May 18, 2010 -- In "Teaching the Pig to Dance" former Tennessee Senator and Republican presidential candidate Fred Thompson writes about his small-town upbringing and unlikely journey to Washington and Hollywood.
Read an excerpt of the book below, and then head to the "GMA" Library to find more good reads.
In the part of the country where I come from, most people are proud of their hometown. Folks in Linden, Tennessee, are a good example of that. Situated in rural country in Middle Tennessee, about fifty-seven miles from where I grew up, Linden had about a thousand residents.
One day during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the coffee drinkers at the drugstore on the town square noticed out the window that one of the local good old boys had his pickup truck loaded with what appeared to be his worldly possessions.
As he walked into the drugstore to buy supplies, one of the coffee-drinking busybodies said to him:
"Lem, looks like you're moving out. What's up?"
"Ain't you boys heard about the missile crisis?" Lem replied.
The fellow answered, "Yeah, but what makes you think they're gonna bomb Linden?"
Lem said, "It's the county seat, ain't it?"
Well, Lawrenceburg is a county seat, too. This meant that Lawrenceburg had a courthouse with a square. Every courthouse in the state was located to be not more than a half day's horse ride from any part of the county. It also meant that Lawrenceburg was the location of the county fair. As the center of county culture, it had a movie theater. And it had an organized Little League. In short, growing up in the county seat was pretty much a privileged situation.
Like thousands of little towns across America, it was populated mostly by folks who had grown up on the farm and come to town to enjoy the fruits of a better life. Usually having little in the way of a formal education, a man's reputation for hard work and keeping his word were his most valuable assets. That's the way it was with my people and just about everybody they knew. It's not that our town didn't have its share of scalawags. As one old-timer put it, "We weren't big enough to have a town drunk, so a few of us had to take turns."
What we did have for sure was more than our share of characters, used-car lots, and churches, all of which were an important part of my years growing up.
Some time ago I decided to write my story — a story that began in Lawrenceburg. You know, the obligatory autobiography, written by anyone with the necessary fifteen minutes of fame or success. It would be about how I left Lawrenceburg and, over the years, had some very interesting adventures.
There were the early days when I was a federal prosecutor. Then there would be a part about my role as counsel for the Watergate committee, and my part in revealing the taping system in the Nixon White House. Then, of course, I would relate some of my experiences in the movie business as well as on the TV show Law & Order. And there would be the eight years I spent in the U.S. Senate (which made me long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood).
Naturally, I would also talk about my presidential campaign (described by one of my comedian friends as probably the most stressful three weeks of my life).
Finally, there would be the concluding chapter that we are all too familiar with, wherein I would give my instructions to a waiting America as to what must be done to meet the "challenges of our time." It's amazing how brilliant and insightful a fellow becomes when he leaves elective office and can't do a thing about all those problems.
I even had a title for that book picked out: Why I've Had Such a Hard Time Keeping a Job.
In all seriousness, that book I had in mind was going to be more than just old, warmed-over "war stories." I was going to write about opportunities presenting themselves and why I took some and not others. There's a lot to be said for seizing the moment, and I thought a book about the remarkable interconnectedness of the experiences I've had—how a decision I made has so often seemed to lead inexorably to consequences and opportunities that I never foresaw—might be somewhat instructive.
Well, this is not that book. As I got into the process, I discovered that what I was writing about was what happened before I left Lawrenceburg, not after I left. The thought of those times didn't necessarily make me nostalgic, but they did make me feel good. I was revisiting and laughing with some of the most interesting characters and funniest people you'd ever hope to meet, not the least of whom was my own dad.
The fact is that the people I knew and the experiences I had in that little town formed the prism through which I have viewed the world, and they shaped the way I have dealt with events throughout my life. Those growing-up years in Lawrenceburg left me with a particular take on life.
A saying I often heard sort of typifies it. Usually said with a smile, it is "Ain't nobody gonna get out of this old world alive anyway, son," often said to put things into perspective when times were getting rough.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, I heard sayings like that more than a couple of times from more than a few people.
From the girl I married as a teenager and her family, to the teachers, coaches, preachers, and most of all my mom and dad, they encouraged and tolerated this young ne'er-do-well kid with no apparent prospects. They cajoled me, inspired me, and shepherded me from childhood to manhood. It was not an easy trip for any of us, but by the time I left Lawrenceburg, I had learned some valuable lessons and had the confidence to take on the world. (Of course, the world had the confidence to take on me, too, but that's another story.)
There's another old saying that comes to mind: "Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel." I can add to that. Where I come from, tragedy and comedy were often served at the same table. But the lessons that grew out of those experiences were grounded in the kind of commonsense view of life and living that today is, unfortunately, all too uncommon.
So I decided to write about what I wanted to write about. Stories about growing up—in every sense of the word. Stories about Lawrenceburg. It's about time Lawrenceburg had the recognition. After all, it is the county seat.