Not long ago I was asking a friend of mine, who has a private jet, about his longtime pilot whom I have known fondly for many years and flown with on several occasions.
He answered with a story of how the pilot, a few hours after landing with him one day, had a stress-related mental mishap that resulted in complete amnesia. He couldn’t remember his name or how to fly a plane.
"Oh my gosh!" I exclaimed. "What if that had happened while he was flying you?"
"That’s what I thought, too." Now, he flies with two pilots.
It brought to mind, though, a pilot who used to fly my co-workers and me when I worked in NASCAR. I have forgotten his real name but his nickname — which I gave him courtesy of "The Cosby Show" — was Bud. I adored him. I still cherish the coffee mug he gave me on my birthday once that says, "The ladder of success is harder to climb when you’re wearing high heels."
Now, Bud was quite an amusing character. Very comical. Which, in retrospect, some of his antics should have foreshadowed the telling of his true mental stability. Or lack there of. Bud was not Southern, which would turn out to be his great misfortune.
In the South, we forgive craziness.
Once, we were in Martinsville, Va., for a race where we had a hospitality area up on the hill behind the back straightaway. Between the track and the hospitality tents was a railroad track.
When Bud couldn’t find a parking space, he parked our rental car smack on the tracks.
We had a boss who was an absolute terror, and he warned Bud that if a train hit that car, he was fired.
"Boss, don’t worry," Bud replied. "No train is going to hit that car. You can trust me."
Now, the trouble with a train at a NASCAR race is that you can’t hear one coming over the roar of 40 cars that are each blasting deafening sounds from 800 horsepower engines. No one heard the train but I glanced up to see it when it was a couple of hundred yards away.
"Bud!" I screamed. "There’s the train!"
He froze for a second, horrified, then dropped a handful of dirty paper plates and ran with all his might toward the car. It was locked. Who locks a car that he parks on railroad tracks?
He fumbled for the keys. He found them. He dropped them. He picked them up again. Then, shaking like a leaf, he opened the door, the train barreling toward him as we screamed for him to let it go. But he was more scared of our boss than any ol’ train. Miraculously and just in the nick of time, he drove the car off the tracks.
He emerged from the driver’s side, his blue eyes twinkling merrily. He strolled toward us with a cocky swagger, his strawberry mustache twitching from the nervous muscle above his lip.
"I told you I had it all under control," he boosted through quivering lips. With that, I fell to my knees, weak with relief, and collapsed into gales of laughter.
Several months later, Bud went totally bonkers one night. He borrowed — some claimed "stole" — the company jet and flew it from Indianapolis to Dallas, Texas.
When he deplaned, the authorities were waiting for him. And that’s how my beloved friend wound up in a mental institution.
But had he been Southern, things would have been different. He wouldn’t have been institutionalized. He would have been immortalized.
That’s because crazy runs proud and strong through the South. We don’t hide it. We celebrate it.
Oh, if only poor Bud had been born here instead of there.