There are no jokes. Truth is the funniest joke of all.
-- Muhammad Ali
The Mailbox: Louisville, Summer of 1946
My parents were decent people, and I was raised, like my friends, to believe that Police were our friends and protectors -- the Badge was a symbol of extremely high authority, perhaps the highest of all. Nobody ever asked why. It was one of those unnatural questions that are better left alone. If you had to ask that, you were sure as hell Guilty of something and probably should have been put behind bars a long time ago. It was a no-win situation.
My first face-to-face confrontation with the FBI occurred when I was nine years old. Two grim-looking Agents came to our house and terrified my parents by saying that I was a "prime suspect" in the case of a Federal Mailbox being turned over in the path of a speeding bus. It was a Federal Offense, they said, and carried a five-year prison sentence.
"Oh no!" wailed my mother. "Not in prison! That's insane! He's only a child. How could he have known?"
"The warning is clearly printed on the Mailbox," said the agent in the gray suit. "He's old enough to read."
"Not necessarily," my father said sharply. "How do you know he's not blind, or a moron?"
"Are you a moron, son?" the agent asked me. "Are you blind? Were you just pretending to read that newspaper when we came in?" He pointed to the Louisville Courier-Journal on the couch.
"That was only the sports section," I told him. "I can't read the other stuff."
"See?" said my father. "I told you he was a moron."
"Ignorance of the law is no excuse," the brown-suit agent replied. "Tampering with the U.S. Mail is a Federal offense punishable under Federal law. That Mailbox was badly damaged."
Mailboxes were huge, back then. They were heavy green vaults that stood like Roman mile markers at corners on the neighborhood bus routes and were rarely, if ever, moved. I was barely tall enough to reach the Mail-drop slot, much less big enough to turn the bastard over and into the path of a bus. It was clearly impossible that I could have committed this crime without help, and that was what they wanted: names and addresses, along with a total confession. They already knew I was guilty, they said, because other culprits had squealed on me. My parents hung their heads, and I saw my mother weeping.
I had done it, of course, and I had done it with plenty of help. It was carefully plotted and planned, a deliberate ambush that we set up and executed with the fiendish skill that smart nine-year-old boys are capable of when they have too much time on their hands and a lust for revenge on a rude and stupid bus driver who got a kick out of closing his doors and pulling away just as we staggered to the top of the hill and begged him to let us climb on....He was new on the job, probably a brain-damaged substitute, filling in for our regular driver, who was friendly and kind and always willing to wait a few seconds for children rushing to school. Every kid in the neighborhood agreed that this new swine of a driver was a sadist who deserved to be punished, and the Hawks A.C. were the ones to do it. We saw it more as a duty than a prank. It was a brazen Insult to the honor of the whole neighborhood.
We would need ropes and pulleys and certainly no witnesses to do the job properly. We had to tilt the iron monster so far over that it was perfectly balanced to fall instantly, just as the fool zoomed into the bus stop at his usual arrogant speed. All that kept the box more or less upright was my grip on a long "invisible" string that we had carefully stretched all the way from the corner and across about 50 feet of grass lawn to where we crouched out of sight in some bushes.
The rig worked perfectly. The bastard was right on schedule and going too fast to stop when he saw the thing falling in front of him....The collision made a horrible noise, like a bomb going off or a freight train exploding in Germany. That is how I remember it, at least. It was the worst noise I'd ever heard. People ran screaming out of their houses like chickens gone crazy with fear. They howled at one another as the driver stumbled out of his bus and collapsed in a heap on the grass....The bus was empty of passengers, as usual at the far end of the line. The man was not injured, but he went into a foaming rage when he spotted us fleeing down the hill and into a nearby alley. He knew in a flash who had done it, and so did most of the neighbors.
"Why deny it, Hunter?" said one of the FBI agents. "We know exactly what happened up there on that corner on Saturday. Your buddies already confessed, son. They squealed on you. We know you did it, so don't lie to us now and make things worse for yourself. A nice kid like you shouldn't have to go to Federal prison." He smiled again and winked at my father, who responded with a snarl: "Tell the Truth, damn it! Don't lie to these men. They have witnesses!" The FBI agents nodded grimly at each other and moved as if to take me into custody.
It was a magic moment in my life, a defining instant for me or any other nine-year-old boy growing up in the 1940s after World War II -- and I clearly recall thinking: Well, this is it. These are G-Men....
WHACK! Like a flash of nearby lightning that lights up the sky for three or four terrifying split seconds before you hear the thunder -- a matter of zepto-seconds in real time -- but when you are a nine-year-old boy with two (2) full-grown FBI agents about to seize you and clap you in Federal prison, a few quiet zepto-seconds can seem like the rest of your life....And that's how it felt to me that day, and in grim retrospect, I was right. They had me, dead to rights. I was Guilty. Why deny it? Confess Now, and throw myself on their mercy, or --
What? What if I didn't confess? That was the question. And I was a curious boy, so I decided, as it were, to roll the dice and ask them a question.
"Who?" I said. "What witnesses?"
It was not a hell of a lot to ask, under those circumstances -- and I really did want to know exactly who among my best friends and blood brothers in the dreaded Hawks A.C. had cracked under pressure and betrayed me to these thugs, these pompous brutes and toadies with badges & plastic cards in their wallets that said they worked for
J. Edgar Hoover and that they had the Right, and even the duty, to put me in jail, because they'd heard a "Rumor in the neighborhood" that some of my boys had gone belly up and rolled on me. What? No. Impossible.
Or not likely, anyway. Hell, Nobody squealed on the Hawks A.C., or not on its President, anyway. Not on Me. So I asked again: "Witnesses? What Witnesses?"
? ? ?
And that was all it took, as I recall. We observed a moment of silence, as my old friend Edward Bennett Williams would say. Nobody spoke -- especially not me -- and when my father finally broke the eerie silence, there was doubt in his voice. "I think my son has a point, officer. Just exactly who have you talked to? I was about to ask that myself."
"Not Duke!" I shouted. "He went to Lexington with his father! And not Ching! And not Jay!-- "
"Shut up," said my father. "Be quiet and let me handle this, you fool."
And that's what happened, folks. We never saw those FBI agents again. Never. And I learned a powerful lesson: Never believe the first thing an FBI agent tells you about anything -- especially not if he seems to believe you are guilty of a crime. Maybe he has no evidence. Maybe he's bluffing. Maybe you are innocent. Maybe. The Law can be hazy on these things....But it is definitely worth a roll.
In any case, nobody was arrested for that alleged incident. The FBI agents went away, the U.S. Mailbox was put back up on its heavy iron legs, and we never saw that drunken swine of a substitute bus driver again.
Would You Do It Again?
That story has no moral -- at least not for smart people -- but it taught me many useful things that shaped my life in many fateful ways. One of them was knowing the difference between Morality and Wisdom. Morality is temporary, Wisdom is permanent....Ho ho. Take that one to bed with you tonight.
In the case of the fallen mailbox, for instance, I learned that the FBI was not unbeatable, and that is a very important lesson to learn at the age of nine in America. Without it, I would be an entirely different man today, a product of an utterly different environment. I would not be talking to you this way, or sitting alone at this goddamn typewriter at 4:23 A.M. with an empty drink beside me and an unlit cigarette in my mouth and a naked woman singing "Porgy & Bess" on TV across the room.
On one wall I see an eight-foot, two-handled logging saw with 200 big teeth and CONFESSIONS OF THE BEST PIECE OF ASS IN THE WORLD scrawled in gold letters across the long rusty saw blade....At one end of it hangs a petrified elk's leg and a finely painted wooden bird from Russia that allegedly signifies peace, happiness & prosperity for all who walk under it.
That strange-looking bird has hung there for 15 extremely active years, no doubt for sentimental reasons, and this is the first time I have thought about adding up the score. Has this graven image from ancient Russian folk art been a good influence on my life? Or a bad one? Should I pass it on to my son and my grandson? Or should I take it out in the yard and execute it like a traitorous whore?
That is the Real question. Should the bird live and be worshiped for generations to come? Or should it die violently for bringing me bad luck?
The ramifications of that question are intimidating. Is it wise to add up the Score right now? What if I come out a Loser? Ye gods, let's be careful about this. Have we wandered into dangerous territory?
Indeed. At this point in my life I don't need a rush to judgment, whatever it is. Only a superstitious native would believe that kind of bullshit, anyway.
? ? ?
Suddenly I heard Anita screeching from the office, as if a fire had erupted somewhere on the other side of the house. Wonderful, I thought. I am a lucky man to get a break like this. Bring it on. Attack it now. I reached for a red 20-pound fire extinguisher near the door, thinking finally to have some real fun.
Ah, but it was not to be. Anita came rushing around the corner with a computer printout in her hands. "The President is threatening to seize the Saudi Arabian oil fields if they don't help us wipe out the Evil of Terrorism -- seize them by military force." The look on her face was stricken, as if World War IV had just started. "This is insane!" she wailed. "We can't just go over there and invade Saudi Arabia."
I put my arm around her and flipped the dial to CNN, which was showing Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld waving his cast at the camera like a clenched fist as he denounced the rumor as "nonsense" and once again threatened to "track down and eliminate" these "irresponsible leaks" to the press from somewhere in the bowels of the Pentagon. He wanted to Punish somebody immediately. Of Course the United States would not declare war on a close Arab ally like the Saudis. That would be insane.
"Not necessarily," I said, "at least not until it turns into a disastrous botch and Bush gets burned at the stake in Washington. Sane is rich and powerful; Insane is wrong and poor and weak. The rich are Free, the poor are put in cages." Res Ipsa Loquitur, Amen, Mahalo....
? ? ?
Okay, and so much for that, eh? No more of these crude hashish ravings. What if the bird says I am wrong and have been wrong all my life?
Certainly I would not be entirely comfortable sitting here by myself and preparing, once again, to make terminal judgments on the President of the United States of America on the brink of a formal war with a whole world of Muslims....No. That would make me a traitor and a dangerous Security Risk, a Terrorist, a monster in the eyes of the Law.
Well, shucks. What can I say? We are coming to a big fork in the road for this country, another ominous polarization between right and wrong, another political mandate to decide "Which side are you on?"...Maybe a bumper sticker that asks ARE YOU SANE OR INSANE?
I have confronted that question on a daily basis all my life, as if it were just another form to fill out, and on most days I have checked off the SANE box -- if only because I am not dead or in prison or miserable in my life.
? ? ?
There is no shortage of dangerous gibberish in the classrooms and courts of this nation. Weird myths and queer legends are coins of the realm in our culture, like passwords or keys to survival. Not even a monster with rabies would send his child off to school with a heart full of hate for Santa Claus or Jesus or the Tooth Fairy. That would not be fair to the child. He (or she) would be shunned & despised like a Leper by his classmates & even his teachers, and he will not come home with good report cards. He will soon turn to wearing black raincoats & making ominous jokes about Pipe Bombs.
Weird behavior is natural in smart children, just as curiosity is to a kitten. I was no stranger to it myself, as a youth growing up in Kentucky. I had a keen appetite for adventure, which soon led me into a maze of complex behavioral experiments that my parents found hard to explain. I was a popular boy, with acceptable grades & a vaguely promising future, but I was cursed with a dark sense of humor that made many adults afraid of me, for reasons they couldn't quite put their fingers on....
But I was a juvenile delinquent. I was Billy the Kid of Louisville. I was a "criminal": I stole things, destroyed things, drank. That's all you have to do if you're a criminal. In the sixth grade I was voted head of the Safety Patrol -- the kids who wear the badges and stop traffic during recesses and patrol. It was a very big position, and the principal hated that I was voted to it. She said, "This is horrible. We can't have Hunter doing anything. He's a Little Hitler." I wasn't sure what that meant, but I think it meant I had a natural sway over many students. And that I should probably be lobotomized for the good of the society.
I always figured I would live on the margins of society, part of a very small Outlaw segment. I have never been approved by any majority. Most people assume it's difficult to live this way, and they are right -- they're still trying to lock me up all the time. I've been very careful about urging people who cannot live outside the law to throw off the traces and run amok. Some are not made for the Outlaw life.
The only things I've ever been arrested for, it turns out, are things I didn't do. All the "crimes" I really committed were things that were usually an accident. Every time they got me, I happened to be in the wrong place and too enthusiastic. It was just the general feeling that I shouldn't be allowed to get away with it.
? ? ?
It may be that every culture needs an Outlaw god of some kind, and maybe this time around I'm it. Who knows? I haven't studied it, but the idea just came to me in a flash as I read Peter Whitmer's article about me in the Jan/Feb 1984 Saturday Review.
I think of Lono, Robin Hood & Bacchus & the Greeks with their fat young boys & the Irish with their frantic drunken worship of doomed heroes....Jesus, I'll bet that even the Swedes have some kind of Outlaw god.
But there is no mention of good Outlaws in the Holy Bible, I think -- mainly because of The Church & all its spin-offs that believe in total punishment for all sinners. The Bible makes no exceptions for good-hearted social outlaws. They are all cast into the Lake of Fire. Punishment. Fuck those people.
(Pause For Interruption)
Sorry, that was a call from Newsweek in New York, asking what I thought about the "shocking Mutombo-Van Horne trade" today, a major shift in the power balance of the NBA East that I was only vaguely aware of. It meant that the 76ers would be rid of that flashy albino pussy who always failed in the clutch. It made perfect sense to me, and that is why I picked up the telephone....What the hell? I thought. People ask me these questions because they know I am a famous sportswriter.
"The trade is meaningless," I said. "It is like trading a used mattress for a $300 bill."
And that was that, apparently. The writer was suddenly called away from his desk and hung up on me. So what? I thought. I didn't want to talk to him anyway. I had serious work to do, and Anita was getting hungry. It was time for another road trip.
? ? ?
There are eight or nine truly exotic towns to visit in the great American West, but Thomasville, Colorado, is not one of them. Richard Nixon doomed the town when he reluctantly signed the Clean Air Act of 1970 -- which soon led to the forcible closing of both the town's gas stations because their 50-year-old underground storage tanks were rusted out and leaking rotten gasoline into the tumbling white waters of the Frying Pan River, a once-famous trout-fishing mecca.
It took us about five hours to climb the 30 steep miles up to Thomasville. I was driving my trusty Red Shark, a rebuilt 1973 454 Chevy Caprice with power windows and heated seats and a top speed of 135 -- although not on a winding uphill two-lane blacktop that rises 6,000 feet in 30 miles. That is serious climbing, from summer heat and peach trees up to chilly bleak timberline and then to the snowcapped peaks of the Continental Divide, where wild beasts roam and humans live in pain. This is the road that leads up to the dreaded Hagerman Pass.
But not yet. No, we are getting ahead of our story, and only a jackass would do that...
? ? ?
We were almost to Thomasville when I noticed a cluster of flashing police lights and a cop of some kind standing in the middle of the road waving a red flag. "Oh Jesus," I groaned. "What the fuck is this?" Anita was scrambling to get a half-gallon jug of Chivas Regal out of sight -- which is not an easy thing to do in a huge red convertible with the top down and a beautiful half-naked girl leaning over the backseat. People will stare.
In any case, we soon learned that "the new plan, just in from Washington" is to keep weirdos, foreigners, and other dangerous bad apples out of all National Forests in the nation, lest they set fires and spread anthrax or anything else that swarthy terrorists are wont to do....They are Evil, they are savage, and they must be arrested before they set fire to the whole goddamn country.
I have never had any special fear of Foreigners, myself, but I recognize a nationwide nervous breakdown when I see one. It is EMBARRASSING, for openers, AND IT SUCKS.
? ? ?
Most people are happy on Fridays, but not me -- at least not yesterday, when I drove up the mountain to assess the fire-fighting & water-flow capacity of a bleak mountain community called Thomasville, on the map and right smack in the middle of a National Forest tinderbox that is already burning with monster firestorms that leap from hill to hill like summer lightning and kill everything they can reach.
? ? ?
Big Fire is a terrifying thing to deal with up close, and you never forget it -- the panic, the heat, the deafening roar of the flames overhead. I feel queasy every time I think about it....If freezing to death is the nicest way to die, then burning to death in a forest fire is no doubt the ugliest. Beware. Fire is like lightning; they will both kill you, but lightning doesn't hurt as much. It is a monumental WHACK with no warning at all, and hopefully that is it -- gone, no more, and minimal mortuary charges.
Surviving a lightning strike is even worse than dying from it, according to people who have lived (returned from the dead, in fact) because 8,000,000,000 volts of electricity is an unacceptable trauma to tissue of the human body. It fries everything in its path and leaves every organ in the body, from blood vessels to brain cells and even the sexual system, charred like overcooked bacon for the rest of its delicate life.
My friend Tex got hit by lightning one gloomy afternoon in the parking lot of the Woody Creek Tavern. "It kicked the mortal shit out of me," he said later. "It blasted me fifty goddamn feet across the road and over a snow fence. I was out for forty minutes, and when I woke up I smelled like death."
I was there that day, and I thought a bomb had gone off right in front of me. I was unconscious for a while, but not for long. When I woke up I was being dragged toward a shiny sky-blue ambulance by two well-meaning medics from the Sheriff's Office....I twisted out of their grasp and backed against an ice machine. "Okay, boys," I said calmly, "the Joke is over. Let's not get crazy about this. Give me some air, gentlemen," I croaked. "I feel a little jangled, but I know it will pass. Get your hands off me, you pigfucker."
No doubt it sounded rude to casual onlookers, but in truth it was not. I was just kidding with them. They know me.
? ? ?
Friday afternoons are usually loose and happy in this valley, but today was different. I live in the mountains at an altitude of 8,000 feet, which is roughly a mile and a half high. That is "big air," as they say in the zoom-zoom business. It makes for large lungs and thin blood, along with dangerously expensive real estate. Life has always been a little spooky up here, but now as this vicious new century swarms over us like a fester of kudzu vines, life in these mountains is becoming living relentless hell.
The whole state of Colorado is on fire, according to The New York Times, and the nerdish Republican Governor is raving like a banshee about the death of Colorado as we know it before the summer is over.
That would be about 90 days, on most calendars -- or right about September 11, 2002, only one horrible year after those stupid bastards blew up the WTC...We will actually be at war by then, and anybody who doesn't like it will be locked up in a military holding pen.
? ? ?
Weird things happen when you get whacked by serious lightning. Many years ago, nineteen (19) members of the Strange family in North Carolina were struck at the same instant when they all leaned against a chain-link fence at a July 4 fireworks display. They all survived, but none prospered. It was like some horrible merciless coincidence out of the Old Testament -- or extremely bad karma, to millions of non-Christians, among whom I definitely count myself. I have abandoned all forms & sects of the practicing Christian Church.
I have seen thousands of priests and bishops and even the Pope himself transmogrified in front of our eyes into a worldwide network of thieves and perverts and sodomites who relentlessly penetrate children of all genders and call it holy penance for being born guilty in the eyes of the Church.
I have seen the Jews run amok in Palestine like bloodthirsty beasts with no shame, and six million brainless Baptists demanding the death penalty without any trial at all for pagans and foreigners and people like me who won't pray with them in those filthy little shacks they call churches. They are like a swarm of rats fleeing a swoop fire, and I want no part of them. Indeed, I have my own faith and my own gods to worship, and I have been doing it with a certain amount of distinction for ten thousand years, like some fine atomic clock with ever-lasting batteries.
Whoops! I have wandered off on some kind of vengeful tangent, here, and we don't really need it now, do we? So let us save that wisdom for later.
Copyright © 2003 by Gonzo International Corp.
Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century
Kingdom of Fear
Loathsome Secrets of a Star-Crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century
Brilliant, provocative, outrageous, and brazen, Hunter S. Thompson's infamous rule breaking—in his journalism, in his life, and under the law—changed the shape of American letters, and the face of American icons.
Call it the evolution of an outlaw. Here are the formative experiences that comprise Thompson’s legendary trajectory alongside the weird and the ugly. Whether detailing his exploits as a foreign correspondent in Rio, his job as night manager of the notorious O’Farrell Theatre in San Francisco, his epic run for sheriff of Aspen on the Freak Power ticket, or the sensational legal maneuvering that led to his full acquittal in the famous 99 Days trial, Thompson is at the peak of his narrative powers in Kingdom of Fear. And this boisterous, blistering ride illuminates as never before the professional and ideological risk taking of a literary genius and transgressive icon.
- Simon & Schuster |
- 384 pages |
- ISBN 9780684873244 |
- November 2003
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