Bruce Probably Knew All Along

John Bell basks in the curving glow of a labyrinth that would soon be lined with food.

We were either high up on the scaffold, or moving it around the hardwood floor like it was a medieval battle engine, hanging stage lights from the ceiling of a 1930s-era gymnasium that looked as if it could have been the setting for the movie Hoosiers. This was how we used to set up John Bell’s food labyrinth during the holidays, part of Widespread Panic’s ongoing efforts to feed the hungry. JB was there. So was Tommy, Tosh, can’t remember who else, but I’m forgetting someone. What I remember most about that day was Col. Bruce Hampton.

No one saw him enter the gym. His voice came from the darkened bleachers, his face floating in the blackness, lit by the cell phone. This was the first trivia question I’d ever heard from Bruce. There would be many, many more. But the first one, surprisingly, wasn’t about baseball. It was this: “Name the top five pro football players of all time. ESPN ranked them.” So we started throwing down names. In order, the correct answer was: Jimmy Brown, Jerry Rice, Joe Montana, Walter Payton, Lawrence Taylor. I missed Rice.

Later on we went to lunch (there would be many more of these, too). It was a cheap Mexican restaurant in Helen, a fake Alpine German town, and the incongruency of it delighted the Colonel. The only other trivia question I remember from that day was this one: Who is the last switch hitter to win the MVP Award in the American League. No one at the table could get it. This was one of Bruce’s favorite questions. The answer, of course, is Vida Blue. A pitcher. A trick question. But that was Bruce, full of tricks.

Some time later, when I’d worked up the courage, I asked him if it was OK to write a book about him. I was nervous, walking compulsive circle-eights in my driveway, where the cell phone service is better, fumbling over my words as Bruce listened on the other end. Finally he said, “I was wondering when you were going to ask,” as if he knew all along. And I’m still not entirely convinced that he didn’t.

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