My involvement with San Antonio’s world fair–HemisFair 68–actually started in 1967 when a group of business people sent me to Montreal for the purpose of selling San Antonio and our upcoming fair to a film company from the Czech Republic. Expo 67, the world fair in Montreal, had just ended.
This venture was almost as crazy as it sounds, and the outcome is still beyond my comprehension. There were others from San Antonio involved, but I saw only the Czech film executive who represented the two productions–film shows titled Laterna Magika (The Magic Lantern), and Keno Automat. No communist countries were invited to participate in HemisFair, but these film productions were independently owned and produced by citizens of the Czech Republic.
I was still with the Express-News at the time. It was late September, 1967, and I was wearing a paper-thin sports coat when I climbed off an Air Canada plane that brought me to Montreal from New York City. It was snowing lightly and I was shivering. I thought I might freeze to death. My involvement was not financed by the newspaper, but by a San Antonio business amalgamation headed by R. Jay Cassell. Cassell was a mover and a shaker on the San Antonio business scene at that time.
Imagine the hick from Junction checking into Montreal’s Chateau Champlain Hotel, billed then as the elite and most expensive of all hotels in the world. The Chateau Champlain builder had sworn to construct a hotel that would make Conrad Hilton structures look like chicken coops by comparison. This giant of chrome, glass, and steel then towered 40 stories above the St. Lawrence River and the city of Montreal, Quebec, and night lights shimmering over the water were breathtaking.
Of course I did not recall the Czech Republic guy’s name, but I do know that he liked me. It was his idea but I didn’t resist when he took me to a wild joint with half-naked women and two bands blaring at the same time. I told him stories of Texas cowboys, menudo, whores, and chicken fights,the specific narratives including fuckers, fighters, wild horse riders and windmill hands like the indomitable Hunger brothers of Junction and Kimble County, and we drank Canadian Club Whisky until both of us were just short of knee-walking slobbering drunk.
“Ah, yas,” I recall him saying. “Big fun in Texas, yah?”
My friend finally loaded me into a cab and we were headed back to the Chateau Champlain Hotel as the sun rose over the beautiful St. Lawrence River. My Czech friend signed a contract the next day to bring both of his productions to San Antonio. Keno Automat and Laterna Magika were two of the greatest and most successful attractions at HemisFair 68.
On weekends, I had a sideline job in the HemisFair Press Center, a building that also housed an office for Governor John Connally, and the Arkansas Pavilion, the only exhibit not representing a country. Highlights of the Arkansas pavilion were two spectacular female spawns of the Ozarks named Glenda Brown and Sherry Worsham. One look at these two and you knew precisely why they were chosen to represent Arkansas. And right across the fair walkway was The House of Sir John Falstaff, the largest and busiest saloon on the fair grounds, and my second home until HemisFair 68 was over.
On occasion, my HemisFair job called for me chauffering dignitaries and various VIPs around the grounds in a golf cart. I soon learned this was not my calling when I met Canadian actor Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright in the TV series Bonanza. Greene was unimpressed when I told him I knew Dan Blocker, the undisputed star of the series who I had met when I attended Sul Ross State University in Alpine. I’m sure he must have been jealous of his TV son Hoss. He looked at me as if viewing an insect.
“Sure, sure,” I recall Greene saying. “Everyone in Texas knows Dan Blocker.”
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Don Meredith was my favorite HemisFair passenger. Dandy Don was a hoot and I have never forgotten that day I spent with him.
“Look at my arm,” he said, putting his forearm alongside mine. “Not much bigger than yours, right. That’s why I have got to get out of pro football. I need to get out before someone kills me.”
Those were the hard early years when the Cowboys lacked adequate front line protection for the quarterback. Meredith was being pounded without mercy on almost every football Sunday.
Don was six-three and his forearm was a damn sight bigger than mine, but he was making his point.
“You can plainly see that I don’t have any business playing out there and being assaulted by animals like Dick Butkus and Alex Karras.”
Meredith was always the showman. He described his lowest point in pro football with a grin: “You are five touchdowns behind in the fourth quarter in the Cotton Bowl, it’s raining and freezing cold, and the Cowboys fans are throwing cabbages. It don’t get any worse than that.”
Of all the celebrities I was to meet during HemisFair, iconic western actor Chill Wills was the one who seemed to always be around the most. Wills and San Antonio restaurant owner and parttime actor John Hamilton had both worked in John Wayne movies, the most noteworthy being the epic 1960 film “The Alamo.”
Hamilton owned Big John’s Steak House just off Austin Highway in San Antonio, a popular eatery and watering hole frequented by actors, sports figures, politicians, gamblers, musicians, a few police characters, and a scattering of media people. Wills stayed with Hamilton throughout almost all of HemisFair, and I drank with him on many weekend evenings at the Falstaff saloon.
I recall a telephone call I got from John Hamilton at about 5 o’clock one morning. He and Chill had been drinking all night, and I could hear Chill’s gravel voice in the background.
“Is that Sam?”
“Yes,” John replied. And then said to me: “Chill wants permission to use that saying of yours, the one where you described some politician as having a face that resembled hammered shit.”
I told Hamilton I had no patent on the expression.
Then Chill Wills took the phone: “I know that saying must be an original, and I would sure like to use it with your permission. I am thinking of a Hollywood jerk right now that has a face that looks like hammered shit.”
I told Wills to be my guest and that made him happy. Hamilton said Chills then passed out with a smile on his face.
During HemisFair 68 and in months and years to follow, I was beginning to realize that my alcohol consumption was escalating. I told myself that I could handle it but I never did.
At the morning San Antonio Express I was on the evening shift, starting my day at 1 p.m. The Evening News guys started in the early mornings. By the early 1970s I had worked my way into a daily column called Offbeat, and the San Antonio Express and News eventually published a paperback book for me that was titled The Best of Sam Kindrick, Secret Life and Hard Times of a Cedar Chopper.
My subjects for Offbeat were just that, offbeat characters, many of whom also became friends. They included bookmakers Jack Hanratty and Tony Salinas, madam Theresa Brown, notorious shotgun-packing pimp and drug dealer Arthur Harry (Bunny) Eckert whose body is believed to be encased in concrete at the bottom of Canyon Lake, and many many more.
Hanratty, who was on the San Quentin prison fire department with Vegas casino operator Benny Binion, later sent me to Vegas to cover Binion’s first World Championship Poker Tournament.
I sat with Jack as he was dying from brain cancer, and I was a pallbearer at Jack’s funeral. The “old alligator” as many of us called him, inadvertently named this book.
“You are the outlaw journalist,” Jack said. And he crowned me with that appellation several years before my drug busts, jail time, and some of the darkest days of my life. Jack seemed to know. I was the outlaw journalist even before I was to really live up to the title.
A typical day at the Express and News when my drinking was really starting to kick in started with me arriving at the Melody Room Lounge on Third Street, just across from the paper, around noon. I recall drinking two and maybe three beers just to quiet my nerves. My hands were shaking slightly then, my guts were shaking inside, sweat was beading and dripping from both hands and feet and I found it all but impossible to type on my old manual Royal typewriter without the calming beers.
After settling slightly, I managed to write what I needed to write before leaving the newspaper for more drinking at downtown clubs that included Flamingo Lounge, the Black Fox, San Jacinto Club, the Burnt Orange Club, and the Southwest Conference Club. Sometimes I took a break to eat, sometimes I just drank. I usually stuck with beer until I couldn’t hold anymore. Then it was to Jack Daniels bourbon and water and later just Jack Black on the rocks. Sometimes I drank vodka, but never scotch if there was anything else available.
My excuse for all but living in these skull orchards was that I needed this environment to meet the colorful characters who paraded through my written copy. When the clubs closed at the legal alcohol deadline of 2 a.m., I headed straight for San Antonio’s infamous after-hours joints–Al Paesano’s Holiday Club, Phil Sfair’s Navy Club, and the club owned and operated by Phil’s brothers, Mike Sfair and George Sfair. This was the Commander’s Room on downtown Main Avenue where I did most of my heavy drinking damage. Before the club became the Commanders Room it was the Rickshaw, operated by Johnny Jowdy and his wife Bea.
These clubs operated after hours under what we were always told was a federal charter arranged by District Judge Solomon Casseb. These clubs were ostensibly “private clubs” where dues-paying members kept liquor in private lockers and paid for drinks mixed by the club bartenders. To some extent this started as the protocol, but all of the clubs wound up being open bars serving every mixed drink imaginable. We all learned years later when the after-hours clubs were all closed down that the “federal charter” was non-existent. It was not uncommon for me to stagger out of the Commanders Room with the rising sun in my face. Commanders Room senior owner Mike Sfair was an enormously popular figure among policemen, attorneys, judges, and politicians. Large, dark, and handsome, Sfair was a member of San Antonio’s sizeable Lebanese-American society who had aspired to be a policeman. When he graduated at the very top of his San Antonio Police Academy class, Mike and brother George were already attracting swarms of policemen and others to the club.
Then the inevitable hammer of municipal authority fell on Mike. The city manager got involved and the San Antonio Police Department’s top brass ruled that Sfair could not serve as a policeman while operating a nightclub. He was forced to make the decision, the cop shop or the Commanders Room. Sfair chose the more lucrative nightclub operation, and his Commanders Room was almost immediately filled with policemen and other public figures who sympathized with him, including a number of media people who included television and radio people and reporters and editors from both the San Antonio Express and News and the San Antonio Light.
Mike Sfair knew how to take care of us. Some of the patrons kept bottles in lockers behind the bar, but for the most part it was an open bar that served reduced price drinks to most of the patrons, with some police brass, judges, and newspaper figures like myself drinking free.
We were the people who could hurt an illegal after-hours drinking emporium, and operators like Mike and George Sfair knew it.
When I hit the Commanders Room, it was usually after all other drinking joints were legally closed at 2 a.m., and I would be half drunk when I entered the door. I wasn’t making much more than $150 a week with the newspaper in those days, hardly enough to sustain after-hours drinking of any kind of name brand liquor, so the Jack Daniels bourbon was not mentioned when I ordered free whiskey from Commanders Room bartenders Wooten and Shaw. Some of us low-income newspaper reporters referred to the cheap grade bourbon as “Old Tennis Shoe,” but we swigged it down nevertheless, me until I was blind drunk and lurching as I left the drinkery.
Driving While Intoxicated charges were rare in San Antonio in the 1960s and 1970s, and if you knew the right people they were almost non-existent. No policeman would bust a drunk leaving one of the after-hours clubs if he could possibly avoid it. I was stopped many times by policemen who let me go when they realized I was a newspaper reporter. On a few occasions, the patrolman would follow me home to ensure that I arrived in one piece, and when my Ford car hit another vehicle at slow speed at 4 o’clock in the morning as I pulled away from a curb next to the Commanders Room, the investigating patrolman called a wrecker before driving me home in his squad car. No charges of any kind were filed.
After leaving the Commanders Room on some mornings, and headed for my home on Harriett Street between San Pedro and McCullough avenues, it was not uncommon for me to pull into the Blue Room on San Pedro for one final drink. The Blue Room was the jittery alcoholic’s morning oasis, a dump owned by Wynn Little who opened promptly at 7 a.m.
I will never forget those sad Blue Room mornings which were marked by tendrels of cigarette smoke curling slowly from butts smoldering all on the sidewalk. The men and women suffering alcohol withdrawal were sitting in their cars, smoking furiously, and waiting for the Blue Room doors to open and the medicine that would be available on the Blue Room bar. They called this medicine Seagrams, Johnny Walker Red, Smirnoff, and Jack Black. The slaves to this juice were the losers I surrounded myself with. I was trying hard to become one of them and I had no idea why.
When I reached home on these awful mornings, I had a gallon jug of water I kept under the bed. The alcohol consumption had dehydrated me and I would swig copious amounts of the water. My skin was scaly and my face was puffed. I weighed 160 pounds, but my face suggested a 200 pounder. The bloated image on the cover of my first book tells the tale. I remember the look. It said my guts are on fire and I know there is nothing I can do about it. What the fuck is wrong? The best recognized recovery guide of the alcoholic calls the condition “powerlessness.” I’m sure that I could smell the fire and brimstone. I was that close. But not close enough to alter my drunken regimen. I was living my lie by then. I will quit drinking, by God, when I am ready.
By this point, my marriage was a sham. My poor wife had no idea what to do, and my kids were at loose ends.
Alcohol drove the wagon for those 1960s and early 1970s. Somehow I functioned. Barely at times. When my alcohol level reached a certain level, my personality proceeded to deteriorate. Dr. Jeckyll became Mr. Hyde. Nobody wanted near me. Mike Sfair finally barred me from the Commanders Room when I hit a state representative by the name of Stanford Smith in the mouth. It was an ugly scene, rolling on the floor through the blood, puke, and broken cocktail glass. I had a toilet mouth in those days. If I didn’t like your wife, it would not have been uncommon for me to call her a douche bag or worse, unmindful of the repercussions that were sure to follow. It would get much worse before it would ever get better.
My first meeting with Willie Nelson was under a mesquite tree outside the John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes.
Willie was smoking a joint.
I had little knowledge of country music or country musicians at the time, but I have always been drawn to the written word. Nelson’s lyrics were what originally roped me in.
First it was Hank Williams, then Willie.
Williams died in 1953, my senior year at Junction High School. I never got to meet him, but I did see him once at Cherry Springs Dance Hall, the historic tavern 16 miles north of Fredericksburg. I wasn’t old enough to get in, but I could see and hear Hank through an open window.
I heard “Cheating Heart” and “Kawliga.”
I was a Hank fan for life.
When Hank William died, people in Junction and Kimble County pulled to the sides of the road and turned on their car and truck lights.
It was a phenomenon I couldn’t understand, but one I could appreciate.
Years later, I watched women on Chicago’s Navy Pier climbing wire netting like monkeys, all trying to get at the new Texas superstar known as Willie Nelson.
I know. I was there in the gigantic entertainment complex. Willie and band were getting set to mount the stage.
Looking up at the females clinging to the wire, we just stood there for a few seconds.
“Did you ever dream it would come to this?” I asked Willie.
“Shit no,” said the Redheaded Stranger.
Paul English was on his drum kit and the downbeat rolled out over Lake Michigan.
“Whiskey river take my mind, whiskey river don’t run dry….”
Imagine two-thousand female monkeys, all screaming and screeching together.
It was a phenomenon I couldn’t understand, but I have always been able to appreciate it.
This little redheaded guy who sounded off-key but wasn’’t off-key had the rare ability to paint a picture with words. I sensed the greatness before I was able to articulate it.
It was in the mid-1960s, a time when my alcoholism was really starting to kick in. Johnny Bush was big then with his Bandoleros Band, and I was enjoying some ill-fated success as a columnist with the San Antonio Express and News.
Willie was smoking a joint when we met. He offered me a hit and I took a drag just to be sociable. Alcohol was my drug of choice at the time. I had little interest in marijuana. The hard drugs would come later.
I think Larry Trader introduced me to Willie. Trader was a local character and golf hustler with an engaging personality who had an uncanny ability to ingratiate himself with some country musicians. I knew that Trader had booked Ray Price for some shows in the San Antonio area. I also knew that Nelson and Johnny Bush had both worked for Price before forming their own bands. Bush was Price’s drummer. Nelson was the lead guitar.
A hectic, crazy, and life changing phase of my life was about to begin. The country music years with some of the greatest country musicians who ever lived.