When my mom visited recently, she brought me a copy of Fred Thompson‘s new book Teaching the Pig to Dance: A memoir of growing up and second chances. Fred Thompson grew up in Lawrenceburg and this is memoir of his growing up, but as much about the town viewed through his eyes as it is about him. And it’s the same place I come from. Sort of. I only went to high school there, but my mother grew up there, as did my brother and many, many of my family live there. So I guess it’s my hometown. Anyway, if I ever made good, it’s the town that would claim me. Feel free to bury me there if you like, but not before time.
British readers probably wouldn’t know he was a senator from Tennessee or remember that he had an unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2008. His campaign for the Republican nomination was hotly anticipated, but his declaration in Lawrenceburg’s public square in 2007 was the high point of the campaign. It all kinda went down hill from there. Some people might remember him from his role on Law and Order where he played the gruff Southern DA. But it’s fair to say that he’s doesn’t figure big in British cultural consciousness.
Fred on the Square in Lawrenceburg
But he’s a big deal in Lawrenceburg, we haven’t had a politician from the Burg that famous since Davy Crockett packed in his congressional career by unwisely feuding with Andrew Jackson and went off to Texas. (His statue still adorns the Square). And, of course, he’s a big deal elsewhere, too. He was part of Watergate, he’s a successful character actor, he’s played a big role in Tennessee politics particularly in the shift from being traditionally Democratic to what’s now called a Red State.
But the book isn’t about any of those things, really. It’s about growing up in Lawrenceburg. A small town in the rural South. The buckle of the Bible Belt. Reviews on Amazon say that he’s captured the story of growing up in the small town rural south. And I’m sure Lawrenceburg is like a lot of small towns. But I didn’t grow up in any of those towns. I didn’t learn to drive and graduate from high school or get married in those other towns. It was Lawrenceburg, so this book has a close, personal feel to me. I recognise the road names. I recognised many of the people. He lived for a while on Caperton Avenue. I was on the next street over. An identically laid out wide avenue with a central strip adorned with dogwoods and well kept medium sized houses. But it wasn’t just geographical coincidences. Only through reading this did I realise just how closely our lives have touched, even if we’ve never met. Obviously, I knew that before given that my grandfather dated his former mother-in-law after they both found themselves widowed. But reading the book made me appreciate more just how much lives are intertwined in a small town. Through blood and marriage and circles of friends and shared experience and proximity. But there were two areas of intersection with my family that I hadn’t known about and which I found fascinating.
Fred Thompson spends a good chapter of his book on Ol Time Religion and the lessons he learned at his home church, the First Street Church of Christ.
At the end of the well-kept avenue where I lived with my granddad, less than a hundred yards from my grandfather’s front door that, being small town Southerners we never used, stands the First Street Church of Christ. My grandparents were Church of Christ. Every Sunday morning, every Sunday evening, every Wednesday evening for Bible study and every other time the church doors opened my grandparents climbed into their Ford or Mercury and drove about a mile down the road to the Pulaski Street Church of Christ. On the way to Pulaski Street, you might pass three or four churches that could have cut down on the commuting. Some of them had a distance in theological teachings that far outstretched the physical nearness. But First Street was a Church of Christ and its quasi-industrial squared off brick structure was more aesthetically intriguing to me than the sloping brown front of Pulaski Street. I wanted to know why we didn’t go to church there and asked my grandfather. My granddad was indulgent and usually not short of a full explanation, but he told me in a tone the brooked no further questioning. “Honey, we just don’t.”
Fred Thompson’s outlined the schism which was the reason behind the terseness. From Fred’s perspective, the preacher at the center of it all had served enough time (Church of Christ preachers serve at the pleasure of the Elders and Deacons and traditionally not much more than itinerant) and was a little high handed when it was suggested that he’d served enough time. And apparently there was a lot of ugliness. My grandparents left that ever-so-convenient First Street and follow that preacher to the congregation at Pulaski Street.
Fred describes the schism thusly:
Soon our little congregation, having been purified though diminished in size, was back to normal. Some of our friends in the more ‘sophisticated’ Catholic and Presbyterian churches, with whom we carried on constant good-natured, if serious, arguments over doctrine, referred to our congregation, after our split, as the poorer of the two congregations. One of their more clever blasphemers was heard to say, “Their church is so poor that their members have to bring their own snakes on Sunday.”
That preacher was the man who shared a platform with me when I delivered my grandfather’s eulogy even though he’d long since moved on from Pulaski Street. He buried my grandmother and he buried both of my cousins’ other grandparents, too (I couldn’t help but think that they must dread to see him coming.) Delivering a eulogy and arranging the order of service at a funeral is an unpleasant task, but even through my grief I found him a pleasure to work with. I remember sitting on my grandfather’s back porch on a warm May evening telling him on the phone that my mother had told me to keep my eulogy to seven minutes. He told me “Well, there’s too long and there’s not long enough. I’d give it a little more time.” And he was right and it gave me the confidence to say what I had to say and not worry too much about time limits during a point in my life when I didn’t speak in public as much as I do now. And it was good.
While Fred was in law school, he came back to Lawrenceburg to clerk for his wife’s uncle during the most tumultuous summer that Lawrenceburg had ever seen. That year union organizers came to town. The primary target was the biggest factory in town, but they thought they’d sweep up some of the smaller manufacturers while they were there, including Fred Thompson’s in-laws who owned a small factory making church furniture. Unions and Southerners of primarily Scots-Irish decent don’t mix well. It’s my understanding that most of the workers voted against unionizing, but that the union men didn’t take no for an answer. And then there was trouble. Big trouble. Violence and blockades.
My grandfather was at the centre of that. He served on the city council and was acting mayor at the time. He played a part in organising a group of volunteers who bore arms and kept order in the town. It was fascinating to read about that time from Thompson’s perspective. Not one which differed much from my grandfather’s. Thompson helped prepare the case brought by his in-laws, and my grandfather, too was involved a law suit but was defended by the company’s lawyers. The judgment on my grandfather declared that he was enjoined “not to violate anyone’s civil rights, so long as he was not provoked.”
I captured my grandfather’s story of that summer in an oral history (here on Scribd – starting on page 82)
A good read
And the book is really funny. It captures that fantastic, classic Tennessee boy humor. Dry. A humor that waits. Funniest men on the planet, but you never know when it’ll hit you. A Tennessee man says nothing for a long time, and then the funniest damn thing you’ve ever heard will come out deadpan, with barely a twinkle in his eye. A quip that gives with one hand and takes with the other and leaves you thinking “Where the hell did that come from?” Not that Fred has that sense of humor, not really. He’s too much of a cut-up and a comic to dole out a joke meanly but with devastating effect. But he captured it brilliantly, it’s like a ‘best of’ collection of cutting wit.
If you like politician’s memoirs, this book might be a bit of a disappointment in that there are few insights from the circles of power. But if you just like a good tale, it’s an excellent read and does provide insight to the politician that Fred Thompson became. And if you’re from Lawrenceburg, you really must read it.