MORE THAN A MONTH has passed and Bud Shrake is still grumbling about the Austin time line that appeared in the American-Statesman on the eve of the millennium. “Their chronology starts in 1839, when the first land was bought, then jumps to 1847,” Bud says incredulously, fiddling with the medals of Saint Jude and Saint Christopher and the silver arrowhead that he always wears on a chain around his neck. Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was a gift from his first wife, Joyce. Screenwriter-producer Bill Wittliff, a longtime friend, gave him the arrowhead. Bud bought the Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, in the early sixties in Rome, on a long journey to a place that had no name. A telephone rings in another part of the house, but Bud ignores it and continues to rant about the offending time line. “Look at all the great drama that took place in between! The city was built and the capital of the Republic of Texas moved here from Houston. In 1846, after Texas became a state, there was a big ceremony at the Capitol where they raised the U.S. flag and lowered the Texas flag. Anson Jones was the president then, and Sam Houston was made a U.S. senator. But none of that appeared in the local paper. They seem to think Austin’s history started when they built Palmer Auditorium.”
We are sitting in the family room of Bud’s house in West Lake Hills at a long oak table cluttered with manuscripts, screenplays, magazines, photographs, and golf clubs, all presided over by a huge gray cat named Merlin and a fierce black dog named Feeney. Six feet six, with a genius-level IQ, a highly developed sense of humor, and a personality that can be calculatingly cold and aloof or uncommonly generous and affectionate, sometimes simultaneously, Bud has always been a larger-than-life character. In the words of the Kris Kristofferson song, a poet, a prophet, a preacher — and a problem when he’s stoned. In the early sixties writer Joe David Brown ( Stars in My Crown, Paper Moon) told Bud that he must move to New York. “You’re so tall everyone will remember your name,” Brown said. He also advised that every writer should marry a psychiatric nurse. Instead, Bud married a Shakespearean scholar and a Long Island debutante trophy wife, both now long gone from his life.
Since 1978 he has lived alone in this rambling hillside cottage whose uncatalogued decor of the rare, the eccentric, and the bizarre makes it look like a psychedelic secondhand store. A huge painting of a fierce Sonny Liston, which was once a Sports Illustrated cover, glares from one wall. On the screen of a giant television set a golf tournament in Sri Lanka or some other improbable place unfolds silently. Carefully positioned on end tables and in the spare recesses of bookcases are photographs of his children and grandchildren, and one of Joyce, taken when she was about nineteen. Over the years rooms have been added or changed according to Bud’s needs of the moment. An enclosed second deck that was built as his office — it looks exactly like a press box — is now the office of his longtime assistant, Jodi Gent, who helps run Bud’s corporation, East Pole, and like the cat, the dog, and the mementos is a fixture in the house.
When the phone continues to ring, he walks to his present office to answer it and I tag along. It’s a guy from the New York Times, researching an obit for Tom Landry. While Bud talks, my eyes move around this small, dark space that used to be a guest room, stopping at a sign that says “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug — Mark Twain.” Near it is a thirty-year-old photograph of the two of us, Bud wearing a fez and me in a World War I doughboy helmet. Bud and I have been close and fast friends since 1956, when we were rival police reporters in Fort Worth, and have shared adventures and sometimes apartments between marriages. In the weeks leading up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, our apartment just north of downtown Dallas was a regular stop for denizens of the late night, including nightclub owner Jack Ruby and his star stripper, Jada.
The walls of Bud’s office are layered with posters, book jackets, old newspaper headlines — “Richards Elected Governor” — and photographs of Austin landmarks like the late, lamented Armadillo World Headquarters and of old pals like Dan Jenkins, Darrell Royal, Willie Nelson, and Don Meredith. A number of watercolors by Blackie Sherrod, the peerless sports editor, as well as one of Bud’s own oil paintings, hang about, and there is a small altar with the Virgin of Guadalupe and a Buddha. Messages and slogans are taped to the frame of his word processor: “The future ain’t what it used to be,” “Stay Zen,” “Keep typing,” “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.” When he hangs up, I ask what he told the guy. “I told him that Landry always took the time to answer my questions, no matter how stupid they were.”
The carelessly edited time line in the American-Statesman had put him in a foul mood and I knew why. I had just finished reading an advance copy of Bud’s latest novel, The Borderland, a rip-roaring adventure that will be published by Hyperion this month. It takes place in the settlement of Austin in the nine months from January through September 1839, when Congress Avenue was little more than a spring-fed creek, Indians camped along Shoal Creek, and the Colorado River at flood stage was more than a mile wide. The Republic of Texas was three years old and in desperate shape. Mirabeau Lamar and his War Party knew that by moving the capital to Austin they were inviting war with