Folks in the southeastern part of the states don’t consider Texas part of the south; it’s too far west, too close to New Mexico and Mexico, and too many cowboy types. Well, we tended to ride horses to work and school and live on ranches, but somebody had to do it.
The southeastern folks are dead wrong about this south thing; Texas is as much the south as Mississippi and Louisiana. We have deserts, mountains, miles of cactus, and even the Gulf of Mexico, but we don’t drink mint juleps for every meal and have black gardeners and maids. Our claim to fame is we were the first state to have what the southeast loves; big-ass hair. The bigger and taller, the better.
My uncle Jay was a hairdresser in Fort Worth; that’s what we called them back in the 1950s. He was a World War 2 veteran that shot down Jap planes from the deck of a destroyer and loved every second of it. Yet, he was an artist when it came to teasing, combing, and coaxing women’s hair into things of beauty. There wasn’t a fairy bone in his body, and he could have killed you with one hand and no weapon when he was drinking. He was a by-god legend because he was the man who invented “big hair.” It was purely accidental, but it made him as famous as Rock Hudson’s wedding album.
Up until 1956 or so, women in Texas wore their hair down straight, rolled a bit on spools, or a flippy-do at the ends.
Jay was working hard on an old lady who didn’t have much hair left on top, and she was ragging his butt about why he couldn’t do something about it. He started combing, teasing, spraying, and sculpting until she had a bubble of hair a foot high sitting on top of her head. He didn’t know it, but a monster had been birthed.
Women came to his shop wanting their hair styled in “one of them big bubbles.” The word was out. the cutting and curling days were gone; now, everyone wanted their hair puffed out like a cotton ball or a fluffy poodle and piled as high as the sky on top of their head. He would use two cans of hair spray on every hair-du. The gals couldn’t replicate the hairstyle themselves, so they had to return to the shop, which caused him to work more hours, but make more money too. He was soon driving a new Caddy convertible and wearing Brooks Brothers shirts. My grandmother said he was “shittin’ in high cotton,” and she knew all about cotton.
I came home from school one day, and this giant mass of hair with a small framed woman underneath was standing in the kitchen; it was my mother. She had gone to the dark side and got her brother to give her the full treatment. She dared not stand too close to the gas stove burner in fear of igniting the Spray-Net that held the mess together, but she cooked supper without burning up or falling over. I have no idea how she slept on a pillow with that mass of hair attached to her small head. My father didn’t have enough room in the bed, so he moved onto the couch.
At about the same time, women in Texas started talking strangely. The accent was still there, but the big hair made them articulate differently.
I was with my mother at the Piggly Wiggly on Berry Street. Most of the women in the store had the now obligatory “big hair.” One of her friends she hadn’t seen in a while came up to her and said, ” well lookit yeeeew, is that a new dresses? hows your momma and them? I just love your hair-du.” It sounded like Martian to me. My mother returned the greeting in the same manner. A new language had been born because of the big hair. Pretty soon, all the aunts and neighborhood ladies were talking that way. It was as if Texas had been styled out of us with a can of hair spray and a teasing comb. My uncle Jay didn’t seem to notice the cultural shift he had caused. He was making more money than he could spend, and man, could he spend it like a big boy. The trend spread to Houston, Lake Charles, New Orleans, and on east until it hit Florida and then up the east coast.
In the mid-sixties, thanks to the hippie chic movement, the young girls went back to wearing it long and straight, and so did their mothers, and the bubble head died out. Uncle Jay made a nice chunk of change from his invention, and to this day, in parts of the south, you can see old women with that “big hair” piled on top of their heads.
The legendary Fort Worth Fat Stock Show and Rodeo ended today. Once again, we didn’t make it to the grand celebration of Texas. Dallas, that eastern wannabe city, has the State Fair, but we have the stock show and the best damn rodeo in the nation. I’ve been going there since I was a small child, and my sister did the same. Since it’s always been in February, we never knew what the weather would be; sunny and warm or an ice storm like last week here in Texas.
Back in the 1950s, the western swing band, my father played fiddle with opened the Stock Show every year with a breakfast concert in one of the exposition barns. The famous Light Crust Doughboys were about to be on the air. They were and are a legend in Texas and country music. I was just a kid along for the ride and didn’t realize how good that ride was.
My father had bought me a fringed leather jacket, a pearl Roy Rogers cowboy hat, and a new pair of Justin boots from the outlet store next door to the Dickies factory. These new duds were just for the show that year. I think it was 1955 or 56, and I was as puffed up as a poisoned pup, and everything on me shined like a new dime. I wore my grandfather’s Bollo string tie with the silver state of Texas clasp and saw my smiling reflection in my polished boots. I was a kid to be reckoned with.
The band was set up on a low stage with a small split rail fence separating them from the onlookers. The local television station, WBAP, was there for a live broadcast that morning. They always put on a big deal for the first day. The news lady thought I looked like a little buckaroo and asked my father if I could sit on the fence next to her while she did her opening broadcast, which would be shown all over Fort Worth, Dallas, and points west and east. In those days, it was a big deal to be on television, and here I was, a kid getting ready to be famous. I knew some of my classmates would recognize me. My head growing too fat for my hat by the minute.
The nice TV lady helped me climb onto the fence, scootched me over a bit closer to her, and the broadcast started. It was my first brush with fame and live television, and I stared at the camera like a deer in headlights. She asked me a few questions, which I don’t remember, and I answered with a croak and a whimper, then fell backward from the fence onto the dirt floor. I got up, all covered in a mixture of fifty-year-old dirt and manure. The new cowboy hat was all bent in, and my fringed jacket was all whacky and filthy, so I dejectedly walked over behind the bandstand and started to cry. I had ruined my one chance at being a television personality. Mortified would be a good description, then maybe add humiliation to that, and you would have the gest of it.
After the Doughboys started playing, the nice TV lady came over with a coke and a hot dog, gave me a mother-type hug, and said I did just fine. That made it all better.
Every so often, I feel a story or a rousing recount should get a second visit and be shared again. I wrote this one a few years ago because it made it’s way back to me in a dream. I watched one of the Jurassic movies earlier in the week. I had a squirmy nightmare for a few nights in a row, which usually results in me making a hot cup of Ovaltine in the microwave and reading for an hour or so to quieten my brain a bit. The problem was, it wasn’t a nightmare; it was a true account from my childhood. I swear on a stack of good books, not the Bible, of course, but maybe a few by Hemingway and Steinbeck. My two long-deceased and loveable uncles were the best storytellers, beer drinkers, and liars I have known. I never knew where the realism ended, and the bullcrap started, but they both swore, in between gulps of cold Pearl beer, sitting there on top of their Coleman coolers out on my grandparent’s front porch, that this one was as real as a bad case of chickenpox.
At seven years old, I learned of my first, but far from the last Texas legend. One of the best storytellers and liars I ever knew, my uncle Bill told my cousins and me about Santa Anna’s “Mountain Boomers.”
Supposedly, man-size lizards that ran on two legs came down from the Santa Anna mountain searching for food. Anything would do, but they were partial to goats, chickens, and tiny humans. If you were caught outside in the wee morning hours, it was a sure bet a Mountain Boomer would get you. Us kids were scared shitless of even going out after dark.
With no air conditioning in the farmhouse, we were forced to sleep with the windows open and would lay in our beds shaking all night, waiting for the monsters to break through the window screen and carry us away. Our Granny was no help; her standard goodnight to us was ” sleep tight and don’t let the Mountain Boomers bite.”
Summer evenings on the farm were made for sitting on my grandparent’s covered porch, watching lightning bugs dance, listening to the crickets chirp, and catching the far away howels of an occasional Coyote pack running the pastures.
The sky was black as pitch, the Milky Way as white as talcum powder, and heat lighting in the West added to the drama of the evening. We kids were ripe for a big one, and my uncles never disappointed. First, homemade ice cream was eaten, then the cooler of Pearl Beer came out, and the stories commenced.
Already that June, my cousin Jerry and me had been to see the hero pig and the three-legged chickens, so we needed a new adventure. But, unfortunately, the hobos had left the railroad bridge down the road, and our summer was losing air like a punctured tire.
“Did you kids see that over there in the trees? I think that might have been one of them Mountain Boomers,” says uncle Bill, in between swigs of Pearl. Then, of course, we strained our eyes to see what he said he saw, but nothing. Then a few moments later, ” there it goes again, I tell you kids, that was one of them sumbitches running on two legs carrying a goat.”
He had us hooked and scared. Then he starts in on the story.
Uncle Bill took a swig of Pearl and says, ” Right down this road here, about twenty-years ago, a families car broke down. The daddy, a man I knew well, walked into town to find some help. He left his wife and small son in the car. It was late at night, so he figured they would sleep until he returned. The little boy, got out of the car to pee along side the road. His Momma heard him scream and came out of the car in a hurry, there was a 7 foot Mountain Boomer standing there with the little kid in it’s mouth. The poor boy was almost chewed in half already. His guts were hanging out and dragging on the ground. The big lizard took off running with the Momma chasing it. Another of them Boomers was hiding in the scrub brush and got her too. A few days later, the sheriff found their bloody remains up on the mountain. They knew a Mountain Boomer had got em because they found their tracks. That’s why we never go outside after midnight around here.” Jerry and I were almost pissing our pants.
When we stayed at the farm, I don’t believe either of us ever slept well again after that night. But, even after we were adults, my Uncle Bill swore the legend and the story was true. I still dream of them.
My grandmother loved her critters. She shepherded about five-hundred chickens on her farm in Santa Anna, Texas. A scroungy stray cat or dog would show up, and she would feed it and give it a place in the smokehouse to stay. They usually were soon gone, thanks to Coyotes and Bobcats, but she wouldn’t let them go hungry.
She couldn’t place the day, month, or year the pigeon showed up. It flew down from a bright blue sky and commenced pecking at the chicken feed my granny had thrown on the ground for her hens. It was a beautiful bird, blue-grey with white markings; she called it Blueboy, not knowing if it was male or female, so to her, it was a boy pigeon.
Blueboy took a liking to granny and followed her around the farm while she did her daily chores. He would walk a few feet behind her, even when she was in the barn or the smokehouse. He would perch on the front porch railing if she was sitting outside. He became her pet. After a while, she could reach down and pick him up, which for a wild pigeon, was something to see. She carried him around like a pet chicken and would feed him in his own dish by the giant oak tree that shaded their farmhouse. Blueboy slept in that tree most nights, but in the cold winter, she would crack the smokehouse door, so he could roost inside out of the weather. She and that pigeon understood each other. Farm people know critters and how to communicate with them. It’s a natural talent you are born with. The bird thought he was a dog, and she treated him as such.
Blueboy started following the cousins and me around the farm. Always a ways behind us, curious about what we were up to. We could never touch him or get too close; only granny had that honor. He was always there for years when I visited the farm in the summer and at Christmas or Easter. I guess that pigeon was a big part of the family as the grandchildren.
Just as he had shown up one day, he was gone. Granny figured he or she had met another pigeon and started a family, or at least that is what she told us. Years later, she said she found some of his feathers by the barn. Probably a Bobcat got him while he was strutting around instead of sitting in his tree. She never got over losing Blueboy and talked about him often in her old age. I saw a pigeon a few days ago, and it took me back there.
My father didn’t own a beach chair, nor did he want one. He preferred to sit on his haunches or stand when he fished. My grandfather, the old salt of the clan, felt the same; real men took their fishing seriously in 1957 and didn’t need such things. They smoked unfiltered Lucky Strikes and carried a Zippo lighter and Barlow pocketknife in their pant pocket. If it was summer, my dad waded into the surf, sometimes up to his waist, which worried my mother; she feared a sand shark or a giant octopus would drag him beneath the waves and leave my sister and me fatherless. She fretted about the monsters in the ocean and would have a panic attack if she got more than knee-deep in the surf. She couldn’t swim a lick, thanks to her mother’s lifelong fear of water which she instilled in her children. However, my baby sister was fearless and would keep plodding headlong into the surf until one of my parents or I rescued her.
My family lived inland, four hundred miles to the northern part of Texas. The journey from Fort Worth to Port Aransas took eight, sometimes nine hours, but we could have made it in six if not for my mother wanting to stop for lunch at Franks restaurant in Schulenberg and a potty break every hour. The women in her family were cursed with an uncooperative bladder.
We were city folks, but our hearts and souls were one with the Gulf of Mexico and that small island village. I never considered myself a city boy; Fort Worth was where we stayed until our next trip to our natural home, the ocean. Home to me was Gibbs Cottages or the Rock Cottages on G street. Bilmore and Son’s Hardware sold tackle, bait, and gas, and the Island Grocery had the best baloney and rat cheese sandwiches in Texas. The only church in town kept everyone saved and signed up for heaven, and Shorty’s was the most popular beer joint in town and served ice-cold Pearl beer in dark glass bottles.
The magic was always there, winter or summer; it never changed. The ever-shifting dunes and beach grass waved like grain fields in the southern breeze. The sea birds ran along the shoreline, paying no attention to us interlopers. The gulls would assault me if I had a sandwich or a bag of potato chips, and the brown Pelicans glided above the water like a formation of B-24 bombers. There were rattlesnakes in the dunes, but I never ran across one. I once disturbed a napping Coyote; it snorted and trotted off into the grasslands behind the dunes.
Memories come to me at inconvenient times. This one woke me up at 4:00 am, so I figured I had better write it down. Who knows what memory tomorrow may bring?
My granny, a Cherokee woman from another century, used to tell me, and anyone else that would listen, ” you’re only as old as you feel.” She had a good point. She lived into her 90s and seemed to feel good most of her life, even though every meal she cooked was in bacon grease and hog fat. She would take-back those wise words if she could see her oldest grandson now.
I stared at the reflection in my bathroom mirror this morning and said, “Dad, is that you?” Who is this old guy? My grandmothers’ words came back to me, but in this case, she is dead damn wrong.
I guess 73 years old is a milestone of sorts. I have already outlived my father, that passed at 72, so I got a year up on him. The odd thing is that I, or so folks tell me, don’t look 73. “Oh, look at yeeew, I swear yeeew could pass for 55 if not a day older; bless your heart.” Words like that make an old guy feel proud for a few minutes, nothing more.
My grandfather, my dad’s pop, passed on when I was ten years old. Born in 1891, he looked as old when I was a wee-one as he did when he left us. Early pictures from the 1930s showed him with white hair and wrinkly skin. The man was born old but never aged after that. Maybe that’s the gene I inherited. He came out of the womb with whiskers, white hair, and a Daniel Boone pocket knife used for whittling and sharpening pencils. Strange things like this happen in the south, especially in Texas. Our state is shrouded in mystery and could be a part of the Twilight Zone.
My wife, a few years younger than me, is of good German and Irish stock from the hills of Pennsylvania. She wasn’t born in Texas but got here as quick as she could via her wandering parents. She has but a little gray hair and very few wrinkles, and her eyes are bright, and her nose is cold. We’ve both had our medical maladies lately, each suffering through major back operations, cleaned-out knee joints, and other minor nuisances.
Speaking for myself, I may hold the family record if one exists; my sister is checking the family bible just to be sure. A case of prostate cancer back in 2019, and I thought it was clear sailing after that. No such luck. Now, the good stuff; three ear surgeries on both ears, a cute little prostate operation, as if the cancer didn’t do enough damage, major back surgery that included a lot of stainless steel parts, and next week major nerve and leg surgery to correct drop foot caused by the back surgery with all the parts. All of this is within a twelve-month period. Now, I will kiss your hiney and buy you a Whataburger if that ain’t a record of some kind; and I’m still ambulating, but with a fancy cane from the Walmart.
Sympathy or donations via the mail is not the goal of this story but letting other readers know what the future holds if you’re a young whipper snapper. Better start saving your cash, suck it up and get ready for the big show. The good news is; I still have all my luxurious white hair, which makes me look like a TV preacher. Amen, brother.
The night of January 2, 2023, I resolved not to write about politics. It was 2 am in the morning, and I was lying in bed fretting about the news I had watched earlier in the day. There is no “good news”; it’s all bad, given to use in small doses by people on my television screen that couldn’t talk their way out of a robbery without a teleprompter.
I vow to take immediate action to mend my mind and soul from the poison I am fed daily at 5:30 pm. I fought the compulsion to limp to my recliner and write a scathing blog post about the current suicidal condition of our country, but I stayed in my warm bed. Sarcasm can wait until breakfast.
Goodbye, old Lester Holt. Your suits are lovely and fit you well, but you are a liar, and I would readily join you for ten million dollars a year. You have no backbone or conscience as you continue spitting bullshit into the camera. I’m done with you and the others. You know, the nice-looking news anchor women with perfect hair, white teeth, and store-bought breast. I will give them one compliment: they don’t resemble a Kardashian woman.
I began to read The Fort Worth Press when I was a child, 9 years old, to be exact. Reading books came to me naturally, and so the newspaper was also. Starting with the comics, then sports, and from there, real news, the front page. Bad news makes for a good readership. The writers at the Press understood this. The front page was their “kill shot.”
I wanted to be a writer like the men in the newsroom, typing on their Underwood machine while smoking an unfiltered Camel and downing lousy coffee with a shot of Old Crow added for flavor. My earlier quest to be Mark Twain didn’t work out, so this would be the next best thing. I let my father know of my intentions, which led him to remind me that last year I had wanted to be a Good Humor man with my own ice cream truck. He was right, but a kid can change professions daily. I was years away from holding a job.
My mothers’ ancient typewriter weighed at least a hundred pounds. It had belonged to her sister, that once had aspirations of being the next Ayn Rand but lost interest in becoming an author when she married a college professor that was an author. It gave me a hernia around my young groin when I heaved it onto the kitchen table. I rolled a sheet of paper from my Big Cheif tablet into the machine, ready to start my first article that will be mailed to the Press.
The makeshift sunblock my father had fashioned from a tarp and four cane fishing poles wasn’t beautiful, but it worked fine. Sitting under the contraption was me, my little sister, my mother, and my grandmother. I was eight years old. He and my grandfather were not far away, holding their fishing rods after casting into the rough surf. Whatever they caught would be our supper that evening. I wasn’t invited to fish with them; I was too young, and the surf too dangerous. Besides, my small Zebco rod was only strong enough to catch a passing perch.
The visit was our annual summer fishing trip to Port Aransas, Texas, a small fishing village on the northern tip of Mustang Island. I don’t remember my first visit, but my mother said I was barely one year old. After that, the Gulf of Mexico, the beach, and that island became part of my DNA.
I’m an old man now, but I can recall every street, building, and sand dune of that small village. Over the decades, it became a tourist mecca for the wealthy, destroying the innocent and unpretentious charm of the town. Gone are the clapboard rental cottages with crushed seashell paving and fish-cleaning shacks. Instead, gaudy stores selling tee shirts made in China sit between the ostentatious condominiums, restaurants, and hotels. I prefer to remember it as it was in the 1950s when families came to fish, and the children explored the untamed beaches and sand dunes.
Born in 1891, my grandfather was an old man by the time I was eight. Tall and lanky, with white hair and skin like saddle leather. He was a proud veteran of World War 1 and as tough as the longhorn steers he herded as a boy. He lost part of his left butt cheek from shrapnel and was gassed twice while fighting in France. Nevertheless, he harbored no ill feelings toward the Germans, even though he killed and wounded many of them.
On the contrary, he disliked the French because they refused to show proper gratitude for the doughboys saving their butts from the Krauts. As a result, he wouldn’t allow French wine in his home. He preferred Kentucky bourbon with a splash of branch water or an ice-cold Pearl beer. His hard-drinking days, he left in Fort Worth’s Hell’s Half Acre decades ago. He told a few stories about the infamous place, but he was careful to scrub them clean for us youngsters.
His one great joy in life was saltwater fishing with my father, playing his fiddle, and telling stories to whoever would listen. The recounting of his early childhood and life in Texas captivated my sister, cousins, and me for as long as the old man could keep talking. He told about being in France but never about the horrors of the war. He lived a colorful childhood and, for a while, was a true Texas cowboy. Half of it may have been ripping yarns, but he could tell some good ones. My mother said I inherited his talent for recounting and spinning yarns. If that’s true, I’m proud to have it.
He could have been in a Norman Rockwell painting while standing in the surf, with khaki pants rolled to his knees, a white t-shirt, and a duck-billed cap. I was in awe of the old man but too young to know how to tell him. My grandmother said he was crazy for wearing his gold watch while fishing.
The timepiece was a gift of gratitude from his employer when he worked in California during the depression years. A simple gold-plated 1930s-style Boluva. It was an inexpensive watch, but he treated it like the king’s crown, having it cleaned yearly and the crystal replaced if scratched. He called that watch his good luck charm and wore it when fishing for good juju. It was a risk that the salt water might ruin it, but he took it. He caught five speckled sand trout and half a dozen Golden Croaker that day, so the charm worked. Add the three specs my father snagged, joined with the cornbread and pinto beans my mother and grandmother cooked, and we dined like the Rockefellers that night.
The next few days were a repeat. I rode my blow-up air mattress in the shore break and caught myself a whopper of a sunburn on my back. The jellyfish sting added to my discomfort. I was miserable and well-toasted, but I kept going, determined to enjoy every second of beach time. We returned to Fort Worth as a spent and happy bunch. The family would give it another go the following year.
Two years passed. One day, my father told me my grandfather was sick and would be in the veteran hospital in Dallas for a while. He mentioned cancer. I was young and didn’t understand this disease, so I looked it up in our encyclopedia; “An illness that attacks the body’s cells with over ten strains, some are incurable and deadly. One week he seemed fine, sitting in his rocking chair playing his fiddle and telling stories, and the next week, he was in a hospital fighting for his life. His doctor said being gassed in the war was the cause of his cancer. It was not treatable and would be fatal.
Near a month later, he was not the same man when he came home. His face was gaunt, his body, lean and meatless before, now was skin and bone. The treatments the doctors ordered had ravaged him as much as the disease. My grandmothers’ facial expressions told it all. There was no need to explain; I knew he would soon be gone. My father was stoic, if only for his mother’s benefit. His father, my grandfather, was fading away before our eyes, and we couldn’t do a thing to change the outcome.
A week after returning home, grandfather found his strength, walked to their living room, and sat in his rocking chair. He asked me for his fiddle, which I fetched. He played half of one tune and handed it back to me. I cased it and returned it to the bedroom closet; he was too weak for a second tune. His voice was raspy and weak when he spoke, but he had something to say, so I took my position on my low stool, as I often did when he recounted his tales. I noticed his gold watch was loose and had moved close to his elbow. His attachment to the timepiece would not allow removal. It was a part of him. He spoke a few words, but It was a painful effort to continue. My grandmother helped him to his bed. He removed his watch, placed it on the nightstand, and then lay down. He was asleep within minutes. From that day on, he would sleep most of the time, waking only to be helped to the bathroom or to sip a few spoonfuls of hot soup. I would visit after school, sitting next to him while he slept, cleaning his watch with a soft cloth, winding it, and ensuring the time was correct. I felt he knew I was caring for this treasured talisman.
I came home from school on a Friday, and my grandfather was gone. I could see the imprint in the bed where he had laid, and his medication bottles and watch were missing from the nightstand. Mother said he took a turn for the worse, and my father took him back to the veteran’s hospital.
The following day, my father came home and told us my grandfather had passed away during the night. I noticed he was wearing his gold watch. I thought if the timepiece was such a lucky charm, as I had been told all these years, why had it not saved my grandfather?
Life continued on Jennings Street; for me, some of it was good, a little of it not. Father wore grandfather’s watch in remembrance and respect. He waited for the magic to come. He gave me his worn-out Timex, which was too big for my wrist, but I wore it proudly.
The magic of the watch began to work for my father. He acquired two four-unit apartment houses near downtown, fixed them up a bit, rented them out, and sold them. We then moved to Wichita Falls, where he started building new homes. A year later, we moved to Plano, Texas, where he continued to build houses. It appeared the good luck of the watch was working overtime. I became a believer in this talisman. The hard days in Fort Worth were well behind us now. The future for our family was filled with promise.
On a day in 1968, riding with my father to lock his homes for the night, we had a long overdue father-to-son talk. I rarely saw him because of his work, so I welcomed the time. Had I thought about college? What was going on in my life? I played in a popular rock band, so that was a point we touched on. He didn’t want me to become a professional musician as he had been. I assured him this phase would end soon. He and my mother were worried I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam. We talked for two hours. He remarked that as long as he wore his father’s watch, everything he touched turned to gold. Father was successful, so how could I doubt his belief?
In the summer of 1969, the band on the old watch broke while we were fishing for Kingfish in the gulf. While gaffing a Kingfish, my father bumped his wrist against the side of our boat. The watch fell into the water, and in a flash, it was gone. He said that if he had to lose it, this was a fitting end; lost to the water that his father loved so much.
When I first published this story, readers asked me if the characters were real or did any of it actually happen. Our neighbors, the Misters, were real folks and became our neighborhood mentors. Leonards’s Department Store Toyland in downtown Fort Worth was a sight to behold, and the attempted flocking and ruination of our Christmas tree is true. My father was able to negotiate peace with my mother, and my uncle delivered a new tree, so Christmas was saved. A flocked tree never adorned our living room, but we did buy an aluminum tree with a rotating color wheel. Years later, in the early sixties, I used that rotating wheel as part of a hokey light show for our rock band.
A personal recount of my childhood Christmas memories.
Riding a ceiling-mounted “Rocket Train” to nowhere around the basement of a department store doesn’t seem like a Christmas thing, but that’s what thousands of other Texas kids and I did every year in the 1950s.
Leonard Brothers Department Store occupied two square blocks of downtown Fort Worth real estate and was known as the Southwest’s Macy’s. They offered everything the big shot stores in the East carried, hundreds of items no retailer in their right mind would consider.
If you had a mind to, one could purchase a full-length mink coat with optional mink mittens, the latest women’s high-fashion clothing line from Paris France, an Italian cut-crystal vile of Elizabeth Taylors spit, James Dean’s signature hair tonic, Rock Hudson’s autographed wedding photos, a housebroken Llama, an aluminum fishing boat and motor, a new car, a pole barn, a nice two-story craftsman home “build it yourself kit” delivered to your lot, chickens, barb wire, hay, horses and cows, a 30-30 Winchester rifle, a 40 caliber autographed General George Custer Colt pistol, a bottle of good hootch and a Ford tractor. That’s about as Texas as it gets.
The Christmas season in downtown Fort Worth was internationally recognized for its innovative and wonderful decorations. The righteous city fathers figured the best way to outdo Dallas, a full-time effort, was to line every building with white lights from top to bottom and install large glowing decorations on every lamp pole, street light, and building façade available. If that didn’t make you “ooooh and ahhhh,” then you needed to go home and hide in a closet.
A week or so after Thanksgiving, my parents would take my sister and me downtown to see the decorations and visit the Leonard Brothers Department Store. Santa just happened to be in their basement, taking advanced verbal orders from every crumb cruncher that could climb the stairs and plop on his lap.
My sister always asked for the latest doll in between screams and crying fits. She was scared senseless of “HO-HO,” but she somehow managed to spit out her order. Like clockwork, every year, I asked for a Daisy BB Gun with a year’s supply of stainless silver ammo ( for killing werewolves), a full-size Elliot Ness operable Thompson Sub Machine Gun, or an Army surplus Bazooka with real rockets and a long, razor-sharp Bowie knife encased in a fringed leather holster. It was a 1950s boy thing; weapons were what we longed for. How else could we defeat Santa Anna at the Alamo or win World War II, again? Our neighborhood may have sported the best-supplied “kid army” on the planet, and jolly old Santa was our secret arms dealer; parents non-the wiser. I finally got the BB Gun, but Santy was wise enough to not bring the other request.
Walking down the stairs to the store’s basement was the thrill I had waited for all year. There, hanging above my head, was the beautiful red and silver tinseled sign, “Toy Land,” kid nirvana, and the Holy Grail all in one room. The smell of burned popcorn and stale chocolate candy wafted up the stairs, and I could hear the cheesy Christmas choir music and the sound the Rocket Train made as it glided along the ceiling-mounted rails. I almost pissed off my jeans.
Hundreds, if not thousands, of parents jostled down isles of toys, pushing, grabbing, and snarling like a pack of wild dogs fighting for that last toy; the holiday spirit and common courtesy were alive and well. The queue of kids for the Rocket Train snaked through the basement like a soup line.
Sitting on his mini-mountain top perch, sat old red-suited Santa Claus and his elfin apprentices, herding kids to his lap at break-neck speed. Each child got about fifteen seconds, a black and white photograph, and then it was off the lap and down the steps. Kids were fast in those days; we memorized and practiced our list weeks before our visit for maximum impact. “Ho-Ho” had better be writing this stuff down. Kids, don’t forget squat.
After two Santa visits, four Rocket Train rides, and three popcorn bags later, our family unit departed Leonard’s for the new and improved “Leonard’s Christmas Tree Land,” located across the street from the main building. Thanks to the demolition of several winos-infested abandoned buildings, the new lot was now the size of Rhode Island and held enough trees for every person and their dog in Texas.
Thousands, if not millions, of fresh-cut trees awaited our choosing. Father, always the cheapskate, chose a sensible tree; not too big, not too small, yet full and fluffy with a lovely piney aroma. My sister and I pointed and danced like fools for the “pink flocked” tree in the tent, which cost the equivalent of a week’s salary. My parents enjoyed our cute antics. The sensible tree was secured to the top of our Nash Rambler station wagon, and we were homeward bound.
Pulling into our driveway, it was impossible to miss our neighbor’s extravagant holiday display. We had been away from home for 6 hours and returned to a full-blown holiday extravaganza that made our modest home look like a tobacco road sharecroppers shack.
Our next-door neighbors, Mr. Mister and Mrs. Mister, were the neighborhood gossip fodder. The couple moved from Southern California for his job. He, an aircraft-design engineer, and she, a former gopher girl at Paramount Studios. The Misters reeked new-found money and didn’t mind flaunting it. They drove tiny Italian sports cars and hired a guy to mow their lawn. His wife, Mrs. Mister, always had a Pall Mall ciggie in one hand and a frosty cocktail in the other. Father said she looked like a pretty Hollywood lady named Jane Mansfield, but Mother said she resembled a “gimlet-assed dime-store chippy.” I got the impression that the Misters were quite popular in the neighborhood.
Their Christmas display was pure Cecil B. DeMille. A life-size plywood sleigh, with Santa and his reindeer, covered the Mister’s roof, and 20 or more automated Elves and various holiday characters greeted passersby. Twinkling lights covered every bush and plant in the yard, and a large machine spat out thousands of bubbles that floated through the neighborhood. This was far more than Fort Worth was ready for.
The kill shot was their enormous picture window that showcased a ceiling-high blue flocked tree bathed in color-changing lights. There, framed in the glow of their yuletide decor, sat Mr. and Mrs. Mister with their two poodles, Fred and Ginger, perched on their expensive modern sofa, sipping vermouth martinis like Hollywood royalty. This display of pompacious decadence didn’t go unnoticed by my parents.
Father hauled our puny tree into the living room and began unpacking lights for the decorating that would happen tomorrow evening. Mother hurried my sister and me off to bed. Visions of spying Elves, sugar plum pudding, and dangerous weapons danced in my head; Christmas was upon us.
Sometime after 10 PM, Father got hungry. Searching for sandwich fixings in the kitchen, he found a bottle of Jim Beam bourbon. Then he found a fresh half gallon of Egg-Nog, which he enjoyed with the bourbon. While searching for bread to make the ham sandwich, he found two “Lux Laundry Soap Flake” boxes with a dish towel in each one. Then by chance, he discovered the food coloring. This gave him an idea for our sad little tree.
I awoke with a start. The sun was shining on my face, which meant I was late for school. I ran into the living room and was stopped in my tracks.
Our formally green tree was now flocked in thick pink snow, as were the curtains, the fireplace mantel, two chairs, the coffee table, and my father, who lay on the couch, passed out, with a half-eaten ham sandwich on his chest. My Mother sat a few feet away, sipping her coffee and smoking a Winston; my Louisville slugger lay on her lap. I was reluctant to approach her, but I had to know.
I timidly put my hand on her shoulder and asked, “Mom, is Dad going to be alright?” She took a sip of coffee and a drag from her ciggie and said, “well, for right now, he will be, but after he wakes up, who knows.”
Now I’m sounding like my grandfather ” remember the good ole day’s” for whatever point he was trying to make. Now I am him.
Remember the good old days when people actually took the time to set before a keyboard and answer your emails instead of using one word or a stupid little picture of a beer or a heart or some other useless bullshit like that.
I send a lengthy email to a few friends of mine. Nothing that was a novella or a short story, just some questions, and recollections. What did I receive, ” an emoji and “sent on my iPhone” I almost had a stroke. I spent thirty minutes composing an easily readable, edited, and entertaining email, and I get a thumbs-up crap from a smart-ass phone.
No more; I will send one word or a cute little picture and let them figure it out.
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