Sunday, January 31, 2010

Roller Derby In Austin

I can’t really say that it was something important enough to be enumerated on my “bucket list,” a bunch of things I want to do before I die, but ever since the 1960’s and 1970’s, when roller derby was at the height of its popularity, I’ve always wanted to see a roller derby bout live. Last night, I got my chance, and I was not disappointed.

It seems that Austin, Texas, is a roller derby town. The city hosts the TXRD Lonestar Roller Girls, a league of female skaters who demonstrate their athletic skills on a traditional banked roller derby track. I mention the banked track only because there is also a flat track league in Austin as well, organized as the Texas Rollergirls. Flat track roller derby actually got its start in Austin, and has now spread around the world, as the sport of roller derby enjoys a resurgence in popularity. Additionally, the city of Austin played a central role in Drew Barrymore’s 2009 film, “Whip It,” which portrays a fictional Austin, Texas, female roller derby team. Like I said, Austin is a roller derby town.

The TXRD league’s teams include Cherry Bombs, Hell Cats, Holy Rollers, Putas del Fuego, and the Rhinestone Cowgirls. Last night, at the Austin Convention Center, the Rhinestone Cowgirls squared off against Putas del Fuego, and I was there to watch it.

Driving to the convention center, I really had no idea what to expect. Upon arriving, I found the parking garage nearly filled to capacity, and I was there an hour early. Surely, I thought, all these parked cars were not here because of roller derby. But I was wrong. Roller derby, it seems, is more popular than I had imagined.

Having purchased my ticket ahead of time, I bypassed a long line of people obtaining tickets at the door, and entered the arena. Once inside, I pushed my way through another line of people waiting to buy drinks at a full service bar, and found a good seat in the stands. Before the bout started, the uniquely dressed roller girls from both teams were walking around, talking with fans, and having their photographs taken. A local band warmed up the near capacity crowd, and shortly after 7:00 p.m., the bout began.

Roller derby is all about entertainment. During each of the four, 8 minute periods, which are further broken up into individual “jams,” there are fights, penalties, and falling and crashing bodies. And, the announcers, seemingly direct descendants of “carnival barkers” of a bygone era, were present to energize and excite a somewhat inebriated but friendly crowd. Unlike many sporting events where tensions can run high among some of the spectators, everyone at the convention center was laughing, applauding, and having fun. The fun apparently continues after the bout, during the traditional roller derby “after party,” where both teams mingle with fans at a local bar.

Wanting to avoid driving home along side of many of the “drinking” spectators sitting around me, I left a few minutes early. At that time, Putas Del Fuego, was comfortably ahead in points. I don’t know which team eventually skated away with the win, but I do know that I enjoyed the evening very much.

And, while I won’t be getting online and ordering roller derby season tickets in the morning, I had a great time last night, and can imagine attending at least one more bout before the season ends. It’s a unique, different, and enjoyable way to spend a free evening, filled with a lot of laughs.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

There Are No Forks at Smitty’s Market, But You Have Fingers Don’t You?

The first time I visited Lockhart, Texas, I asked several people in the small town which one of the barbecue places was the best. As if every single person I asked had been prompted what to say by the local chamber of commerce, not a single one of them would recommend just one place. “They are all great,” and “try them all,” is what I heard most often. And, what I soon discovered is that this was not just town pride, it was good advice.

Lockhart, Texas, the county seat of Caldwell County, has been designated “The Barbecue Capital of Texas,” by both houses of the Texas legislature. It is little wonder why. Despite the fact that the town is really rather small, it has four outstanding barbecue restaurants, each with its own unique history and fan following. Black’s Barbecue, Chisholm Trail Barbeque, Kreuz Market, and Smitty’s Market, are all very special, each in their own way, but I can’t write about all of them at one time. Therefore, I’ll focus on Smitty’s Market now, and get back to the others in due time.

The location of Smitty’s Market, used to be the location of Kreuz Market. All families have disagreements from time to time, and this disagreement, apparently, resulted in one part of the family moving Kreuz Market to a new Lockhart location, and the other part of the family staying behind at the original location. The part of the family now running the barbecue pits at the original location, now call it Smitty’s, in honor of the patriarch of the family, Edgar “Smitty” Schmidt, who first bought it from the Kreuz family in the 1940's.

The barbecue experience at Smitty’s, is, well, an experience. Walking in from the dusty unpaved parking lot out back, you immediately get into an ordering line which is uncomfortably close to an oak fire burning within just inches of your feet. The fire is one of a couple of them which fuel the barbecue pits. Whether you eat in, or are there for a take-out order, the ordering experience, right next to the open flames and smoke, will guarantee that your clothes will carry the scent of burning oak home with you.

Smitty’s, like most of the traditional barbecue places in Texas, focuses on meat. And, while a few items like cheese and pickles are available, barbecued meat is the reason people keep coming back, time and time again.

After ordering the beef brisket and sausage, or “hots,” as the sausage is called at Smitty’s, the meat is slapped onto pieces of butcher paper, and served with white bread, saltine crackers, and plastic knives to cut the meat. There is nothing fancy about Smitty’s, but the meat is very delicious. And, please don’t ask for any barbecue sauce or forks, Smitty’s has none to give you. Good meat does not need any sauce, and the meat is eaten with your fingers.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Eighty-Three Years Later, The Immortal Ten Are Still Remembered

It was 83 years ago this very week, on January 22, 1927, that a horrific accident took place in Round Rock, Texas. The event would end the lives of some, dramatically change the lives of many others, permanently impact a major Texas university, and would eventually lead to a new law, which in turn, has saved countless lives over the ensuing years.

In the early morning hours of January 22, 1927, a school bus left the Baylor University campus carrying its basketball team, the coach, and a few others, with the destination being the University of Texas, in Austin. Getting an early start for the basketball matchup with Texas, scheduled for later that evening, the bus was driven by a young freshman. It was a rainy cold morning, and driving the bus on the muddy roads in the wet weather was no easy chore, and it was very slow going. Despite the early start, it was around noon before the bus even reached Round Rock.

On the southern edge of town, railroad tracks crossed the road on which the bus was traveling. Unfortunately, an approaching train and the bus were on a collision course. While the train blew its whistle as it approached the crossing, it was not heard by anyone on the bus. By the time the driver and others on the bus saw the train, it was too late. Despite the young driver’s valiant last second attempt to avoid a collision, he was unsuccessful. The result was a catastrophe. The train hit the bus at a high speed, and ten people, almost half of the passengers on the bus perished.

The grief around Baylor in the initial days following the accident was overwhelming. The dead, quickly referred to as the “Immortal Ten,” were soon buried at various places around Texas, and the survivors went on with their lives. They became successful educators, coaches, and businessmen. One of the survivors was awarded the Medal of Honor, for heroic military actions during World War II. The survivors of the crash are all gone now, but like those who were taken from the earth on that late January day so many years ago, they are not forgotten.

Each year, during the Freshman Mass Meeting held during Baylor’s homecoming week, the story of the Round Rock crash is told, along with a reading of names of the victims. This tradition not only ensures that everyone attending Baylor is well familiar with the story of the Immortal Ten, it also serves to bring the students, faculty, and local community closer together. Additionally, within the last few years, an impressive memorial to the Immortal Ten, consisting of statutes and representations of those who were lost, has been erected on the Baylor campus.

One of the most important things which came from the tragedy in Round Rock was the passage of legislation which mandated overpasses or underpasses at railroad crossings on certain roadways in Texas. The very first overpass constructed as a result of the new law was at the site of the Baylor bus crash in Round Rock. Along with the overpass, a simple marker was erected listing the names of those whose lives were taken. The overpasses and underpasses mandated by the law have undoubtedly saved countless lives over the years across the state. And, this, perhaps, is the most important legacy of the tragedy.

On any given day, the trains still roar through that same railroad crossing in Round Rock. Fortunately, however, as the trains pass through town these days, motorists and pedestrians alike are protected from danger because of the sacrifice made 83 years ago, this very week, by the Baylor University basketball team, and it’s “Immortal Ten.”

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Very Slow Death Of A Hill Country "Mountain"

Granite Mountain, located on the western edge of the Texas Hill Country town of Marble Falls, is a large monolith of red and pink granite which has been gracing the skyline for many millions of years. With each passing day and week, however, it disappears a little bit more, as the demand for granite worldwide ensures it’s extremely slow, but inevitable destruction.

Since the late 1800’s, the mountain has been quarried for its high quality granite. And, this has both supplied jobs and helped create impressive Texas structures like the State Capitol Building and the seawall in Galveston. But, someday, well into the future, long after my lifetime and yours, the quarrying of the mountain, if it continues at its present pace, will eventually cause its demise.

After a fire destroyed the previous capitol building in Austin, plans for a new building were drawn up, and construction began in the 1880’s. Originally, the capitol building was supposed to be built using limestone local to the area. That plan was scrapped when it was determined that the limestone would discolor over time. As a result, a series of events took place which would hasten the end of Granite Mountain, at least as it had remained for those many millions of years.

A bargain of sorts was struck between the owners of the quarry at Granite Mountain and the state. In exchange for the state constructing a short rail line from the quarry to an existing rail line leading to Austin, the owners of the quarry provided the granite which was used in building the capitol building. In a controversial decision, the state agreed to provide prisoners to help with the project, at far less than what it would have cost to pay skilled union labor.

While state prisoners were used to build the short rail line and to provide the painstaking work necessary to quarry the granite from the mountain, they did not have the talents to perform the more delicate cutting and finishing work necessary to complete the project. The use of prison labor horrified most regular workers and labor organizations in and around Austin, so they essentially boycotted the project, and refused to take part in any work connected with the construction of the capitol building. As a result, skilled stone craftsmen were brought from Scotland to help complete the project.

The new Texas State Capitol was completed in 1888, and opened that very same year. The result of using granite from Granite Mountain was fortuitous, in that it produced a magnificent building in which all Texans still take pride. But, there is another legacy of the project. While it is true that the quarrying of Granite Mountain was taking place prior to the capitol construction project, the lack of rail transportation to the quarry limited the amount of granite which could, as a practical matter, be utilized. This, of course, changed with the construction of the rail line, which had been facilitated by the project. Additionally, the notoriety of the project, along with its spectacular end result, brought even more interest in the granite found in Marble Falls. This led to greater demand for the granite, and consequently, more quarrying.

The quarrying still continues today. And with every kitchen countertop produced, a little bit more of Granite Mountain disappears, as the granite is chipped away. There is still a lot of the mountain left, of course, and barring some extraordinary event, it will still be something striking to view for a very long time to come. But, it is also remarkable how much 130 years of quarrying can change the face of something that has been around for millions of years before recorded time.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Johnny T’s Round Rock B-B-Q

With the plethora of internet rating and review sites these days, anyone can be a food critic, me included. This democratization of the ability to publicly rate and review restaurants has both its good and bad points. On the positive side, there are a lot more opinions, from a lot more people. No longer do we have to rely solely on the comments of those stuffy food editors, who it always seems to me, have some kind of mysterious rating formula that they rigidly follow instead of just using their common sense and letting us know whether the place was worth visiting or not. I always laugh when some of the professional critics come out with something cute like, and I’m only slightly exaggerating here, “I found the beans rather tepid for my palate.” How is a comment like that at all helpful to me when deciding whether to eat somewhere?

The down side to the general public's reviews and ratings is that there are a few people who don’t offer responsible and balanced comments. Many seem to take great delight in being mean. So many times I’ve read comments where, because of some slight imperfection, or inconvenience, it suddenly made the restaurant and it's dining experience no good. These thoughtless and unfair comments relate that the food was bad, the bathrooms weren’t clean, the waiter combed his hair the wrong way, the tables were arranged in the dining room oddly, and the parking lot was paved with concrete instead of asphalt. I have to laugh at these comments also, because, I can’t take them seriously. In all the years I’ve been eating at restaurants, if I’m truly honest with myself, I can’t remember a single one that did not have at least one redeeming quality.

No place or nobody is perfect, and both good and bad reviews are part of the cost of being in the restaurant business. And, there can be variances from day to day, including the mood and attitude of the person doing the eating, which may account for a disappointing result on one or more things during a visit. That’s why almost all restaurants on the new online review and rating sites usually receive a mix of both good and lesser reviews, but for the most part, they seem to be balanced. With respect to those reviews in which the reviewer can’t find a single thing likable with a restaurant, I discount it completely. I chalk it up to either a hidden agenda, or the fact that the reviewer is miserable person.

Now, why have I spent so much time writing about all this when I’m supposed to be writing about Johnny T’s Round Rock B-B-Q? The answer is simple. Unlike any other restaurant I’ve ever written about, I didn’t see a single negative comment about Johnny T’s on the review and rating sites whatsoever. And, I’m not just talking about not seeing mean or unfair comments; I’m talking about not seeing any negative comments at all. Perhaps there is one out there, but I found nothing but rave reviews about the place. Naturally, this piqued my curiosity, and so I drove over to Round Rock the other day, to check it out for myself.

Happily, Johnny T’s is no different from a lot of other barbecue places in and around the Texas Hill Country. It’s owned by real people, and not some large corporation disseminating a chain of franchised or corporate-owned restaurants all over the place. As I was not familiar at all with the menu, it took me a minute or so to get my bearing before placing my order. That was no problem to the man taking my order. He waited patiently for me to make up my mind and politely answered a couple of questions I had regarding the sides. Part of the problem I had, was that for a relatively small place, it had quite an extensive menu. I really hadn’t expected that. In the end, I opted for the large (moist) sliced brisket sandwich combo, which comes with a choice of a side and a drink. I took the beans and an unsweetened tea.

The food came quickly, and I was delighted with the overstuffed sandwich which was set in front of me. The extra large toasted bun was piled several inches high with thick slices of juicy beef brisket. Coming out with the food, was my very own “squirt bottle” filled with temperature warm barbecue sauce. The sauce was slightly sweet, a little tangy, and very good. I added to my sandwich by topping it off with sliced dill pickles and pickled okra. The end result of the combination of meat, bun, sauce, and toppings, was an excellent sandwich.

The beans were also first-rate. Flavored with what tasted like a little chili powder, there were also generous pieces of meat and onion floating among the beans. Washing it all down with the cold tea, it was a perfect lunch.

Johnny T’s has a wide variety of food offerings, which include, brisket, Elgin sausage, pulled pork, turkey, pork ribs, chopped beef, and chicken. The meats are complimented with a nice selection of sides. Those getting a side can choose from a list which includes coleslaw, potato salad, fried okra, cream corn, green beans, baked beans, pinto beans, fries, sweet potato fries, and something called tamale potato casserole. There is also a senior plate and a kid’s meal. Of course, a number of homemade desserts are also available, if you are so inclined.

The patience shown during my slow ordering at the cash register, the fact that I was asked how the food tasted, and that I was thanked for my visit and told “good-bye” when I left, demonstrated that the customer service matched the delicious food.

Like most barbecue places in Texas, Johnny T’s isn’t a fancy place, but, then again, it’s not supposed to be. This is, after all, a Texas barbecue joint. Like all the other common folk who have rated Johnny T’s highly, for both food and customer service, I absolutely concur.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The “Old West” Gunfighter From England

In the early 1840’s, a baby boy was born to William and Mary Ann Thompson in Knottingley, Yorkshire, England. While no one could have predicted it at the time, this boy would later come into contact with some of the most well-known names of the Old West, and in the process, become a famous killer, gunfighter, gambler, and, for a short period of time, a lawman himself.

The boy, Benjamin Thompson, moved with his family to Austin, Texas, in 1851, when he was less than ten years old. Austin, at the time, was a frontier town and life was difficult for the family. Ben’s father was a mariner and some say, a heavy drinker, and had difficulty adapting to the new life in Texas. Soon after arriving in Texas, he left the family and returned to the sea, and was never heard from again.

The permanent departure of Ben’s father meant that Ben, and his younger brother, Billy, had to take care of the family. Ben’s troubles began early. When he was barely in his teens, he wounded another boy with a shotgun, and, before he was out of his teens, had killed a man in a bloody knife fight in New Orleans, where he had gone to work as a printer for the local newspaper.

Heading back to Austin, he served with the Texas Rangers briefly, but Ben soon discovered gambling. Some claim he killed another man before he headed off to support his adoptive state of Texas during the American Civil War, when he was still not yet twenty-one years of age. As a member of a Texas cavalry unit, Ben continued his killing, but not just the Yankee soldiers he had sworn to fight. Instead, during the war, he killed at least one of his fellow confederate soldiers. While reports vary on the particulars of other killings at the time, it is quite clear that he was responsible for other deaths (non-battle related) before the war ended.

After the war, he went to Mexico to fight as a mercenary for Emperor Maximilian’s attempt to stay in power in Mexico. When Maximilian was executed, Ben returned to Austin, but was very soon in trouble again. After being told that his brother-in-law had struck his pregnant sister, Ben retaliated by shooting him. And, although the brother-in-law survived, Ben served a couple of years in the Huntsville penitentiary for the shooting, before he was pardoned.

Once out of prison, Ben traveled north to Abilene, Kansas, the wild cowboy town at the end of the “Chisholm Trail.” With little money in his pocket, he soon used his expert gambling skills to raise enough money to open the Bull’s Head Saloon with his friend, Phil Coe, with whom he had served in Mexico.

Even though Abilene at the time was a rambunctious and dangerous place, filled with armed and drunken cowboys, saloons, houses of ill repute, and gambling dens, many of the “good” citizens of Abilene apparently objected to the painted sign which adorned the Bull’s Head Saloon. And, while I won’t go into specific details here, suffice to say, the bull’s head portrayed on the sign was not the one most people might have expected. As a result, Ben Thompson and his partner, Phil Coe, came into contact with another “Old West” legend, “Wild Bill” Hickok, who was then Abilene’s Marshal. When Hickok ordered the sign be changed, Thompson and Coe refused. Hickok undeterred, grabbed his gun and stood guard while painters altered the sign into something more acceptable to Abilene’s offended populace.

The tension between Thompson and Hickok while tense, never developed into violence, perhaps because the two gunfighters respected each other so much. However, such was not the case between Hickok and Coe. In October of 1871, Hickok demanded that Coe turn over his weapon after Coe shot off a pistol in public. When Coe first refused, and then made matters even worse by taking a shot at Hickok, “Wild Bill” returned the fire and mortally wounded Coe. Unfortunately for Hickok, he also accidentally shot and killed his deputy during the altercation. After this incident, it is generally believed Hickok never again shot a gun in anger.

In 1873, Ben and his younger brother, Billy, moved to Ellsworth, Kansas. Ben Thompson had a bad temper, but his brother’s temper was even worse. Billy has been described by some folks as a “homicidal maniac,” “drunken psychopath,” and “vicious,” not exactly the kind of descriptions a normal person would want on a resume. Billy’s heavy drinking and poor attitude had caused numerous problems over the years, and in several cases, Ben had to save Billy from himself and others.

During August of 1873, in Ellsworth, Billy nearly got them both killed. A gambling dispute between Ben and another gambler quickly escalated, and a drunken Billy accidentally ended the life of the Ellsworth sheriff with a single shotgun blast. The irony is that the sheriff was a friend of both Billy and Ben. Before he died, the lawman told those attending to him that the shooting had indeed been an accident. That did not, however, calm the angry mob, and Ben, once again, had to save Billy. Holding off the mob with his gun, Ben told Billy to leave town. In his drunken stupor, Billy showed no remorse even after he had just shot one of his best friends, telling Ben before he fled town, that he would have taken the same shot again even if the target had been “Christ.” This was not the first time Billy had taken the life of a friend. Apparently, being an enemy of Billy was not as dangerous as being his friend.

Although disputed by many historians, some believe that Ben was taken into custody by Wyatt Earp after the Ellsworth incident. In any event, he was quickly released. Billy, who had successfully fled town, was later brought back to face homicide charges, but he was acquitted.

The next few years found Ben in various towns, continuing to hone his gambling skills in saloons at the faro tables and by playing the card game of Monte. Ben eventually landed a job with Bat Masterson’s posse, which was working for the Santa Fe Railroad at the time. The railroad was in a dispute with the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, and needed armed men to protect its interests. And, although no real violence came from the dispute, Ben made more than just a little money, became a friend of Bat Masterson, and was also briefly introduced to “Doc” Holliday, who was also riding with the posse. Masterson, a famous lawman himself in the Old West, would later remark that Thompson had no equal in a “life-and-death struggle” with a gun.

Ben eventually made his way back to Austin, Texas, where he began running the faro tables at the Iron Front Saloon. At some point, Ben befriended “Buffalo Bill” Cody, who had arrived in town with actors participatng in an early production of what would later become his famous “Wild West Show.” During Cody’s visit, Ben was able to impress him with his pistol shooting skills.

Ben ran for City Marshal of Austin, and was elected, but only after a second attempt to obtain the position. During his tenure as marshal, Austin was relatively crime free, as he personally strolled through the streets with his silk hat, fine suit, and walking cane. Ben’s reputation was such that even though he only stood 5’8” or 5’9” tall, law breakers and trouble makers knew of his violent temper and his prowess with guns, and therefore shied away from criminal activity.

Even though he was serving as the Austin City Marshal, Ben could not give up his addiction to gambling. Visiting San Antonio in 1882, while still an Austin lawman, he reignited an old gambling feud with one of the owners of the San Antonio’s popular Vaudeville Saloon. The result was predictable, with Ben firing his gun and leaving another man dead. The deceased in this case was Jack Harris. The killing of Harris was, however, the beginning of the end for Ben Thompson.

Despite the fact that the citizens of Austin still supported him during his legal troubles in San Antonio, his term as city marshal ran out before he was acquitted of the Harris killing. His life, despite the acquittal, was never the same thereafter.

After returning to Austin, he initially received a warm welcome and wide spread support from the citizenry, but it did not take long for him to wear out his welcome home. Ben, like his brother Billy, and his father, had always been a heavy drinker, but now his drinking increased dramatically. He soon began to repeatedly embarrass himself while under the heavy influence of whiskey, by, among other things, shooting blanks from his gun at people on the streets of Austin.

On March 11, 1884, John King Fisher, a former outlaw who had become Sheriff of Uvalde County Texas, made his way to Austin and met with Ben Thompson. Like Thompson in Austin, he had become popular in Uvalde County, despite his violent past, by reducing the crime which plagued the area. These two men, who perhaps had reformed themselves as the years progressed, did not know that when the sun rose on that early March day, it would be their last day on earth.

John King Fisher and Ben Thompson began their drinking in Austin, and then boarded a train for San Antonio. When the train arrived at its destination that evening, the two continued their heavy drinking, and eventually ended up at a place which Ben had said that he would never return to because it would be his “graveyard.” That place was, of course, the Vaudeville Theatre where he had killed Jack Harris a couple of years before.

For whatever reason, probably his bravado combined with an over indulgence of alcohol, Ben defied his earlier (and much better) judgment and entered the Vaudeville Theatre. There is, of course, a dispute as to what actually transpired that night, but when all was said and done, Ben Thompson and John King Fisher were both very much dead, riddled with bullets from behind. Thompson, who had never let anyone beat him in a fair fight, was assassinated along with Fisher, by hidden gunmen in the shadows of San Antonio’s Vaudeville Theatre. San Antonio was not Ben Thompson friendly, and nobody was ever prosecuted for the killings that night.

Ben’s mortal remains were returned to Austin from San Antonio, and a large caravan of carriages, in what is still one of Austin’s largest funerals, escorted his body to the City Cemetery (now called Oakwood Cemetery) for burial. Witnesses say that his silk hat was placed on top of the coffin.

Today, Ben’s grave, and the Oakwood Cemetery in Austin is a haunting place to visit, even in the daylight. And, despite all the years since Ben Thompson was laid to rest, his life story continues to attract attention. In his relatively short life, he immigrated to this country from England as a young boy, fought in the American Civil War, supported Maximilian in Mexico, and drank, gambled, and killed his way across Texas and Kansas. Along the way, he met or befriended many of the Old West’s most well-known and colorful characters, including, “Wild Bill” Hickok, Bat Masterson, “Doc” Holliday, “Buffalo Bill” Cody, John King Fisher, his own brother Billy Thompson, and perhaps, Wyatt Earp and Johnny Ringo.

Whatever anyone may have thought about him then, or thinks about him now, Ben Thompson led a very interesting and eventful life, and a life which makes up an important part of the history of Texas, the Texas Hill Country, and the Old West.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Roger Len Smith And Life’s Journey

There are millions of people around this earth who are far more qualified to comment about the current music scene than I ever will be. But, I yield to not a single person the right to comment on those things which I like, and I like the music of Roger Len Smith.

There are a lot of us, who, as kids, wrote a few songs, played musical instruments, or sang, but in such a way that guaranteed us a future of musical oblivion. Even among those of us who are more musically inclined, there are many who can sing, but not play an instrument. There are others, of course, who can play an instrument, but cannot sing a single note. Others still, who can both play an instrument and sing, just not at the same time. Some can write lyrics, but not the tunes. For others, words come hard, but the music flows. Some musicians can perform alone, while others need to be backed up with a host of other musicians to be successful. It is rare when someone can do it all, and even more rare if it is done well.

Roger Len Smith, seemingly, is one of those musicians who can do it all. In an analogy to the corporate world in which I’m most familiar, Roger is the “go to” person who can do it all when it needs to be done, and can do it successfully. Roger writes his own songs, can play all the instruments, has a great voice, and can either perform alone or humbly share the limelight with others. In addition, he is positive, energetic, and entertaining.

I first heard Roger’s music “live” last month when I attended a small but important benefit concert to collect holiday toys for needy children. His appearance at that event was very characteristic of him, as he seems to be extremely committed to doing whatever he can to help others. His musical resume is long with appearances at events which serve the common good. This social consciousness, along with his musical talents, are impressive, to say the very least.

Last night, in the small community of Point Venture, on the north shore of Lake Travis, Roger and his band, additionally comprised of the extremely talented Jay Ewell (on bass) and Jimmy Spencer (on drums), had a release party for their new CD, Clear Blue Skies. In front of large crowd in the community’s “Venture Room,” Roger and his mates played a wonderful set of songs. Much of the music, of course, was from the new CD, including, “Clear Blue Skies,” “Batten Down The Hatches,” “Amanda Always Told Me I’d Shine,” “Don’t Want To Be Alone Right Now,” and “Rhode Island Girl,” which was written for his wife, who is originally from the state of Rhode Island. Popular songs from his previous four CD’s were performed as well.

Smith grew up in the diverse and inclusive Hyde Park neighborhood of Cincinnati, Ohio, attended Miami University in the Ohio college town of Oxford, spent many years in California, and finally ended up in the “Live Music Capital of the World,” Austin, Texas. As a historian, I believe that the importance of life is about the journey, and what we learn and contribute along the way. And, while I don’t know Roger Len Smith personally, I do believe that the sharing of his musical gifts, his life as told through his often “true story” lyrics, the music he has composed, and the commitment to causes which he believes in, demonstrates that he too believes that things learned and contributions given along life’s journey are what are most important. It is fortunate for those of us who appreciate extraordinary musical talent and great music, that part of Roger Len Smith’s life journey is currently weaving its way through the hill country of Texas.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Having Turkey Sausage At Billy Inman’s Place

Billy Inman
When I pulled up in front of Inman’s Ranch House in Marble Falls, and saw all the pickup trucks, I suspected I was on to something very good. Workers don’t waste their time or money on food which doesn’t deliver, and Inman’s has been around since 1964. Nevertheless, I was a little hesitant as I approached the old wood and screen entry door. Even though it was the only entrance I could see, it felt like I was entering someone’s private home, and with good reason.

Despite the fact that the owner, Billy Inman, doesn’t actually live in the place anymore, the building is, indeed, an old house. And, although I was a stranger, I was warmly greeted the minute I opened the door from a voice somewhere in the back of the place. I walked past two small rooms filled with a couple of tables and chairs (just like you’d see in a million homes across the country) to the friendly voice which had welcomed me. In the kitchen of this "house," I found Billy.

Billy Inman has a big smile and an engaging personality which only adds to the wonderful experience of his somewhat unique eatery. The man in line ahead of me asked Billy how he was doing, and Billy quickly replied, “If I was doing any better, I’d be fishing.” You really have to admire somebody like that. He’s got life all figured out, and he knows it.

The Inman family food story is well-known around these parts, so I won’t repeat it here in great detail, except to say that the Inman family got things going making turkey sausage in Llano, Texas in the early 1960's, with one of the Inman brothers eventually opening a place in Marble Falls in 1964. That brother was the father of Billy, and like any dutiful son, Billy learned the business at his father’s side.

Texas Hill Country foods are not well-known for turkey, perhaps, but the Inman family has perfected the art of making sausage from turkey, and the result is unbelievably good. The sausage, along with the homemade sauce, slaw, and bean offering, is made from scratch. This is down home food in a down home place at a very inexpensive price. And, although many hill country barbecue joints cook their food with mesquite, Billy is a big fan of oak, and his choice of wood produces an excellent result. He obviously knows what he’s doing.

Eating in the small and laid-back atmosphere in either one of his two “dining rooms,” you feel like a family guest invited over for lunch. Sitting among Billy’s regulars, you hear every word of every conversation, and it doesn’t take long before you know what’s going on in the town that day.

Turkey Sausage and all the Fixin's
Locally owned family restaurants are an important part of American history, and, unfortunately, they are quickly disappearing. Fortunately, however, for residents of the hill country, Billy Inman’s place is still around. And, just like the friendly greeting which I received when I entered, I got a nice good-bye and thanks when I left, just like you would expect to get as you depart someone’s personal residence. Given the character of the place, and the way he treats his guests, Billy must view the restaurant as an extension of his own home. And, that makes all the difference in the world, or, as the sign hanging on his kitchen wall states, "On Earth As It Is In Texas."

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Cowboy Song Composer

If Texas is famous for creating the cowboy, then Oscar J. Fox is famous for creating cowboy songs. And, Oscar Fox, the cowboy song composer, was born in the Texas Hill Country.

Born in Burnet County, Texas, in 1879, to Bennie and Emma Fuchs, he attended school at a very young age in Marble Falls after his mother died. His family, of German heritage, must have had some significant money, because he left to study music in Switzerland when he was still in his teens. He ultimately came back to the United States, where he lived in New York for a couple of years before returning to Texas.

Eventually settling in San Antonio, he wrote some of the most famous cowboy compositions, which include, “The Hills of Home,” “The Old Chisholm Trail,” “The Cowboy’s Lament,” and that popular “Git Along Little Dogie’s” song.

“The Hills of Home” is probably the most well-known song Fox wrote, and many speculate that he wrote it in remembrance of his early years around Marble Falls, Texas, and the surrounding hill country. And, if he did, who could blame him? Marble Falls and the enveloping hills around it are a national treasure. And, Fox, a treasure of the Texas Hill Country, died in 1961, and was buried in San Antonio.

Monday, January 11, 2010

A Great Hamburger Is More Than Just The Sum Of Its Parts

In my opinion, you can’t judge a hamburger by any one of its many individual components. When determining whether a hamburger is worthy or not, you must consider it as one whole package. Praising the meat while damning the bun, or vice versa, makes no sense to me. A hamburger should be considered on how all of the components (meat, bun, toppings, and condiments) come together, because, unlike components of a traditional meal, the ingredients of a hamburger are eaten all at the same time.

Having said that, I do believe that the most important thing which determines whether a hamburger is the best it can be or not, is the bun. A great hamburger bun can make up for less than tasty meat more easily than a delicious meat patty can provide cover for a less than desirable bun. Over the years I’ve stopped eating burgers at more than one place because they decided to change their hamburger buns in some way. In some cases, they started serving less expensive buns, with predictable results. In other cases, they stopped toasting or grilling their buns. Despite how good the actual meat might have been, the bad bun tainted the entire experience. Like I said, with hamburgers, you must consider the entire package.

Because good meat, good hamburger buns, fresh toppings and quality condiments are so easily procured these days, it is no wonder that there are literally thousands of places around the country that serve great hamburgers. Despite all the variations of hamburgers there may be, the one common denominator of a great hamburger is that the preparer in each hamburger location clearly understands that a hamburger will rise or fall based upon just one of its individual components. In that regard, it’s like the old adage about a chain being “only as strong as its weakest link.”

When a hamburger place gets all of the components of a hamburger melding perfectly together, it is a wonderful thing indeed. It’s that first bite you take when you know whether you have a winner or not. It either works, or it doesn’t. It really is that simple.

Moonie’s Burger House in Cedar Park is one of those places which understand how important it is to blend good things together in order to make a great burger. There is no doubt, and certainly no secret around these parts, that the bun at Moonie’s is something special. But the meat is also very good, and the toppings are fresh. For two years straight, it has been voted as having the “best burgers and best fries” locally. I haven’t tried every place in the area, so I can’t offer my opinion on that, but what I will tell you is that the burgers here are excellent, and the first bite taken works every time. There is no weak component in a Moonie’s Burger.

Moonie’s offers a wide selection of hamburgers. Every one of the beef selections has a corresponding chicken offering, with all of the same toppings. Many of these selections are rather unique, including, but not limited to, “The Blue Moon,” which features bacon, tomato, red onions, and blue cheese, and the “Chili Cheese Burger With Frito’s On Top,” which has chili, cheese, Frito chips, lettuce, and onions. There is also a vegetarian offering available, called, appropriately enough, the “Veggie Burger” which consists of a veggie patty, lettuce, red onions, pickles and tomato.

My wife and I go to Moonie’s a heck of a lot more than once in a “Blue Moon” and we normally get the same thing every time we go there. I get the beef “Plain Jane with Cheese” and she gets the chicken “Plain Jane with Cheese.” The “Plain Jane” comes with mayonnaise, onions, lettuce, pickles, and tomato. Our preferred side is the sweet potato fries, which are always hot but not overly fried.

Moonie’s is one of those many hamburger places around the country which have figured out that a great hamburger is more than just the sum of its parts. And luckily, Moonie’s is located in the Texas Hill Country town of Cedar Park.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

This Past Week: The Texas Chill Country

Like most of the rest of the country this past week, the temperatures in the Texas Hill Country have been brutal. As temperatures dropped to well below 20°F for a few nights last week, those in this area who claim to know say it’s been the coldest spell in about fifteen years. And, while 20°F in January may not seem too bad for someone living in Minot, North Dakota, it is around here.

Winter weather in the hill country brings on its own set of unique behaviors among the folks who live here. During a normal winter, when the weather cools, residents perform what is known as the “Hill Country Shuffle.” On those relatively few nights when the temperature comes close to or dips below freezing, folks will shuffle their potted tropical plants inside the house for the night. The next day, with the rising sun, the plants are then shuffled back outside. On the coldest nights during a typical winter, it is not uncommon to see bed sheets thrown over the more delicate plants in gardens and yards.

This past week, however, as an unusually strong arctic chill settled in, extreme measures were needed as people sought to protect their landscapes and the significant investments made in their plants. Along with the so-called “shuffle,” the covering of plants with sheets and freeze blankets, many homeowners and businesses were also wrapping the trunks of smaller palm trees with burlap or other material, and mulching the base of the trees.

Following this cold snap, most of the palms I’ve seen (at least around where I live) appear to have come through the week reasonably well, although, I have seen slight bronzing of the fronds on some of the trees. The exception to this observation is for those trees which never should have been planted around here in the first place.

In our area, we can successfully grow about nine different types of palms, which include, California Fan Palms, Canary Island Date Palms, Date Palms, Mediterranean Fan Palms, Mexican Fan Palms, Pindo Palms, Texas Sabal Palms, Windmill Palms, and Queen Palms. In terms of Cycads, Sago Palms are also abundant. In some rare cases, with the right protection, other palms can be grown. Personally, I’ve had success with Miniature Date Palm Trees, which technically should not grow very well in this area. However, since I grow them right next to the warm house, the micro-climate probably accounts for their survival.

Even in the warmest of winters, there are some types of palms (like Bottle Palms and King Palms) which never make it through. The obvious reason is that they are far too delicate for even for our usually mild winters. And despite this fact, I see people planting them year after year with the same result, very dead trees. Part of the problem lies in the fact that local retailers continue to sell trees which are clearly inappropriate for our climate. Bottle Palms and King Palms will never survive a hill country winter, and the dead trees look awful.

The weather is supposed to warm up this week. This means that the plants inside the house will be shuffled back to the porches, decks, and balconies outside. In the yards and gardens, the sheets, freeze blankets, and trunk wrappings will all be removed from the plants and trees and shuffled back into the house. And, at least for the time being, another “Hill Country Shuffle” has concluded and the Texas Chill Country can once again return to being the Texas Hill Country.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Tasty Hill Country Catfish

Along with all of the many eateries in the Texas Hill Country serving up beef brisket and chicken fried steak, there are also quite a few places which specialize in catfish. I don’t eat catfish all that often, maybe once every other month, but there are some days when I find myself craving this aquatic delicacy of the South.

In my mind, there are great catfish meals and bad catfish meals, and absolutely nothing in between. Since catfish is cut and fried, how it is cut and fried makes all the difference. Bad catfish meals, in my opinion, consist of filets which are cut too thick, too heavily coated with liquid batter, and dripping with grease. Additionally, if the catfish is cold, you’ve got a real disaster in your hands, literally.

The perfect catfish filets should be thin and lightly breaded (not battered in some heavy and wet concoction), hot, and with no trace of grease. While that seems simple enough, it’s remarkable how many places around the country can’t get it right. And, if you only eat catfish occasionally, as most people probably do, you don’t want to waste that occasional catfish hunger on something which disappoints.

There are several places in the hill country that know how to prepare catfish correctly. One of them sits across the street from the North Fork of the San Gabriel River in Georgetown, Texas. Bob’s Catfish-N-More, has been around for over 30 years. And, it seems to me, that Bob McMinn, the owner, has not wasted a single minute in all those years perfecting the perfect catfish filet.

The building which houses the restaurant, both inside and out, has that “fishing camp” charm which only adds to the dining experience. In fact, this is exactly the kind of place where you feel like you should be eating catfish, or, at least, some kind of fish.

Once entering the door of the small, brown, wood building, you are greeted with a warm and friendly room. The walls are decorated with all kinds of knick knacks, fishing nets, fishing rods, old license plates, unique clocks, flags, pans, hats, photographs, drawings, news articles, chalkboards, and an old hand crank telephone. While some of the chain restaurants around the country decorate their places in similar fashion, they don't look authentic. Here, it works, and it works very well.

Gladly, there are no high definition wide screen television sets hanging off the wood paneled walls showing replays of the same sporting event you’ve already seen tens of times. There is also no depressing news being shown or music blaring from large speakers. What you hear, instead, is the pleasant conversation of local workers on their lunch break, families having dinner, and senior citizens from Sun City enjoying a meal. This used to be common in restaurants, and now it’s not, and that is unfortunate. The service, by the way, is excellent.

This is not the place to come if you are looking to peruse page after page of menu items. The menu is pretty much catfish, oysters, shrimp, crab, and clams, with accompanying sides, of course. Like most places, there are variations of portion size and platter selections. Being Texas, Bob does serve up the obligatory chicken fried steak. There are also chicken strips for the kids and whoever else likes that sort of thing. But the “Big Fish” at Bob’s, to my way of thinking, is the catfish.

I ordered the Catfish Dinner. It was the featured special, so I got 5 pieces of catfish, beans, cole slaw, jalapeno hush puppies, fries, and an ice tea for a bargain price. What a great deal. Not just because of the great price, but because the food was really very good.

To my liking, the catfish filets were thin, temperature hot and gently breaded with cornmeal. There was no grease present and so no need for extra napkins (I eat catfish filets by hand), and the dry breading flicked off as I was eating it. The filets of catfish were close to perfect, if not perfect.

The beans were nicely prepared, seasoned with the appropriate amount of black pepper, as is common in so many places in the hill country. The slaw, served with the meal, was not chopped up into little miniature pieces and formed into a tasteless, watery, wilted, and ice-cream cone shaped mound so common these days, but had large, firm, and crunchy chunks of cabbage. The jalapeno hush puppies were outstanding. They were not spicy hot at all, but had a very mild and delicious flavor.

In addition to the wonderful food, appropriate atmosphere, and attentive service, there is one more thing I really like about Catfish-N-More; the servers drop off your check when they deliver your food. This way, when you are ready to leave, you pick up the check and pay the cashier. There are few things more annoying to me, than spending time trying to flag down a server to get the check after you’ve eaten. And, with resect to paying the food bill, Bob only accepts cash and local checks. No plastic money cards of any kind are accepted.

If all that isn’t enough, you might be interested to know that Catfish-N-More shares its small building with the Harvest Baptist Church, which has its own entrance around the side. What a unique and wonderful place to eat a catfish meal.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Although It Did Not Play In A Bowl Game, This Texas University Is Still First, Just Like It Is Every Year

College football season in Texas is all consuming, especially this year, with a handful of Texas teams playing in bowl games, including the University of Texas playing in the Rose Bowl for the National Title. But the university which is always first in Texas won’t be the University of Texas, even if it wins in Pasadena. Nor, will it be Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M, Texas Christian, or Texas Tech. The oldest university in Texas, is, therefore, also the first university in Texas, and that university is Southwestern. Because it has been around the longest, it has remained "first" every single year since it was founded.

Southwestern University, located in scenic and historic Georgetown, Texas, was established when four separate colleges and universities combined in 1872. One of those root colleges was Rutersville College, which was the first college to receive a charter of higher learning from the then young Republic of Texas in 1840.

Southwestern University, affiliated with the Methodist Church, has weathered both good and difficult times over the many years it has been educating its students. A small private school, with an enrollment of around 1,300, the university offers an excellent liberal arts education in the pleasant hill country town of Georgetown. And while it fields several different NCAA Division III athletic teams, football is not one of them.

Despite the lack of a football team, Southwestern, with its status of being the first school in Texas chartered to provide higher learning, remains first again this year, just like it is every year. And, with all of the recent controversy surrounding Mike Leach, Adam James, and Texas Tech this season, I might also point out, with all due respect to the Texas Tech Red Raiders, that the Southwestern University Pirates are the real pirates in the State of Texas.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Lighting Up The Past: Austin’s Moonlight Towers

It’s hard to believe these days perhaps, but there was a time before ambient light polluted the night sky, that even some of the largest cities in the country were quite dark after the sun went down. This produced problems, not the least of which was increased evening crime.

In the late 1800’s, as innovations in technology made it possible, many municipalities turned to carbon arc lighting to brighten their streets, or, more specifically, their entire town. Unlike street lights which light up a relatively small area, the arc lights were hoisted on top of tall metal towers, sometimes hundreds of feet high. By placing many of these towers in strategic locations around the city, it was possible to light up nearly everything within the city limits. These towers, with their lights, were often called Moonlight Towers.

In the mid 1890’s, Austin was one of the cities which decided to erect the lighting system. Austin bought 31 towers with accompanying lighting equipment from Detroit, Michigan, a city which had received a lot of favorable press since installing the system itself.

Many citizens in Austin, perhaps not as technologically sophisticated as those living in Detroit at the time, worried about the ill effects of living in a city where it would never get dark. Some predicted dire consequences on everything from animals to plants. It didn’t take long after the lights were first lit, however, for the skeptics to see that the ever-present artificial “Moon Light” was harmless.

Over the years, the unique lighting system, which had been installed in so many places around the country, has been phased out in favor of lighting which is easier to maintain and much less expensive. The one exception is Austin, Texas. The city remains the country’s sole remaining location where the towers are still present and the lights illuminate the city from very high above, every night of the year.

Of course, with the passage of time, the towers have all been repaired and restored, and the technology of the lights updated. The actual number of existing towers has been reduced, for one reason or another, by about half. Critics over the years have cited both cost and the unsightliness of the towers to call for their removal, but to no avail. This is Austin after all, a city which takes pride in being different. This city pride, which has preserved the towers and the special lighting system, continues to "lighten" a tangible link through Austin’s past. For that, we can all be grateful.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Splashing In The New Year

While many people around the world were “ringing” in the New Year with alcohol, music, fireworks and traditional meals, there were others who brought in the New Year with a splash. Members of Polar Bear organizations around the globe celebrate the promise of the coming year by swimming in the coldest bodies of water they can find.

In Moscow, where ice swimmers call themselves, morzhi (walruses), instead of Polar Bears, the swims are undertaken in extremely frigid water underneath holes in the ice of streams, rivers, and lakes. The swims in these icy waters are normally accompanied by single digit or below zero air temperatures, making for more than just a refreshing dip. And while neither the New Year’s day water or air temperatures in the hill country approximates (thankfully) what is found in Moscow, or in a great many locations in this country for that matter, it does takes a special person to climb out of a warm bed and jump into some cold water on the first day of January.

Although it warmed up later in the day, at 10:00 this morning in Austin, the air temperature was in the mid 40’s. The water temperature in Austin’s Barton Springs Pool at Zilker Park at that same hour was around 68 degrees. These were the conditions which greeted members of Austin’s Barton Springs Polar Bear Club for its annual rite of passage held on the first day of every year. The cold January swim was not just for members of the club, however, but for anyone who wished to enjoy the invigorating benefits of the dip in the always chilly Barton Springs Pool. Although I did not jump into the cold water myself (as I rationalized that someone had to take photographs and carefully document the event), my wife, very much enjoyed her time in the water.

People of all ages, from children to elderly senior citizens, participated in the swim. Some of the swimmers wore some very interesting, unusual, and colorful swimming attire. While many of those taking the plunge into the water did not stay in for very long, there were others who seemed to be energized by the water and lingered for quite some time. There is no doubt that those who watched the event far outnumbered those who swam. But either way, everyone was laughing and having a great time. I even wished, very briefly at one point, that I had brought my swim suit. Happily for me, however, that thought quickly disappeared as I regained some semblance of my good senses.

The Save Our Springs Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting the natural water resources in and around the hill country, was on hand to promote the event and dispense free hot coffee. There was also free food available which was enjoyed by both swimmers and spectators alike. The swim today was indicative of most all the events in Austin and the surrounding hill country, with people coming together and having a lot of fun.

And, while I’m sure that many hearty ice swimmers in Moscow, and other colder locations around the world, would discount the “cold swim” at Barton Springs as being too warm to even mention, the local swimmers did what they could with the climate and waters with which they were blessed. And, unlike most of us, they splashed in the New Year, in a healthy and exhilarating way, and had an enjoyable time doing it.