Tom Ross: An unexpected 'greeting' from Hunter S. Thompson

Chance encounter with minister lands signed copy of counterculture classic

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In my experience, among people who observe the secular aspects of Dec. 25, there are two kinds: those who open their packages the moment they are dropped on the front stoop, and those who wait until at least Christmas Eve to savage the wrapping paper. I've always been among the latter, believing that the best part of receiving gifts during the holidays is stashing them under the tree and contemplating their mysterious contents.

Having said all that, I didn't wait more than 15 seconds last Thursday when I spied the small brown box on the side table. There was no mystery here. The package announced that it had been sent by William C. Smith. Although the rest of the return address had been blacked out with a felt tip marker, I knew where it had come from and what was inside.

Without a doubt, I knew when I opened the box I would find a paperback copy of "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72" signed by the author, Hunter S. Thompson. And so it was.

I have never been the type to collect celebrity signatures, but there have been times in my life when I asked for an autograph. As a 9-year-old, I stood nearly speechless while the lanky Green Bay Packer flanker of the Lombardi years, Boyd Dowler, signed a black and white glossy. As a 16-year-old, I stood in line to get the signature of the great American backstroke swimmer Charlie Hickock on a scrap of green notebook paper. And as a 48-year-old, I hung around for an hour in downtown Park City, Utah, to acquire an autographed poster of the Norwegian Nordic skiing great, Bjorn Daehlie, for my son. But that's about all of it.

Don't get me wrong; if an autographed copy of a memorable book arrives by UPS, and I don't have to ask for the signature, I'm thrilled to have it. Thomas McGuane, John Gierach, Bill Kittredge, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, Craig Childs, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Harry Middleton and Pam Houston, if you're reading this, feel free to round up a few spare volumes and send them my way. I'm not going to ask you to sign the books, but it won't hurt my feelings if you do.

The story of how Dr. Thompson came to send me a holiday greeting by way of Birmingham, Ala., is one of a encounter. Don't mistake me; I have never encountered Thompson. Instead, I met one of his high school football teammates.

It was the autumn of 2002 when I came chugging down from Emerald Mountain using hiking poles to propel me into the parking lot at Howelsen Hill. A well-dressed couple in their early '60s was looking at me quizzically.

"What's the need for ski poles?" on a warm autumn day, they inquired. I introduced myself to William Smith and his wife and explained that hiking poles help me get a better cardiovascular workout. Then I launched into the legend of Carl Howelsen and Ski Town USA. Our conversation flowed naturally. the Rev. Smith, a Methodist minister from Birmingham, explained that a friend of his owned a timeshare in Steamboat and had urged them to come out and use it. Then he told me he was thinking about going to Aspen to look up an old high school buddy. However, I sensed reluctance on his part. I informed him that the drive to Aspen that time of year was an easy one and a scenic drive to boot. Then he let it slip that his old friend was none other than the prince of gonzo journalism, that well-known collector of guns and fast motorcycles, Hunter S. Thompson.

I could go on and on about Thompson's place in American journalism, but there isn't enough space in the newspaper. Suffice it to say that in 1973, when I was studying political science, Thompson turned the journalistic and political establishments inside out with "Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail '72."

He exposed the political process like no one had before. And the word "irreverent" doesn't begin to tell the story.

Back to today's story. As I stood at the base of Howelsen with him, I could no more picture Rev. Smith, in his camel-colored sweater vest, chumming around with Thompson, than I could imagine the latter stringing cranberries and popcorn on garlands to put on the Christmas tree. Just the same, I urged Rev. Smith to go to Woody Creek to seek a reunion with his old friend. It was the chance of a lifetime, I reasoned. Later I received an e-mail from the Rev. Smith saying that Thompson was out of town when he arrived in Woody Creek, but that he was able to leave a message with a friend and intended to return to try to arrange a meeting. If he succeeded, he vowed, he would have a book autographed for me. I forgot all about the e-mail until last week.

My new copy of Fear and Loathing is inscribed: "To Tom Ross" followed by a big loopy scrawl that appeared to read, "Hunter S. Thompson." The title page of the paperback also is decorated with two heart shaped, wraith-like faces, one right side up and the other upside down.

Since receiving the Rev. Smith's kind gift, I have obtained a copy of Thompson's newest book, "Kingdom of Fear, Loathsome Secrets of a Star-crossed Child in the Final Days of the American Century."

I'm pleased to report that it is a work of depravity that is appropriate for almost no one on your holiday gift list. Instead, purchase a copy of your own and read it after locking yourself in the bathroom. And remember the advice of Thompson's alter ego Raoul Duke: "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro."

Happy holidays Dr. Thompson. And thanks again for the Christmas card.

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