I NEVER REALLY KNEW the man. What I'm about to tell you is secondhand at best, except for one encounter, the night I met him. It's a night I'll not soon forget.

Burt was a living legend in the town where I grew up. Travelers passing through would pull into the Texaco and pull out with a full tank and a story about Burt. And if they came back, they'd hear another, better than the last.All right. I'll tell you one, as it was told to me.

One time Burt and a buddy went down to Florida to fish. Didn't catch much, but did some serious drinking, always a given with Burt. Driving home, drunk as skunks, they felt a bump in the road.

"Burt," said the buddy, "was that an alligator?"

"I believe it was," said Burt. "Let's go see."

They nearly killed each other wrestling their road victim into the trunk of Burt's car. Then they drove to a motel and passed out.

Come morning the buddy said, "Did we put an alligator in the trunk of your car?"

"I believe we did," said Burt. "Let's go see."

Sober, they were wary. Inch by inch, they opened the trunk - and found a 6-foot-long tire tread from a semi-truck.

I have no idea if that story is true. But I have no doubt that it could be. I could tell you other stories about how Burt befriended people, got them jobs, helped them out, made them laugh.

My chance came at last a few years ago. While visiting family, I was invited with some friends to dinner at Burt's house. Freezing rain glazed the road and I was late - too late to catch Burt sober. I tried not to stare, but I wanted to see in him what everyone else saw.

When he offered to show me his still, I said, "Uh, thanks," grabbed my coat and skated after him up an icy path into the woods. It was no joke. There was a still, bubbling and pumping out moonshine.

He offered me a sample. I declined. Then he pulled out a gun and I thought I was going to die. I'd be just another story at the Texaco.

But he only shot the trees. Said he loved to see icicles fall. I was not amused.

Later, everyone apologized for him, said it was a shame I didn't see him at his best.

I thought of that recently when I heard that Burt had died of liver failure. Instead of a funeral, he arranged a big party for all his friends.

I wish I could have known him at his best.