He bought the town so he could get a beer anytime he wanted one. The Traveler’s Story.

More chapters from Other Voices, Other Towns

A VG Serial: Other Voices, Other Towns

Chapter 62

The Scene: Luckenbach is nothing more than a cluster of old, outdated buildings a mere eight miles from the antique capital of Fredericksburg, located at the end of a dirt road off Ranch Road 1376. The hamlet, a relic of 1849, was originally a trading post, wedged back among a blending of bottom lands and hills alongside Grape Creek. It became the domain of Hondo Crouch, and it gained fame, if not notoriety, as the title of a country hit crooned by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

The Sights: Its general store, saloon, and dance hall remain a gathering place for some of the state’s top musicians, and the sign posted behind the bar explains: “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance.” Hondo’s own directions to Luckenbach from San Antonio went like this: “You get on I-10, go to 87, get off on 290, you know … where that dead armadillo is in the ditch. Then you take a right on that farm-to-market road. You know, where that cattle guard is. And that mawkin’ bird nest. Then take a left, go through a bump gate, two wooden gates, and a wire gap. Then you’ll find Luckenbach in the canyon. No, well, it’s more like a rut.” There are no signs to Luckenbach. People keep stealing them.

The Story: Hondo Crouch was a little man with a shy smile, the creator of his own heaven and earth down where thistles were as menacing as barbed wire, a cowboy out of time, perhaps, but never out of place. He happened to be the owner, mayor, city manager, postmaster, road commissioner, bartender, and occasional foreign minister of Luckenbach, Texas, a guitar-picker, whittler, tobacco chewer, goat roper, bull thrower, spinner of tall tales, and chili dipper – specializing in armadillo chili on the half shell.

Hondo Crouch was one of those one-of-a-kind originals. He didn’t walk to the beat of a different drummer; there were no drums in Luckenbach. He simply followed the beat of his heart, and it always beat a little faster out in the fields where flowers had bonnets of blue and the only job a mockingbird had was to wake the sun each day and try to get it in the sky before daylight creased the juniper hills.

Hondo Crouch had a white beard cut ragged along his chin line, and he always stuffed his faded jeans into a pair of weather-beaten, thistle-scarred cowboy boots. His hat had more shapes than sides, and it looked as though Hondo had probably spit tobacco into the wind, then walked into it, and he probably had. He did not know much nor suspect much about sophistication. He had heard of it once but went down to the veterinarian and took shots so he wouldn’t catch it. However, catching it, Hondo told me, wasn’t nearly as shameful as giving it to somebody else. And anything with fourteen letters and five syllables just had to be contagious, if not lethal.

One night in Fredericksburg, while the legendary Bob Hope was hosting a charity benefit ball, Hondo Crouch, chewing on a wheat straw, smiling that smile of his, ambled out on stage and handed the comedian an axe handle. “We had in mind to give you a golf club,” Hondo said, “but the only ones we could find had swimming pools, and they was too expensive.”

Hope grinned.  “I appreciate the axe handle,” he said politely, “but tell me … why doesn’t it have a head on it?”

Hondo shrugged apologetically. “That’s because it’s hard to get ahead in Luckenbach,” he said softly.

Hope fell to his knees in laughter. “Who writes your material for you?” the famous comedian wanted to know.

“Nobody,” Hondo replied. “You just hang around Luckenbach a couple of days, and it just happens.”

Hondo Crouch had become a rancher because he preferred punching cows to time clocks, and he told me, “I had a hired hand once.  He worked for me till he owned the ranch.” Hondo shrugged his frail shoulders, paused, and spit tobacco juice into an empty longneck Pearl beer bottle. He shoved his hat onto the back of his head and said, “Then I worked for him till I got it back.”

He bought the whole town of Luckenbach, population 3 – lock, stock, and barrel – which is about all there was to it, and it was as big then as it is now. The Hill Country real estate acquisition only had four buildings in its entire downtown metropolitan area, if you stopped to count the outhouse, and almost everyone always did. They had to. Hondo sold a lot of beer.

Luchenbach boasted a dance hall, a blacksmith shop, and a combination post office, general store, and beer joint. The post office did not last long. The government, blessed by infinite wisdom, closed it down, and Hondo never forgave anyone who hung around on the far side of the Potomac River. “All I was tryin’ to do was save ’em a little money,” he said. “The way I heard it, the government was so dadgummed broke it couldn’t win nor afford to lose the first hand of a penny ante poker game.”

Hondo Crouch had a strict municipal policy. He never bothered to take the mail over to Fredericksburg, eleven miles away, until the bag was full enough to justify the gasoline expense. Sometimes that took six months. For weeks, the scattered population hunkered back in the hills had no idea that the post office was shut down. They kept dropping their mail in the slots, but they never had much to say and didn’t expect an answer anyway.

Luckenbach had long been the pride and consternation of Hondo Crouch. He admired the little town with dirt streets, wooden porches, and mud dauber nests on the walls. He would drive past every afternoon about five o’clock, coming home from the ranch, hot, thirsty, tired, dust lodged in his throat, needing a beer, preferably a cold one, real bad. He couldn’t get one.     The whole town closed down at three o’clock. Even the chickens went to roost, the fish in the creek across the road stopped biting, and the dog quit digging for a bone he never buried anyway. The old German who owned Luckenbach got sleepy along about then, and he wasn’t about to stay open late for anyone, not even Hondo Crouch.

Hondo bought the town so he could get a beer anytime he needed or wanted one.  That first year, he bought enough beer to keep himself in business. Besides, he said, “The ad for the town said it already had an established egg route that would bring in enough money to make the monthly payments. It sounded like a steal to me, so here I am.”  Every time Hondo feared he might be going broke, he would buy himself another beer just to hear the cash register ring.

The general store was worn and frayed by the weather, but Hondo did not mind.  He would just wrinkle the corner of his eyes, smile a shy smile, and explain, “I thought about fixing the old town up. I really did. But I’m afraid that we’re just too poor to paint and too proud to whitewash.”

There was no wrong side of the tracks in Luckenbach. There were no tracks other than the ones made by the laying hens in the dust outside the abandoned post office. The high society in town might get high, but only on beer. One person was pretty much like the next, on his way into town or on his way out. To honor them all, Hondo simply nailed a sign to the side of the general store. It said, “Everybody is somebody in Luckenbach.” And so it was. Hondo made sure of it.

“We’re real patriotic around here,” he told me. “Why, we even stand up and salute the flag on the stamps just because they belong to Uncle Sam. On Tuesdays, we gather around the flag pole and wave at airplanes, but not many of ’em wave back anymore, and that’s a shame. Sometimes we all go down to the highway, get in a pickup truck, and run back and forth over that rubber hose the highway department’s got stretched across the road so they can keep count with the amount of traffic running through these hills. That makes us all sit a little taller and stand a little straighter. Coming from Luchenbach, we ain’t never been counted before.”

There were times, however, when Hondo did indeed suffer, for his was not the easiest of jobs. Luckenbach, like most municipalities, did have its downtown problems. He spit tobacco juice in that longneck Pearl beer bottle he always carried and pointed out, with frustration, “I put in a parking meter, and the locals played that thing with pennies for a week before they found out it wasn’t a slot machine.” The smile was not as shy as it had been. He continued, “Then we had a tourist come in and put a whole dime in it, and the parking meter damn near choked trying to digest it. When the tourist drove off, we had three men jump in their pickup trucks and hit head-on trying’ to get to the meter before the time expired.”

“How much time was left?” I asked.

“Ten minutes.”

“That’s not much.”

“Ten minutes can be a lifetime in Luckenbach,” Hondo said.

The Hondo Crouch saga continues tomorrow.

Chapters of Other Voices, Other Towns: The Traveler’s Story, are published daily.

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