Tongue-tied with T. Boone

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By Ned Cantwell

There is this theory I have, that it is all in the name. Good looks and brains and a winning personality are just real handy, but a killer name opens the door of success.

The first time I heard the name “T. Boone” I liked the guy. Way I figured it, Mr. and Mrs. Pickens did a fine job. I mean, you take a boy named, say, “Ned,” to first grade and they just automatically put him with the slow kids. You introduce the lad as “T. Boone” and the teacher says, “Oh, welcome young man, you get to clean the erasers and share a cupcake with me at lunch.”

T. Boone was a national name in the ’80s when TIME made the billionaire Texas oilman and corporate takeover artist its cover boy. Starting this fall, he will spend more time in your living room than Oprah. T. Boone is convinced the nation must break its oil habit and will say so in a heavy schedule of TV spots explaining his alternative energy plan.

The nation needs to listen to T. Boone Pickens. Think about it. Here is a guy who got rich and famous by saying what he was going to do and then going out and doing it. Politicians, on the other hand, get rich and famous by saying what they are going to do.

I am grateful T. Boone is back in the national spotlight because he and I have a history. Shortly after the Pickens TIME cover, there ensued an elaborate scam designed to make me think T. Boone was trying to call me at the newspaper. It worked. I bit. The punch line was a telegram from late brother Ken saying, “You’re easy pickens.” Eerily resembling my friend Barney from New Jersey, Ken dedicated his life to aggravating me.

A May 1985 column described the hoax. Two months later, this message appeared on my desk, with an Amarillo return number, supposedly that of T. Boone Pickens: “Read May column. This is no hoax.”

I called, of course, and soon was talking to the TIME cover himself. “Hi, T. Boone. What’s happening?” I said. Oh. My. Heavens. I have on the line one of the most important men in the world and the best I can come up with is, “Hi, T. Boone. What’s happening?” I had no idea how to talk to the man.

This was not a first encounter with being tongue-tied in the company of celebrity. Not long before I had been on a Southwest flight to San Diego when I saw a young lady three seats ahead stand up, leap to her armrest in a single bound, and fish something from the overhead compartment.

So there you are, a journalist sitting three seats behind Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton. You’re wondering, OK, what would Mike Wallace do? I considered a range of likely interview subjects from Olympic Village life to the personal sacrifices of an elite athlete. Gathering courage, I approached Mary Lou with my most confident swagger. “Miss Retton, may I have your autograph?” I asked.

Back on the phone with T. Boone, the stellar entrepreneur graciously tries to rescue the moment by saying he noted I had started my column with a quote by Ted Turner.

“I was just on the phone with Ted within the hour,” he said.

“Wow, that’s cool,” I replied inanely, and the call dwindled to its end.

Note to Mr. Pickens: if you will call back, I thought of a question.

Syndicated columnist Ned Cantwell welcomes response at ncantwell@beyondbb.com.