Highway Cowboys (Part 1, The Highway to San Angelo)
We thought east and west and not north and south. East was the direction of the closest best chances of survival in the civilized senses. West was the direction of the Golden Gate, the farthest best chances of survival in the more glorious senses. East was the direction of joining the established. West was the direction dreamers took. No talk of evolution. Not in this land. Surely only gods and devils could have made such a fickle land. A testing land. A land where there's only faith and grit--not much in the way of hope. Hope was something you wore on your watch chain or bracelet as a charm. Usually symbolized by a ship's anchor--land being a sailor's only hope of salvation from the gulping monsters and savage storms of the seas. This land was a land where charms were necessary. The ancient people of this land used all the charms they could invent: rattles, drums, bird feathers, animal skulls and bones, porcupine quills, animal imitations, constant mesmerized dancing, the rhythms of this land stirring the feet, stirring the instincts...a land of wind dancers...a land learned in the ways of the instincts of the coyote, the bobcat, the puma, the Gila monster, the vinegaroon, the scorpion, the tarantula, the Child of God, the fox, the wolf, the bear, the bison, the mountain goat, the mountain sheep, the pronghorn antelope, the mustang, the ancient armadillo, the javelin--the horned toad, the rattlesnake, the chaparral, the wild turkey, the turkey buzzard, the red hawk, the eagle, the bat, the jackrabbit, the longhorn, the mesquite tree, the cedar tree, the shrub oak, the prickly pear, the goathead, the cockleburr, the wild grass, the wild wind, the home of loneliness and aloneness and lonesome song and lone wolves and mavericks and bandits and outlaws and sheriffs and deputies and the U.S. Cavalry, the Buffalo soldier, the drifter, the grifter, the flim-flammer, the gambler, the whore, the gunslinger, the rugged individual, the cottonpicker (the "wetback," bracero), the cedarchopper, the Comanche, the Apache, the Cherokee, the transplanted Chickasaw (the original "Indian Territory"--the gulag Jackson forced all the Native Americans he could force march out of the east to collect them in, to imprison them within their own concentration-camp territory--extended from all of Oklahoma over into western Missouri and then down southward to include a big chunk of north and central Texas) , the half breed, the hardtack--the constant praying for rain, rain dancing, shaking fists upward towards the high sky, calling down the saving rains. Dry. That's the key word for this country. Constant thirst. The high strong sun sucking the water up out of every living thing below it. All below it dependent on water for life! The sun sucking the water out of the land leaving wavy fields of sand and prepottery red clay, yards of caliche, a potash-infused earth, a gypsum-laced earth, artesian water, the water of the deep bowels of the earth--and of course oil and gas and oil and gas and oil and gas and fields of flares....
There were two ways to get to San Angelo from Abilene. Both had at one time been trails. Originally worn into paths by the Clovis people, the Aztec, Coronado's Children, by the Native Americans, by the stealthful humans and animals who used these trails to follow the enormous herds of bison and later as the highways for the huge herds of longhorn cattle being moved from the Mexican border and South Texas ranches up north to the Kansas railheads, to the cattle pens of Abilene, Dodge City, Atchison, Topeka, on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad, the railroad that carried those carloads and carloads and carloads of live Mexican-Texas cattle to their deaths in the great slaughterhouses of Omaha and Chicago. One of those old trails was the longest and scariest way to San Angelo, leaving out of far southwest Abilene city limits, out the Capps Highway, over the Santa Fe tracks at View, Highway 277, heading south to Happy Valley then on to Bronte (Charlotte or Emily, take your pick)--that way. The other way to San Angelo was the quickest way. The modern way. Out Butternut Street, out to the Buffalo Gap Highway, then onto Highway 83, following the Abilene & Southern railroad tracks over the Callahan Divide, all the way to Ballinger where you pealed off onto Highway 87--that way. That was the fastest way. The much-better highway. You could do a 100 mph on Highway 277 but it was deadly scary if you did. 100 mph on Highway 83 wasn't so scary. They kept that highway in great shape. By the 1950s, it was two lanes going out of Abilene and over the cut-down Callahan Divide. A superslick highway.
In those days there was only one reason for an Abilenean of any kind to go to San Angelo. That was booze. San Angelo was in Tom Green County and Tom Green was a wet county. Abilene was in Taylor County. Abilene had been founded as a planned city. Laid out by the Texas & Pacific Railroad, the Tee Pee, the center of town the railroad station and stock pens, the town divided by the train tracks into a north side and a south side. The North Side was the established part of Abilene; the South Side was the wild side. Courthouse Square on the Southside was where the cowboys hung out, where the wagon yard was, where the stables were, where the stockman hotels were, where the Buffalo soldiers hung, where blacks (like the famous Black cowboy Bill Pickett) and whites mixed and Native Americans hung around, where the court house and the sheriff's office and jail was, all in the Taylor County Courthouse where the hanging judges held court, where the public hangings, if necessary, were held, in the side park, a shady little park with a covered bandstand in the middle of it. The Northside was the side where the old rich lived and where the big churches were--where the church-run colleges were. The Southside was where the fun was--the Southside was home of the cheap movie houses, the greasy spoon coffee shops, and the last remaining cathouse in Abilene, the T&P Hotel on South First, an establishment where many a young Abilene boy lost his virginity--and caught his first case of crabs or if a regular patron perhaps a sweet case of gonorrhea. The T&P Hotel where Uncle Johnny, a big bellied always smilin' Black man, sat in a cane-bottomed chair and would greet and screen every living thing that came up off the street to go into the hotel. "How, y'all, today, Mistah Suh? That yo' boy? Fine lookin' y'ungin', Mistah Suh. Takes all after his fatha, I bet'cha!" Then Uncle Johnny would open the screen door for you and in you'd go: up to the front desk where the heavily perfumed and ostentatiously adorned Miss Callie was the desk clerk. "I'm sorry, sir, but our rooms are only rented by the hour...and, oh, too, you must be accompanied to the room by one of my attendant ladies...." Seven bucks an hour. A lot of money in them thar days. For seven bucks you got laid, or if you couldn't get it up, it got you a long conversation about the unfairnesses of life from a couple of angles. For seven bucks you didn't get to pick; you got what you were given, beauty or beast; them was the chances you took.
The original Abilene was wide open prior to its being settled long enough to have a Northside style and a Southside style. In the early days, Abilene was founded in 1881, there were bars and whore houses every 50 feet or so along Pine Street, the big main street on the north side of the Tee Pee tracks. And there was the same thing over the tracks on the south side along Poplar Street, and especially around where the cowboys hung out, South Second up past South Third. Once the town was settled and the parts of town got to be defined by the people who lived in them, the do-gooders took over and that spelled the doom of Abilene's sites of sin. The do-gooders ran the bars and whore houses, except for the T&P Hotel, out of town, and turned Taylor County "Christian" and therefore dry in terms of licker, wine, and beer.
There were closer places to Abilene than San Angelo where you could get booze. Like Breckenridge. Breckenridge was 65 miles east of Abilene over in the old Ranger Oil Field. Breckenridge started as an oil boomtown, but after the boom ended, it kept its wet state and was home to several big side-of-the-highway liquor stores. One problem with going to Breckenridge, though, was the highway that got you there. It was not as well-kept as Highway 83 to San Angelo was. It was not a straight-shot highway like 83 either; Highway 180 was tricky with sudden bad curves and wind-around-hills stretches. Like you could no way do 100 mph on Highway 180. It was hard to even do 65 or 70 steady on that road.
Highway 180 departed Abilene out past Holy Hump, where Abilene Christian College sat then and still does now, except it's a university now. The highway then snaked out past the old Hashknife Ranch land to then suddenly drop sideways off the high mesa you never knew you were riding on. The highway took long broad swoops off that mesa that was known locally as Albany Hill as it bullwhipped down into the old ranching town of Albany. It then snaked out of Albany and then snake-climbed to hit another mesa-level stretch that flung you on into Breckenridge. Theoretically, you could 'round-trip-it to San Angelo on superslick highway 83 quicker than you could do it to Breckenridge on the precarious Highway 180.
A big difference between Abilene and San Angelo, too, at least in the minds of Abileneans, was the difference between raising cattle and raising sheep. Abilene was Hereford country. Herefords were the heartiest cattle on earth in those days, developed in the Abilene-Lubbock area--there's a Hereford, Texas, up on the Cap Rock--they are stocky, beefy, dry-land-living-dry-grass-eating cattle. Why there was no steak for years around Abilene like an aged Hereford steak! Grilled over a mesquite wood fire! or a live-oak or pecan fire--different woods different flavors.
San Angelo on the other hand was at that time and had been for a long time the wool capital of the world! San Angelo was on the Edwards Plateau and the Edwards Plateau was a well-watered plain of old grassland. It was sheep country! And cattlemen hated sheepmen! Sheepmen put up fences! Cattlemen hated fences. "Give me room lots of room 'neath the starry skies above/Don't fence me in," Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers used to sing on the area jukeboxes. Or Eddy Arnold, The Tennessee Plowboy, was singing, "He's brown as a berry, from ridin' the prairie/Out where the doggies roam/As he rides along, he's singing his song/Singin' his cattle call." Followed by a lonesome yodel! Now give me a sheepherder song! In the opening scene of one of Roy Rogers's 1940s movies, his sidekick, Gabby Hayes, is shootin' his Winchester repeater madly at a bunch of sheepherders who are asking permission to drive their sheep through Gabby's cattle range to get to a watering hole. As he fires at these poor sheepmen, he's hollering, "Sheeeep, ohhhhh how I hate sheep! And sheepherders, oooooooh how I hate...Git off my property, you sorry..."
San Angelo's cowboys were sheepmen. OK, they had cattlemen down there, too. San Angelo had the Santa Fe Railroad--and the Kansas City, Mexico & Orient Railroad, too--and, San Angelo was on a cattle trail. San Angelo also had had the US Calvary down there at Fort Concho--over at Fort Chadbourne. Abilene was on the Butterfield Trail and the Butterfield Trail passed through Fort Chadbourne, which was just west of San Angelo.
Abilene's high-class cowboy hotel was the Abilene Hilton, one of the first-ever Hilton hotels, the first one established in Cisco, Texas, 30 miles east of Abilene on old Highway 80. The Abilene Hilton later became the Windsor. In the lobby of the Abilene Hilton was a mural depicting a cattle drive. The high-class cowboy hotel in San Angelo was the Cactus.
The Abilene Hilton on the left; San Angelo's Cactus Hotel on the right.
So, there you go, San Angelo, as far as Abileneans were concerned, was blasted for having sheep but blessed by having booze.
For some reason, and even to this day it's not clear in his head, he remembers he was with his best friend, it was a summer afternoon, they were 17, in Abilene High together, and this best friend had just been given a new 1956 Custom Ford coupe as a birthday present by his father. His father was a big shot Country Western (C&W) star who was nationally famous and had oodles of money. Rather than love his first-born son he spoiled him, building him his own apartment in the family mansion with its own private entrance and filling that apartment with the latest stuff, like a hi-fi record player and hundreds of records, a small well-stocked library, and a closet full of cool clothes. So this guy's best friend accepted all these spoils though in return he meanly despised his father. What kind of "dad" is it who gives his son material offerings instead of relative love and understanding, he was constantly asking.
Robert Elliott and his best friend Teo sat on the floor of Teo's private apartment in the far back out-of-the-way corner of his parents's mansion in the swanky new Abilene neighborhood called Elmwood West.
"So, listen, man," Robert Elliott said to Teo, "let's go break in that fucking car."
"Fuck that car and the fat bastard who gave it to me. Fuck him. I have a good mind to plough that god-damn car straight into his new Cadillac."
"Yeah, I saw the Caddy when I drove up. In fact, shit, I parked behind him...."
"Oh fuck yeah, you better get your ass out there and move it before...." Teo was yelling as Robert Elliott flew out the door of the apartment and raced around to move his car that really was his dad's car. He got there just in time because just as he got to his car Teo's father all dressed up in his Western suit and high crown Stetson came bowling out of the mansion's driveway-side side door.
"Sorry, Mistah Lesser, I'm movin' it, don't worry." "Yeah, good. Don't ever park behind me again," he meanly growled as he got into his bright and shiny brand new Cadillac, a truly cool black Sedan de Ville. A long slim sleek beauty of a luxury car. No one could deny it was a good-looking car. "Don't worry, Mistah Lesser, it won't happen again."
He backed his dad's car out into the street and waited as Teo's dad backed his Caddy out. When the Caddy was out of the driveway, Teo's dad goosed the gas to that big car, burnt rubber, and in a scary lunge raced the Caddy right square-dab at his dad's car only to whiz just passed, almost sideswiping him. Then Robert Elliott pulled his dad's car into where the big Caddy had been. Teo's mother's beauty of a '56 Chevy was in the far garage of the triple gargage and parked behind it was Teo's new Ford coupe. "Lucky Teo," Robert Elliott thought as he made his way back to Teo's apartment.
"Your dad almost sideswiped me!"
"Yeah. What happened?"
"I got out there just as he was coming out the kitchen door. I was cool. I told him I was moving it and he told me...like, 'Don't ever park behind me again!'...I said, 'Yassuh, Massuh.'"
"Shit. Fuck him. Park behind him anytime you want. Was he drunk?"
"I don't know, Teo. I backed out into the street and he backed out and then put the pedal down and I thought he was gonna hit me head on."
"Son of a bitch. God, I hate that bastard."
"Come on, man, let's take the Ford out for a test drive."
"You know what we should do?"
"Let's drive over to Breckenridge and get some fucking beer."
"Come on, man. We can't buy beer in Breckenridge."
"Little Whiny told me they don't check your ID if you act like you're cool and older, you know, just walk in, grab a case of beer, pay for it, and sail out of there. That simple."
To Be Continued...tune in again tomorrow, same time, same station...
for The Daily Growler
Lester Young's autograph.