XL features Guitartown

That small piece of artwork that I helped complete a while back (and wrote about here) has been featured in the XL portion of the Austin American-Statesman.

Here’s a link to the story and the photo gallery.

Here’s the important part:


Where: Outside the Littlefield Building, 106 E. Sixth St.

S.C. Essai’s sly ‘Cybertar’ communicates on multiple levels. Made from ‘dead computer parts’ Essai has collected over her years working in the tech industry, the geek-chic guitar represents Austin to the core. ‘This is sort of a way to merge elements of Austin, merge the high-tech with the music,’ she says. ‘I’m one of not a whole lot of people whose art is made from spare computer parts. And the name I use is part of the art itself. SCSI is an abbreviation that stands for Small Computer Systems Interface.’ Very clever. Essai painted the individual pieces and worked diligently to sculpt them into the (difficult, it turns out) contours of her fiberglass canvas.


March 15, 2019. I cannot find a single working link to any of the Gibson Guitartown information that was easily accessible at the time that I wrote this piece. The Statesman has hit hard times and no longer keeps records online where they can be found. Gibson has also removed all the data to an archive that is a pale reflection of what existed previously. I may have to reach out to the people who put the original pages together and find out if there is any way to get them onto the Wayback machine so that this period in history is not lost to the future. This is something we are going to have to take much more seriously.

Home is Where the Heart Is

A story about the old home town, on Thanksgiving.

Thanksgiving was my favorite holiday when I was growing up. I called a small town in Western Kansas home for most of my childhood years and Leoti, Kansas still occupies a special place in my memories even though it may not be home now. I lived in Leoti for eleven of my first fourteen years. Now that the grandparents have passed and dad has moved to Colorado (and also passed) I have a hard time thinking of Leoti as home anymore. But I know every square inch of the place intimately.

A small town is a great thing when you are a child. You can ride your bike in the street with little or no concern for car traffic. Amber Gribbon lived in the house facing the main highway, directly across the alleyway from our house. Amber is the only person I know who was struck by a car in the 11 years that I lived in Leoti. She had just been given a brand new pair of sneakers for her birthday, and she thought she could run faster than a car after putting them on. She was quite unhappy to find out that she couldn’t. Not as unhappy as the driver she ran out in front of. That was probably his worst day, a nightmare come true for any driver. She enjoyed showing us her cast and telling us the story, but she seemed no worse for wear even with the cast.

In a small town, everybody knows you. More importantly, everyone knows who your parents are, so you know that everything you do will probably get back to them. Nearly everything worth doing is within easy walking distance so there is no need to drive, at least not with any sort of a hurry required.

My paternal grandparents lived 7 blocks away, just past the old City Park. I always think of that direction as North. I don’t know why. I know full well that Tribune is a half-hour drive down the road in that direction, and that the Rocky mountains are visible not too far West from Tribune. That direction has to be West, not North. But in my head Grandma was North of our house. When I think of directions in relation to home as it was then, I have always gotten the directions shifted by 90°. The front of our house faced Grandma’s house, and that way was North in my head. Maybe it’s the wanderers desire to go where the sun goes that makes me think of that direction as the direction to go, or maybe it was that I felt safe at Grandma’s house. I’ll probably never know.

Hyland’s Map

Our family had lived in the area for several generations by that point. Our Grandfather’s uncle had bequeathed his property to the state (after his only son died) for the purpose of turning it into a state park. It still is a state park, (Kansas Travel) featuring one of the few natural springs in the area. I still have the map Grandpa drew for me showing how the homestead was laid out. He once told me the story of how the orginal dam was made of wood, a palisades dam as he described it, not the concrete dam you can see there now. One spring brought heavier than average rains and, as he told the story,

We watched the wave of water advance on the dam from the top of the nearby hill. the water covered the dam and went over it. When the flood passed where the dam had been, there was no remaining evidence that the dam (and our work) had ever been there. The ground was scraped clean.

Steele homestead, Scott State Park

The only other story of working with his uncle that I can recall him telling was when the university types began to take interest in the indian artifacts that they found when grandpa and his uncle were out working the fields. The guy nearly had a stroke and then a whole bunch more of them showed up and started digging around in the dirt looking for more useless stuff. I think that was my first introduction to the field of archeology. I’ve remained fascinated with useless stuff ever since.

There were (and still are) at least a hundred Steele relatives in the immediate area of Wichita, Scott and Saline counties, and about that many Heims (Grandmother’s family) as well, so a family gathering was a massive affair, something to really look forward to. Grandmother loved Thanksgiving. She loved to cook, and there would be pies galore. Pies made from the sour cherry trees she and Hyland cultivated on the backside of their property, pies that were baking a week in advance in preparation for the family event. Everybody brought a dish of their own, in addition to the massive turkey that would be cooking in the old gas oven at Grandma’s house.

You never knew who would show up for the event from year to year. The same old regulars would generally be there; Uncle Jake, Edna and Ted, Uncle Russ. But there also seemed to be a varying cast of additional characters that you never really got to know, but you knew were related somehow. They’d explain it to you if you asked, but I could never keep it all straight.

Dorothy, Evey and Edna. At least, I think that is Edna with her back to the camera.

A little after noon the feast would commence, and it didn’t stop for the rest of the day. After the initial round, the adults would break into groups and play cards or watch the football game, with the occasional return to grandmothers massive cherry banquet table, just to make sure that you were indeed no longer hungry. The children would go out and play in the croquet court that was Grandad’s pride and joy. It had poured concrete curbs and the bare earth could be leveled flat by an enormous angle-iron drag that I towed by hand around the court more times than I care to mention. The children could also just wander around town if they liked. The yard had no fence having once been just the verge of the fields that grandfather owned, fields now sold off to neighbors for their houses to be built on. Everyone knew Hyland and Hyland knew all of them. It was a very relaxed affair.

I can remember those times as clearly as if I was sitting in the old house right now. I cast myself back and I can picture the polished wooden floors in the kitchen. Floors inset with a dual light colored band that we used to mark off our kid-sized bowling lane until someone wanted to watch the television. To the right would have been the kitchen proper with it’s breakfast bar jutting into the room and high stools to prop yourself up on so you could chat while Grandma cooked. If you went to the left down the hallway you’d come out in the breezeway after taking a left at the washing machine, and if you went around the garage that was right in front of you there would be the double line of cherry trees. To the right was the back of the Methodist church were Grandpa sang every Sunday. If you followed the road past the church you would be facing the old Leoti High School (now the elementary school) on one corner, and on the other facing corner there was an A&W drive-in that tried to compete with the Dairy King that was on the other end of town. Dairy King is still there. It’s better situated, being right across from the fairgrounds and the softball/baseball diamonds.

The town has changed from what I remember. It has changed and yet it is still exactly the same in some fundamental ways. A friend of mine who worked for Broadwing (a fiber optic cabling company) had a tire blowout while she was on the road back in the 1990’s. It was Sunday and she needed to be somewhere else, but she wasn’t going anywhere until her car was fixed. She had taken a room at the only motel in the little town she was in and called me to pass the time since there was nothing else to do there. She remembered me mentioning that I had grown up in Kansas and wanted commiserate with me on how flat and boring Kansas was. I asked her where she was. She said “Leoti”.

I told her to hang on, and I made a call to my uncle Frank. Uncle Frank was Dad’s best friend and owned the gas station directly across the street from my Dad’s (Grandad’s before him) filling station in Leoti. Between them they owned the only two fueling spots in the entire county when I lived there. While I hadn’t spoken to Frank in several years, I knew he would remember me. Sure enough, we dropped right back into old times, and as soon as I mentioned my friend’s problems, he said not to worry about it.

My friend called me in amazement a few minutes later. “How did you do that? Every place in town is closed, I checked.” Two guys showed up with a tow truck, took the car down the road to the service station, and got it back on the road in a few hours. This happened on a Sunday in rural Kansas, where nothing gets done on Sunday. I just called an old friend, I said. Someone I really should have talked to more frequently.

Where the wart is now.

I have visited Leoti since then and I didn’t like the changes much. Frank’s son had inherited the family business and had to compete with a convenience store that they had built just off the town square. They knocked down what I remembered as a ginormous brick building, the home of Jaeger Implement for all of my memory, and erected a split faced concrete block and painted steel wart, right in the center of town. Well, the wart of a convenience store is directly across the street from what was the slab of the first grocery store in town, never rebuilt after the fire that gutted it, with what I always remembered as the State Farm insurance offices built on the back half the corner with brick tables and benches taking up the other half. The bank building on the opposite corner never was a bank in my memory even though everything about it said bank other than the occupant who lived there.

The store facing the wart across 4th street was the Three Way department store. It had a basement that mom lost me in once. I went exploring while she was shopping, and she nearly had a heart attack looking for me before I got bored and wandered back upstairs. It’s a True Value Hardware now, according to Google. The hardware store was the store further down the block. It had dusty, unfinished wooden floors and a narrow aisle that went front to back and exited on the alleyway at the back. A few doors down was the newspaper offices, right next to Pepper’s IGA, which was built as the only movie theater in Leoti way back before I was born. It was Pepper’s IGA when I tried my hand at shoplifting as a child. I had to go back in with my backside smarting to pay the cashier for the candy that I stole. I never did that again, but the shopkeepers never forgot it. They were always chasing me out of the stores when they would catch me reading comic books on the floor like it was my living room. All of town was my living room, from where I saw it.

What became Pepper’s IGA

The place where Peppers was is now an empty, grass-covered lot. The building that had been a theater and was later the IGA burned down a few years after my one childhood criminal act. It burned down like so many of Peppers’ businesses did before he was cordially invited to leave town. Next to that was the courthouse and the library, my home away from home. I could lay on the floor and read all day there and no one would chase me out for doing it, either. I still get nostalgic walking into a library. The smell of books always brings that feeling back.

The tavern is still the second building behind the insurance office across Broadway from the wart (Sinclair? In Kansas? Since when?) right where I remember it being. I remember it being there because of the many times Grandpa would drive us downtown on errands to buy groceries for Grandma. He’d always have to stop in and shoot a snooker game with the boys along the way. Further down Fourth Street in that direction was the Post Office and the barbershop, before you ran into the old fire station (now the Museum of the Great Plains) if you take a right there and go two blocks you will hit the elementary school that I attended.

Across the street from the tavern, the Post Office and the terrifying barbershop was the Rexall drug store and the Ben Franklin’s five and dime thrift store. I always get the location for that drug store mixed up because the druggist (pharmacist) lived on the other end of Fourth Street, two houses closer to the library than our cross street was. Seven blocks from home to school, and I walked that distance every day that there wasn’t snow on the ground, sometimes even then. When I got my first bike and was liberated from walking everywhere, I rode all over town, exploring every street.

I could even ride across the railroad tracks, an ominous barrier a full two blocks further over from the school, that I only dared to cross once prior to that, and I did it in order to speak to the girl I was sweet on when I was about ten or twelve. I remember that incident because a kid named Ray lived near her. He hated me and I knew he could run faster than me. But I got away scott free that day. Liberated on my bicycle I could even ride to my friend Mitch’s house, a full three or four blocks farther North on Fourth Street from the railroad tracks. Why, that was nearly out of town!

On the other end of Fourth Street, on the South edge of town, was the Catholic church where I went to see what Catholicism was all about with my aunt Betty and Uncle Clem. They moved into town the last few years that I lived in Leoti, and they built a house on the corner that lead back towards the swimming pool, one block down Fourth Street from where the Wichita County hospital was at the time. The city offices now sit where the hospital was, caddy-corner across the alleyway from my old house, and the hospital is now two blocks further back from Fourth on the other side of the street, next to what we baldly proclaimed as the Old Folks Home back in the day. We could see the building every day that we were swimming during the summer since it was across the county park from the pool.

I remember the Old Folks Home because that was were they put Grandma after she started showing signs of Alzheimer‘s. The year we went back for Thanksgiving and the Wife made Dad take his cigarettes outside to smoke. Grandma thanked her for that. “I hate the way those things smell.” Dad comically shivered and looked mournful out on the porch all by himself. That was the year that the Daughter got to meet her great grandmother. The last time we all got together and laughed as a family. The last real Thanksgiving, in my estimation.

Grandma died in 2000, eighteen years after the love of her life, Hyland. His former filling station is now a bare concrete slab. One of the eight different businesses that he ran during his long lifetime in Leoti Kansas. When Grandpa saw something that needed doing, he’d figure out a way to get a business started that could do it. If the business didn’t make money or was too much work, he’d sell it. If it did make money and he liked doing the work, he’d keep it. His house was bought by the town mayor after Grandma no longer needed it. The mayor painted the house grey and took out the raised flower bed outside the living room picture window that was Grandma’s pride and joy. All of the cherry trees have died and grass grows where they and the croquet court used to be. Time changes everything.

Kansas, it’s a great place to be from. Home is someplace else now. Thanksgivings are just not the same anymore. The cherry pies are sweeter and they don’t have that sour bite that Grandma’s pies had. When you have to do the cooking, and you hate cooking like I do, Thanksgiving becomes a chore that you’d just as soon not engage in. Chores like putting up and taking down decorations that no one notices in the big city. They don’t look unless your entire neighborhood loses its mind and lights the entire street and all the trees. Then they show up and they never stop coming until you take the lights back down again. Traffic snarled for blocks in all directions so badly that you can’t even get home to enjoy the holiday. Who wants that?

Grandpa hosted the nativity scene for the Methodist church on his front lawn every year. He had life-sized statues with bales of hay around the animals, and strings of multicolored lights hung on all the eves of the house. We’d go out and help him set up the display not too long after the Thanksgiving feast was over. We never had anyone come by to gawk that I can remember, certainly not enough of them that we couldn’t get into the house when we wanted. But he went through the labor every year, just like Grandma did for Thanksgiving. I never understood it, but I always did appreciate it. A memory to be thankful for on Thanksgiving. May yours be a happy one.

Editor’s note.

Here is a Wayback Machine archive from 2012 showing the original article that I wrote under this title. It’s longer and reads better now, but it is essentially the same, just like Leoti is. You can be the judge.

Featured image, Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want

Steele Penny Pub & Los Lonely Boys

This is a blog entry I’ve been threatening my brother with for a long time. I just can’t put it off any longer though, not with The Stones playing in town tonight; and opening for The Stones (perhaps the oldest and still most popular rock band actively touring these days) one of the newest bands to hit the charts, Los Lonely Boys.

Last week they were featured at Austin City Limits Festival, and this week they are opening for The Stones. They’ve hit the big time, these three guys from San Angelo, thanks in no small part to my brother.

Why my brother? Let me tell you a story…

There was a little place in San Angelo called the Steel Penny Pub, one of the few places in that town where you could go to get good cold beer and great live music. My brother opened the venue with the intention of creating a place for his band Hazytrane to play, only to discover that the demands of owning a business took up too much time for him to continue pursuing his own musical career. Not too long after starting the Pub, his band folded up and went their separate ways. The lead guitarist became a lawyer. I still can’t wrap my head around that transition.

What he did instead of featuring his own band was to look around for another house band to fill the void that was left where his band used to be. What he found was Los Lonely Boys. Even though (as this article notes) they were underage at the time, Russ gave the boys the job, and they honed their already impressive skills playing several nights a week at the pub.

I would really like to say “I heard Los Lonely Boys at the Steel Penny Pub” but I was a professional architect working in another town, and I didn’t have time to fool around with music in those days. Somehow I managed to miss all of their performances there. Luckily for them, Willie Nelson didn’t. While in town for a show of his own, Willie stopped by the Pub and heard Los Lonely Boys for the first time, and recognized their talent right away. Within a few months they were playing at festivals and concerts alongside Willie Nelson, and not too long after that their first album debuted.

…And the rest is history. Heaven (not my favorite song on the album, but definitely a very catchy tune) reached the top ten, and stayed there for 18 weeks. My brother handed over management of the Pub to his business partner, and went on the road with Los Lonely Boys as their road manager for nearly two years. It was quite a ride.

I finally got to see & hear Los Lonely Boys play at Antones here in Austin, early in their first tour. I’ve never seen anybody play guitar like these guys can. If you get a chance to see them live, you’ll kick yourself later if you don’t take the time to go see them play. Live is the way to experience most music; and live is without a doubt the best way to experience Los Lonely Boys music. You just won’t know what it’s really like until then.

The last time I saw them was in the largest ever attending crowd (30,00 plus) for the Town Lake summer concert, which they turned into a concert video. And now they are opening for The Stones tonight. I know where my brother is going to be. Wouldn’t mind being in his shoes tonight, not one bit.

Board Art

Been hanging out with a local artist lately, trying to help her get her latest art project ready to display. She submitted a proposal to Austin GuitarTown, and was overjoyed when they accepted it.

…and then the scope of the work to be done looms overhead, just like any deadline in any business with deadlines (are there any without?) but, with the last minute efforts finally completed, it’s time to relax.

Modern art really isn’t my thing; but I have to say, the boards create an interesting effect on the body of the guitar. I’m hoping the rest of the viewing public agrees.

S.C. Essai is “not just another scuzzi artist”

The Cost of Manned Spaceflight

It is today that we remember and honor the crews of Apollo 1 and Challenger. They made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives and service to their country and for all mankind. Their dedication and devotion to the exploration of space was an inspiration to each of us, and still motivates people around the world to achieve great things in service to others. As we orbit the Earth, we will join the entire NASA family for a moment of silence in their memory. Our thoughts and prayers go to their families as well.

STS-107 commander Rick Husband

I saved this quote on the day it was uttered by Rick Husband. I’m backdating this blog entry to the day he said it. I put it into a calendar entry that I made to remind me of the anniversary of the Challenger disaster. I made one for the Apollo 1 disaster at the same time, making note of the names of the three astronauts that died that day.

I remember watching the Moon landings on our black and white television in the little wood paneled room next to the kitchen, in that house in Leoti that I still think of as home, even though that place hasn’t existed for about 35 years. I remember it as clearly as anyone can remember something that recurs to them time and again over the span of decades; which is another way of saying, I probably have invented most of the details of what I remember, but I know that I watched the events of the Apollo program unfold on television in breathless anticipation. I’m sure I watched the news the day that Ed White, Roger Chaffee and Gus Grissom died, and I’m sure I cried at the news.

I probably cried as much as the day that I watched the space shuttle Challenger disappear into that infamous ball of smoke that nearly every person alive can probably picture just by reading the word Challenger. I didn’t watch it live. I know that much. I was out driving in my car that day with some of my friends, and we heard it on the radio. When we got back to the house and watched the news, that is when we finally saw the horror that most of us remember from that day. I wrote an article for the blog on the thirtieth anniversary:

A gushing, emotional piece that I desperately want to rewrite but refuse to touch because those were the emotions that motivated me that day to write it. The emotions that motivated me to put the events on my calendar. The emotions that continue to motivate me to mark the anniversaries with a moment of silence even to this day. In four days Rick Husband and his crew would fall victim to the same human errors that caused the deaths of the Apollo 1 and Challenger crews. That is the real tragedy of the words he uttered that day.

Featured image: arstechnica.com

Young Lust Is Not Enough

It’s hot. It’s summer in South Texas. I’m sitting on the hood of a 1974 Thunderbird (Might have been a 1969) that we’ve nicknamed the Thunderchicken. This piece of crap of a vehicle that I’m stuck with has been driven millions of miles since it rolled off the assembly line in Detroit more than a decade ago, and it’s not even the oldest vehicle in the tire test fleet. That honor went to Bronco Billy, an off-white Gran Torino sedan that wished it could have been the sexier coupe, but instead was the four-door sedan that nobody wanted. That car was waiting at the shop, probably destined to take the Thunderchicken’s place, even though the floorboard on the driver’s side had been patched with plywood so that the driver wouldn’t mistakenly put their feet down while traveling and lose a leg in the process. This is the life of a test car driver, if the tests you are doing are tire tests.

The Thunderchicken, in typical Murphy fashion, has picked the farthest point from home to break down. We’d just made the turn-around outside of Comstock and were heading back towards San Angelo, the shop, and home. That description cuts the story short a bit. We’d drive the North loop up towards Robert Lee first and then to the shop. A hop, skip and a jump away from home compared to being able to see the US-Mexico border from your car window.

The car just stopped in the middle of the road. I don’t mean the motor stopped running, I mean one of the front wheels stopped turning as if it had never turned before in it’s life and wasn’t about to turn again no matter how much gas you ran through the engine. So I gunned the thing to the side of the road leaving a skid mark and a crease in the asphalt the whole way, and then radioed ahead to the rest of the convoy who promptly turned around to see if the breakdown was something we could fix.

Tire tests were run in convoys of four vehicles, back in the 1980’s when I was working as a test driver. The lead driver was generally in charge of the crew and would make decisions for the convoy as a whole. I was not the lead driver. I drove tail when I was lucky. I was driving tail that day, which is how you can have a catastrophic vehicle failure and yet have no one from your crew notice it.

A brief inspection ensued when Burt, who was driving lead that day, came back to check on me. I’d met him at trade school a few years previously. When my architectural drafting job in Abilene fell through, I called on him to see if he had someplace I could sleep. I wanted to see if a change of scenery might make for better job prospects and I’d heard good things about San Angelo while living in Abilene. I knew there was no future for me back in Sweetwater with my family, just more dead-end work to kill time until time killed me. So I wasn’t going back home to mom.

He said “sure, come on down” and so I moved to San Angelo where my friend worked on the Gandy’s milk loading line, loading trucks. Night stocking for Piggly-Wiggly started out my working life there, but it wasn’t too long before I was drafting for a land developer part-time. That really didn’t pay enough, so I started looking for other work that might suit my interests. That was when we stumbled across the business of tire testing, a business peculiar to San Angelo, Texas at the time.

Every tire sold in America is certified by a tire test that travels the route out of San Angelo South to Sonora, Then down along the border to just outside Comstock, where they turn around and head back towards San Angelo. Then they go past San Angelo and head North and West towards Tom Green, then come around on another loop to just outside San Angelo where they do stop and goes at a series of stop signs before going back to the shop. Every manufacturer in the world was required to have this test performed on these roads by a testing company certified to do the job. We worked for one of these companies and the tires I was testing that day had fallen prey to mechanical malfunction. Their time as test tires was over.

Turned out, it wasn’t something we could fix. The lower a-frame on the driver’s side front wheel had come loose from the ball joint and jammed itself into the rim of the wheel. Had the a-frame missed the rim, I wouldn’t have been able to move the vehicle at all since the frame would have dug into the asphalt, tearing itself loose in the process and rendering steering useless. At least this way I wasn’t in the middle of the road, but I was still stuck; and after the relay call came back the rest of convoy was ordered on to finish the test. I was told to wait with the vehicle for the wrecker.

My friend wished me luck and headed back out on the road with the two other drivers in tow. As I watched them vanish over the farthest hill, I gripped the tire iron that was my only weapon just that much more desperately and prayed that the wrecker would show up before dark.

It did, but just barely.

Burt had been working for McDonald’s and he was sick of it. He had injured himself throwing milk for Gandy’s dairy in San Angelo and decided that the fast food job offered more interesting work than loading milk trucks, but had soon discovered the grind that I already knew fast food work to be. I had lost my job at the Piggly Wiggly night stocking and as I said previously, the drafting work was simply not paying enough. Winter was just around the corner, and we needed work if we were going to keep a roof over our heads while the snow was falling. If it fell.

This was central Texas after all, so snow might not fall at all. It wouldn’t be the first warm Winter on record for San Angelo. It’s hard to say what the weather will be like in Texas, from season to season, sometimes from minute to minute. “If you don’t like the weather, wait ten minutes” as the old timers will tell you.

It was all fine and good to Margaritaville our way through the summer in San Angelo, spending time down on the lakeshore getting stoned with the college students who flocked there over the summer. Summer was over now, the students were all back in school, learning to do jobs that paid better than the shit work we could find with our technical degrees from TSTI.

Burt had gotten a lead on a different kind of job than what we had both done before. It just required a driver’s license, which we both had, and a clean driving record. Our driving records were clean, even if we weren’t. We decided that we would go see if we could get a job at the same place and thereby share the commute to and from work.

We started out at Texas Test Fleet. They hired us pretty much on the spot, but we went ahead and went across the street to Smithers and put in an application there as well. Word was that Smithers paid better and their cars were of better quality. We didn’t really care, we just needed jobs that paid real money to pay the real rent that was going to be due soon.

We came back to work our shifts that night. Just two idiots who had no idea what we were doing other than that we would have to drive for eight hours at a stretch. I had driven that far on my many trips to see family in Kansas over the years. I could handle eight hours of driving that would see me back home at the end of the day. At least, that is what I told myself.

Five miles from the shop, the passenger side rear tire came off of Burt’s car. “I looked up and the tire was passing me in the ditch. I was wondering whose tire that was when the horrible grinding noise started, and that is when I realized it was my tire.” So the lead driver called in the tow truck for the now permanently disabled vehicle, and the three remaining drivers, myself included, continued on down the road to Sonora and the Devil’s River, leaving my best friend and my ride back home in the ditch waiting for a tow truck. The rest of that night’s work was largely uneventful, which was good. I don’t think I would have wanted to go back to work testing tires if we had lost another driver that first night.

We were offered jobs at Smithers the next day, which we gladly took. Their cars certainly did look nicer, the shop was cleaner and they did pay better than TTF did. Within a week the lead driver we had been following flaked out and left, and Burt was promoted to lead in his place. This meant that he and I were entrusted with the lives of two other people and the value of four automobiles each and every day that we drove test cars. I don’t think they understood who we really were, but we were happy for the work.

We usually drove day shift five days a week. There were weekend crews that worked part time, and there were frequent vacancies for anyone who wanted to work a sixth day during the busy driving week. We were subbing for some missing drivers one night not too long after we had started our new jobs. This was the second time I had been down on the river at night. It gets a little freaky at night down along the border. It is a hundred miles in any direction to civilization on that stretch of the river. The only light that is visible comes from your headlights. The sky is pitch black, with piercing white holes of light for every visible star. It reminded me of my bygone boyhood camping days, but there were no adults on this trip to protect us from our own stupidity.

It’s called the Devil’s River. The name gave it the ominous tone that we drivers assigned to it. In addition to being remote it was also out of radio range for the CB radios we had. We called it the hole. We were functionally alone through that stretch of road and as I said, it was dark that night, no moon in sight. In the light coming from our headlights we saw a jeep on the opposite side of the road, off in the ditch.

This thing looked like it had been on the losing end of a three-way bear fight. Blood, bullet holes, no windows, dented, etcetera. We didn’t dare stop. Not without functional radios to call for help with. We did call it in as soon as we got back up out of the hole, but that wreck was gone before we drove that way again a few days later. I never did find out what the story behind the jeep was.

On another night we came across yet another wreck, this one in the clearing stages. A car had run head-on into a tanker truck. Everyone in both vehicles was dead, as far as I could tell. I found out later that a baby had survived in the back seat of the car, because the backward facing child seat had saved it from being crushed. As I’m sitting next to the wreck waiting to be allowed to go on down my hellish road that night, a highway patrolman wanders over and casually kicks a shoe, a shoe with the foot still in it, back over towards the wreck. I had to look twice to make sure I saw what I thought I saw. At least they had a tarp over the car by the time we got to the wreck. I did not want to see what was inside of it. I’ve never had a stomach for blood. To this day I curse at the looky-loos who stop to gawk at roadside accidents. Stop looking and drive unless you want to be a statistic too.

The tow truck driver laughed when he saw the damage the car had left on the asphalt, all the way to the edge of the road. “Damn! It’s a good thing you got it to the side. Otherwise you’d have been stuck out here waving people around the car all day.” I explained to him that he was the one and only person who had been down that lonely road since I had my accident with the steering, and that I was really, really glad to see him. I could finally stop gripping that tire iron in fear because I at least had someone to talk to, even if all I had to do was ride shotgun all the way back to the shop, a full three hours away.

It was well past the end of shift when I finally got back, the tow-truck ride having been uneventful. I hitched a ride from a woman that I would later hook up with, and I was soaking in the tub with a doobie in one hand and a beer in the other before the hour was up. But my experience left me wondering. “Do I need to carry a weapon with me?”

When I asked Burt this question he admitted that he already had a pistol. I think he got it from his dad. He’d never shot it. We promptly took it out to Twin Buttes and fired a few dozen rounds trying to get a feel for it, but I really didn’t want a firearm. They are hard to conceal and are more often used against the people who carry them than they are used in self defense. What I wanted was a knife, even if I was squeamish about blood. A knife could be used for many things aside from threatening hostile human antagonists.

As it happened, the next time I was at my drafting job there was a vendor that stopped by the office looking to sell knick-knacks like knives and brass knuckles and whatever. I took a liking to a chrome-plated butterfly knife that he had displayed, and my boss offered to buy it for me since I was so clearly without a nickel to my name. I handled it gingerly and yet still managed to cut myself the first few times I tried flipping the knife in the style you see done in movies. I told them I’d get the hang of it eventually, but really I just wanted it to keep the anxiety at bay.

“Just smoke a joint to get rid of the anxiety” quipped Burt, but I refused. I had driven drunk and stoned enough times when I was fresh out of high school to know that I didn’t want to be doing that on the job with someone else’s property. In the case of an accident like the one with the Thunderchicken, the inquiry would have revealed my drug use on the job and I would not only have been fired but I probably would have been jailed, knowing my luck.

No, I was going to white-knuckle my way through the anxiety and come out the other side. I was convinced of this.

Months passed. Winter came on strong that year. The pasteboard tenants house that we were renting was no match for the weather we were having. It rained, then it snowed, then it rained again. I caught pneumonia. Ashley, a cashier from my old job at Piggly Wiggly took pity on Burt and I; and she told us we could move in with her while I was recovering from the pneumonia. I will be eternally grateful to her for that. I would probably have died without her intervention. After the Winter had passed and it was rolling on towards Summer again, it became clear that, while Burt was welcome to stay in her house and in her bed for as long as he wanted, I was probably going to be better off if I found somewhere else to live.

This was about the time that I discovered the notion of friends with benefits on a first-hand basis. Jessica, another checker from the same store was a buddy of mine. A female buddy of mine. We had goofed around, gotten drunk and stoned together for months and never thought about the fact that we were both sexually frustrated and had compatible physical parts we could make use of if we wanted to. If it was possible to do that and not grow emotionally attached to each other.

My former roommate had a new roommate. One he couldn’t shake no matter how hard we tried to shake her off. Ashley was attached to him; more than physically attached, which she also was most of the time. All the women wanted Burt. A good percentage of the men did too. But she WANTED him, not just wanted him. He was going to be hers and no one was going to stand in her way or distract her from her goal of keeping him, like a trophy on a shelf.

Meanwhile Jessica, my now fuck-buddy, stoner buddy and I were on our own most of the time and we spent a good deal of that time working off that sexual frustration we had been carrying around with us for years, at least. The experiment seemed mutually beneficial, for most of its runtime. She’d come visit me when she was horny, I’d go visit her when I was. But there was still that nagging problem of sleeping in a borrowed spot in someone else’s house, and my welcome was quickly wearing out.

So I found an apartment across town near the mall, my favorite strolling spot, if not my favorite shopping spot. The Barrington, it was called. The drafting work dried up again and I was forced to go back to working at clubs between layoffs. I worked testing tires for a few weeks at a time, but my stomach had started to give me trouble by that point. Sitting in the car stewing all the time, never able to do anything except drive. It was burning me out on driving where driving had been my escape vehicle for most of my teenage life.

When I was in high school that was all we did. Drive to and from the Sonic and the courthouse in Sweetwater. Back and forth. For hours at a time. We thought of it as fun then. A real adventure was picking up some girls and driving all the way around the lake with them listening to music. Mostly I just drove by myself, though. Being forced to stay in the car driving when you would rather be doing something, anything, else though? That was completely different and it was killing the native love of automobiles that lives within the breast of every red-blooded American. What were we if we weren’t car lovers? I was afraid that I was going to find out, soon.

The one-bedroom apartment got old after awhile. Alone in the car all day when I was driving, alone at night because I wasn’t a pick-up artist and I didn’t have a girlfriend who would stay with me, I decided to take an apartment with a roommate again. An apartment, not a pasteboard shack this time. I had discovered there were shelters that were good enough, and then there was real living. I wanted real living, thank you. Mickey, one of my best friends from high school had moved out on his own, finally. He had moved to San Angelo after Sweetwater (his dad was retired military there) and so we decided to take an apartment together. He was a pick-up artist. I hadn’t known this about him. How could I have? Until that point in his life he would have to have conducted his trysts in his car because he certainly wasn’t taking them home to Mom’s house. I’d heard of a few of those encounters, some on the hood of his car, but I had no idea how many there were until we shared that apartment.

Instead of helping my loneliness, that made it worse. The only time he was in the place was when the Cowboys were playing (I hate football) and when he was bringing home his date of the week. One of his dates of the week because there was frequently more than one. Some woman whose name I was told but never bothered to remember because it would be a different one the next week or even the next day.

I tried MDMA/ecstasy once, just to see if I could do what Mickey did. Dropped it right before going into one of the clubs I occasionally worked at. Walked straight up to a chick that I thought looked like she wanted to dance. Total stranger. Never done that before or after the MDMA. We danced for an hour at least and then we went home to her place where we got stoned, had the most intense sex I’d ever had and then feel asleep. With a total stranger. In their apartment. Where I woke up the next morning. Totally not me, at all. I don’t know who she is, but we’ve been intimate in ways that I’ve never experienced with anyone before. It was supposed to be the start of my one-night stand adventure. My mimicry of Mickey’s seemingly infinite chain of women. I couldn’t do it. I saw her again, several times. We had absolutely nothing in common. Jessica and I had more in common, I knew that because we had talked for hours stoned together long before we even thought to have sex with each other. I didn’t love either of them even though we had been intimate in exactly the same ways that Ashley and Burt had been, IN MY PRESENCE. MORE THAN ONCE. What the hell was wrong with me?

It was too much. Once again I took to driving a lot just to get away. That was when Patrick started hanging out with me. I don’t even remember where we met. The comic book shop? I have no idea. He had seen I was lonely. He was lonely too. He was lonely for his next conquest and he thought it would be me, apparently. Every weekend we’d go out driving, and he’d tell me of some place he wanted to visit. We’d get there, and it would be a gay bar. A gay bar, every time. He would be mystified. “I had no idea this was a gay bar. Come on, let’s get out of here.” Not once. Not twice. At least three times this happened. I never clued in on it, not until much, much later. He thought I was gay. It was understandable. I was always the third man out in any coupling that Burt or Mickey had set up. I either sat and talked with the girlfriend of the intended conquest who had no real interest in me, or I was wandering around alone outside waiting for the tryst to finish so I could come back and get some sleep. Unfortunately for him I wasn’t gay. I was just clueless and in need of direction.

I was sitting around toking it up with Burt one night somewhere in the middle of this mess of a life. I had a fuck-buddy that wandered by whenever it suited her. I had a gay man trying to turn me gay by taking me to gay bars one weekend after another. I had tried MDMA with Burt a few weeks previously the last time we had managed to shake off Ashley. Mickey had not been impressed. Neither had Ashley. Not impressed at all with each other as sexual mirrors I guess. I had probably been regaling him with the tale of the serial gay bars and my mystification at what the hell was going on when he said “Hey, man. I met this chick the other day at work. She has a knife just like yours. She said she’d teach you how to use it the next time you drive with me.” I said “cool” and we went on with whatever it was we were doing that night.

Probably playing mumbly-peg with an axe. We did that a lot when we got stoned out on the lakeshore. We had driven out there that first spring after the big freeze and set up a bunch of bonfire sites with wood that we had scavenged off the lakeshore, along with some other wood we had dumped out there from some yard work we had been shanghaied into doing.

Ashely’s house needed some serious yard work done. Her parents had been gone overseas for the last year and they trusted her to keep the place up. The back yard fence, the view from her dad’s old shop, the place where I had decided to sleep, sleeping as far from the rest of them as I could get and still be in the house; the back fence had a stand of overgrown tree-hedges that needed trimming. About three to six truckloads of trimming, as we measured it.

So we loaded up Burt’s old ’70 Chevy truck with as much wood as we could coax it to carry, and we hauled it out onto a patch of lakebed that had been recently uncovered. We would dump that load of wood and then proceed to clear a swath around the dumpsite. The entire area was covered in four to six foot tall stands of dead mesquite, saplings that had grown up the last time the lake had been down for awhile, and then drowned when the water level rose again.

We were being cautious. We didn’t want the fire to spread and cause a wildfire. This had happened before at another regional reservoir, O.C. Fisher. It had gotten a fickle finger of fate award from Laugh-In because it was the only lake to have caught fire up to that point. Since the deadwood was pretty dense at Twin Buttes as well, we just tossed it all in the back of the truck and hauled it back to the pile to be stacked up. We did this for every truckload of wood we hauled out there, for a total of about six bonfires that we intended to use over the summer.

Use them, we did. I lit one for a tryst with Jessica. Rolling around next to the fire, trying to repeat the MDMA experience without the MDMA this time. Mouths to places we didn’t usually put our mouths, just to see if it was the MDMA or the novelty that had made it such an interesting evening. It was the MDMA, I concluded. We were definitely not having as much fun as I and my one night stand turned into a week of uncomfortable silence in each other’s presence sexual companion had had. Or maybe it was the partner? Surely not. Jessica was cool. She was into most of the stuff I was into. Why wasn’t I into her? I mean, other than physically. Which I was at the time. She probably wanted more from me too, just like Patrick did. How could I be lonely with a fuck-buddy on call?

This is why I wasn’t a pick-up artist. Sex wasn’t enough of a motivator for me. Not with my anxiety. I wanted more than a reduction of the sex drive that lasted mere moments. I could perform that act myself if I needed to. No. What I wanted was long-term companionship, the kind of thing you won’t find at bars because that isn’t what people go there for. Not really. They go there for the reasons the other driver who gave me a lift when I needed it went there for when I met her and we had our little encounter. Her husband was sleeping around on her, she wanted to sleep around on him. She didn’t care about the acts involved or whether they were enjoyable or not. She just wanted to be able to walk around the house she shared with her husband, freshly fucked just like her husband had been. So I did her that favor. She tried to return the favor but, as I said, it wasn’t what she was there for.

I had made mistakes many times in the past when it came to falling in love. Clearly I wasn’t even batting a thousand when it came to choosing casual sex partners. It was almost as if I couldn’t really figure out what was going on around me, and I had no idea what I was missing. What was I missing? It was one of the reasons why I hated the destruction of my one avenue of solace, driving for pleasure. The only time I had to think was when I was driving, and driving eight hours a day every day was killing me with over-thinking. Too much time for thought, not enough to think about without worrying.

This was where I was mentally on that fateful day when Burt introduced me to the person that I would come to affectionately refer to as the Wife. Strung out on too much caffeine, like all drivers are. Mentally frazzled from eight hours of self-flagellation at all the mistakes I had made in life up to that point, including the screw-ups in timing and spacing that I was supposed to keep track of as tail over the last eight hours. Bored with my music. Bored with my life, anxious to go home, smoke a joint, mellow out.

I hear “Hey, Tony, this is that girl I wanted you to meet.” I turn around. I notice her grin first. This was a setup. I should have known. “I hear you want to meet my baby.” she purrs. It’s scary how sexual the reference feels when she says it. “This is my baby.” She draws out a blade that is a good two inches longer than my puny little letter opener, and casually flips it back and forth without even checking to see that she is holding it right.

I don’t know if I’m going to see blood, or some other kind of demonstration next. Then I notice her eyes. They were grey-green. I’d never seen anything like them before. Not anywhere. Those witches eyes, framed by strawberry-blonde hair, and that impish grin on her pixie face. I was in love and terrified all at the same time, in that very first instant. The way she just casually flipped the knife around, in exactly the kind of way that I don’t do unless I want to be bandaging a cut next. That was freaking me out the most.

I think I said “Oh, is that how it works.” Then I showed her my tiny blade, which she laughed at. Then she showed me which end of the handle to hold, how to stealth drop one side so that you could gut someone in a single motion from draw to finishing stroke. A finishing stroke that ended a fraction of an inch from my tightening stomach. Yep. I was terrified. She was my dream and my nightmare all in one woman. I had to leave or I was going to faint, so I made my excuses and fled home to my apartment, fled home to listen to Mickey and his date of the week rhythmically banging on the wall of my bedroom.

Just like normal. At least I could look forward to meeting Patrick again. He had another club for me to check out, hopefully this one wasn’t going to be a gay bar. He wanted to know if I would buy a box of comic books that he was trying to get rid of. Could I float him some cash for it? Oh, and there was always that next bonfire with Burt. I wanted to know more about that crazy knife woman and what he thought she would do to me if I saw her again? With any luck Burt and I could get stoned and toss the axe back and forth at each other’s feet. That never got old.


There’s so much more to this time period. I’ve masqued the names and now I want to add more stuff to it. Maybe it’s a novel in the works? I have no idea. It started out as just a retelling of how I met the Wife and now it’s morphed into something that I didn’t intend it to be but might actually be better. Or worse. I have no idea.

There’s the times I said things and people said “you can’t say that.” In various ways. Slapping. Punching. Saying “you can’t say that” and then never speaking to me again. Which hurts. Because I’m pretty sure I formed those syllables quite well and the way I intended.

I may not have understood the impact, like telling a boyhood friend’s mom “There’s a pickle on the floor. My Mom would never leave food on the floor.” She kicked me out and never let me play with her children again. If she had just said “That is gross. Why don’t you pick it up and throw it away?” I would have done that and never thought anything of it. The various times people explained their beliefs to me and then I would explain why their beliefs were fantasies. Then I would have to go to church with them and confess my sins or whatever.

The waitress who came home to sleep with me, but when she got to know me decided that I wasn’t the guy she wanted to have sex with that night. As we’re going back out to the car I get annoyed and point out all the other guys at the bar that I know she’d slept with because I’d seen her going home with them and “geez what’s wrong with me, why don’t we just go back upstairs…” and then she slapped me straight across the face. I opened her door and took her home. Never spoke to her again.

The guy in the corner apartment at the Barrington whose kids I woke up at two in the morning walking past their door to get to the laundry room. I’m tired, I’m doing laundry because the machines are open finally, he comes in behind me in his bathrobe and jeans (Just like Billy in my nightmares) and starts harassing me for doing my laundry at two in the morning. I ask him “what are you going to do about it?” and the next thing I know I’m on the floor with a really painful jaw. Okay. Punching me in the face was doing something about it, but I really hadn’t expected that to be the thing the asshole would do. Not sure why, though.

After the cops were called they discovered he had a warrant out for wife-beating or something in another state, but he had disappeared by then. Packed up the wife and kids and disappeared. Burt and I were planning on bashing him on the head with a baseball bat, according to the Wife. He got what was coming to him. He had to run away. I got the lesson I needed. I still try to be more quiet when other people are sleeping. It would have been nice to not have to learn it by use of the fist, but that’s sometimes the form that shakubuku takes.

The Pinto. The 1974 exploding version of the Pinto that I drove for years because a secretary at First Paragon, a devout and charitable christian who was making a point about her charity and devotion by her act, sold me this rolling death trap of a car really cheap. 482 bucks for a twelve year old car. I accepted the offer because Mom wanted her Sunbird back, which I had borrowed after my Vega died a horrible death of steel piston sleeves coming loose inside it’s aluminum motor (I still miss that car. That and the burnt orange Chevelle) My brother promptly wrecked it after I gave it back to her, but I had my not-exploded gasoline bomb to drive around in so I really didn’t care.

I got stoned with Burt one Sunday afternoon and we stripped every bit of chrome off the exterior of the vehicle, just on a whim. Then we tore out all of the interior except for the dash and seats. Then, noticing the paint was coming off the exterior in a few places, we proceeded to paint the entire exterior of the car in camouflage colors. Where once it had been a baby crap green, now you couldn’t see it. You couldn’t see it because it was camouflage. Get it?

I know no one could see it because I was rear-ended in it about two days after I did all that work. The car didn’t explode but the death was initiated that day. The drive train was compressed and the u-joints in the drive shaft eventually gave out because of it. But it was my party car until the day the u-joints went out. It was the last car of mine to have the Concord stereo and expensive speakers mounted in it. I was eventually planning on doing a custom interior and exterior for it, but that money never came to me. That was a dream just like the dreams that other people have about their imaginary gods and what their gods wanted of them. That car wanted to be a candy-apple yellow party car with a built-in cooler where the back seats used to be. It told me, that day while I was stripping it down and making it invisible with camouflage colors. You hear the voices of gods? I hear the voices of cars. Who are you to call me crazy?

The Camaro at work talked to me too. That is probably where the fictional story should take place. What happened when my KITT car (yeah, I know Firebird not Camaro. This is my story, fuck off) told me it wanted to run off to Florida and pick up girls? And then we did what it wanted. What then? Could be an interesting story.