Saturday, February 11, 2012

Shoein' for a Livin:' Part II of a Miserable Assignment

The Recession is Over, But Nothing Else has Really Changed:
[Anvil archives:] Rob Edwards, publisher.

LAMPASAS, TEXAS: August 10, 2000 -  Just to bring you up to speed, I work for the San Francisco Business Review, a beat-up old rag that tried to make the best out of a rather extended recession under the Carter administration.  At that time, the publisher was scouring the country looking for anybody that wasn't collecting food stamps.  It seemed that farriers were virtually recession-proof, making all kinds of money when most people were eating Hamburger Helper without the hamburger.  That's how I ended up in Natchez, Mississippi, at the Three Fingers Motel, interviewing Harlan Ginder and his sociopathic sidekick, Emmet.  (He was the guy who collected human hair and ear wax. -- see ANVIL Magazine March 1995, "Shoein' for a Livin'  Part I.)

Well, the newspaper somehow survived.  In fact, we found our own little niche.  Mostly we quit writing about business (unless it was absurd or illegal), and instead focused on smut, pornography and personal smear campaigns.  Our advertising revenues increased three-fold, which meant we didn't have to pawn the computers again.  We were also able to renegotiate our bank loans once we got enough dirt on the board of directors.  Hell, we got it down to 1% annually with no late penalties and an option to defer the whole mess for ten years.  These bankers obviously had some pretty quirky habits since they'd sign-off on most any ludicrous idea we came up with.  Probably explains why I'm driving a BMW registered to some guy that's doing five-to-ten for selling junk bonds to people who never quite figured out why junk is called junk.

Anyway, my publisher, Eddie-Bob Edwards (cute name, huh?), a Texas ex-patriot himself, figured it was about time we got back to business news.  The real issue was that his oldest son had entered puberty at a dead run and was spending too much time with the pictorial section of the newspaper.  You know, those beaches in Brazil?  So he decided to send me to Texas to re-examine the horseshoeing business while the economy was still breathing.

Some things hadn't changed though:  economy class to Houston with a ten-hour layover in Pittsburgh.  They didn't name the place Pittsburgh because it was a scenic getaway.

7:15 AM:  I'm in the wrong town.  I'm supposed to be in Lampasas, Texas.

7:30 AM:  Still in the wrong town.

8:15 AM:  On a Greyhound bus heading west.  The temperature is 102 degrees; the driver says the air-conditioning is busted and the scenery looks like Mars on a bad day.  I think the woman next to me is in labor, but her English is a little rusty or nonexistent.  I hope it's not twins for god's sake!

1:30 PM:  The bus stops.  I've dozing with my mouth open, so I take a moment to spit out a few flies.  I'm not sure if the bus ran out of oil, the driver passed out, or if we just ran out of Texas, which didn't seem likely.  The woman next to me pointed out the window.  "Lampasas," she said.  Turned out it was twins, a boy and a girl -- Louisa and Antonio.  She thanked me for my help.  What help?  I was asleep.  I do think she broke water in my shoes though, and the diapers on the new arrivals bore an uncanny resemblance to my favorite Hawaiian shirt.  My shoes squeaked as I stumbled out of the bus into the brightest, brownest place I'd ever seen.

The glare of the sun almost knocked me down.  It was white-hot, like an A-bomb test that promised to last all day.  Sunglasses helped me to realize that four or five lizards and a hairy spider didn't constitute a town.  "Hey!" I yelled to the driver.  "I don't see Lampasas or anything else around here!"

He smiled a little wickedly.  "They didn't tell ya, huh?"  See, we don't go to Lampasas.  See that thar dirt road?  About seventeen miles due west.  Maybe ya can hitch a ride.  Adios!"  The door slammed shut, leaving me in the middle of nuclear summer.  Iced-tea sure sounded good.  Bad beer even better. 

3:35 PM:  Yeah, hitch a ride.  With who?  The Libyan Army?  I trudged along the dusty road, the lizards staring from the scrub along the shoulders of this no-account excuse for a thoroughfare.  I thought I saw them laughing.  Any minute, the vultures would start circling, drawing straws to see who would get to peck out my eyeballs.  In the distance, I saw a dust cloud racing toward me, an undulating mirage piercing the endless horizon.  Closer and closer it came, revealing a bright blue convertible, a massive chrome grill, an over sized straw hat, and a great bunch of blond hair waving in the wind.  The car's brakes screeched to a halt next to me; a whirlwind of dust coating my eyes and throat.

The air suddenly cleared like it does after a shell blast.  The blond was busy re-arranging her hair in the visor mirror.  A big guy in a white pearl-snap shirt and a cowboy hat was slowly moving his lips.

"You that journalist from San Francisco?" he drawled.

"Yeah.  Why didn't you tell me that the bus didn't..."

"Bus?  Hell man, I got my own airport just down the road.  Couple of Lears, a Cessna or two; shoot my cousin Floyd's got a damn 727, but that sucker just eats up the runway.  He's tryin' to con me into adding 5000 feet to it so's he can trade it in on somethin' bigger.  Crazy son of a bitch wants to buy a Concorde.  Can you imagine?  Hey, you look dry.  How about a beer?"

The blond opened a big cooler in the back seat and pulled out three icy Buds.  The cowboy hat handed me one and we all took a long draw.  His name was Hack Johnson, and from what I understood he was a thrice-removed cousin of LBJ and rather tight with the Hunt brothers up in Dallas.  He introduced the blond as "Misty," but she was still busy with the mirror.  "Hi y'all," she said to nobody in particular.

"Jump in," Hack offered, "and have another beer.  I'll take 'ya up to the ranch.  We'll have some steaks.  I got this Frenchy chef that can cook up a storm.  Finally got him trained Texas-style and got him to stop makin' them funny little vegetable things and arranging things on a plate like a damn Monopoly board!  Think he's a little light in the loafers myself!"  Hack slapped me the back.  "But you'd know fer sure, being from San Francisco and all."

"Hack, he's not a faggooo."  Misty was finally done with the mirror.

"That's faggot and quit tryin' to sound like a Hungarian countess.  Bad enough when he lolls that shit on.  And how the hell would you know?  Miss Chevrolet Pick-Up Truck of 1973?    Sure as hell ain't Buckin'ham Palace...hell, wasn't even even a good year for Chevrolet."

"Sounds great folks," I said.  Actually it did.  "Maybe we can talk about your business after dinner?"  Seemed like nobody was listening, then...

"He stares at my boobs all the time.  That's a pretty good indicator don't ya think?" Misty was feigning a kind of indignant pout.

Hack tossed the empty beer can out on to the road, twisted around in his seat toward me and kind of winked.  "Them boobs store-bought ya know.  Cost me $25 big ones.  Damn things are bigger than her brain most days, but this here is Texas.  Nothin' done small around here.  Now, what were you sayin' son?"

"Your business.  Maybe we could talk a little..."

"Oh, that.  Well, sure, I guess.  I don't know why you guys from California care about what I'm doin'.  I mean, I just play around at stuff and manage to make a few bucks.  Hell, it's no big deal.  What about them Silicon Valley guys you got out there?"

"A net worth of $16.5 billion dollars is kind of a big deal, especially when nobody can quite figure out where it came from."

"Well, shoot!  Is that what I'm worth?  I'll be gosh-darned!  Would've figured $14 tops  Somethin' musta happened.  That damn lawyer of mine never tells me nothin.'"

The blond broke in again.  "That reminds me, honey bunch.  I can't do anything with my hair.  I'm so depressed about it."

"Well, what about that Maurice guy up in Houston?  That swishy kind of guy that talks through his nose.  I thought you liked him?"

"Honey bundles, he's so expensive."

"Ah, hell.  Here, take a few thousand and give Pepper a call and tell him to flight-check the Lear.  Go shoppin,' it'll do 'ya some good.  And get me some of those chocolate-covered espresso beans when you're there.  I love those suckers!"

I cut into the conversation.  "Nice car."  Kind of lame, but maybe it was an ice-breaker.

"Ya like that, huh?  '69 Coupe de Ville.  It's like a flame-thrower on wheels.  Takes two of my oil wells to keep this thing in gas, but what the hell.  It's nothin' like those European cars that yabber at ya all the time."

About that moment a large jet roared overhead, too low for comfort.  Looked remarkably like a 727.

"Well, looky that!  Floyd must be comin' for dinner.  Sure hope he got those infernal brakes fixed.  Last time he rolled right through the fence and killed a couple of my best heifers.  Cheffy had a heck of a time figurin' out what was a steak and what was just a damn mess."

We pulled into a long driveway that snaked around some trees for a half-mile or more before we stopped at a large iron gate, topped by a set of longhorns with the head still attached.  Hack pressed a couple of buttons and while the gate swung open, a Texas state flag shot up the flag pole.  A few more turns and we entered a large courtyard, back-dropped by a house that would have looked better somewhere in France.

"Let's eat," Hack said enthusiastically, as we piled out of the Cadillac.  "I think we're havin' lobster ala something or other, but Cheffy always throws on a few rib-eyes just the same.  Personally, I think lobsters are nothin' but over sized toilet bugs, and God knows we got enough of them around here as it is!"

"Toilet bugs?"  No, I didn't really want to know.  Figured maybe I would need some local color, but that probably wasn't it.

"Hell, scorpions.  They come in for water and fall in the toilet.  Next thing ya know, your ass gets a wake-up call."

We traversed a long hallway, entering a dining room through two massive doors.  The kitchen was to the left; a large stainless steel barbecue billowing smoke up to a ceiling that seemed to be missing, along with the roof.  Hack noticed my visual inquiry.  "Yeah, I gotta fix that before winter.  Teachin' Cheffy there Texas-style cookin.'"  The dining room table looked to be about 18-feet long surrounded by an eclectic collection of chairs.  None of the good ones matched and the rest were cheap patio versions.  In the middle of the table sat a large silver punch bowl, filled with ice and at least a case of Bud.  Cheffy was scurrying back and forth between the table and the kitchen and there appeared to be a ladder next to the hole in the roof with a fire extinguisher perched on top of it.  The dining room walls were adorned with the heads of various dead animals, including at least six armadillos over the mantel of a fake fireplace.  Seemed the taxidermist had managed to adorn the whole collection with sort of wry smiles, like the joke was really on somebody else.  Floyd emerged through a side door.  He looked more like a Wall Street investment banker...until you panned down to his boots.  Yeah, more dead armadillos. 

"Well, how many head of my cattle ya kill this time?" Hack queried.

"We gotta talk," Floyd stated bluntly, pointing to a door that was obviously meant for privacy.  Hack looked irritated, but ushered Floyd into the room just the same.  I was stuck with Misty and Cheffy, both engrossed in either primping or cooking.  I grabbed a beer, twisted  off the cap and sank into an over-stuffed chair.  In the kitchen, a collection of lobsters went for their final swim.

9:30 PM:  Hack and Floyd emerged from their private sanctuary.  Hack was laughing, Floyd offered me a weak apology and explained that he had to get to Washington DC that very night and though he'd love to chat, etc., he had to 'git.'  A few minutes later, the 727 roared over the house.  It so rattled the building that one of the smiling armadillo heads fell off the mantel and rolled into another room.  Hack kind of watched it disappear from sight.  "You know, sometimes we take those heads to the bowling alley.  Boy it pisses off some folks."

10:15 PM:  Cheffy started piling platters on the table:  four-inch thick steaks, six lobsters, a big bowl of mashed potatoes, cowboy beans and a giant shrimp salad.  He also brought in some steamed artichokes and about 20 different sauces and dressings, two baskets of biscuits and about five-pounds of butter.  Cheffy brought me what looked like a pair of pull-offs and  Hack threw a four-pound lobster on my plate along with a claw hammer.  "Have at that sucker, son!"  The steak came with a knife that only Jim Bowie could love.

11:15 PM:  Out came the toothpicks and Jack Daniels.  The table was a pile of post-mortem debris:  dismembered crustaceans and steak bones.  Cheffy was asleep in a chair and Misty had disappeared, no doubt gassing up the jet.  "Tell me Hack," I started.  "I thought you started out as a horseshoer?"

"Oh that.  Well son, I've been a horseshoer for 25-years.  Still am, sort of.  Can't really remember how to do it, but that's why I've got the boys."

"The boys?"

"Yeah, ten of 'em...well, nine.  One, he sort of escaped."


"Yeah, well, they're on work-release from the state prison.  My cousin Earl is the Attorney General, lives in a big ol' place up in Austin.  He got me these guys -- robbers, a couple of murderers and what not, that kinda needed some parental guidance.  So we bring 'em up to the ranch and make horseshoers out of them.  Most of these boys work out pretty good, except Maylon, the guy that escaped.  He's what they call a 'predator-type.'  I guess he can't figure out how to ask a woman on a date without locking her in the trunk of his car.  I don't think he's gonna work out.  Never could figure out why he bought so damn much duct tape, until now."

"This doesn't sound quite legal."

"Well, hell no!  Call it kidnappin' I believe."

"Uh, no Hack, the other...hiring prisoners."

"Oh that.  Legal?  Heck son, this is Texas!  The only law around these parts is whatever yer checkbook can tolerate.  How do ya think I got that airport?  I own the zoning commission.  Have 'em over here once a month for a barbecue.  They love me -- I put some of their kids through college at A & M."


"That was my lawyer's idea.  Ol' Dagget.  He said I had to have a 'real' business, somethin' the Feds would buy into.  Otherwise, they'd think I was a hot-shot Miami drug lord or somethin'.  Hell, I wouldn't know marijuana from loco weed."

"Well, what about the money?  I mean, you don't make a few billion shoeing horses."

"Well, couple of things.  First off, I list my occupation as 'farrier.'  Folks at the IRS don't know what the hell that means and are too lazy to look it up.  Second one's a little tricky.  My daddy never liked me much, so I left home and took up horseshoeing.  Figured he'd leave everything to my sister.  She ran off to some commune in the 70's and became a hippie.  You know, givin' out free love and stuff.  Next thing, she started votin' for Democrats.  so she was out and I was back in.  Kind of persona non somethin' I suppose.  The money originally came from my great-great grandfather who got all this land from a Mexican Count, way back when Mexico belonged to Spain.  It gets a little contagious here because he didn't exactly buy it, legal-like anyhow."

"Contagious?  You mean contentious."

  "Well, that too.  He kinda popped the Count with a chunk of lead in a disagreement over a horse, or maybe a woman...not sure which.  As luck would have it, about the same time, General Sam Houston decided to kick that little prick Santa Ana, and his boys the hell out of know, the Alamo and all that stuff.  Well, the family ended up with 680,000 acres of land, a whole shit-load of cattle and close to 40,000 horses.  Then there was the oil, the deed to the whole town of Lampasas and all the water-rights for a hundred-square miles.  My Pappy added another 300,000 acres, a uranium mine, the hydro-electric project that sells electricity for all them swimmin' pools in California and a fat contract with the biggest meat packer in Chicago.  Those 'billions and billions' McDonalds keeps harpin' on?  Yep.  The whole thing just keeps multiplying."

"My publisher mentioned the Hunt brothers."

"You mean Bunky, and all that silver nonsense in the 1980's?  That was nothin.'  Bunky had this bet goin' with John Wayne on who could collect the most of something.  Bunky picked silver.  Wayne went for friends.  Cost Bunky a bundle.  I never laughed so hard in my life.  And those damn idiots in Congress never did figure out that it was a big joke."

"When was the last time you actually shod a horse?"

"Well, let's see.  I think it was around 1987.  Reagan came down to the ranch to ride his horse, some gift from a King or somethin'...his horse was a little long in the toe.  The boys were gone, so Ron and I put some iron on him.  Took all damn mornin' and Reagan was pissin' sweat, but never gave up."

"Reagan was here?" I exclaimed, somewhat incredulously.  

"Sure.  A lot of Republicans wander in.  I even had Clinton down once 'cause he can sling bull better than any Texan.  Had to hide all the women though."  Hack laughed.  "The man can lie to 200,000,000 people and his ratings go up.  Ya gotta love the guy!  Worst part was figurin' out what to do with all those Secret Service guys.  Couldn't even take a leak without somebody inspecting the toilet."

"Look Hack, I gotta have something to write about.  Next thing you're going to tell me is Jimmy Hoffa's buried out back."

"Tell ya what.  Let's not talk about Jimmy.  I'll give ya a bigger story instead, since you're all wound up in horses.  You know that Count I talked about?  Well, like I said, he had about 40,000 horses.  My pappy just turned 'em all loose...studs, mares...everything.  We still do.  I don't know a pedigree from a poodle, so we just let 'em breed and then sell off the youngsters to most anybody with $500.  We produce about 150,000 young-uns' a year.  We sort of invented the Grade Horse.  It's a mixed-up cross that keeps 4-H goin' strong all over the west.  The thing is, nobody knows where these mongrels come from.  Well, guess what?  Hack Johnson owns the biggest unregistered registry in the United States, and the funny part is that it's startin' to catch on in Europe.  A Warmblood?  That's one of our franchises.  I sort of invented those big stupid things and if you give 'em a foreign name, they sell like hotcakes!"

"I think I've got a headache."  I felt dizzy.

"Ah, that's just the heat and the Jack Daniels, partner.  They got your suite ready upstairs.  Come down about 8:00.  Cheffy's gonna make eggs Benedict or some such thing...bunch of cheese on a pooched egg or something.  I'll make sure he throws a couple of steaks on.  If you like, you can hitch a ride to Houston with Misty.  I just hope Pepper isn't hung over again.  Last time...well, you don't want to know about that." 

Adios from Lampasas....

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