Archive for April, 2006
It’s been about a year since this was published, but I’m just now getting around to posting it. Below is the text of the piece I wrote on Hunter S. Thompson for the summer 2005 issue of Oregon Quarterly, (cover at left) the magazine sent to alumni of the University of Oregon. It’s a more concise version of the blog entry I wrote on Feb. 26, 2005. I offered it up to OQ editors Guy Maynard and Ross West on a lark, and they were kind enough to publish it. Sadly OQ never published the text online, so here’s the text. You can see it as it appeared in the magazine here, courtesy of my Pixily account.
Going, Going, Gonzo
Six-thirty came and gave way to 7 o’clock as I anxiously paced the hallway of the University’s Sweetser dormitory. Five friends were coming down to Eugene from Corvallis, and they were appallingly late. The date was Feb. 28, 1991, and we had to get to the ballroom at the Eugene Hilton by 7:30 in order to get seats at a lecture given by the outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson.
I shouldn’t have worried about running late. Just as we sat down a woman, presumably with the UO Cultural Forum, which had invited Thompson to speak, took the microphone and apologized for this tardiness. Last seen at the hotel bar, he had disappeared.
Thompson was governed by his own twisted version of the circadian rhythm. If his daily routine, as described by his biographer E. Jean Carroll is accurate Thompson, would typically lunch around 7 p.m. on cheeseburgers and fries, several bottles of Heineken, followed by carrot cake or ice cream, a snort of cocaine, and a “snow cone” — a glass of shaved ice flavored with a generous pour of Chivas Regal. No wonder he was late.
An hour late. Ken Kesey ’57 and Ken Babbs made a brief and disastrous effort to sate the increasingly impatient audience by telling a few choice anecdotes about their friend. The effort was cut short by a surly heckler. Right about then Thompson emerged from wherever he had been hiding and sat down at the table from which he’d speak. In his hand, he held a yellow plastic cup filled with Chivas and ice — perhaps the remnants of a “snow cone.” He opened by mumbling incomprehensibly into the microphone.
Drunk and likely stoned, and with no prepared remarks, he rambled for about ten minutes. This changed when someone in the audience called out a question. Thompson perked up. His voice became clearer. He seemed to draw strength from two-way dialogue.
There was much in the news to talk about. Operation Desert Storm was winding down, Kuwait having just been recaptured by U.S. forces the day before. “I have the tape machine running back home recording the whole war,” he said. I piped in with a strangely prescient question of my own: Should we go in and get Saddam? Answer: “I don’t see what difference that would make.” Ever the political junkie, he described then-President George H.W. Bush as “the meanest yuppie who ever lived.” He predicted that the 1990s would be “like the 80s but without the money.”
At one point, one of my friends approached the stage and casually tossed a small plastic bag of marijuana into Thompson’s lap. This started a stream of other ever more interesting tossed gifts: More grass, several sheets of LSD, and a mysterious paperback book offered by an agitated long-haired chap who insisted it was “extremely important” that Thompson read it.
Later Thompson received a strange visit from a local homeless woman known popularly around campus as Hatoon (see sidebar). Entertained, Thompson let her try to make a speech on the peril of water in campus drinking fountains, but she struggled and sputtered. Seemingly frustrated, she said, “If you could point a laser beam at my brain, you might understand.” Thompson smirked, and pulled a laser sight — the kind used on rifles — from a pocket and pointed it at her as she had described. She didn’t like this and fled the stage.
Throughout the course of his sometime variously incoherent and eloquent ramblings, emerged the kernel of the message that runs through his published work: That the American Dream is nothing if not ambiguous, uncertain, and for far too many elusive. Chronicling “the death of the American Dream” was his journalistic mission, despite the inconvenient fact that through his own success he proved his entire premise false.
As Thompson’s talk wrapped up, the crowd — including me — rushed forward in search of his autograph. Someone standing next to me reached through the scrum and swiped Thompson’s cup of Chivas, still about a third full. While he wanted the cup as a memento, he was kind enough to let me drain its remaining few ounces of watery Scotch. Perhaps I hoped it to be an elixir, that might mystically convey a touch of Thompson’s gift for powerful prose.
I wasn’t the least bit surprised to hear that Thompson had turned a gun on himself on Feb. 20, 2005. Watching his father die after lingering powerlessly in a Louisville Veteran’s Administration hospital in 1952 would have left an indelible scar upon Thompson’s then 14-year old psyche.
A piece he wrote in 1964 for The National Observer on the 1961 suicide of Ernest Hemingway in Ketchum, Idaho is about the closest thing once can find in the Thompson oeuvre to the kind of self-reflection his readers hungered for, particularly in his later years. And it’s also easy to see it as a blueprint for the exit Thompson would choose for himself forty-one years later.
It opens with a quote from a neighbor describing Hemingway in his final days as “That poor old man. …He was so frail and thin and old-looking that it was embarrassing to see him.”
“Frail” was no adjective for Thompson. He knew the clock was running out. Approaching his 68th year, various health problems had started to mount. He sometimes used a wheelchair after breaking a leg last year, had recently acquired an artificial hip, and was at the time of his death recovering from spinal surgery.
He was far from the man who a little over three decades earlier had written his last great book, the one Frank Mankiewicz, George McGovern’s campaign manager in the 1972 presidential race, often described as “the most accurate and least factual book” about the election. Fear and Loathing: On The Campaign Trail, 1972, a dazzling and disturbing indictment of the dirty business of presidential politics. In it, we see Thompson at the height of his power, flexing his strange muscles for the polemic and inventing fictitious anecdotes that in fallacy contain more truth than most meticulously fact-checked news reports.
This made the terse news reports that first revealed his death that cold Sunday night all the more unbearable to read. They unflinchingly called it a “self-inflicted gunshot wound,” robotically reciting the unforgiving clinical facts, with neither texture nor style. How might Hunter Thompson have described the scene of his own final exit?
The indignities of human age had launched their final, unshakable assault upon his body, and he would deny them their prize. Seated at his kitchen “command post” before his typewriter — the word “counselor” cryptically typed on the center of the page — he paused mid-conversation to set down the telephone receiver, his wife Anita on the other end of the line. Then he wrapped his lips around the barrel of a .45 caliber pistol, and figured he’d see what happened next.
On March 1, fourteen years and one day after her encounter with Hunter S. Thompson, Hatoon, a colorful campus figure for more than three decades, died after being struck by a motorist while riding her bicycle across Franklin Boulevard. Hatoon, whose given name was Victoria Adkins, had lived on a bench near the UO bookstore since early 2000 and before that kept her possessions in front of the Knight Library. News of her passing rippled across campus and an impromptu memorial sprang up outside the bookstore, followed days later by an on-campus memorial service attended by many friends and acquaintances. Her death followed Thompson’s by only nine days. Both were sixty-seven years old.