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June 15, 2014

However dubious, Cooter is a famous American

DUNCAN — His name is indelibly etched in the American experience. For generations, his reputation has crossed political, social, ethnic and regional lines.

You can find references to him that go back to the days when the “West” still referred to an America that was east of the Mississippi River. Although Cooter’s history is somewhat hazy (hazy being a key word to describe his impact) it is part of the fabric of our glorious — and dubious — past and present.

Still, who was Cooter Brown? How did he become one of the most famous figures in American history, legend and lore?

There may be a few of you who aren’t aware of the famed Mr. Brown, but I suspect some of you learned about Cooter in the same way I did.

I was six, maybe seven, living in the corn and soybean fields of east-central Illinois that are my stompin’ grounds. I was walking with my father down the midway at the county fair, when a fellow came toward us with a big grin on his face and a pronounced weave in his walk.

He staggered up to Dad and he threw his arms around my father’s shoulders, proclaiming in a loud, somewhat sloshy voice, “Howdy, Vaughn! Where you been keepin’ yourself?”

The two talked for a couple minutes, although Dad’s role seemed to mainly be to listen, and when we move along Dad looked over, shook his head and said, “Ol’ Tom is as drunk as Cooter Brown.”

This caused me to burst into laughter. After all, I was a kid, and the combination of an adult actually being drunk in my presence and the name Cooter Brown was hysterical.

From that day forward, the phrase “drunker than Cooter Brown” became part of my lexicon. I’ve used the phrase many times since — and there’s a, uh, rumor I’ve done impressions of Cooter Brown a time or two. But it wasn’t until recently that curiosity finally caused me to go on a search for the origin of Mr. Brown.

As we do here in the Techno Age, that meant heading to the Internet, where I launched a cyberspace search for the famous but elusive Cooter. I discovered that out in Webland there are tens of thousands of references to Cooter Brown; phrases like “Drunk as Cooter Brown” or “Drunker than Cooter Brown” or “Are you getting Cootered tonight?”

However, there’s no unanimity about the origin of Cooter or his condition.

Some researchers say references to Cooter first circulated among white farmers and laborers in the deep South as early as the 1820s. Some say Cooter stumbled into the lexicon of African-Americans living in the Carolinas before the Civil War, and others say he splashed into popularity during that great American conflict.

The story I like best is this one: When the Civil War broke out, Cooter Brown lived on the Mason-Dixon line, which made him eligible to be drafted into the military by the South and the North.

Cooter had family on both sides of the line, and he didn’t want to fight. So, Cooter Brown chose to get drunk and stay drunk for the duration of the war, which turned out to be an effective way to avoid the draft.

True? Nobody seems sure, but it’s one of the most original excuses I’ve heard for getting likkered up and for draft dodging.

Whatever his origin, there’s no doubt Cooter Brown’s had a lasting impact on American history. He’s been an omnipresent figure in our society, no matter how dubious.

Although prohibitionists and teetotalers may blush and condemn him, Cooter Brown has become the colloquial and proverbial standard of drunkenness, and being “Cootered” has become a benchmark of inebriation.

In fact, I’ve sometimes wondered: What do you have to “blow” to be as “drunk as Cooter Brown”? Is there a demarcation on a breathalyzer that’s called “Cooter”?

Now, don’t think I wrote this piece to promote booze or intoxication. As always, I’m just serving the role of social observer and amateur historian.

That said, please remember: Don’t drink alcohol to excess, and above all, never drive if you’re “Cootered.”

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