The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency celebrates its 65th anniversary this year, and Crossville's Joe Goodwin is part of that living history.
Goodwin, 90, was in the first cadre of game wardens hired by the Agency when it was formed in 1949 -- known back then as the Tennessee Game & Fish Commission -- and what tales he can tell.
"It could get pretty rough in back in those days," says Goodwin, who knew something about toughness, having survived 76 harrowing days in a German POW camp during WWII. "You'd run into some tough characters -- and most of them were carrying guns."
From the day he signed on until his retirement in 1979, Goodwin was in the front lines of the state's wildlife management and conservation efforts. He spent his career on the rugged Cumberland Plateau, assigned first to White County and soon afterwards being transferred to Cumberland County. It was there, over the next three decades, that he became a game-law legend.
Violators didn't say, "Better look out for the game warden."
They said, "Better look out for Joe Goodwin."
Seeing Goodwin striding toward them in his crisp Game & Fish Commission uniform, or cruising the back-roads in his trademark Volkswagen Beetle, sent shivers down the spines of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of poachers over the years.
"How many did I catch? Too many to count," says Goodwin, with a twinkle in his eye. "But it was a bunch. Back in those days a lot of people didn't pay much attention to the (game) laws."
Goodwin patrolled a large, wild area, populated by some equally-wild denizens. He never had to fire his service weapon, but came close a number of times.
"One night I blocked the road where some poachers were spot-lighting deer," he recalls. "When they saw me, the driver gunned their truck and headed right toward me. When I saw that he wasn't going to slow down, I raised my carbine and aimed it at his head. I was squeezing the trigger when he hit the brakes. He climbed out and said, 'Was you really going to shoot me?' And I said, 'Yeah, in one more second and I would have blown your brains out."
It wasn't only backwoods desperadoes with whom Goodwin had to deal. He once apprehended a preacher for killing two deer when the limit was one, and another time nabbed a judge for failing to tag a turkey he'd killed.
"The judge said, 'Do you know who I am?'" says Goodwin with a chuckle, "and I said, 'Yeah, you're a judge -- and you're also somebody who is being arrested."
Violations ranged from spot-lighting deer to baiting turkeys and hunting and fishing without a license. One of the more unusual forms of poaching in the early days involved shooting fish in the Plateau's clear, shallow streams.
"I caught a fellow one day with three big bass -- all shot in the head," Goodwin says. "He tried to tell me he caught them -- even though he had a rifle, and their heads were blown off."
Sometimes pools were dynamited. The percussion killed fish -- and every other creature in the pool. Poachers would scoop up the keeper-size fish and leave everything else .
"I hate to see meat wasted," Goodwin says. "It might be because I nearly starved when I were in that POW camp. As a game warden, nothing made me madder than to see somebody kill a deer and go off and leave it to waste."
Fines generally ranged from $25-$50, and jail time was a possibility for serious violations and repeat offenders.
Goodwin considered himself tough but fair.
"I've arrested people who were friends of mine; I never played favorites," he says. "I always made sure I had the evidence before I made an arrest. In most cases, I'd see it with my own eyes. If there was a question, I'd give the person the benefit of the doubt."
Some cases had a humorous touch: "I once caught a woman fishing with an artificial worm," Goodwin says. "She said she didn't need a license because she was using worms for bait. She was right -- you didn't need license if you used live bait in your home county -- except plastic worms don't count."
When the Game & Fish Commission was formed 65 years ago, deer and turkeys were virtually non-existent in most parts of Tennessee. Under the Commission's regulations, deer and turkeys flourished. So have most other game and fish species, along with countless non-game birds and animals.
These ARE the Good Old Days for hunters and fishermen in Tennessee, and game wardens such as Goodwin deserve a big share of the credit.
"I enjoyed my job," says Goodwin. "In all of those years, I never had a boring day."