Say it ain’t so.
As I was traveling down South Market Street in Pascagoula a couple of weeks ago, something caught my eye: bulldozers were slamming into Thunder’s Tavern, surrounded by other heavy equipment and a team of workers in what appeared to be a demolition project.
I did a double-take and drove back by. Then, I made a couple of calls to those who would be in the know about the situation. Unfortunately, it all brought to mind that great exchange from “Seinfeld” when Jerry, incredulous about something that had happened to Elaine, said “That can’t be!” and she replied, “Oh, it be.”
Thunder’s, opened in 1978, has been a Pascagoula staple for, what, over four decades. The venerable nightspot, opened by colorful local icon John “Thunder” Thornton, maintained a presence on South Market that eventually made it into a city landmark.
There was a good-sized bar with ample seating area. A side room was home to a couple of pool tables, and there were other bar game options. The central bar opened up into an expansive dance floor with a band stage. Many solid local groups played at Thunder’s well into the night, and there would be the occasional national headliner like Wet Willie and Iron Butterfly.
You could also say that Thunder’s was Pascagoula’s first real sports bar. Wide screened TVs (before they became de rigueur) were placed strategically around the facility, and many football games and other events were watched by crowds of full-throated bar patrons.
Sporadically, the Tavern boasted a restaurant. When it was open, the meals—hardy fare highlighted by country cooking and good burgers—were quite tasty.
Outside, Thunder’s sported a recreational area replete with sand, a small pool, and volleyball. As you can see from all the above, the Tavern was pretty much a full-service establishment—much more than just a watering hole.
Look, Thunder’s was not everybody’s cup of tea. The crowds could get rowdy, and there was the occasional dust-up. Maybe toward the end of its run, maintenance was not a huge strong point either. Overall, though, Thunder’s was a part and parcel of Pascagoula life and served its purpose quite well.
One of the main reasons for the Tavern’s popularity, of course, was Thunder himself. The jolly giant was a bit of a mystery, and you might not see him around town or even at the bar for weeks at a time. Occasionally, though, he would emerge at the Tavern, mingle with the masses, and regale friends and patrons with stories and observations. Plus, we all knew this: Thunder was a Pascagoulan through and through and exhibited his deep love for his hometown by way of contributions to local causes material and otherwise.
One particular memory for me would be the legendary college football National Signing Day parties Thunder’s Tavern hosted for Ole Miss alums and other football fans. There would always be a nice spread of bar food available, and, naturally a plentiful supply of liquid refreshments. We’d have a hundred or so flow into these, including groups from down the Coast and Mobile. Often, an Ole Miss coach would come and make a presentation, and if not, some willing sap like me would get up, provide info and answer questions. Conversation would abound, about football and other subjects, and the festivities would roll on until late in the evening. Again, a highlight was always when Thunder himself would emerge from his cave, glad-hand everybody, and talk about when he was being recruited to Ole Miss back in the day.
A succession of sad events over the past decade led to the eventual downward path of Thunder’s Tavern. First, Suzanne, Thunder’s beloved wife and the heart and soul of the Tavern’s operation, passed away. A couple of years later, Walter, Thunder’s close and supportive brother, also died unexpectedly. Then, in 2019, we lost Thunder himself. At that point, the trinity that had driven the success of Thunder’s Tavern was all gone. The family business had been visited by a series of debilitating tragedies, and the feel and momentum of the Tavern could not be recaptured.
So, yeah, I get it that Thunder’s Tavern has run its course, and sorrowfully, the time has come for the facility to come down and make way for something shiny and new on the property. Still, seeing the wrecking balls do their thing is like taking body blows mentally to a couple of generations of locals.
Maybe we ought to gather some folks from over the years, go meet at the site, and pour a drink over the rubble, much as people do in Oxford at William Faulkner’s grave. I’ll tell you this: The bricks and mortar may soon be all gone, but the spirit and memories of Thunder’s Tavern on South Market Street in Pascagoula will live on forever.