Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman (9 page)

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
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November 11, 1956
Eglin AFB
Fort Walton Beach, Florida


Good morning—it's now 4:26 A.M. here on Florida's beautiful gulf coast; most of the airmen are sleeping soundly, the cooks are busy preparing the swill for the morning meal, roaches are frolicking merrily in their habitats, and yours truly is merely sitting and thinking. WCKY in Cinncinnati (too many “n”s) provides a background of soft and melancholy music—provoking memories and mental meanderings. Let's meander a bit. In Budapest, a four-year-old girl, wide-eyed with fright and shivering in the cold light of dawn, huddles in a dark corner of a littered room—wondering what has happened to her parents and why no one has fed her for two days. Outside, her father lies dead, an expression of pain on his face, and covered with a light dew. The city is quiet; for death is always quiet.

In London—Anthony Eden is wondering which of England's two enemies will kill it first. If the communists don't make the kill, the Labour party is bound to. No death here—just deterioration.

In Paris—a shopkeeper prepares for church. His room above the store is cold in the morning, so he hurries to get to the church, where it is always warm. Faith is very rarely cold.

In New York—a prostitute quietly sips a cup of coffee in an all night coffee shop. The dawn outside is grey and uninviting. A cab driver sits several seats down from her; wondering if the person who left his wallet containing fifty-two dollars in his cab earlier in the evening will remember where he left it and call the office to claim it. He could buy a new jacket with some of the money; the rest would make a month's payment on the television set. The prostitute picks a dime up off the counter and plays a song on the juke box. “Turn Back the Hands of Time.” She leans on her elbows and sighs wearily; tired of business and tired of living. Life begins at forty—ha!

In Cleveland—a cold wind blows in off the lake. The lights come on in the kitchen of a small house in a residential section. Through the window, we see a pretty young wife humming as she makes coffee. A Boston bulldog sleeps in the corner. Nobody else is awake yet.

In Chicago—a very sleepy man gets slowly off a train and wanders into the coffee shop. He's going back home to Dayton, Ohio to get married to
the girl he dated all through high school. He's going back to California on his honeymoon. He's a bit actor at Universal-International.

In Louisville—Mr. [Harold] Tague turns over in his sleep, perhaps dreaming that he is back at Male, teaching English again. A light fog hovers over the baseball diamonds in Seneca Park. A light-grey Plymouth station wagon speeds out Lexington Road. Is it Bob Butler
? No, it couldn't be—he's married and has a child. Anyway, what would he be doing out at this hour of the morning? What was he always doing at this hour of the morning, speeding out Lexington Road? Damn—it does look like Butler at that. Maybe it's his ghost. Time marches on.

In Nashville—a colored porter dozes in the corner of the Tennessean Hotel. The city is not yet up and about. A phone rings, startling him out of his sleep. He slowly rises and shuffles over to answer it. By the time he gets there, it has stopped ringing. He picks it up and mumbles indistinctly into the mouthpiece. Putting it down, he shuffles slowly back to his chair.

In Tallahassee—a very pretty dark-haired girl sits up in bed and brushes the sleep from her eyes. She wonders if her date this afternoon will be as dull as the one last night. Why doesn't she go to New York and be a model—at least her dates would be exciting. She'll probably get married soon, to a dull but faithful boy, and live a life of contented boredom. Still—it would be nice.…

In New Orleans—Eichelburger staggers out of a bistro. Drunk for the first time in weeks, he draws a caustic comment from the bartender: “these goddamn college boys.”

In St. Louis—an airman sits alone at a bus stop. Broke, he wonders how he's going to get back to Scott Air Force Base. He wonders why in hell he ever left home in the first place. He had a good job at his father's store in Detroit, and now he's waiting to be shipped into the midst of a war in the Middle East. Maybe that winehead over there will give him some money. No, he looks like he hasn't had a meal in a week. Oh well. A car stops by the lake in Forest Park; the lights go out.

In Denver—a newsboy hurries through his rounds so he can get back to bed soon. The slap of a Sunday paper hitting a porch is the only sound to break the chilly silence. He folds another paper and hurries down the street.

In San Francisco—life goes on. Hopes rise and dreams flicker and die. Love plans for tomorrow and loneliness thinks of yesterday. Life is beautiful and living is pain. The sound of music floats down a dark street. A young girl looks out a window and wishes she were married. A drunk sleeps under a bridge. It is tomorrow.

In Fort Walton Beach—an Air Policeman looks into the newspaper offices at Eglin Air Force Base and wonders if that fool in there is looting the place or if he is crazy enough to be working. A station in Tallahassee is broadcasting some sort of religious music. Yours truly prepares to leave the office and go eat breakfast before going to bed. He will sleep most of the day and work all night again tonight. Tomorrow is a holiday. He is not particularly happy, but neither is he particularly sad. He just sits … and thinks … and wonders.

I just thought I'd put some of my thoughts into writing. Thanks for your last letter and write again when you have the time. I always enjoy hearing from you. Good luck and here's hoping that you're always “shoe.”

your friend,


A beautiful Louisville debutante, Stellings dated Thompson in high school. While in the Air Force he often wrote her about his dislike for the military and his longing for the Bluegrass State. During his stint at Eglin Thompson immersed himself in the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald—as evidenced by the “green light” here, among other things.

November 18, 1956
Eglin AFB
Fort Walton Beach, Florida

Dear Judy:

Sorry I haven't written sooner, but as you will see when you read a little further on, I'm busy about 25 hours a day, and must squeeze my letter-writing into odd moments.

Right now, I'm about 6000 feet above Montgomery, Alabama, en route from Shreveport, Louisiana to Eglin. I'm ensconced in the rear of a C-47, sitting on one parachute and resting my typewriter on another. Having just finished writing up the two games we played with Barksdale AFB this weekend, I became rather tired of writing about basketball and remembered that I still hadn't answered your letter. Even though my fingers are almost numb from the cold, I'm still able to pound out one or two incoherent, but faintly intelligible sentences.

I've recently discovered that this traveling with the team is quite a racket. We leave on Friday morning and return on Sunday night. I get
three dollars a game for acting as official scorer, am exempt from the training restrictions imposed on the players, and have all but about 2 hours of the weekend to myself.

All in all, my whole setup here is almost too good to be true. I no longer am forced to pull that ghastly KP—or any other degrading work for that matter—I have no regular working hours, and considerable power. Actually, it's no power, but a control of what gets into the sports section and what is junked. You'd be surprised at the things people will do in order to get their names or pictures into the paper.

Pause for dramatic description—it is now becoming dark outside, but it's a different kind of dark than we see on the ground. I can look down and see that it must be quite dark below, but there are no clouds up here to blot out the last rays of the sun. The little green light on the wing-tip is blinking against a background of a combination of orange and grey. Looking out at the quivering wing, I expect it to break off at any moment and send us all hurtling to the ground. Needless to say, it would be quite a fall and this letter would undoubtedly not be delivered. Now it has suddenly become pitch black outside and I can see nothing but the little green light—ah well—it really wasn't such a stirring sight after all.

As this letter probably won't get to you until after Thanksgiving, there is no need in my saying that I won't make it to New York for the Holidays. Instead of going to Bolling (in Washington) with the team, I'm going to spend a few days in Louisville; submerged in deep discussion with Joe and Noonan.
From all appearances, they will be the only people who will make it home and not to New York. However, we'll probably become liquified and drop in on Butler for a quiet sort of orgy. At any rate, it should be pleasant.

One last note before I go—I think we're getting ready to land—I have a somewhat urgent desire for my Male ring. I have no idea whether you still have it or not; but I imagine—and hope—that you do. It would be awfully clever of you to bundle it up in a small package and send it down this way. In return for that kindness, I shall steal a very valuable model plane from the display case in the office, and make you a present of the thing. I'll probably have to get all my Christmas presents out of that case, and there will undoubtedly be some sort of uproar concerning the disappearances. However, that is immaterial.

There is no more time to be had; we are bouncing around in preparation for a landing and I must finish here. Write again soon and I'll try to give out with a better reply. Chances are that I won't make it home for Christmas, although I'll make a wild effort to pull some sort of string.

That's all—
ears popping,


His status as sports editor of the
Command Courier
appealed to Thompson immensely. Suddenly his “voice” was being read by thousands. Enamored of the power of the printed word, he declared journalism his vocation.

December 1, 1956
Eglin AFB, Florida


Yes … if you'll forgive the repetitiousness of your own phrase, the “gap was rather gaping.” As a matter of fact, it has been almost seven or eight months since I've been favored with one of your unique examples of the much-slighted art of written communication. However, you hit a sore spot when you launched into this “you aren't the only one” kick. For the past four months, I've made an intensive and amazingly successful effort to convince everyone around me that I'm Hunter S. Thompson, the Sports Editor of the
Command Courier,
and am definitely not to be included in
group. So far, I've individualized myself to the point that people don't quite know what to make of me anymore. I wear blue button-down-collar shirts instead of Air Force shirts, I keep my own hours, I've turned one corner of the
office into my own private den—book shelf and radio-phono included—which makes night work quite pleasant, I pull
detail or KP, I'm
Thompson to any and all publicity seekers, and, in short, I've turned into a conceited, arrogant bastard! So you see that your including me in the mob, which has breathlessly awaited some word from one D. P. [Porter] Bibb, was more of an insult than soothing balm for an injured ego.

No more than an hour ago, I laid the framework for what—if it is successful—will be the most incredible of all the Thompson coups to date. For the price of two new footballs and weekly publicity—I will be made an honorary member of the Eglin NCO [Noncommissioned Officers'] club.
Naturally, the publicity will be for said club. You'd have to be in the air force to actually understand the full meaning of such a triumph. At the moment, the only thing which would compare to it would be for the Hon. Mr. [Gamal Abdel] Nasser to be appointed to the Order of the Garter. It will mean that I will then enjoy almost all the privileges of a Master Sergeant, save pay. As sports editor, I already have far more prestige than any Master Sergeant cook, mechanic, clerk, or any other such lowly occupation.

The whole secret of this sort of thing seems to be tied up in the old saying, “one good turn deserves another.” And being in a top position on the staff of the only official publicity organ on the base puts me in the position of having a ready-made “good turn” at my constant disposal. Soon I'll be so crooked that I'll have to screw my pants on in the morning. Seriously though, some of these people around here would make Boss Tweed look like an amateur. This word “politics” damn sure applies to more than the presidential elections.

Right now, I'm just getting over an afternoon of drinking at the NCO club—at the entertainment manager's expense. I'm trying to get into a productive mood and whip up a story or so for this week's sports section, but I've become entranced with the possibilities of more Saturday afternoons of the same alcoholic nature and find it impossible to concentrate on the constant and miserable failures of the base basketball team.

Now that I've tooted my own horn in the best egotistical fashion for a full page, I'll get around to what I started to say in the distant beginning.

In the first place, just what is this thing I saw in the
about you broadcasting the election returns four hours before all the major networks? Secondly, fill me in on your activities with the
Yale Daily News.
(I didn't know that Eli had a daily, but that's beside the point.) First I find out that [Joe] Bell is working for the
Ring Tum Phi
(school paper) at W & L [Washington & Lee University], and then it leaks out that you're garnering experience on the
This thing could have such momentous consequences that I shudder slightly when I think of it. […]

The T-day tippling you spoke of fell far short of my expectations, but oddly enough, I still had a very enjoyable visit. The weekend was marred by a somewhat shocking adventure on the part of one R. B. [Bob] Butler. Then too, I learned that Reed
had been ousted from Stanford for cheating. These two revelations caused me to look below me to make sure my underpinnings were still in place. Two such omens in the space of two days came as quite a jolt. However, I think my aforementioned underpinnings are in my mind, rather than below me, and I feel better now than I did before.

BOOK: Proud Highway:Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman
3.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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