The Real Colonel Sanders Was A Relentless, Amazing Maniac
World-changing innovators all seem to have one thing in common: They're just barely able to function in polite society. It's easy to imagine that all of them are one or two decisions away from bankruptcy, jail, or having exploded themselves in a garage experiment. They're the ones who keep going a hundred steps beyond where any rational person would quit. And above all else, they have a pathological inability to give a shit what anyone else thinks.
You know, people like Harland "Colonel" Sanders, the man who became a fast food logo. He spent his youth getting fired from various jobs, and at one point shot a dude at a convenience store. If you've ever been told you're too much of a fuck-up to get anywhere in life, I'd urge you to read this.
It Started With A Poor Middle School Dropout
Harland Sanders was not destined to do anything -- he just kept trying shit. This was a man who would get fired from one job after another for increasingly stupid reasons. He pursued his dreams like a dog chasing a fire truck it saw on TV.
Sanders was born in Indiana in 1890, presumably already bearing the white hair, glasses, and goatee that made him look like a restaurant logo brought to life due to a child's misguided wish.
His father died when he was young, and Sanders wound up having to do all of the cooking for his large family at seven years old. At that age, I couldn't open a Go-Gurt without scissors. He was forced to improvise with what he had. It was kind of like Chopped, only instead of being handed a basket where the "curveball" is goat cheese, he had to make a meal for ten out of cow dick, a nickel, and sadness.
At the ripe age of 13, Sanders moved out to go work on a farm. He bailed out of school in the seventh grade, saying "algebra's what drove me off." Thus began one of the most utterly ridiculous journeys to success in history.
Colonel Sanders' Big, Insane Resume
Over the next several decades, Sanders basically was the star of a shitty reality show in which someone tries every job on the planet for like a week and then rolls out. He worked as a streetcar conductor. Then, fed up with the security of being a 16-year-old mass transit driver, he faked his date of birth and signed up for the Army. He was honorably discharged in 1907, and then cruised down to Alabama, where he first served as a blacksmith's helper, then got the cushy job of ash pan cleaner on trains for the Northern Alabama Railroad. He lost that job for leaving his post to go to the toilet.
Now, if one were to turn this guy's life into a religion (and someone should at least consider it), this next parable pretty much summarizes the Colonel Sanders Way:
Somewhere around the train toilet incident, he met and married his wife, with whom he had two daughters and a son. Oh, and he was also studying law via a correspondence class, because of course he was. He practiced law (the barrier for entry was much lower then) in Little Rock, Arkansas for a few years ...
And then lost that job because he got into a fistfight with a client while in court.
I can find no additional context for that story. All we know is that he was arrested and forbidden from practicing law. Or as Sanders says in his autobiography, "I decided I didn't want to be a lawyer anymore." He immediately went back to work for the railroad, cleaning toilets. He was pushing 30 at this point.
Over the next several years, he did everything from selling life insurance to delivering babies as a midwife (a ... midhusband?) to operating ferry boats. None of this stuck -- he was fired at least one more time for fighting on the job. And as if things couldn't get worse, it was around this time that his only son died from infected tonsils. We like to say that we can never catch a break when we end up in boarding group B on a Southwest flight, but Harland David Sanders was the true embodiment of this phrase.
Then He Got Into A Fucking Gas Station Shootout
Sanders' zig-zagging career through the American South soon found him not only falling 42 feet after a car accident, but also operating a gas station in Kentucky. And what does every gas station need? A random selection of DVDs from 2008? A weirdly awesome selection of hats? No, dummy. It needs food that sounds amazing to anyone who's been sitting in a car for a few hours. Sanders began cookin' and slingin' fried chicken, ham, and greens out of his tiny Kentucky establishment. "And then he started KFC and lived happily ever after!" Ha, no.
See, success never really enjoyed Sanders' company for long. After finding out that another local business owner was painting over his signs to direct traffic away from his joint, Sanders decided to take matters into his own hands. After threatening to shoot the man if he ever caught him doing it again, Sanders in fact caught him doing it again.
The guy decided to just started shooting first, killing one of Sanders' fellow workers at the Shell station. Sanders then grabbed the dead man's fucking gun and shot back, wounding the sign-painting guy. The cops arrested everyone involved, but Sanders got off, since he kind of acted in self-defense. And like that, Sanders' main competition was out of his way.
Over the next few years, Harland would sling his gas station chicken pretty damn successfully, having developed a method of frying in a pressure cooker that would just shoot grease right into the meat. He was perfectly situated off of a main highway that saw an abundance of traffic. He would also be bestowed with Kentucky's highest civilian honor by two separate governors: the title of colonel. Sanders' life is less of a straight line and more like someone pulling crazy redneck scenarios out of a hat.
Then, at age 66, he lost everything.
Everything Went To Shit Again. And AGAIN
At a point when Harland Sanders should have been ready to retire and enjoy his golden years, a new highway was built that directed all of the traffic away from his place. He was forced to sell the property at a massive loss, and had no choice but to once again become the roving maverick he'd been in his youth.
Though Sanders found himself without a job once more, he did possess one thing that he didn't have in his previous undefined years: A passion for putting bread on dead chickens and throwing them into wildly hot grease. Sanders took his famous recipe on the road, and began offering it to restaurants with a licensing deal whereby they'd give him a cut of every bird sold. He packed up his bags of spices and pressure cookers and drove around, living off of Social Security checks and sleeping in his car.
So imagine for a moment you're walking into a restaurant and you pass by a rumpled 68-year-old man changing his pants in the back of a sedan, his passenger seat full of greasy pressure cookers. Would you guess this guy was about to launch a multi-billion-dollar international business? Because he sure as fuck was.
By the mid-1960s (when he was in his 70s), Sanders had franchised hundreds of restaurants with his chicken recipe. He turned himself into the logo, never leaving the house without that white suit and black tie. The man understood personal branding as well as any of today's finest Instagram influencers. And then he lived happily ever af-
Ah shit, wait. This is America, after all, and when there's someone with actual talent and drive succeeding, the parasites without those qualities will always swoop in. A couple of young Kentucky millionaires descended upon the Colonel with hopes of convincing him to sell.
Sanders didn't want to sell. Even at his age, he wanted to stay at the controls, afraid they would change the recipe or otherwise tarnish his legacy as the greatest shootout-winnin', soot-faced, chicken-breadin', courtroom-brawlin' colonel in the fine state of Kentucky. Eventually, however, he gave in. He settled on a few million and a pretty modest yearly salary after that. And he instantly regretted it.
The Man Continued To Take Shit From No One, Right Up To The End
As Kentucky Fried Chicken began to take off, so too did the Colonel. The new owners plastered his distinct face on everything. They would march him out whenever they could, and he was forced to be the mascot for the one thing he truly loved and regretted giving up in the first place. For a while, at least. Then Harland Sanders remembered that his defining characteristic was that he didn't take shit from anybody.
So Sanders opened up his own joint: Claudia Sanders, the Colonel's Lady (which doesn't quite have the same ring to it as "KFC"). He was promptly sued for $120 million over the name. The case got settled around 1975, and Sanders was forced to sell, sadly preventing a Colonel Sanders vs. Some Kentucky Motherfuckers Courtroom Cage Match.
Despite the many disagreements, Sanders continued on with KFC in some capacity, as they needed this white-suited badass more than he needed them. He also continued to find new ways to not give a shit what the new owners thought of him, openly ripping into KFC stores he visited (publicly referring to their gravy as "wallpaper paste" and their mashed potatoes as "sludge"), which eventually got him sued for libel. That's right, when Colonel Sanders was in his late 80s, he was sued by a KFC location for pulling a Kitchen Nightmares on them. They lost the suit. He died shortly thereafter at the age of 90.
Now imagine how different the world would be if that crazy rival gas station owner had better aim. Harland Sanders would have gone down as a nobody with a checkered past who died the way he was probably always destined to -- killed in an argument at a Kentucky gas station. That's how razor thin the line is between the type of crazy that ruins your life and the type that makes you millions.
If nothing else, you have to wonder how many people exactly like him never got that chance.
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