"Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor and courage which it contained." -- John Stuart Mill, Englishman
The time has come to close the Eccentricity Gap.
America has for too long taken a back seat to the Bulldog Britain of Dame Edith Sitwell, Lewis Carroll and Quentin Crisp, ceding to that island kingdom all nonconforming glories. The result is that, in this year of the 35-billionth identical McDonald's hamburger, we are viewed by dismal Tocquevilles everywhere as a nation of indecipherable zombies, blank-faced, quirkless and ordinary.
Rot, you rightly say. America has always danced to the beat of a different drum. America has always been a land of significant balmies, charmers and singular men. It was America that was discovered by a star-crossed Italian, colonized by odd-lot zealots and pioneers and set moving by individuals of bravura nonconformity. And it is America that is populated today -- as we shall see -- by their redoubtable progeny.
The proof being always in the pudding, we shall serve up, these next six days running, tales of such privileged folks from America's great regions: from the South, the West, the East, and from the great heartland and from far-out Alaska.
Today: altogether accurate and true stories of Texas kinfolk, including an inventor of the stepladder; a bootlegger and barber; a fried chicken magnate; a straight-talking counselor and a first-class private. -- Christian Williams
A kinsman of mine invented the stepladder.
Unfortunately, he did not get around to this until 1961.
Then he wanted me to use my position as a congressional aide to ensure that the Pentagon bought them by the thousands or the millions.
"Why is your stepladder better than anyone else's?" I asked.
My kinsman said it was lighter, could be folded up and had a trick button which, when pushed, allowed the climber to climb at oblique angles. Just in case he wanted to, I guess.
I was raised to help blood kin, so I sought out Army liaison. After they quit laughing over there they said, "We don't scale too many parapets in the atomic age. Besides, we've got worlds of stepladders left over from World War I.
My kinsman did not take this news well. Shortly he telephoned to say that through a magazine ad he had hired a "super lobbyist" who not only pledged to sell beaucoup stepladders to the Pentagon, but was making arrangements for NASA to use them on the moon.
"What's up there to climb?" I asked.
My kinsman said he didn't know, but whatever it was, his stepladder would make it easier.
"What's your lobbyist's name?"
My kinsman said, "He says everybody in Washington knows him as 'Mister B.' He says he is as wellknown up there as the Lincoln Memorial." '
I asked how much money my kinsman had paid this landmark lobbyist. He admitted to $5,000. This was when $5,000 would fill a Cadillac with gas and leave enough in change to put a down payment on an NFL franchise.
My kinsman reluctantly gave me the famous Mister B's telephone number. I met him at his motel dressed like a bum so as not to alert him to my congressional connections. That made two of us dressed like bums. While we took turns swigging from a quart of cheap wine, I represented myself as a fresh-off-the-farm Texas bumpkin who was an enthusiastic partner in my kinsman's stepladder business. Mister B represented himself as a bosom pal of Bob McNamara, Lyndon Johnson, Sam Rayburn, the Kennedy brothers and the 87th Congress.
When he'd been given enough rope I dropped the hick act and said, "Listen, you sleazy SOB, I'm a friend of most of those people" -- here flashing my House of Representatives I.D. -- "and if I don't have $5,000 in my hands within 15 minutes you can tell your story to the FBI, the Secret Service and three times a day to the guy who brings the tin tray to your cell."
Within the designated time limit, Mister B had forked over $4,600 and made arrangements to restore the shortage by the week. He was damn prompt with his payments.
My kinsman was furious then and now. These days he sells door-to-door things that glow in the dark, but as recently as last summer he was still telling pals how he'd almost made a fortune in stepladders until a smart-alecky relative loused up the deal.
My Uncle Fud was a bootlegger and barber, who in nine consecutive elections ran for county commissioner in his Texas hometown. He finished as high as second and as low as 13th. The key statistic is that in all cases Uncle Fud ran last, though in his telling of it he liked to dwell on the year he'd finished second. One election Uncle Fud got only nine votes, though he had 27 blood relatives of voting age living in his precinct.
When Uncle Fud was pushing 60 years he was indicted and brought to trial for having carnal knowledge of a 14-year-old girl in a chicken house.
I took a furlough from the Army to witness this human drama. Uncle Fud put on a wonderful show at his sanity hearing: If found insane, see, he could sweat out a few months in the loony bin and avoid criminal contaminations. Theoretically, this would leave him eligible in the future to again offer for public service.
During his sanity hearing, Uncle Fud combed his hair with a pocket knife, chewed on a handkerchief, occasionally talked in tongues and once offered a neat little tap dance until the judge ordered him to sit down. Alas, the jury was not persuaded and voted him to trial by unanimous vote. Then, by the same margin, it laid three to five years on him. At the end of the day as they led Uncle Fud off in handcuffs, he sighed, "Goddammit, for nearly 20 years people wouldn't vote for me because they said I was crazy. Then when it really counted they changed their minds."
About three days after Uncle Fud heard the big door clang behind him at the state prison, he wrote my father a letter. In its entirety it said: "Dear Clyde, I do wish you would try to get me out, as I am not a-tall satisfied down here."
Uncle Fud did almost four years. On release, he opened another barbershop. Business was exceedingly slow, however. One afternoon Uncle Fud drank a bit, sought out the local insurance agent and bought a policy on his barbershop which valued it much above its worth or potential. As soon as it was dark enough for flames to show, Uncle Fud slopped several gallons of gasoline in his shop and threw a match after it. Unfortunately, he caught fire at the same time his barbership did. Uncle Fud ran wheezing and screaming into the street, where passersby rolled him in the West Texas sand until an ambulance arrived. For a time there was talk of freshly prosecuting Uncle Fud, but the insurance company humanely decided it would be willing to forget the fire if he would. Uncle Fud in the circumstances was inclined to agree. Until he died, however, he railed against cheating insurance companies that would take a man's premium and then desert him as soon as he had a little bad luck.
For many years my brother was the undisputed fried-chicken king of Midland, Tex.
One day a representative of Kentucky Fried Chicken -- the Colonel Sanders outfit -- tried to buy my brother out. When he declined, the Colonel Sanders bunch soon established their own fried chicken hut as near to my brother's place as the property line allowed. They erected a spiffy new sign: Kentucky Fried Chicken. It didn't have the originality of the Harlingen, Tex., roadside pig, but my brother then established a larger sign designed to appeal to xenophobics: Texas Fried Chicken. Soon Colonel Sanders' minions retaliated with a super-large sign featuring much flashy neon in many colors. A few days later my brother called and said, "I got 'em! Come by and see my new sign."
I drove up to see a simple board sign in the shape of an arrow. It began about two inches from the Colonel's fancy neon sign, pointed directly to the front door of my brother's chicken hut and said, simply, Main Entrance.
Shortly after Lyndon B. Johnson retired from the White House to his ranch, I visited home and stopped by my brother's fried chicken outlet.
After we'd exchanged pleasantries he said, "Say, I talked to an old Washington buddy of yours the other day."
"Sure you did, I said.
"Naw, I really did. 'Course, now, it wasn't easy to get him. I called every day for 17 days. Finally I told his secretary, Tom Johnson, 'Look, Tom, I'm gonna call every day until you let me talk to him.' And one morning he did."
"My God, what did you have to say to Lyndon Johnson?"
"Well, using national advertising and all, this Colonel Sanders outfit is eating me up. So I got to thinking that here in Texas, Lady Bird Fried Chicken --"
"Hell yes I did! So I told Lyndon I thought Lady Bird chicken would make a million and that I'd be glad to market it and oversee it for a good salary and a piece of the business."
"My God! Did he hang up on you?"
"Naw, he was pretty nice. He said, 'Well, now, we not thinkin' right now of exploitin' Lady Bird's name commercially. But if we ever do, I'll get in touch. You sound like a can-do man.'"
More to myself than to my brother I said, "Only in America! Can you imagine Winston Churchill in retirement and making a deal on fish-and-chips?" i
Busy popping thighs and breasts into two huge sizzling vats, my brother said, "Naw. That s--- wouldn't sell down here."
Warren Burnett is a prominent Texas lawyer who often runs to more than the mildly sardonic.
A few years ago he was selected to give the welcoming address when the Ector County Bar Association hosted the Ector County Medical Society. The purpose of this country-club social was to ease tensions between the two groups of proud professionals: They often found themselves at odds due to vigorous cross-examinations during those adversary proceedings necessary to courtroom disputes when big money is involved. For days a committee made up equally of lawyers and doctors haggled over protocol attendant to the planned peace meeting.
Perhaps the pre-program cocktail session lasted excessively long. When lawyer Burnett unsteadily climbed to his feet to "welcome" the doctors, here is what he said:
"I have watched our learned doctor friends arrive here in their Cadillacs, and their wives in precious stones and furs. And I have observed their expressions as they look about as if sniffing something slightly malodorous while considering superior secrets perhaps known only to themselves and/or God.
"I would like to remind our distinguished guests that when their professional antecessors were teaching that the night air was poisonous, and were setting leeches on George Washington's a-- the better to bleed him, my professional antecessors had written as noble a document as is known to the mind of men or angels -- the Constitution of the United States. I thank you one and all."
I served my country with John Saunders of Arlington, Va., during a time when we both held the exalted rank of Pfc. We were horsing around the company orderly room at Fort Monmouth when the telephone rang. The company clerk was not at his desk, so Pfc. Saunders picked up the phone and in a most unmilitary manner said, "Hello, go ahead, it's your nickel."
There was a spluttering on the other end of the line before the party said, "Do you know who this is?"
"Nope," said Pfc. Saunders.
"By God, this is Col. Bardwell. The post commander."
"Well," Saunders said, "do you know who this is?"
The colonel admitted that he did not.
"It's a damn good thing," Saunders said, and hung up the phone.