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Famous Common People I Have Known; An Article V Homily for Tom Coburn

It was recently reported at the Convention of States website that former Sen Tom Coburn has been named a Senior Advisor to their Article V endeavor.

A fine conservative still, (in my mind), his elevation to such a high honor at COS has put me in mind of a story from my  years in industry. Being an Oklahoma boy, I think Dr Coburn will appreciate my tale of what can happen when you allow yourself to be enlisted by a pig-in-a-poke.


I spent most of the 1980s in a large textile corporation. I gave up my practice of law to learn manufacturing. After spending a little over a year learning which end of the needle the yarn came out of, I was given the post of production planner for the company’s largest factory, and corporate head of its Product Development Department.

I was issued an office in the main corporate laboratory, which abutted a large break room for several production departments. It was there I made the acquaintance of a local legend who worked on an hourly rate in one of those production departments. His name was Robert ********, and he was known to everyone simply as “Possum.” I’m serious, that’s all they called him, even over the factory intercom, where Mrs Hensley would pipe in “Possum, please come to the front office” or “Possum, go to the #5 loading dock.”

Possum was a big burly man, with unkempt, tousled hair, and in a permanent state of unwash. But a more congenial and good-natured a man I never met. But Possum was also considered something of a factory clown, for you see, Possum drank. A lot. And all at one time.

Possum’s claim to legend was that, it seems, every pay day, he would pick up his paycheck, then would head to the county line, where a wet county waited, and where cold beer could be bought, with saloons lined up in a row to sell it, and where men who swear a lot could drink it. I’ve been there, but never on payday Friday night, where Possum made his reputation. Possum would take down beer in copious quantities until he finally ran out of money, and paid a cab to take him home, or, which happened at least half a dozen times a year, he’d run into one of several pairs of ruffian brothers, from any number of surrounding counties (this was the only wet county in about a hundred-mile radius), and they’d set to making and taking dares.

To make a long story short, Possum would end up with a broken nose, black eye, small face and arm lacerations, a busted lip, and earn a weekend sleepover in the county jail. Back at the factory, come Monday, there was often a Possum-watch if word got back he was in jail, and there would be a small-dollar lottery going around as to whether he would make the first shift clock on time on Monday morning. If he had to see the judge, it would sometimes be Tuesday, but usually he made it back. But he was so well liked, an institution,  the plant manager didn’t dare fire him without a plant uprising, so come Monday, he usually had a standby to do Possum’s job for a day.

Knowing Possum only by reputation, I finally got to meet him in the break room one day when I noticed his swollen eye and cut lip and I asked him about it. We sat down over milk and Lance peanut butter crackers, and he told me about it. That got to be a habit for over four years or so, for once every 6 weeks or so, he’d  come in banged up, with a story to tell, and I’d listen about  his latest travails.

Possum knew who I was, and that I was a lawyer. But never once did he ask me for advice. Nor did he whine and fall into that victimization rant most jailbirds do. I admired Possum for this, but also because he never once claimed to be guiltless in his unfortunate periods of incarceration. Yeah, sure, the Turley brothers or Whiz O’Banion started it, everyone knew they were brawlers, but after he’d had a few beers he too could get a mean look in his eye. “I just can’t help it.”

In all the years I knew Possum, his only complaint was about the jailor and his turn-keys. A 25.000-a-year job, the jailor was getting rich by farming all the jail services to his family. His wife had the hot-food concession, and Possum said it was swill. On the $30 per-day, per-prisoner stipend (I think that was the amount), Possum said they had to be pocketing half of it. The same for cleaning for bedding. A racket. Possum believed corrupt jailors to the worst of the worst, and no one could argue that he had a firsthand knowledge about jails that few others could.

In 1987 Possum came to my office for the first time ever. He had a serious look, and sat right down and began by telling me that he wanted to stand for county Jailor in November. I learned back, trying hard to look serious back at him, and listened quietly as he delivered an actually well-reasoned argument as to why he knew more about jail operations than anyone else. It was almost persuasive. When he finished, I asked him if he thought he had a chance. “Not a chance. I don’t even dress up that good, and can’t speak worth a damn.. But I would like to throw a scare into that SOB (the jailor) by telling people how they’re ripping the county off.”.

I thought Possum was going to ask for my advice, finally. But no, instead, he asked for my endorsement. Dumbstruck, I thought for a minute, then stood up, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hell yes, Possum. I think you could run that operation better than anyone.” Then I  asked what I was supposed to do. “Nothing. Just let me use your name. I don’t plan on making any speeches, or passing our cards. Just going to get the word around and tell everyone you’re behind me. Just look for some phone calls.”

And I did. Close to 100, people all over town, doctors, lawyers, business owners. You serious?. And more than a few people in the factory dropped into my office to confirm that I was actually behind Possum, and yes, I knew that he was the county jail’s most regular occupant. But among those phone calls were three from senior management, including my boss, the number three man in the company. He wanted to know if I’d lost my mind, and what in the hell was I thinking? And he also spoke, with disapproval, of the friendship I’d developed with Possum in the first place. Wasn’t seemly. We’d even gone dove hunting together. Good lord, everyone knows you’re friends with Possum.

Possum got just over 400 votes, I think, a little over 10% of the vote, and I left the company a little more than a year later, having gotten thoroughly tired of the uninteresting company I’d been keeping the other 11.75 hours a day.

So, Senator Tom, I think I know something about being elevated to high rank by a pig in the poke and paying the price.. When the time comes for a reckoning, will you take away as much satisfaction with your gig as I was able to do? I did mine for free.

The Convention of States Project’s moment of truth may have come and gone.


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