Monday, February 21, 2005 Updated: February 22, 1:13 PM ET
By Kevin Jackson Page 2 staff
Most of the voicemail messages left on my office phone are quickly terminated with a punch of the No. 7 button -- many of them "marked for deletion" before the speaker even finishes talking.
For the chosen few, however, there is the No. 9 button, that magical key that validates a voicemail, says it's worth keeping and sends it into the archive of saved messages.
The No. 9 button was made for Hunter S. Thompson.
You can say what you will about the counterculture author and Page 2 columnist who died Sunday night of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. But you cannot say that the man was ever boring. Every correspondence with the Good Doctor -- be it a phone call, a voicemail or one of his infamous FAXes -- was an adventure waiting to be lived. Many of them were worth saving, so that co-workers and friends could live them as well.
I can still hear the words echoing from HST's final message on my phone a couple of weeks ago. It was short and sweet, and it represented two of the things that Hunter talked most about: missing his "deadline" as a Page 2 columnist and partaking in a few good libations.
"Uh, yeah, Kevin, it's me ... uh, Hunter. I heard a rumor that you might ... uh, be out here for the X Games. You should stop by and get together for a drink ... or three," he said with a snarky laugh. "And, I ... uh ... probably won't have a column this week. [long pause]. Yeah ... we'll keep working on one for next week."
Sadly, the rumor was untrue, and I wasn't in Aspen for Winter X last month. (Even sadder, that voicemail was automatically erased from my archives late last week.)
The last time I visited Hunter at his home was in February 2003. His ranch in Woody Creek, Colo., was extremely chaotic that night, with random friends popping in unannounced and a photo crew on hand to shoot Hunter for some new music magazine.
As he often did, Hunter seemed enlivened by the late-night hour and the commotion. Our visit began at 11:30 p.m. -- which is actually the middle of Hunter's day -- and lasted until 3:45 a.m., when the Doctor and his soon-to-be-wife Anita were headed to a neighbor's pool for his customary 4 a.m. swim. (Apparently, HST had a regular arrangement to use the facilities and said the regular swimming helped his joints.)
The photo crew spent more than two hours trying to get Hunter to do three things: change his clothes for the shoot, move from his kitchen into his living room and pose with a Samurai sword. It was easily the most difficult negotiation I've ever witnessed (and I have a 3-year-old daughter at home).
The photo folks really had no use for me or my two ESPN colleagues, Page 2 writer Eric Neel and SportsNation editor Daniel Dodd. We were in their way, and they kindly asked us to stand back and move to the back of the kitchen.
Each time we tried to oblige, Hunter would motion for us to come back over, so he could resume doing one of the things he enjoyed most: talking about sports. He had three living, breathing ESPN dudes in his home, and -- hot damn! -- nothing was going to prevent him from getting our take on Bob Irsay's Colts or the ugly demise of Al Davis' Raiders the previous week in the Super Bowl against the Buccaneers.
When the camera crew finally coaxed Hunter into position for the shoot and the photographer started clicking away, Hunter barked, "Tell those ESPN guys to come back in here."
Between shots, he took great delight in getting us to hold his props. He handed a bullwhip to me and asked me if I knew how to use it. I nodded my head, even though my experience with bullwhips was limited to watching Bob Knight show off one at a press conference.
Then he stepped back to create some space and whirled the Samurai sword in the air. When he finished his martial arts display, he handed the sword to Daniel and asked him to hold onto it. I can still see Daniel's eyes widening as he stared down at the blade and imagined the damage it might inflict.
When the cameras quit whirring and the weapons were safely stored away on the living room's coffee table, Hunter said he had something he wanted us to see. He pulled out an old video tape from Allen Ginsberg's funeral in 1997. Hunter had been too ill to travel, but he had written a tongue-in-cheek eulogy that he had Johnny Depp read at the memorial service. The one-liners were sharp, and they brought down the house. As Eric said to me Sunday night, we can only hope someone will read something like that when the Good Doctor is laid to rest this week.
I can't really claim that I knew Hunter S. Thompson especially well. I was exactly half his age, and much of his great work was done while I was still in diapers.
But I can say that I did get a brief glimpse into his Gonzo world. A world where it seemed perfectly ordinary to perform a dramatic reading from a "Nash Bridges" script that HST had consulted on. I read the lines of Cheech Marin's character, while my ESPN colleague Jay Lovinger played the part of Don Johnson. A world where breakfast is eaten at 4 p.m., Wild Turkey takes the place of tap water and throwing on an Indianapolis Colts jersey is considered getting dressed up. A world where peacocks are pets, a letter of praise from Marilyn Manson hangs on the wall, and an old photo of HST with John Belushi is buried among assorted clutter on the refrigerator. A world where HST got me to attend a rally and sing "Give Peace A Chance" ... in 2003.
If you stay in that world long enough, "weird" becomes "normal." I'm definitely going to miss it.
Kevin Jackson is one of the founding editors of Page 2 and worked with Hunter S. Thompson during his four years at ESPN.com. He never did get the Good Doctor to hit his deadline.