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The Emperor Strikes Back

by Allen Thomas
In my first job as a news reporter right out of school, my boss gave me a few pointers of what he liked to see---maybe start with a human interest angle and do sort of a profile or something. Then I remembered this young boy I'd read about when I was a kid, who had gotten pretty famous.

I got to wondering whether he'd gone on to more fame and fortune. He'd be all grown up now, getting along in years. I wondered if he'd had any more fame, so I decided to look him up.

You remember him of course, the boy who stood with his folks watching the parade as the Emperor went by and noticed the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes---just marching along totally naked. According to the story the boy called out, everyone heard him and was shocked. The story was in all the papers of course; even got into books under the title The Emperor's New Clothes by a Mr. H. C. Anderson.

It took a while to find him; he had pretty much dropped out of sight. I'd pick up the trail and then lose it, but it took me into some interesting neighborhoods. Once I tracked him down and convinced him I was not a process server, he readily agreed to an interview. We met at a cafe not far from where he lives and took a booth toward the back so we wouldn't be bothered.

A lean, weatherbeaten-looking man with the cigarette habit, he was wearing a ratty soiled straw cowboy hat and cowboy boots that had seen better days. He had a belt buckle the size of a Yugo hubcap on which, in bas relief was an 18-wheeled ship of the highway appearing to leap out into the world, over the word Kenworth.

"I've moved around a lot," he said, with a pronounced drawl, "doing one kind of job or other. Right now I'm out of work, but lately I mostly been doing long-distance truck driving, hauling sugar beets, lettuce, whatever."

"So, you live near here?" I asked.

"I been living in a trailer the other side of the airport, me and this woman Lurleen I took up with a few years ago. What they call 'a relationship' nowadays--used to be called shacking up." He chuckled and grinned proudly. I thought, there it was--that same simple honesty. What a guy!

"She's a professional waitress."

"Well, let's go back to the beginning and start from there," I said. "Tell me about the parade. Was all that stuff true?"

"Oh yeah, it was true all right. I used to like to go to parades, and I'd stand right down in front. So when the Emp went by, there was lotsa noise, trumpets, drums and stuff, but I was so surprised, him marching along in his birthday suit, I just blurted it right out.

"I didn't think anybody heard me, but this fat lady next to me repeated what I said, LOUD, and my folks had sort of heard me the first time. Well, as you know, it created quite a stir, people telling the ones next to them what I said and all.

"Well, it sure got you some publicity, didn't it?" I asked.

"Yeah it did, but you know what? With all that publicity, part of it got left out."

"What part was that?" Now I knew I was on to something.

"Well, you know, the way the story got told, it was supposed to be about saying it like it is. The part that got left out was, my folks took me home and tanned my little hide something fierce. And on top of that, they said 'no more parades'."

Bingo! I realized I had my story. Here we'd been teaching our children the moral lesson of how they see things more clearly and honestly than adults. But now a whole new chapter in the famous story was shaping up.

"They were embarrassed because you made people lose respect for the Emperor?" I asked.

"Oh, yeah," he replied. "When I spoke out at the parade, at first people were kind of amazed that someone could come right out and tell it like it is, but then once it got out, they thought it was pretty funny. Everyone started to laugh. That's when the Emperor got upset, and my folks were scared.

"When I got older and started looking for work, nobody would hire me when they found out who I was."

This came as a surprise. "You mean people didn't want you around because you were so outspoken and honest?" I asked.

"Well yes, I guess they don't like anyone that speaks out too much.

"It made me a little gun shy about people and their birthday suits, I can tell you right now. It left its mark all right. The first time I can remember, I had started long distance hauling and I had to spend the night outside the city. Had some time to kill, so I went to one of those strip clubs.

I like to go to those clubs when I'm traveling. You know how the girl comes out on the stage, those slow, sliding steps and the band always plays, A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody? I love that song."

With that he got to his feet, cigarette in one hand, beer in the other, and began in his gravelly voice, "A pri-i-d-dy gir-r-rl is like a mel-lo-dy, ba-ba BUMP, ba-ba-BUMP." at each BUMP he'd perform a crude pelvic thrust, while he sashayed forward sliding step by step.

His face had livened up, his eyes bright with the recollection. He said, "Right away I started wonderin' did those other people in there notice what I did--the woman up there DIDN'T HAVE ANY CLOTHES ON! NONE."

He then sat back down and said, "I looked around, all those fellas gazing up at that girl like they were hypnotized, their faces all happy-looking, and I thought, do they realize she's naked? Or do they think they're looking at some fancy evening gown? I turned to the guy next to me and started to say something. Then I remembered that time with the Emperor and I thought maybe I better just keep quiet. Maybe they just enjoyed her dancing, I don't know."

"....that haunts you night and da-a-ay....," he continued to sing for a moment and then began to hum, "A Pretty Girl,..." He took on a dreamy look. Tapping softly on the table top with the salt shaker, ba-ba bump, ba-ba bump, you could tell he was lost in thought. As I got up I thanked him, but I don't think he heard me; he was off in another world.

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Copyright © 1999 by Allen Thomas. All rights reserved.