by Hap Rocketto
My brother is fond of giving books for presents and passed a volume entitled Floating off the Page to me for my last birthday. It contains a series of articles taken from the Wall Street Journal’s “middle column.” James P. Sterba related a brief tale of cleaning patches, “Prisons, Guns, and Knickers,” and it begins on February 5, 1975 in Sacramento, California. President Gerald Ford was working the crowd when an alert Secret Service Agent saw a mousy looking woman named Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme point a 1911A1 at the President. He quickly batted the pistol down, grasping it so that if the hammer fell it would pinch the skin on the web of his hand, preventing the firearm from discharging.
It would not be a great month for Ford, 17 days later, in San Francisco, Sara Jane Moore would actually get a shot off at him from a .38 but it was diverted by a bystander, Oliver Sipple. The next year, almost as if in apology for these unfriendly acts by its citizens, California gave its 45, poetic justice as the number matched the caliber of Fromme’s pistol, electoral votes to Ford in his failed attempt to gain the White House on his own.
Fromme, a disciple of mass murderer Charles Manson, was duly tried and convicted of attempting to assassinate the President of the United States. She quickly found herself remanded to the custody of the Attorney General of the United States and housed behind the walls of West Virginia’s Alderson Federal Prison, later to be the temporary residence of kitchen diva Martha Stewart. Upon arriving at her new abode she was issued, gratis, the standard prison clothing, which included several sets of heavy-duty undergarments manufactured by the anachronistically named Southern Bloomer Manufacturing Company of Bristol, Tennessee. Institutional cleaning is not kind to lightweight underwear and Southern’s 5.3 ounce knitted cotton are designed withstand the rigors of a prison laundry.
It seems that Donald and Winifred Sonner, proprietors of Southern Bloomer, had established a niche market in sturdy prison underwear, sort of the Victoria’s Secret or Federick’s of Hollywood for the incarcerated set. They covered both ends of the market, so to speak, with a line of panties, brassieres, nightshirts for the ladies and boxers, briefs, and T-Shirts for the men. They grew so successful that they soon had 125 prisons as customers and were piling up scrap at an alarming rate. Being both cost and environmentally conscious they wished to do something worthwhile with the waste. By chance Donald was shopping with his son Stephen when the boy turned into a gun store because he needed some cleaning patches. Donald, not a shooter, took one of the flimsy patches his son had purchased and rolled it in his fingers. Like Paul on the road to Tarsus he was struck by lightning. Back at the factory he cut up some waste into squares, packed them in plastic bags with a photocopied label, and drove to, where else-after all this is the south, his local Wal-Marts. There he worked a deal with the manager and the rest, as they say, is history.
Before he knew it they were selling 5,000 pounds of his heavy-duty cleaning patches a month. The smallest patches run about 6,000 to the pound while the largest run 666 to the pound, you do the arithmetic on the total numbers produced but it means that someone out there is doing a lot of shooting and cleaning. The product line that had started out to simply reclaim scrap material grew so big that Southern built a plant just for their manufacture. The United States Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) and the FBI uses them exclusively, as do numerous other Federal, state, and local police forces and agencies. Southern even has a growing foreign market.
So successful has the line become that the company came up with a new motto. Whereas, movie minded as I am, I might have preferred, “Patches, We don’t got to show you no stinkin’ patches!” Southern’s stationary and advertising bears the words “Manufacturers of Quality Panties and the Finest in Gun Cleaning Patches.” When you think about the source of the material it kind of brings a new meaning to the high power shooter’s term for a miss, “Maggie’s Drawers.”