The One and Only

A fiddler gets a leg up on the competition

"Why not?" he says. "I had the attitude."
High school ended, though, without scholarship or firm prospects. Richard wanted to have experiences and see the world. He saw the Vietnam War as a chance to get into shape. More than his football fantasy, it's interesting to imagine what might have become of the contortionist fiddler had the Marines not rejected him for a blown eardrum. (One wonders, too, how many contortionist fiddlers the Marines have saved us from.)

Instead of the discipline and suffering of a soldier's life, Richard entered a long wandering period, at the end of which he truly found himself. He sold Bibles, threw the chain on an oil rig, worked in a garage. He was "tasting flavors," he says, and none of them tasted good. They all tasted like work.

When he went to visit an uncle near San Francisco, Richard finally caught a groove. "We're talking the other side of the world," he says, and Mama said she really worried about her son, the "hippie situation" being what it was. Richard made friends. He grew his hair. He never found anything to protest, but he did enjoy the party. He sold his car and took his toothbrush and fiddle on the road. He and his fiddle became closer than they ever had been. Richard fiddled for the rides he was given, and for the food and shelter. He traveled the country like this, until as though on a rubber band, he came back to Texas, because it was home.

He was a busker, essentially, and when he got the job at the Flying B Country Carousel in Odessa, he had to cut his hair and learn how to play lead and fill and melody, and songs like "Faded Love." Most important, he learned how to be a showman. There was another fiddler in the band who played backward and on the floor and with the bow in his mouth, "and boy, that inspired me!" he says. Richard spent long hours practicing the same tricks.

He was very happy at the Flying B and thought he was rich until a slick Kirby salesman knocked on his door. Richard was sucked in: He both bought the vacuum cleaner and became a salesman of them. "Greed!" he explains. He put down his fiddle, and for four years he tried to work for money alone. The pursuit deadened him, and the woman he had married fell away from him, and one day he called the bank and told them to come get his Buick LeSabre because he didn't want to pay for it anymore.

He put his fiddle over one shoulder and his boots on a string over the other, and he stood by the road. Richard went to Corpus Christi to sit in the waves. Richard went to Big Sur and played the blues. Again, he came back to Texas, where he resumed the life he had had before the Kirby man distracted him. The name of the club in Houston was Fool's Gold. As he began making people happy again, he came alive again. A girl named Anola flirted with him, and she became his lifelong mate. He started smoking cigars. The notion occurred to Richard Baird that he might become a big-time star, if he just had a little something extra.

It was found in the apartment he shared with the guitarist, the secrets of peace and prosperity as revealed in B.K.S. Iyengar's book, Light On Yoga. Richard gazed at the pictures in rapture, reasoning that if the people liked his fiddling tricks now, "Boy, they'd really love it if I could do it with the splits. And I just had this vision of myself doing this, and I'd be the only one in the world who could."

According to the fiddler, yoga was invented a long time ago when "these guys wanted to learn how to meditate." They figured the lotus position was optimal. The lotus being what it is, they began stretching themselves to make the position more comfortable.

It is said now, and not just by the fiddler, that words cannot explain yoga, that you must experience it, that it may take a lifetime to understand it, grasshopper, and that even then you might not get it. But that is the eastern approach, and "this is America," says Richard, "and that means I have endless opportunities to dream up something and go for it." So he went for it. In pursuit of publicity, Richard began doing exercises for inner peace. The result was painful.

"He'd turn real blue while he was learning to be limber," his mother recalls. "Being a nurse, I was real worried about that."

He did it by the book, without a guru, not knowing at first even how to breathe. He learned to breathe again in circles. At night, he fiddled in the clubs, and during the day, while Anola was working, he stayed home with four children, improving his act. He sat on the floor for hours, tugging his leg toward his neck. When the children came to tattle on one another, as likely as not they would find Daddy standing on his head. Attempting the splits, Richard would shout, "Is this closer, Anola? Am I getting closer?"

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