NOTE: On June 16, 1997 the Daily News published this story by then Staff Writer Angie Toole about writer Hunter S. Thompson and his brief stint on the Emerald Coast. Thompson is widely considered the father of "gonzo journalism."
Hunter S. Thompson was here.
If you’re asking “Hunter who?” then the slightly surreal knowledge that this founding doctor of gonzo journalism spent a couple of his formative years on the Emerald Coast will mean next to nothing.
But if you’ve read any of Thompson’s works, or at least have heard about his over-the-edge lifestyle, the fact that he was an airman at Eglin Air Force Base in 1956-57, and wrote for both the base newspaper and the Daily News, should strike you as weird and maybe even cool.
For years, rumors have circulated about Thompson’s presence in Fort Walton Beach. Despite hard evidence in newspaper archives, the rumors never become much more than urban myth.
Thompson’s latest book, “The Proud Highway: Saga of a Desperate Southern Gentleman,” is in fact a collection of letters from 1955 to 1967 that firmly establishes his presence in the area.
Thompson was one of the charter members of “New Journalism,” or in his case, gonzo journalism. Following the publication of “The Great Shark Hunt,” Thompson described gonzo as “a style of ‘reporting’ based on William Faulkner’s idea that the best fiction is far more true than any kind of journalism.”
The foreword to “The Proud Highway” traces the origination of the term to 1970, when reporter Bill Cardoso of the Boston Sunday Globe reacted to one of Thompson’s stories by exclaiming, “That is pure gonzo.”
Despite higher claims to the contrary, Cardoso says gonzo is a South Boston Irish expression for the last man standing after an all-night drinking marathon.
Even this definition seems appropriate for Thompson, who apparently spent much of his source-cultivating and story-polishing time in Fort Walton Beach at the Temple Mound Saloon and the Seagull lounge.
“So we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: Who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived, or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?” ― Hunter S. Thompson, age 17, from “The Proud Highway”
Beetle Bailey, Sad Sack, Hawkeye Pierce, even Gomer Pyle, if you will, seem a better match for a military career.
Apparently it didn’t take either the Air Force or Thompson long to reach that same conclusion.
Thompson began his military career as a teen-ager after a clash with the law in Louisville, Ky. He did not graduate with his class because he had been sentenced to a year in jail for robbery.
He joined the Air Force, graduated from Scott Air Force Base’s electronics program in June 1956 and was assigned from Illinois to Eglin. Tired of radio maintenance, he finagled a transfer to Information Services. He then pulled off a coup for a journalistic novice by winning the title of sports editor at the Command Courier, Eglin’s base newspaper at the time.
“Now you know, and I know, that it’s ridiculous to even speak of any experience on my part, as far as layout or page arrangement goes. In short, we both know I’m no more qualified for a post like this than I am for the presidency of a theological seminary; but here is one major fact that makes it possible for me to hold this job: the people who hired me didn’t bother to check any too closely on my journalistic background.”
— Hunter S. Thompson, in a letter to a friend on Sept. 22, 1956, “The Proud Highway
Despite his lack of experience, Thompson spent long hours on the job learning all he could about page layout, creating his “Spectator” column and traveling to cover sports news. He also began taking night classes at Florida State University. With the boundless energy of a young man in his mid-20s, he also made excursions to Tallahassee for dates and to attend football games on weekends.
A perusal of old Command Courier issues at Eglin reveals that despite his lack of experience, Thompson did manage to enliven the layout of his sports section, filling the pages with photographs and writing with an enthusiasm that also managed to land him in trouble.
In the Oct. 25, 1956 issue, apparently following an aggravating episode at base basketball tryouts, he vented his frustration at Personnel Services.
“Sometimes we get the impression that Personnel Services is in the throes of a rather pitiful quandary. The tryouts for the base basketball team last Monday certainly did nothing to change our mind,” he wrote in “The Spectator” column.
“The only representative of the sports section on hand was a burly airman with a vacant grin, who was interested in nothing but having the photographer take some pictures of the weightlifting room. Beyond that, he was strictly hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
“The Courier hit the streets early this morning, and all hell broke loose within an hour’s time. The subject for all this angry yowling was a clever little column called ‘The Spectator’; composed each week by your friendly doctor ... All day, I’ve been grinning at wild-eyed majors, captains, sergeants, lieutenants and last but not least, several Colonels ... From now on, when I appear somewhere with a pencil in my hand and a gleam in my eye, people will quiver in their shoes and sweat freely. This is the finest thing that could have happened. I now have thousands of readers ... crazed with power and hell bent for the worst kind of infamy. ...”
— Hunter S. Thompson, Oct. 25, 1956, “The Proud Highway”
Douglas Brinkley, his editor in “The Proud Highway,” notes that “enamored of the printed word, (Thompson) declared journalism his vocation.”
In the time-honored tradition of a young airman’s ceaseless search for extra bucks, Thompson landed a job at the Playground Daily News in early February 1957. Hired by Publisher Wayne Bell, Thompson wrote under the pseudonyms Thorne Stockton and Cubley Cohn.
His letters after this point detail a series of brushes with authority at Eglin _ at one point being summarily yanked off the Command Courier staff, then reinstated by the base commander _ and tales of drinking excursions to New Orleans, the NCO Club and the Temple Mound Saloon.
“The Indian Mound is the only bar in town which is allowed to stay open all night. Thusly, a savage and unnatural orgy occurs almost every 24 hours within its confines. Last night was no different. Some young thing in gauze shorts did the ‘dog hunch’ with three winos from New York. It was weird. ... I woke up this morning, totally unclothed, on a sand dune overlooking a semi-crowded beach ... I remembered we had come out for a pre-dawn swim in the phosphorus-filled water. Whenever you move around in the water, your whole body lights up and flashes all around. Not your body. It’s really the phosphorus in the water, but I like to think it’s a weird omen from the crabs – hailing me as the new Messiah.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, July 13, 1957, “The Proud Highway”
Brinkley notes that around this time, Thompson apparently took over an abandoned Gulf of Mexico beach house, calling it Xanadu after Kubla Khan’s “stately pleasure dome” in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem and making it the party center for his circle of friends.
“Airman Thompson possesses outstanding talent in writing. He has imagination, good use of English, and can express his thoughts in a manner that makes interesting reading.
“However, in spite of frequent counseling with explanation of the reasons of conservative policy on an AF base newspaper, Airman Thompson has consistently written controversial material and leans so strongly to critical editorializing that it is necessary to require that all his writing be thoroughly edited before release.”
— Col. W.S. Evans, chief of Office of Information Services, Eglin. “The Proud Highway"
By September 1957, Thompson was no longer writing for the “Command Courier,” and the discharge he and the Air Force were so anxiously anticipating was not far away. Even though he had burned official military bridges, his old boss and mentor at the Courier, Lt. Frank Campbell, tried to get him a job after his discharge at the Atlanta Constitution.
However, when the discharge went through, Thompson had been hired by the “Jersey Shore Herald” and made his odyssey north, away from the shores of the “Playground” area and into literary history.
“Where are all the people who did the same things I did and wrote the same kinds of frenzied berserk letters that I did, sometimes even from the same weird towns and with the same desperate feelings I had and knew and genuinely suffered with because I was young and dumb and arrogant and completely unemployable, except at a great distance? ... Which is true, as these letters make utterly clear. It was no accident that I was fired from every job I had in those days, and was evicted from every place I tried to live.”
― Hunter S. Thompson, Dec. 13, 1996, in a foreword to “The Proud Highway”