The Man Who Dreamed Up Luckenbach
Hondo Crouch took a tiny town with a funny name and created a magical place where folks could forget who they really were. The trouble was, Hondo forgot too.
Within my lifetime, two famous people have come out of the Hill Country. One was a president of the United States, and the other was a mayor of Luckenbach. It has always seemed baffling that either Lyndon Johnson or Hondo Crouch had anything to do with Gillespie County. I grew up there in the fifties, and few places could have been more obscure, less likely to produce famous men. There was no source of power, no money, no industry, no oil or big ranches. It was nothing like the Texas we heard about or saw on television and in movies. That Texas was someplace else, a long way off on winding Hill Country roads that made Austin and San Antonio more distant than they are today. The distance was magnified by the German culture and language that isolated the people in Gillespie County from their neighbors in Llano, Mason, and Johnson City, and a difference in dialect estranged them from other German-speaking Texans in Comal and Kendall counties. Gillespie County just wasn’t the sort of place where you expected to find famous Americans.
Of the two careers, Lyndon Johnson’s was much easier to understand. He went away as a young man and became powerful. Fame followed him home. Whatever you might think of Lyndon Johnson’s accomplishments, you have to admit that he changed the course of history.
Hondo Crouch’s fame was much more ephemeral and much harder to explain. He didn’t leave the Hill Country but rather appeared to turn his back on the world by settling twelve miles west of the LBJ Ranch — in Luckenbach, a town with one general store and a population of eight. Luckenbach had been there since 1849, but Hondo created it, much as Thoreau invented Walden Pond. Hondo declared that everybody was somebody in Luckenbach, and by celebrating what was small and simple, he made fun on a world that had become too large and complex. Hondo was Johnson’s polar opposite. It seemed coincidental that the two men existed in the same county, but the connection was fairly direct. Lyndon Johnson brought media attention to Gillespie County, establishing an atmosphere in which Hondo Crouch could flourish; the war in Viet Nam created a national climate that made the simple virtues of Luckenbach appealing. To a lot of people, particularly the songwriters and musicians who were in the process of reinventing the myth of rural Texas, Hondo Crouch was the real thing. Briefly, he was a hero.
I knew Hondo while I was growing up — or I knew him as much as a child knows an adult. His two oldest children, Becky and Juan, would come to town to stay with my sister and me, and we would go to the Crouches’ ranch for overnights and weekends. When I was six, Hondo taught me to swim at the Fredericksburg municipal pool, and one of my indelible summer memories is of standing, crouched for a racing dive, with sunlight shimmering on the aquamarine water, the smell of chlorine, and the sound of Hondo’s voice calling, “On your mark…”
My first appreciation of physical grace came when I saw Hondo swim. Standing on the back with the rest of his “team,” I would watch as he moved through the water. The smooth, effortless strokes, the quiet, syncopated splash of water, the deep, even breaths of air. Like a series of Muybridge photographs with sound, it was such a pretty thing to watch that twenty fairly wild little boys would stand in silent awe. We knew that Hondo was special, that he was all-American. Hondo had a way with children. He had a warm voice, and there was always something in his dark brown eyes, a glimmer of amusement, that made you think he could see you better than you could see yourself. There was something sly about Hondo, as if he were keeping a secret. Sometimes it was one you shared, and sometimes it was his alone.
As I grew up, I realized that if no one else in Fredericksburg seemed to live in the mythic Texas we saw on TV, the Crouches did. They had a large ranch south of town with a big rock house and old rock barns. They rode horses to round up the livestock, hunted deer, and trapped animals for their pelts. In the winter there were wood fires in the house, and in the spring orphan goats roamed the kitchen. Unlike families in town, the Crouches didn’t watch television at night; they didn’t even own a set until long after everyone else did. Instead, they were always making something with their hands. Hondo carved , and Shatzie, his wife, spun wool and wove.
To other children, it seemed that the Crouch children — Becky, Juan, Kerry, and Cris — came from a special place and were their own special breed. All of them attractive, they tended to be stronger, faster, and braver than their peers in town. They were at once more rustic and much more sophisticated than anyone else. While we in town watched cartoons on Saturday mornings, they went to San Antonio for lessons at museums and at the YMCA. They had their own brand of humor and their own way of speaking — a slightly nasal drawl that, combined with a certain reticence, gave the impression that they weren’t entirely comfortable with speech. As far as I know, no Crouch ever pronounced a final g, so that “talking” would come out sounding like “tawkin.” Nonetheless, they were articulate and were given to naming things. A row of cottonwood trees down by the creek was Big Ears. The hill behind their house was Old Smokey. A boy at school with well-shaped legs was Hollywood Legs. A girl who bruised easily was Banana Legs. But their humor was more often visual. Once, while we were sitting at the dinner table, Cris, the youngest, waited until I happened to look at her, then pulled a long red pimiento out of her nose and popped it into her mouth.
The Crouches weren’t concerned with appearances in the same way as families in town who were trying to nail down their places in the middle class. They wore old clothes and drove old cars. When I thought back on them in the late sixties, I realized that they were ahead of their time. They weren’t materialistic — at least not on a level I understood. They appreciated what was old and handmade and what came from the land. After I graduated from college and left Texas, I thought about the Crouches a lot, and from time to time I dreamed about their house. Nothing happened in the dream except that I wandered through empty rooms, then woke with a feeling of loss.
When I came back to Texas in 1971, I heard that Hondo, Shatzie, and a young man named Guich Koock had made news by buying a town. Luckenbach wasn’t much of a town, and its chief virtue was that it looked old. When you turned off RM Road 1376 onto the even smaller road next to Snail Creek, you had the feeling that you were entering a time warp. On the right was an old rock house; on the left, past the line of cypress trees that grew along the creek, were the ruins of a rusted-out cotton gin. Straight ahead, beyond a slight curve in the road, was the little weather-beaten store, looking like a Norman Rockwell illustration. Benno Eagle, who lived in the rock house and whose family has owned Luckenbach since they started it in 1849, had made few changes on the property. The outside of the store was covered with old signs, and the inside was a random collection of merchandise that looked as if it belonged in an antique shop. Not much of note has happened there since 1865, when a local inventor, Jacob Brodbeck, flew the first airplane fifty feet high for a distance of sixty feet. The plane, powered by a large spring, had no practical value and was long forgotten by the time the Wright brothers made their maiden voyage. Luckenbach was just another country store where German farmers and ranchers stopped in to pick up their mail, drink a beer, and play a game of dominoes. The dance hall across the street from the store was where families had reunions and gave wedding parties.
The Crouches and Guich originally planned to keep Luckenbach just as it was — a sort of “living museum” that would continue to serve the community, as well as cater to the tourists who had started to explore the Hill Country. The first kink in that plan came when the new owners discovered that Benno Engle had failed to tell them that the U.S. Post Office was closing down the Luckenbach station. Without the money that the post office brought in, the store would have a harder time breaking even. They quickly learned, however that Luckenbach, with its funny name and minute size, had instant media appeal. Frank X. Tolbert devoted a column in the Dallas Morning News to the purchase of Luckenbach, and other papers around the state picked up the story. Hondo and Guich capitalized on that appeal by writing humorous press releases about the theft of Luckenbach’s one parking meter (someone thought it was a slot machine) and about their attempt to get air mail by putting a mailbox on top of a flagpole. Newspaper readers in Texas cities were amused and intrigued, and Luckenbach, blessed with both obscurity and growing fame, became a destination for weekend drives. Shatzie, who had been most committed to preservation, dropped out of the venture when she saw how things were going, leaving Hondo and Guich to run Luckenbach as a beer joint. They put on dances some weekends, but people came mainly to drink beer out under the trees in warm weather or around the pot-bellied stove when it was cold.
To draw more people to Luckenbach, Hondo, Guich, and their new partner Kathy Morgan, who had recently moved to the Hill Country, established a schedule of annual events. They hosted an all-women chili cookoff in the fall, and in the winter they had a hug-in for Valentine’s Day. Then, in the spring they celebrated the mud daubers’ return to Luckenbach. In 1972, in the spirit of parody, they put on the First Annual Luckenbach World’s Fair. Twenty thousand people came. According to Kathy it was “unreal” and she was “petrified.” The crowd managed to go through nine thousand cases of beer, and Kathy remembers running around with brown paper bags stuffed with money. Cannons were fired, and a cannonball almost killed Benno Engle. Willie Nelson came, as advertised, but he and Hondo never met. On quieter days Hondo and Guich would hand around a guitar and sing, and occasionally Jerry Jeff Walker would drop in. Born and raised in New York, Walker had embraced Hondo as a father figure when they’d met several years earlier. And it didn’t hurt Luckenbach’s reputation to have a bona fide celebrity on the premises either. In 1973 Walker brought cult status to Luckenbach when he recorded his album ¡Viva Terlingua! in the dance hall and used photographs of Hondo and Luckenbach on the album cover.
Luckenbach attracted all sort of people — hippies, hopeful musicians, and members of the middle class who, living in cities, felt alienated from the “real” Texas. Jack Harmon, a public relations man in San Antonio, started writing press releases on a volunteer basis, and newspaper columnists around the state, fed with releases, covered Luckenbach so faithfully that for a while you couldn’t help but read about it. Slowly Hondo and Guich were becoming media figures. Hondo appeared on Gunsmoke, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, To Tell the Truth, and the Today show. Guich got a small part in The Sugarland Express, a movie that starred Goldie Hawn. He went on to Hollywood, won second place in a singing-cowboy contest, and eventually landed a role as a dimwit on Carter Country, a short-lived sitcom about a small town. Harmon, however, scored the biggest media coup when he dreamed up Luckenbach’s Non-Buy-Centennial, which got national coverage by protesting the commercialization of the patriotic celebration. To many people who were naïve about the media, Hondo and Guich appeared to have realized a common fantasy of becoming stars simply by being themselves. In Luckenbach it really seemed that everybody was somebody.
I dropped in at Luckenbach now and again, but with one or two exceptions I avoided the big celebrations. If I was going to go home for something like that, I wanted to go to the county fair or the races in Fredericksburg, where I could see — in addition to tourists and new summer residents from Houston and Dallas — the people I had known while I was growing up. In those days, when the influx of tourists had just begun, there was some resentment in Fredericksburg that the Luckenbach celebrations were for out-of-towners and competed with the traditional civic events. A lot of people thought that Luckenbach misrepresented the good, solid values of life at Gillespie County.
During the late sixties and early seventies the Crouch family has suffered most of the stresses and conflicts occurring in the country. Juan has been in a helicopter that was shot down in Viet Nam. He survived the crash, but he was back on the ranch, alienated and angry, faced with the problem of what to do with his life. Kerry, a son two years younger than Juan, was a casualty of the Austin drug culture and floated in and out of mental institutions. Becky and her husband become born-again Christians while looking for help for Kerry. Cris, the younger daughter, married well. Shatzie, dismayed by Luckenbach, divorced Hondo.
Knowing all this, I had a hard time connecting with Hondo in the present, in as public a place as Luckenbach. Later I was sorry that I didn’t try harder, that I didn’t pay closer attention to what would ultimately seem a transformation of character. In the fall of 1976, at the age of 59, Hondo died suddenly of a heart attack. The song “Luckenbach, Texas,” recorded by Wabylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, came out in 1977, and according to newspaper and television reports, hordes of tourists had descended on Luckenbach and were about to carry it away. Then, in 1979, Becky Crouch Patterson published a biography called Hondo, My Father. Yet, even aided by all of this documentation, I didn’t understand what had happened in Luckenbach or what had happened to Hondo Crouch. As when anything private becomes public, I felt a sense of personal loss.
Hondo, My Father is a remarkable biography when you consider that Becky, who is a visual artist, had never written before nor did she intend to write again. She didn’t try to spare Hondo or to make a hero of him, as you might expect a daughter to do. Ensconced in the charmed life of the ranch, Hondo comes across in her book as a strange, unhappy man, unable to express himself in even the most basic ways.
He was born John Russell Crouch on December 4, 1916. His parents, Ione and Harry Crouch, had come to Texas from Illinois with the Southern Pacific Railroad with the encouragement of Harry’s twin brother, Holly, who worked for the railroad in San Antonio. Harry, Ione, and their five-year-old daughter, Mary, were stationed first in Spofford, a lonely place where the tracks came to an end out in the South Texas brush country. The Crouches were eventually bumped up the line to Hondo, where Ione gave birth to their son. The baby boy became the center of the family. Both mother and sister doted on him, keeping him well groomed and well mannered. Mary, eight years older than her brother, played with him as if he were a doll, pushing him in a baby buggy almost until he was in the first grade.
The Crouch family had been homesick for Illinois in Spofford, but in Hondo they settled down to stay. Harry worked as the telegraph operator at the train station. He was a quiet, passive man with large brown eyes, and he cried easily. There was never much question that Onie, as he called his wife, was the stronger partner in the marriage. Short and stocky, she ran the family. If she resented having a passive husband, she vented her anger in practical jokes and loud, unpredictable behavior. One morning when she was sick in bed, she hid Hondo beneath the cover with her, then called Mary (who was supposed to be taking care of him) and asked where he was. She sustained the joke until her daughter, sick with fear, had looked all over town. On another occasion, when a modest adolescent girl came to one of Mary’s slumber parties, Onie sewed up the girl’s pajama legs so that when she went behind a door to change, she had to come hopping back into public view. Later Hondo would follow in his mother’s footsteps, handing on frustration to his children like a family birthright by pouring molasses on Becky’s hands and then giving her a feather to play with, and by making an “idiot’s hat” for Juan that dangled a carrot just out of reach so that the two-year-old would entertain himself for hours and keep the adults in the house laughing uproariously.
When Hondo was seven years old, his parents bought the Armstrong Hotel, where once a month they gave a Saturday night dance. The man who was to become Mary’s husband had an orchestra, and for the benefit of the crowd — however small — Hondo would dance when it played. Outfitted by Onie in a Charleston suit (white shirt, white bell-bottoms, black shoes with wide toes, and a black bow tie), he could draw the crowd around him with his showmanship. When he finished, he would scramble for the coins people tossed.
Hondo was a nice-looking boy, though small for his age. He liked sports, and he liked to make intricate model airplanes, carving the parts out of the soft wood of orange crates. According to Becky, Hondo took after both parents. Like his father, who drank beer steadily and was often treated in a Houston hospital for respiratory ailments, Hondo never showed much affection. For Harry, who was oversensitive, Onie’s jokes must have been unbearable. It is small wonder that he developed a deep rapport with animals and spent most of his time “with hunting dog and gun, chasing birds. He took Hondo hunting and to King’s Water Hole, where Hondo learned to swim after practicing at home on a piano bench. When Becky describes Hondo, lying facedown on the bench, kicking his legs and moving his arms while he looked at an instruction book, it’s easy to imagine him trying to fly away, to escape into another atmosphere.
As it turned out, swimming became not only Hondo’s escape from home but also the way he made a name for himself. The summer after he graduated from high school, he went to live with his sister and brother-in-law in Corpus Christi, where he worked as an office boy in a chemical plant to save money for college. He entered a swim meet and won three gold medals, then went on to the state meet in Austin, where he won a first, a second, and a third. He caught the eye of Tex Robertson, the swimming coach at UT, as well as that of sportswriters, who gave him his nickname — Hondo the Swimming Cowboy.
In the mid-thirties, swimming was a minor sport at the University of Texas. Robertson, an Olympic swimmer of 1932 and an all-American at the University of Michigan, coached the team for two years without compensation. He wasn’t much older than Hondo, but with four years he managed to put together a nationally ranked team. To raise money and draw attention to the sport, Roberston, a natural showman, put on swimming exhibitions jazzed up with comedy stunts. Hondo had found his environment. He not only set records in the fifty-meter and hundred-meter freestyles but he also became the darling of sportswriters. He wore jeans, boots, and a cowboy hat, playing up his role as the Swimming Cowboy. But even as Hondo became known to the public, he remained an enigma to his peers. Teammate Bob Tarlton, who was often Hondo’s roommate on the road and a lifelong acquaintance, said that he never knew Hondo very well. He remembered that at UT Hondo dressed “kinda cowboy” and that he carried around a “coon prick” in his pocket and would pull it out and show it to people. Hondo rarely attended school dances, and he kept to himself unless he could be with an old friend from home, Burr Noonan.
Hondo was a junior at UT when his father committed suicide. Harry had received a phone call from a hospital in San Antonio saying that his dear friend and boss Mr. Jungman had died. Brokenhearted, Harry went to work, only to learn that he no longer had a job. He went back home and put a rifle bullet through his heart. “He must have really wanted to die,” Mary reported later. “The first shot missed and blew up a chair. He had to reload and try again, pulling the trigger with his toe.”
Without telling anyone in Austin what had happened, Hondo borrowed the team car from Tex Robertson and drove home for the funeral. He pinned a prized swimming medal to his father’s lapel, but his only comment while riding in the back of the hearse was to wonder aloud if his father’s toenails were clean.
In 1939, Hondo was named an all-American and was elected captain of the swimming team. He had his eye on the 1940 Olympics in Finland when someone jumped on his back during a game of water polo, separating his shoulder and bringing his swimming career to an end. At the age of 23 he was a has-been.
Hondo was so impassive that it is difficult to judge the immediate effect of these blows. In a diary he kept, he didn’t mention either of them. Instead, he created self-conscious pictures of himself setting out to “batch up a trappin’ party,” and he wrote about trips home for football games with rich friends from Dallas and Fort Worth and the impression he made as the naïve cowboy come to the city. He didn’t seem particularly concerned about what he would do with his life except to mention at one point the possibility of a job at San Jacinto High in Houston and to say in another place that he would like to be a rancher.
Hondo stayed at UT until 1941, when he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in physical education. He had worked summers at Rio Vista, a camp on the Guadalupe River near Kerrville that catered to boys from some of the richest, most prominent families in Texas. The camp made a practice of hiring varsity athletes from Southwest Conference schools to teach sports, serve as counselors, and entertain their charges with campfire skits. (Swan Lake, with the counselors in pink tutus, is remembered as a favorite at Rio Vista.) Hondo liked camp so well that in the fall of 1941, rather than go home, where he was afraid a draft notice was waiting for him, he moved to River Oaks in Houston to start a boys’ club. A wealthy family he had met through Rio Vista offered him the use of their garage apartment and telephoned River Oaks mothers who feared their sons weren’t getting sufficient attention from their busy fathers. Hondo would pick the boys up after school in an old woody station wagon and take them down to the bayou near River Oaks to hunt and trap. They built campfires, and when it was warm enough, they swam in the bayou.
It is strange to think of Hondo at this point, poor and handsome, floating on the edges of River Oaks, but if he was worried about his future, war and romance took care of the problem. That summer, he had met Helen Ruth Stieler. Called Shatzie — sweetheart — by her family, she was the prize of the Texas Hill Country. With her blond hair, sky-blue eyes, sweet voice, and strong, open face, she was, as Becky described her, a personification of earthly elegance. She and her brother were raised on their father’s ranch between Comfort and Fredericksburg. The Home Ranch was five thousand acres of rugged Hill Country that included land in three counties — Gillespie, Kerr, and Kendall. Stieler Hill, on Texas Highway 87, which cut through the ranch, was the biggest hill in that part of the country. Shatzie’s father, Adolph Stieler — dubbed the Goat King of the World by Life magazine in 1954) — ran as many as 60,000 Angora goats on ranches in Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico. His largest ranch covered ninety sections of Sierra Blanca Mountains in West Texas. Stieler was a large, imposing man with a pink face, blue eyes, and white hair. That he had lost one arm — he hit a downed power line while checking on livestock in an ice storm — merely emphasized his stature. He was a generous man, well respected throughout the state. He gave to the Republican party, attended five national conventions, and was a personal friend of President Eisenhower’s. If there was anything approaching a German aristocracy in the Hill Country, Shatzie was part of it.
When Shatzie was thirteen, her mother was killed in a car crash and Shatzie was sent to board at St. Mary’s Hall in San Antonio. From there she went to the University of Texas, where she was a Pi Phi and a member of a prestigious English riding club. She was a popular, unpretentious girl who had clothes, a car, and money. She liked the arts, and she liked the outdoors. She offered Hondo everything he thought he might want. When they were married — Hondo in his newly acquired Air Force uniform and Shatzie in a white satin wedding dress — Adolph Stieler threw the biggest party the Hill Country had ever seen. The gardens at the Home Ranch were lighted with Japanese lanterns. Outside, tables covered with red-and-white gingham cloths were heaped with barbecue, German potato salad, tamales, and beer. Inside, there was champagne, finger sandwiches, and fancy cakes. Shatzie’s trousseau — furs, monogrammed silks, and designer dresses — came from Neiman-Marcus in Dallas.
Shatzie and Hondo lived at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio. Then, after the war, they returned to the Home Ranch with their firstborn daughters, and Hondo went to work for his father-in-law. Becky alludes to the trouble between the two men without spelling it out; the main problem was work.
Stieler was a self-made man who judged other men by their willingness to work. Hondo appreciated the romance of ranch life, but he never approached his duties on the various ranches or his office job at the wool and mohair business in Comfort with enough moneymaking fervor to please his father-in-law.
Instead, Hondo made a stab at writing folk humor. He sent material to J. Frank Dobie at the University of Texas and to Austinite John Henry Faulk, a folk humorist and national radio commentator. Faulk said the problem with Hondo’s writing was that Hondo didn’t know who he was. For folk humor to work, the writer has to be on the side of the people. According to Faulk, Hondo’s sympathies were essentially reactionary and he tended to be a racist. When Faulk visited the ranch, he noticed the tension between Hondo and his father-in-law. Hondo wanted and needed attention, but whenever he tried to tell his jokes and stories, Stieler was visibly and painfully irked.
In a fundamental way Hondo had replicated his parent’s marriage. He was in a weak position, married to a strong woman. But life was fast and easy. Juan was born in a Buick on the way to the hospital in Fredericksburg, and two years later, Kerry was born in his parents’ bed at the ranch. Hondo and Shatzie seemed to have everything. They shared a deep aesthetic appreciation for life in the Hill Country, while their contemporaries — recovering from the Depression and the war — wanted what was new and convenient. They bought a two-thousand-acre ranch on Highway 87 near Fredericksburg and commissioned architect Albert Keidel, Shatzie’s cousin, to restore the 150-year-old two-story rock house on the property.
Hondo continued to work at the wool and mohair business in Comfort, and with the help of foreman and wetbacks, he ran the Fredericksburg ranch and the Block creek ranch, which was near Sisterdale and belonged to Shatzie, but he wasn’t happy. Friends in Fredericksburg remembered how Shatzie worried about Hondo when he wouldn’t eat. He would roam the Hill Country in his pickup, stopping at beer joints and entertaining the other patrons with stories and jokes. As a boy staying on the ranch, I was the most aware of Hondo during the exciting times when sheep and goats were sheared and calves castrated, but I also remember periods of lassitude in the winter, when Hondo would lie motionless by the fire, and in the summer, when, on hot afternoons filled with the oppressive smell of cedar, he would lie on a bed out on the screened porch and have Juan or Kerry massage his injured shoulder.
As an outlet for his talents, Hondo taught swimming lessons in Fredericksburg and performed with the little theater in Comfort that eventually became pretty much his show. When Cris was old enough, the entire family started spending summers at Camp Longhorn (founded and owned by Tex Robertson), where Hondo taught swimming and was impresario of the campfire, while Shatzie taught crafts and served as camp mom.
From the outside it looked like the ideal life, but, of course, it wasn’t. When the children started going off to boarding schools and college, ready cash became a problem. Shatzie sold off pieces of her own property and took a job selling paint at Stein Lumber Yard in Fredericksburg, but Hondo was unable to make a decisive move. He stayed on at the wool and mohair business and, under the pen name of Peter Cedarstacker, wrote a column for the Comfort News called Cedar Clippings, in which he poked fun at small-town life and crabbed about big government.
I don’t think anyone in Fredericksburg understood or approved of what Hondo was doing, but he had started to fashion a role for himself to play in society. Dressed like a saddle tramp, chewing on a wad of tobacco and whittling on a piece of wood, he would appear in a crowd as the old hayseed, the naïve outsider who could see what was really happening and make the devastating remark or gesture. Essentially, it was the role of jester. To play it, Hondo went where there were crowds and publicity — UT football games, chili cookoffs, rodeos, and public institutions. As the fool, he didn’t have to be particularly brilliant to score; coming from such an unlikely guise, his wit had the same effect as a risqué joke told by a nun, and for those who knew him, it was even better.
Often Hondo’s pranks were intended to bring down the self-inflated, but you have to wonder who the audience was and whom they benefited. In Houston Hondo would stand around in the Museum of Fine Arts. Whenever a group of pretentious-looking women self-righteous about art passed by, Hondo would pretend to sneeze, cupping his hands over his face. When they looked at him, he would remove his hands, revealing a glass bubble dangling from a nostril. Once, Hondo met Rex Allen at an airport along with members of the press. With one finger up his nose, Hondo approached the star and pretended to wipe snot on the lapel of his gleaming white suit.
One night I walked into the bar at the Inn of the Hills in Kerrville and saw Hondo seated on the floor beneath the grand piano. He was very meticulously spreading out a meal that he had carried with him in a rumpled old paper bag. The Inn of the Hills had just opened and was pretty much the place to go and be seen at that time. When asked what he was doing, Hondo said that someone had told him that he just had to have dinner at the Inn, and since he couldn’t afford it, he had brought his own. What he was doing, of course, was making fun of the middleclass people from the small Hill Country towns who were so impressed by what was basically a new motel. Watching Hondo, I felt embarrassed because no one was laughing, but then, everyone in the room was paying good money to be there.
Whether he knew it or not, Hondo was engaged in guerrilla theater. He was breaking the rules of acceptable behavior to prick the bourgeoisie. Though some were certainly amused, he irritated a lot of people in Fredericksburg, particularly the hardworking, steadfast Germans. I don’t think, however, that anyone condemned Hondo, or, for that matter, made the connection when Juan turned out to be one of the most rebellious teenagers the Hill Country had ever seen. He compulsively challenged every authority and took every risk in search of limits. Then Kerry — the quiet son, dark and handsome, an honor student, and an outstanding athlete at St. Stephen’s — came home from UT and had his first psychotic episode.
In her book Becky went into most of this without sparing the details. She wrote about how her mother hungered for love and affection, how Hondo, lying in bed with Shatzie, told his wife that she would never understand him, and how Hondo’s mother, as a kind of warning, gave Shatzie the slug that killed Harry Crouch. Becky said that as a family they were always mystified by Hondo, that when there was a crisis, they often had no idea of what Hondo thought or felt until weeks later when a similar event would occur in the little make-believe world Hondo had created in Cedar Clippings.
After poring over Becky’s book several times, I felt more puzzled by Hondo than ever. It was almost as if in death he were once more playing one of his favorite games on the ranch, where a frequent taunt was “If it had been a snake, it would have bit you.” Hondo, for the benefit of his children and friends, liked to leave something treasured in plain sight and wait until someone saw it, or, in a more elaborate game, he would leave a trail of obvious clues leading to something that was of no value whatsoever.
With this in mind, I decided to go out to Luckenbach, which is certainly one of Hondo’s more obvious clues. I had already been to San Antonio to see Becky, who seemed as mystified as ever, and I had spent an evening with Juan on the Block Creek ranch. Of Hondo’s children, Juan was the one who spent the most time in Luckenbach and who felt that he finally knew his father. He and Hondo lived together on the Fredericksburg ranch until Hondo died. Juan inherited the ranch, but he leased it to Cris to pay the taxes and moved onto the Block Creek ranch, where he and his wife turned the old hired-hand’s shack into a honeymoon cottage. To get to the house, you had to drive several miles on rough caliche roads, stopping along the way to open three gates. They keep one of the gates locked and have an unlisted telephone number to protect their privacy against people from the Luckenbach days who might drop in or call.
In his own way Juan is just as compelling as his father. He is a slight but well-built man with Hondo’s brown eyes and Shatzie’s blond hair. There is something warm and vital about Juan and also something wild that makes men follow him into hair-raising stunts and that makes women — in the same spirit — throw themselves at him. He seems to thrive on physical danger. Because he broke the rules and jumped out of his helicopter in Viet Nam, he was the only survivor of the crash.
Juan isn’t the type to speculate about other people, but one night, after he drunk all the beer in his house and a gift pack of German wines, I asked him about Hondo. What had he wanted to do? What did Luckenbach represent? Juan thought about it, then said that Hondo’s main accomplishment was being Hondo and that what Luckenbach represented was personal freedom. As Juan saw it, a couple from Dallas could leave the kids with the babysitter, come to Luckenbach, and do whatever they wanted without their neighbors or anybody else knowing about it. He recalled one woman, a contestant in one of the chili cookoffs, who entered a stick-horse-riding contest. “I guess she really wanted to win something,” Juan said. “She didn’t take off her clothes, but it was pretty incredible what she did with that broomstick. Hondo could get people to do anything. One Sunday afternoon some of those chili cookers were out from Austin with a cannon they would drag around. Hondo would get everyone to stand out in the street in formation. When they fired the cannon, everyone would fall down and play dead.”
As he talked, I thought about Andy Warhol, who could get people to do anything by appealing to their narcissism. It was an odd comparison, but Juan made Luckenbach sound like a happening, a replay of the sixties for the sort of people who had stood by and watched angrily or enviously while students and hippies broke all the rules. Those same people, under the auspices, of the quintessential small town, could shed their inhibitions and make up for lost time. I’m sure that no one thought about it at the time, and that if there was a connection, it was subconscious, but given the context of student demonstrations and Kent State, the mock group assassinations in Luckenbach took on different overtones.
WHEN I ARRIVED IN LUCKENBACH ON A Sunday afternoon and drove into that shady little cul-de-sac that lies above Snail Creek, I thought of that ominous moment in westerns when you first see the village and from the pervasive air of torpor you know it has been invaded by outlaws. In front of the general store a mean-looking dog, part pit bull and part hound, stood barking where it was chained next to a truck. A large, beefy man dressed like a biker — black boots, greasy jeans, keys on a chain, and a sleeveless T-shirt that revealed tattoos — stepped out the side door of the old general store and walked down toward the creek. Inside, a handsome man in his late twenties with a long braid hanging down his back was working behind the bar. Through the back door I could see a small group of people sitting beneath the oak trees, drinking beer and watching a game of washers.
I got a beer, and then I did what I had always done in Luckenbach — I went to the wall opposite the bar and studied the framed photographs from magazines and newspapers that attested to the celebrity of Luckenbach and its inhabitants. In the old days it had been strange to look at the pictures and turn around to see Guich and Hondo. They were both photogenic men, and given the appearance of the current bartender, I wondered if that was just coincidence or if Luckenbach was a little backwater of narcissism.
There were some new pictures, but the old one of Hondo with his hat tipped back, sitting on the porch and strumming a guitar, was still there. The Saturday Evening Post ran the photograph in 1964 with a story called “LBJ Country,” and in the text, Hondo was portrayed as a coy rancher who, when asked by a tourist for directions to the LBJ Ranch, pretended to be so country that he’d never heard of it. The photograph and story confirmed Hondo in his role. It was a wonderful photograph that made you want to know the man. Looking at it, I thought of what Juan had told me — that Luckenbach hadn’t had an idea since Hondo died, that Luckenbach had been Hondo and had died with him.
I studied the rest of the photographs, then took my beer into the front part of the building, where it was too dark to see the dusty, cobweb-covered remains of the general store and post office. The front door was open, so I went out on the porch to wait for Roy McNett, who had agreed to meet me there. In 1977 Roy moved to Luckenbach to be the bartender. He hadn’t known Hondo, but he had witnessed an interesting period in the history of Luckenbach. After Hondo died, a group of regulars — people who were mostly in their thirties and lived in the area — took it upon themselves to keep Hondo’s spirit alive. They watched Kathy Morgan “like a hawk” to make sure she didn’t change anything. They complained to her when things didn’t seem the same. On Hondo’s birthday they gathered to listen to tape recordings of Hondo speaking. They erected a likeness of him — a small bust — and when things seemed right, they would raise an index finger toward the sky and say, “Hondo’s here!” One of them, a man who had moved to Gillespie County to be near Hondo, became the unofficial hagiographer and spent two years researching and writing the life story of Hondo Crouch. When the song about Luckenbach came out and the tourists flocked in, the regulars sent out press releases recounting the resulting desecration. They felt that Luckenbach belonged to them, and they resented outsiders, which was fairly ironic, since everybody was supposed to be somebody in Luckenbach.
While I waited for Roy, I read the graffiti scribbled on the front of the store. Then a man and a woman pulled up in a large, squishy-looking LTD. He was in his forties, heavyset and balding. He had on sandals and blue-jean cutoffs that exposed his white, hairy legs. The woman — bleached hair and a little pudgy — was wearing Bermuda shorts, sandals, and a loose-fitting top. They acted like they might be in love. As they started for the side door, I cut back through the store so I could observe them as they walked into the bar. They did exactly what I had done. They bought beer, looked out the back, then studied the photographs for a few minutes. I couldn’t overhear them, but I could see the man pointing and could imagine him saying, “See, that’s Hondo Crouch, and here’s Hondo and Guich with Goldie Hawn. You know Guich. He used to be that real dumb cop on Carter Country.” They could stand there and look at the photographs, then turn around and see it all. Maybe even the bartender was someone famous or was going to be famous. After they went into the general store, four women who looked like Easter eggs in pastel pantsuits came in. They did the same thing.
I hesitate to generalize from such a small statistical base, but I think that looking at those photographs is an important part of being in Luckenbach. Most of us who grew up in Texas watched television and movies, and we noticed that for the most part we lived in conventional houses and neighborhoods rather than on large ranches with cattle and oil wells. We grew up feeling like we were missing something, that our personal lives didn’t quite muster up. By coming to Luckenbach, we can momentarily align our two realities. We can stand there in the store and see how real it is — it isn’t a movie set, it’s obviously old — and at the same time, we can look at photographs and see that Luckenbach exists on that other plane. To first-time visitors, it is like standing with a foot on both sides of the state line. For an instant they know exactly where they are. To regulars, I think, Luckenbach was the trapdoor in their perception of everyday life.
After the women in pastels disappeared into the general store, Roy McNett arrived. Judging from his appearance, he had been a likely successor to Hondo and Guich. With dark hair and eyes, a moustache, and clean, regular features, he was good-looking in a wholesome way. He was wearing cowboy boots, freshly laundered jeans, and a starched shirt. He got a bottle of J.W. Dant’s out of the truck and suggested that we sit at the picnic table on the far side of the game of washers. As we walked under the trees, a bed of beer caps rustled beneath our feet.
Roy said that he first came to Luckenbach in June 1977, and he liked it so much that first night that he talked Kathy Morgan into giving him a job. She said he could live in the egg house, a small frame building not far from the picnic table. He went home to Beeville and quit his job as editor of the Bee-Picayune. By the time he moved back for the Fourth of July weekend, the Jennings-Nelson song was out. Four thousand people came to Luckenbach the first weekend he was there, and the crowds didn’t let up till school started. Television stations sent film crews out, while radio stations and newspapers called from all over the country to ask what the weather was and how much beer had been sold. Roy told me about how he was interviewed while he took a bath in the creek and how there were only two employees to take care of the crowds. At night after he closed down the bar and went to the egg house to go to bed, he never knew who would be there waiting for him. He eventually took off for Colorado, but he ended up just down the road in Blanco, where he and his father own the Blanco County News.
People drifted over to talk; sitting around the table, everyone was pretty vague about why they kept coming to Luckenbach. Sometimes the music was good. Sometimes there was something magical. I gathered from the atmosphere that I had chosen a day when Hondo had better things to do. Bored, we all watched a duck mount a chicken, and someone pointed out Waylon’s Wall — a wire fence that the Alcoholic Beverage Commission made Kathy build to define the limits of the property. In the history of Luckenbach, the erection of the fence was an event comparable to the arrival of barbed wire on the open range. The mention of Waylon Jennings reminded someone that neither he nor the songwriters from Nashville — Buddy Emmons and Chips Moman — had ever been to Luckenbach. Guy Clark, who wrote “L.A. Freeway,” told them about Luckenbach in Nashville and they decided it was what you heard Texas was supposed to be. Someone else at the table remembered how tourists had started stealing the signs off the store, and then someone told how a drifter had had the nerve to steal Hondo’s guitar — the memory of that act of irreverence brought the conversation to a halt for a moment. On a lighter note, Roy said that the sign for Luckenbach had been ripped off so often, the highway department no longer bothered to replace it. As I listened, I realized that there was a deep-seated concern for authenticity. Most of the people at the table — though regulars — were relative newcomers who had never known Hondo. They regarded him as a founding father, white-haired, above reproach. Unlike Guich, Hondo hadn’t gone to Hollywood. He had refused to “go commercial.” His had been the authenticating presence.
But from my point of view, Luckenbach was a history of thefts and betrayals. Benno Engle betrayed Hondo, Shatzie, and Guich when he didn’t tell them they would lose the post office. Hondo and Guich betrayed the Luckenbach community by bringing in all the crowds. Guich betrayed the spirit of Luckenbach when he went to Hollywood, and Kathy Morgan betrayed the past by letting things change. The song and the thefts were simply the last in a series of betrayals that had begun to sound like the begats in the Old Testament. Perhaps it was this heretical thinking at Luckenbach, but suddenly a stiff, cool breeze blew in from the east, bringing clouds that looked like rain.
I stayed at Luckenbach long enough to get thoroughly chilled. When I got in my car to leave, I remembered what someone had said — that Hondo was “just as good as Mark Twain except he didn’t write as much.” I thought about Twain and Huckleberry Finn — how the book captured the Mississippi, how Huck and Jim stayed alive from generation to generation, and how they in turn kept Mark Twain alive — and I couldn’t understand how anyone could make the comparison. Most people, if they were going to make comparisons, said that Hondo was like Will Rogers, and it’s true that there was a physical similarity. The first time I saw Rogers on an old newsreel, I thought immediately of Hondo. I was therefore surprised when years later I read in Hondo’s diary that he wanted to be like the humorist.
We all want to be like someone else, but if we are ever going to do anything original, to make a lasting and genuine contribution, we have to outgrow our heroes and be ourselves. Hondo, on the first page of his diary, said that he knew he was different. He wanted to put down his story so that someday he could read it. Hondo wrote about his job at the chemical plant in Corpus, about swimming and hunting, but the one thing he never did, at least not in his diary, was to look inside himself to see why he was different. Perhaps celebrity, followed by his father’s death and his own fateful shoulder injury, had come too soon, but in a way it is almost as if he took his third diary entry too much to heart. The sort of motto seen in offices and barrooms, it said, “It’s not what you do its what you make other people think.” In Luckenbach you didn’t have to do anything. The key verb there was “to be.” Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.
As I drove home to Austin, I remembered being a little boy, standing on the side of the swimming pool with other little boys, all of us poised for a dive, and Hondo calling out, “All right, men, on your marks…” I liked him so much. We all did. He understood how much we wanted to be men.
That memory had made it difficult the last time I saw him at Luckenbach, dressed like a fool in a stovepipe hat, a bearskin coat, and jeans tucked into his boots. I had taken someone I cared about to meet my old friend. When we went up to say hello, Hondo immediately pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, something he had written, a joke. I tried to talk to him, but he had a routine to perform. We made no connection, and I felt like I was onstage, refusing to play my role. I supposed to most people it looked as if Hondo was just being himself. The irony was that Hondo had such a hard time being himself, and I think that was part of the deeper appeal of Luckenbach. He acted out in public the struggle that we were all having to be ourselves. After Viet Nam we couldn’t feel innocent or virtuous or young or any of the things we thought we had been. The tragedy was that Hondo gave too much. He chose to live out his public role as an old whittler who chewed tobacco and said funny things, and in so doing he carved away what was personal until he had made himself into an icon, a roadside curio anyone could get.
But memories — at least those that are old and personal — are arbitrary, and like dreams, they can be interpreted. Knowing this, I will end by remembering a night in the Hill Country when Hondo took a bunch of little boys out coon hunting. It was cold, and the stars were white. We ran through the creek bottoms, shining flashlights up into the trees. I can remember the excitement, being out in the dark and being part of a pack. When it was time to go and we were getting back in the truck, Hondo noticed that I no longer had my flashlight. I said that I had dropped it down by the creek — I wasn’t sure where. Hondo told the other boys to wait while he took me to look for it. As the two of us walked through the pasture, I was sure we would never find it, but after retracing our steps for a while, there it lay, silver in the grass. I like to think of that cold night when Hondo taught me to go back and look for what I’d lost.