Asylum Inmate? Lester Ridenhour? Leo Aikman? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend an automobile driver noticed that a tire was going flat, and pulled over to the side of a lonely road adjacent to a tall metal fence. While replacing the tire with a spare the apprehensive driver removed the four lug nuts and accidentally dropped them down a sewer grate.
A figure behind the metal fence saw the dispirited driver and presented a clever solution to the awful predicament. Each tire could be attached with three lug nuts, and the car could be driven to a service station for further assistance. The helpful person was a resident of a mental asylum, and the anecdote ended with this didactic exchange: “How is it that you could give such sound advice?” “I may be nuts but I’m not stupid.” Would you please trace this story?
Quote Investigator: This tale is difficult to explore because it can be told in many ways. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in a North Carolina newspaper in 1951. Lester Ridenhour who was the assistant principal and director of athletics at Burlington High School travelled to Raleigh, North Carolina together with students to play in a basketball tournament.
When the group returned to their car they discovered that one wheel with its hubcap and lugs had been stolen. Ridenhour walked three miles to find an open service station:[ref] 1951 March 3, Burlington Daily Times-News, Lester Ridenhour Concludes: ‘I’m Going To Stay At Home’, Quote Page 5, Column 6 and 7, Burlington, North Carolina. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]
The service station attendant returned with him to the car, jacked up the axel off the ground, took one lug off each of the other wheels, fastened the spare wheel into position, and got the group on its way home. Arrival In Burlington: 2 o’clock this morning.
The newspaper article contained the crucial elements of the puzzle solution, but there was no mention of an asylum or an astute inmate.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In October 1954 the “San Antonio Express” in Texas relayed a story from a reporter named Warren Darby who heard the anecdote “at the courthouse”. An unidentified motorist had a flat tire outside a fence surrounding a “place for the insane”. The lug nuts were lost and advice was offered from behind the fence:[ref] 1954 October 10, San Antonio Express and News, The Bill Board: Colleagues Quite Valuable As You Can See From This by Bill Redell, Quote Page 9A, Column 1 and 2, San Antonio, Texas. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]
“Why don’t you take one lug off each of the other wheels and that way you can make it into town in the car with three lugs on that wheel?” suggested the mental patient.
“Are you an inmate here?” the motorist asked.
“Sure. But I’m here because I’m crazy; not for being stupid.”
In November 1954 a version of the story appeared in an Omaha, Nebraska newspaper which acknowledged the columnist Leo Aikman of the “Atlanta Constitution” in Georgia. The setup was different: A driver visited a service station for a tire repair, but the attendant forgot to replace the lug nuts. The driver heard an ominous noise after driving a short time and pulled over near the fence of an asylum:[ref] 1954 November 23, Omaha World Herald, There’s a Difference (Acknowledgment Leo Aikman in Atlanta Constitution), Quote Page 30, Column 1, Omaha, Nebraska. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]
As the motorist contemplated his predicament, an inmate called through the asylum fence, “Why don’t you take one lug from each of the other wheels and be on your way?”
The motorist first looked surprised, then relieved, then a little chagrined.
“Don’t feel bad about it,” said the fellow across the fence. “I’m in here because I’m crazy, not stupid!”
In 1956 a speaker at the “Annual Meeting of the New York State Horticultural Society” told a version of the tale with the following ending:[ref] 1956, Proceedings of the 101st Annual Meeting of the New York State Horticultural Society, (Conference held in two locations: Kingston, New York on December 14 to 16, 1955; Rochester, New York on January 17 to 20, 1956), “Expanding Our Markets in an Expanding Economy” by Stanley Arnold of New York City, Start Page 252, Quote Page 252, Column 1 and 2, New York State Horticultural Society. (Verified with scans; thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake, Interlibrary Loan, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst)[/ref]
“Isn’t this the insane asylum?” The man said “Yes, it is.” “Well,” he said, “are you an inmate?” The fellow said “Yes”. He said “How is it that you could give such sound advice?” “Well, the fellow said, “I may be nuts but I’m not stupid”.
In conclusion, a non-fiction instance of the anecdote was published in a North Carolina newspaper in 1951. The ingenious solution was provided by an anonymous service station attendant and not an asylum inmate. By 1954 an ornate version set adjacent to an insane asylum was in circulation.
(Special thanks to top contemporary legend researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located the 1956 citation. Additional thanks to Barbara Mikkelson of Snopes who mentioned a citation in 1983 together with oral testimony.)