I, Tom Sawyer: The True Adventures of an American Youth | Part One: Billy Jack, Buford Pusser, and me

I grew up with a Bible in one hand and a copy of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Tom Sawyer  in the other. If I had a third hand it would have held a football. A fourth would have had a baseball glove on it. A fifth and sixth would have clamped the handlebar grips of my Huffy bicycle. Mine was the all-American youth in all-Texas towns with names like Mineral Wells, Strawn, and Sansom Park. I had adventures with all-American boys with names like Robert Bunnell, Johnny Caudle, and Troy Henager.

There were other towns and other kids sprinkled in along the way. Together, they conspired to engage me in adventures that, in many ways, remain as vivid in the theater of my mind as they were in the days of their doing.

For posterity's sake, and because I enjoy the reliving and re-telling of them, I have decided to share some of my adventures (I do not know how many yet) on this blog. If you are entertained by them, I am gratified. If you are not entertained by them, I am, so that will have to suffice. If you read them and they remind you of your own adventures, by all means, share them.

Enough with the small talk. Hop in this time machine with me and let's rewind to the clock to 1971.

Billy Jack, Buford Pusser, and me


Thou Shalt Not!

I was raised Baptist.

By Baptist, I do not mean the "liberal" Southern Baptist version. I mean the version of my grandfather W.A. Henager and my dad William David Strother. I mean the KJV 1611 version. I mean the version that preached – and by preached, I mean foam-at-the-mouth preached – against long hair on men, women wearing pants (or anything that wasn't a skirt, dress or ((God help us)) culottes), Rock and Roll music, and MOVIES.

Most of the "Thou shalt nots" would not bother me until I hit about thirteen. But the movie thing had me quietly seething and plotting my revenge as early as 1971, when I was ten.

I know it was 1971, not because I have Hyperthymesia, but because I have Internet and Google and IMDb and can verify that as the year Billy Jack starring Tom Laughlin came out. My best friend Robert Bunnell, a couple years my senior, had gotten to see that movie because his parents had not at that time imposed the theater ban on their three boys.

Billy Jack was an ex-Green Beret Hapkido expert who fought to defend the hippie-themed "Freedom School" from townspeople who did not approve of their counterculture ways. Billy Jack was actually the second of four movies featuring the Tom Laughlin character. It would fail in theaters in 1971, but would be re-released in 1973 and catch fire, raking in $40 million at the box office. Billy Jack would become a cult hero. After that second release, every boy in Mineral Wells, it seemed, except me had seen the movie and could practice his Hapkido moves on his friends or foes...or thin air.

My pal Robert was a renowned fighter. I know he worked a few of Billy Jack's moves into a scuffle or two.

I felt like such a loser. I couldn't do any sweet Billy Jack moves. I had never seen one.

I missed Billy Jack twice!

Walking Tall, Running Fast!

Then came Buford Pusser. In 1973, the movie every red-blooded, God-fearing, butt-kicking, snuff-dipping Texas boy had to see was Walking Tall, featuring Joe Don Baker as Buford Hayes Pusser, the sheriff of McNair County, Tennesse from 1964-1970. It was a true story about a sure-'nough, club-wielding bad-ass good guy.

By the Spring of 1973, my parents had changed neither their religious affiliation nor their minds about going to the theater. So what if that was the only place a boy could see Buford Pusser walk tall? It was a den of debauchery and all manner of wickedness and I was not to darken its doors. (They needn't forbid my attendance of drive-in theaters yet, since neither I nor any of my friends were anywhere near old enough to manage that.)

I was 11 and wouldn't hit 12 for another six months the night Robert Bunnell, Johnny Caudle, a fellow named David (a friend of Robert's whom I do not remember well), and I set out to execute my plan to see Buford Pusser. Walking Tall was showing at the drive-in, which was on 180, the main east-west drag through town. The theatre was out past the hospital, which meant it was on the western outskirts of town. We were at Robert's house on Kiowa Drive, in a housing edition known as Fairfield Acres, about three miles north and east of downtown. I measure the distance on Google maps while prepping for this telling. My calculations put the theatre 5.7 miles from the little three bedroom, brick house with a carport. Under that carport, as the sun made its last fuss in the jagged hills-that-seemed-like-mountains-to-me-then, I pressed my case for going to the movies.

"How far is it?" asked Johnny.

"'Bout four or five miles," mused Robert.

Johnny whistled.

"That's a hike."

"Yup," offered Dave, the outlier.

I remember better what they said than what I said. I know I was in a fevered fit to do it. I know I carried the day. I know that, as soon as darkness had fallen on Fairfield Acres, four boys set out on foot to see what was sure to become the most inspiring movie of their lives. Never mind it was a drive-in and the oldest among us was not yet 14. Never mind we had no car. Never mind Johnny was in from Strawn, spending the weekend with me, and David was from somewhere in town and neither had a bicycle with him, which meant we were afoot. Never mind any of that.

The plan was as simple as it was brilliant. We would be as stealthy as possible while keeping a brisk pace. Keep out of the glow of streetlights and parking lots. Stay well off of Highway 180 – the main east-west drag through town – where the random cop might be driving.

The theater screen had its back to the main street, of course. There were the arced rows of parking spots, each with pole holding the speaker, which the patron would hook on the window of his car to get the movie sound. In the middle of the back three rows was the cantina where the tubs of buttered popcorn, hot dogs, cokes and such could be purchased. A chain link fence enclosed the back of the theater lot. Beyond it was a field where the grass was allowed to grow free and tall...tall enough for a boy to lie on his stomach and watch the movie undetected. Out play was to circled around towards the back, where darkness would cover us, climb through the barbed wire fence of the field, sneak across the field until we reached a good spot with a clear view, and watch Buford Pusser kick ass.

"We won't even be able to hear what they're saying," complained Johnny.

Johnny Caudle was from the tiny town of Strawn, which could be completely traipsed without covering 5.7 miles. He was not enthusiastic about the adventure, which surprised me, because, when I had lived in Strawn and my dad pastored the little church his family attended there, Johnny had proved to be one of the most adventuresome and trouble-seeking pals I had encountered.

"So?" Says I. "It's an action movie, man. We will see the action."

"Yeah. You can figure out what they're saying good enough," offered Robert.

At least Robert was all in. Maybe it was just for me that he was doing it. He was like that. Tough as a boot. Mean as a snake. Hard-boiled. His knuckles were numb-chucks. His boots were Thor's Hammer in duplicate. You might want to fight. You wouldn't want to fight Robert.

He was kind and generous to a fault. Our friendship is halfway through it fifth decade now and he still fits that description. True blue.

Honestly, the walk to the theater, as fraught with potential and imaginary danger as it was for four boys who were definitely NOT where any of their parents expected them to be, turned out to be rather pedestrian (sorry for grabbing the low-hanging pun fruit) uneventful. I don't remember much about it at all until we were there, wriggling as quietly as possible between the horizontal lines of barbed wire. I remember I snagged my left arm, just above the inside of my wrist, on the barbed wire. In fact, I just stopped typing to find the faint-but-still-with-me scar the barb left.

Once through the fence, a little blood brook running down my wrist and drip, drip, dripping from my thumb, we crouched. The weather was cool and the sky was so starless and tar black, you might have concluded, if you were an apostate and willing to make such musings, that even God was inclined to aid in our dereliction. We moved like an Apache war party through the waist deep grass. We made no more noise than the wind itself might have made blowing across the same field. Only the wind was absent and the only rustle of grass was boy-caused.

There was also the occasional crunch of dead grass or stray twigs beneath our sneakers. But other than that, we moved like ghosts on the prairie, unseen and unheard by all...

Except the hounds of Hell. I do not know how many of them there were, nor what breed. Some howled. Others barked. And from somewhere in the distance they came charging towards the Apaches in the grass. I had managed to stamp out a place in the grass and lower myself to my stomach, rest my chin in my hands and watch about two minutes of the movie before the man-eaters began their baying, barking, and barreling towards us. This was followed by a spotlight being waved across the field back and forth, occasionally flashing its blinding brilliance into my silver dollar eyes.

"Hey, there!" The shout was from an annoyed male. He was, no doubt, the one behind the searchlight.

"Hot damn! They seen us! They seen us!"

That was Robert, who was already upright, his long, lanky legs flinging him the direction we had come.

Each of us was on his feet and in full sprint for the barbed wire. The dogs had come from far enough away that, even though they were closing fast, they would not reach us before we all made it through, under or over the fence. Coming, I had snagged my arm. Going, I ripped my jeans. I did not stop to assess the damage.

We ran for our very lives, putting as much distance between ourselves, the spotlighter, the dogs, and for all we knew, the cops. No escaped convict ever ran with more desperation than I did that night. The thing that mortified me most about the prospect of being caught was facing my dad. Give me prison. Hard labor. Banish me to Patmos, like they did St. John.

Just don't tell Dad.

The return journey to Robert's house was the weary march of retreat by defeated warriors. Five plus miles to cover on blistered feet. And for what?

Except for Johnny's incessant complaining and "I told ya" speeches, we walked in silence.

Somewhere behind us, Buford Pusser and his big stick were cleaning up a county to the delight of popcorn-devouring revelers. The lucky ones in their muscle cars with their arms around cuddling girlfriends knew nothing of the Adventure Boys and their failed mission.

So, I missed a movie. (Never mind. I saw it at least a half dozen times in the ensuing years.)

I made a memory, and that has entertained and sustained me far better than any old movie across the decades of my adventure-life.

That's my story and I'm sticking to it.