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Monday, February 21, 2005

Contributing blogger Howard Park: A Day with Hunter S. Thompson

A Day With Hunter S. Thompson

In early April of 1984 I was the coolest guy in Madison, Wisconsin for a day. I was the designated driver for the legendary Hunter S. Thompson. Cool was cool, but not quite as cool as I had imagined.

Thompson came to Madison to be around for a visit by his old buddy from the McGovern Campaign, Colorado Senator Gary Hart who was locked in a fierce battle for the Democratic Presidential Nomination. I met Thompson at Madison's compact airport along with his Friend, another McGovern Campaign veteran, then State Banking Commissioner Bill Dixon, a six pack of cold beer and Dixon's convertible.

This was a reward. I had been working tirelessly for Hart all over the country. My credit card was beyond maxed out. I was a Gonzo campaigner. Thompson was a legend to me and everyone I knew -- virtually every early twentysomething University of Wisconsin male student seemed to idolize Thompson. He epitomized sex, drugs and rock n' roll. He was also a damm good writer. Hell's Angels, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail - 1972 are still scattered in dorm rooms and fraternity houses everywhere. I had religiously read all of his books and his now infrequent Rolling Stone columns.

In the flesh Thompson was a minor letdown. I never saw him without a dorky looking floppy hat, like that worn by Bob Denver on the Gilligan's Island TV show. Perhaps he was vain about his balding head. The hat also let him move about without being recognized very often. He chain smoked cigarettes and drank like a sailor on leave. The Hunter S. Thompson of myth supposedly did LSD, pot, cocaine, uppers and downers like a kid eating Halloween candy. Maybe, but not with me. I never saw him take anything stronger than sprain. He was outfitted with more stuff than a more regular person would take on an African safari. He had what seemed like a ton of baggage, including a heavy, bulky word processor that I lugged all over town during the next day. He never touched it. I've never, ever seen anyone who brought as much stuff for a one day visit.

Most disappointing for me was the fact that he was sort of hard to talk with. He just did not converse like most people. Thompson might totally ignore something I said while responding nonsensically to something else. Occasionally he seemed to twitch oddly. Hunter also never spoke in anything that resembled a sentence. He was friendly enough and we got along fine as I drove him around Madison over that evening and the next day. We shared our views about Richard Nixon. Thompson's hated of Nixon was one of the coolest parts of his persona. I had the impression that if I had said something nice about Nixon the he would have gotten out of the car on a random Madison street corner. Fortunately, my disdain for Nixon was well developed. I had been warned not to bring up the Doonesbury comic strip, then the most popular comic strip in the country and the genesis of much of the Thompson legend. He hated the comic strip.

The purpose of the visit was for Thompson to cover a big Gary Hart rally at Wisconsin's majestic state capitol a few days before our state's presidential primary (Hart won). My job was to get Hunter where he needed to go without distracting the national media or the crowd from the candidate. I failed, although it seemed a lot worse that it really was at the time.

I was driving Thompson about midway in a Hart motorcade of eight vehicles. Behind me was most of the national press corps who were covering Hart. In any campaign, the media are the VIP's. The advance man who had choreographed the event had emphatically instructed me to stick with the motorcade at all times until we reached a designated parking lot. It was vitally important that the media be in a certain exact location at a certain time.

As we approached the Capitol Building, with little or no warning, Hunter S. Thompson screamed at me "GET OVER THERE, THEY ARE COMING TO GET US, TURN NOW!!" and he grabbed the wheel from me. I had no idea what he was talking about or what was happening, but I turned as he was imploring me, and he said something like "GOOD BOY, I HOPE WE ARE SAFE NOW" as he bounded out the door to cover the rally. Everyone was confused including the 50 or so reporters on various vehicles behind me. We were now parked in the wrong space, perhaps that reserved for TV transmission trucks. It was a logistical mess in the midst of a huge crowd of over 10,000.

The only person who was not confused was the advance man who screamed "I"M GOING TO KILL YOU, YOU HAVE RUNIED EVERYTHING" as he raised his hand with only his middle finger showing into my face. Fearing for my safety from yet another lunatic I quickly scurried over to Hunter, perhaps my one last friend on the scene. The rally was great. After it was over I drove Thompson and his six huge duffel bags back to the airport and helped load the cargo on to the campaign press plane. For weeks after I eagerly awaited the arrival of each new issue of Rolling Stone hoping that he would write something about Hart and that smart, very cool campaign worker who schlepped him around that historic (in my dreams) day in Madison. No dice. To my eternal disappointment he never wrote a thing about that day or much at all about the Hart Campaign, despite the fact that I had carried around his word processor like a Sherpa in Nepal.

Years later, at a book signing in Washington, DC, where he appeared as always smoking a cigarette with a huge tumbler of iced, single malt scotch. During my allotted 15 seconds with him in the long line I asked Hunter what had caused him to divert the motorcade that day. I explained the context. I'm not sure he remembered anything and he responded with some sort of nonsense like, "Oh yes, we had to get away from them"...whatever.

I'll miss Hunter S. Thompson, the campaign trail will never be the same.

Howard Park

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