When I graduated from Junction High School in 1953, I had little to show. I lettered in football, basketball, and track and field, no big accomplishment in a small Class A school. From Junction I went to Alpine where I enrolled in what was then Sul Ross State College. It became Sul Ross University in 1969.
During the two years I spent at Sul Ross I was to meet Elvis Presley, Norman Cash, and Dan Blocker. None of these names meant much of anything to the world back in 1955. Little did any of us suspect that Presley would become the king of rock, that Cash would become an American League batting champion, or that Blocker would emerge as the hulking superstar Hoss Cartwright on the TV series Bonanza.
I met Presley at an off-campus cafe the day before he was to make his West Texas debut at the Alpine High School Auditorium. I don’t recall name of the restaurant, but it was directly across from the Sul Ross campus on Alpine’s main drag. Presley was with Scotty Moore and Bill Black, his lead guitarist and upright bass player respectively. The three of them had been out tacking up flyers promoting the upcoming show. Presley’s early recordings on the Sun Records label were just starting to get air play. He was also coming off a successful run on the Louisiana Hayride radio show.
I was in the cafe with Glen Llewallen, a Sul Ross basketball player. I don’t remember which one it was, but Elvis, Scotty, or Bill invited us to attend the upcoming show.
Colonel Parker had yet to enter the Elvis Presley picture. Alpine KVLF Radio Dj John Nelson and Memphis promoter Bob Neal booked the show for $250. Elvis, Scotty, and Bill had to make that stretch three ways. The show was to benefit the Alpine Future Farmers of America. The high school furnished the PA.
Llewallen and I did attend the show with Vicky Miller, a senior in Alpine High School who was to become my first wife and the mother of my children.
My interest in that first Elvis show started with an attraction I had to guitarist Scotty Moore’s quirky rockabilly style. At that time I had been fooling around with an electric guitar, a misguided folly I soon abandoned when it became more than obvious that I would never become the next Merle Travis or Tommy Emmanuel.
Scotty did not disappoint on that distant night in the Alpine school auditorium, but the main attraction came as an unexpected jolt.
Elvis was not decked out in the regal, high-necked gold lame´finery which was to become a part of his bigger-than-life image. He hit that school auditorium stage au naturel Presley, wearing a white T-shirt, jeans, and blue sneakers. It was Memphis magic with The Blue Moon of Kentucky shining somewhere out there with the Marfa Ghost Lights.
It was 1955 and West Texas college girls were all but coming out of their undies in a high school auditorium. Who in hell told them they could shuck their britches? I had never witnessed anything like it. Presley was doing his pelvic palpitations that no modern day dick dancer has ever been able to emulate. Moore had the guitar calling from Rockabilly Heaven, and as Kinky Friedman might observe, Bill Black was snortin’ and fartin’ on the Tennessee upright walking bass.
Petticoats were popular with many young females in those days, voluminous body draperies which were flying like kites as Presley somehow wound up with a marking pen in his hand. With some of the girls yanking petticoats all the way over their heads, Elvis couldn’t miss. He signed everythig but bare bottoms, and he might have autographed a couple of those in the melee.
Just one year after that incredible night, Presley packed San Antonio’s Municipal Auditorium with screaming damsels. By this time he owned three Cadillacs and was on his way to unheard of world super-stardom.
Glen Llewallen and I had asked Evis, Scotty, and Bill after the Alpine show to join us for drinks at a popular college skull orchard known as The Bull Beer Parlor. They accepted at first but later declined. They had a show booked for the following night in El Paso, and there was some concern that the old Cadillac they were driving might overheat if they didn’t get an early start.
They pulled out at daybreak and I never again laid eyes on the king of rock-and-roll.
Elvis died August 16, 1977; Bill Black died October 21, 1965; Scotty Moore died June 28, 2016.
Norman Cash and I had two things in common. We were both born on November 10, 1934, and both of us liked to play 9-ball pool for money.
Baseball and baseball players were foreign to me. We didn’t have the sport in the Junction school system, so when I met Norman Cash in the Sul Ross Student Union Building, we were competing with each other on a pool table for a dollar a game. Cash was as country as pig tracks, an easy guy to like and be friends with. He hailed from Justiceburg, Texas, a greasy spot in the road which was just down a fence line or two from the West Texas town of Post, population 5,000 plus a few more.
We all called Cash “The Justiceburg Flash.” I don’t think he minded the nickname.
I knew Cash was a Sul Ross baseball and football player. He was an All Lonestar Conference running back. What I didn’t know was that he was a world class athlete who would be drafted as a football running back by the Chicago Bears, and as a baseball player by the Chicago White Sox. He declined a pro football career to sign with the White Sox and after a series of trades he wound up with Detroit.
Also known by friends and fans as “Stormin’ Norman,” Cash was the American League batting champion in 1961. He was a lefty. At Sul Ross I started watching baseball only because of my friendship with Cash. He drove homeruns over the right field fence in Kokernot Field with regularity.
An outstanding power hitter, his 377 career home runs were the fourth most by an American League left-handed hitter when he retired, behind Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Lou Gehrig; his 373 home runs with the Tigers rank second in franchise history behind teammate Al Kaline (399). He also led the AL in assists three times and fielding percentage twice; he ranked among the all-time leaders in assists (4th with 1,317) and double plays (10th with 1,347) upon his retirement, and was fifth in AL history in games at first base (1,943).
Cash never seemed to take himself seriously. He was the first Detroit Tiger to hit a home run ball out of Tiger Stadium. He was to repeat the feat three more times before his retirement. And he may have been the first major league baseball player to bring a table leg instead of a standard baseball bat to home plate during a game.
Nolan Ryan was in the midst of his second no-hitter when Cash walked up with the table leg. The umpire said, “You can’t bat with that.”
Cash said, “Why not. I can’t hit him anyway.”
That was the Norman Cash I knew.
Cash drowned near Beaver Island in Lake MIchigan in October of 1986. Authorities ruled that he slipped on a wet dock and struck his head, causing him to slide into the water and drown.
There were those, though, who believed Cash was murdered. One of the doubters was Detroit Lions football player Alex Karas, a friend and drinking buddy of Cash.
Karas was quoted by one of their friends. He said: “They killed him, you know. They hung him over the boat, filled his cowboy boots with water, and let him sink. Gambling debt. He owed the wrong kind of people more than he could pay back. So they killed him.”
I hate to think that Stormin’ Norman went that way.
Toxicology tests showed that Cash was not drunk when he died. He was a powerfully built man, only 51, and with reflexes like a cat. I tend to believe Alex Karas might have had something.
Norman never returned to Justiceburg that I know. I know that he had a wife when he died and that he was buried in Michigan.
But you can never get all of the Texas out of a real Texan.
Norman Cash was wearing his cowboy boots when he died.
Dan Blocker had finished his Sul Ross football career and was back working on his masters in the dramatic arts when we met. I was working summers at the Sul Ross swimming pool, parttime life guarding and parttime pool maintenance man. Dan Blocker was a friendly giant who told me he had been teaching drama at Sonora High School.
A native of De Kalb in Bowie County, and weighing 14 pounds at birth, Blocker was the biggest baby ever born in Bowie County. When I met him he must have weighed 350 or more, and with hair on his back like a West Texas peccary.
I had already heard the Tobe Gober story before I met Blocker. Sul Ross was a rodeo school when I was there, and some of the cowboys on scholarship were enough to scare the shit out of the average student of the finer arts.
One of the scariest was a big bulldogger named Tobe Gober, who wrote with bold black marker in the Sul Ross Student Union men’s room: All Band and Drama Majors are Queer. He signed it Tobe Gober.
I heard the Blocker/Gober confrontation was brutal, but I could never say for sure since I wasn’t present. But there were more than a few witnesses who would testify that Blocker dragged a huge bulldogger into the student union building mens room by his hair, then stood over the battered cowboy while Tobe scrubbed the wall clean with soap and water.
Such went the stories in the summer of 1955, a heady and exciting time for students at that West Texas college. Elvis Presley played the Alpine high school auditorium that year, and such stars as Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Huson, and James Dean were filming the epic movie Giant at nearby Marfa.
Many of the stars, including Taylor and Dean, were driving the 30 miles over to Alpine where they swam in the college pool as townsfolk and students alike gawked.
Dan Blocker was in his element. The movie stars were enthralled. Despite his gigantic size and 50-gallon oil drum physique, he was a stunningly graceful diver. With Liz Taylor and her swimming pool hand maidens in waiting, Big Dan did his thing on the 3-meter diving board. His massive 350-pound bulk would bend the high board almost to the water before catapulting Blocker skyward. He did graceful flips with twists that never failed to amaze the audience.
Little did any of them dream that they were watching the big star of another generation and new age medium. It was 1955. They were watching big Hoss Cartright before the prize-winning TV serial Bonanza was even a germ in some producer’s mind.
The Dan Blocker I remember was the playful giant who would enliven his own awards ceremony with humor not for the faint of stomach.
I don’t recall exactly what the honor for Blocker was all about, but the ceremony was in the Alpine Holland Hotel banquet room.
In the 1950s, many news photographers were still using the Speed Graphic Camera with flash bulbs that were cloudy blobs when spent. Blocker somehow picked up one of these discarded bulbs and stuck it in his nose. It did resemble a giant booger when big Dan faced his audience.
“Anybody have a handkerchief,” he hollered.
And the solemnity of the occasion was no more.
My most vivid memory of Dan Blocker goes back to one late-summer day when I returned to my job at the swimming pool after visiting my hometown of Junction for more than a week. That pool was without a roof and my swim suit had been hanging in the bath house. I slipped it on and when I made it out to the pool, Dan Blocker was sunning himself on the pool apron.
My suit was stiff from disuse, and I was vaguely aware of some sort of movement on my back when Blocker yelled at me.
“Hey, Sam,” he said. “You need to be real still. And don’t make any sudden moves. There are three big scorpions on your back and you need to dive into the pool before they get you.”
That did it. My back muscles spasmed and three giant scorpions stung me in unison as I leaped into the pool.
I can still hear Dan Blocker’s guffaws. Those damn scorpions almost killed me, and Blocker loved every minute of it. But he liked me. His belly laughter told me so.
Dan died May 13, 1972, in a Los Angeles hospital. Cause of death was a pulmonary embolism following gall bladder surgery.
It was supposed to be a simple operation, but someone used a dirty knife. I felt like crying when I heard the news.