Shooting from the Lip
The Life of Senator Al Simpson
By Donald Loren Hardy
UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS Copyright © 2011 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
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At my request, eighteen members of the Cody High School class of 1949 gathered one frozen Wyoming morning in early 2006 to tell me about their famous classmate, Al Simpson. The retired U.S. senator spoke first.
Don, you are about to hear some things about me that I am not proud of in any respect. I am not trying to hide them because, sadly, they did happen. No book of my life would be complete without them. However, I would pray it might be clearly understood that I was not in any way in these latter years "bragging" or "cocky" about being reckless, dumb, rebellious and irresponsible as a kid. Many of the things I did were just plain damn stupid.
Looking back, I am very sorry my friends and I did them. But we did. We were teenagers, goofy kids seeking thrills in a destructive way that can't be explained by any of us—even to the present day. We were very fortunate to have lived in a loving and forgiving community and been able to go on with our lives—after serving our probation and making restitution—without being marked for life, as many might be in today's world.
The room grew quiet. Al's stories were always the best—especially those involving gunfire and explosions. "My dad won a car, a Nash, at an Episcopal Church raffle. We got to driving around in that thing. We were all excellent shots, crack shots, so we often drove around shooting at things. It always seemed like a good idea at the time." After school one day in 1948, Al and a few friends motored the Nash along a small road near Cody. Armed with .22-caliber rifles, they shot enthusiastically at every inviting target, meaning everything within range. They found one roadside mailbox of particular interest. Seventy-two bullets left it in shards.
"The bullets were going through the mailbox and landing near old man Basinger's porch, which was a half mile or a mile away. Oh yeah, we got out of the car and shot the hell out of it—left pieces of lead all over the place." Reports of shots being fired, and the death of a cow, soon led to the boys' capture. Seventeen-year old Alan Simpson and several cohorts were charged with the federal offense of destroying mailboxes, and more. "We shot the tires on a road grader, because they were filled with water and when we shot them, the water just squirted out. That was really exciting!"
A classmate went on to describe the day they blew up a house. Simpson listened quietly, then offered a correction: "It was not a house. It was just an old shack, a health hazard, to our way of thinking. People had been in there drinking and all manner of things." His tone suggested that dealing unmercifully with the building would be an appreciated service to the public. Another friend picked up the story, which involved a World War II internment camp hastily constructed near Heart Mountain, northeast of Cody: "The house came from the old Japanese camp. It was one of those old tarpaper shacks that someone had moved after the war. We filled a coke bottle with gas and stuffed a rag in it. We lit it and threw it through a window."
Again, Al objected. Nobody had thrown anything through a window, since the glass was already missing—although he did concede that a homemade fuse may have ignited gasoline that somehow came to be inside the house, and that soon the entire structure was missing.
This reminded him of the day he and his pals passed sentence on an old car owned by a family friend. The auto's "crime," punishable by immolation, was having allowed itself to be long abandoned on Simpson family property by an owner unaware of the lads' eagerness to address such effrontery: "That car sat there behind our house for three or four years. It belonged to a friend of my parents, and it just sat there. But I was not the one who suggested that we take it across the bridge and set it on fire—and then push it down that steep hill toward the river below." The hill in question was just north of town, above the Shoshone River canyon. Any car doused with gasoline, ignited, and pushed over the edge would be certain to tumble wildly hundreds of feet into the ravine, a vision the boys gleefully anticipated.
"The engine didn't run, so we hooked the car up to this other vehicle, intending to pull it to its 'accident' site. While we were pulling it down the main street, a cop came along and asked if he could help. We said, 'No, we think we've got it.' He wished us good luck and we went across the river and perched the car atop a rugged, rocky, sagebrush-strewn hill," Al recounted. In preparation for the event, the boys siphoned five gallons of gasoline from a tank in the back of a stranger's pickup. Even though several of the lads, including Simpson, later became Cody volunteer firefighters, on that day they enthusiastically sloshed the purloined gasoline into the doomed vehicle and struck a match. In an instant, the car was violently ablaze.
Simpson interrupted the story to emphasize his devotion to project safety. "While some of the others went below to watch from there, I stayed on top to flag passing cars and warn of any danger," he explained.
Pushing the blazing vehicle over the edge of the cliff proved more difficult than anticipated, since the doomed machine was now blistering hot. Fearing that its gas tank might explode, one of the boys scrambled wildly over the cliff's edge and began pulling on the front bumper. As others shoved on the rear, the doomed vehicle grudgingly lurched forward. It pitched and then tumbled down the steep hill at alarming speed, spewing flaming gasoline in all directions. Having cheered its thrilling descent, Simpson demonstrated the seriousness with which he took his safety responsibilities by dashing back to the highway.
I knew the first guy who came along [in his car]. He was very excitable. I ran up and said, "Fred! A car just went off the cliff. I'm afraid to look."
He said, "You crazy bastards! I knew you kids would kill yourselves! I'll go to the hospital and let them know, and I'll be back in a minute."
He was just absolutely beside himself, shrieking, cursing and carrying on. Off he went, but by the time he got back, nobody was there. The car was still there, of course, at the bottom of the cliff, in flames.
As months of their childhood passed, the rowdy boys began to mature and even to make amends. They had fired thousands of rounds of .22-caliber bullets in their early days, ammo they could afford because they had stolen it from a store in Cody. "I think we got up about thirty dollars, a bunch of us. We clipped letters of the alphabet out of the newspaper and made a note saying, 'We stole shells from your place over the years. We feel badly about it.' We took the letter to Powell [twenty-four miles away] and mailed it from there, so it wouldn't have a Cody postmark. We signed it, 'Guilty Boys.'" Store owner Stan Lundgren operated his business for several more decades, never learning the thieves' identities.
Al's menace with a rifle and keen marksmanship were established facts. He remains proud of his ability to throw objects into the air and shoot them from the sky. "As a kid, I read about Annie Oakley. I thought that if she could shoot like that, surely I could do it. Actually, all you do is wait until it stops. You just throw something up into the air. When it stops going up, you shoot." Marksmanship was one thing, but brinksmanship elevated the boys' interest in guns to an art form. "We shot at each other. We got behind rocks down on Sulfur Creek and we'd see how close we could get to each other with .22-caliber 'shorts.' We never actually shot each other, but when the ricochet came close we would say, 'Boy, that was a good shot. That was pretty close—and it didn't even hurt.'" Al once shot so close to a friend's foot that the bullet pierced the side of his shoe. Since no blood was drawn, the boys interpreted the achievement as irrefutable evidence of amazing and daring marksmanship.
As a youngster, Al observed how well humor worked for his father. As the guest of honor at a Cody High School prom, Milward addressed the students solely in "Chinese." Al's classmate Jim Nielson laughed while telling the story: "I remember the class of '49 junior-senior prom, and Al's father getting up and speaking Chinese to us. We were impressed, since the theme of the prom was 'In a Chinese Garden.' We couldn't wait to report to everyone how great his father was." Milward's "Chinese" had been complete gibberish. He knew the sound of Chinese but had no idea how to speak actual words. Six decades later, Al commented on that evening.
I was kind of embarrassed—you know, to have Dad and Mom there. But Pop got up and said, "All this takes me back to when Lorna and I lived so many years in China. We love China." He named some cities, having read the book The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck. He had also been a friend of Nelson T. Johnson, who was ambassador to China prior to WWII.
Dad said, "I think on a night like this we should think how the Chinese would say aah ... [extensive expressions in tonal faux Chinese]." I just stared. My date, Jim Nielson's sister Joanne, said, "Wow! I didn't know your father spoke Chinese!" I said, "Neither did I!"
Al continued to observe his father's use of humor and was soon emulating it as a way of making an impression or dealing with conflict.
Although Milward and Lorna cherished their sons' many accomplishments later in life, their early years were challenging. In 2006 Al reflected on the anguish he caused:
When a cop car would drive up in front of the house, my mother would just go into shock. I know it's terrible, but in those days I considered it a success if I could make my mother cry.
I had a vicious temper. I would just sit in my room, after getting into trouble. She would shut the door and lock it. I would be pounding on it and shouting, "I'm going to kill you!" It is not a very nice thing to tell your mother. She would say, "I'm lying here on the bed. I'm sick, I'm heartsick." I thought, Well, okay!
Mrs. Simpson once told Time magazine about her son's legendary temper and her deep frustrations with him as a child. A woman of soft voice and firm resolve, she was determined to keep him from perfecting his budding delinquency. Al came to know her as "the velvet hammer—soft as velvet, strong as steel."
During the classmates' storytelling session, Al's earliest friend, Bob Borron, piped up about a time when the Simpson brothers, then young boys of six or seven, "entrapped" him.
Dad was hired to tear down an old building on the Simpson property. When Pete and Al came over, Dad said to me, "Why don't you play with those little Simpson boys?" So I went over to the garage and pretty soon they were handing me rocks. They encouraged me, so I started throwing rocks at the garage windows.
I was having a nice time knocking holes in the garage when a lady came along and said, "Little boy, why are you tearing up our garage?" Al said to her, "Mother, I was trying to get him to quit!"
I was still sore at him about the garage deal when [in school, several years later] I saw Al creasing the pages in his textbook. I said to the teacher, "Look at that, look what our class president is doing. What if every little kid destroyed our books like that?"
She asked, "What do you think we should we do about that?" I said, "Well, we've been studying impeachment. Let's impeach him!" So that's what we did.
Once again, Simpson leaped to his own defense. "All I was doing was folding the pages like butterflies. I was not crimping them! They looked kind of like a fan. I wasn't breaking the backing or tearing the pages." The group laughed heartily. They loved their "Alibi Al."
On July 3, 2006, four and a half months after Bob Hoagland Borron joyfully shared his story, Al Simpson fought back tears while delivering Borron's eulogy: "I cherish the near lifetime of years that I was a beneficiary of this wonderfully kind man's love and good fellowship. He drew people like a magnet—because he was pure fun. And who in the daily course of life doesn't love to be around someone who is just plain fun? We had many leaders in our class. Bob was the leader of mirth and laughter."
While Al and his brother were growing up, it was generally conceded that Pete's antics were less bizarre than those conjured up by his irrepressible younger brother. "I joined Al on several occasions, but I was always the 'getaway car,' not the perpetrator," Pete explained. "I used to try to discourage him from those things, and I used to make excuses for him with our parents." A family friend had a simple and astute way of defining the difference between the Simpson boys: "Pete would always let a sleeping dog lie. Al would go over and jerk its tail."
Pete was considered the more responsible son in part because many people never learned of his having served federal "probation" long before Al was arrested. Sitting comfortably in the house where the two grew up, Pete described the events of decades earlier. "I had thrown a cherry bomb into a mailbox in front of the post office in Jackson [Wyoming]. It blew up all these letters. I escaped the scene, but it was too small a town and they knew who did it. I was put on probation, but never had to contact a probation officer. At the time, I thought I was going to the penitentiary." To make a lasting impression, Milward had rigged a courtroom charade, using real judges, officers, and lawyer friends.
"They had this formal hearing. I thought, 'Christ, I'm going to Worland!'" Worland was the site of the state reformatory for boys. "Dad was in the back of the courtroom, not saying a word. I kept looking around, hoping he would come to my aid." After "testimony" was presented, the judge "sentenced" Pete and an accomplice to federal probation. Years passed before he realized that the hearing had been a mock sentencing. One might assume Pete's traumatic ordeal had an impact on his brother. It did not. Like some of his highly spirited ancestors, Al remained steadfast in his determination to learn life's lessons his own way—the hard way.
In 1835 John Porter Simpson, Al and Pete's paternal great-grandfather, was born to Robert and Nancy Simpson of Huntingdon, Pennsylvania. The family ventured west, and in Bear Creek, Colorado, on Christmas Day of 1865, John married Margaret "Maggie" Susan Sullivan, eleven years his junior. On January 26, 1868, in a house near Fort Reynolds, east of Pueblo, Maggie gave birth to a son they named William. A free spirit from an early age, Billy was fifteen years old when he ventured into the Wyoming Territory to find work as a cowhand and later to pursue his interest in becoming a lawyer.
In 1889 his parents, after numerous relocations and family tragedies, also moved north and took up residence on a ranch in the Wind River drainage north of Lander. In 1892 they relocated to Lander, near their son Billy. In September of the following year they moved for the last time, to Jackson Hole. That fall, in one of the nation's most beautiful settings, they built the first house with a shingled roof, and Maggie became the settlement's first postmaster. She and John were formative in laying out the original Jackson town site.
Billy's future wife Margaret "Maggie" Burnett was born January 24, 1874, not in Wyoming but in Utah. Her mother, Eliza Ann McCarthy Burnett, had been taken there for the birth because of dangerous conflicts with the Bannock Indians near their Fort Washakie home in the Wyoming Territory. Maggie, whose father was well-known frontiersman Finn Burnett, departed for Texas at age fifteen to attend Green's College in Dallas and St. Ursula's Catholic convent in San Antonio. She returned to Wyoming and became a volunteer teacher of English and Latin to Indian students at St. Stephen's Catholic mission. There she met Billy Simpson, who, despite little formal education, was seeking Latin instruction in his quest to take the state bar exam and become a lawyer. He successfully completed an oral examination on the law, and on July 11, 1892, he was admitted to the Wyoming Bar as a practicing attorney. He was twenty-four years old. In October of the following year Billy Simpson married nineteen-year-old Maggie Burnett.
Commonly known as "Broken Ass Bill" since he had been afflicted with polio at age eleven and walked with a limp, Billy loved to brag about having been expelled from the fourth grade back in Colorado for witnessing a public hanging—something he laughingly considered "a twofer."
He became known as an accomplished lawyer with a penchant for drinking and gambling and, during the following decades, lived with Maggie in Lander, Jackson, Meeteetse, Thermopolis, and Cody, Wyoming. His grandson Al says they moved often. Billy—also known by the pet name "Popoo" —was prone to getting drunk, gambling, and losing their home. "Three times, he came home to say, 'Pack up, Maggie. We don't own this place anymore.' That really irritated my grandmother."
The couple had three children: Virginia, Milward, and Glen (also spelled Glenn, and further known as Burnett). Milward was born in a log cabin in Jackson on November 12, 1897, and was destined to play a significant role in public life. He was only seven years old the day his father shot a Meeteetse banker. (Continues...)
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