Thursday, January 14, 2016

Before He Was Famous

Hunter S. Thompson was one of the off-beat characters of the late-20th Century. He started- and personified "Gonzo Journalism."

Gonzo journalism is a style of journalism that is written without claims of objectivity, often including the reporter as part of the story via a first-person narrative. The word "gonzo" is believed to have been first used in 1970 to describe an article by Hunter S. Thompson, who later popularized the style. It is an energetic first-person participatory writing style in which the author is a protagonist, and it draws its power from a combination of social critique and self-satire.
Over the past few years I came across some information that linked Thompson to my small, north central Pennsylvania home town. Last year when doing some research on some memoirs I discovered even more about that. Here is what I wrote at the time.

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The world of the 1950s and early 1960s was, in small town America still the “old world”. The soldiers had come home, America was prosperous and lots of babies were being born. Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania, was as typical of that world as any other place. If you were looking for excitement and change, challenge and movement, this was not the place. The world of Central Pennsylvania was still as it had been for decades.

Perhaps no one expressed that better than future Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. In 1957, fresh out of the Air Force and looking to become a professional, Thompson found a job working as sports editor for the Jersey Shore Herald, a daily newspaper whose office was across the street from Lehman Pharmacy. He was 20 years old with no college degree. His resume said he had worked for the Command Courier, the newspaper of Eglin Air Force Base at Fort Walton Beach, Florida. He moved into an apartment four blocks from my grandfather’s house.

Jersey Shore, he discovered was not the (New) Jersey shore, as he had originally thought. He wrote a letter to a friend that clearly explained his no fear but a lot of loathing of Jersey Shore.
So you think Iceland is bad: ha! Let me tell you about north-central Pennsylvania.

There were three red lights in metropolitan Fort Walton: there are two in Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. There were four laundry and dry cleaning establishments in Fort Walton: there are NONE in Jersey Shore. There were innumerable bars in Fort Walton: there are two in Jersey Shore. There were at least four good eating establishments in Fort Walton: there are but three small grills in Jersey Shore. There were women (whores, lesbians, and divorcees, if you must) in Fort Walton: the only women under forty in Jersey Shore go to high school. There were beaches and water and sand dunes and sea gulls and boats and bays in Fort Walton: there are mountains of coal dust, dirty old people, ancient wrecks of houses, and "True Confessions" magazines in Jersey Shore.

And now you're going to ask just what in the hell I'm doing in Jersey Shore, Pa. I know... and I'm ready with a quick answer I'm having a nightmare.
To say he was unhappy would be an understatement. But it’s not that he was unwelcome. On the Internet I found a scan of his press pass signed by the Chief of Police who I knew. Thompson even explains in his letter about what the people of the town thought.
These nightmare people think I’m a “nice young man” who’s come to settle in their community and make it a home. They call me “Mr. Thompson” and “sir” and insist that I attend the Lions’ Club meetings, become an Elk, and join a bowling team. They invite me to their homes for dinner and tell me that the only thing wrong with America is the fact that we’ve given all our money to foreigners.
He went on to briefly describe his work as sports editor. “Half of one entire page has to be local bowling scores – a goddamn list of people’s names…If a man really wanted to bury himself, I can think of no better place to do it than in Jersey Shore.”

Obviously the rural, small town America was not for Thompson. Staying in Jersey Shore was not an option. But the Hunter S. Thompson that Johnny Depp would one day portray on screen was at work. He left Jersey Shore after a few weeks, but only in a Hunter S. Thompson way. Here is a description from an online blog.
He had taken out a colleague’s daughter; the father was kind enough to allow the young couple access to his '49 Chevy. Sure enough Hunter got the man's prized possession stuck in the riverbed. The next day, the angry co-worker drove the car into work and Thompson said, “I knew heavy trouble was coming …I just got up, took my coat off the rack and went out the front door. Didn’t even collect my pay. Went straight to the apartment, loaded the car and drove to New York.
These “nightmare people” were, of course my relatives, neighbors and friends. “They” included me. During the time Thompson was in town the only thing I worried about was the tonsillectomy I had that November just before Thanksgiving. I want to defend my “nightmare people” but I am at a disadvantage. I knew nothing else but Jersey Shore and its seemingly ideal life. It was probably as quiet and dull as Thompson reports. At least on the surface. Later, the joke would be that the bus drivers on the intercity bus called Jersey Shore, "Jersey Whore". That or "The Peyton Place of the Susquehanna." Of that I have no personal knowledge.

Source of italicized information:
Outta the Way Blog
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As always, I guess things depend on your own experiences and history.

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