Longform

Fallout in the Family

Page 5 of 10

Charlie and M.L. both knew how to laugh, too, but Charlie's ornery side flared up often. He may have been trusting, but he was also very opinionated. And cocky as hell.

In November 1958 he was invited back to the Texas College of Mines to receive the Outstanding Student Award at the homecoming banquet. The school was now called Texas Western College, and Charlie just couldn't accept that.

"I know the proper way in which to accept this award," he told the sizable crowd. "I am expected to say 'thank you' and sit down. However, inasmuch as I did not seek this award, and as Dean Thomas reminded me last night that I was the only son of a bitch he knew who had made a career at being one and was a success as a result, you need not expect the proper response."

Charlie then laced into the El Paso Chamber of Commerce and the university administration for changing the character of the school from a mining college into a more general liberal-arts institution. He derided some of the courses in the college catalogue, like baton twirling and public relations, and sarcastically suggested a few more, including "Beer Guzzling, a course in how to chug-a-lug beer out of a gallon pitcher without getting a permanent crease on the bridge of your nose."

Saying he rejected "the badge of the neither-fish-nor-fowl institution that now exists in El Paso," Charlie added, "this son of a bitch previously mentioned at 39 years of age is a living legend of the uranium boom that he helped create, a boom that raised the U.S.A. from a 'have not' nation to a number-one position in uranium reserves of the world. Whether he dies a multi-millionaire or a broken-down, ragged-ass, prospecting tramp, his place in the mining history of our country is secure. History, if true, will show he graduated from the Texas College of Mines."

The audience was stunned. Later, the dean who'd invited Charlie dashed off a letter to the faculty and students, saying that homecoming was a time of trying to promote peace and understanding in the world. The dean concluded: "I am sorry that I did not have the insight to get up at the time and refute the irresponsible abuse and blasphemy."

Charlie's response: "Was it lack of insight or lack of guts?"
He gave a spirited defense of his actions: "As for 'living with our fellow men in a peaceful, understanding world,' what sandpile have you buried your head in since you got out of college? We are living in a world in which two systems are locked in mortal conflict to determine which kind of a world our kids are going to inherit, a race which we shall have to work hard not to lose since our institutions have been turning out a majority of knuckleheads instead of men and women who are trained to think and weigh the issues of our society."

The El Paso fracas occurred only days before the legislative elections in Utah, where Charlie was a candidate for state Senate. He'd figured that as long as he was paying 85 percent of the property tax in Grand County, he might as well get into politics.

He won--and Salt Lake City was never the same.

Warned not to piss off the state's Mormon majority, Charlie went ahead and introduced a liquor-by-the-drink bill. It was defeated. He introduced a horse-racing bill. It was defeated. He tried to lower the legal age for purchase of cigarettes from 21 to 18. He failed.

"I then thought of introducing a head tax on virtue," he said at the time. His reasoning was that "quite a lot of money could be collected from those who couldn't furnish a signed affidavit that they neither smoked or drank."

Charlie had reason to be cynical: He could have made a fortune that way from his own colleagues in the Senate. During the legislative session, Charlie and M.L. lived in a big hotel suite, and it was crawling with drunken Mormons.

"We had lots of booze in our suite, and all the senators knew that," M.L. recalled. "I knew when it was two minutes after five every day because here would come this herd of Mormon non-drinkers dashin' in to get drunk. I got to the place where I hated every damn one of them. You'd get up in the morning, you know, and there might be five or six senators on the chair or off the chair or on a couch or on the floor. I couldn't even go get coffee in the morning without getting dressed, because I knew that they would be there. They knew they could get free booze there and not be seen by somebody from the church."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Ward Harkavy
Contact: Ward Harkavy