Teaching the Pig to Dance
A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances
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Fred Thompson has enjoyed a remarkable career in Hollywood and politics, but when he sat down to write a memoir about how he got to be the person he is, he discovered that his best stories all seemed to come out of the years he spent growing up in and around his hometown of Lawrenceburg, Tennessee. It was a small town but not the smallest—after all, it was the county seat and it did have a courthouse, a couple of movie theaters, and its own Davy Crockett statue. For truly small, you had to travel to nearby Summertown, where the regular Sunday dinner was possum and chocolate gravy. But Lawrenceburg is where Fred got to be a kid, get in his share of trouble and scrapes, get to know folks he didn’t realize were so colorful at the time but sure does now, get married, have a few kids, become a man, and start his career as a country lawyer (pretty much in that order). And as Fred tells it, getting that law degree was something of a surprise for him, since in school he’d been less than stellar as a scholar. “Teaching Latin to someone like me,” he says, “was like trying to teach a pig to dance. It’s a waste of the teacher’s time and it irritates the pig.”
In these reflections, as hilarious as they are honest and warm, Fred touches on the influences—family, hometown neighbors and teachers, team sports, jobs, romances, and personal crises—that molded his character, his politics, and the way he looks at life today. We get to know the unforgettable characters who congregated at the Blue Ribbon Café, like the rotund gentleman called “Shorty” whose claim to fame was his ability to quickly suck in his stomach and cause his pants to fall to the floor. Or Fred’s Grandma Thompson, who became an early TV adopter for the sole purpose of watching “Wrestling from Hollywood” and who once had a “gourder” removed from her neck and subsequently walked around town with it in a handkerchief showing it to folks. One day Fred and an accomplice placed small explosive Fourth of July “cracker balls” under the four legs of their teacher’s chair. Mrs. Garner sat down and, despite the racket, didn’t flinch so much as a muscle—but Fred felt a twinge of the one emotion he hated most—shame. Fred idolized Coach Staggs from his high school football days, even though he was “like Captain Ahab without the humor” and didn’t like smart alecks, comics, or individualists, which put the young Fred at a disadvantage. More than anyone else from those days though, Fred remembers his mom and dad, who taught him that kids are shaped most of all by the love and support they can take for granted.
Teaching the Pig to Dance will delight everyone who admires Fred Thompson for his contributions to politics or for his work in movies and on TV, along with all those who just love to hear rollicking but unforgettable stories about growing up in a place where, as one of the local old timers put it, “We weren’t big enough to have a town drunk, so a few of us had to take turns.”
From the Hardcover edition.
The Crown Publishing Group
; May 2010
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Title: Teaching the Pig to Dance
Author: Fred Thompson
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I n the part of the country where I come from, most people are proud of their hometown. Folks in Linden, Tennessee, are a good example of that. Situated in rural country in Middle Tennessee, about fifty-seven miles from where I grew up, Linden had about a thousand residents. One day during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the coffee drinkers at the drugstore on the town square noticed out the window that one of the local good old boys had his pickup truck loaded with what appeared to be his worldly possessions. As he walked into the drugstore to buy supplies, one of the coffee-drinking busybodies said to him:
“Lem, looks like you’re moving out. What’s up?”
“Ain’t you boys heard about the missile crisis?” Lem replied.
The fellow answered, “Yeah, but what makes you think they’re gonna bomb Linden?”
Lem said, “It’s the county seat, ain’t it?”
Well, Lawrenceburg is a county seat, too. This meant that Lawrenceburg had a courthouse with a square. Every courthouse in the state was located to be not more than a half day’s horse ride from any part of the county. It also meant that Lawrenceburg was the location of the county fair. As the center of county culture, it had a movie theater. And it had an organized Little League. In short, growing up in the county seat was pretty much a privileged situation.
Like thousands of little towns across America, it was populated mostly by folks who had grown up on the farm and come to town to enjoy the fruits of a better life. Usually having little in the way of a formal education, a man’s reputation for hard work and keeping his word were his most valuable assets. That’s the way it was with my people and just about everybody they knew. It’s not that our town didn’t have its share of scalawags. As one old-timer put it, “We weren’t big enough to have a town drunk, so a few of us had to take turns.”
What we did have for sure was more than our share of characters, used-car lots, and churches, all of which were an important part of my years growing up.
Some time ago I decided to write my story—a story that began in Lawrenceburg. You know, the obligatory autobiography, written by anyone with the necessary fifteen minutes of fame or success. It would be about how I left Lawrenceburg and, over the years, had some very interesting adventures. There were the early days when I was a federal prosecutor. Then there would be a part about my role as counsel for the Watergate committee, and my part in revealing the taping system in the Nixon White House. Then, of course, I would relate some of my experiences in the movie business as well as on the TV show Law & Order. And there would be the eight years I spent in the U.S. Senate (which made me long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood). Naturally, I would also talk about my presidential campaign (described by one of my comedian friends as probably the most stressful three weeks of my life).
Finally, there would be the concluding chapter that we are all too familiar with, wherein I would give my instructions to a waiting America as to what must be done to meet the “challenges of our time.” It’s amazing how brilliant and insightful a fellow becomes when he leaves elective office and can’t do a thing about all those problems.
I even had a title for that book picked out: Why I’ve Had Such a Hard Time Keeping a Job.
In all seriousness, that book I had in mind was going to be more than just old, warmed-over “war stories.” I was going to write about opportunities presenting themselves and why I took some and not others. There’s a lot to be said for seiz- ing the moment, and I thought a book about the remark- able interconnectedness of the experiences I’ve had—how a decision I made has so often seemed to lead inexorably to consequences and opportunities that I never foresaw—might be somewhat instructive.
Well, this is not that book. As I got into the process, I discovered that what I was writing about was what happened before I left Lawrenceburg, not after I left. The thought of those times didn’t necessarily make me nostalgic, but they did make me feel good. I was revisiting and laughing with some of the most interesting characters and funniest peo- ple you’d ever hope to meet, not the least of whom was my own dad.
The fact is that the people I knew and the experiences I had in that little town formed the prism through which I have viewed the world, and they shaped the way I have dealt with events throughout my life. Those growing-up years in Lawrenceburg left me with a particular take on life. A saying I often heard sort of typifies it. Usually said with a smile, it is “Ain’t nobody gonna get out of this old world alive anyway, son,” often said to put things into perspective when times were getting rough.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, I heard sayings like that more than a couple of times from more than a few people. From the girl I married as a teenager and her family, to the teachers, coaches, preachers, and most of all my mom and dad, they encouraged and tolerated this young ne’er-do-well kid with no apparent prospects. They cajoled me, inspired me, and shepherded me from childhood to manhood. It was not an easy trip for any of us, but by the time I left Lawrenceburg, I had learned some valuable lessons and had the confidence to take on the world. (Of course, the world had the confidence to take on me, too, but that’s another story.)
There’s another old saying that comes to mind: “Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” I can add to that. Where I come from, tragedy and comedy were often served at the same table. But the lessons that grew out of those experiences were grounded in the kind of commonsense view of life and living that today is, unfortunately, all too uncommon.
So I decided to write about what I wanted to write about. Stories about growing up—in every sense of the word. Stories about Lawrenceburg. It’s about time Lawrenceburg had the recognition. After all, it is the county seat.
The Tree the Acorn Fell From
I suppose everyone remembers where they were when they realized they were not going to be the leader of the free world. I know I do. It was on January 19, 2008, in the back of a bus rolling down a road just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, when early exit-poll results started coming in from the South Carolina presidential primary. I had edged out McCain in Iowa and come in ahead of Romney and Giuliani in South Carolina. The bad news is I came in third in both places. Not good enough. In presidential primary politics, many are called but few are chosen. I wasn’t, and it was time to hang it up.
I had walked through many doors of opportunity in my life and was used to finding something good on the other side. In fact, for me the 2008 primary season was officially the first time in my life I had proven (in a most public way) that I couldn’t accomplish something I had set out to do. It was a rather humbling experience. It occurred to me that, to paraphrase one of Churchill’s comments, perhaps I had more to be humble about than I had realized. It also occurred to me that this was a pretty doggone expensive way to achieve a little humility. Maybe I needed to be reminded of what an old-timer told me years ago after I’d had some success: “Just remember, son, the turnout at your funeral is still going to depend a hell of a lot on the weather.”
Yeah, yeah, I accepted all that, but for some reason the immortal words of Dick Tuck seemed more appropriate. Tuck was a Democratic operative famous before and during Watergate as a political prankster. When President Nixon adopted the campaign slogan “Nixon’s the One,” Tuck had several women boisterously show up at a Nixon rally in pregnancy costumes, waving signs saying “Nixon’s the One.”
Tuck finally ran for office himself—for the state senate in California. On Election Night, when it became obvious he was receiving a drubbing, he went before his supporters and the media and said, “The people have spoken . . . the bastards.”
By the morning of January 20, I had other things to be thinking about. By then, I was at the bedside of my mother at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. At eighty-seven, she was enduring her latest and most severe bout of pneumonia, compounded by several other ailments. She did not look good at all. In fact, the doctor and the head nurse privately talked to me in very somber tones, uttering “We’ve done all that we can do”–type comments. Of course, they didn’t take into account the fact that “Mrs. Ruth” was tough as a pine knot. She hated hospitals with an extraordinary passion and was totally exhausted from the constant visits by hospital personnel. For the next twenty-four hours, I camped outside her room in a chair and made the medical staff justify their admission before I would let them in. She got some rest and soon was improving, just as she had many times before. She and I have concluded that most people who die in hospitals flatline from aggravation and lack of sleep.
Literally, almost overnight, I had gone from the most public, intrusive, self-centered existence known to man to the exact opposite—the quiet of my mother’s room late at night. It was a quick journey from manufactured reality to reality. I smiled as I remembered her telling me when I was a kid: “Freddie, you can be anything you want to be, but please just don’t be a lawyer or a politician.” Over the years I think she changed her mind about my becoming a lawyer, but I don’t think she ever quite fully bought into the politician part. I knew that she’d laugh when I told her, “If it’s any consolation, I didn’t turn out to be much of a politician after all.”
My career choices were not entirely my fault. The atmosphere I grew up in in Lawrenceburg, Tennessee, was dense with politics and debates, the exploits of public figures and larger-than-life characters engaged in bare-knuckled political theater. I merely inhaled.
I am willing to bet that the town square in Lawrenceburg has never been compared to Times Square in New York. But they say that if you stand in Times Square long enough, everybody you know will pass by. By the same token, when I think about the square in Lawrenceburg, it occurs to me that every major development in my life can be traced back to there.
In the 1950s, Lawrenceburg was a little town of six or seven thousand. It is seventy-two miles south of Nashville and just north of the Alabama state line. My folks grew up on farms in Lawrence County and came to town to start their new life together, as so many of the country kids did. By the time I came along, the town square, just like the people, had shed some of its rougher edges, although an ample number of pool halls still served as the town’s designated dens of iniquity.
The courthouse had a yard around it often populated by a good number of tobacco-chewing checker players. Between games they swapped knives and lies and talked politics. The square had mostly old two- and three-story buildings housing dry goods, hardware, and drugstores as well as “the bank.” The square was the center of commerce for the county, and the center of the universe, as far as I was concerned. A fellow could cash his check, shoot a game of pool, buy his tags, grab a burger, and pick up a new shirt for Saturday night without ever having to get in his car.
Today, I can stand in that square and in my mind’s eye envision the sight of the old Princess Theater, where I saw my first movie. The “new” Crockett Theater, built when I was in grade school, was where I spent as much time as possible as a boy. It also was the town’s main date destination. I can also see the locations of two different little cafés my grandparents owned and ran. Farther around the square are the hall where I shot my first pool and the spot where I sold my first newspaper. I also see the site of my first law office and where I made my announcement speech when I first ran for the Senate. I’m not sure how many folks were there for that, but there were thousands the night we had a rally during my presidential campaign. The courthouse was where I heard numerous political speeches, tried my first lawsuit, and saw my first election returns.
On Election Night, they would set up a big blackboard in the yard outside the courthouse and keep a running tally as the precinct boxes came in—if they came in. Boxes being stolen and thrown into the river or hidden in the woods was not unheard of on Election Night, and neither was gunplay—even in the courthouse. For a time, it was easier to steal an election than it was to buy a beer in Lawrence County.
The old courthouse was built in 1905, a Gothic—or perhaps pre-Gothic—structure, and by the time I started practicing law, cases were still being tried in the large second-floor courtroom where lawyers had to plead their cases while dodging the tobacco cans strategically placed around the room to catch the water when it rained.
This whole tableau was presided over by Davy Crockett. Actually, it was Davy Crockett’s full-length statue on the south side of the square. Davy had “laid out” the town of Lawrenceburg as a surveyor, lived there, and run a mill for a period of time. But Davy was a traveling man and therefore was claimed by a lot of different folks around the state and elsewhere. However, we were the only one with a Davy Crockett statue, which, in our eyes, legitimized our claim. He was, of course, a hunter, a trapper, a congressman, and a hero at the Alamo. He was also cantankerous, even bucking Andrew Jackson. And when he was defeated for Congress, he called a delegation together and told his constituents, “You all can go to hell, I am going to Texas.” As it turned out, he stayed in Texas a lot longer than he intended to.
It just seemed appropriate to have old Davy permanently standing in the middle of Lawrenceburg. We liked his grit and we liked his style. Actually, we didn’t pay that much attention to him until the miracle of television intervened and changed the way we perceived Davy’s importance forever. I refer, of course, to the Walt Disney television series starring Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, which had half the little boys in America (and all them in the town of Lawrenceburg) wearing coonskin caps. Lawrenceburg and our statue got their share of notoriety and attention, and before the dust was settled we had Crockett Theater, a Crockett School, a Crockett Service Station, a Crockett Beauty Salon, a Crockett State Park, as well as many other namings. As it turned out, we were among the first people in the world to realize that nothing is important or noteworthy until it appears on television.
Most of us have learned that the significance of the people and places in your life is not so obvious until you are look- ing at them in your rearview mirror. Actually, the transitions my parents saw and made surpass any that I have experienced. And they, like millions of others, did it anonymously and without fanfare. I never heard a lot of stories about the Great Depression, but it was obvious that in many ways it defined my parents’ childhood. They were farmers and sharecroppers in rural Lawrence County, but they had plenty to eat, which is all their neighbors had. On the Thompson side, that hardscrabble life produced a couple of six-foot-five-inch brothers who were well “filled out”—my grandfather, Edgar, and his brother. I never knew which of the stories I heard about Pa Thompson were true, but one of the more persistent had to do with the time a young mule kicked at him and he grabbed the mule’s hind legs and ran him around the barnyard. He was a giant by the standards of the day. Ma Thompson was an Allen—rough-hewn folks like the Thompsons, except a little more entrepreneurial. Many years after most of that generation had passed away, “Uncle Percy” Allen, who was in his nineties, was asked by some of the grandchildren about the Thompsons and the Allens. Pressed, he finally said with a wry smile, “Well, the Allens made a whole lot of whiskey. And the Thompsons drank most of it.” Uncle Percy may have been exhibiting the sense of humor that both clans were known for; then again, maybe not.
“Drinkin’” had a different meaning for country folks in those days. There was no such thing as a social drinker. Either you drank or you didn’t, and drinking meant getting rip-roaring drunk. When a young girl would talk about meeting a new young man, a discussion would ensue in hushed tones as to whether or not he “drank.” A drinker was further defined as either a “mean drunk” or a “happy drunk.” I got the impression that my daddy may have been both, depending on the occasion.
All I know is that I never saw a drop of alcohol in the house of either my parents or my grandparents. Actually, it’s all consistent with what I learned about my ancestors over the years and so many of their neighbors. They had a hard life but loved to laugh and joke and have a good time. And while the men were wild in their youth, they grew up, joined the church, and became domesticated when the time came.
My dad was a prime example of that. As a young man, Fletcher was the oldest of four brothers, six feet tall, slender, and tough with wavy hair. His pictures reflect the fact that he looked like John Dillinger. He hired out to plow a mule for fifty cents a day and drank and fought on Saturday nights. During the Depression he wanted to leave and become a Golden Gloves boxer, but he was afraid his family couldn’t survive without him. The only legacy that came from his fighting days was a partial gold tooth he had from an encounter with a deputy sheriff.
Dad made it through the eighth grade. In ones and twos, the Thompsons, having “enjoyed” the rustic life as much as they could stand, came to town to live. My mom, Ruth Bradley, was a country girl from a few roads over and the oldest of five children. The Bradleys were a more serious bunch. Pa Bradley’s father died when he was a child. He was sixteen when he married Ma Bradley, who was eighteen. He worked the fields, the mines, and at anything else that came along. Everyone said he was the hardest worker they had ever seen. My mother adored him. Her mom also worked the fields, raised the family, and was a pretty good carpenter. She made several pieces of the furniture in their home. Young Ruth was sent to the cotton fields at an early age. In later years, when Dad would wax nostalgic about growing up on the farm and expressed a desire to someday get back to the country, Mama would have none of it. Growing up on a farm in Tennessee during the Depression had not been her idea of fun. She’d seen enough of it for a lifetime and was determined never to go back. And she didn’t.
Shortly after Dad married Mom, it became obvious that Fletcher had met his match. By the time I came along, Mom had laid down the law and Dad had renounced his old habits, joined the church, and was taking a very dim view of the vices that he had almost perfected during his single days. For the rest of his life he never drank a drop, and he never missed a day’s work except for illness. He walked in the door every night at 6 o’clock to sit down for a supper that was already waiting on him. I never saw my parents engage in so much as a heated argument. My mom’s influence reminded me of a story about a fellow who, after years of low-down behavior, was hit across the head by a two-by-four and then reformed. “Nobody ever explained things to me like that before,” he said.
One thing that didn’t change about Fletch was his take on life. He seldom saw a situation that didn’t call for a humorous or sardonic comment. One of my earliest childhood memories is one night after Wednesday Bible study, when I was in the backseat of the car as we were driving home. We stopped at a red light, and a pitiful, haggard old lady walked across the street in front of us. Dad said, “You know, I believe that is the ugliest human being I have ever seen in my life.” Mama responded, “Why, Fletcher, she can’t help it.” To which Dad replied, “No, but she could stay home.” His comments were often so outrageous that Mom spent a good part of her life trying to stifle laughter in front of the children, who she knew were receiving a terrible example.
There was a running joke in our family. When Mom would go to the beautician, she would tell Dad where she was going. Upon her return, she would walk into the room, and Dad would take one look at her and say, “Change your mind?” or “Beauty shop closed?” Mom would fain outrage as she would walk into the other room, smiling.
Mom loved to go antique shopping. There have always been plenty of “antique” shops to choose from in Tennessee. Granted, some of them in a Southern gesture of good humor and honesty had signs out front, for “Antiques and Junkue,” but Mom would buy an old piece of furniture from time to time. She collected many pieces and more than a few sets of “Flow Blue” china from these shops. It’s fair to say that Dad wasn’t up on all of this.
One of her antiques is a table with twisted legs. It’s called a “barley twist,” named for the twisted plugs of chewing tobacco that were common years ago. One evening, Mom and Dad went to an antique auction in Columbia, Tennessee. Along with them was Mom’s sister, Aunt Freda, and her husband, Robert.
Anyway, Mom and Aunt Freda were seated at the auction in one row, and Dad and Robert, who was just as big a cutup as Dad was, were seated behind them. They were all talking when the auctioneer announced the next item for sale—“Now, ladies and gentlemen, we are going to sell one with twisted legs”—as the crowd quieted down. Quick as a wink, Dad jumped up and said, loud enough for all around him to hear, “Robert, I’ve got to get down there! They’re getting ready to sell my wife!” Thirty years later, Mom still laughs about it.
Dad not only brought home the bacon, he brought home an interesting variety of other things, too. One July day in 1954, he brought home a new Ping-Pong table. At least that’s what he called it. He had a friend build it for him. It was a little high off the ground for us kids, but we painted it green, got a net and some paddles, and I became very popular in the neighborhood for a while. We kept it outside unless it was raining, at which point we would shove it into the small basement under the house.
Unfortunately, if it was a hard rain and stormy, the basement was most likely where the Thompsons would be, too. The problem was that Mom was deathly afraid of storms. Growing up in the country, as a kid she had seen some bad ones. Her family had always had what was called a “storm cellar” for such occasions, where canned and other goods were kept, and which provided a temporary refuge while the family huddled and waited to see if the house was going to be blown away. It opened flat to the ground and was deep and wide enough to shelter the whole family. All of this made a lasting impression on Mom, who years later would walk the floor, wring her hands, seek the low ground, and insist that her two overgrown sons get under the bed. We dutifully complied until we couldn’t stuff ourselves under there anymore. If Dad was home he humored her, although he would have been just fine reading the paper until the crisis passed.
On one particularly rough-weather day, Mom, Dad, my younger brother Ken, and I were waiting it out in the basement, with no one but Mom coming even remotely close to thinking it was necessary for us to be down there with no TV or radio for entertainment. Mom was beside herself, saying, “What are we going to do? What are we going to do?” Dad looked over in the corner of the basement and said, “Well, I have always heard that the best thing to do at a time like this is to get under a green Ping-Pong table.” I am sure that at that point, through the thunder and lightning, anyone on the street could have heard the gales of laughter coming from the male Thompsons. Dad had delivered such a perfect line that even Mom got tickled.
There are certain turning points in every family when issues are resolved or new understandings are reached. The green Ping-Pong table provided one for us. I don’t recall Mom ever carrying on about a storm again. For years afterward, if the weather was looking bad, Dad, Ken, or I would say, “Okay, do we have a green Ping-Pong table?” And that would be the end of it. I never knew if Mom got over her fear or it just wasn’t worth the aggravation anymore.
Dad got his irreverence honestly. His mother, Ma Thompson, was what could only be described as a “pistol.” She was outgoing, everybody’s friend, and holder of the world’s record on funeral attendances—all while dispensing large amounts of her famous red velvet cake. She once had a “gourder,” an egg-size tumor, removed from her neck. The next day, she was around town carrying it in a cloth, unwrapping it and showing it to her friends.
When I was a small boy, I called her “Ma Thompson” the way my cousin did. One day she looked at me and said, “Would it hurt you to call me Mrs. Thompson the way everybody else does?” Of course, I took her seriously and started calling her Mrs. Thompson. She thought it was the funniest thing ever. As I got older, I was always wanting to go over to her house on Saturdays because I knew that she would invariably slip me the twenty cents necessary to go to the movies. I never really knew whether or not it was an act of generosity or she just found me to be boring.
Although Ma Thompson, with her outgoing personality and ready laughter, was the center of attention everywhere she went, Pa Thompson had a wit that was as dry as a Death Valley bone, though seldom used. One of the three or four cafés they owned and operated in Lawerenceburg over the years of my youth was the Colonial Café, downtown across from the city hall. In a circumstance I’ve never seen before or since, right next door was a café, the Dixie Grill, that was almost identical to the Colonial. Same store front, same size, and same sort of food.
One day Pa Thompson was standing out in front of the Colonial smoking a cigarette. A stranger pulled up, got out of his car, looked at both restaurants, and asked Pa Thompson which of the restaurants he should go to. Pa Thompson told him, “Don’t make any difference. Whichever one you go to, you’ll wish you’d gone to the other.”
In 1942, Mom’s folks had moved to northern Alabama, where Pa Bradley had found work on the Wilson Dam, a TVA project. Dad and Mom were there when I was born in the Helen Keller Hospital on August 19 of that year. (Over half a century later, I learned that the year before, my colleague Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky had also been born in that hospital. They probably would have shut the place down if they had known that they were producing that many senators—and in that day, even more alarming, Republican senators, to boot.)
From the Hardcover edition.