My Zombie Apocalypse Team

A Facebook friend recently shared a video of a guy displaying an impressive skill with a samurai sword. That was pretty interesting. But then he said that the sword guy was now on his Zombie Apocalypse Team. And I thought "holy shit, I do NOT have a Zombie Apocalypse Team!" I'm going to fix that oversight right now.

Two ground rules: We're going to max out your team at 11 members (including you). And you can't have Jesus or Superman or some Harry Potter magic shit. If you don't have to fight the zombies, what's the damn point?

Without further delay, here's my Zombie Apocalypse Team ...


You might think I'm foolish not to talk the Hulk here, but the green guy's fighting style is basically to be swarmed by his enemy and then emerge in an even bigger rage and smash the shit out of everyone and everything. That doesn't work with zombies ... he'd be bitten right away. And a Zombie Hulk? Man, we'd be screwed. Conan is keen with a sword, fast, tireless and immensely strong.


This guy from Larry McMurtry's "Streets of Laredo" is so damn good that he can track bugs. He tends to wander off, but always returns at the right moment, doesn't eat much and doesn't require much investment. I admit he's not much of a fighter, but c'mon, the Native American tracker in "Predator" spends the whole damn movie looking like he's fixin' to cry. Plus Famous Shoes sounds a lot like Wes Studi, so that's pretty awesome.


Mac is a good soldier. Keeps his eyes open. Takes orders well. And at some point the only thing that will stand between us and zombie doom is about 6000 rounds per minute.* We're definitely taking Mac over Rambo, just because Rambo is not exactly emotionally stable. Mac tends to talk quietly to himself, but we'll live with that.


There's a difference between Red from "The Shawshank Redemption" warning us against hope and Spock telling us in clinical terms that we have no chance of living out the week. And Jedi mind tricks will be no use on zombies. Sorry about that, Obi-Wan. Besides, Red is used to hard living and is a guy who knows how to get things. We are definitely going to need a guy who knows how to get things in the Zombie Apocalypse.


I'm not sure how dependent Tony Stark is on his computers or other fancy gadgets. Still, for as long as his suit holds out, having a flying, blasting, wise-cracking character who can fix damn near anything will be very handy. I do understand the benefits of having a cyborg during the Zombie Apocalypse, but we're taking Iron Man over The Terminator because Iron Man is a better drinking partner.


Look, I love Groot as much as anybody who has only 2 hours worth of history with him. But Chewbacca? Man, look at the new Star Wars trailer ... that wookie is still right there, sticking firmly by the side of gray-haired Han. Chewie would definitely have my back. I wouldn't know what he's saying, but that's probably a good thing. 


Sorry, Bruce Lee fans. He might be a finer philosopher and better at hand-to-hand combat, but I'm taking the good-looking gal who is handy with a gun and can fight off a swarm of Japanese gangsters with a sword and a smile. Plus you know Conan would be smitten with her and it's always good to keep the big guy focused.


Look, it is my damn Zombie Apocalypse Team and I am NOT going to be the first one to die. Yes, I realize that I'm a shave and couple six-packs from looking just like him, but I'm pretty sure if worst comes to worst I can still outrun Butterbean. Besides, he will look really good waddling into the horde of zombies in slow-motion just knocking heads everywheres as he valiantly sacrifices himself for the team.


The Zombie Apocalypse will be an amoral hellscape. Bad things will have to happen. Certain "negotiations" will have to take place with people who have things we need. I'm not a bad guy. So I'm going to need a bad guy. Khan is super smart, deceptively strong and chillingly evil without being a total drag. Plus, unlike Darth Vader, he doesn't have any noisy respiratory problems.


Well ... it IS the (highly fictional and purely hypothetical, hi Shannon!) Zombie Apocalypse. There's a possibility that if things go bad I might be the last man on Earth.  

* I know I have disappointed many of you by going on record saying that I don't think you need automatic weapons or that most of you should even be trusted with as much as a pop gun. But in the event of the Zombie Apocalypse, I'm going to reverse course and favor guns for everyone — the bigger the better.

How I saved Mother Hubbard from a vicious aquatic varmint

This story begins about noon in early July, 2000, with me sitting in the Luckenbach bar, listening to bartender/musician Jimmy Lee Jones charm the tourists and thinking about drinking.

A lady walks up to the bar, "Excuse me ..."

Jimmy Lee interrupts with a look of practiced shock: "Why? Did you fart?"

Sometimes this doesn't work well with the tour bus blue hairs, but soon there's smiles all around and beers sweating on the bar.

VelAnne walks in and catches me daydreaming, "Hey! you wanna go to a pool party at Ray Wylie Hubbard's house?"

This is the best question anyone has ever asked me, but ... "nah, I gotta go to Austin. Gotta meet up with some folks for 'Happy Minutes' at the Showdown. Hell, I oughta be moving."

"Come on, when you gonna get another invite like this? Hey, you can follow me down to Wimberley on the way to Austin! We'll even stop at the Devil's Backbone Tavern."

VelAnne's got me now. She knows I'm a sucker for evocative combinations of words. I was smitten by the phrase "Snake Farm" long before Hubbard set it to that addictive groove.

Well, we soon depart and we don't stop at the Devil's Backbone, which wasn't on the way, and we don't arrive at a jammin' party, full of guitars and groove and poetry and people.

Instead there is just Judy Hubbard, who tells us that Ray has taken young son Lucas to a birthday party. 

... and let's pause for a minute to consider Ray Wylie Hubbard at a child's birthday party:

"Hi, I'm Jimmy's dad. I work down at the First National Bank. What do you do?"

"Oh, I just write these old songs about reptiles and outlaws and dangerous places and talking to the devil."

"Oh ... that's very ... uh ... hey, I think it's time for cake!"

Anyway, it begins to dawn on me that VelAnne, my favorite ADD person in the world, has misunderstood the invite: Ray went to the party, and VelAnne was invited to hang out at the pool. There was almost certainly nothing at all about a 30-year-old journalist in this scenario.

However, Judy is gracious and invites me in and says I can swim, too. 

And I think, I should just politely decline, admit to the misunderstanding and head for cold beer and friends in Austin.

Well ... it's hot. And, man, Ray Wylie Hubbard's pool. Who the hell needs the Fountain of Youth when you've got the Pool of Cool? The Lagoon of Groove? The Basin of Badass?

OK. Just for a few minutes. And not more than a dozen have passed when I spot something amiss. I'm leaning, up against the wall, you could say, trying to look inconspicuous and watching Judy and VelAnne visit, when I notice something wriggling in the far corner of the pool, behind the ladies.

It's not too close to them and too far for me to tell what it is. I glance around and notice the pool net on the fence. With that knowledge in mind, I start easing toward the suspicious wriggling, ready to climb out and arm myself at a moment's notice.

If I play this right, I can solve the whole problem before the ladies ...


VelAnne sees and shouts at the precise moment I've figured out it is not a snake, but a harmless mouse who has wandered in from the surrounding woods and fallen in.

(Why then, the serpentine motion? It's a reptile mouse? No, it's just the tail wriggling ...)

Now I'm an educated man, you might be surprised to learn, even if I learned all my physics by playing billiards while I shoulda been in class. I know that what I'm about to say isn't physically possible, but I'm going to stand by it:

Judy leaped on top of the water, Looney Tunes-style, and skedaddled past me with a whoosh for the far edge of the patio. 

It's true, I tell you.

By then, I've got the net in hand. "Don't kill it," she tells me from the moral high ground of 20 feet away. I'm not sure she would've been so particular if they were still swimming partners.

It's easy to scoop up. A little harder to shake out gracefully back into the woods.

That's the end of the story. I don't know if the ladies returned to the pool, but there was no sense in me doing so. It was very little valor, but still a fitting coda to my visit. I drive on to Austin to tell my tale to deaf ears. 

Heathens, all.

But it's OK. One of these days, Ray Wylie is gonna write "Dave and The Aquatic Varmint Blues."

I'm feeling it. Any day now. -- for all you Jade Helm lonelyhearts

I know you're keeping the country safe by keeping watch over the American heroes ... uh, sorry, I mean "Obama shock troops" ... that are training in, uh, "invading" Texas right now as part of Jade Helm 15.

But aren't you lonely? Couldn't you use another patriot in your life? No, not like Uncle Zeke. We mean a companion for romance and, maybe a little canoodling under the tinfoil.

(Don't look at us like that. We didn't know about you and Uncle Zeke. Really.)

This is why we are introducing -- the perfect place to meet someone who won't look at you funny when go on a 3-hour rant about the CIA Fluoride Poison Cabal.

In order to better help you meet the freedom fighter of your dreams, we're asking you to answer just a few questions.

Here we go!

1. If you could steal any item from a military surplus store and get away with it, what would it be?

2. How much wood would Chuck Norris chuck if Chuck Norris could chuck wood?

3. If you didn't answer either "All of it" or "Chuck Norris can chuck whatever the fuck he wants" to Question No. 2, please tell us when you started hating America and why.

4. Someone commits a horrible act of violence with a semiautomatic weapon. Do you ... A) Bury your guns next to the mason jars in the yard and wait for Obama to come find them? B) Get in a fist-fight with Jeb over the last box of .22 ammo at Cabela's? C) Take out a second mortgage on your trailer and send all the money to the NRA? D) Immediately start posting insensitive comments on local lame-stream news stories?

5. If you could have anyone's beard on Duck Dynasty, whose would it be? What's stopping you, pussy? 

6. A hockey puck of mass 0.16 kg is slapped so that its velocity is 50 m/sec. It slides 40 meters across the ice before coming to rest. How much work is done by friction on the puck?

7. If you met a woman buying Soldier of Fortune magazine, an "Ain't Skeered" T-Shirt and a Budweiser tallboy while maneuvering her scooter through the express lane at Wal-Mart, what camo pattern would your wedding tux be?

8. There's more than one way to skin a cat. Please name 3 and the type of knife you would use for each. 

9. If Ted Nugent fell off a deer stand and, say, impaled himself with a dozen rusty hunting arrows, how long would you fly the Confederate flag at half-staff?

10. If you love guns and America and think you're tough enough to "supervise" the Army's Special Operations Forces, why didn't you join the military? No need to answer this one. 

Thank you, and we'll get back to you with your top matches!

Wanted: One vintage grandfather, rough edges OK

There was an old man, long since leather and gray. There was an old pickup, ashtray spilling over and girlie magazines stuffed behind the seats. There was that South Texas clammy sweat, the kind you had when outside was only a different kind of hot than inside. The very air smelled of oil and smoke and dirt. You can keep your digital filters, hell, I can close my eyes and I'm right back there in 1970s Wharton, Texas.

Grandpa asked me if I wanted to go turtle hunting. To a 4-year-old raised on Little Golden Books and Saturday morning cartoons, this didn't sound like fun and I said so. And that was it. Next time I heard of Grandpa, I was in the dim light of the den listening to dad talk on the phone about funeral arrangements and travel plans.

My maternal grandfather had died before I was born, so that left me bereft of old men in my young life. It was a significant loss — but I didn't realize the impact that it had until recently. Turns out, I've been adopting grandfathers ever since.

Two years later when "Star Wars" came out, little boys everywhere were the next Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. But this 6-year-old's favorite character was Obi-Wan Kenobi. And why not? Wise, patient, kind and bad-ass in a bar fight — I had the metal lunch box and the school folder and every line of dialogue memorized.

Twelve years after that came Uncle Woody (don't sweat the details, you'd need a flow chart to figure how we were related). A giant of a 78-year-old, Woody told me he'd worked and smoked cigars "every goddamn day" since he was 13. Think of a meaner, bigger Woodrow Call stuffed into an XL pair of coveralls and you're getting a real good idea who he was, less a run of cussing that you ain't never heard and I ain't heard since.

Woody resented the hell outta being forced to hire me to work on a ranch not far from Normangee, owned by another "uncle" whose connection is a little easier to reckon (my aunt's ex-brother-in-law). He'd a worked me stupid if he'd been a decade younger or I any less stubborn. 

But I listened, I asked the right questions, I didn't ask the wrong ones. And by the end of the summer ... no, he didn't shed a tear or cease to swear, but he shook my hand and asked me to stay ... or maybe, sometime, come back and do a little goddamn work.

In between Obi-Wan and Uncle Woody came Tuke, who taught me everything I never wanted to know about horses and a whole lot about not underestimating little old ladies. You might think she'd be missing a key part of being a stand-in grandfather, but she could carry on about old tools and trucks and carry a bale of hay under each arm and a ton of philosophy under her hat.

Even my musical tastes ran quickly away from long-haired metal bands of my teen years and toward the gray-haired pickers I've long since followed. Greatest and chief among them is Willie Nelson. Everybody's grandfather now, he's the teller of deep truths and dirty jokes. A little funny smoke can't obscure the wisdom I'm still seeking.

I have to admit I've always fetishized wisdom, to the point where I convinced my younger self I was prematurely wise. I now know I'll sooner be prematurely bald. Not much I can do about my run as a philosophy major or my cringe-worthy pronouncements than try to look to the future and hope nobody was paying attention in the past. I should've paid attention to Socrates, who said that his wisdom was only that he knew he knew nothing.

In this digital era, do kids still seek the wisdom of age? Can a grandfather compete with Google? I watch my oldest boy with his grandfathers and realize analog isn't obsolete yet, but how long will that last? What wisdom will I be able to share? My future tales of a life before the Web -- when unplugged meant not just wireless, but unentangled altogether -- will certainly generate wonder, but very little of the type of awe inspired by the old men of my youth. 

Of course, the Greatest Generation was easy to admire. Jalapeño Sam Lewis was a tail gunner during World War II, but never spoke of it to me and I didn't ask. It seems like a monumental oversight on my part now, but it was hard then to connect the ugly business of war to this bundle of positive energy for whom the word "spry" might have been invented.

I wandered into his office one afternoon in San Angelo and he adopted me on the spot. Soon I was learning the finer points of armadillos and chili cookoffs. Days off would find me in a van hurtling toward Terlingua. Or in the Luckenbach dancehall watching him dance all night with every girl. He lived on coffee and celebrated with root beer. He gave because he enjoyed the giving. Sam was a saint to balance out the old devils and demons I've known.

After many years of making friends with weathered barflies straight out of a Guy Clark song and listening to advice from old barbers and bartenders, Sam was probably the closest I got to what I missed. We grew close, had time to wander apart and grow close again. I grew up and moved to the big city, but managed to visit just before the end.

Sam will be teaching me lessons on kindness and giving for years to come. But that ain't to say I'm gonna be much like him — I've long since been aiming at the grumpy old man with the secret (don't tell nobody!) heart of gold. 

Somewhere between that weathered old man in Wharton and that spry old guy in San Angelo.

43 years and 10 books

 Twenty years after my first effort, I’m re-reading Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” It’s terribly interesting to note which bits of wisdom earned an asterisk from my early-20s self.

(Note: The fact that the asterisks are in a copy editor’s blue pen is a bit poignant. Perhaps when I re-read again in another 20 years, the idea of copy editors will be as far gone as the days of newspaper paste-up is now.)

Next on my list of short books for re-reading Rainier Maria Rilke’s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

When I was nominated on Facebook to share the 10 books that most affected me, I was tempted to list these, as well as some tomes of political philosophy, classics of literature and maybe an impenetrable Russian novel, too. I couldn’t. Sun Tzu has been useful. Rilke is worth a deeper look. But I am not moved. Not yet.

But here’s where the real truth must be told: I’m not terribly well-versed in the classics. You’d be shocked by what I haven’t read (“On the Road” is a preposterous omission. You can add Vonnegut and Updike and others too numerous to list here). And most of what I have read, I don’t recall all that well.

This is not some boast — “Whooooo! I drank a lot in my 20s!” — but a lament. I’ve read “Walden” and Whitman, how can there not be civil disobedience or a barbaric yawp stamped in my consciousness? I’ve read Shakespeare and Chaucer and Melville and … yeah. I don’t remember. It’s a bit embarrassing.

It’d be easier to list the 10 movies that affected me. “Yes. These are them. Fuck you and your arthouse. I like stuff that bleeds and blows up.” But books tug at what pretense I have left. I am an educated man. I should have better taste. I should tell the world that my life was changed by Plato’s “Republic” (never could get into that one).

 I could have used my youth better. When I was in high school and teachers were dismissing Edgar Allen Poe as tasteless pulp, I was diving in. When I was in college and my colleagues were devouring classics of political thought, I was ass-deep in philosophy essays. When I was in my early 20s … well, reading was on the list behind work, beer and music. It wasn’t close.

(There’s been a couple of poetry victories: I recited the Poe poem “The Conqueror Worm” before a group of very stoned folks playing bongos around a campfire somewheres between Sisterdale and Luckenbach and just blew everyone away. And I chose “Ozymandias” as my classic poem to recite in high school, which totally gave me a leg up on that “Breaking Bad” episode.)

I have read a lot. If I can’t recall it all, surely it is somewhere within me. Transcendental education. Sometimes things bubble up at the right time.

But not today. Here is my list, shaped to fit my own rules.

Five books that shaped me:

 1. “Desert Solitaire,” Edward Abbey. My most constant literary companion.

2. “The Improbable Rise of Redneck Rock,” Jan Reid. The book that introduced me to the 1970s music scene that now exists only in my garage.

3. “Blood Meridian,” Cormac McCarthy. I’ve read it twice. I bought a study guide to accompany my next journey. I want to know how and why and what. Never has such a hard road been so joyfully suffered.

4. “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” Douglas Adams. The book that changed my understanding of language and writing in high school. You can break all the rules and still be smart and funny.

5. “Blue Highways,” William Least Heat Moon. Killeen High School’s gift to me. My first taste of the road and solitary adventure. Picked this over “Travels with Charley” because fuck a poodle.

Two music books that are really cool:

6. “Willie Nelson: An Epic Life,” Joe Nick Patoski. I think I may have levitated through the chapters detailing the 1970s. Certainly I was enthralled enough to forget about gravity.

7. “Cash: A Life,” Robert Hilburn. There’s a whole discussion to be had about flawed men and whether age and suffering merits forgiveness.

Three books I haven’t thought about for a long time:

8. “Uncle Shelby’s ABZ’s,” Shel Silverstein. Could have gone with any of his children’s books (kind of partial to “Lafcadio” rather than the obvious “The Giving Tree”). But I love going with the moment that I found out Shel had a wicked, wicked sense of humor.

9. “Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line,” Ben Hamper. Ignore the foreword from Michael Moore, this is not politics. It is pure blue-collar poetry. The Billy Joe Shaver of building cars.

10. “Death in the Long Grass,” Peter Hathaway Capstick. I haven’t read it in a quarter-century. But at one point he tells the readers that the elephant would not hesitate to “stomp you into guava jelly.” And I’ve used that phrase ever since. Sadly, it doesn’t come up as often as I would like, but I never miss a chance.

There. And you probably know me. If you have a suggestion for a classic book I need to read, or re-read, please let me know. It might happen.

Owed to Mrs. Warner

Toward the end of my sophomore English class -- we're talking high school -- the teacher sidled up to my desk one day and made the sort of demand that I've been ignoring all my life.

"You are going to be on the newspaper staff next year."

That's all she said.

She was trying to steer my life. And I liked her well enough as an English teacher. But not well enough to take any orders. Funny thing was that she knew. She knew I wasn't going to walk away. I was on the staff the next year. The next year, too. Hell, now it's near three decades later and I'm still a newspaper man.

Truth is -- and I'm big on truth -- that I could bless or blame her for that.

Of course, I joke that I could've been an engineering major and a wealthy man today. I wonder what would've happened if I'd joined the Army. I suspect that if I stuck with my 18-year-old plan of being a forest ranger, that I would've been the next Edward Abbey -- at least in my own mind.

I could blame her for turning me on to newspapers. I mean, hell, look where I'm at today. Look where newspapers are at today. Neither one is very pretty. (If you're not keeping track, I had to make the switch to the website after my copy editing career of 19 years was consolidated and shipped off to Florida. The other day I got a letter from my employer. It was mailed from Ohio.)

But let's be honest here. I wasn't going to be an engineer. I wasn't going to be a soldier. I wasn't going to be a forest ranger. I was going to be a journalist because I was fucking good at it. No other career would've tolerated the wildness that emerged in my 20s and the wild attitude that followed. Being good at what I did was my free ticket to be as bad as I could. That teacher wouldn't have believed it. I was one of her good kids.

After I won my first Charles Murphy Award -- what amounts to the copy editor of the year in the state of Texas -- I sent that teacher a nice letter. I told her where I was, how I was doing and how much I appreciated her. I never heard back. Don't know if it reached her or if it struck her the wrong way.

No matter. Truth is truth. She knew. I know. She looked at me as a 15-year-old and she saw -- despite my irreverence, despite my struggles -- that I was the sort of fellow who could make a job out of working with words.

So I'll bless her for her benediction. It's been a hell of a ride. Folks that know me at work today wouldn't have believed that passion I had. And if I've held on to Act 1 of my career a few years too long, that's my own damn fault.

Connie Warner died this week after a battle of cancer. I didn't know about it until it was nearly over. My classmates have come together and stepped forward in a way that leaders do and I'm thankful for them, too. High school seems very long ago. There are whole stretches that I don't remember that clearly -- recall what said about my 20s?

But I haven't forgotten what I owe Mrs. Warner.

And I'm just one of many. God bless her.

Hey, Mrs. Warner. You weren't the first or the last to tell me that I had to learn the rules before I could break them. But you told me more than anyone else.

I learned the rules. I learned the rules.

10 things I learned at Willie's Picnic: 2014

ONE: I joked on Twitter about a Waylon “hologram,” but if I were in charge of the 2014 Picnic, I totally would have screened 10 minutes or so of Waylon’s performance at the 1974 Picnic. Where do you get that? Easy, they released a movie of it: "Willie Nelson's Fourth of July Celebration." I have a copy of it on DVD, includes a jaw-dropping look at Waylon back in the day and a shitload of Leon Russell hogging the spotlight.

Here's what I would've done: Set up a giant bedsheet, for lack of a more descriptive term, over the front of the South stage. After Dierks Bentley drives ‘em nuts, wait a minute or so and turn that giant projector on, maybe with an introduction, but probably with just some overlay type on the film: “40 years ago tonight.” Then run about 10 minutes of Waylon’s performance (you have to include “This Time”). Then the giant screen falls to the ground and there’s Willie and band, ready to hit the opening chords of “Whiskey River.”

PEOPLE WOULD GO BATSHIT. It would be the most awesome thing I have ever seen. And that’s because of the nod to Waylon, that’s because of the surprise (don’t advertise it), but it’s mostly out of respect of the history – which is a huge part of the Picnic experience. I can’t imagine that Jessi Colter wouldn’t agree to it – it would only add to the value of Waylon’s estate. And, sure, you’d have to hunt down whoever has the rights to the film and pay them, but I’m sure Billy Bob’s has lawyers for that kind of thing.

TWO: My traditional night-on-the-town on July 3 was pretty tame. I bar-hopped, but without any real joy. I tweeted to zero effect. I did end up finding an interesting new bar, tucked away off the street real close to the Hotel Texas (Sam's Saloon) that I would've probably thoroughly enjoyed if I had started the evening there. It had a very San Angelo sort of feel to it, right down to the semi-wasted fellow in the Affliction T-shirt doing "Proud Mary" on Karaoke.

At one point, I was looking around the Longhorn Saloon and their awesome Texas beer artifacts, and decided that it was fine to be honky-tonkin' that night, but I'd much rather spend an afternoon discussing these treasures with the owner. I'm not saying I won't continue to give it the Ol' Army try, but it's possible that I'm not as in love with bars as I used to be.

(For the record: The Hotel Texas, which I roundly criticized in this blog last year, was very satisfactory this year. No problems at all until the morning I was checking out and Mrs. Grumpy showed up and tried to cheat me out of my $2 deposit for my room key. I gave her the Bullworker treatment, not because I wanted the $2 that much, but because I enjoy reminding her that I can match her attitude.)

THREE: Willie children scrutiny time. Just when I was ready to write off Folk Uke as a one-note act, they shined through this year with new songs and really impressed me with their empathy for the fan at the front of the stage who passed out and their comic skills once they figured out he was all right.

Micah's band, Insects vs. Robots, proved to be interesting for the pair of 12-minute songs they performed, ending the last with a fit of atonal wailin' -- which would be as close and as far that this Picnic would get to Waylon. (Yes, I know I used that line on twitter and in my review, but nobody fucking said anything about it, so I'm saying it again.)

Lukas didn't do the guitar gymnastics we saw a couple years ago, opting instead for a bluesier slow jam which proved impervious to any sort of criticism or analysis on my part. It was talent, no doubt, but it didn't stir me. I stood there, notebook in hand, forcing myself to watch until I came up with 3 things to say about Lukas. After 15 minutes, I went back to the shade and waited for Bingham.

FOUR: Crowd-watching is one of the better parts of any Picnic. Of course it is an endless sea, teeming with jiggle, but there are more PG moments. I liked the family of five who set down chairs near me at one point. A dad, three young boys and mom. Dad heaved the chairs off his shoulder, set them up, got the boys settled into them and then (and only then) mom interrupted -- pointing toward a nearby fellow with a cigarette and doing the pantomime "we are not sitting here, he is smoking" routine. The beleaguered dad quickly shot back: "OK, where do YOU want to sit?" I saw them a few hours later and they looked like they weren't on the verge of murder, so that's good.

Later came the best fashion moment of the day: Another family of five, each decked out in black T-shirts that said CASH and featured the famous photo of Johnny shooting the finger to the camera. That's family togetherness.

FIVE: Saw Ben Dorcy (the world's oldest roadie) at Stockyards Station before the Picnic started. Wanted to grab passers-by: "Hey, do you like John Wayne movies?! See that guy there!? He was John Wayne's valet! HISTORY PEOPLE! You're missing it!!!"

Later I saw him at the back of the stage during Johnny Bush's set, puffing on a pipe and wearing dark shades. Twenty minutes later, he was on the other side of the North Forty watching Charley Pride from the side of the stage.

It was Willie's show, but there was no doubt who owned the place. (I did approach him in '96 after a Keen show, and got a handshake before he figured out I was a journalist. Not that he was rude. He just didn't want to talk about himself.)

SIX: Am I the only one who really wished that Charley Pride would have followed David Allan Coe? Would've felt right. I had no expectations for Pride, but he was one of the highlights of the day for me, pacing the stage like it was 1965, mike in one hand and a white towel in the other to mop the sweat from his head. Pride started off sounding a little rough, but he worked through it. "Is Anybody Going to San Antone" sounded froggy, but "Kiss an Angel Good Morning" was straight out of history.

Coe, on the other hand, was terrible. I took it easy on him in my official review, but the man is not well. He skipped through a medley of hits like an impatient man searching through an iPod. I could've gone to get a corn dog or something.

SEVEN: No need to gush over Bingham, my favorite artist younger than I am, the real interesting headliner of the night was Dierks Bentley. Everyone knows that I spend my time watching geriatric and semi-geriatric singers do songs I've heard a thousand times before, but I could hardly have been less prepared for the human super-ball that was Bentley.

No, I still don't care for his brand of music, but it's hard not to find the guy likable -- he tweeted all day about watching the other arists -- or at least to be impressed by his skill at working a crowd. The fellow said "Fort Worth" more than everyone else the rest of the day, combined. 

EIGHT: I didn't tweet or write a word about the Josh Abbott Band. That's because I didn't see a second of their show. I went back to the hotel to charge my phone for more pointless twittering and to write the first third of my review. Last year, I spent the whole Gary Allan show having a steak and a beer at Riscky's. You can probably guess what I will do next year.

That's because I'm probably done with "covering" the Picnic. I'll still go as long as Willie is there. And I'll still take notes in case I ever write that book. But there's no sense in expending a live coverage kind of effort for a bit of writing that gets and has gotten so little notice.

Besides, after being treated so well by Billy Bob's for the past six years, they really left me kind of cold this year. I didn't dig it.

NINE: Willie? He was Willie. The crowd was huge, he sounded younger this year, he opened with the same stretch of eight songs, in the same order, that he has done the past four years. Shut up, he's 81 years old. If you're a fan, and I am, you take what you can get and are thankful for it.

TEN: Will the Picnic return? I really thought last year was it. Kris Kristofferson was struggling with his memory. Ray Price was on the way out. Leon Russell was obviously doing one more for the road. Coe was just returning from a serious car wreck and in bad shape. It looked like the Pichic had reached the end of its life expectancy.

But Bingham was a revelation. Johnny Bush and Ray Wylie Hubbard still do the heavy lifting for not much recognition. And where Billy Bob's wasn't quite sure what popular artists to augment the Picnic with last year -- Justin Moore stood out like a pig in church -- they sure got it right this year.

I saw one report that said the North Forty field was targeted for development, leaving the Picnic without a pasture (please don't put it back inside Billy Bob's -- that was just sad). I don't know if that will happen, but barring the curse of progress, or the unthinkable, I wouldn't be surprised at all to see a 42nd (somewhat) annual Picnic next year.

I'll be there. And I'll be doing it different.

Armadillo expert, entrepreneur and promoter, Sam Lewis was also a Texas legend beloved by many

It's been 11 years since my original mentor/stand-in grandfather Jalepeno Sam Lewis died in San Angelo at the age of 80. What follows is an article I wrote for the Standard-Times' Sunday life section about a week later. Almost everything I wrote for San Angelo has vanished in the ether (I would not be surprised if I've been expunged from the archives, as well), but a friendly website happened to pirate this. Anyway, I thought I would share it with folks who weren't reading my little West Texas paper in 2003.

Jalapeno Sam Lewis at the 1994 Terlingua Chili Cookoff (Behind the Store, of course).

It's 2, maybe 3 a.m. and I'm in the passenger seat of Sam Lewis' old brown van as we hurtle toward Terlingua.

We wander across the center stripe and back and back again — Sam's not near as worried about it as I am. Sensing my discomfort, Sam says, ''Oh, I just kind of aim this thing down the road.'' And he does, not steering as much as giving the steering wheel a slap every now and then when we appear to be on the verge of disaster.

I'm reassured by the thought that Sam might have a few armadillos in the back of the van. Surely, he wouldn't risk harming them.

Tonight we left San Angelo at midnight — when I got off work — and we'll arrive at Sam's little adobe hut near Terlingua just before dawn. We'll nap for an hour or two, and he'll deliver a few boxes of Jalapeno Sam olives and catch up with some friends before driving back.

Along the way, he'll tell me how he became fascinated with armadillos, how he started his own business and lots of things I wish I could remember clearly.

I'm not quite 24 years old, and I'm exhausted.

Sam is somewhere in his 70s. He's all glasses and grin, and there's not an old man anywhere described as ''spry'' that has anything on Sam. He's a giver and is beloved for it. He's the grandfather I haven't had for 20 years, and he's family for many, many people.

That was 1995.

We lost Sam Lewis early Jan 10. He was 80 years old. He was buried last week next to Betty, his wife of 50 years.

Sam was more than an eccentric entrepreneur, an armadillo expert, a tireless promoter and a Lone Star legend. He was human, in a way we all wish we could be. He touched lives and changed them for the better, mine included.

All of Texas should mourn his passing; there won't be another like Sam.

You know Sam.

If you've been to most any big event in Luckenbach or San Angelo or Terlingua, he's been there racing armadillos or selling T-shirts. Short, slight, big glasses and a variety of broken-in hats, he was the old guy who wouldn't give you a handshake when a hug would do better. It didn't matter if he knew you or not.

It seems he couldn't walk into a honky-tonk in Texas without someone giving him a big smile of recognition, though Sam never drank anything harder than root beer.

Sam might be the only person from San Angelo who has had a musical written about him. His younger brother, Franklin, wrote ''Jalapeno Sam as Seen Through the Eyes of Frankie Dan'' for the Texas sesquicentennial celebration. The commission gave it their official seal, and the musical premiered in Austin.

Who knew Sam was so famous?

He invented the jalapeno lollipop in 1977 and sold millions. Jalapeno-flavored ice cream didn't fare as well, but jalapeno-stuffed olives were an even bigger hit. Today, his jalapeno-flavored foods, including guacamole, salsa and ketchup, are distributed by Unimark Foods Inc. as part of the Jalapeno Sam product line.

Then there are the armadillos.

Sam didn't just run armadillo races, he was an armadillo expert and perhaps the world's greatest promoter for the hard-shelled critter. It's little wonder his land near Luckenbach was called the ''Armadillo Farm.''

Sam's armadillos were famous, too. They could be seen during the opening credits of the Kevin Costner movie ''Tin Cup'' and had a bigger role in the Willie Nelson western ''Barbarosa.''

Sam introduced ''San Angelo Sam'' in 1984. This armadillo was our answer to Punxsutawney Phil. ''That Yankee groundhog doesn't know beans about weather in West Texas,'' Lewis said.

San Angelo Sam predicted the weather on Groundhog Day the next several years ... but wasn't much better at it than that Yankee varmint.

Sam even operated a ''pet the armadillo'' booth at the World Travel Market in London in 1982. Apparently the armadillos were extremely popular.

And famed writer James Michener called on Sam to learn about the armadillo when he was writing his epic ''Texas.''

But it was the armadillo races that will be his legacy.

I can still see him in Luckenbach during some event or other, his armadillo racing pen set up between the bar and the old blacksmith's shop. Sam has a tiny PA system and is rounding up youngsters and the occasional biker or cowboy to race his armadillos.

These races typically involve one armadillo sprinting for the finish line, one wandering aimlessly about and another refusing to budge.

''Blow on their tails,'' Sam says, ''but don't kick them! Don't hurt my armadillos!''

Sam's last armadillo race was held in October in Pampa.

Sam had told me during that road trip in 1995 how he came to love armadillos. How he found one during a hunting trip when he was just a boy and thought he'd found a dinosaur. How he'd been fascinated with them ever since.

I'm sorry I can't remember the details. I always thought I'd have another chance to ask him.

I apologize for writing about Sam mostly from my point of view. Sam had a great many friends, and most of them knew Sam much longer than I did. I hope in sharing my stories that people who knew Sam can remember their own experiences. I hope that people who didn't know Sam can understand who he was.

I first met Sam in the summer of 1994 when John Raven, then-editor of the Luckenbach Moon, urged me to go meet my fellow San Angeloan.

Through the doors of an office on North Van Buren Street, I found a little old man at a desk.

''Tell me about the Terlingua chili cook-off,'' I said.

In the first half-hour, he had persuaded me to completely change my vacation plans and go to Terlingua in early November. By the end of the hour, he had all but adopted me.

I didn't arrive at the chili cook-off until well past dark that year, the first time I had ever been in the Big Bend region. I was completely disoriented until Sam found me.

''Park over there,'' he told me, ''and come on, you've got to meet these people.''

Minutes later, we had disappeared into the camp riding on ''Geronimo's Cadillac'' — an old open-air jalopy. Some hippie passed back a bottle of sotol. I guess it's Mexican white lightning.

''Don't drink too fast,'' Sam said. ''You'll see pretty colors.''

Sam was always right.

I woke up in that adobe hut the next morning and stumbled out to a vista that was wholly unexpected and wholly beautiful.

If discovering Big Bend and chili cook-offs were all I had to thank Sam for, it'd be plenty. But that was just the beginning.

Sam wouldn't hesitate to introduce somebody, to help somebody, to smile, to wink. I soon moved away from San Angelo, lost track of Sam for a while and then came home again. I'm ashamed to admit that sometimes I didn't have time for Sam, or to help him out.

No matter what I'd done, though, Sam was always Sam.

I remember clearly a moment in 2001. Some friends and I were at Blaine's Pub in San Angelo when Sam walked up, gave me a hug, gave me a picture of him and Willie Nelson and walked away.

''That's him and Willie!'' a friend said. ''Why'd he give that to you?''

I don't know. But I think it's just that Sam had something to give and someone to give it to. And that made him happy.

''Come over here, you've got to meet this person,'' is probably what I heard most from Sam throughout the years, maybe right after ''let me know if there's anything I can do for you.''

Sam introduced me to the famous and to the down-on-their-luck with the same respect for both. I don't know if Sam ever met a man he didn't like, but judging from the number of friends Sam had, I'd say it's doubtful. He wouldn't pass up the opportunity to say hello, to give a hug, to make a new friend.

A favorite memory: One night, in the Luckenbach Dance Hall, Sam was kicking up his heels. He was on the high end of 70 and he could dance. He asked every woman in that dance hall to dance with him. No matter how unapproachably beautiful, no matter how . . . well, not beautiful. He asked them all, and I wasn't keeping track, but I'd bet he danced with nearly every one.

Sam was awfully proud of being married to Betty for 50 years — they had a grand anniversary celebration at the Armadillo Farm near Luckenbach in 1998.

They'd met after World War II, when Sam was a B29 tail gunner stationed at Pyote Air Force Base. They married in 1948 in San Angelo and enjoyed a half-century together.

When Betty died in December 1999, many of Sam's friends were worried that Sam literally couldn't go on without her.

But Sam struggled through. He might have leaned a little more on his closest friends, he might have slowed down a little, he might have been a hair more reflective — but he kept on going.

It was early Christmas week that I learned Sam had cancer and was refusing treatment. I went to see him that Saturday.

Standing outside Sam's home on Texas Tech Avenue in San Angelo, I might have turned back around and gone back to Blaine's Pub. I'm not emotionally prepared to see Sam in his final days. I don't know what to say to him. Hell, I can hardly talk at all. I'm afraid and I can't handle this.

And I think of the lines to a song by Ray Wylie Hubbard, who, in turn, was paraphrasing the German poet Rainer Marie Rilke: ''Our fears are our dragons, guarding our most precious treasures.''

And then I think of the best photo on the walls of Blaine's Pub, a picture of Ray Wylie and Sam standing together. I think Ray's got his arm around Sam.

And with a little more reassurance from my fiancee, Shannon, I go into see Sam for what would be the last time.

Some folks would tell me I shouldn't write about this part: how Sam was in a hospital bed in the middle of the living room, how he looked impossibly small, how he relied on his family and friends.

Some folks would say nobody wants to remember Sam that way. That's true. But I don't think they will.

Because even then, Sam was still a promoter, still a giver. And he knew how to put nervous visitors at ease.

When I first walked in, he asked me if I'd seen the December issue of Texas Highways; it featured armadillos and, of course, him. Then he went on to tell me about plans to hold a Llano River beauty pageant and cook-off.

''He never stops promoting,'' Dan Farmer said. Even now Sam is focused on the next project.

He was wearing a green Santa snowman shirt. He had a hard time hearing, but no problems understanding.

In the hour that I was there, a stream of friends came by. Later, former mayor of Luckenbach VelAnne Howle would come by and drop off a Gary P. Nunn CD for him to listen to. I've got to admit, ''Home with the Armadillo'' (as ''London Homesick Blues'' is often called) won't be the same without Sam.

Even some musicians from Luckenbach would come in to give a live performance.

But this day, the entertainment is a tourist calling from Luckenbach. He wants to see an armadillo and somebody told him to call Sam. We direct him to the Armadillo Farm. Maybe somebody there can help him out.

As we start to leave, Sam is blowing kisses to his daughter. I think I'd like to remember him that way. Shannon gives him a kiss on the forehead.

He looks up and says, ''Thanks, I needed that,'' and he winks at her.

Then he takes my hand once more and says, ''Thanks for being such a good friend.''

I'm so choked up, I don't know if he could hear my reply. But I know he can now.

No, Sam, thank you for everything.

THE BEER SERIES: Part One | Prohibition looms

Texas was abundant in breweries before Prohibition. Mostly small, some regional, they answered to no shareholders or corporate bosses – just themselves and their customers.
And (you might have guessed I was leading into this), the micro-brewing scene in Texas today is much the same. Central Texas, in particular, is a hotbed of small breweries, pushing out whatever beers their brewmasters' imagination will come up with — from coffee porters to oatmeal stouts to ales so packed with hops it’s like you’re chewing on a dishwasher detergent packet.
But in between these magnificent times for beer connoisseurs – there was the Age of Texas Giants. Beers like Lone Star and Pearl and Grand Prize sloshed across the state and sometimes beyond. In the time between Prohibition and the new millennium, there was a great flood of pale yeller liquid for those of us who proudly put the “sewer” back in “beer connoisseur.”
And yet, our blind devotion to our own particular brand of beer (in my case, Lone Star), meant that there was little curiosity about other brands — quick, can you name a half-dozen Texas beers brewed between the 1880s and the 1980s? In fact, I’ve come to realize it’s pretty possible you don’t even know your own beer that well — how long has Lone Star Beer been around and how much of that time has it been owned by a company from outside Texas?
Inspired in part by a Pearl Beer antique that Shannon gave me last year, I’ve done a bit of Internet research on brewing in Texas during this time frame and I’m going to share it with you in an unprecedented multi-part series of blogs that will appear here over the next couple weeks. We’ll start off today with a brief look at Texas brewing leading up to Prohibition.
(Note: Unlike my excruciatingly researched History of Willie’s Fourth of July Picnic, I’ve done this by the seat of my pants via Google and a couple books. After 20 years as a copy editor and professional newspaper man, I’m a pretty good judge of what’s a reliable source, but there may be a hiccup or two. If you notice one, bring it to my attention and I will feel appropriately remorseful. Also: Don't email me whining "but what about Celis? Or Saint Arnold?" Shut up. If you want to read about craft beer, you'll just have to read one of the 10,000 craft beer bloggers. I'm talking about history. And one more: There will be photos at the end of each part. Because, you know, words.)

Pre-Prohibition and the March to the Drouth of Righteousness

Leaning heavily on the Texas State Historical Association’s Handbook of Texas, I can tell you that wherever there were Germans, there was beer as soon as the fighting with the Mexicans and Indians died down enough to let them brew.
Between 1840 and 1880, there were small breweries of note in places such as La Grange, Brenham, Fredericksburg, New Braunfels and San Antonio, where William A. Menger’s Western Brewery is thought to be Texas’ first commercial brewery. You might have heard of his hotel.
By 1883, Adolphus Busch had arrived in San Antonio to help build the first large and mechanized brewery in the state: The Lone Star Brewery (only connected by name to the company you know from giant armadillos and Bob Wills music) opened in 1884 and ran until Prohibition, selling such beers as Buck, Erlanger, Cabinet and (of course) … Alamo.
The brewery that would become Pearl began in 1881 as the J.B. Behloradsky Brewery and started producing Pearl Beer in 1886. This brewery (known as the San Antonio Brewing Association by 1918) and the Dallas Brewery Co. would be the only two Texas brewers born before 1890 to survive Prohibition.

Other brewers of note include Galveston Brewing Company (1895-1918), which sold a beer called High Grade, Houston’s American Brewing Association (1893-1918), which sold Dixie Pale and Houston Ice & Brewing (1893-1918), which sold Hiawatha, Magnolia and Southern Select. Southern Select would become the foremost beer of Texas during this time.

Then there’s Shiner, which got its start in 1909 as the Shiner Brewing Association and was even briefly known as “Petzold and Spoetzl” from 1915 until 1918. (Hang on, Shiner fans, I won’t forget them and you'll like what I have to say.)
The problem for beer-lovers is that as soon as Texas had breweries, it had proponents of Prohibition, starting as far back as the 1840s. The Handbook of Texas tells us that in 1843 “The Republic of Texas … passed what may have been the first local-option measure in North America.”
What this means (if you’re not familiar with the Panhandle or Deep East Texas) is that people can vote their own cities or counties dry as they see fit – which they did with alarming speed.
Texas ratified the 18th Amendment in 1918, but not wanting to wait until it became nationwide law in 1920, also enacted statewide prohibition laws that took effect almost immediately.
By then, the TABC reports, 199 out of 254 counties in Texas were already dry under local option laws, 43 were “practically dry” and only 10 counties were “without prohibition areas.”
By 1933, however, Texans were relatively quick to follow the national lead in repealing Prohibition. Voters in Texas adopted an amendment to  the State Constitution legalizing the sale of beer in August of 1933 and ultimately repealed state Prohibition entirely in August 1935.

Up next: El Paso and the Metroplex

A Dixie Pale beer glass of great antiquity.

Hiawatha was a near-beer of sorts. They did things with a little more style back then.

Galveston's High Grade, promoted as "liquid food."

Southern Select was the king of Texas beers pre-Prohibition.

Reputation, from Houston Ice & Brewing.

Magnolia beer, from Houston Ice & Brewing.

Check out more photos from Houston Ice & Brewing at

THE BEER SERIES: Part Two | North by West

Before we become fully submerged in Texas' brewing history, we have to pay homage to points north and west. El Paso is an unlikely place to find one of Texas' top historic brews. And the Metroplex is strangely quiet in this tale.

El Paso
Never count out El Paso — which you will do anyway until you actually go there. That’s what it took for me to realize that El Paso is just a little West Texas town that is bulging at the seams with Mexican food, history and scenery. Where else would you find something as cool as Rosa’s Cantina, the actual joint mentioned in the Marty Robbins opus “El Paso.”
(I saw someone on CMT one time refer to “El Paso” as the “Stairway to Heaven” of country music. I’m not sure exactly what that means, but I wish to hell I had said it.)
The El Paso Brewing Co. that existed before Prohibition became the Harry Mitchell Brewing Co. in 1933 and produced a beer that went through names like a self-conscious teenager: Harry Mitchell Beer, Mitchell’s Beer, Mitchell Beer and Mitchell’s Premium Beer were produced during a 20-year run from 1935 until HMBC went out of business in 1955.
But that’s not quite the end of the story for El Paso. The brewery was purchased by Falstaff Brewing in 1955 and it produced Falstaff until 1967.
Falstaff was a national brand, but was produced in Texas from 1955 until at least the 1990s (When Falstaff’s Galveston brewery was closed in 1981, production moved to San Antonio’s Pearl Brewery).
El Paso was also a temporary home to Frantz Hector Brogniez — one of Texas' most iconic brewmasters. Herr Brogniez lived in El Paso and had his driver take him daily to Juarez where he brewed beer while waiting out Prohibition. You'll learn more about him in the Houston section.
You had no idea: Falstaff was still available as recently as 2005.

Dallas / Fort Worth
The Metroplex doesn’t have much of a brewing history (though they did better than Austin) and I’m not sure why. Not enough Germans? Too close to the dry regions of the Panhandle and East Texas? We would need a historian to help us out on that one.
What D/FW didn’t have in history, though, they made up for in memorable beer names. A pair of breweries that existed before Prohibition — Dallas Brewery Co. and Texas Brewing Co. — would both come back post-Prohibition and put out interestingly-named beers before both folding up before World War II.
Dallas Brewery would give us White Rose, Texas Select and Chubby Beer (I did not make that up). Texas Brewing was reborn as Superior Brewing Co. and would give us Old Chippewa, Golden Kreme, Casino Club, Kellermeister, Prosit and … wait for it ... Kego Beer in addition to the less awesomely named Superior Ale, Old Style and Golden Lager.
But it’s a brewery born post-Prohibition that would give us North Texas’ most iconic beer.
Schepps Brewing Corp. existed from 1934-1939 (giving us Schepps, Highland Park and Black Dallas, among others) before becoming Time Brewing for a short time.

Finally pulling it together as the Dallas-Fort Worth Brewing Co. in 1940, the brewery gave us Bluebonnet beer until shutting down in 1951. With an 11-year run, Bluebonnet qualifies as one of Texas' top historic brews. 

Up next: Good times on the Gulf

Harry Mitchell's from 1936.

Mitchell's from 1950.

A Mitchell's beer glass from the 1950s.

A Mitchell's label from 1954, just before they went out of business.

A Schepps label from 1935.

Black Dallas beer from 1936.

Time beer from 1939.

Black Dallas beer from 1939.

Bluebonnet beer from 1943.

Bluebonnet beer from 1947.

White Rose Bock from 1935. This one is pretty cool.

Falstaff, from the El Paso plant in 1957.

Chubby Lager. Told you I wasn't making it up.

A Bluebonnet beer shell glass and an appropriate stand-in beer.