Monday, March 19, 2012
CURTIS TURNER AND LORNE CAMPBELL
Have been in a reading logjam again. I'm in three books, all interesting, went from one to the other after coming to a standstill about half way through each. Then just came to a standstill. Wanting something to read that makes me anxious to open it again and read some more. These three just dried up on me. Finished one a couple days ago. I will finish them, just needed a break. At the library I saw a biography of early NASCAR driver, Curtis Turner, FULL THROTTLE, by Robert Edelstein. Thought I'd give it a go. First thing I did was look in the index for my friend Lorne Campbell, who knew Turner, was one of his closest friends and his legal mind. His name was not there. I laughed and sent a note to him in spirit telling him he was free. He'd told me this man Doc Morris, involved in early NASCAR, wrote a small biography of Turner years ago. He talked to Campbell about Turner and Campbell told him if he puts his name in the book, he'll sue him. His name never appeared in the book. I doubt it was a fists on hips declaration, rather a conversational notation between men who knew each other well and were friendly. Knowing Campbell, I imagine he told him he'd like his name not to be used, and to seal it with certainty, added the PS, in good humor. It didn't need to be spoken as a warning, because Morris would have known Campbell well enough to pay attention.
Lorne Campbell was a wild man just like Curtis Turner, but more in a mental way, while Turner acted everything out physically and emotionally. He had a good mind too. Campbell told me Turner was one of five conmen he'd represented. He missed them. Only one was living then, Hugh Rakes, in Floyd, Virginia. When I say represented, he was their legal counsel and courtroom representative. He had the best conman mind of them all, as he was a conman by the law. They would tell him what they wanted to do, and he would would do the legal work. Campbell made a lot of money in timber over the years. Reading about Turner's timber deals, buying a mountain of timber and selling it before the closing for double or triple what he put into it. This is how Campbell told me they operated. There is no mention in the biography that Turner was a conman. He's called a businessman. If I were writing the bio, I wouldn't call him a conman either. I don't say that in blame. Reading about Turner's charisma with other men for his rugged masculinity, and with women for his rugged masculinity, he was somebody who had to have something going at all times, several at the same time. Brilliant mind with minimum school education. Campbell only went through high school. He studied law for one year with an elder lawyer in Independence, who was also a state senator from SW Virginia, Senator Parsons. He passed the Virginia bar in the last year it could be done before a new law required a law school degree.
I had the opportunity one time to see Campbell in a courtroom. This was in his years between 75 and 80 when his driving was good enough, but he didn't have the endurance to drive all day. I drove him around SW Virginia to courthouses in the different counties where he was representing clients. In Roanoke, in Federal court, he was representing Hugh Rakes before a judge. I usually stayed in the car and read. It wasn't all courtroom. This one day he asked me to come inside and see the proceedings. It had to do with Hugh Rakes selling a mountain of coal to Exxon, which was having, what seemed to me, a legitimate dispute with Rakes. I had never seen Campbell's face so stone-like before. He looked like a marble bust of a Roman general. His face was rectangular in straight lines, deep lines like in Roman likenesses. The face never changed. It was the ultimate poker face carved from stone. He was a good poker player too. He informed the judge of this law and that law, precedents, and had the judge in his pocket from the start with the charisma of his intelligence. In the courtroom, his intelligence had a powerful charisma. It was all intelligence, too, because no charm went with it. It was the same as a speaking Roman statue in a light blue suit. He preferred to go before a judge than a jury, because a jury required theatrics; whereas with a judge, it was straight the law.
Campbell stays in the front of my mind reading about Curtis Turner. The Turner I'm reading about accords perfectly with Campbell's memories of him. We drove by a place near Thomas Bridge, Virginia, somewhere between there and Marion, where Curtis ran on a dirt track in his first years racing. We stopped at a mechanic's shop to visit an old buddy from that time, one of Curtis's mechanics. He showed me a bridge Curtis did his 180 turn on. He showed me places and told of experiences at the parties Curtis gave. It was wide open. I mean wide open by today's standard. The bio, I knew before I opened it, wouldn't go into some of the detail Campbell told me. Babes at all times. Liquor at all times. He told me of a time Curtis landed his plane on main street (hwy 58) in Independence, before they had electrical wires. He said the most memorably beautiful sight he ever saw in his life was in the plane with Curtis on their way to LasVegas, flying over the Rockies. Two horses standing on the peak of a snow-covered mountain. I think it was about age 36 that Campbell experienced the march of the pink elephants in a Marion hotel room. He'd come to his own limit. Had to cut out the liquor. But that was all.
Campbell's spirit left the body 1989, days after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Boris Yeltsen standing on a tank announcing the end of the Soviet system. He said he never believed he would live to see the day. He was at the hospital at New Smyrna, Florida, the next town south of Daytona, city of memories for him. Reading of those times at Daytona with Curtis Turner, I know Campbell was there some of the times, and this well-told account of an American life gives me a broader look into the world Campbell told me about in the hours we spent on the highways of SW Virginia. I asked him one day if he felt like he had a life purpose. It wasn't out of the blue. We talked about these sorts of subjects. He said it was to keep mountain boys out of prison; mountain boys don't belong in prison. And that's what he did. He was known as a lawyer who would "hold your hand all the way to the prison door," meaning he'll keep working every angle he can twist to keep you out, right up to the very last moment. He was good in court. His legal representation was pro bono to anyone from Whitetop mountain in Grayson County. He loved the people of Whitetop. They were his people, the people he loved in his heart, the people whose spirit he identified with as his own.
A rogue, a rounder, a lowlife to the town people, the country people loved him. I learned long ago in Grayson County never to mention his name to town people. Country people light up every time at the mention of his name. It was the country people he loved, loved them so much that in his heart he was one of them. And he was honored that they thought of him as one of them. The town people are about appearances; the country people are about who you are, your character. Rogue he may have been, but his character was exemplary. He told me, meaning it from the same place he meant he was about keeping mountain boys out of prison, the only man he respects is a man who will not rat on his friends. He said it is a rare man, indeed, who would not rat. In Abingdon, Virginia, he called me into the courthouse another time to see a man in the witness stand ratting on people he'd worked with in the drug trade, them sitting there looking at him. The man's eyebrows brooded so low over his eyes that his eyes looked out from dark shadows. It taught me much, just to see his face, what ratting was doing to him, to stay out of prison. It's mighty tempting. Campbell, when he was 19, spent 6 months in prison for refusal to rat on a friend in court.
While reading Curtis Turner's life is a page-turner, a very well written page-turner, telling about somebody who was a friend of a friend of mine, brings my friend who has been gone from this world for 22 years back to mind like I could get in the car and go over and see him right now. When it comes to character, Lorne Campbell was a model for character in my life. He had lived in these mountains his entire adult life, coming here from SanDiego when he was 19, went to jail first thing, came out and took up studying law with Senator Parsons after deciding he wanted to be a practicing lawyer. In his own mind, he was the same as the people he worked to keep out of prison. The guys that skirted the edge of the law were his brothers in the spirit. That was the road he liked to travel. In words he said to me, he believes the American penal system is cruel and unusual punishment, therefore unconstitutional. He couldn't change the system, but he could give it all he's got to keep mountain boys away from its dehumanizing intent. I mentioned this to lawyer Donna Shumate some years later and she said the rub is, it is indeed cruel, but not unusual. He thought it was unusual where basic humanity was concerned. Campbell, himself, was my idea of a full human being, one who lived his life fully.
The day before his spirit left the body he said to me, "I've been looking at my life. Half of it has been good and half of it was bad. I've forgiven everybody everything." I heard balance and knew he was on his way. The view out his hospital window was the bridge from the mainland to the beach where Curtis Turner used to race on the beach and Lorne Campbell had some of the best memories of his lifetime.