Teaching the Pig to Dance: A Memoir of Growing Up and Second Chances
By Fred Thompson
(Crown Forum, 262 pages, $25)
Years ago at a Washington event, before he ran for president himself, then Senator Fred Thompson was introduced to a foreign dignitary who he was told might some day become president of his country. "My condolences," Thompson quipped in that inimitable voice of his.
This anecdote is not included in Thompson's delightful new memoir, Teaching the Pig to Dance, which is being published today, yet readers of the book will quickly recognize two things about it. It would have done Thompson's dad Fletcher proud. For all we know it was even lifted from Fletch, one of the book's several unforgettable characters and perhaps the man who shaped Thompson most, more by force of character (itself civilized by Thompson's no less memorable mother) than by naturally irreverent wit -- which he in turn had inherited from Pa Thompson, his father, who owned several restaurants in Lawrenceburg, the family's "county seat" hometown in southern middle Tennessee.
Two of the restaurants were located next door to each other. One day Pa Thompson was standing in front of them, smoking a cigarette. A stranger came up, and asked him which of the two restaurants he should choose. Pa replied, "Don't make any difference. Whichever one you go to, you'll wish you'd gone to the other." American original doesn't begin to describe it.
The book is priceless on that level alone. By the mid-1950 Thompson grew out of his youthful chunkiness and became quite the high school athlete. A black umpire calling balls and strikes seemed to disregard Thompson's 6'3" lankiness and called a strike on a pitch three or four inches off the ground. "My knees are way up here," Thompson complained. "I can't help it, buddy, I didn't make you," the ump replied, "quick as a wink." Thompson couldn't wait to get home to tell his Dad about that retort.
Anyone who's ever suffered under mean and none too impressive high school coaching will relish Thompson's just-so recollections. One of my favorites, from a summer basketball practice:
[O]ur coach gave us a somewhat emotional speech, which I thought was funny since it was only a prelude to running us until our tongues hung out. "Let's get serious, guys," I said. "After all, we've got a game in six months."
Needless to say, "A verbal lashing ensued, and after that for some reason the coaching staff thought my attitude wasn't exactly what it should be."
To be sure, Thompson readily concedes that attitude wasn't what it should be, most of the time, not then and not in most of his lost years in school, where he simply never applied himself or bothered to study and engaged in silly pranksmanship and even attempted to break into the principal's files to remove all evidence of his countless "demerits."
During his short-lived presidential run a few years ago there were some press efforts to make hay of Thompson's early marriage to his pregnant girl friend before he'd even finished high school. Too bad the tut-tutters weren't yet able to read Thompson's illuminating and moving account of this life-changing turn. As a married high-schooler, his sporting career came to an abrupt halt and he was shunned in other ways. Yet "these things that may have seemed like tragedies at the time were the best things that could have happened to me.… [G]etting married saved me from wasting at least a few years of my life. I know now that I simply wouldn't have made it academically and I wouldn't have developed a sense of responsibility until I absolutely had to." It was no picnic -- particularly when Thompson had to work the night shift at a bicycle factory -- but the Thompson we first came to know, as rising young lawyer (Vanderbilt Law) and Republican figure began to take shape then. From a clueless kid to Hayek reader and Goldwater backer -- and father of three -- in the space of half a dozen or so years. All of it helped by strong support from both his and his wife's families. You will marvel at the novelist's acuteness he displays in his description of his father-in-law Oscar Lindsey.
There is much, much more here, including accounts of Thompson's first work in the movies – opposite Paul Newman, no less. What there's little of is retail politics, whether of Thompson's emergence during Watergate, his Senate career, or the presidential campaign of 2008. None of that is as important to him as the time he took down corrupt Gov. Ray Blanton or fought off the Teamsters. Not to mention the time when his parents and he moved back to Lawrenceburg after a year in Nashville. Fred Thompson knows where his home was.
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