JUNIOR JOHNSON TURNS MELLOW
In his prime, when he was running 120 gallons of his daddy's moonshine each trip through the mountains of North Carolina, Junior Johnson had this trick that drove the Federal revenue agents crazy. When they got on his tail, he would press heavy on the accelerator of his souped-up 1939 Ford and he'd open up a little lead and then, as he whipped the car around one of the mountain curves, in the dark of night, without using headlights, he'd suddenly drop into a low gear, pull on the hand brake and, while still applying power, put the Ford into a controlled 180-degree spin. The car would shudder, then straighten out, and Junior Johnson would flick on the headlights and head back in the direction he'd come from. He would pass the speeding revenue agents as calmly is if he were just a mill hand heading back home after a hard night's work.
In time, Junior Johnson became a legend, first in the 1940s in Wilkes County, N.C., where everyone knew he was the best moonshine runner in the state, never once caught on the road by Federal agents; then, in the 1950s, throughout the South, along the NASCAR circuit, the stock-car tour, where duels with Lee Petty helped turn a backwoods sport into a million-dollar business; and finally, in the 1960s, nationally, when a young writer named Tom Wolfe, who specialized in exclamation points and vivid word-pictures, helped start his own literary legend with an article in Esquire called "The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes!" A few years later, the article inspired a movie entitled The Last American Hero, and Jeff Bridges played Junior Johnson and Art Lund played his moonshine-making father and Valerie Perrine played a stock-car groupie. The film popped up on television this year; it had a new title, Hard Driver, but the message was the same: Junior Johnson was one tough, wild man, as quick with his first as with his Fords. He feared absolutely nothing in the world, and absolutely no one in his right mind would mess with the man.
But now it is 1976, and Junior is 45, and he no longer drives the cars he helps prepare for NASCAR races. Perhaps his legend is starting to fade because, in 1976, in North Carolina, someone was brave enough, or dumb enough, or crazy enough, to mess with Junior Johnson.
The incident took place in 1976, but it really began one day in the early 1960s, hen Junior Johnson and a few of his friends were out coon hunting. Their dogs had treed a coon, and as Junior went off to find the man on whose property they had been hunting, that they would soon be moving off with their barking dogs, he encountered a friendly female mutt who had, rather obviously, just given birth. Junior always loved dogs, almost as much as he loved out-driving revenue agents, and he took an immediate liking to this one. :Got any puppies to sell?" Junior asked when he found the owner.
"Sure do," the man said. "Got two of 'em. Out yonder in the barn."
Junior made his way to the barn, picked out one of the pups and paid the man $10. The he took the shivering pup, which wasn't any bigger than Junior's own paw, and stuffed it in his coat pocket, where it slept contentedly through the rest of the coon hunt.
Junior Johnson named the dog Cricket, and Cricket became his house dog, fed from the table and given the run of the huge house. Every time Johnson and his crew came home from a trip to one of the tracks on the NASCAR circuit, the tan-colored, part-terrier Cricket--all 20 inches of him--was waiting to greet them. "Just wouldn't be like coming home, really," said Johnson, "if Cricket wasn't there to come and greet us. The little guy gets so damned excited he just about has an accident on the floor. I can't tell you how much I love that little mutt."
Then, one Saturday night early this year, Junior Johnson drove from his home in Ingle Hollow to Winston-Salem to have dinner at Stanley's Charcoal Steak House, his favorite restaurant in the whole world. Junior parked in Stanley's sprawling lot and, while he went in to eat, left Cricket locked in the car.
After he had finished his steak and had signed his usual quota of autographs, Junior came outside and discovered that someone had broken into his car. Cricket was gone.
Johnson promptly contacted a local newspaper and a radio station and told them he was offering a $1,000 reward for the 13-year-old dog. Within 24 hours, Junior got a phone call, and the caller said he believed he had Johnson's dog. He said he had found the dog running loose on the streets and he certainly was looking forward to the generous reward. The caller asked only one favor: He told Johnson to please not bring the police in on the matter because he and the police had had a previous disagreement, and he, for one, would just as soon let sleeping dogs lie.
The caller told Junior to meet him at a certain spot, but when Junior showed up, the man--a stranger--did not have Cricket with him. "You give me the thousand dollars," the stranger suggested, "and I'll go get the dog and bring him back to you."
Junior said it was nothing personal, but he didn't care too much for that arrangement. The stranger offered an alternative. He told Junior to drive to a specific garage where another man would be waiting. Junior followed the directions, driving along with the $1,000 in cash in his pocket, plus, just for comfort, a .38-caliber pistol in the arm rest, within a mere six inches of his hand.
At the garage, another stranger told Johnson to drive to a nearby trucking company, where a third man would be waiting in a car, with the dog. Junior drove to the trucking company, spotted a car with a paper bag over the license plate and found, inside, a familiar dog and an unfamiliar man. Junior then turned over the $1,000, and the man turned over Cricket. And then Junior Johnson drove home very quietly.
"I could have blown all three of them away," Junior said later, "and maybe, if it had been the day before, when I was awfully hot about the whole thing, I would have. But seeing that Cricket was unharmed, I didn't think it would help anything to get all riled up. Besides, I thought about it, and who knows when they needed the money for? Maybe they were desperate."
The day after the exchange, Junior went to the police. They gave him a pile of books filled with mug shots, and as he was leafing through them, he spotted one of the three strangers. He did not show any sign of recognition. He simply memorized the information about the man listed next to his mug shot.
"I thanked the police and went on home," Johnson said. "I knew they wouldn't do nothin' even if they did catch 'em. What are they going to do to three guys that steal a dog? They don't even put killers away anymore.
"When I got home, though, I made a few telephone calls. In no time at all I found out where that guy lived, where he worked--everything. I even took a drive past his house.
"I let it all simmer for a while, though, and I'm glad that I did. I can't stomach thieves, especially thieves who'd steal a dog or a kid or some other animal. I've got no use for 'em."
Johnson leaned back and allowed himself a smile. At five-foot-11 and 235 pounds, he remains a sturdy man, and he looks as though he could still handle himself without difficulty in the kind of fights that used to be commonplace on the dirt-track circuit.
"Yeah," he said. "I thought about going up to that guy's door, knocking on it, pushing him aside, sitting him down on a chair, beating the names of the other two out of him and then beating in a part of his head to teach him a lesson. Some of my friends wanted me to do that. They were all set to help me, even though I was so mad I didn't need help of any kind.
"But waiting on a decision on what to do has helped me to realize that this isn't nineteen fifty-two. You just don't do things anymore the way I used to do things, not if you want to keep your self-respect. Everybody's gotta grow up, and I've growed up a lot since I was a hotheaded kid. What I was thinking of doing to those guys was worse than what they'd done to me and I didn't want that on my conscience. Besides, the police wouldn't have taken too kindly to it, and how do you justify something like that? 'I caved in their skulls a little bit because they stole my dog' doesn't really sound very fair."
Now Junior smiled broadly. "By not doing anything to 'em" he went on, "it may hurt 'em even more. There's a lot you learn in racing about playing on the other guy's mind. Hell, you know that poor bastard's got to be sleeping with his lights on at night."
The new mellow Junior Johnson shook his head. "That's the kind of revenge," he said, "I couldn't get with an old-fashioned tire iron."