The man who will star at the Oscars on Sunday night was once a 23-year-old who owned his own store. That was where his good news ended.
His skin had a yellow pall. One of his eyes drooped. He was 6-foot-4 and powerful, but he slouched and plodded and moved so awkwardly that his enemies likened him to a gorilla.
His clothes didn't and never would fit his frame. Sometimes the arms of his suit coat ended at his forearms. Sometimes his pants legs stopped at his calves.
Even if he wanted to, he couldn't buy new clothes — he was so deeply in debt that he would be sued by creditors five different times.
And he couldn't rely on any family money nor any fancy degree to help him out of this jam. He was the son of a farmer who was bad at farming and had grown up in a 14-by-14-foot, one-room shack. He had exactly one year of formal education.
What he really wanted to do was become a lawyer, but he lived in a town of 300 people, and the nearest law school was hundreds of miles away.
He lived the sort of life that systemically pulverizes dreams, like an unseen machine that rhythmically pounds and pounds and pounds until they turn to toxic dust.
Which is why, Larry Dwyer says, the story of the book in the barrel is so important.
Dwyer is an Omaha lawyer, but he is also an amateur historian who devours three books a week and serves on historical societies and generally tries to get to the bottom of anything or anyone he comes into contact with.
He has a library full of obsessions, but his chief one is this 23-year-old and what he became and why — he often lectures to lawyers' groups and book clubs on this topic. Recently I sat in on one of these lectures, held in a west Omaha restaurant, and I quickly became so mesmerized by Dwyer's seasoned cadence, by the story that he patiently unspooled, that I had to keep reminding myself to take notes, so I could tell you.
There is actually an obsession inside Dwyer's obsession, a fascination with how a single domino can fall, and then another, and then another, in a way that changes a man's fate. In a way that can change all our lives.
Which brings us to a story that the 23-year-old himself often told after he became an older man. It brings us to this book inside a barrel.
The 23-year-old stood in front of his debt-ridden store one morning when a farmer rode up in his covered wagon. The farmer explained that he and his family weren't cut out for pioneer living. They were heading back East and needed to lighten their load. Was there anything off the wagon that the store owner wanted to buy?
At first the 23-year-old waved him off. He had no money, after all. He had no need for anything on the wagon.
But the farmer pressed his case — what about this barrel? You can use it to store things. I'll charge you only 50 cents.
So the 23-year-old relented and bought the barrel. He dragged it inside and forgot it in a corner. Months passed, and he needed a place to store something, so he opened the barrel and shook it upside down to clean it out.
Trash fell out. So did a copy of an English law book known as “Blackstone's Commentaries.”
Let's hand it over to the 23-year-old himself, who said this about the book decades later.
“I began to read those famous works, and I had plenty of time; for during the long summer days, when the farmers were busy with their crops, my customers were few and far between. The more I read, the more intensely interested I became. Never in my whole life was my mind so thoroughly absorbed. I read until I devoured them.”
You see, Dwyer says, if that book is not in a barrel, then the 23-year-old probably never teaches himself the law. If he never teaches himself law, he never becomes one of the best trial lawyers in Illinois. If he doesn't become a famed lawyer, he doesn't represent a railroad and receive the then-princely fee of $5,000.
If he doesn't receive that fee, then he cannot take time off to debate a man named Stephen Douglas seven different times on the issue of slavery. Douglas won the U.S. Senate election after the debates, but those who hated slavery came to know and love the one-time debt-ridden store owner.
If he doesn't receive that fee, he cannot loan a man named Nash money, and Nash, the chairman of the state Republican Party, does not, in turn, push for the all-important Republican convention to be held in Chicago instead of New York or St. Louis.
If the Republican convention is not held in Chicago, then this man is not picked as the Republican nominee, and he is never elected president of the United States.
If that particular book is not in that particular barrel, then Abraham Lincoln is not the man who won the Civil War and freed the slaves. Abraham Lincoln is not the man who became so important that Steven Spielberg made a movie about him.
Instead, maybe he remains a gaunt, debt-ridden dry goods store owner with no education and no hope.
Dwyer would like you to think about this Sunday night, as you likely watch Daniel Day-Lewis amble onto the stage to collect an Oscar for his portrayal of Honest Abe. (And it was a great performance, Dwyer says, though he's a little bothered that Day-Lewis didn't plod or talk as squeakily as Lincoln did.)
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And he would like you to think about how that book in a barrel may have affected every Omahan in some way.
Dwyer closes by asking the crowd — asking all of us — to think about how that book in a barrel may have changed our lives.
For example: If Abraham Lincoln does not become president, then he does not ask for the advice of a Gen. Grenville Dodge, whom he had previously met in Council Bluffs some years before.
If that book is not in that barrel, then maybe Abraham Lincoln does not place the terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad in the Omaha area. And then a family of Irish immigrants never moves to Omaha to take railroad jobs.
If there is no book in a barrel, then Larry Dwyer's family never comes to this city.
If there is no book in a barrel, then Larry Dwyer wouldn't be standing before this crowd in this west Omaha restaurant right now, giving this speech.
“That's kind of interesting, isn't it?” he asks the crowd.
Yes, it is.
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