KILGORE, Tex. — East Texas is about to be booming. Not from the fracking that is waking the small cities outside of Dallas, but from an arts revival that is tapping into another local resource — one of the country’s highest concentrations of mid-20th century Aeolian-Skinner organs.
Let’s get this out of the way at the top: seeking to identify “the very first rock and roll record” is a fool’s errand, one which writer Nick Tosches likened to trying to “discern where blue becomes indigo in the spectrum.” And yet doing so has long been a favorite parlor game of rock scholars.
It is easy to find the Buddy Holly Center, in Lubbock, because a gigantic pair of Holly’s famous black-rimmed eyeglasses, worked in welded steel five feet high and thirteen feet wide, sits on the front lawn. The real ones are inside.
During the Super Bowl last February, RadioShack ran an ad in which a mob of eighties pop-culture icons, including Erik Estrada, Hulk Hogan, and the California Raisins, looted one of its stores to the pounding beat of Loverboy’s “Working for the Weekend.” The tagline: “It’s time for a new RadioShack.”
It was one of the finest marketing slogans ever hatched from the mind of man, a simple, unmistakable declaration of pride and resolve: “Long live long necks.” Fittingly, it seemed to just float into view, conceived over cold Lone Stars in the parking lot of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters sometime in early 1974.
Jim Franklin, the concert hall’s wild-eyed resident artist and occasional master of ceremonies, was unwinding not far from the backstage apartment he shared with a boa constrictor and a chicken. His conferee was Jerry Retzloff, Lone Star’s local district manager, and talk had turned to the beer business. Retzloff was a reluctant newcomer to Austin, having been abruptly transferred from the brewery’s San Antonio headquarters the previous summer. Budweiser had started taking huge bites out of Lone Star’s Austin sales, in large part by targeting college kids. Retzloff knew that Lone Star president Harry Jersig, a first-generation German Texan and beer man of the old school, was unwilling to court the youth market. Their long hair sat ill with Jersig’s buttoned-up sensibility, and he didn’t want to appear to encourage underage drinking. And even if Jersig eased up, Retzloff would still have Lone Star’s long-standing image to contend with. Its slogan at the time, as voiced in commercials by Ricardo Montalbán, was “The Beer From the Big Country.” It was a rural, outdoorsman’s beverage, a beer for cattle pens, deer blinds, and bass boats.
But when Retzloff arrived in Austin, he saw a surefire new angle emerging. He spent his days cultivating relationships with the distributors who brought Lone Star to town and the bartenders who sold it. His nights, however, were spent listening to music in the city’s budding progressive country scene, and he noticed an ungodly amount of Lone Star being drunk at its epicenter, the Armadillo. A check of the books at the brewery confirmed his impression: more Lone Star draft beer was sold at the ’Dillo, capacity 1,500, than any venue in the state except the 44,500-seat Astrodome. Whether it was a Texas nativism that even a hippie couldn’t shake or some precursor to modern-day hipster irony, the longhairs were threatening to make the cowboy beer their own.
Retzloff persuaded his superiors to let him pursue them. He brought the vice president of marketing, a thick-necked Canadian named Barry Sullivan, to the ’Dillo to hear the scene’s golden boy, Michael Murphey. When Murphey opened the second verse of his anthem, “Cosmic Cowboy, Pt. 1,” by singing, “Lone Star sipping and skinny-dipping,” every hippie in the room raised a Lone Star toward the rafters and screamed. Sullivan was sold.
A drinking glove that Retzloff sold at the brewery’s gift shop and museum.
A Jim Franklin poster.
Then Retzloff went to work on Jersig, who’d instructed him to grow Austin sales by 15 percent in the coming year. “I went back to Mr. Jersig and said, ‘How about I give you thirty percent?’ ” recalls Retzloff, now 74. “ ‘But you’ve got to let me do it my way. I’ve got to get rid of this coat and tie and get me some cutoff shorts and grow a beard’ ”—all of which were forbidden by strict Jersig policy—“ ‘because I can’t sell beer to these kids that way. I’m in there moving kegs around in a tie? They think I’m a narc! I’ve got to become part of the in-crowd.’ ” Jersig acquiesced—and let Retzloff know his job was on the line.
So Retzloff started thinking about a strategy, and that’s what he was doing, out loud, with Franklin in the ’Dillo parking lot. In his ten years with Lone Star, he’d worked in the plant, the front office, and the field, and he knew that to prod a meaningful uptick in sales, he’d need something to promote other than the beer itself, something that made it seem new. He remembered the Handy Keg, a twelve-ounce can painted to look like a keg that had helped Lone Star to its first year of more than a million barrels sold, in 1965. He looked at the bottle in his hand. It was skinny, with an extended neck, which in the industry was known as a returnable, as opposed to the stubbier bottles that drinkers could throw away. Budweiser didn’t push those longer bottles in Austin because it was too costly to ship them back and forth for refilling.
Studying the bottle, Retzloff recalled a recent sales visit to a bar in Dallas, where he’d bought returnables for some SMU sorority girls. “Oh, look,” one had gushed. “Longnecks! Just like we get when we go down to Luckenbach.” Her excitement surprised him, and so did her description. “Longneck” was a term he’d heard only in a few small South Texas towns. He kept thinking. “Something about those returnables had always stuck in my head,” he says. “When I worked in the plant, our first beer break was usually at nine a.m., and we had about five places around the brewery where we could drink free beer. It’d be either in cans, returnables, or snub-nosed disposables. For some reason, the employees would always call around and see which spot had returnables, then go take their break there. I also knew, from my time in the accounting office, that eighty percent of the beer that employees took home was returnables.
“So I told all this to Franklin. I said, ‘These are beer people. They don’t give a darn if you come out with cans that fit in your back pocket, socks, purse, or whatever. They will forever be drinking returnables.’ ” That was all Franklin needed. His wonderfully warped mind had already made the lowly armadillo the mascot of the Austin counterculture, and he went to work on a poster design that would similarly elevate Lone Star. “Do you remember that first poster?” says Retzloff. “The atom bomb had just hit and blown everything off the landscape. The only two things still standing, the things that were absolutely invincible, were the armadillo and the Lone Star. And then he came up with that slogan: ‘Long live long necks.’ ”
A light drizzle was falling in the early morning hours of May 9, 2010, when detective Dwayne Thompson pulled up in front of a modest home on Spring Grove Avenue, in a tree-lined neighborhood in North Dallas. A uniformed officer walked over and told Thompson that the house belonged to a man named Michael Burnside, age thirty. At around twelve-thirty, the officer continued, a woman had called 911 from the house.
The sun wasn’t even up when Trent Loter returned from the kitchen with another Diet Mountain Dew. He drank seven cans of the stuff a day, but this morning he was putting them back with purpose. That’s because it was the first week of August, the start of two-a-days, and for the equipment manager of the Pampa High Fighting Harvesters, that meant going back to work.
On this week for the past 26 years, Trent had risen before dawn and reported for morning practice. The last 13 of those years had been spent here at the “football house,” a tiny two-bedroom located half a block from the high school, where he and his parents returned each season. The rest of the year he simply endured at his family’s home in Pottsboro, near Lake Texoma, waiting for the whistles of August to blow and put him back in rhythm. He popped the top on the Mountain Dew and flipped to the Weather Channel.
Trent was a man of ritual and routine but also a man of obsessions. His older sister, Shannon, joked that his life revolved around three things: high school football, church, and the weather. In fact, he wouldn’t walk to the high school in the mornings without knowing exactly how the skies were going to behave. His mother blamed it on growing up in Tornado Alley—or, specifically, on June 8, 1995, when the biggest twister in Pampa’s history hit the west side of town. Trent and Shannon hid in the closet as the sirens wailed outside. The tornado ended up missing them, but to this day, the sound of thunder agitated him, and he refused to go outside if there was a hint of lightning.
This morning, he stared down the television until the local forecast scrolled across the screen: another sunny and windy day in the Panhandle. His eyes softened. “All clear, buddy,” he said.
Out in the living room, his mother and father were up having coffee. Ann and Lonnie Loter were both 73 and in good health. Lonnie had a mop of white hair and a slow, easy manner. For 35 years he’d pulled shift work at the local chemical plant before giving it up to fish. Now he busied himself with running trotlines for catfish on calm Texoma mornings—something that would have to wait another few months.
Ann was spry and full of energy, even at dawn. She appeared at Trent’s door to check on his progress. “How we coming along?” she asked, already knowing the answer, for how many times had she asked that question on this very same morning?
“Good, Mom. I’ll be out in a minute.”
He was shirtless, and the glow of the television threw light on his middle-aged body. He stood five feet four, with broad shoulders and a soft, pear-shaped stomach. His hair was dark brown, except for a splotch of gray just above his forehead. A thin goatee, peppered with white, added ten years to a round, boyish face. He had tiny ears that lay flat against his skull, a small nose, and a wide forehead.
His bedroom was a living museum dedicated to the high school he had graduated from, in 1992. Green-and-gold banners covered the wood-paneled walls along with varsity schedules and team photos of seasons past—with him smiling in the back row of each picture, surrounded by a different cast of characters. His letter jacket hung from a chair, along with a T-shirt that read, “Real Men Wear Green”—one of the 65 Harvesters shirts currently in his collection. He put on a gray shirt with “Pampa” spelled in green letters and carefully tucked it into his denim shorts. He placed a gold Harvesters cap on his head, then turned his attention to a Red Raiders duffel bag on the bed.
“I put my things in here for work,” he said, adding in the same breath, “Shannon went to Texas Tech. She takes me to games.”
The items for his bag were neatly arranged on the bed. The first was Dave Campbell’s Texas Football, the highly regarded preview magazine that over the years had become a sacred and holy text. The magazine featured four hundred pages of summaries, notes, and roster breakdowns for the more than 1,400 high school teams in the state, and its release was more anticipated in the Loter household than Christmas. Trent studied its pages for hours and carried the latest copies nearly everywhere he went. His closet was filled with boxes of back issues, dating to the eighties, when Ray Childress and Jackie Sherrill graced the covers.
During his 26 years with the game, Trent had memorized the mascots for nearly every high school in the state, from the Carthage Bulldogs to the Dell City Cougars, from the Demons of Dumas down to the Panthers of Weslaco. His talent was well-known throughout Pampa. Men approached him at ball games and in coffee shops to try to stump him, but few could. Along with the high schools and their mascots, Trent had memorized the counties where they were located in addition to their seats of government. So if you lobbed something at him like Slaton High, which Lonnie did that morning, he could tell you Tigers, from South Lubbock—which, of course, was located in Lubbock County.
“That’s a easy one, fishin’ buddy,” he said.
Since the latest issue of Dave Campbell’s wouldn’t hit newsstands for another two weeks, Trent was reading one from 2004, which he now placed in his bag alongside his tattered Bible. The giant-print King James Version was about fifteen years old and so thoroughly used that its spine dangled loose. Inside, Trent had marked 2 Corinthians with sheets of wide-ruled paper, onto which he’d meticulously copied chapters 1 through 23 by hand. He’d been copying the Bible for years. His mother didn’t know how long it took for him to finish the whole book. Just that when he did, he tossed the pages into the garbage and started again.
After packing his Bible and football magazine, Trent threw in a yellowed county map of Texas and two fresh legal pads, which he pulled from a cache in the closet. He then zipped the bag closed and walked into the living room. Ann and Lonnie were sitting down reading but leaped up when Trent appeared. “All set to go?” Ann asked.
Trent kind of grunted and pointed to his sneakers. Without looking, Ann said, “Let me give ’em a good tying.” After his mother had finished—“Ready, Freddy!”—his father tugged at the bill of his cap, smiled, then gently touched his son’s face.
“Have fun today,” he said.
Trent waved, tossed the bag over his shoulder, and stepped out into the dawn, where the crown of Harvester Field towered in the distance.
Trent at the “football house” with Ann, Lonnie, and Shannon. (Photograph by Wyatt McSpadden)
Cisneros wasn’t born in Texas, but her rendering of the rasquache Tex-Mex vernacular is pitch-perfect in this short-story collection, which appeared just seven years after she arrived in San Antonio. Anchored in Mexico and Texas, these stories read like lapidary poems, telling of romance, revenge, carnal and spiritual longing, and whimsy.