Saturday, December 1, 2012

Warren Burnett, A Texas Original

Thirty years ago, I was working quietly one Friday afternoon on a new Unix computer network in my store in Galveston.  It was such a beautiful day that the entire town had found something to do other than work--on an island in the summer, weekends start early.  We hadn't had a customer in the store for over an hour, so it was a great time to spend a little time learning something new.  The Fortune 32:16 System was state-of-the-art, and my two technicians and I needed a little peace and quiet to learn the peculiarities of a new system.

So, I was a little peeved when the old man showed up on a bicycle.  An island collects characters (hell, I was there) and this had all the signs of a drunk, a crackpot, or another schizophrenic homeless person.  The store had already semi-adopted one of the latter: Elijah.  Elijah lived on the street and ate out of the dumpsters he found on a regular route around the island’s business district.  He was harmless, but would not let anyone get within 20 feet of him.  At the same time, he had once been a respected CPA before he had some kind of mental break.  Elijah was capable of walking up to your car window while you were stopped at a traffic light and saying something like, “If you re-file your last quarterly return with the state, you should get a nice reduction on this quarter’s remittance.”  Then he would run off to look for chicken in the Colonel’s dumpster.

Obviously, Elijah had spent a little time in my dumpster reading my mail.  I liked Elijah, so we left cans of tuna fish and bottles of Coca Cola on the loading dock for him.  But, while I could tolerate Elijah, I had no intention of the store becoming the clubhouse for all the lost boys on the island—my business was to sell computers, not play Peter Pan.  So, I wasn't happy to see this new character ride up.

He was a short old man in khakis with a dirty t-shirt and a long-billed fisherman’s cap, and was riding a heavy 1950’s Schwinn bicycle with an enormous ice chest tied to the front basket.  He needed a shave and it was more than obvious that he had drunk his breakfast.  He parked the bike, came about 5 feet into the store, and then loudly counted the number of people in the store.

“One, two, three.  Yes, three.” he said.  Then he went back outside to the bike’s ice chest, removed 4 bottles of beer, and brought them into the store and gave each of us a bottle.  I was beginning to like the man a little better.  There are only two types of beer:  those I buy and OP (Other People’s).  I prefer OP.

He was friendly, and despite being a little drunk, he asked the same questions that most of my customers asked.  Which computer was the best, could it do word processing, which printer was the best, etc.  I humored him and showed him the kind of computer that I owned personally.  And when he asked how much it cost, I gave him a ball park figure of $4000.  He nodded his head and left, pedaling his ancient bicycle down the sidewalk.  The three of us went back to work on the Fortune computer.

The next afternoon, a very large car pulled up outside the store.  It was a Checker Cab that had been repainted an electric blue and converted for personal use.  While it was being driven by a young woman about 30, we were a lot more interested in the well-dressed man in the back seat: he was the drunk from the day before.  And when the man came into the store, he gave me a check for $4000 and asked when I could deliver his computer.

The man was Warren Burnett, the legendary West Texas defense lawyer--someone soon to be a good friend and one of my best customers.  I think I eventually sold him over a dozen computers--quite a few of which he had us deliver to people as gifts.

Warren was famous for his cars, his planes, his celebrated trials, and for the staggering amount of good whiskey he could consume.  When Warren was working, he didn't drink—but when he wasn't working he could put away an amazing amount of alcohol.  His main office in Odessa was a giant dome.  When Warren hired my company to install computers in his office (including one on his desk) I was amused to find that he had converted the knee well under his desk into a private wet bar.

I remember one of Warren’s pet peeves was that while drinking, he would watch late night television and fall victim to those middle of the night infomercials.  The next day, he wouldn't remember much of the night before, but in about two weeks the UPS truck would show up and deliver a dozen Ronco Pocket Fishermen or a case of Ginzu knives.  I visited his office one day and he had a pile of Buttoneers on his desk.  Warren always was generous to a fault: even while drunk he always bought enough toys to share with his friends.  He always claimed he was going to sue these companies for preying on late night drunks, but I guess he never found the right precedent.

In his early days, Warren had been a prosecuting attorney--one of the very last in Texas who got a jury to give the death penalty for the crime of rape.  Then Warren became a defense attorney handling high profile murder and drug cases.  His quick wit and sharp tongue could filet a district attorney and he was famous for winning the cases that could not be won.

Lesser known were the cases that Warren Burnett defended for free.  He also represented Mexican-Americans fighting for school integration in the Rio Grande Valley, the United Farm Workers Union in West Texas, and various liberal causes in Austin, the state capital

The tenth anniversary of his death was just a few weeks ago.  Warren Burnett died the way he had lived: he was sitting with friends, rocking on a Texas porch with a bottle of beer in his hand, when he had a heart attack.  I bet he finished the beer before he died.

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