Jenine told me the other day, while we sat on the deck watching a hummingbird at the feeder, that when she was a young girl growing up in Walla Walla, Warshington (that’s how people from there say it), her babysitter dated Kurt Russell, a handsome lad who went on to become a Mouseketeer, a major Hollywood star, and the long time paramour of Goldie Hawn.
After I gently accused her of name dropping, my competitive spirit raised its ugly head and I dropped a name of my own. I told her the story, true in every particular, of how I met an American icon whose star has always burned bright in the hearts of countless millions across the continent. A man who will be remembered long after Kurt Russell is forgotten. Indeed, a man whose legend has already survived intact for many decades since his passing.
In the early 1970’s I was hurrying through the lobby of a new hotel in Grande Prairie, Alberta, late for a service club luncheon in one of its meeting rooms. A diminutive man dressed in white occupied a comfortable chair by a large window. As I turned to look and then to realize who he was, I did a physical double-take worthy of Curly of the Three Stooges. This caused the little man to chuckle. He waved me over, rose from his chair and extended his hand. I shook it. I shook the hand of Colonel Harlan Saunders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.
“Yes,” he said in a soft southern drawl. “It’s really me,” and he waved me into another chair beside him where we chatted for an all too brief moment before a young man in sunglasses appeared and hustled him outside into a waiting car.
The Colonel, as the world knows him, was a true gentleman of the first water. I remember him, his immaculate dress, his snow-white garb, goatee and hair interrupted only by black framed glasses, a neatly tied black string tie and black shoes polished to a mirror shine. I remember that he spoke softly and with a smile and that he avoided too much eye contact as if he was shy or feared giving offense. I knew that he had sold his business to a Kentucky politician. He told me he was under a personal services contract to appear at grand openings of new KFC franchises across North America (including the one then recently opened in Grande Prairie) and he confided that in his opinion the gravy wasn’t as good as it used to be.
KFC, the thinned-down name of what used to be, much more accurately, Kentucky Fried Chicken, remains one of my guilty pleasures. I indulge myself every other month or so and when I do I always think fondly of the man whose image graced the side of the bucket.
Colonel Harlan Saunders is the biggest celebrity I’ve ever met – but perhaps I’ve lived a sheltered life.
Then she told me she has also met Robert Conrad (The Wild Wild West) and that Adam West (TV’s Batman) was from Walla Walla and she was snarky about it. I pointed out to her that these lesser luminaries were not in the same league as the Colonel. Not even close.