Summer 1959, Rome: When I was growing up in Henrietta, Texas, John Bragg was the pharmacist at Henrietta Drugstore, and he was a running-buddy of my stepfather, Dr. Strickland. (For those unfamiliar with this term, it means a friend with whom you frequently hang out.) My mother was married to Dr. Strickland, and her brother was our town’s other doctor, Dr. Hurn. And before she’d married Dr. Strickland, she’d been a nurse, working in the office of her brother, Dr. Hurn.
Got all that?
OK, good, because it has very little to do with this story, which is about Charlie Bullard, who was from Snyder, Texas.
Here’s how it happened …
Because of all those doctors and my mother the nurse, for some reason I was in the habit as a child to walk down the alley behind the stores, and to go into the drugstore from the back door, where I would say hello to John Bragg the pharmacist. Moving toward the front of the store, sometimes I’d sometimes have a cherry coke at the soda counter. And at the very front of the store, each month I would read their copy of Mad magazine.
Occasionally the owner, a Mr. Harrell, would run me off, but generally I was let be, and I liked being there, for some reason. Perhaps it was the comfortable smell of rubbing alcohol, medicines, ice cream, and magazines.
So one summer when I was a teenager, I was going off to a drumming camp in Arlington, Texas, and I mentioned this to John Bragg. As it turned out, he volunteered himself to help my stepfather (Dr. Strickland) to drive me down to Arlington. At that time I had a girlfriend, a plump cousin of a girl in my school, whom I’d met and with whom I’d conducted a torrid love affair through letters, which netted me some exciting times out behind the cousin’s house some nights when she was in town visiting. But that’s a different story.
This girlfriend lived in Arlington, where I was going to the camp for snare drummers, and so all the way down there, John Bragg and my stepfather kept up a running commentary about how they might as well show up for lunch at the girlfriend’s house. How they would introduce themselves to the girlfriend’s family, and this would be good, because they were really hungry. I didn’t believe them, but it kept me on the edge of the back seat there in the car.
We didn’t visit the girlfriend, and I went to the camp and then came home a week later, but the point is this: On the drive, John Bragg told us about his uncle Sid who lived in Snyder, Texas, and about this fellow Charlie Bullard.
It seems that at a weekly card game in Snyder, Charlie Bullard was carrying on about how much he’d traveled around and how he knew just about everybody worth knowing. “Yep,” he said, puffing on a cigar stub, “I know pretty near everybody.”
Uncle Sid was dubious. Sure, Charlie was widely known all around Snyder, Texas, but that’s a pretty small place. Uncle Sid asked him if he knew the Texas State governor, who was Price Daniel at the time. Charlie nodded.
“Sure, I know him!” Charlie said, “I knew him when he was at Baylor University!” Uncle Sid thought about it, and that seemed reasonable.
“I bet you don’t know Lynden B. Johnson,” said Uncle Sid. Johnson was then Speaker of the House, and was being bruited about as a presidential hopeful in the next election, which nomination he lost to Kennedy, but was afterward chosen to run as Kennedy’s Vice President.
“Of course, I know him!” roared Charlie. “Met him in General McArthur’s tent in Australia, back in the war.” Uncle Sid was getting annoyed.
“Bet you don’t know the Pope!” said Uncle Sid.
“How much you want to bet?” said Charlie.
To make a long story shorter, the next week found the two of them climbing aboard an airplane, and two days later they were in Rome, where they found the Basilica di San Pietro in Vaticano, where it seemed the Pope was to address the crowd around two o’clock that afternoon. Charlie Bullard turned to Uncle Sid.
“Now I can’t take you in there with me,” he said, “They’ve got a lot of guards and they might shoot you. I can get in, of course.” Uncle Sid grimaced.
“Of course you can,” said Uncle Sid, “And of course we can’t have the guards shooting me. So what do you propose?” Charlie pondered that for a while. Finally he pointed to a little balcony on the side of the grand building.
“That’s where the Pope comes out to talk to everybody,” he said. “How would it be if I just come out on that balcony with him and wave? Would that convince you I know the Pope?”
Uncle Sid reckoned that this would suffice. And without further ado, Charlie Bullard went walking off, and went up to a little door at the corner of the building where a guard stood. After speaking with the guard with a fair amount of gestures back and forth, Charlie was admitted through the little door.
And Uncle Sid waited in the square. And waited, and waited, and waited. As the noon hour came and went, he grew hungry but he waited. The square slowly filled with people until it was completely crowded by two o’clock. There was a bell from somewhere, and the crowd grew silent.
Out onto the little balcony came several priests in very fancy robes, and one guy in a white robe, and by golly there was Charlie Bullard, who came out, waved in Uncle Sid’s general direction, and then stood quietly near the fellow in the white robe.
And Uncle Sid had a problem.
Because Uncle Sid didn’t know what the Pope looked like.
Was that the Pope up there in the white robe? Or was this some terrific scam put on by Charlie Bullard? Uncle Sid was determined not to be tricked, and so he began asking everyone around him if that was the Pope up there. But nobody spoke English. Uncle Sid began asking, “Anybody speak English? Anybody speak English?” One Italian fellow raised his hand.
“I spikka little English,” he said. Uncle Sid grabbed the man’s sleeve, and pointed up at the balcony.
“Who is that up there?” he demanded. The Italian fellow looked up at the balcony and back at Uncle Sid.
“I’m not sure about da short guy in da white robe,” he said. “But that other fellow is Charlie Bullard, from Snyder, Texas.”