuresome spirit. He dreamed of homesteading. I took two months off from work in 1976 and took him all over the West and to Alaska. He said it was the trip of a lifetime.


Word served as a deacon of the Madison Church of Christ for several years and delivered meals on wheels for 20 years to the elderly, but he never was elderly, his daughter said.


The stunt cyclist, who kept his death-defying feats a secret from his child and most of his friends in latter years, was laid to rest in Wilson County Memorial Gardens. On a historical sidelight, Dr. John Smillie McMinn, Words grandfather, donated the property for the Greenvale cemetery where his parents and two brothers are buried.


Martha Word Haley said of her father, He was an uncommon, common man. One of my mothers first cousins said last year that my mother got the prize by marrying Daddy.


As for Marthas mother, at the age of 91, Doretta Word took a ride on a Harley. The legacy of Rambling Raymond could not be quenched.


To read more about Louie Gasser and his wing-walking wife, Nora Lee, and their Thrill Drivers and Flying Circus, go online to www.wilsonpost.com and do a search on gassers.


Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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