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From a Key West amiga yesterday:
Death of a Pork Rind King
October 31, 2013 | by Margaret Eby
Trick-or-treating is really an exercise in cartography. I wouldn’t be able to give driving directions to the Alabama suburb where I grew up except under duress, but I could draw you a map of my Halloween neighborhood route with unerring precision. Sugar lust, after all, makes tacticians of all of us.
Here is the house that would only offer a few chalky rolls of Smarties for your trek up a steep, Virginia creeper–tangled front walk. There, a woman with a fake witch nose would request that put your hand in a container of peeled grape “eyeballs,” but reward you with a roll of quarters and a full-sized Snickers. Here, you’d find an empty bowl with a plaintive PLEASE JUST TAKE TWO PIECES tacked on the screen door, its contents long ago looted by a mercenary band of eleven-year-olds with pillowcases. That house, home to a diabetic child, gave out glow-in-the-dark slap bracelets, worth up to three packets of M&Ms in the candy bartering session at the end of the night. And here, the crown jewel of the cul-de-sac: the potato chip house.
The potato chip house was home to Major Bashinsky, an estate lawyer and heir to the Golden Flake snack food fortune. Bashinsky’s grandfather founded the company, which produces crackers, chips, popcorn, and ten kinds of flavored pork cracklins.
University of Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, a state idol and good friend of Major Bashinsky’s father, shilled for the company on his local talk show in the late 1970s. Alabama schoolchildren still visit the Titusville factory by the busload, tasting cheese curls hot off the line. When I was growing up, the Bashinksy house was the Halloween destination for as many snack-size packets of cracklins as you could scoop up. In 2010, it entered neighborhood lore as the home of the pork rind magnate who staged his own murder.
Bashinsky was last seen alive on March 3, 2010, in his office in downtown Birmingham. His daughter found his abandoned Toyota Camry while distributing missing person fliers, an angry letter to the company and a packet of Golden Flake chips taped inside. Police found Bashinksy’s body two weeks after his disappearance, fully clothed and floating in the pond of a local golf course. A bottle was attached to his corpse, stuffed with the same note his daughter found in Bashinsky’s car. His arms had been bound with rope and his lips duct-taped shut. Inside his mouth, a coroner found the label from a bag of Golden Flake potato chips.
Conspiracy theories flew. Bashinsky was well to do, but he wasn’t flashy. (My clearest memory of him from my childhood, aside from his Halloween generosity, was that he had a trampoline in the backyard and didn’t mind one or two local kids scampering through the hedge to bounce on it.) He had two young children, and no more enemies than an average Alabama attorney. His stepmother Joann had inherited most of the Golden Flake stock after Major’s father died, possibly leaving him without any major stake in the company. The threatening letters found in Bashinksy’s car and on his person held no clues.
Nine days after police identified Bashinsky’s body, authorities ruled his death a suicide. A man believed to be Bashinksy had purchased duct tape and rope at a nearby hardware store on the day of his disappearance. Divers found scissors, car keys, and a roll of tape in the pond along with Bashinsky’s body. “We believe right now that he drafted all of those notes himself,” a spokesman for the Birmingham Police Department told ABC. “But we haven’t quite figured out why.”
Little emerged from the murk of speculation. Slowly, surely, Bashinksy settled into neighborhood myth. His brother Sloan, who came in last in the 2009 Key West mayoral race after running on a pro–nude beaches platform, posited on his Web site that Bashinsky killed himself to avoid being exposed as bisexual. Other bloggers pinned Bashinsky’s death to a series of suspicious fatalities that year in Alabama, possibly linked to financial dealings with GOP mastermind Karl Rove. My childhood neighbors swapped stories with raised eyebrows, pointing to the Golden Flake label ominously when they brought out pickle chips during parties.
This Halloween, a gaggle of pint-size witches, robots, princesses, and aliens will navigate the streets of that same cul-de-sac. Maybe they’ll avoid the well-meaning dentist who passes out floss. Maybe they’ll plot the shortest distance to the porch with iced-down cans of soda at the ready. Probably, the mental maps of corn syrup–hunting children in those few blocks are unrecognizable from the one I can sketch from decades ago. But no doubt, for one Halloween-related reason or another, our pictures overlap at the potato chip house.
Margaret Eby is working on a book about Southern literary shrines called High Holy Places, forthcoming from Norton in 2014.
I submitted this comment on 5/10/2014, Mother’s Day Eve:
This is Major Bashinsky’s older brother Sloan, named after Major’s and my father.
Someone down here in Key West just forwarded me a link to Margaret Eby’s article about my family. I don’t know if I knew Margaret, I was four years old than Major, knew lots of his male friends when he was growing up. I don’t recall he had female friends, other than a few girlfriends.
Golden Flake was founded by a Birmingham family as Magic City Foods, Inc., which many years later, shortly, after World War II, was purchased my Major’s and my grandfather Leo Bashinsky and his brother-in-law Cyrus Case, whose wife, Leo’s brother, had tragically died of some kind of fast moving pneumonia not long after they were married. Cyrus never remarried. I heard from someone in the family maybe two years ago that Cyrus was gay. My mother loved him, and I really liked him, too.
Actually, our home featured a broad range of Golden Flake snacks at Halloween, and the company was known as a potato chip company, which sold other cellophane-bagged snacks: cheese curls, port skins, peanuts, popcorn, peanut butter, cheese and sweet crackers. Later, the company added corn ships and even later tortilla chips.
In the early years, potato chips probably constituted 80 percent of sales, but by the late 1960s, potato chips were down to about 50 percent of sales. I know that, because I worked for Golden Flake starting the fall of 1969, through 1973. Then, I went into the practice of law, having already obtained a law degree at the University of Alabama School of Law, before going to work for Golden Flake.
I’d worked several summers at Golden Flake during high school and college. Major worked there one summer, for a while, as I recall. And, later, he worked there, perhaps six months?, in the accounting/computer department, I think after he entered Alabama undergraduate and before he graduated. He did not indicate interest in working at Golden Flake long term.
I was viewed in the company back then as the Golden Flake heir. A number of times when I was growing up my father told me, “Son, I built this company for you.” Maybe he told Major that, too; Major never said.
Many years later Major told me that he thought he wanted to go to work for Golden Flake. I asked, why? He said, it was the only way he would have a chance to really get to know his father. Major had been sent to me by company management, with whom I had worked closely when I still worked there. I said, that was not a good reason to go to work there. The only good reason was because he really wanted to work there. Did he really want to work there? Major said, not really. He just wanted to get to know his father better.
Not long after that, Major applied for admission to Cumberland Law School, attached to Samford University in Alabama, and he did well there, and that’s how he became a lawyer, instead of the Golden Flake heir.
Maybe a month after Major went missing, a Birmingham television station interviewed me by telephone and taped the interview and put it on the station’s website for anyone to hear. I covered in that interview how Major became a lawyer, instead of the Golden Flake heir.
The Mountain Brook Police, the Birmingham police, the Jefferson County Sheriff, and the F.B.I. never contacted me after Major went missing; not even after I sent out feelers that I would be happy to speak with them.
I wrote in posts to my websites – www.goodmorningkeywest.com and www.goodmornignfloridakeys.com – before Major’s body was even found in the Highland Golf Course pond – that I seemed to be getting from Above that Major had killed himself and had tried to make it look like he was murdered.
After Major’s body was found, I wrote in posts to those websites that he was bisexual, which I had known for a long time, it didn’t mater to me, and someone who knew that and had it in for him was going to out him and there was nothing he could do to stop it. He had not come out with being bisexual, he was living a double life, his image was more important to him than anything, and his solution was as described above.
Some time after I had published it was suicide disguised as murder, the Jefferson County Coroner’s Pathologist and the Birmingham Police Department detective assigned to the investigation both announced it was suicide made to look like murder. That was published in the Birmingham News, which did interview me early on, before Major’s body was found, but the story was killed by higher ups in that newspaper, according to the reporter who interviewed me.
Major’s first wife, Gail, a friend of mine, now deceased, and his and her oldest daughter Sloan, who was named after me, both told me that they believed Major killed himself and tried to make it look like murder.
Maybe a year after Major died, I did a Freedom of Information Act Request to the F.B.I. on their file on Major, and after it arrived, I found in it a black and white negative-looking side-shot photo of someone buying something at the 5-Points Hardware Store, where Major was said to have gone to buy rope, tape, etc. after he left the nearby Starbucks the last day he was seen alive. I knew when I saw the photo that it was Major, it was his precise profile, body shape, head shape, posture. I would have told the authorities that, if they had asked me.
An investigative journalist in Dothan, Alabama and I had a great deal of email conversation for months after Major went missing. She told me that she drove to Birmingham and interviewed the 5 Points South Starbucks employees, and they said they knew Major, he was a regular customer, and he was in there the same afternoon he was last seen alive, and then he left.
Also in the F.B.I. file was a report on pistol found in the pond below where Major’s body was found, a collector’s Browning automatic, .32 caliber, being the same make as a pistol encased in a display in the den of our father’s home, by then only inhabited by his widow, Joann, who showed the authorities the second pistol in its case, and said it looked like the one found in the pond.
It would have been just like Major to see that rare pistol in the case and find one just like it, simply because his father had one. I would have told the authorities that, if they had let out that there were two identical rare pistols, and where they were found. I saw no news reports of the second apparently identical pistol in our father’s home.
Maybe two years after Major died, I received an email from a woman I did not know, who said she once had worked for the University of Alabama in Birmingham (UAB), and a gay man in her department persuaded her to attend with him a party, which, she realized on arriving, was all gay men, one of whom was pointed out to her by her gay co-employee, as Major. She said she attended other similar parties with her gay co-employee, and Major was there.
Maybe six months ago, someone who should know told me that Major was deeply in debt when he died. That was the first I’d heard of that. And, he had a really big life insurance policy on himself – millions. And, it all went to his second wife, Leslie.
Major had two children by Gail. By Leslie, Major apparently was not able to conceive more children. She wanted children, so they used artificial insemination and a male donor, I was told by someone who should have known, and that produced two more children, a boy, then a girl, both of whom Major legally adopted, Major himself had told me they were doing fertility work, but I did not understand they were using another donor.
Actually, I ran for Mayor of Key West three times before Major died, and am running again this year. Yes, one year, 2009, the last of those races before this year’s, I pushed hard for Key West to get a nude beach. It was a rowdy place (understatement), a nude beach would pull in an entirely different kind of tourist, with money. However, that was only a small part of what I pushed that year, and in the other years, and this year.
I publish daily to wwww.goodmorningkeywest.com, and more sporadically to www.goodmoringfloridakeys.com, and even more sporadically to wwww.goodmorningbirmigham.com, where there are a number of posts about Major’s passing, mostly prompted by what other people published online about it.
I don’t imagine what I publish much, if at all, resembles what is published elsewhere. I read and reply to all correspondence, and often publish it verbatim.
Hmmm, in my spirit code, pork represents politics.
In my spirit code, something like Margaret Eby’s article only just now crossing my path just might mean death approaches my political life in some way. But in what way?
And/or, it might mean death approaches in the “Golden Flake Family” in some way.
Maybe I should stay tuned …
Mother’s Day P.S.
Major became deeply devoted to our mother during her last illness, and remained deeply devoted to her as far as I know.
I sometimes have wondered, if Major had let me know he was so distressed, maybe I could have talked him through it. For a number of years, he and I had been really close, he was open with me. But that phase passed. I had thought he was doing well, before news of his going missing arrived from friends of mine in Birmingham.
I didn’t care to get involved in writing, or even talking, about Major’s passing; but it was given to me to do by the angels who own me: I call them Jesus, Archangel Michael and Magdalene-Melchizedek. They often put me to make “minority reports”.