When I was a cub reporter with the San Angelo Standard-Times in West Texas I learned a basic truth about people that set the tone for my life as a professional writer.
Not all readers demand a conventional winner, and the Norman Rockwell myth has never applied to the vast majority of us.
Tom Steph was the San Angelo city editor who launched me into a world of characters who have included the hustlers and the hustled.
Steph came to the San Angelo newspaper from the Daily Oklahoman in Oklahoma City, and I never forgot what he taught me.
“Be different,” Steph said. “Write your articles about the losers and the off-color characters of this world. Steinbeck did it, Erskine Caldwell did it. People get sick of hearing about the winners. There is a little loser in all of us, and we can all identify. So many of us are a little odd, a little off-whack, a little removed from the beaten path.”
A year after that, I had transferred to the San Antonio Express-News where I started as a general assignments reporter. My first opportunity to put Tom Steph’s visionary advice into newspaper print was soon to be forthcoming.
The San Antonio Livestock Show and Rodeo was in full swing, and the city editor had suggested that I try to interview world all-around champion cowboy Jim Shoulders for a feature article.
Before heading for the rodeo grounds, I stopped off at the Melody Room Lounge, a drinking dump on Third Street directly across from the newspaper building. There were a couple of cheap hotels in the immediate area, and this is where I met Robert (Coyote) Perry, a little-known Choctaw Indian rodeo performer and stock pen manure scooper who followed the rodeo tour, entering both bull riding and saddle bronc riding events.
We were shooting 9-ball pool when a cowboy friend of Perry’s introduced him.
“This is Coyote Perry,” said the cowboy. “He is the losingest cowboy on the rodeo circuit. Some call him Wolf Perry, but to most of us he is Coyote Perry. He gets his name from the coyote yips and howls that come out of his mouth every time he is thrown by a bronc or a bull. When Coyote Perry hits the arena ground they can hear his howling all the way to Tulsa.”
Jim Shoulders was forgotten. Coyote Perry had captured my imagination.
Coyote Perry was built like a human fireplug, a swarthy competitor who did his best.
I soon learned that Perry’s rodeo winnings were from scant to non-existent, and he earned most of the money used to get him from rodeo to rodeo by shoveling shit out of the arenas and stock barns. Sometimes he slept in the barns, sometimes in cheap hotels like the one near the Express and News.
When asked about his situation, Perry said, “Heck, who says I’m the losingest? I won eighth place in bull riding at Cheyenne one time, and I placed fifth in saddle bronc at Pendleton. I guess it was a year or so back.”
I asked Perry why he fought it with the professional rodeo circuit.
“I rodeo because I have a bad back,” he said without blinking. “I think I have one of them slipped disc doohickeys or something like that. Rodeoing beats hell out of riding a Farmall tractor on the reservation from daylight til dark. It was killing my back.”
I asked Perry if being thrown and maybe stomped on by a brahman bull wouldn’t be equally or more painful than the tractor. He had a simple answer: “Being thrown and stomped on only hurts for a little while. Riding that tractor hurt from daylight til dark.”
I left Robert Perry in the Melody Room to return to the newspaper city room where I wrote about Coyote Perry, the losingest cowboy on the professional rodeo tour.
The wire services picked up on the article, and, within hours, Coyote Perry was featured in newspapers all over the United States, as well as the front cover of the London Times.
That West Texas editor, Tom Steph, was right. The losers have a place, too. And many of the off-plumb winners might look like losers through the lens of proper society. I had found my way with that segment of humanity which has produced many of my friends and subjects of my writing. People are continually asking me about the rapport I have enjoyed with many of the subjects.
I guess it came natural for me, and I answer most questions as candidly as possible.
How in the hell did I talk world renown pool hustler Minnesota Fats into wearing a Santa Claus suit for a picture shoot?
Simple. I asked him and he jumped into the suit.
My entire life as a writer has included subjects who Hank Williams might have described as fractured stars from “Life’s Mighty Gallery of Pictures.” Some famous and some infamous, the characters who have made my world go around. From Rudolph Wonderone Jr. (aka Minnesota Fats) they have included the likes of David Alan Coe, Big John Hamilton, Hondo Crouch, Honest Charlie Potter, Willie Nelson, world renown tattoo artist Lyle Tuttle, Leon Russell, Johnny Rodriguez, and Bourbon Street Chaplain Rev. Bob Harrington.
The names and the memories will never leave me. The list goes on into what seems like infinity–motorcycle daredevils Even Steven and Igo Mendoza, golf legend Lee (The Flea) Trevino, San Antonio and Las Vegas sports handicapper Tony Salinas, George Strait, Wild Man Ray Liberto, madam Theresa Brown, Johnny Bush, Darrell McCall, Alex Harvey, wild piano pounder Blind George McClain, Augie Meyers, Gary Stewart, Texas Ranger legend A.Y. Allee, boxer Tony Ayala, Red Adair with Boots and Coots, pool shark and billiard parlor owner Bananas Rodriguez, gambler and bookmaker Jack Hanratty, San Antonio Bandidos chapter founder Royce Showalter, Dub Robinson, saddle bronc champion Case Tibbs, Randy Toman.
The criminal defense lawyers such as Alan Brown and A.L. Hernden are both personal and professional associates. Others include Ray Wylie Hubbard, police figure shotgun-toting Arthur (Bunny) Eckert, and Bobby (Kid Death) Thomas, boxer and scam artist who was by far the craziest bastard I ever knew. And many many more. I guess I loved Bobby, and, at some level, I know he loved me. And I guess the same might be said about a bunch of them.
“Sambo!” Bobby always called me, with heavy emphasis on the “bo!”
Nobody but Bobby (Kid Death) Thomas could peddle laundered and blow-dried sheep skins for baby polar bear hides and get away with it. Bobby showed me how he did it. All lanolin was removed through the laundromat washing and drying process, and the fluffy, snow white sheep hides resembled what all of us thought an infant polar bear skin would surely look like.
I was greatly impressed by the blinding white sheep fur.
I was told that Thomas got $50 each for the skins. He sold a few but I never knew how many.
I realize that I would never have fit well in polite society, so I chose that other fork in the road which included booze, drugs, hustlers, felony charges and jail, pitfalls and pratfalls, and some of the most interesting and talented people this world has ever known.
Alex Harvey wrote hits like “Delta Dawn” and “Ruben James,” and he offered me this bit of encouragement as I entered my mid-80s and started on this book.
“It ain’t the number of years you have that is important,” he said, “it’s still all about how high you can jump.”
In the early 1970s I was drinking hard but enjoying some measure of success. The Express and News had published my first book, a paperback titled The Best of Sam Kindrick–Secret Life and Hard Times of a Cedar Chopper. It was basically a compilation of short articles and columns I had written for the newspaper. Nothing like the size or scope of this project. The paper paid for 20,000 copies of the book, and the deal called for the paper recouping all printing expenses before I was to share in the profits.
Sales of the book were going at a brisk clip, one of the big reasons being television promotions by U.S. Rep. Henry B. Gonzalez. Henry liked me. His 20th Congressional District covered a large area of San Antonio and Bexar County, and I know that some of those books sold simply because Henry strongly suggested that people should buy it. During this era both the Express and News and KENS 5 TV were owned by Harte Hanks, so I had unlimited newspaper and television exposure for the book.
My early friendship with Willie Nelson was starting to grow. Nelson was playing John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes
on a regular basis, and my understanding at the time was that Willie needed these regular gigs to pay off his gambling debts. I do know that Nelson liked to play poker for money, and he also loved to play golf. It was the game of golf that first tied Willie to San Antonio golf hustler and caddy Larry Trader.
Larry Trader had carried the golf bags for pro golfer Tommy (Thunder) Bolt, and he was a friend of Lee Trevino, the El Paso hustler who became the greatest Hispanic golfer of all times. Larry’s brother Bobby Trader was another scratch golfer who had played on the University of Houston golf team. At that time, Nelson was letting Larry handle some of his bookings at John T. Floore Country Store in Helotes. Old man John T. had taken a liking to me, and I had the run of Flores when Willie was playing the big outdoor patio during spring and summer months.
I first played golf with Nelson and Trader when Willie was hanging out at an abandoned country club in Bandera. He had an eye to buy the Bandera club, but scrapped that idea and moved to Austin when the redneck culture around Bandera started rubbing his fur the wrong way.
Nelson and I were inconsistent duffers during those early golf outings, shooting in the 90s on many days.
“The safest place to be on the course with Willie and Sam is directly in front of them,” Larry Trader was fond of saying. “They will drive a golf ball in every direction, but seldom straight down the fairway. Flying buzzards and ground squirrels are in constant danger.”
In subsequent years, Nelson got much better at the game. I gave it up in disgust when it became obvious that I would never be the next Arnold Palmer.
When I started giving Nelson ink in my Express and News column, he seemed grateful. This was long before the world found out about the amazing talent from Abbott, Texas.
I recall asking Willie if there were other newspaper writers around the country who recognized his talent and were writing about him.
“There are,” he said. “They are in pockets around the country. Like you, these guys are willing to go out on a limb for me.”
This was a time when Nelson had become disillusioned and disgruntled with the county music recording industry based in Nashville. This was also a time when marijuana possession was still a felony, and Willie was making little attempt to hide his almost open use of the evil weed.
“I have decided to record my music in Texas,” Willie told me. “I guess people wanting to buy the records will just have to come to Texas to get them.”
Those were heady years for us all. Nelson’s Saturday night gigs in Helotes ended at midnight, giving us plenty of time for impromptu visits to San Antonio live music venues that stayed open until 2 a.m. On many of those nights I would pile into Willie’s Mercedes with him, Larry Trader, road hand Billy Cooper, and some member of his crew who drove. Two clubs we always hit were the eclectic Bijou and Scotty Young’s Scotchman’s Club, both on San Pedro Avenue. Sam Noin and Romy Vela owned and operated the Bijou. And after these came the Longneck Club off Blanco Road where Augie Meyers and other top local talent was showcased. Ronnie Branham was the Longneck operator.
The Bijou was one of those rare and ratty little joints that appealed to musicians. It was a musician’s bar with a soul of its own. I recall one night with Willie when we entered the Bijou to find blind Blind George McClain pounding the piano. Blind George was out of Austin. He had about 10 percent of his eyesight but no more. His aggressive piano style was combined with his loud foot stomping on plywood stage flooring as he rocked the house. When we entered the Bijou that night, Willie quietly slid in next to George at the piano. He whispered something to Blind George and McClain lit up like a brush fire. He instantly knew who was with him on the piano bench. The duet that followed was epic–Blind George and Nelson ripping the house down with Willie’s “Bloody Mary Morning.”
On another note, I have always wished I had a video clip of Blind George and his equally blind brother-in-law fist-fighting one night out behind the Bijou. They finally punched themselves out and I don’t think either of them landed a single solid blow.
When we visited the Scotchman’s Club, Victor Lopez and Los Blues were the house band, a hot group including Jimmy Casas and Bobby Rey.
“I look back now and can hardly believe it,” Lopez told me
shortly before his death in 2017. “When you all came into the club I would invite Willie up to sing a number. He usually just sang one song or maybe two and got down, always polite and the gentleman. I would thank him and got back to playing. What a dunce I was. Here was one of the greatest songwriters of all time, and I was letting him off my stage with a mere ‘thank you.’ I should have encouraged him to play all night.”
Nelson truly enjoyed club hopping in those earlier times, and so did I. Late one night we stopped at my house on Harriett drive to pick up some money and that was when Willie stepped on the dog bone. In those days, we were still feeding the dogs bones and table scraps.
The bone went through Willie’s tennis shoe. There was blood everywhere. His howl of pain awakened my wife Vicky, who walked in to find Nelson holding his injured foot and hopping across the living room on the other one.
I recall my then wife telling one of her girlfriends: “Yes, I woke up to this horrible noise and could hardly believe my eyes when I walked into my living room to find Willie Nelson hopping on one foot and holding the other one.”
Nelson and I were pretty tight in 1973 when I hatched a plan for a world championship menudo cookoff. I had attended the much-ballyhooed first international chili cookoff at the Big Bend ghost town of Terlingua, which featured chili cooks H. Allen Smith and Wick Fowler. By then I was hobnobbing with Luckenbach imagineer Hondo Crouch and future movie star Guich Koock, and I had an idea that we could pump up a pretty good crowd with the right kind of promotion.
Menudo is the Mexican and South Texas soup made from tripe, hominy, chopped onion, serranos, and various other spices. Tripe is the rubbery and powerfully pungent lining of a beef stomach. The legends of Mexico have always touted menudo as a hangover cure.
I stole the name for our cookoff product from a Wheaties cereal box. Our cookoff would feature the true “Breakfast of Champions.” It might not be a medically proven hangover cure, I conceded, but a lot of drunks ate menudo and flour tortillas after a hard night on the alcohol sauce. “The Breakfast of Champions” cookoff captured the heart and imagination of San Antonio and South Texas. I started pumping it in my newspaper column, and the results were amazing.
Entrants for the cookoff numbered almost a hundred, some of them being cooking teams who came from distant towns like Corpus Christi, Brownsville, Harlingen, and Victoria.
On that morning of the big day, it was April and hot. Cars were jamming the access road leading from IH 10 to Raymond Russell Park. I will never forget the DPS cop who called me out of Raymond Russell Park and demanded by what authority was I causing a gigantic traffic backup which was endangering human life.
I told the cop we were fixing to host the greatest menudo cookoff ever held, and that he would need to talk with my co-sponsor for the event for any questions he might want answered.
“Who might your co-sponsor be?” the cop bawled at me.
“Congressman Henry Gonzalez,” I answered.
“The United States congressman?” the cop was about to cry.
“One and the same,” I told the policeman.
I hadn’t bothered to tell Henry that he was co-sponsoring a menudo cookoff, but I felt confident that he would back me up.
The poor cop headed back to his cruiser while cars and trucks passed him as they turned into the park.
I recall cringing when I looked up to see a Winnebago full of prostitutes and a big banner proclaiming “Hot Pants Menudo.” It was my friend madam Theresa Brown and some of her working girls, and I recall the little sinking sensation I felt in my belly while trying to figure out what I would do with Theresa.
“Damn it, Theresa,” I told her. “What the hell are you trying to do to me? I don’t need the heat.”
T-Brown was unfazed, and her smile promised nothing but mischief when she gave me her answer:
“Fuck you, Sammy, I know more about menudo than you do.”
We would have the Willie Nelson band and others who might want to join in. Before it was over we had Johnny Bush and the Bandoleros, plus more than 20 other groups and a mid-afternoon boxing match that would feature homicide detective Roy Aguilar and criminal attorney Alan Brown.
This captured the fancy of both lawyers and cops, who talked it up for weeks prior to the event in both the courthouse and the police headquarters.
Brown was the nephew of bookmaker Jack Hanratty, and Hanratty told me in advance to bet as much money as I could get down on Brown, a former Golden Gloves champion from Edinburg in the Rio Grande Valley.
To the unpracticed eye of most of the spectators, this fistic match between detective and lawyer looked like a mismatch that might result in serious injury to the attorney.
Homicide detective Roy Aguilar was a former street fighter and police academy athlete who was built like a steel oil drum with muscled arms and legs. Brown was a couple of shades paler than Aguillar with a snock of hair hanging over one eye and nothing to suggest arm or leg power that could hurt anything much bigger than a long-legged yard toad.
Minutes before the fight was to start, I heard Hanratty holler out: “Two-to-one.” Then only seconds before the opening bell I heard him yell “Five-to-one.”
I was standing next to the old bookie when he upped the odds yet again: “Ten-to-one.”
I looked at Jack and he said, “You will not lose if you bet on Alan. He has whipped every fighter in the Rio Grande Valley at least once.”
It was late spring and blazing hot that day. Jimmy Parks was refereeing the fight.
Aguilar was the aggressor from the opening bell.
He charged Brown hard, punching and missing and sweating.
“Twenty-to-one” Hanratty yelled.
There were no takers.
Second round ended with no punch from Brown, just bobbing, weaving, ducking, and dodging.
Roy was dripping sweat when the third and final round started.
And then it was over. Alan hit Roy with a crashing right cross that glazed his eyes and turned his legs to spaghetti. And even as Aguillar was plunging to the canvas, Jack could be heard in the distance: “Forty-to-one.”
I recall saying a little prayer at the time–Oh, Lord, don’t let Roy be dead.
The great cookoff ended sometime before dawn. Crowd estimates unofficially topped 20,000, but we had no official count since no tickets were sold. We did sell rivers of beer with my associates getting away with most of the profits. A few gravestones were upended by vandals in next door Mission Park Cemetery, but nobody got killed that I ever heard about. I did have a deputy sheriff escort a radio station executive off the grounds when he and his wife engaged in a hollering cuss fight that could be heard all over Raymond Russell Park. Hal Davis was general manager of the Doubleday radio stations KITE AM and KEXL FM at the time. I had no information on Mr. and Mrs. Davis, just that they were raising holy hell with each other. Ironically, Davis would play a large part in my future, but I will talk about this when we get there. One of our county commissioners told me later in private that I shouldn’t try any more promotions in county parks for a long while.
At this stage, I was hungover, dog tired, and in dire need of rest. But my rest and recovery would be short-lived and fraught with stunning and traumatic upheaval.
A few short weeks after my menudo cookoff, I awakened to learn that Australian newspaper billionaire Rupert Murdoch had purchased the Express and News from Harte-Hanks for $17-million. I had an uneasy sensation in my gut upon learning this news. Houston Harte Sr. had hand-raised me in the newspaper business like an orphaned goat, putting up with my kid shenanigans at the San Angelo Standard-Times, and following my progress in San Antonio when he bought the Express-News. Don Quixote’s Sancho Panza couldn’t have had it any better. As I mentioned earlier, the elderly newspaper titan loved to walk into the Express city room and plant his rear on a corner of my desk to talk.
Harte Senior installed Conway Craig as the Express and News general manager, but Houston Harte Jr. was directly in line to take over when the elderly Craig retired, and I always sensed that my invisible cloak of protection had been passed down from father to son. Houstie liked me as well as his father and I knew it.
Charles O. (Charlie) Kilpatrick, our scrotumless sycophant and social climber of an executive editor, was more than half scared of me because of the rapport I had always enjoyed with the Hartes. Kilpatrick’s expertise at posterior oscillation was a fact to be acknowledged, and, by God, his good standing membership in the self-imagined royalty of the Texas Cavaliers was a sad prize to define one’s blue blood worth as a human being. At some level I was aware of this although I had never really thought much about it.
It was the morning after sale of the Express and News that I got the call. I was to report to the office of executive editor Kilpatrick.
I was about to be fired from my column writing job with the Express and News. I knew it but had trouble believing it. From hurricanes to uprisings in the onion fields, I had covered it all, putting my heart and soul into the San Antonio newspaper job. I had never made much money, but with childlike faith I had always looked with optimism for some sort of future with the Express and News.
When I walked into Kilpatrick’s office I knew. Charlie was looking at the wall somewhere behind me when he spoke.
He had wanted to do this for a long time. I could tell. The Harte’s were gone and I was standing there like a naked fighting rooster with no spurs.
“You are the best writer I have ever been associated with,” Kilpatrick said, “but I have to let you go.”
I asked for a reason, nothing more.
“You associate with criminals and other undesirable people,” he said.
He named a couple of my San Antonio friends before dropping Willie Nelson’s name.
“This musician you just had out at Raymond Russell park is a known dope addict,” Kilpatrick said.
Then he dropped the name that confirmed what I had suspected.
“Paul English,” Kilpatrick said. “The Nelson drummer is a pimp. I know for a fact that English is a pimp, and these are the people you have been associating with.”
I knew then that Kilpatrick was getting his information from within the Nelson camp. Or very close to the camp. It is true that Paul was a Fort Worth gangster and pimp before he joined the Nelson band, but Charlie Kilpatrick had no way of knowing this. Someone close to Willie fired the torpedo that sank my canoe. I was dumbfounded when it happened. I am pretty sure now who the Judas was. The slimeball sneak is dead now, but my resentment is still very much alive.
My hands were shaking when Kilpatrick ended my newspaper career. I recall the surreal feeling I had of being skinned alive and refitted with another person’s skin. I looked down at my hands and saw shriveled folds of skin that didn’t belong to me as workers from the Express press room rolled stacks of boxes filled with copies of my book down the hallway next to Kilpatrick’s office.
“I have decided to give you your remaining books as severance pay,” Kilpatrick said. “The press room workers will help you load them in your truck.”
There were many boxes, containing the unsold books. The newspaper had recouped all printing costs, and I was to get my pay through future book sales. I had no way to market these books. Thousands of them. I had no money. I had school age kids at home.
I can recall the tangle of emotions that hit me. I felt for a minute like crying; I felt for another minute like going back to Junction and being that carefree little boy running the beautiful South Llano River bottoms of my childhood. Then the anger hit me like a runaway freight. I felt like cutting off Charlie Kilpatrick’s balls and them tamping them down his throat with a 10-pound maul. I felt like getting drunk and I did.
Then I picked up the pieces and went on. I had to quit drinking and I did. I started doing dope as a substitute, recalling now the words of my musician and songwriting friend Ray Wyie Hubbard.
“We figured cocaine was the answer to our drinking problem,” Hubbard was heard to say.
It wasn’t. It was the gateway to another little stretch of hell on earth. I stuck with my mantra–Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. And the insanity got its second wind.