Austin, Texas–I’ve been talkin’ to a bunch of the fun-lovin’ freedom-fighters of Texas lately, and we all agree that there’s one thing we need to pass on to all of y’all from the few of us before I take a leave from these pages. (I’m takin’ a leave of absence on account of I have to write a book, and time has become both scant and precious.) The thing is this: You got to have fun while you’re fightin’ for freedom, ’cause you don’t always win.
Havin’ fun while freedom fightin’ must be one of those lunatic Texas traits we get from the water–which is known to have lithium in it– because it goes all the way back to Sam Houston, surely the most lovable, the most human, and the funniest of all the Great Men this country has ever produced. While Sam was president of the Republic of Texas, he was visited by a French ambassador. This Frog was quite the wonder of frontier Austin; he minced along the wooden sidewalks wearing a silk suit with lace at the collar and cuffs, with a gilt epee, no less, slung along his side. Though Sam had a perfectly good fine house, he elected to receive the Frenchman in a log hut with a mud floor. By choice a sometime Indian, Sam wore only fringed leggings and a blanket around his big ol’ hairy chest.
While the French ambassador held forth grandiloquently, Houston, who was himself a magnificent orator, replied only with an occasional, “Ugh.”
Our Texas freedom-fighters have been prone to misbehavior ever since. A recent Ku Klux Klan rally in Austin produced an eccentric counter- demonstration. When the fifty Klansmen appeared (they were bused in from Waco) in front of the state capitol, they were greeted by five thousand locals who had turned out for a “Moon the Klan” rally. Citizens dropped trou both singly and in groups, occasionally producing a splendid wave effect. It was a swell do.
But I reckon the man who taught most of us how to have fun while fightin’ for freedom was John Henry Faulk, who went and died on us a few years back. Despite gettin’ blacklisted during the McCarthy Era and having a number of other misadventures during his life, Johnny never lost his sense of mischief, and, to the end of his days, he could be counted on to hatch some elaborate practical joke to bedevil whichever do-badder had most recently and most egregiously harmed the cause of liberty and justice for all.
Johnny used to tell a story about when he was a Texas Ranger, a captain in fact. He was seven at the time. His friend Boots Cooper, who was six, was sheriff, and the two of them used to do a lot of heavy law enforcement out behind the Faulk place in south Austin. One day Johnny’s mama, having two such fine officers on the place, asked them to go down to the hen house and rout out the chicken snake that had been doing some damage there.
Johnny and Boots loped down to the hen house on their trusty brooms (which they tethered outside) and commenced to search for the snake. They went all through the nests on the bottom shelf of the hen house and couldn’t find it, so the both of them stood on tippy-toes to look on the top shelf. I myself have never been nose-to-nose with a chicken snake, but I always took Johnny’s word for it that it will just scare the living shit out of you. Scared those boys so bad that they both tried to exit the hen house at the same time, doing considerable damage to both themselves and the door.
Johnny’s mama, Miz Faulk, was a kindly lady, but watching all this, it struck her funny. She was still laughin’ when the captain and the sheriff trailed back up to the front porch. “Boys, boys, ” said Miz Faulk, “what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake cannot hurt you.”
That’s when Boots Cooper made his semi-immortal observation. “Yes ma’am,” he said, “but there’s some things’ll scare you so bad, you hurt yourself.”
And isn’t that what we keep doing in this country, over and over again? We get scared so bad–about the communist menace or illegal immigration or AIDS or pornography or violent crime, some damn scary thing–that we hurt ourselves. We take the odd notion that the only way to protect ourselves is to give up some of our freedom–just trim a little, hedge a bit, and we’ll all be safe after all.
Those who think of freedom in this country as one long, broad path leading ever onward and upward are dead damned wrong. Many a time freedom has been rolled back–and always for the same sorry reason: fear.
So one thing I have learned from Johnny Faulk, Texas, and life, is that since you don’t always win, you got to learn to enjoy just fightin’ the good fight.
On the occasion of the bicentennial of the Constitution, the ACLU was fixin’ to lay some heavy life-time freedom fighter awards on various citizens and one of ’em was Joe Raugh, the lawyer who defended so many folks during the McCarthy Era and the civil rights movement (note that the rightness of those stands is always easier to see in retrospect). Rauh was sick in the hospital at the time and asked a friend of his to go down and collect the award for him. His friend went to see him in the hospital and said, “Joe, what you want me to tell these folks?”
So there was Rauh lyin’ there sick as a dog, thinking back on all those bad, ugly, angry times–the destroyed careers, the wrecked lives–and he said, “Tell ’em how much fun it was. Tell ’em how much fun it was.”
So keep fightin’ for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don’t you forget to have fun doin’ it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce. And when you get through kickin’ ass and celebratin’ the sheer joy of a good fight, be sure to tell those who come after how much fun it was.