The Perfect Game

"In a story in the March 18 editions of The Herald, Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo's fainting in 1981 was improperly described as a nervous breakdown. It was in fact a physical collapse brought about by exhaustion and stress."

-- Miami Herald, March 22, 1989

Three years ago, observing an unspoken, decade-old tradition, a young man sat down at a cluttered desk to compose a confidential memorandum. The man was a newspaper reporter who was leaving his job. He was writing to the person who would replace him, a professional colleague he might never meet. In the memo the reporter offered warnings, advice, and impressions best kept out of a family newspaper -- a plate of hot, unleavened truth meant for one diner only.

He told of newsroom love affairs and of dangerous, talentless editors who could hack to death an original idea. He wrote of his continual frustration with the way his beat -- the social, economic, and political landscape south of Kendall -- got shortchanged by the company he worked for. While Miami lived under the scrutiny of a dozen or more news reporters, South Dade had only one: him. And now he was leaving.

Don't spread yourself too thin, he suggested. Forget everything else and concentrate on Homestead. In its own weird way, the city of 30,000 straddling South Dixie Highway was every bit as tumultuous, fascinating, and gorgeous as the magic metropolis 30 miles to the north. Its old image as a redneck backwater was way out of kilter with contemporary reality. Homestead had quietly become the fastest-growing municipality in Dade County, and now it was on the verge of exploding into the 21st Century. There were many reasons for that, but the main one had to do with a dark magus who seemed, over and over again, to shape the destiny of the town.

The reporter described the arrival in semipermanence of a large population of Mexican farm workers, and the descent of portions of the black community into poverty and ghetto drug trafficking on the west side of town. Homestead's police department, once a volcano of political infighting, still rumbled from time to time with federal investigations of its alleged brutality, he wrote. He remarked on the unusually placid, consensual tone of city council meetings in Homestead.

The memo ended abruptly, and cryptically. The reporter described an odd encounter with Homestead City Manager Alex Muxo, Jr., during which the town's Cuban-born chief bureaucrat inexplicably pretended not to be able to speak or understand Spanish. There was no elucidation of the anecdote, no conclusion drawn, no apparent moral to the story. But there was a final message. "Never forget one thing," the departing journalist wrote. "And this is the most important thing you need to know. Alex Muxo is the godfather of Homestead."

Alex Muxo, age 36, sits at a corner table in the fourth-floor dining room of the City Club, one of several buildings in downtown Homestead that didn't exist a year ago. The decor of the private club is a muted salmon-and-pastel-orange Bahamian, with whimsically incongruous paintings of Virginia fox hunts dotting the paneled walls. Muxo has finished lunch and now stirs a second espresso with a tiny silver spoon. A trickle of locals, mostly businessmen, comes by to chat and shake hands with him. Their conversations are short, friendly, and informational -- reminders of upcoming Rotary Club meetings, updates on various civic projects. One senses, beneath the good-humored tone of these exchanges, that an ancient process is playing itself out: a collection of courtiers is paying homage to a sitting dignitary. The thick school ring Muxo wears on a well-manicured finger -- an oddly pedestrian trinket in an otherwise cosmopolitan wardrobe -- takes on an eerie presence. One expects it at any moment to be lifted to the lips of a visitor, and kissed.

Since parting with his mustache at a local charity auction two years ago, Muxo has remained clean shaven, boyish looking, and handsome. The loss of his whiskers did nothing to diminish his resemblance to a cat. At five-feet-six-and-a-half-inches and 153 pounds, he's neither tall nor large. His short, jet-black hair is meticulously in place. For the first five minutes upon meeting him, one is transfixed by large and unusually alert eyes, two raven-color pools flecked with amber. Eligible Divorce is among the many first impressions Muxo makes. He mentions with some degree of pride that during a recent budget crunch in Homestead, he took a voluntary $5000 pay cut, trimming his annual salary to $100,788.80. No, he says with an amused smile, he's no longer quite the highest-paid bureaucrat in Dade County. He pulls out a recent photograph of Blake, his impish six-year-old son, upon whom he dotes passionately. Blake, he explains, is the reason he finally found for not working 80 hours per week.

Anyone who knew Muxo three years ago and met him today would immediately notice a surprising change in his personality. He smiles more. He lingers over lunch in a way he never would have in the old days. His voice, a clipped underwater warble peppered with business-executive cliches, has lost some of its old tension, and gained greater range. It is possible now to get him to reveal a few details of his personal life. "He's in love, or he thinks he is," says one of his oldest and closest friends. But more than romance, the explanation for Muxo's sea change may lie in the near-completion of a monumental labor.

Driving south from the City Club through Homestead's 1920s-era downtown, Muxo passes the police station and for the third time that day praises his new police chief, Curtis Ivy. It took years for Muxo to convince city council members they should hire Ivy away from his former post as security chief at the University of Miami. A well-spoken, musclebound intellectual with advanced degrees in administration and management, Ivy once trekked through the villages of Vietnam as the lone American leader of a U.S. Army "armed propaganda unit" consisting of former Viet Cong guerrillas. He was just the man Muxo needed to break a tradition of political skullduggery, union trouble, and professional malaise inside Homestead's police department. Along the way, this most uncoplike cop has promoted several black and Hispanic officers to command positions, slowly increased the arrest and conviction rate on the city's sometimes-mean streets, fostered a regionally acclaimed SWAT team, improved training, and largely won the respect of his junior officers.

Turning east, Muxo points out the campus of the new Homestead branch of Miami-Dade Community College, a school that in the coming years will cater to 4000 mostly local, and mostly adult, vocational students. Nearby, a $16 million shopping plaza, anchored by a Sears store, is almost finished. Muxo gestures toward the city's power and sewage plants. These architecturally forgettable features of the landscape, now under expansion, have over the years done more than anything else to ensure Homestead's fiscal stability and self-reliance. The city, via an arrangement with Florida Power & Light, occasionally sells electrical power to residents outside its borders. And the electricity produced at the local plant is usually cheaper and more resistant to blackouts than in other parts of the county. The crucial result of such mundane considerations is that Homestead makes millions of dollars per year dealing independently with its people's energy and sewage needs -- a source of revenue most other municipalities abandoned long ago. Homestead has not raised its city tax rate since 1985, and has lowered it in the past two consecutive years.

Passing Homestead's recently renovated city hall, Muxo yanks a copy of a computer graph out of the back seat of his black Acura sedan. Bar charts and graphs are the man's passion. This one shows that since 1980, the year after a 23-year-old Muxo became the youngest city manager in Florida history, annual employee turnover at city hall has plummeted from 43 percent to below ten percent of the work force. Muxo promises it will be around six percent next year. East of South Dixie Highway, acres of what were once boggy "muck farms" fly past the window of the car. The farmland is gone, replaced by the Villages of Homestead, a collection of housing developments that comprise the largest Planned Unit Development in the state.

A Planned Unit Development means that all the infrastructure needed to build what amounts to a small city -- sewage and power lines, roads, and even landscaping -- is constructed before the houses go up. That concept, alien tomuch of South Florida's real estate development history, is capital intensive, slow to accomplish, and prone to financing problems in the stages before houses start being sold in large volume. But it results in a well-planned, good-looking place to live. In 1975 the City of Homestead annexed the 3300-acre tract of land that contains this mammoth private community, nearly doubling Homestead's geographic size. The U.S. Department of Commerce recently approved a license allowing the city to open a foreign trade zone inside the development as part of a larger industrial park. Publix plans to build a giant supermarket nearby, as soon as enough houses are sold. A new golf course is already busy with Northern retirees who have purchased retirement homes at the newest Villages of Homestead development, Keysgate.

Part Two

But by far the most impressive feature of the Villages of Homestead is the new $18 million baseball stadium rising from what a few months ago was an empty field. Exiting the car, Muxo chats with workers putting the finishing touches on the arched Bermudian facade of what is officially known as the Homestead Sports Complex, scowls at an elevator that hasn't yet gained the approval of county inspectors, and proceeds, catlike, up the stairs to the largest of a ring of sky boxes overlooking the central ball field. All fourteen of the skyboxes -- tiny, plush aeries where the wealthy will gather to watch major league spring training games -- have been leased for ten years at $60,000 apiece. Muxo shows off various facets of the stadium he believes will soon bring millions of dollars in revenue to the city: the team locker rooms (with double-wide lockers for the catchers), the manager's office, the facilities for television and print reporters, the aqua blue of the 6500 spectators' seats, a glassed-in third-story foyer looking west toward pink Everglades sunsets. Beyond the stadium itself are five more floodlit playing fields that have already hosted national championships for women's slow-pitch softball and will soon be used for trials for the U.S. Olympic baseball team. Muxo hopes, with help from the Ontario-based developers of the Villages of Homestead, to construct a state-of-the-art velodrome sometime in the next few years.

The burnt-orange leviathan on the green landscape east of Homestead's old town center is the physical manifestation of years of solitary dreaming and scheming, the capstone accomplishment that finally won Muxo a modicum of the recognition that has danced around him for years like a will-o'-the-wisp; and it confirmed his full acceptance into a community that doesn't take easily to outsiders.

In the spring of 1989, Muxo announced he had tapped into a staggering $12 million generated by a three-percent county hotel tax -- a source of revenue that until then had seemed to everyone the exclusive possession of the cities of Miami and Miami Beach. Together with land donated by the Villages of Homestead developers, Muxo said, the money would be used to build the best spring training camp in the United States, home to an as-yet-unspecified major league baseball team. The kicker: it wouldn't cost the people of Homestead a penny. The city council quickly and unanimously endorsed the scheme. A date for ground breaking was set. Engineers and architects went to work designing the construction project at a furious pace. Cash was no problem: A bank loan totaling millions had materialized out of thin air, to be paid back by the eventual disbursement of the county tax money in annualized chunks. In the space of one turbulent week, a murky snarl of hidden financial negotiations, political machinations, and legal complexities had crystallized suddenly into a gleaming coherence, the abstruse details of which seemed fully known only to one person: Muxo.

The citizens of South Dade loved it. Billboards praising Muxo appeared along South Dixie Highway. People actually began sporting baseball caps emblazoned with "Muxo's Team." If they didn't understand all the technicalities of what had happened, Homestead residents got the gist. Their part of the forest had traditionally been ignored by county government, and snubbed by the supposed sophisticates of Miami and Miami Beach. Now they had found their Robin Hood. One newspaper headline announced that "Muxo worship is spreading in Homestead." Jim Carson, a columnist for the local South Dade News-Leader who dared enter into some critical musings over Muxo's deal making, suffered the modern-day equivalent of a public whipping in the town square. "I hope he is banned from doing any reporting at our new stadium," wrote one reader. "Send the `Bush Leaguer' packing," another demanded.

Meanwhile, outside Homestead, people were freaking out on a large scale. Dozing politicians in Miami Beach suddenly woke up in horror. The stream of tax revenue that Muxo had diverted had, over the years, paid to build and operate the Miami Beach Convention Center. In Miami it had paid for the Miami Arena. Failing to grasp the political ramifications of what they were doing, the Beach city commission had listened to the recommendation of their own city manager and approved a resolution giving Muxo a very fat chunk of cash. At the time it had seemed like the right thing to do: The money was not exclusively theirs after all, since it was derived from a countywide hotel tax. And Muxo had a written opinion from the county attorney, stating that Homestead -- or any other municipality that had a valid big-ticket public project ready to build -- was perfectly entitled to share in the tax money. Maybe Muxo didn't actually need the Beach's approval to use the funds. Maybe he was making a not-too-subtle threat. That's the way it had seemed. But now, the Beach politicians realized, their constituents were screaming for blood. The transfer of funds looked like a giveaway. To some it looked like armed robbery, highjacking, a fast swindle. The politicians stumbled over themselves to rescind their original resolution.

But it was too late. Hours after receiving the original agreement from Miami Beach, Muxo was across town in a board room of Barnett Bank, beginning a grueling last round of negotiations. At 3:30 a.m. the next day he walked out of the bank with a guaranteed loan of $12 million, based on the binding resolution just passed by Miami Beach commissioners. When he got to the parking lot where he had left his car, he found the chain-link gate padlocked. A grin spread across his face in the predawn darkness. And then he laughed the laugh of a man who has just won the lottery but not yet shown anyone his winning ticket. The loan papers in the briefcase clutched in his right hand meant that if Miami Beach tried to rescind their agreement -- an eventuality Muxo had foreseen -- he and the bank would be justified in suing the island city for damages. Big damages. In the next few months, following a protracted court battle, Circuit Court Judge Gerald Wetherington first warned the Beach privately that they ought to cut their losses and hush, then issued an order saying, in effect, that Muxo and the City of Homestead were completely within their rights. They would get to keep the $12 million.

Almost from the start, Muxo's blitzkreig passed into legend. The Orlando Sentinel described it as "a cagey move that outfoxed Dade County's bigger and supposedly more sophisticated cities." The Arizona Republic explained how Muxo had come up with the idea in the first place: "Muxo's dream began in 1988, when as a city manager of this tiny, rural community 30 miles south of Miami, he spent his evenings in the local legal library searching for a loophole in the state's hotel bed-tax law."

Actually there weren't any Lincolnesque nights by lamplight. The $12 million deal began with a brief but fateful conversation four years ago between Muxo and an old acquaintance, then-Miami Beach City Manager Rob Parkins. After a Beacon Council meeting in Miami attended by both men, Parkins approached Muxo to ask for help enlisting the aid of South Dade's state legislators in support of a "light rail" public transit system linking Miami Beach and Miami International Airport. Building the railway required an amendment of the hotel tax law at the state level. And it also required a public referendum in Miami Beach.

In roughly the same amount of time it would take a judo expert to see an opening and flip his opponent, Muxo answered. Why yes, he said, he would be more than happy to lobby the South Dade legislators. And he only wanted one thing in return. Parkins had to promise that the next time there was an excess of funds in the revenue stream from the hotel tax, and Miami Beach didn't have a valid building project on the drawing board, the Beach city manager would support a project in Homestead that qualified for funding under the existing statutes. "What Alex did is that he knew what several of us had realized," recalls Parkins. "That although the flow of funds had traditionally been used by Miami and Miami Beach, it could go for anything, any project in Dade County." Muxo and Parkins shook hands. Parkins didn't mention the conversation to Miami Beach city commissioners, a conversation he later characterized as "a gentlemen's agreement."

What Muxo had already figured out -- after some long conversations with a Shearson-Lehman bond counselor who happened to advise both Miami Beach and Homestead -- was that the county hotel tax was already churning out annual excess revenues of more than $1.5 million, money that wasn't being used at all. The amount was overwhelming and largely unknown to other city managers and politicians. Today Muxo is mystified that no one else looked into it. Many, in retrospect, wished they had. When the $12 million transfer became public, Coral Gables City Manager Jack Eads acknowleged: "I feel like I've been hit in the head with a two-by-four."

Privately, as a form of insurance, Muxo met with then-County Commissioner Clara Oesterle and County Attorney Robert Ginsburg, who agreed in principle that Miami Beach couldn't legally refuse to approve use of the tax funds for the Homestead stadium project. And Muxo did something else: Looking at the politics of the light-rail transit proposal, he correctly predicted the scheme would fail in a public referendum. It did. An alternate project -- a symphony hall -- did not qualify as valid under state law, since politicians and planners were still squabbling about where to put it. Parkins, in the spring of 1989, recommended to the Miami Beach City Commission that it approve Muxo's plan to build a stadium in Homestead. He had given Muxo his word. But beyond that, Parkins had come to realize that his old acquaintance was being both rational and ethical in his argument that the Beach should quit hogging the fruits of a tax to which everyone in the county contributed. And there was that niggling presentiment that Muxo might sue the collective pants off of everyone who opposed him.

Part Three

Today Parkins lives a pleasant and quieter life as manager of the City of Palm Springs, California. He says the fact that he became the whipping boy of Miami Beach after Muxo's $12 million hornswoggle had nothing to do with his departure, but he adds, "In this business, you're both a force for change and a lightning rod." Parkins says he has nothing but respect for Muxo. "This is an overused word, but he's a top-flight professional," he notes. "He has a kind of deep current in him, an intensity, and a strategy of keeping his cards very close to his vest. He's a hell of a poker player. Confidentiality is a hallmark of his management style. Had I had this to live over again, I think I would have made the whole thing more of a public issue a lot earlier."

In a December 1989 report commissioned by Miami Beach Mayor Alex Daoud, retired Circuit Court Judge Seymour Gelber called Parkins's performance in his behind-the-scenes dealings with Muxo "disastrous." Summing up his investigation, he wrote: "Although an impression may exist that our country cousins outsmarted the big city boys, it is not Homestead's slickness or slyness that prevailed. Rather it was a sloppy slipshod performance by Miami Beach that opened the door."

As the finishing touches are put on the Homestead Sports Complex, Muxo believes he is close to signing a spring-training contract with the Cleveland Indians, one of several major league baseball teams he has wooed for nearly two years. Sitting in the stands at his empty, sunlit stadium, Muxo muses on a passage written in the Tao Te Ching 23 centuries ago: "The wise leader learns that in action, timing is everything." Lately, in the press and elsewhere, Homestead's sports-related accomplishments have been overshadowed by the journalistic ticker tape lavished on Blockbuster Video chairman H. Wayne Huizenga and his new Florida Marlins baseball club. No matter. By an apparent coincidence, the seats in the Homestead Sports Complex correspond almost exactly to the pink-and-blue tones chosen for Huizenga's big-league team. Has Muxo approached the Marlins about moving into the Homestead complex for spring training? He admits to informal talks with team representatives, but he won't say more.

In late 1981, Alex Muxo looked out at the audience at the Rotary Club luncheon and leaned slightly on the podium. One part of his brain was rifling through some details of public policy, and causing his mouth to talk about them. Another part of his brain was thinking about his marriage, which was not going well, and his job, which had become a hellish morass of endless work mixed with constant political intrigue. Life was feeling distinctly like a war, and he was running very short on ammunition. He felt dizzy. The faces in the audience were going in and out of focus.

In late 1981, Alex Muxo looked out at the audience at the Rotary Club luncheon and leaned slightly on the podium. One part of his brain was rifling through some details of public policy, and causing his mouth to talk about them. Another part of his brain was thinking about his marriage, which was not going well, and his job, which had become a hellish morass of endless work mixed with constant political intrigue. Life was feeling distinctly like a war, and he was running very short on ammunition. He felt dizzy. The faces in the audience were going in and out of focus.

Things had been easier, if somewhat boring, a couple years before when he was the manager of a large condo development north of town. Then he had hired on with the City of Homestead as head of customer service in the utilities department. Twenty-two years old and making $40,000 per year. Not bad for a kid whose Cuban parents had started out in this country washing dishes at a restaurant and running an elevator at a downtown Miami Catholic church. One day when he was sitting there shuffling electric bills, the city's chain-smoking city manager had called him into his office. It seemed the city manager was going on a three-week vacation -- his first real break in a decade -- and wanted Muxo to sit in for him while he was gone, become acting city manager.

The city manager never exactly came back. Shortly after his return, he underwent open-heart surgery and soon resigned. With the old man gone and this scrawny Cuban kid left in charge of the city's affairs, the buzzards started circling. Shortly after Muxo's formal appointment as permanent city manager, the police union rose up and demanded a nine percent across-the-board salary hike for Homestead officers. Muxo, backed by the city council, offered six percent. Negotiations broke down. Positions hardened. And then, for 23 hours in November 1980, the police walked off the job and surrounded city hall with picket signs. Anonymous callers threatened to assassinate the city manager and council members, and blow up the power plant. Muxo called in Wackenhut security guards to watch over the generators. The police tried to get city sanitation workers to join the strike. Muxo went out to the motor pool and threatened to fire them all unless they crossed picket lines and got back in their garbage trucks. They did, but not before an unpleasant verbal altercation between Muxo and a couple of large cops.

Even after the police were served with a court order and went back to work with only a six percent pay raise, the death threats and harassment continued. One disgruntled officer followed Muxo -- technically the chief law enforcement official in the city -- around town until he saw the chance to issue the city manager a speeding ticket. At the same time, Homestead residents exploded in anger over a recommendation by Muxo that the city council sell community-owned James Archer Smith Hospital to a private interest. The plan made financial sense, but proved to be a political hand grenade. It was voted down four to one in a citywide referendum.

In the autumn of 1981, a slate of five candidates unseated the old city council -- an all-white, mostly male coterie that, until his conviction in 1979, had included a drug-smuggling vice mayor. The new council included Jeff Kirk, a man barely out of his teens; Roscoe Warren, the first black man ever elected; Al Sola, the first Hispanic; and Irving Peskoe, a progressive Jewish mayor. "The people had elected us with a clear mandate," recalls Peskoe with a chuckle. "We got together and said, `Well, whose throats are we going to cut today?' We had a whole agenda. There were lots of political hacks to get rid of. We moved along pretty well." The city council immediately fired the city attorney. The police chief, who had refused to join the police strike the previous year, resigned under pressure from the new guard. But Muxo, at the top of the political hit list, was given a 90-day lease on life by an obscure clause in the city charter.

He was now approaching the end of those 90 days, and things looked dark. Just when he had begun to care about the town, he saw that his career here was going to end. As he gazed out at the roomful of Rotarians, their faces once again blurred in and out of focus. The room tilted at a curious angle. Muxo, in a careful and deliberate manner, slumped down the podium and landed on the floor with a small thump. He had passed out in midsentence.

When he came to, the city manager noted that he wasn't dead. The police officers who transported him to the hospital -- some of the same cops he had faced down in the police strike -- were kindly and courteous. They did not attempt to strangle him. Muxo took a long weekend, considered quitting, and came back to work. Weeks passed, then months. There was plenty of work to do, and there was less and less talk of firing him. He even began to strike up a friendship with the new mayor.

"I noticed that Alex, from day one, had a really amazing maturity," Peskoe recalls. "He didn't realize it, but I was almost in awe of him. He had a rare ability to examine issues and work with people. At some point, I just said to him, `Look. We're going to let you run this city. That's your job. Go do it.'"

A few skeptics have suggested that Muxo runs the city too well, that he perfectly satisfies the secret lust in every democracy for a benevolent dictator. His periodic feuds with newspaper reporters are in part testament to his taste for brokering even the smallest deals in secrecy, then controlling every detail of their public exposure. The fact that so many Homestead City Council meetings have the air of foregone conclusion has in the past led some spectators to call their elected public body "Alex Muxo and the Seven Dwarfs."

While insisting that city council members have occasionally pulled Muxo back from wielding his authority too zealously, Homestead Mayor Tad DeMilly acknowledges that his friend the city manager receives an unusual amount of latitude in running the town. "Alex has a high degree of influence over what we do, because he's there on a day-to-day basis and because he's been there through five city councils," DeMilly says. "It's true that he has a tremendous grasp of psychology. I have no doubt in my mind that some of the ideas I think I come up with were in fact planted by Alex."

The overriding opinion in tradition-minded Homestead -- the appraisal that matters most to Muxo -- is that this unusual bureaucrat is a straight shooter, a tenacious fighter, a good provider. A romantic aquaintance, who predicts Muxo will leave the public sector in a few years to become "the CEO of a large corporation," suggests that Muxo's true identity will never be conveyed in print. "One of my good friends is a reporter," she says. "She told me that reporters wake up in the morning hungry for something negative to say about their subject. Look, how often do you see Good Guy stories in the newspapers? Alex is a good guy. He's the most honest, most intelligent guy I've ever met. He's not complex. What he does have is a very strong leadership personality."

"Nobody's had bigger battles with Alex than I," says Donald Slesnick, a union lawyer for the Police Benevolent Association. "He's someone you have to respect as an adversary, or you'll get eaten alive. He has sometimes taken positions that are unusually harsh, and then held on to them aggressively. But during the time I've known him, he's been able to piece together a better, more workable relationship with the city employees, at least the ones I represent. I've watched him as he has pushed Homestead into the 21st Century. If Homestead was still a sleepy little town that was drifting backwards, then my clients wouldn't have the latitude to get better wages, better benefits, a better work atmosphere. I respect his vision."

Part Four

Long-time city hall observers believe Muxo made a conscious decision early in his career to sacrifice substantial parts of his personality in the interest of survival and eventual success; that he suppressed a naturally passionate temperament to fit into and master a Cartesian world of bureaucracy; that he set about hiding his Cuban ancestry in a desperate campaign of assimilation, even trying to shed the perceived liability of knowing how to speak and understand Spanish. Muxo himself denies all this. He downplays the extent to which growing up in an immigrant family in Miami, and later Kendall, has at times made Homestead a hard place to finally call home.

After years of long hours, Muxo is lightening up a bit, taking a broader view of life. His mellowing has everything to do with man's primordial longing for acceptance into a community, a longing not easily satisfied in transient South Florida or the modern world generally. A natural loner, Muxo has taken to drinking rum-and-ginger-ales with a collection of good ol' boys who were born and raised in Homestead. Like a warm bath, the town has taken him in. The process, in recent years, has included a series of deer-hunting expeditions in the Tennessee foothills.

"The first time was hilarious," recalls a companion. "He showed up in these huge black engineering boots that sounded like a freight train coming. I don't think he'd ever been in the woods before. We gave him a rifle and sent him out before dawn. He walks maybe half a mile, gets to a fence, and sits down. Then he starts to see movement behind some bushes. As the sun's coming up, he's got this huge deer in his sights. And then he realizes it's the neighbor's cow." After a moment the man adds: "We used to worry about Alex. He used to not be very good at poking fun at himself. He's improving.


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