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THE MAD HATTER IN PHOTOLAND
Edwin Shrake
September 21, 1964
Shouting 'a-huckin' and a-buckin" and dressed as if he had shopped at a rummage sale, zany Sports Photographer Jim Laughead makes people leap and grimace for his camera. But his most colorful subject is himself
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September 21, 1964

The Mad Hatter In Photoland

Shouting 'a-huckin' and a-buckin" and dressed as if he had shopped at a rummage sale, zany Sports Photographer Jim Laughead makes people leap and grimace for his camera. But his most colorful subject is himself

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Laughead put on his Snuffy Smith hat and took a gas can out of the rear of the station wagon. Wearing his red vest, he opened the screen door of the beer joint and walked in and set the gas can on the bar. The drinkers and pool players froze as they stared at the red vest and the hat and the man who had the audacity to wear them. Laughead turned on his big Texas smile.

"Friend," he said to the bartender, "me and my partner have run into a desperate—"

"Take that can off the bar and get the hell out of here," the bartender said, and Laughead hastily retreated. "It doesn't always work," said Laughead.

Neither did a quart of gas that Laughead borrowed from the motor that operates his photographic lights. The gas sent the station wagon over the hill to a gas station, but the station was closed tight. At 1 a.m. Laughead was standing on the highway with his gas can, thumbing a ride into Leeds, Ala.

The next afternoon, as the Alabama players came onto the field, Laughead buttoned his embroidered vest (the vest is reversible; names of the professional teams Laughead shoots in July are embroidered on the other side) and pulled down the brim of his crumpled hat that prompts some people to call him "The Mad Hatter."

"I paid $1.95 for this hat when I moved to Texas from Ohio as a wire-service photographer in 1936," he said. "I was making a lousy $42.50 a week then. But it wasn't so bad for a kid who had grown up in Detroit cleaning Ty Cobb's dog kennels for free tickets to Tiger games and who made a D in photography at Ohio State. Somebody told me I had to have a hat like this if I was going to live in Texas. Now I'm afraid to have it cleaned and blocked or it will fall apart. Once I left it in a restaurant in North Carolina and drove back 65 miles to get it. I never wear a hat in normal human life, but the players expect me to wear it when I take their pictures. I tried to give it up one year. When I got to Ole Miss the players went on strike until I got it again. You should have heard them give that Rebel Yell when I got the hat out of the car."

Laughead looked at the Alabama players who were posing for Bradley's still pictures and were eying Laughead as if wondering what anguish he would put them through this time. "The juniors and seniors are my best friends," Laughead said. "For weeks before I get here they tell the younger guys about me, about how crazy I am and how I knock them around, and get them so mad and so scared that they really put out for the pictures. Most of them, anyway. Some of these donkeys just can't do it. I take a few shots so as not to hurt their feelings, but I know I ain't making any money out of anybody except the first three teams, and not all of them." Laughead sells his pictures to the schools and the pros by the print and receives neither guarantee nor expenses.

"Huckin' and buckin'!" a player yelled at Laughead, who laughed.

"They all know that," said Laughead. "A few years ago we were shooting at a southern college, and I couldn't get the guy to do what I wanted. One of his pals told him all I wanted him to do was the old Huckle-Buck. I'd never heard of that dance, but the kid caught on right away. I told the rest of them I wanted them huckin and buckin', because I thought that's what the guy had said. Didn't find out until just awhile ago that what he had said was Huckle-Buck, and it's too late now to change it."

Laughead introduced himself to the first Alabama player, who had a scab on his nose. "Who's been walking on your face, son?" asked Laughead. "A little bit of everybody," the player said. Laughead asked if the player were a running back, and the player said he guessed he was. "Well, we'll try to make you look like one, son, no matter what Coach Bryant thinks you are," said Laughead, grabbing a football and starting his insane dance, weaving and hopping, with his red vest flapping and his hat falling off. "A-huckin' and a-buckin', son, a-huckin' and a-buckin'!"

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