November 25, 2011
Somewhere on the outskirts of Luckenbach, Texas. Pop. 3.
The Scene: Luckenbach is nothing more than a cluster of old, outdated buildings, a mere eight miles from the antique capital of Fredericksburg, located at the end of a dirt road off Ranch Road 1376. The hamlet, a relic of 1849, was originally a trading post, wedged back among a blending of bottomlands and hills alongside Grape Creek. It became the domain of Hondo Crouch, and it gained fame, if not notoriety, as the title of a country hit crooned by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
The Sights: Its general store, saloon, and dance hall remains a gathering place for some of the state’s top musicians, and the sign posted behind the bar explains: “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance.” Hondo’s own directions to Luckenbach from San Antonio went like this: “You get on I-10, go to 87, get off on 290, you know … where that dead deer is in the ditch. Then you take a right on that farm-to-market road. You know, where that cattle guard is. And that mawkin’ bird nest. Then take a left, go through a bump gate, two wooden gates, and a wire gap. Then, you’ll find Luckenbach in the canyon. No, well, it’s more like a rut.” There are no signs to Luckenbach. People keep stealing them.
The Story: Hondo Crouch was a little man with a shy smile, the creator of his own heaven and earth, down where thistles were as menacing as barbed wire, a cowboy out of time, perhaps, but never out of place. He was the owner, mayor, foreign minister, and chief promoter of Luckenbach, Texas, a guitar picker, whittler, tobacco chewer, spinner of tall tales, and chili dipper – specializing in armadillo chili on the half shell.
He was not quite like anyone I had ever seen before, and I’ll certainly not run across the likes of him again. Hondo Crouch was simply a one-of-a-kind original. He had a white beard cut ragged along his chin line, and he always stuffed his faded jeans into a pair of weather-beaten, thistle-scarred cowboy boots. His hat had more shapes than sides, and it looked as though Hondo had probably spit tobacco into a fierce Hill Country wind, then walked into it.
Hondo Crouch did not know much nor suspect much about sophistication. He had heard of it once but went down to the veterinarian and took shots so he wouldn’t catch it. However, catching it, Hondo told me, wasn’t nearly as shameful as going out and giving it to somebody else. And anything with fourteen letters and five syllables no doubt had to be contagious.
One night in Fredericksburg, while the legendary Bob Hope was hosting a charity benefit ball, Hondo Crouch, chewing on a thin straw, smiling that shy smile of his, ambled nonchalantly and unannounced out onto the stage. He handed the comedian an axe handle.
“We had in mind to give you a golf club,” Hondo said, “but the only ones we could find had swimming pools, and they was too expensive.”
“You’ll probably notice that this particular axe handle doesn’t have a head on it,” Hondo continued.
“That’s because it’s hard to get ahead in Luckenbach,” Hondo said softly.
Hope fell to his knees in laughter.
“Who writes your material for you?” the famous comedian wanted to know.
“Nobody,” Hondo replied. “You just hang around Luckenbach a couple of days, and it just happens.”
Hondo Crouch had become a rancher because he preferred punching cows to time clocks. “But it’s not easy making ends meet where there’s not enough wind to keep two windmills running at the same time, and there’s more rocks than weeds, and it takes fifty acres worth of grass to feed a single cow,” he told me, “I had a hired hand once, and he worked for me till he owned the ranch.”
Hondo shrugged and paused to spit tobacco juice into an empty longneck Pearl beer bottle. He shrugged and said, “Then I worked for him till I got it back.”
He bought the whole town of Luckenbach – population 3 – lock, stock, and barrel, which is about all there was to it anyway. The Hill Country acquisition only had four buildings in its entire downtown metropolitan area, if you stopped to count the outhouse, and almost everyone always did.
They had to.
Hondo sold a lot of beer.
Luckenbach boasted a dance hall, a blacksmith shop, and a combination post office, general store, and beer joint. The post office did not last long. The government, blessed by infinite wisdom, closed it down, and Hondo never forgave anyone who hung around the far side of the Potomac River.
“All I was trying to do was save ‘em a little money,” he said. “The way I heard it, the government was so dadgummed broke it couldn’t win nor afford to lose the first hand of a penny ante poker game.”
Hondo Crouch had a strict municipal policy. He never bothered to take the mail over to Fredericksburg, eight miles away, until the bag was full enough to justify the gasoline expense.
Sometimes that took six months.
Luckenbach had long been the pride and consternation of Hondo Crouch. He admired the little place with dirt streets. And he would drive past every afternoon about five o’clock, coming home from the ranch, hot, thirsty, tired, dust lodged in his throat, needing a beer real bad.
He couldn’t get one.
The whole town closed down at three o’clock. Even the chickens went to roost, and the dog would quit digging for a bone he never buried anyway. The old German who owned the hamlet got sleepy along about then, and he wasn’t about to stay open late for alone, not even Hondo Crouch.
Hondo bought the town so he could get a beer anytime he needed one or wanted one. That first year, he bought enough beer to keep himself in business. Besides, he said, ‘The advertisement for the town said it already had an established egg route that would bring in enough money to make the monthly payments. It sounded like a steal to me, so here I am.”
The general store was worn and frayed by the weather, but Hondo didn’t mind. He would just wrinkle the corner of eyes, smile a shy smile, and explain, “I thought about fixing the old town up. I really did. But I’m afraid that we were just too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”
There was no wrong side of the tracks in Luckenbach. There were no tracks. Hondo simply nailed a sign to the side of the general store. It said: “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.”
And so they were.
Hondo made sure of it.
A lady walked out of the general store, here forehead carrying the wrinkles of a faint frown. In town, she had seen no television. She had heard no radio. There were no newspapers thrown in anybody’s front yard, provided they had a front yard. She turned to Hondo and asked him, “Just how do you keep up with the news around here?”
“I don’t,” he answered softly. “I make the news around here.”
And none could make it better.
Hondo Crouch was already well known throughout Texas for inventing, then manufacturing, the perfect rabbit call.
‘It sounds like lettuce,” Hondo explained.
He saw where the Texas Highway Department was distributing a Calendar of Events, showcasing the most important festivals and celebrations that took place in the state’s communities. He drove himself down to the capital in Austin, walked into the executive offices of the highway department and asked he could include the two most important activities scheduled in Luckenbach.
“Sure,” he was told. “What are they?”
“Well,” Hondo replied slowly. “That’s Tuesday when the airplane flies over and Thursday when the potato chip man comes.”
So when the next year’s Calendar of Events was published, there it was for all the world to see in bold print:
Luckenbach. Tuesdays. Airplane flies over.
Luckenbach. Thursday. The potato chip man arrives.
And throughout Texas, people were wondering, “What is Luckenbach?” Where is Luckenbach? What should I know about Luckenbach that I don’t know?”
Suddenly, all roads were leading to Luckenbach, especially the dirt road, the only road in town.
They came by the thousands.
And they stayed awhile.
And they drank a little beer.
The general store seldom closed. I never went dry.
This ain’t a bad business, Hondo thought. If this many people come all the way out of their way for nothing, just imagine the traffic jams I could orchestrate if somebody had a reason to be in Luckenbach.
He gave them one.
Then he gave them another.
Hondo Crouch put on the Carrie Nation Memorial Hell Hath No Fury Like a Woman Scorned Chili Cookoff. He celebrated the return of the mud daubers in spring. He had an international hug-in for Valentine’s Day. And Hondo sponsored festivals for the invention of plywood and the anniversary of a gasoline tank explosion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. His pasture became a parking lot.
Hondo was suddenly smitten with a bad case of manifest destiny. At least, as near as he could figure, that’s what it was.
Hondo discovered it quite by accident, there amidst the cedar and Hackberry, the mesquite and bramble brush that thatched the hard-rock hillsides together. He said he had conducted a top secret, classified scientific experiment and came to the realization that Luckenbach, his own heaven and earth, was located in the exact center of the world.
He had sat down that morning an old globe he had rescued from an abandoned schoolhouse. And Hondo recalled of the historic occasion, “I took a piece of string and cut it the same size as the circumference of that globe. I put one end of the string on Luckenbach, wrapped it around the globe, and I’ll be damned if the other end didn’t fall on Luckenbach, too.”
Hondo Crouch felt he had an obligation to all of mankind. So he founded the Almost Annual World’s Fair at Luckenbach, serving up fried rattlesnake, along with armadillo chili on the half shell, while the hills came alive with such contests as husband calling, musket shooting, tobacco spitting, washer pitching, and the world renowned, breath-taking intergalactic chicken fly offs, where home-grown hens would come hurtling out of mail boxes with their wings flapping wildly and sounding for all the world like a chainsaw with some of its teeth missing. That was about the only time the mailboxes were used anymore since the post office had been boarded and shuttered.
Hondo even called in enough political favors to bring the Great Domino Confrontation to the dirt streets of that little beer drinking, a winner-take-all, no-holds-barred, no-quarter and no-mercy clash between Willie Nelson’s Pool Hall in Austin and the city of Luckenbach itself.
Hondo’s secret weapon was eighty-seven-year-old Louie Gerhart.
“How long you been playing dominoes?” I asked him.
“I don’t know,” he told me. “I ain’t quite done yet.’
When it was over, in the darkness of an early morning when even the full moon had darted behind a cloud, after Louie had clobbered Willie Nelson and his daddy at dominoes, the old man stood up, wiped his hands on his bib overalls, and walked out without a word.
“Wait a minute, Louie,” Hondo yelled. “Ain’t you gonna say goodbye to Willie?”
Louie Gerhart paused at the door, looked around, narrowed his eyes slightly in the shadows, glanced from face to face, frowned and snapped, “Which one of ‘em’s Willie?”
Name dropping never did get you anywhere in Luckenbach.
It was a night everyone in the Hill Country had been anticipating, the night when Hondo Crouch and Festus of Gunsmoke fame would both be sighted in the same room of Fredericksburg’s Country Club.
Hondo walked in one door. He was about as tall as a sawed-off shotgun. He had a white beard, a big cowboy hat on top of his head, and suspenders held up his jeans, which had been stuffed into his thistle-scarred boots.
In another door walked Festus. He was about as tall as a sawed-off shotgun. He had a beard, a big cowboy hat on top of his head, and suspenders held up his pants, which had been stuffed into his television-scarred boots.
The two men walked up to each other.
And a hush worked its way through the crowed.
Hondo looked Festus up and down and said, “Are you Festus?”
Festus looked Hondo up and down and said, “Are you Hondo?
The two men stared at each other for a moment, and Hondo finally spoke. “Are you as disappointed as I am?” he asked.
Some, it’s said, march to the tune of a different drummer.
Hondo owned the drum.
He would lean back in an old chair, strum Spanish songs on an old guitar, smile that shy smile of his, and declare, “You know, I just didn’t think you could have this much fun with your clothes on.”
Yet, he had homespun poetry tucked away within the hand-me-down laughter of his homemade soul.
For a long time, Hondo would tell people: “Nothing much happened in Luckenbach this month … except the plane flew over, and the potato chip man came … and, of course, there was daylight.”
He was well acquainted with daylight.
Hondo sat down one summer afternoon as dusk quietly crept its way among the thistles and scribbled an assortment of free-verse words on a piece of paper. He had them copyrighted, just because nothing had ever been copyrighted from Luckenbach before. With a gurgle of sweat-seasoned chili boiling all around him, he read them aloud:
“A Luckenbach daylight is that time of day y9ou wish would never go away … when BANG! … all of a sudden there’s no dark and there’s no light … and it’s foggy … and it isn’t. It’s as humble as life being born …
“Daylight in spring is when little dew drops are just clinging onto grass tips … just shivering from fright in the early morning light … ‘cause they know the sun is fixing to love ‘em to death. Don’t know why they shiver … it happens every morning. I guess they have hope.
“Daylight in summer is when little ol’ ladies are thinking about putting on big ol’ bonnets and long sleeves to hide them from the sun … and little young ladies are thinking about taking off their clothes to lie in it. Scares me!
A Luckenbach daylight is that magic time of day when just thousands and thousands of insignificant miracles are happening … And the squawking mockingbird will wake the sun. And the sun will tell the mamma hoot owl it’s time to fuss her wide-eyed babies to bed …
“And all the stars that were admired at night will take a back seat in the bus … and the fantastic firefly will be just a bug. But a giant weed will turn into a beautifu8l sunflower …
“Sad folks wake up and say, ‘nuther day.’
“I wake up and say, ‘There she is again! There she is again! Isn’t it funny … all this pretty stuff doesn’t happen unless I’m here.”
He’s not here anymore.
We sat together amidst the cedar and hackberry, Hondo whittling his walnut crosses and singing his old Spanish folk songs. He gazed toward the sky as the first legs of darkness trotted home to Luckenbach and said, “It’s hard to believe we have such a big moon for such a small town.”
And it was.
Three days later, his heart wore out for good. His friends rode silently in pickup trucks out into the pasture and spread his ashes on a knoll at the foot of an old oak that Hondo had always called “the laughing tree.” They remembered Hondo’s words when he talked about sundown.
He had written: “I can watch the sun going down from the patio – it’s the only time of day you can see it from here … and there it is just sitting … pooching its cheeks out … holding its breath … trying not to leave this pretty world I live in ….”
The Texas Hill Country is indeed a pretty world, even though Hondo doesn’t live there anymore. Yet, there are times, especially during the first moments of daylight, when I think I can hear the sound of a perfect rabbit call in the faraway distance. I feel the gravitational pull that only the center of the world can possibly have, hear the distant drone of an airplane engine overhead, wonder where the chickens are flying tonight, and I’m not really sure he ever left.