Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Highway to San Angelo--a Serial in 2 Parts

The Highway Cowboys on the Range--The Highway to San Angelo Part 2

Robert Elliott drove his father's car back over to his house, only a couple of blocks back west across Elm Creek from Teo's mansion, dropped it off, and joined Teo in the new Ford Custom coupe. It was one in the afternoon when they finally buzzed the new Ford over to North 1st Street, just across the Tee Pee tracks on the Northside. They were approaching Pine Street and Robert Elliott was fiddling with the radio trying find some good music. Abilene in those days had two types of stations, C&W or the Top Ten (just prior to Top 40). Robert Elliott settled on the Pop station. At least that station had to play Jimmy Reed a lot since Jimmy had a couple of top-chart hits all the time in those days, Found Love and Let It Roll, plus they had to play Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich and Ronnie Milsap, dudes Robert Elliott and Teo both could tolerate. When Frank Sinatra and Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin and big commercial crap like that came on, the boys turned the sound down and made their own music.

They approached the green light on Pine and North 1st, just in front of Tee Pee Park, the small bandbox park that sat nestled under old Elm trees by the side of the rather Gothic-looking Tee Pee train station that sat up above the park on the level with the railroad tracks, that crossed over Pine Street via a viaduct. Suddenly Teo slammed on his brakes and started cussing.
The Pine Street Underpass. The trees on the left showing above the viaduct is Tee Pee Park on the corner of Pine and North 1st. This photo was taken facing north looking up Pine from South 1st Street, the Bankhead Highway, Highway 80 West.

"You ever been to San Angelo," Teo asked Robert Elliott. Robert Elliott was cautious. He thought he knew why Teo had slammed on the brakes and started cussing. He thought he'd seen the same car. "Yeah, I used to go there when I did boardwork for Joe Ziggarut on his radio show," Robert Elliott said, "He broadcast from the San Angelo radio station once a week. I've been there two times with Joe. Great seafood restaurant we used to eat at." "Wanna go to San Angelo instead of Breckenridge?" "Why San Angelo?" "I just decided I want to go to San Angelo. I didn't mean to Socratically argue over it...I mean, what difference does it make?" "About 35 or 40 miles difference. It'll be dark before we get back." "Do you give a shit?" "No." "OK, so let's go to San Angelo." He turned right onto Pine, went under the underpass, then swung around left at the light on South 1st to shoot over to the new Treadway Boulevard that circumferenced the western edge of Abilene and sped you straight on out to South 14th where it met the Buffalo Gap Highway.

We were cruising along around 65, the speed limit in those days--it was later raised to 70. The Ford was running sweet, humming right along, the wind whistling in the side windows--it was a stick shift and certainly didn't have air-conditioning. It was a sturdily built car with a boogie-ing 6-cylinder engine that was cookin' on all six and the radio was playing underneath our jabber as we flew along, Teo goosing the young Ford up to 80 as we flew over the Callahan Divide.

"Did you ever eat catfish in Buffalo Gap?" Robert Elliott asked.

"Yeah. My dad was screwing a waitress at that catfish joint out there."

"Come on, man, you don't know that."

"Hell I don't. I know more than you do, so shut the fuck up about it."

He did know more about it than Robert Elliott did, so Robert Elliott did shut up about it. Robert Elliott knew enough about it to have heard rumors that Teo's father beat his mother sometimes. Though Teo's mother was the nicest woman you'd ever want to meet. She treated Teo like a prize child. All the hate he had for his father turned into love when it came to his mother. Robert Elliott saw her a lot but he never saw her injured or anything; yet, he knew firsthand Teo's father had a temper. Plus, Robert Elliott knew for sure, Teo always talked about it, he was a heavy drinker. But then everybody in Abilene knew that. Still, his old man was a local hero. He had his afternoon radio show on the C&W station of which he was a part owner. He also maintained a little band and promoted local young talent on his show by featuring a live music segment. There was one group of young men from down in Coleman, Texas, who later became really big C&W and Pop stars that Teo's father claimed he discovered and introduced to the world on his radio show.

Though Teo despised his father's music, he didn't despise the fact that that music had made his father rich. So rich, the old man had built a state-of-the-art recording studio behind the three-car garage just across from Teo's apartment entrance. That was the prize Robert Elliott loved going to Teo's for--yes, Teo's friendship, they were totally best friends, too, but also that recording studio. Teo's father would let Teo and Robert Elliott use it especially after his father gave Teo a Slingerland drum set, a beautiful set of drums, which Teo set up in the studio and left them there so his father's drummer could use them when his father's band recorded there. As a result, Teo got to use the studio when his father was working at the radio station or on the road with his C&W stage show.

Robert Elliott had never seen or heard Teo acknowledge by giving a nod of recognition or spoken greeting to his father. Strange, but, no, he had never seen Teo speak to his father. In fact, Robert Elliott had had conversation with the father. Yes, the man was an imposing figure. A big man. A big chested man. Teo, as a matter of fact, looked just like his father. And, yes, the father's legend had him as a mean bastard as a father but a great man as a C&W star and promoter. Except for telling him to never park behind his Caddy ever again, Robert Elliott had never had a problem with the man. Once while Robert Elliott was playing jazz on the studio piano, the dad had come in to pick something up out of his office. As he was leaving, he said to Robert Elliott, "If that jazz is all you can play, you'll never make a living in the music business." Robert Elliott had never forgotten that nor did he ever after that try to make a living in the music business.

After a long stretch of uninvolved driving, they got to Ballinger, Texas, where they turned onto Highway 87 and headed up the final 30 miles to San Angelo.

"Jesus, man, San Angelo's gonna be hard to crack...." Robert Elliott said, anticipating that first cold can of beer they were driving like a bat out of hell the 100 miles to San Angelo from Abilene for.

"Stop the paranoia, R.E. I can pass for 21 easy. Not you, you baby face son of a bitch! But, don't worry, I'll get us some beer."

As they came into San Angelo, they came to a traffic circle.

"Hey, look, there's Lake View High over that way. I once met a chick in Abilene who'd gone to Lake View."

"Yeah, that Sandy chick, I know who you mean."

"Yeah, Sandy. Nice ass."

"Not as nice as that Paula's ass I saw you with at Casey's that time."

"Paula Sturgeon. Yeah, she was an armload. Damn, look, Teo, a liquor store!"

They wheeled the new Ford into the round-buildinged liquor store. It had a clumsily big neon sign shaped like an arrow pointing down at the liquor store, the big word LIQUOR flashing on and off red twenty-four-seven, one assumed.
Cool old photo of US Army Air Force fighter flying over San Angelo; which was the home of Goodfellow Air Force Base during WWII.

Before going in the liquor store--liquor stores sold beer, too--cold beer by the case, the six-pack, or the can--Teo put on his disguise, an Abilene Blue Sox baseball cap, his black horned-rimmed glasses, and he rolled the sleeves of his short sleeve shirt up to bare his arms, then he inserted a pack of Camel cigarettes in the right arm sleeve--the heavy cigarette smokers of the day carried their cigs that way--I think it started with sailors in WWII. Teo was a cigarette smoker as were most high-school-age boys in those days. Cigarettes had no age limit on them. A five-year-old, one assumed, could buy a pack of cigs in those days.

Rigged out in his disguise, Robert Elliott had to admit Teo looked like a hardened twenty-one-year-old, the legal drinking age in Texas then. He watched his friend stride confidently through the glass doors and into the store. Robert Elliott could watch Teo move through the store due to the store's front being solid plate glass windows. He saw Teo carrying a case of beer up to the counter. He saw him take his billfold out. Shit, he thought, they're making him show an ID. Shit. Now we'll have to try every fucking store in San Angelo.

Distracted by a particularly awful tune playing on the radio, the next time Robert Elliott looked up Teo was sliding a case of Berghoff Beer, a Colorado beer that was $3.00 a case, into the car's back seat. Though Colorado beers, Walthers, Berghoff, Coors, were 3.2% alcohol in the State of Colorado, the Colorado breweries could export 6% alcohol beer to other states. Berghoff was a Pueblo, Colorado, beer.

"Is it cold?" Robert Elliott asked.

"Does your mother read the god-damn Bible?" Teo answered, popping the case open and pulling out two cold-sweaty cans. "These are pull tabs, too, man."

Pull tab beer cans were new. Before, you needed a metal-cutting church key to pop the top of a beer can. With the pull tabs it was simple, you simply pulled the tab pin, it looked like a hand grenade pin, with a quick action, and then you quickly brought the foaming beer up to your lips...and in a matter of seconds you were drinkin', man, drinkin' beers, smoking cigars, and blabbing about sexual intercourse, which girls you wanted to make it with, and which you wouldn't touch with the proverbial ten-foot pole. About as much fun as a high-school-aged illegal beer drinker could have in those days.

Robert Elliott was chugging his first beer as Teo pulled the Ford out onto the road and soon they were back at the traffic circle.

"You hungry?" Teo asked.

"I could handle a good chili dog or a Pronto Pup right now."

"Let's check the drive-in scene out here."

They found a drive-in and ordered chili dogs laced with raw onions. The onions were supposed to cover up the smell of the beer. They hid their opened beers on the floorboard of the Ford when the waitress took the order and later when she brought the food. They sat eating the chili dogs and scoping whatever San Angelo babes they could spot they liked. Like the waitress. Dixie was her name. At least that's what it said on her uniform nametag. And Dixie was sweet. Tall. Long ivory legs looking sexually pale and inviting in the high Texas sunlight. "Damn, R.E., check out that Mexican chick over there." "Hay, caramba, what a cula!" Robert Elliott whooped. The boys were getting "the buzz" on. What made beer such a cool way to get drunk. The buzz. And the buzz got better the more cans you downed...and so did the girl ogling and the whooping it up.

"Guess we'd better be heading back? Wanna go back the same way, or the Wild West way!" Teo asked.

"Same way back, man," Robert Elliott said. "Time waits for no man."

"Wow, brilliant. Did you think of that!" Teo teased.

They were happy. They were in a new Ford. They had a case of cold beer...well, there were several beers missing from the case by the time Teo tooled the new Ford back out to the traffic circle and soon they were zipping along back down the way they had come in the first place.

It was late afternoon by now...way late...the sun an orange orb slowly sailing down to float just above the western horizon before it sank off the edge of the world and left behind one of its Van-Gogh-like sunset paintings in the darkening sky.

They had just sailed through Ballinger doing 70 when the motor of the Ford sputtered. Just a little sputter at first but a noticeable one.

"What the fuck...," Teo said.

Then there was another sputter. This time the car coughed out a backfire! Next thing they knew they were pulling the new Ford off onto the highway shoulder. There was smoke coming out from under the hood.
A 1956 Ford Custom Tudor. Teo's was white and pink.

Teo pulled the hood latch open from under the dashboard and then went around front and opened up the hood. Steam was freed in big gushes once the hood was up.

"We're boiling over!" Teo shouted.

Robert Elliott got out of the car. He faced west and caught a face full of mad sun, a mad sinking sun, burnt out, you might say, after broiling the earth without stop for 12 long hours. He got in the backseat and popped himself another Berghoff. The air was getting hotter not cooler he thought as he chugged half the beer down in one long open-throated gulp.

"I need something to take that radiator cap off," Teo said, coming around to the side of the car. It's boiling like a motherfucking volcano, man; I gotta get that cap off 'fore it blows. God-damn new car; there's no rags in it yet."

"Use your shirt!" Robert Elliott teased. "Or why can't we just let it cool down on its ain't gonna blow! Look, it's calming down now. See. Have a cold one and relax. Enjoy the sunset."

"Holy crap!" Teo yelled, "come on, man, it's gonna get dark soon, let's flag a car down. I've probably got AAA if we can get somebody to drive us up to a phone. Where the fuck are we?"

"We just left Ballinger...what's next, Winters?" Robert Elliott answered, already opening another beer.

"Shit, Winters, yeah, I can phone from Winters...." He walked out and looked up and down the highway. "Here comes a car...let me see...." Teo started waving at an approaching car. The car whizzed by without a glance. "Hey, you fuckin' hick asshole!" Teo hollered at the car.

He came back to the car and had Robert Elliott pop him a beer.

"Look she's cooled down a lot," Robert Elliott said, "But where can we find some water around here?"

They both looked around. There was a fallow field to their right and across the highway to their left was a field of mesquites and prickly pears.

"Shit, a brand new fucking car and this happens!" Teo said then slugging back his beer in the same fashion Robert Elliott slugged his back.

"It's probably the timing or something."

"Yeah, it's the distributor cap--it's misfiring or something. Probably nothing serious."

"Maybe we drove too fast coming over here. Aren't you supposed to break them in?"

"Can't be the oil. The red light didn't come on."

"How about the fan belt slipping!" Robert Elliott said.

"Yeah, damn right, that could be it." Teo loped around to the front of the car again. "Yeah, son of a bitch, it's the fanbelt, man. Flag a car down, man."

Robert Elliott went out to the road. Way back up toward Ballinger he saw a car coming. He started waving his arms at it. The car was obviously traveling pretty damn fast. Then he could see it was a big car. A black car. It was coming fast as hell. He was flapping his arms like mad but the big car came on obviously with no intention of stopping or even avoiding Robert Elliott where he stood with one foot out on the highway. He jumped back just as the big black Caddy shot by. "You god-damn son of a bitchin' motherfuckin'...." Then he looked closer and his thoughts went back to when he was backing his dad's car out of the Lesser Mansion driveway and Teo's dad backed his big new Caddy out and then ran it at him. God-damn, he thought, that was Teo's dad that just almost ran me down. "Teo! Teo!" Robert Elliott ran to the front of the car. "Teo, guess what?" "What?" "That was your old man who just almost hit my ass out there!" "Did he see you?" "God-damn right he saw me. He saw you, too, man, it ain't that dark yet."

The next car coming Teo flagged it down. It stopped. It was a farmer type. "What's wrong, boys? Need some hep?" "Yeah, I got a loose fanbelt." "On that new Ford? Nice lookin' car. How's she runnin' otherwise." "Fine, we just wanna get back to Abilene 'fore sundown...." "You ain't gonna make it to Abilene 'fore sundown, give up on that, but I think I kin hep you boys." He went to his car, opened up his trunk, and came back with some tools. "Yeah, lemme take a look at that fanbelt." He went under the hood, got up on the bumper and leaned in over the fan and the fanbelt. He took a wrench and did something. Then he climbed out and back onto the ground. "That ought'a fix that. Now we jes' gotta get you boys some H2O and you'all shouldn't have no trouble gettin' back to Abilene." "I don't see any water for miles around here," Teo said. "No problem, I gotta a water can in my car, still half full of water."

"Son of a bitch," Teo said to Robert Elliott, "I may start believing in human beings again."

The man brought a big water can like they use on construction sites and stuff. Teo popped the radiator cap and the man and Teo hoisted the water can up and poured water into the radiator.

"There ya go, boys, ye're'as good as new now. Nice lookin' motor. How old's this car?"

"Brand new," Robert Elliott said.

"We owe you anything?" Teo asked.

"Naw. I will take a couple a'them beers youall are drinkin'--if they're cold."

"Damn right, take as many as you like."

As he was pulling away Robert Elliott noticed the deputy sheriff medallion on the car's back license plate.

"Look, man, that son of a bitch is a cop," Robert Elliott said as they climbed back into the Ford to see if it would start.

"Son of a bitch! You sure!"

"It said Runnels County Sheriff's Department then Deputy on that medallion over his license plate."

"Let's get the fuck out of here!" Teo said as the Ford started up fine and the motor was purring like a kitten and the temperature gauge was sitting on COLD. Teo pulled out onto the highway and soon they were tooling along again, drinking fresh beers, singing "Reelin' and a Rockin'" a recent Chuck Berry chart ascender, and back in their high-school-boy mode.

They went fifteen or so miles at 55 mph, it was beginning to get dusky, kind of dark already on the right side of the highway, the left side still lit up by the now half-sunk sun. Then Teo kicked it up to 65 and they were spinning along just fine when suddenly up ahead they saw a strange sight. It looked like a car had gone off the highway, you could just see the skidmarks on the highway and then the torn up shoulder. It looked like a car had skidded off the highway and gone down in a ditch. They couldn't tell. They didn't slow down but kept sailing along, the closer they got to the off-the-road car, the better they could see it, until almost on it, when they both immediately saw it was a big new black Caddy. Still not slowing down, they saw, yes, it had gone off the road, and, yes, it was down in a ditch, and, yes, it looked like a bad accident, and, yes, it was definitely Teo's father's car.

"Teo, stop, stop, that's your dad's car...."

Teo didn't stop.

"Teo, man, that's your dad...come on, man."

Teo didn't stop. In fact, Teo sped up. Teo sent that Ford to flying.

"Teo. Hey, man. Do you know what you're doing?"

Teo said, "Hand me another beer, R.E."

Robert Elliott handed Teo a beer. The beers were getting hot now. They'd drank over half a case, plus the ones they'd given to the deputy sheriff. They were, Robert Elliott assumed, drunk. He thought if they had to take a sobriety test they might fail it. Robert Elliott considered himself still in the buzz stage, though he was so confused right now over what had just transpired, still he thought himself rational in a sober sense.

Teo didn't say another word the short way back into Abilene. When he dropped Robert Elliott off at his house, he said, abruptly, "Give me a call tomorrow, man, I've got that new Ornette Coleman album I told you about." With that, Teo drove off toward home.

The next morning the headlines in the Abilene Reporter-News were wreathed in black with bold black font roaring the tragic fact that the C&W legend had been found dead--from an apparent heart attack it was declared--in his brand new Cadillac on Highway 83 coming back to Abilene from a radio broadcast he'd done in San Angelo.

Later that afternoon, Teo came by the house. He was feeling good, light-hearted, as if a big burden had been lifted off him. Why, he was even happy acting, very unusual for so cynical a young man. "Wanna go to Casey's?" He asked Robert Elliott.

"Yeah. Nothing else to do. Besides, I'm in the mood for some chili dogs."

"Yeah, me, too," said Teo, "piled high with raw onions."
The Highway to San Anglo
a 2-Part Serial
signed: Austin Highchew

for The Daily Growler

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