West Texas funeral

Date: Wed, 20 Sep 1995 02:26:33 -0500
To: benbubba@aol.com
From: fgs@io.com (Kramer, FGS)
Subject: Death comes for . . .

I had to go to a funeral today. It wasn’t the same as running up to Abilene for a fair.

Though I had argued with friends about the directions, the road was the same. My way is better — go to Brady and hang a left (maybe it’s a right) — that’s all. We tried the other route this morning. Being a passenger, I discovered that 183 is about 40 miles shorter than the 71. Which doesn’t make sense. I mean, 183-71=112, so it ought to be longer.

Leaving Austin, north on 183, past the construction and new strip centers, the countryside opens up into the beautiful rolling hills of Williamson County. It’s not really open prairie. Beneath the leaden skies, it wasn’t dry prairie. A lot of rain this fall awakened the green in the brush. Perhaps it is shades of green; the trees vary from the scrub oak, and live oak from the gnarled mesquite.

Exotic game ranches of emu and ostrich dot the way. I had on my Ostrich Skin Lucchese boots, so the trip fit, sort of. My favorite ranch has disappeared with the vicissitudes of the “Large Flightless Bird” industry, but I remember the sign well: 1-800-BIG-BIRD. The road winds into Lampasas (pop. 6283). It was breakfast time, time to slow down. After all, we were headed to a funeral.

We stopped at Martin’s in Lampasas. It’s an old-fashioned diner/restaurant with real formica tables and a pair of waitresses who are as hospitable as could be — Ann is a gem. Bacon and eggs, and some of the best coffee ever. No downtown-double-expresso-mocha-java-banana-nut-double-decaf-latte stuff here. It’s restaurant blend made with care by a professional coffee drinker for real folks. The local gossip sheet is put out by the town’s radio station. The interesting news was who had been arrested yesterday, and for what. The usual suspects, a DWI. Ann said the first thing she does every day is read her horoscope. My friend entertained her with a few notes from Ann’s palm. At one time I would pitch in with “card tricks:” whip out a deck of tarot cards for a simple reading. Quick and easy, not too heavy. Now I work from a birthday. Somehow I don’t sound too different than the people in the paper.

We rolled northward, hurrying to Abilene and points north. An abandoned train station in Lometa is painted ocher. Maybe it’s a hideous color, but the station could tell some stories: A town that grew and fell, riding on the economic waves that have dictated the fortunes and failures in the area.

Next was Burnet County (pronounced BURN-it.) In the relatively early hour of our passage, I noticed a man on the porch of a house, a rambling ranch style. The image seared my mind: What would it be like to stop the Information Highway’s headlong rush into the future long enough to talk to real people? I don’t know if I’ll get a chance.

Our route took us briefly through the real San Saba County. Traveling this way, I carry a copy of J. Frank Dobie’s Coronado’s Children. A passage describes the lost mine that is “one day’s ride” west of Georgetown. About where we were. The first chapter, “The Lost San Saba Mine,” is dedicated to the various tales of lost treasure and Coronado’s Lost Cities of Gold, which supposedly reside in this part of the country. More than one modern critic has suggested that J. Frank was prone to telling “stretchers” in the stories he reported as fact. So? During my fast highway run through here I make a silent pledge to return and find the lost mine.

Back on the road, the towns start to change: There’s Comanche, Zephyr, the Avalon motel in Brownwood … Who comes up with these names? Then it’s into the outer edges of the oil patch. The first oil wells are here — old pumps not pumping. It’s sad, what with the price of oil these days, although you couldn’t tell that from the posted gasoline prices. It doesn’t pay to keep the old pumps working.

My traveling partner corrected me on the route: “If you go 183 instead of 71, you don’t have to go through Eden.” A good point. Eden is in the middle of nowhere, possibly named for a spring and a single grouping of trees. We missed it. On through the last gap in the hills, like a cut between mountains, then a straight shot into the flatland and real prairie which stretches the rest of the way. Abilene is the edge of the hills, as far as I can tell. Here you’ll find oil and gas collection points mixed with the mesquite. Towns have names like Oplin and Novice, and Lawn, which has a real Hiway Grocery. Expressions like, “I been to a big city; shoot, Abilene has a mall” are common.

After a break for iced tea in Abilene, it was back on the road, all the way to Haskell. Past the refinery and irrigation supply north of Abilene, it’s easy to understand why this is called Big Country. It’s not big, it’s huge. Maybe I’ve been in the concrete arroyos too long. Too many skyscraper canyons. In what feels like the middle of nowhere, there’s that famous icon from the Pleasant Grove Baptist Church — the famous neon of: Jesus Saves. One day it will be a cultural icon. In these here parts, each township or hamlet has a minimum of three churches: First Baptist, United Methodist and Church of Christ. Bare minimum. Not many other faiths are practiced out here.

We made this made dash through the Texas countryside on an almost-perfect September afternoon to attend a funeral. The deceased was a not a close friend, but the rest of the family is. A show of support was important enough to spend half a day driving to spend an hour in a church and a few minutes at graveside. I’ve put on the “marrying and burying” suit too many times this year. Dressed up again, I look out of place with the longest hair of just about anyone there, save for one or two girls. None of the men had enough hair to make a small ponytail. This is rural Texas, in a small town where businesses were closed for the afternoon so everyone could attend the funeral. The house was filled with four generations of family — great grandmother, grandmother, wife and daughter. Inside the Presbyterian church (a slight change from normal) my companion and I got some looks. The family greeted me warmly. The eldest grandmother was particularly glad to see me. With a haircut I could be her child.

Sometimes, I’m too sick for myself. A thought crept into my travel-addled brain. It was a line from Jeff Foxworthy, You Know You’re Redneck If…. “If you’ve ever asked the widow for her phone number at the funeral parlor.” I kept it to myself.

Looking around, I understood why a comedian once said that he would rather be “Red than Dead.” Real people were here. Cowboy hats. Boots. Western-cut suits with big yokes. Nothing copied from Country Music TV or a fashion statement. It’s a way of life. This funeral and the proceeding, with country and western music in the sanctuary and a corpse laid out with his favorite cowboy hat in his hand, was real.

I went tripping back to a time in 1974, wearing a straw cowboy hat and listening to live country music when outlaws were outlaws. The deceased’s son is a member of the Texas A&M Corps of Cadets. A real Aggie. If you are outside of Texas, you wouldn’t understand. If you’re in Texas, you’ve heard the jokes. I attended a similar institution where uniforms and pride and male bonding were formed through tough physical exertion, and hazing was the fashion. I saw a cadre of cadets standing by their comrade offering the most touching display of empathy I have ever seen. Impeccable. Exemplary. I didn’t cry at the funeral. I didn’t cry at the grave. The people began filing past the family members. The guys in their sharp brown uniforms, various ranks, shook the ladies’ hands and hugged their brother. Each hug was tight and emotional. Heartfelt. Maybe I’m too cynical, but it got to me.

We left as soon as we could. Back down the road, back to reality, back to computers and clients and the phone. Back to the cellular madness of home. We were just north of Santa Anna — watching gray clouds scudding over a fire-orange sky — and I was trying to put words on it all. Sometimes speech fails. T.S. Eliot would work here. I glanced in the rearview, worried about a dark spectre following me. OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR.

About the author: Born and raised in East Texas, Kramer Wetzel, settled in a South Austin trailer park before trailer parks were cool. He now lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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