Farewell to LBJ: A Hill Country Valediction

The land that made him takes him back, and many of the goodbyes aren't said at the funeral.
LBJ trinkets were big business in the Hill Country. Now the signs are shabby.
Photograph by Gary Bishop

1.

Never in memory had the hill winter been so hard and insistent and the sun so shy. Men talked of it on the town squares as they backed up to stoves and toasted their behinds. It wasn’t idle talk of weather, but the real thing, as if some elemental malevolence was in the air. Twice an icy sheet had covered the whole of Texas, and out here in these runty ruins of some ancient, geologic upheaval, young and old counted a dreary run of coughs and colds and liniment-filled nights.

He, of course, had not died of pneumonia, being too robust for that. Like strong men do, he had been up one day, planting trees, and was gone the next. A turbulence inside himself that had nothing to do with the weather.

That day of his burial we all looked to the sky, and the sun tried to show itself, kept poking here and there through the pall over the Twin Sister Mountains, giving rise to all kinds of false hopes and comment in the people about.

The matriarch of the Johnson clan was Aunt Jessie Hermine Johnson Hatcher, at 88 the ninth and last surviving child of Grandfather Sam Ealy Johnson, Sr. Now there was never any question about Aunt Jessie’s attendance at the graveside services. The doughty old girl would be there to see her Lyndon off. The prayer was that she would not catch her death of cold.

2.

The petition on Red Casparis’ chapped lips was that he could wet a few whistles before George Byars’ proclamation went into effect. George, being the mayor of Johnson City, had deemed it proper that business establishments close for the funeral, so Red got up early that dark Thursday to try to sneak a little daylight by the rooster that would crow on curfew.

It isn’t that Red is a crassly commercial man; he couldn’t be and keep the kind of saloon he does on the square behind the courthouse. All he sells is beer. It is about as private a club as goat ropers can have. And innocent, I thought. You never see any women in there and the male mainstays seem to be Red and Ted and Austin, Casparises all, Pancho Althaus, the barber, and Lyndon Johnson’s common cousin, James Ealy. Ted is Red’s cousin and Austin is Red’s daddy. Austin is 94. Austin and his late wife, Fannie, used to serve Lyndon chili a lot when they had a cafe and he was a kid, so I asked Red if the old man would make it to the cemetery. He smiled and said he doubted it.

“Like to,” he allowed in his gravelly whisper, “Sure Daddy’d like to, but he’s a little under the weather, too much to drink last night. Yessir, he put one on.”

As I left, Red had lit the stove and was, with a feather duster in hand and an appreciative smile on his round, rich face, carefully examining and dusting what he called his Texas primitives—a rusty assortment of odds and ends he had found in the ruins of barns and artfully arranged about the walls of his joint.

It was hard to imagine the authorities closing him down from time to time for fights and trouble there. Hell, who would be fighting? Not Red and surely not Ted. Behind the Falstaff fog or whatever brand of balm he used, Ted Casparis was a man of mind who hid behind his war wounds. The barber was a good humored man, well known and respected. Old Austin was out of the question and as for James Ealy, well, heck, he wasn’t that ambitious. Had to be out of town tush hogs. Damn shame what a little boom like the Presidency will do to the old hometown.

The air was a damp fist in the face as I walked out Red’s door and stumbled over a dog that had taken shelter there. The mutt whined and shivered, its thin legs veined as thermometers. Rain. It had begun again, the kind of drizzle that gives gravediggers a bailing-out fit. Down the street the mercury on Pancho’s barber pole was just a little above freezing.

Sure, I thought, he had his fat-butted cronies in boots, greed and gabardine, but he also had Roosevelt and Rayburn.

3.

By noon, everything in Johnson City was shut down, even the cafes out on the highway, and by 1 o’clock a steady stream of cars began heading out Highway 290 toward Stonewall and the LBJ Ranch, where, in the old family cemetery beside the Pedernales, he would be placed beside his mother and daddy. The ceremony was not to start until 4 o’clock, when Lyndon’s body would be flown in from the state funeral at the cathedral in Washington. But the impulse, in spite of the cold, was to hurry to the cemetery and get a good spot before the crush came. What you did if you were an ordinary citizen was park your car in the LBJ State on Ranch Road 1 south of the Johnson place, and catch one of the army shuttle buses that took you across the river and into the trees that hung like mourners over the huddle of tombstones. Thousands did this, or walked the winding road to the graveyard where they stood in puddles for hours awaiting his last trip home. What you did if you were the press was sign in at the park office and get a badge which gave you precedence over the run of the mill mourner for a bus and a front row position. Still the press bitched, because the dignitaries were given reserved seats on exclusive buses, because there were only nine phones for calling out, because it was wet and cold and difficult to set men and machinery into motion.

4.

Sam Wood, the veteran Austin editor, was in a better humor than most. He sat in one of the shuttle buses beside his reporter, Nat Henderson, his head down in a deep study. Directly he

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