Varmint County has been all up in the air the past couple of weeks over the success story of one of our native sons. I don't want to get ahead of myself, so let me start from the beginning, which in this case, will have to go back quite a few years.
You may recall science teacher Barney Pennywell, that visually challenged cross between Mister Rogers and Mister Magoo who entertained his students by making classic messes in the lab and on occasion, blowing himself up. You have certainly heard me speak of Hiram "Little Hair" Pennywell, Barney's brother, longtime county commissioner and sometimes travel buddy of Judge Hugh Ray, Sheriff Smoky and the rest of Doc Filstrup's poker crowd.
Barney and Little Hair have a black sheep in their family as well, which is saying something when you look at their track record of mishaps and misadventures. But nothing can compare to the misadventures of their brother Rufus Pennywell, who for years has been known as the resident lunatic of Varmint County.
Rufus started out pretty normal. Back in his youth he was an honor student at Varmint County High School and went on to graduate from the state university. Folks should have been tipped off early that something wasn't quite right though, when Rufus also began preaching at revivals and became an ordained Baptist minister at the age of 16, when most teenaged boys are playing football and chasing girls.
The first real indication that something was a few degrees off plumb, however, came at a football game when the Varmint County Vipers traveled over to take on their rivals the Siler City Mudcats.
Somewhere around the end of the second quarter with the Vipers driving the ball, someone in the stands noticed a fan down in Varmint County's end zone acting as an extra cheerleader. It was Rufus, recently graduated from college. He was wearing one of his brother's old football jerseys and a pair of spiked football shoes, and leading a prayer vigil for nobody in particular, urging a Viper touchdown.
Fans aren't supposed be in the end zone but since he wasn't on the field itself and seemed to be a man of God who might have some special line of communication going, the Siler City authorities decided to ignore him rather than force a confrontation.
As the game wore on, Rufus' shenanigans became more pronounced. He went from leading prayers for victory to doing little dances whenever Varmint County got the ball. Finally, with the Vipers driving for what would prove the winning touchdown, Rufus moved back a few feet and discovered, parked there behind the end zone, the car of the Siler City High School principal. He leaped on the hood and began jumping up and down, leaving deep dents from his spiked shoes every time he landed.
Needless to say, the authorities no longer ignored him, and Rufus spent a rather uncomfortable couple of days in jail before Little Hair drove over and bailed him out.
This was only the beginning. A few weeks after the football incident, Rufus walked out of his house and down Lower Primroy's Main Street, stopping everyone he encountered and handing them a bag of marijuana that he had grown himself up in the county's backwoods.
"Hello, Mrs. Pinetar. Mix some of this in your next peach cobbler and you will have a spiritual awakening."
"Archie Aslinger, smoke a little bit of this instead of those smelly cigars. You'll get religion."
Finally, Rufus ran into a couple of the Hockmeyer boys, who made their livelihood cultivating Varmint County's leading cash crop. Suspecting Rufus had stolen the marijuana from their fields, the Hockmeyers lost no time in working poor Rufus over until Sheriff Smoky arrived and hauled them all off to jail.
The Hockmeyers were charged with assault, but the Sheriff was perplexed about what crime, exactly, that Rufus had committed.
"Well, Judge," the Sheriff told Judge "Hard Time" Harwell, "he wasn't exactly in possession of the marijuana. He had given it all away before I got there. And he wasn't selling it, he gave everybody he met on the street a two-ounce bag of the stuff for free, including Widow Honeywell and eight-year-old Corky Potts."
"Charge him with contributing to the delinquency of a minor," the judge advised. "That will give you reason to lock him up until we can get him over to Mountain State Psychiatric Hospital for an evaluation."
The Sheriff did exactly that, and a week later, Rufus was back in Lower Primroy with a clean bill of health from the staff at the mental hospital.
"You couldn't find anything mentally wrong with him?" Judge Harwell asked Doctor Horatio Couch, the chief shrink at Mountain State.
"Noting that we can diagnose. He seemed perfectly normal except for the one incident, which may have been more of a prank than an indication of mental illness."
"What incident was that?"
"Well, he managed to get hold of a white smock and a stethoscope and made the rounds of the physical ward, diagnosing patients. Then he met a group of state officials down in the lobby and gave them a tour of the hospital. Since he was newly arrived, none of the nurses and doctors recognized him as a patient. They just thought he was a visiting psychologist."
All of this transpired about 30 years ago, when Rufus and the other Pennywell brothers were all young men. In the intervening years, Rufus has continued to lapse further into some place where most folks cannot follow.
One year, during a particularly cold winter, Rufus was observed walking the length of Main Street with one foot on the street and the other up on the elevated sidewalk. Deputy Cobbie Harris, new to the force, suspected Rufus had been drinking and stopped him.
"You been drinking, mister?"
"Then what the devil are you doing walking down a busy street with one foot on the curb and the other down on the street?"
"Is that what it is? Thank the Lord, I thought I was crippled!"
Needless to say, the officer hauled poor Rufus off to jail and tossed him in the "drunk tank," a community cell containing a couple of dozen hoodlums and alcoholics in various stages of sobering up.
Shortly afterward, Sheriff Smoky came into the jail to check the docket book and saw Rufus Pennywell's name listed.
"You arrested Rufus? Where did you put him?" the Sheriff asked.
"That new deputy, Harris, brought him in for public drunkenness," jailer Barney Pyles replied.
"We put him in the drunk tank."
"Don't you know Rufus is crazy as a loon? Those thugs in the tank will kill him," Sheriff Smoky moaned. "We've got to move him to a private cell until we can ship him back to Mountain State."
The Sheriff and two jailers then rushed back to the cell block, fearing that they might find poor Rufus sprawled in a pool of blood.
Instead, they found a dozen of the roughest, toughest thugs in Varmint County, various Haigs, Hockmeyers and Aslingers, all pressed up against the bars on one side of the cell, with looks of primal fear frozen on their faces.
In the middle of the room, Rufus had stripped off his clothes and relieved himself on the floor, then proceeded to smear the excrement on his arms and forehead while chanting a Tibetan prayer.
"Sheriff, ya gotta get us out of here. That guy is crazy. He done gone and bathed himself in s#!*!" Hansford "The Knife" Hockmeyer pleaded.
After a few dozen episodes of this nature, a suspected arson (Rufus torched a building that, some time later, was discovered to be a meth lab operated by the Gillus Brothers) and repeated trips to Mountain State, Rufus finally vanished from the scene, being finally admitted to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.
Fast forward to this summer. Barney Pennywell, who had consistently argued that his brother wasn't insane, just a little odd, walked into Doc Filstrup's clinic on poker night with a stack of books.
"Fellows, I've got some autographed copies of this book for you all. Sheriff Smoky, Doc, Judge Harwell, yours have got personal messages in them from my brother, apologizing for all the trouble he put you through all those years."
Barney then proceeded to pass around copies of the latest addition to the New York Times bestseller list, "Crazy Like Me," by Rufus Jerome Pennywell.
"You might say what my brother was doing all those years was research," Barney chuckled.
"Are you saying he's cured, or never was crazy?" Judge Harwell asked.
"Nah, he's still a bit odd," Barney noted. "But he's moved to a mansion in Beverly Hills now that they're making a movie from his book. Out there, if you've got enough money you can be as crazy as you want."