They laid Hobart Wilson in the ground last week. The people who stuck by him -- his mother, his wife, his boy Junebug and a handful of other kin -- slid the metal coffin over the tailgate of the family's two-tone pickup truck. Then they drove all night in the rain with the body, 500 wet and winding miles from a small brown house in Silver Spring to a grave beside Wilson's father in Harlan County, Ky.
Hobart Wilson was 26 when he crashed head-on into another car near Bowie the Friday before last, killing himself and a luckless stranger, Gilbert C. Layton, 51, of Crofton. Wilson had been driving 100 mph in the wrong lane. The impact splayed open the other car with such force that it jarred the needle off the speedometer. Fire gutted Wilson's car. But, save family, people familiar with him mourned mostly for the innocent, other motorist, for there was not much redeeming about Hobart Wilson's life.
"Hobart Wilson?" said an invesigator in the sheriff's office. "Do you always write about garbage?"
Even so, he was one of a kind, a man of the fiercest pride, a poor, white country boy known by judges and wardens and lawyers and police as one of the most notorious characters in Montgomery County.
Wilson was crippled from the waist down when he fell off a tractor 21 years ago. In courtrooms and bars and suburban streets people would stare as he crabbed along on a custom-built, skateboard-like contraption made of 3/4-inch plywood and grocery-cart wheels. It was padded with foam rubber, covered with blue velour, and measured 4 feet long. It was wide enough for Wilson to rest comfortably on folded elbow. When he was in the county detention center, he carried a can of STP to keep the wheels oiled.
The board on wheels that Wilson built gave him the mobility that the world had taken away. It was his signature, the inspiration of an adamantly self-reliant man. On his wheeled board he was a freakish sight, scudding around downtown Rockville like a man who had long ago shed his obligations to society. He would dart under trucks and cross against the lights.
He didn't see himself as handicapped and he spurned help from those who did, dragging himself up stairs with his long tattoo-covered arms. Though his legs were the size of broomsticks, he could lift 130 pounds with his arms.
In a way his arms were his life. He had inscribed his world on them in tattoo ink: a rose with his wife Vickie's name, a design with his father's name, and his son's name, Hobart III, known as Junebug. And there was a tattoo for the man himself whose wife and mother and friends knew as Junior. It said, "Born to Lose."
"I don't think Junior was treated fairly," said Vickie Wilson. "Nobody disliked him but police and judges. I know he wasn't all good. I know he had a high temper and a grudge against the world. But how would you feel if you were him and you heard people making smirky remarks? Would you feel like obeying their code? He never complained. I never heard him say 'I wish it could be different.' He thought that's the way it was, that's the way it is, that's the way it's gonna be."
Even as a juvenile, Hobart Wilson lived by some code that derived from hugging the ground and fixing dinner on a hot plate on the floor when nobody was around to cook. And from a certain perverse point of view, his grotesque and comic history of roguish feats and criminal offenses would be an achievement even for a hellion who could walk.
Wilson and the law go back more than a dozen years. Police would often find weird grocery-cart wheel tracks in the mud behind buildings that had been burglarized. As an adult he was convicted of weapons charges, drunk driving, resisting arrest, trespassing, breaking into stores, malicious destruction of property (stabbing four Michelin tires), maiming and other charges.
He liked to drink and he liked to drive (with special hand controls) and he liked to carry an Old Timer knife sharp enough to shave the hair off his arms. He propped himself up on his board like the Sphinx and did not care for anyone who gawked at him. He would as soon fight the gapers and wiseguys as suffer them, his strategy being to catch the feet of opponents, trip them, and then lunge off his wheeled board when they were came out the worse for wear -- when he was 23 he suffered a knife wound that took 20 stitches to close -- but for the most part, Wilson was a terror of the lower echelon.
Wilson was the youngest of Lucille Wilson's four boys. He was born in Pineville, Ky., one of seven children. The family moved to Montgomery when Hobart was 3 and lived all over the county as he grew up. He was 5 when he fell off a tractor.
"After the accident, they told me he wouldn't live a year, but with the help of the Lord he lived 21," said Lucille Wilson. "He was the baby, he always got what he wanted. If he said 'Let's have lemon pie tonight,' why there'd be a lemon pie."
When he wasn't in the hospital with kidney stones as big a Ping-Pong balls, and other complications relating to his paralysis, he was under a car. Cars and clothes were his passions. He was considered an expert mechanic, and as a stock-car racer in Frederick he won several trophies. In his brief life, his nephew Tommy guesses that Hobart Wilson owned 35 to 40 cars. For every car he had at least two silk shirts, and he always wore dressy pants, even when he went out on a job for the family landscape business and had to lie in the dirt to wrap burlap around plants.
His traffic violations did not approach his shirts in sheer quantity, but they were numerous, too. One in 1976 -- failure to keep right of center -- eerily foreshodowed the final crash. In the course of his life, Wilson was in trouble with the law so often that police dubbed the incline for the handicapped at the Rockville station, the Hobart Wilson ramp.
Police and judges say he tried to outfox the system, using his plight to garner sympathy. In all his district court cases, Wilson asked for jury trials, and even if he didn't win an acquittal, he might get off with a suspended sentence. Eventually, though, the system got wise.
"He was known to every judge in this court and in the district court too," recalled Judge Philip M. Fairbanks, whose name inevitably surfaces when people talk about Hobart Wilson.
A few years ago Fairbanks, one of the circuit's sterner judges, revoked Wilson's probation and sentenced him to 3 1/2 years in jail. One of the most famous bits of dialogue in the County Courthouse ensued as Wilson was rolling out of Courtroom 4, having spent most of the afternoon craning up at the judge as the judge had spent it peering down at him:
Court: "I'm not going to change my mind . . .Mr. Wilson has been a problem and he's just going . . ."
The defendant: "Can I say something now?"
Court: You can say anything you want."
The defendant: "You're a common son of a bitch."
"I had a terrible time keeping a straight face," Fairbanks recalled, particularly savoring the qualifying "common." The transcript of the exchange hangs on his office wall, a gift from a bunch of assistant state's attorneys. "If I'd been down there I'd probably recall the guy up here the same thing," Fairbanks said. "He was so unusual physically and in his inability to conform to the rules of society."
In jail, Wilson was nearly as much trouble as he was free. County detention officials remember a time when he threw a tantrum. Rather then be confined to a cell, he stuck an atrophied leg through the bars and snapped the bone like a twig. It caused him no pain, and he was removed to the medical section.
Wilson had just gotten out of the detention center the Sunday before the fatal crash. That Thursday night he went to visit his sister, planning to be gone a couple of hours. Vickie Wilson said she would have some scallops waiting for him when he got back. It took him 5 minutes to put the hand controls into her Camaro.
"He said, 'I'll see you in a little while.' I said, 'Okay,' and that was goodbye," Vickie Wilson said. She fell silent for a while.
At last she said: "I think he should have one decent thing said about him. If any of the high society took the time to talk to him they'd see what a kind person he was, but they always had to be smart to him. Well, they can say what they want now. He's by his father where won't nobody push him no more."