Jacksboro Highway and Memories of the Sunset Ballroom


Jacksboro Highway In the 1950s-Memories of the Sunset Ballroom

By Phil Strawn

Back in the early fifties, for a very short while, my Father, Johnny Strawn, owned the Sunset Ballroom, just a stones throw off Jacksboro Highway, in West Fort Worth Texas.
My Father, a country fiddle player by profession, soon realized that trying to play nightly gigs at other clubs, and managing his own business didn’t work,  so he hired, as his club manager, his childhood running buddy, best friend, and my God Father, “Big” Dick Hickman.

Dick and my Father had grown up together in depression era Fort Worth and managed to remain best friends to their last day. Decades later, they often reminisced, over a good glass of scotch, that ‘they didn’t know they were poor, because everyone had the same amount of nothing that they did”

Dick, besides being the new manager, was also pulling double duty as the clubs bouncer. A job he deplored, but accepted, performed extremely well when required. Being a family man and a peaceful sort, he soon became weary of kicking unruly customers rears every night, so my father, in lapse of good judgment,  hired one of the local tough guys to take Dicks place as the official bouncer and security, A mean little cat, that went by the name of “Toes Malone”

Toes was a likable two-bit-north side thug that had experienced one too many run-ins with the Fort Worth mob. The boys in the mob liked him immensely, and thought he was a funny guy to be around, so when Toes tried to horn in on their action or crossed them in any way, instead of just killing him outright like anyone else, they would shoot, or cut off a body part to teach him a lesson.

After a few major discussions in back ally’s with his admirers, and the loss of an ear, three-fingers and an arm, “Toes” got his new name.

He didn’t give up being a tough guy.  Being the mean little son-of-a-gun that he was, he had the local boot smith, install two small pen knife blades into the toes of his Justin cowboy boots.

He was pretty agile for a one armed cat, and could carve you up like a Winn Dixie rib-roast before you knew what happened to you.

No one messed with Toes. He was the original Bad Leroy Brown of the south.

The patrons loved Toes so much, they would ask him to show his little “toe knives” to their wives just for laughs. He would gladly hoist his boot up on their table and proudly display his shiny little blades to anyone who asked, and tipped a buck or two. The wives, giggling like school girls, would open their pack of Lucky Strikes on his boot tip blades.

He was part of the entertainment, sort of a hoodlum head waiter that would kill you if you complained about anything.

My father said his presence increased business, so in spite of his reputation, he kept him own. He did admit in later years that firing Toe’s would have likely led to his own early demise.

Toes, being a hoodlum to the core, couldn’t help himself, and finally crossed the mob boys one too many times. On a cold December night in 1953, out by Crystal Springs Ballroom, they blew him in half with a shotgun blast.

My Father, saddened by the grisly demise of his entertaining employee, was relieved that he didn’t have to fire him.

Toes didn’t have any real friends, so the memorial was attended by a handful of musicians, the mob boys that killed him, and a few patrons from the Sunset.

On top of  his casket,  sat his little knife boots, and a  nice framed picture of a 10-year-old Toes. A very fitting end. And once again, Dick had his old job back.

The Sunset, as the legend goes, was where the famous Roger Miller goosing incident occurred.

It’s been said it happened at Rosas or any number of clubs in Fort Worth, but I have it from two witnesses, my father and Dick, that it happened at the Sunset.

Roger Miller, one of future “King of the Road” fame, grew up around Fort Worth and Oklahoma and like many stars, struggled many years in the joints before making it big in Nashville. He was a worse than half-assed fiddle player, but a promising song writer, scraping out a living by frequenting the Sunset ballroom, Rosas, Stella’s, Crystal Springs or any other dive that would let him sing and play for a few bucks.

One August night at the Sunset, he was onstage singing a tune and torturing his fiddle for the less than appreciative crowd. The dance floor was full of sweaty “tummy rubbing” dancers doing their best to “not pass out” from the oppressive Texas heat that saturated every corner of the un-air-conditioned joint.

There was one couple dancing, the lady, clad in very tight peddle pushers, was really putting on good show for the boys on stage.

She got her rear-end right up against the stage and, Roger Miller, being the pre-Icky Twerp idiot that he was, couldn’t resist reaching out with his fiddle bow and goosing her backside.

She jumped.. pushed her dance partner away and slugged him in the nose. The injured fellow, with the help of numerous whiskey and cokes, stumbled and fell into a table full of visiting mob boys that turned out to see Roger torture his fiddle.

The ensuing brawl lasted a good ten minutes, clearing out the club. Dick was carrying the fighters out by the collar, two at a time. The mob boys “whooped up” on most everyone within a three table area, and the rest of the people just whooped each other. The Fort Worth police came in, assessed the situation, sat at the bar, had a free coke, took their pay off money and left.

Roger was banned from playing his fiddle at the Sunset, and soon after that incident, he went on to Nashville, and started writing better tunes and working in better dives.

My Mother, fed up with my fathers teetering on the fringe of certain death,  finally told him to sell the place or he would be living there by himself.

Dad sold it to Dick, Dick hated it, and sold it to some mullet, and the club, after becoming an illegal gambling joint in the late fifties, finally ceased to exist and was demolished in the mid-sixties.

In spite of it’s well deserved reputation, most of the great entertainers did manage to play there; Lefty Frizzle, Marty Robbins, Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys, Bill Boyd and the Cowboy Ramblers, Willie Nelson, The Lightcrust Doughboys, and a long cast of other impressive country music acts.

 

One Saturday night, a few weeks before Dad sold it to Dick,  Bob Wills and his band, had a show in Weatherford Texas that was canceled due to bad weather. Not wanting to make the night a complete loss, on his way back into town, he stopped at the Sunset. Bob, being good friends with my Dad, as well as his mentor, took the whole band on stage and did a knocked out impromptu show.  Word on the Jacksboro Highway spread fast, and within an hour, the place was packed to capacity.  I have an old 8×10 black and white picture of Bob and  Dad playing twin fiddles on San Antonio Rose. It was a night he was profoundly proud of, and over the years, spoke of it often.

The old place may have been a dive with a less than stellar reputation, but that long demolished building and that rickety stage saw some of  the greatest musicians in country music.

The Sunset Ballroom, Forth Worth Texas

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My Veteran


Sunday, The Sabbath, the seventh day of creation, a time for rest and reflection. For more than fifty years I have believed , and find no fault with any of those holy descriptions.

Religious quotes take on different meanings  over the years, and these days, if you took to the street and stopped any male between the ages of 18 and 30, and posed the question ,”what did God accomplished on the seventh day”, without missing a beat, his answer would probably be, ” he created football-what else”. I can’t disagree with that. Historically speaking, It’s plausible that a few thousand years ago ,on some vacant lot in Jerusalem, a group of kids were  tossing around  an inflated camel bladder. That is, until their mothers made them cease the silly game, afraid that they would break their little necks. And with that ancient parental declaration, the game ceased, and was lost to mankind until sometime in the late 19th century. It’s makes a man wonder what else was lost.

A few Sundays ago, I invited a couple of buddies over to watch the big game, Dallas against the Eagles.  Father Frank, our benevolent and supportive priest at ” Our Lady of Perpetual Repentance”,  gave most of the men an early discharge from mass so we could make it home for the kickoff. Quietly, the men filed out of the chapel, exiting to feminine hisses of

” blasphemer, sinners”. As “I departed”, my lovely wife offered me a lip quivering snarl. I thought it best not to point out that she had a piece of bagel stuck in her front tooth.

Arriving home, I warmed up the flat screen and headed for the kitchen. I opened the fridge, no beer. I went to the pantry, no chips, no bean dip, no nothing. I panicked. Thirty minuets to kickoff. I made it to the Sun City “three letter” grocery in record time.

I found the store overrun with packs of wandering males, lost and searching for the items on their list.

The chip isle was a mosh- pit-the dip cabinet was empty-one frozen pizza left, “it‘s mine” I yelled.  Frantically, I headed for the beer section. The bodies were 5 deep, grabbing anything that is cold and alcoholic. I waded into the melee.

Beside me was an old gentlemen, late eighties, in tow to a shriveled up wife of about the same age. He reached into the cooler and pulled out a six pack of his favorite brew and placed it in their cart, next to the frozen dinners and the case of Metamucil. His wife, aghast, announced; ” you know we can’t afford that on our pension, put it right back, now!”. The old man offered a weak defense, ” it’s only a six pack and you know I have to have my beer when I watch my Cowboys”. Not to be. She stared him down and he returned the treasure.

I noticed he wore an ancient Don Meredith jersey and a ball cap with a veterans patch, Airborne, it read, WWII, the real boys- boots on the ground after falling a mile- a soldiers soldier, tough as boiled leather.

You know that feeling, when something needs to be said, but you can’t spit it out?

I wanted to blurt out,  ” don’t let that dried up old Battle Axe take away your beer. Damn, you fought on the beaches and the fields of France, you killed Nazis, dodged bullets with your name on them, thumbed your nose at the Third Reich and Mussolini. You held your mortally wounded  buddies as they drew their last breath, calling for their mother, as they started their journey home. You deserve to have your beer, tell the old Battle Axe to take a hike”.  I couldn’t say it. It would have made no difference, so I grabbed my beer and moved on. I watched them as they shuffled down the isle, he slowly pushing the cart, she berating.

I needed some shampoo, so I made my way over to that isle. There in front of the beauty lotions, stood the old couple. “Ms. Battle axe” was tossing bottles of creams, lotions and astringents into their cart like a conveyer belt, seemed that the pension covered those items.

As I neared their cart, the old man, with perfect timing pipes up, ” you know we can’t afford all those expensive lotions on my pension, put that crap back!”

Battle axe wheels around on her Rockport walking shoe and fired back,” I need these things to make me look beautiful .”

The old veteran, squinted his eyes, snarled his lip and said, ” yeah, well a six pack of beer accomplishes the same thing, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper.”

Everyone on the isle witnessed their exchange. Their chuckles, impossible to stifle. Embarrassed the old couple, with crimson faces aglow, retreated down the isle.

I caught up with them, and offered my hand to the feisty old fellow. He shook my hand and gracefully accepted my impromptu, sputtering speech of  appreciation for his service. My words finally exhausted, he looked me in the eye, winked, and gave my hand one last shake, squeezing my fingers like a small vice. We both smiled.

Without hesitation, I took my case of beer and dropped it into their cart.

“Battle Axe” piped ” he doesn’t need that”.

In my most polite and official manner,  I  replied, ” It’s compliments of the  Dallas Cowboys, Mam” , and with that, I turned and walked away.

The old veteran yelled out, ” Sonny boy, hey son”

As I turned to face him, he raised a gnarled old fist and yelled ” Go Cowboys”. I returned the salute, and continued on my way.

The Legend of Shorty J. Squirrel


On a  sultry Texas afternoon, a group of men gather around a small, flag decorated concrete pedestal just a few paces from the 18th tee box.

They stand in a loose semi-circle, reverent, staring at a small metal figurine of a Squirrel.

From a box, one of the men produces a metal plaque and passes it around to the others for their approval. It makes the rounds, one by one, each man taking a moment to read the inscription, and nod his approval.

This will be their final tribute to one of God’s small creatures that had touched each of their lives.

In the woods of Berry Creek, life for the animals is good. The Deer are safe from hunters, the Ducks are well fed and sassy, and the wily Squirrels rule the forest. The occasional Bobcat and Coyote might pay a visit, but they don’t fancy the closeness of the humans, so they quickly move back to the wooded outskirts. The Skunks are courteous and know their place.

Most mornings, as dawn creeps over the tree tops, life on Lanny’s Pond is already in full swing.

The Ducks congregate to plan their day of begging, and who will get the prime mooching spots. The Mallards usually win the best locations based on their good looks and surly attitude. The other Ducks resort to the equivalent of standing by the cart path with a cardboard sign.

The Squirrels, not ones to socialize with the lowly Ducks, meet at the base of a gnarled oak tree behind the 13th tee box to discuss the previous days events.

Who’s still around, and who’s not?  Who stole somthing from the giants little cars yesterday? It’s always a vibrant discussion, and the main topic usually involves their encounters with the “giants”. In Squirrel language, there is no word for humans, so they simply refer to humans as “giants”.

The Squirrels consider themselves the self-appointed royalty of Berry Creek, and  take no lip or beak from the other critters. They view the Ducks as stupid and clueless, the Deer, beautiful but dangerous, and the Skunks a foul annoyance. The remaining animals are categorized as flagrant opportunist. But not the Squirrels. They always have a plan. They don’t beg, they just take what they need.

In Texas, legends are part of the culture.  Every patch of woods in the state has at least one critter or human that falls into the legend category.

We have Ol’e Rip the Horned Toad, Bob the Bobcat, the Chupacabra, Big Foot, the Jack-a-lope, Pecos Pete, Davy Crockett, William Travis, Ol’e Blue, Ol’e Yeller and Pasquale the horned toad that started the battle of the Alamo. There’s no shortage of legends in Texas, and it’s folks like it that way.

But the woods of Berry Creek, there is but one uncontested legend, Shorty J. Squirrel.

The oppressive Texas heat is tough on all the critters, but Shorty knew how to keep cool. He would find a bare spot beneath a tree, stretch out on his belly, and let the damp earth cool him down.

On one of these cooling off sessions, he fell into a deep sleep and didn’t hear the large black dog creeping up from behind.

Jolted awake by the sense of being flung violently through the air, Shorty realized  something large and vicious had a firm grip on his tail and was swinging him around like a stuffed toy.

After several violent roundhouse swings, the dog lost its prize, when a large piece Shorty’s tail broke off in its teeth.

Escaping to a nearby tree, bloodied, and missing more than half of his familiar rear plumage, Shorty glared down at the slobbering mongrel standing there with a substantial piece of his former beautiful tail protruding from it’s muzzle.

“Stupid inbred animal” he barked.

Shorty knew he was lucky, and thankful to be alive. Many of his extended family had been whisked away by the dog killers.

Squirrels, because they all look-alike, are not prone to personal vanity, but they do have a bit of a rude streak and tend to take notice when one of their own looks a little different.

The few days after the dog incident, Shorty made his morning appearance at the meeting tree, and was greeted not with concern for his brush with death, but by laughter and ridicule focused on his damaged tail.

He explained the attack in animated and vivid detail, wanting the others to know how close he came to death at the jaws of the large dog killer, but the other Squirrels could only point at his damaged appendage and laugh all the louder.

Disgusted and dejected, Shorty made his way over to the sand bunker on the 17th green, sat down and had a good sulk.

While sulking in that sand bunker, Shorty noticed a group of  the “little cars” stopped nearby, and being the breakfast hour, he hopped over to see if there were any hidden morsels worth taking. Creeping ever so quietly, he raised himself into the little car.

Smelling something fragrant and nutty, he climbed into the glove box, finding a nice piece of a half eaten granola bar.

Hidden in the glove box and munching away on his prize, Shorty didn’t notice the little car moving forward. It was too late, he was trapped in the little car.

Shorty, hunkered down in the glove box, frozen in fear, and no way to escape, could only stare up at the faces of the two giants riding in the little car.

When it stopped and  the giants exited, Shorty escaped back to the safety of the sand bunker. He told himself that was a little risky, but well worth the meal, and he would likely try it again.

The next morning, the same group of little cars came again.

Shorty saw one of the giants throw a handful of nuts onto the ground next to the car.

When the giants were on the mound swinging their long sticks, Shorty stole a few of the nuts and scampered back to the sand bunker.

The giants smiled in amusement as they drove away.

A few days later,  the little cars came again, and Shorty bounded over to see what was to be offered.

One of the kind giants sitting in the car, held a nut in his paw and offered it to Shorty. Cautiously, he approached the large paw and took the nut from its grasp. He devoured it, and the large paw produced another nut, then another, and another, until Shorty could hold no more.

After a rousing round of nuts, Shorty was uncomfortably full, and waddled back to the sand bunker. Not having to look for food that day, he relaxed in the sand. ‘This is the life” he told himself.

The other Squirrels, having watched this scenario for a good while, approached Shorty, begging  to learn his technique of training the giants to give him food.

Shorty, being pretty full of himself at this point, and seeing an opportunity to raise his status in the clan, explained that only “he” was able to train the giants.

His newly  deformed tail had bestowed upon him, special powers that allowed magical interaction between himself and the giants.

The other Squirrels, being somewhat ignorant, and naturally superstitious by nature, accepted his explanation without question.

As the days progressed, Shorty, intent on milking this to the end, and starting to believe his own story, would put on his daily show for the clan.

Shorty would approach the little cars, raise up on his hind legs, and staring intensely at the giants, would wave his small paws in a circle, bark a few commands, and the giants would extend a nut bearing paw. The Squirrel clan, watching from the trees would bark in wonderment and approval of their new guru.

The giants enjoyed the unusual antics of the little Squirrel, and noticing his shortened tail, appropriately named him “Shorty”. They thought he was the friendliest Squirrel they had ever encountered.

As the months progressed,  Shorty warmed to the giants and would trustingly climb into the little car and take nuts from an ever-present bag. The giants would speak to him, using his new name and he would respond as best he could with a chatter and the flip of his small tail.

When the little cars would approach the 17th green, the friendliest giant would sometimes yell out Shorty’s name, and he would scamper over to receive his handout.

The other Squirrels in the clan, noticing how completely  Shorty had trained the giants,  unanimously elevated him to “deity status”.

Shorty’s name was now sacred in the woods of Berry Creek.

As Shorty’s legend grew in the woods, it equally grew in the community of giants.

Giants in their little cars would yell for Shorty and throw nuts on the ground as they drove by.

But Shorty was confused. These giants were not “his giants”, and some threw objects at him when he tried to retrieve the nuts. He was always happy to see “his giants”, and they were always happy to be in his company.

One afternoon, Shorty was retrieving a nut that had been thrown from a little car. Dashing across the cement path, he failed to see the little car as it sped toward him, and

Shorty was crushed beneath the wheels of the little car.

His last thought was of his circle of “giant friends”, and who would now train them?

Who would be their friend?

The driver of the little car, thinking it was just a lowly Squirrel, continued on his way. Not caring, not knowing that he had ended the life of a “small legend”.

The life of Shorty J. Squirrel.

One of the kindly friends of the giants found Shorty on the path, took his small broken body home and called Shorty’s “favorite giant” to inform him of his death.

The group of giants were grief-stricken at the passing of their small friend, and vowed to give Shorty a proper tribute to honor their friendship.

As the sun sinks low, one of the men places the small metal plaque on the monument and they silently walk away into the Texas afternoon.

Their tribute, now complete.

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