Texas book review: Homegrown — Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982

I never understood what it was, exactly, that drew me so strongly to concert posters.

Sure, as a newspaper designer, I had an appreciation for how they were created. And as I dove deeper into the history of the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic, I appreciated the older posters as tangible connections to that history.

But there really had to be more to it. For awhile, it was a sort of madness.

My last read of 2017 and first review of 2018 — Homegrown: Austin Music Posters 1967 to 1982 — doesn’t pose the question of why these posters speak so strongly to certain people. But it does provide some clues, nonetheless.

Joe Nick Patoski’s opening essay makes a strong case for the importance of concert posters as advertising medium in an era where your favorite band could play across town and you might not ever know about it because you’re 40 years away from following them on Twitter.

Opening with 1820s broadsides posted around New Orleans seeking colonists for Texas, Patoski narrows in on Austin’s printing history and ultimately the marriage of art and information in the mid-1960s that resulted in the music posters you see in books such as this.

The major Austin poster artists get their due, but Patoski starts with Jim Franklin — my favorite artist. (And I don’t just mean poster artist. I wouldn’t walk across the street to piss on Picasso if he were ablaze.)

There is also a mini-history of important venues, starting not with the usual suspect, but the Vulcan Gas Company, the importance of which can be overlooked as it rests in the shadow of the Armadillo.

(Thank goodness I read this book recently and not during the height of my poster-collecting craze. God knows what kind of debt I would’ve racked up if I were driven to touch a larger scope of history rather than just Willie’s Picnic. Say … that Vulcan Gas poster is kinda cool though …)

The second essay, by artist Nels Jacobson, takes a more personal look at the artists and a more technical look at their art, introducing phrases like “split-fountain ink printing” and “Multilith 1350 offset press.”

The meat of the book, however, is 122 posters, divided across five chapters. The pioneering Vulcan Gas Company gets its own chapter, featuring a dozen-and-a-half posters and handbills ranging from the sort of hippie-trippy images you’d expect from San Francisco to Jim Franklin oddities.

If you’re expecting the Armadillo World Headquarters to get its own chapter, well, so was I. But those works are split across the next three chapters: Blues Portraits (including Danny Garrett’s work for Antone’s), Reimagining Texas (opening with a herd of Jim Franklin armadillos) and Traveling Bands (no, the Savoy Brown poster you’re thinking isn’t here).

The last chapter explores the rise of Punk and New Wave posters and handbills that popped up in the early ‘80s as lush professional artistry gave way to a different aesthetic entirely. Many of these posters are interesting, but only a few can stand alongside their predecessors.


Overall rating: 8 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: N/A

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: I’m not weird for loving old posters.

Will it make the bookshelf? Yes.


Willie Nelson in downtown Austin on a Saturday night

When an acquaintance calls you up and says something about free tickets to see Willie Nelson, you listen.

When you know that guy is a professional ticket broker and the kind of fellow who wouldn't blink at buying a $5,000 poster because he thought it was cool, you listen extra hard, because these seats ain't gonna be the "in-the-balcony-next-to-the-bar" kind you usually get.

That's how Shannon and I ended up on the fourth row at ACL Moody Theater on Saturday night, sipping $8 beers and thinking about ways to describe how close we were.

("I could have hit Lukas Nelson with a marshmallow" is the winner. A jumbo marshmallow, though our host did try to move us up to the front row during intermission when two in his 4-person party didn't show — but someone ratted us out and a ticket stub check hastened us back to our just-as-good seats.)

Let's get right to it: Willie, at 84 years old, sounded great. He didn't sound 1970s great. Or even 1990s great. But he sounded as great as as a grateful fan could reasonably expect. No, his set isn't much changed. The same half-dozen songs to open the show, the same gospel medley to close it. And the usual suspects in between. 

I soaked it all in—at this stage, every time is the last time — but it was also fun to watch the show through the eyes of Shannon, who hasn't seen this set annually for the past 20 years. The last time, in fact, was at the 2004 Picnic in Fort Worth, a day of heat and crowds that prompted Shannon to tell me on the Fifth of July "I love you, but I am never doing that shit again."

Shannon is not an outdoor festival person. I am, I guess. I've listened to Willie play this close before. But that was standing on sore feet, sweaty, stinking and sunburned after 12 hours at a Picnic, wedged into a crowd in the same condition as me, except drunker.

The ACL Moody Theater is a different scene entirely. Quite comfortable and easy to navigate — although the tightly packed floor seats meant you couldn't get up without disturbing your neighbors. It's probably best (for my wallet at least) that I didn't feel like I could buy more beer during Micah Nelson's set, but my enjoyment of Lukas Nelson would've been bolstered if I could've gone to pee during at least one of those 10-minute guitar solos.

Yes, Willie's boys opened the show. I've seen Micah in at least four different bands over the last decade as he has tried to find a sound for himself. Though not my taste, exactly, his musical chops seem fine to me, but it seems that it was Lukas who inherited most of the charisma. Half an hour of Particle Kid was generous. Lukas made the most of his hourlong set, opening and closing with "Breakdown" and "American Girl" in honor of Tom Petty. 

"Forget about Georgia" was the Lukas highlight to me. His voice slips in and out of eerie Willie likeness enough that I'll probably go see him at some point in my 60s when I get to thinking about how I miss the old man.

The old man was still there last night. At some points looking all of his years and then some, then at others he'd flash that Willie grin or that left-eye half-wink thing he does and he'd be the same guy I saw when I was 21 and looking for a musical hero. Every time is the last time. I cheered the Texas flag dropping down (he doesn't do that at the Picnics, so I haven't seen it in a long time). I yelled "Willie!" at least a half-dozen times. I watched Bobbie and Willie play together. I cheered a Mickey Raphael harmonica solo. I sang along with "Good Hearted Woman" and "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys" and "I Saw The Light."

Shannon and I don't get out much. We're indebted to our host (who probably just wants this eBay junkie to think of him next time I see something cool I can't afford). And we're indebted to Grandma and Grandpa Williams who came up to babysit on short notice. (You can't just get anyone to watch Ghostman.) Sure, there were crowds and lines and traffic and a lot of stairs for a woman who had four foot surgeries this year. But it was awesome. A fine, fine way to end 2017 on a rare high note.

And yes, that was our New Year's Eve. We ain't doing shit tonight.

Texas book review: The Great Chili Confrontation

Granny’s house was full of books like this. Great rows of octavo books with colorful, urgent dust jackets — usually showing signs of repeated readings — from the 1950s and 1960s. Many of these were filled with wry "comic" observations that were reduced to dry wheezes when boredom and curiosity had me sifting through them in the 1980s.

H. Allen Smith’s “The Great Chili Confrontation” would not have been out of place.

(I’m not dissing Granny’s library entirely. Among the books was “Johnny Got His Gun.” As a Metallica fan during these 1980s years that I’m referencing, this impressed me.)

Smith has been a background name for me since I learned about the Terlingua Chili Cookoff(s) in the mid-1990s, but I learned a bit more last year when I created a video about the history of the event.

I had already read Smith's self-indulgent magazine article that preceded the cookoff, but somehow, I was hoping that his book would offer a little more history and quite a bit less narcissistic blathering.

Nope.

This book could have been like having a know-it-all blowhard uncle who talks nonstop about everything and is usually a little much, but, hey, you have a few drinks and he takes it down a notch and you step it up a notch and all of the sudden you’re having fun together.

Instead, it’s that know-it-all uncle with a drinking problem and a Facebook account. And he is absolutely sure that he is the funniest person who ever lived and he wants you to know it at EVERY GODDAMN MOMENT.

Smith knows how to use the language, I’ll give him that. But — in the same way that you can start a chapter in a Kinky Friedman book laughing and end that chapter a few pages later ready to punch him in the face — Smith isn’t so much caressing the words as he is molesting them.

It gets worse. It’s not just the masturbatory prose, but his favorite subject that is hard to stomach: H. Allen Smith, himself.

Ah, the Yankee humorist in the mid-20th century. Do you have a way with words? Good, then be a dick nonstop to everyone and write tirelessly about your dickishness, either explicitly or by mocking everyone around you.

Not willing to commit the effort to writing a whole book about the Terlingua cookoff (though, that’s what the title suggests we’re getting), Smith meanders through half a book’s worth of “digressions,” none so painful as the tale of his Cantonese friend Sou Chan.

Sou Chan, as you might be guessing, tells people to “go fry a kite.” He has witnessed a “terrible exprosion.” His home has a “utirrity room.” There’s no context for any of this, of course. Smith just lists these “facile phrases” to … you know … wheeze.

And nothing gets me going quite like the Yankee writer who writes wide swaths of gibberish in the aim of sharing the Texan dialect. Seriously, fuck that guy. You can pepper in a word here and there to get the point across, but I don’t need your condescending bullshit.

The parts about the cookoff? There's nothing of value between the self-aggrandizing and the Texan-trashing. You could get more history from a poster.

“The Great Chili Confrontation” made quick and breezy Christmas-distracted reading. I’m glad I didn’t spend any serious garage time on it.

Upon completion, I felt the need to cleanse myself, so I went to the display bookshelf and found “A Bowl of Red,” by Smith’s rival Frank X. Tolbert. Tolbert was a newspaper columnist and his writing is as good as his subject matter. Sometimes it's an awesome character study. Sometimes the staccato chapters read like he was aiming to beat a deadline or greet a happy hour. But the book offers history and accuracy ... and it makes me happy.

Overall rating: 3 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 6 out of 10.

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: I didn’t learn a damn thing, except to trust my gut when it comes to Yankee humorists.

Will it make the bookshelf? This'll get me a quarter at Half Price Books. I'll be glad to make the exchange.


The censored Kerrville Folk Festival story emerges after 17 years

Editor's note: After attending the Kerrville Folk Festival in 2000 for the first time, I returned to San Angelo to write a story about it. It immediately became the only story I ever wrote to be rejected for publication. I set about trying to tone it down. Cutting out a few of the juicier bits. The features editor just laughed when I brought it back.

So this story has never seen the light of day. Unfortunately, the original version is lost to time. All that remains is the abridged version. Gone, for example, is the anecdote about the shamanistic woman who strode purposefully through the remnants of a midnight wedding to approach me, standing in my T-shirt and boxer shorts. She rubbed my belly in a Budai-like fashion and in short order I threw up in the bushes.

Anyway, this is my Christmas gift to you. It appears as I typed it 17 years ago. Mostly. Enjoy.

--------------------------------------------------------

KERRVILLE FOLK FESTIVAL — Four in the morning is my best guess as to the time, my watch being a late afternoon casualty of an all-day Lone Star Light appreciation fest.

Cameron is on the other side of the tent, snoring. I listen with envy: I can't sleep. The ground is hard as truth, I keep sliding downhill (more on that later) and the racket outside is astounding.

Somewhere, at a campfire to the east, a hippie woman is singing a "save-our-planet" song. How do I know she's a hippie? Her voice carries an urgency — and a volume — that no non-hippie could muster at 4 a.m.

"We have to learn / to take care of our mother

We have to learn / take care of each other"

Suddenly it strikes me that this is something I should see. Something I should witness. But my body, though refusing to sleep, won't allow me to get up, either.

I have to learn, the hippie woman would no doubt sing for me, to take care of my liver.

***

Cameron and I were 'Kerrvirgins' when we finally caught a glimpse of the Quiet Valley Ranch (a misnomer) at 7 p.m. on Friday. It wasn't what we expected.

No wide-open spaces of pasture interrupted by communes of tents. This was all mud and rock and tents crammed up against each other to the point that it was hard to make sense of it all.

It was hard to find a campsite at all.

We finally settled — out of desperation — to set up camp on a hill behind the Threadgill Memorial Theater. Not too far from the store/showers/bathrooms, though not nearly close enough to the bathrooms in the middle of the night.

Actually, we had a little space around us — a concept that apparently the hippies in the flatlands had no use for. And also because nobody else was dumb enough to set up a tent where the occupants would perpetually slide downhill.

Cameron wasn't optimistic about the weather, either. The storms that had hit San Angelo earlier that day were just now catching up with us. By midnight we would have a river running through the tent. Thankfully, the tent was big enough that we could sleep on either bank of the Rio Kerrville.

***

Third beer: Lone Star Light or Lone Star? These decisions are not easy at 8:45 a.m. Time is, especially at the Kerrville Folk Festival, an arbitrary concept. I've declared Kerrvile to be another time zone this Saturday morning and Cameron has embraced the idea.

Perched on lawn chairs on the side of the hill, we survey our kingdom below. By 9:30, only the trashbag (tied to the tent to keep it from sliding downhill) has kept track of our progress. A wedding procession walks down from the Threadgill theater to Chapel Hill (directly across from us). 

We toast the bride and groom.

At noon, we kings of the hill rise for a little lunch only to find that some scoundrel has stolen our Cool Ranch Doritos. 

Bastards!

Ham and cheese sandwiches do not ease our pain. Or sober us up. We decide a good, long nap would put us back in condition to see the music that evening.

We actually make it to the music festival that evening. But Cameron returns from a beer run to find me ill at ease with how things have developed. The first three acts have been entertaining and Micky Newbury is coming up next.

But I've overdone it. The hour 'nap' in the slanted sweatbox was several hours short of what I needed. I return to the tent and pass out.

Cameron — ask not for whom the beer tolls — celebrates having outlasted me by having another beer ... and falling asleep in the lawn chair.

***

This time, having succeeded in a four-hour nap, I rise from the tent in the darkness of Saturday night. What hour is it? I'm not sure. No watch — it has disappeared. 

I finish a bottle of Gatorade and return to my lawn chair. Cameron rises and presses a beer into my hand. I'm in no condition to turn down a bad idea.

We wander down the hill in search of a party and our momentum carries us up Chapel Hill, where we find the second wedding of the day.

A whole Kerrville orchestra and a legion of Kerrverts (the moniker of choice for our fellow festival-goers) serenade the newlyweds. I feel slightly out-of-place, but that's probably because I'm not wearing any pants.

Ah, but it's dark.

Wedding concluded, we make our way down to the hippie flatlands and explore the campfires. Someone wants to know "where in the hell is everyone going at 2 a.m.?"

"It's 2 a.m.?" I ask, answering his question at the same time.

After awhile —the best measurement I can come up with — I return to the tent and listen to the campfire songs from my semi-dry sleeping bag.

In one cosmic moment, two dueling singers from campfires probably 30 yards apart launch into their own choruses at the same time.

Two voices at once come together in an extended "oooooooooooooooo" before splitting into different words. Different worlds, probably.

***

We had given up. There was one real good reason to stay another 24 hours in Kerrville — Ray Wylie Hubbard was going to play that night.

There were a million reasons to pack up and go home that morning.

Reasons like: We were almost out of beer. And we didn't enjoy pain. We had not paced ourselves well. Or at all, for that matter.

With dawn's decision to leave came The Kerrvert With No Name.

Sunday morning, I was mustering the strength to actually get up when a pair of bloodshot eyes peered into the tent from under a cowboy hat and behind a massive moustache.

"Howdy," I said.

"Howdy," the moustache said back.

The Kerrvert with No Name wasted no time. He abandoned our small talk to walk around the tent and discover our ice chest.

He opened it.

"Oooh! Oooh! Ah! Ooh! Ooooah!"

I was about to tell him to stop having sex with the ice chest when he made clear that he was excited about our Lone Star beer. 

He seized one and asked us — politely — if he could have it.

Now who could refuse a man a beer at 7 a.m.?

He opened it, took a drink, and literally howled with enthusiasm. Well, maybe it was more of a bark. Either way, I've never heard a man appreciate a beer so fully.

Cameron — the gracious host — got up to have a beer with him.

After getting dressed, this time, I left the tent to get a good look at our guest. He was wearing a felt hat, blue rodeo T-shirt, some jeans of considerable age and a gient pair of boots. He was no hippie.

But somwhere, this man had obviously blown a fuse.

A bird sang in the distance.

He cocked his head at an improbable angle and told us it was an angry mockingbird.

When the mockingbird — as if on cue — flew to the nearest tree, he walked over and started cussing it.

"You want a piece of me?" he hollered.

The mockingbird didn't.

He wandered back over. Another bird sang.

"Redbird!" he snarled and staggered west, toward another camp.

We were just thinking we were rid of him when the marshmallow went flying by.

"INCOMING!" he yelled.

He had found another campsite's stash of marshmallows and was hiding behind a tent, throwing them at us.

In the face of such weirdness, Cameron and I opened another beer.

The man came back and we exchanged pleasantries. Yes, it was Sunday. Yes, we've been having a good time. We were about to offer him one of the last few beers when he cocked his head at a weird angle again.

A dog was barkin in the distance.

"That's my dog. I must walk this way." And he did.

The Kerrvert With No Name was gone.

Our Kerrville experience was done.


Texas book review: Indianola, The Mother of Western Texas

I knew two things about Indianola. I found it on the map when I lived in Victoria and thought it sounded cool. And Charlie Robison had a song about it that I liked pretty well.

What I don’t know is how a book about Indianola popped up on my computer screen. I don’t even remember what I was searching … eBay, Amazon, Google, whatever. But when I did stumble across it, the title was all it took: “Indianola: The Mother of Western Texas.”

For $10 on eBay, it was on the way.

It is not my policy to buy mystery 1977 history texts without checking out several pages first to see if the author can actually string words together in a pleasant fashion. But I took a chance.

As it turns out, it wasn’t all that bad.

It’s astonishing to think that a German prince (Carl zu Solms-Braunfels) could pick out a spot on the Texas coast, have three boatloads of German immigrants show up in December 1844 to an empty beach and within three decades there is a thriving port to rival Galveston, known across the globe and boasting every type of business one could want.

Then in 1875 an enormous hurricane nearly obliterated it. In 1886, another came to finish the job. And Indianola was gone.

Our author, Brownson Malsch (who wrote two other books, both about Captain Manuel T. "Lone Wolf" Gonzaullas of the Texas Rangers) does an excellent job at the beginning of the book, detailing the German genesis of Indianola (then Indian Point) and finishes strong with the outrageous devastation of the 1875 Hurricane.

In between it certainly drags in some points. You can tell where he found a great bit of source material and where he is piecing together a chapter with financial records. Worst is the jockeying over various railroads and would-be railroads. I just couldn’t keep track, so to speak, of the SA&MG, the GWT&P, the ISA&EP … it got tiresome after a bit.

And that title? Indianola was 'mother' of western Texas partly because she was the port through which many immigrants arrived, but mainly because the supplies that kept those settlers going — and the military personnel stationed in western Texas — came through Indianola.

In a bit of literary cruelty, Malsch saves the best descriptions of Indianola at the height of its power for the chapter immediately preceding the chapter on the 1875 hurricane. There are saloons and seamstresses and surgeons and custom tailors. A few pages later, he is telling us how these buildings were swept wholesale into the sea.

After detailing the 1875 hurricane, Malsch loses steam. The final eleven years before the next great hurricane is covered flaccidly in the final chapter, much of it dealing, again, with railroads. The postscript is a weak look at Galveston’s hubris in ignoring the lessons of Indianola. It didn’t work out well for them.


Overall rating: 6 out of 10.

Author’s language skills: 5 out of 10.

What I learned that will most likely stick with me: German immigration, coastal geography, how goddamn fast a town can rise and fall




Talking about guns — again — and American values

The Sandy Hook massacre was one of the worst things to happen in my life. What it lacks now in numbers, it makes up for in horror.

And I felt it deep in my bones when I read the comment last month (after some other mass shooting, does it matter which?) from some tragic realist: "If Newtown didn't change anything, how can we expect it to change now?"

I know that the beginnings of gun control won't prevent the next shooting. The guns are already in the hands of the next murderer. And the one after that and the dozens after that. And I know there are some on the anti-gun side who are too far to the left of reality — with the Pollyanna hope that some magic gun control bill will bring an end to this horror. And that's unfortunate.

But the pro-gun response is just plain sorry. 

First step is to call cries for gun control "politicizing" the event, even as renegades from the far right spread lies: "Sandy Hook was a hoax!" "The Sutherland Springs shooter was on the DNC payroll!"

The next step is to argue semantics and false equivalencies online — "It's not an assault rifle!" "Cars kill people, too!" — as if you didn't know exactly what the fuck we mean.

Then come the fake hysterics designed to stir the stupid: "The left wants to take away your guns!" "The media is attacking the Second Amendment!"

Then we blame mental illness. But we refuse to do anything about that. Because it's hard.

Ultimately comes the most basic response: "There's nothing we can do."

And that's the kicker. It's about the most un-American thing you can say.

You remember that Facebook post that went around early this fall? The one about the heroic working-class fellow who took his bass boat into the post-Hurricane Harvey waters and went around saving people while the liberals sat at home wringing their hands? The guy with the guns and the NRA sticker on his big truck and is supposed to be the answer to the left's preaching about decency and values?

Yeah, that guy reads about men with guns murdering his fellow Americans in cold blood and says "fuck it, there's nothing we can do."

Is that harsh? Don't like it? Then do something. If you believe in responsible gun ownership, then support legislation that will hold people accountable to your values.

Integrity, right? There's been so little of that, it's hard not to give up on that idea, too.

If Newtown didn't change anything, how can we expect it to change now?

There's something I can do.

I can hope that my friends and family aren't the next victims. 

I can write. And I can vote.

There is no light at the end of my tunnel, train or otherwise. It's hard to see now that my voice will be heard or that my vote will help.

But Americans don't quit.

2002-2017: Woodrow, who didn't like you, is in cat heaven. Maybe.

Woodrow the cat died Monday after stubbornly refusing to do so during a long illness. At the end he drank a lot and often, staggered as he prowled the garage, pissed indiscriminately and complained loudly and often about the numerous things that upset him.

“That’s the way I want to go,” said owner Dave Thomas.

Woodrow was an asshole. Most of the time. He did not care for strangers. He didn’t care much about friends. He liked to pass his time looking sullen, but every once in awhile would be social. A little. For a short time.

“If you’re feeling uncomfortable about making that ‘pets resemble their owners joke’ about my dead cat, consider it made,” said Thomas.

Woodrow was born a poor feral kitty in the spring of 2002. An American-Statesman employee found him and emailed a picture to Thomas. The picture showed a cute, bright-eyed, black-and-white kitten gazing adoringly at the camera.

“Yeah, I bet the next photo is of him biting the shit out of your hand,” Thomas replied.

The coworker sent Thomas the next photo, showing the furball wrapped around her hand with his teeth sunk deep into a finger.

“I’ll take him,” Thomas said.

Thomas was hunting for a rental house at the time and while thinking about what to name that cat, he saw a bus stop sign that mentioned Woodrow Avenue. The cat was technically named after a bus stop, but it was clearly “Lonesome Dove” that gave the name resonance with Thomas.

After staying at the apartment just long enough to bite a gazillion tiny holes in the bottom of all the vertical blinds and cost Thomas his deposit, Woodrow moved into the rental house on Brentwood (just a block down from Woodrow Ave.) with Thomas, newly-engaged Shannon Williams and her elderly dog Annie.

Being a cat and having no clue about karma, Woodrow ruthlessly terrorized toothless Annie, relying heavily on a Foreman-esque punch (technically, it WAS a bitch slap) that could … “WHAP!” … be heard across the house.

“You’ve seen those old Tom and Jerry cartoons where the cat goes down to hell?” Thomas said. “That’s where Woodrow was clearly headed. Kitty Hell. He was a total jerk.”

The old house had a window-unit air conditioner and Woodrow soon learned that it would make a particular sound before the coolant kicked on. During the summer, he’d run up to the unit after he heard that noise and stick his head up there and bogart all the cold air.

He played tough, but all it took was a junkie burglar or a hyperactive little girl to reveal him for the coward that he was. After each episode, he hid under the bed in the spare bedroom for days.

After the family moved to their own house in Far South Austin, Annie passed on and Woodrow gained a new companion when the family inherited Meow Cows — who was older and having none of Woodrow’s shit. Ever. Apparently immortal, Meow Cows had already seen it all.

Woodrow inhabited a succession of rooms, getting kicked out of each by a new child, whom he learned quickly and terribly that he was not to fuck with either.

These were dark days for Woodrow. Though strangers came less often, extended family came more often. The kids kept multiplying. That other old cat was a real bitch.

Then came the little girl. And Woodrow softened. He had learned his lesson. And so she didn’t learn the lesson of tiny sharp teeth like her brothers had.

She followed him around. She talked to him. She put hats on him. And he stoically endured it. He wouldn’t have admitted it, but he probably liked the attention. Just a little. Even if he didn’t, his look of resigned disgust was lost on the wee child.

And each time the little girl accidentally smacked him on the head in the course of pretending a plastic saucer was a fancy hat — and he patiently waited it out — a sin was absolved.

Karma came calling about a year-and-a-half ago when a new puppy named Lucy joined the family.

By this time, Woodrow was living out his last days in the garage. He had already had a mini-stroke and was weak in his hindquarters. But that didn’t stop him from coming inside every time he got the chance to drink from the toilet, which apparently had an appeal that his water bowl could not match.

Lucy was the unknowing agent of Annie. It took her little time to discover the joy of herding Woodrow around the house, the old cat too weak to jump to safety. And yet, every time Lucy stuck her cold nose where his balls would have been, Woodrow’s black soul came away a little lighter. A debt was being repaid, one awkward snuffle at a time.

When the end came, Woodrow was rail-thin and in pain. Thomas paid for his passage.

Woodrow died a little after 10 a.m. on Monday, Oct. 2.

He leaves behind Lucy, who might miss him, and Meow Cows, who, unmoved, has seen the last gasp of countless souls as she has journeyed through the ages.

He leaves behind a 7-year-old boy who might not notice he is gone, and Shannon, who didn’t dislike him enough to want to see him in pain.

He leaves behind a 5-year-old girl who doesn’t quite understand, and a 10-year-old boy who is taking this hard.

And he leaves behind Thomas, who held him on his lap in the old recliner one last time. Just a cup of coffee and SportsCenter short of the good old days. The man was relieved when he could tell Woodrow was no longer feeling any pain.

Thomas dug the grave. He told the kids. He went to work.

But he’ll miss that cat.

Just a little.

Heading west on U.S. 290: A private conversation

There you were on that front porch in Stonewall. One of those 22-ounce bottles of Lone Star Ice in your hand. An empty one at your feet. Lunch on the way to Luckenbach never happened and so you just drank away the afternoon on an empty stomach before heading this way while you still could.

You say that like it’s something strange. What I recall was that the mayor of Luckenbach showed up with a pizza. It was divine intervention. Jesus looks after drunks and fools.

And you were doubly protected. But Jesus had nothing to do with it. The mayor of Luckenbach lived there. And that pizza was probably for her.

And twenty-something years later, I’m still grateful. Hey, there’s that Chevron where I bought the Lone Star Ice. What’s that next to it?

“Stonewall Wine” something-or-other ...

Man, this whole place has gone to hell.

You’re the only guy I know who thinks scraping between gettin’ by and gettin’ high is a step up from a little bit of comfort and class.

Well, it was authentic.

You use that word like a velvet rope. Nobody wants in your private history club.

I ain’t talking about motels with new paint jobs and convenience stores with new names. Lookit this road: Fucking wineries and lavender fields, one after another. What the hell was wrong with peaches and beer joints?

Like you ever bought a peach.

Somebody had to keep the beer joints open. Speaking of … we’re early. Let’s turn here.

You’re not going to stop are you?

I don’t think they’ll sell me a drink at 8:45 a.m.

I don’t think you’d turn one down. All you have to do is think about poli…

Stop it. Not today.

Everyday.

Damn it, here we are. Here where everybody’s somebody.

And that’s why you don’t come here anymore? You used to be a little more somebody than the next feller. Now you ain’t.

Yeah, well … what the fuck is that?

Looks like a new outhouse.

Outhouse, hell, that’s a new building. I guess the old outhouse was too rustic for the lavender-and-winery crowd.

And yet, I don’t think Luckenbach is ruined.

Hell, I remember when I first saw an Internet address scrawled on the outhouse wall back in the late ‘90s. Funny how we had no idea that instant global communication and easy access to the wisdom of the ages would somehow fuck everything up.

That’s the only wise thing you’ve said today.

Screw you.

Seriously, there’s no real need for you to tilt at timepieces here. Sure, you’ve got a memory for every twist of road out here, but a little progress ain’t going to erase them.

No, that’s alcohol’s job.

So … why fight the future?

It’s instinctive. Like Peckinpah. Like Abbey.

Don’t flatter yourself. A pint-sized Peckinpah, perhaps. A Cactus Ed with all of the grizz and none of the guts. If you were as good as you thought ….

Yeah, I got it. Look who’s being mean-spirited now.

Seriously, don’t worry about the wineries. Better than refineries. At least they don’t spoil the land. And who knows, you might grow up some day …

All right, all right. I guess it’s OK. Whatever the hell keeps the bachelorette parties giggly and the land from sprouting up in condos.

There’s the spirit … hey, why are we turning here?

This is the destination. Fredericksburg Trade Days.

Sigh. After this little talk, you’re still gonna go in there looking for pieces of the past?

Got to.

I know.

The Ballad of Joseph Browning

I said I would write a song about a guy I heard about while living in San Angelo in the mid-'90s. So I did. This ain't how his story went. And his name wasn't Joseph Browning. And, hell, I guess without music it's just a poem. Still, here's one for Joesph and his short, but epic life.

--------------------

Fightin’ and fucking are fine, I guess, for ordinary men

But I got my uncle’s .250 and I’m adjusting for the wind

To tell the truth I’d be with Sue if she wasn’t born again

So it’s me and you, at the zoo, we’re going hunting friend


I shot the monkey, I blew away the bear,

I even shot the zebra, man I just didn’t care

I don’t know why, guess there isn’t much to do,

I’d have shot the sheriff, if he’d a been there too,


Yeah, I shot the hell out of the Pecos Zoo


The sheriff dragged me out of bed, and look, they got you, too

I hear it didn’t take much poking around before he found a clue

We left the shells, what the hell, man that’s something I would do

.250’s a rare gun, but I got one … damn we shoulda taken the .22


I shot the monkey, I blew away the bear,

I even shot the zebra, man I just didn’t care

I don’t know why, guess there isn’t much to do,

I’d have shot the sheriff, if he’d a been there too,


Yeah, I shot the hell out of the Pecos Zoo


Hey, remember we had that wreck — we both got thrown clear?

I guess we got that lucky with the judge, it’s been a helluva year

Christ almighty son, you can’t have a gun and not a sniff of beer

But I don’t drink and you know what I think? Monkey season’s here


I shot the monkey, I blew away the bear,

I even shot the zebra, man I just didn’t care

I don’t know why, guess there isn’t much to do,

I’d have shot the sheriff, if he’d a been there too,


The Judge asked me why’d you do it son, was it trouble at home or bullies at school?

I didn’t know why, shootin’ just makes me high, and I shot the hell out of the Pecos Zoo


The letter series: No. 3 ... Jim Mattis

I wrote this earlier in the week, when Secretary Mattis wasn't quite so involved in foreign affairs. Nonetheless, it's on the way, and even if he doesn't see it, it's as much for you as it is for him.

As always, I'm urging you to get involved. 


Defense Secretary Jim Mattis

Department of Defense

1400 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301-1400


Dear Secretary Mattis,

Of all President Trump’s Cabinet members (including a few whose views are antithetical to the posts they hold), you are perhaps the only one to meet President Trump’s boast of “most qualified.” Certainly, it is telling about the administration that its most rational leader is a man whose nickname is “Mad Dog.”

To have a military man whose decades of service to his country are testament to honor and integrity keep watch over our nation from such a high post — well worth the waiver that placed you there — is comforting in these times.

And yet to know that you are a well-read man with a passion for military history is equal parts comforting and confusing. I stumbled across a Facebook list of 30 books that you recommend. Among them “Dereliction of Duty: Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, The Joint Chiefs of Staff and The Lies That Led to Vietnam,” “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela, “The Lessons of History” and “Diplomacy” by Henry Kissinger.

And even as I am thankful that you are a student of history, I wonder why you hold your silence as President Trump’s practices — particularly his attempted suppression of the media — place us at the beginning of familiar pathways.

I’ll leave the accusations of Russian ties to sort itself out, but what about the administration’s clumsy and destructive efforts (or lack of effort) at diplomacy? Your voice and leadership are sorely needed there.

And how does such a well-read man who prizes knowledge serve such a semi-literate president? As you contemplate the meditations of Marcus Aurelius, are you not troubled that your boss is contemplating the ravings of Alex Jones?

Perhaps your patriotism runs deeper than I am giving you credit for. Perhaps you have taken this role, willingly at the expense of your reputation, so that you can keep President Trump from doing something insane at the most crucial time. A mole of sensibility on a ship of fools. If so, let’s not raise any red flags — let this letter pass without response.

Secretary Mattis, whatever your reasons, I am glad you hold your post. Please continue to provide our nation with the leadership and the educated judgment that it so sorely needs.

Most respectfully,


Dave Thomas