Saturday, May 27, 2006
The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.

Memoirs of a Kentucky Country Lawyer

  by Wade Hall

Special to The Courier-Journal

Just who is Natty Bumppo? The first one was created by James Fenimore Cooper as the hero of his Leatherstocking novels set in the frontier backwoods of New York. The latter-day incarnation is the creation of a Hoosier journalist named John Dean, who, in 1974, for political reasons, changed his name to Nathaniel John Balthazar Bumppo or Natty Bumppo for short, and later set up office as an attorney in Brownsville, the seat of Edmonson County in south central Kentucky near Mammoth Cave.

The contemporary Natty Bumppo became a defense lawyer, a champion of the poor and powerless, a one-time county attorney, (he won the office when he was the only candidate on the ballot), and author of seven previous books, including A Rug Before My Time: Memoirs of Pecker the Cat. The current memoirs constitute a self-portrait of an aggressive civil libertarian who plants tomatoes and marijuana in his garden, and whose politics make him sound at different times like a Democrat, a Republican, a Socialist, a Socratic gad-fly, or worse.

Although his work sometimes takes him out to places like Rabbit Hash and Bowling Green, the focal point of most of his court dramas is the courtroom of the county's 130-year-old courthouse, which he describes in this short case summary: "I wore a helmet to Court . . . in defense of a motorcyclist charged with riding without one. I pointed to the rain-stained tiles overhead and suggested to the judge that not only might the ceiling be falling, but so might the sky, and that therefore the government should make all of us wear helmets, all of the time, regardless of whether we were on motorcycles or not. The judge dismissed the citation."

These "war stories," mostly from the 1980s, are filled with local color, violence, humor, irony and the delight that comes when the little guy -- or gal -- gets justice tempered with human kindness. Lawyer Bumppo is especially hell-bent to get justice for his "pet clients," the ones he likes so much he would represent them pro bono -- like, for instance, the woman who was fired from her job at a nearby radio station "for having appeared in Playboy magazine wearing nothing but a yellow towel and yellow socks." The files of this self-labeled "redneck country lawyer" are filled with such colorful men's names as Cloudis, Emo and Ordell and women with names like Elasta, Hopoma, Moena and Vhonda. Their behavior is often as antic as their names.

The dramas and melodramas of passion and obsession that play out daily in Bumppo's circuit would rival a year's worth of soap opera plots and provide enough litigation to keep "Court TV" on the air indefinitely. One wonders how one small Kentucky county could hold so many misbehaving and sordid lives.

In addition, these War Stories are like a grab bag of amazing contents, from a parody of "The Night Before Christmas" to a five-day New Year's Day party. Above all, it is a parade of people caught in the act of being human and a lawyer who understands and defends them when their faults and frailties get them into trouble with the law. In fact, we need more Natty Bumppos in public life. Should this one ever decide to run for governor of Kentucky, I'd likely vote for him.

[Wade Hall is professor emeritus of English at Bellarmine University and editor of "The Kentucky Anthology: Two Hundred Years of Writing in the Bluegrass State."]