Some things in life you just can’t get away from. Love, death, taxes are three that come to mind and there are many others as well. Some you can dodge and avoid but they all get to you one way or the other. And some of them just sneak up on you when you least expect it and wallop you into a permanent state of regretting both things you have and haven’t done. Been thinking about this sort of thing a lot lately; the recent death of my father has made me look at all my relationships with everyone in a whole new different light. I try to be nice to everyone unless of course they choose to not be pleasant for whatever reason; I’ve never been able to physically fight my way out of a paper bag and I find myself rapidly getting weary of wanting to be around anyone who sees every conversation as being a debate that can only be won by them. I don’t want to fight and I don’t want to argue; I currently just don’t have it in me anymore. Getting along with people just seems preferable to locking horns with them. But life isn’t always so simple or amiable; things get complicated in a hurry it seems.
The recent passing of my father has also brought another level of thought to surface: I need to be living my life instead of simply enduring it like the bad acid trip it sometimes mimics. The week after my fathers passing still seems surreal to me; the whole business of funeral arrangements, trying to assemble a decent suit on a WalMart budget, the bizarre evening of his “showing” (standing around in a room for two hours with his body on display and chatting with people he used to work with and family members I hadn’t seen in years was just a little too Edgar Allan Poe for me) , the funeral service itself etc. I took a week off work and then went back to find “work” crawling at a snails pace; there was almost nothing to do for a week. There’s nothing like the “satisfaction” of getting up before dawn and breaking every traffic law in the book to get there on time and then finding there’s not enough actual work to kill an eight hour shift.
In the last eight months I have used most of the vacation time allotted to me by my company. I’ve been on a Carnival cruise that took my girlfriend and I to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cozumel. We drove down to south Texas a couple of months ago with her 20-year-old son and stayed in a lovely bed and breakfast for a couple of nights and enjoyed ourselves so much that we decided that maybe it was a good idea to do it again. If work hadn’t of been so slow I would have been reluctant to ask for more time off just after taking a whole week off, but oddly enough they gave me no flack about at all. I phoned in reservations at the same bed-and-breakfast, got the oil changed in the car, sweet-talked a neighbor into feeding the cat, stopped the mail and the paper and two weeks after the day of my fathers passing we were on the way to the Hill Country of south Texas for a return visit. Sometimes it’s good to get out of town and now seemed like an especially good one; sitting around the house and dwelling on Dad’s passing just didn’t seem like a healthy thing to do on multiple levels. The road was calling.
I35 is a formidable stretch of Texas highway; it goes for hundreds of miles past identical strip malls, mobile home parks, cafes and antique stores which tend to turn into a blur for me as my giant travel coffee mug empties. I’m anything but nuts about long drives in the car; my lower back cramps after too many hours in the drivers seat and I tend to worry about things that might go wrong like getting in a wreck or having unexpected mechanical problems. We stopped for breakfast in Waco and kept moving.
But as I got closer to Austin I thought about visiting there with a friend of mine whom I had sort of gotten out of touch with. Back in 1983 I came to Austin with a friend named Tom; we drove down to see New Order play at some club whose name I can’t remember now. Tom was a very like-minded soul; a mutual friend introduced us in 1979: “Brian, I have a friend who’s into all the same stuff you are; you gotta meet him….”
Tom and I shared a lot of musical interests and much more. We read a lot of the same books, magazines and comics, we enjoyed the same movies ( mainly comedies and horror films) and we enjoyed dining at a lot of the same restaurants. Both of us were aficionados of EC comics, National Lampoon, SCTV, anything by Robert Crumb, Monty Python, the Three Stooges, Firesign Theater, cartoons , Ernie Kovacs and Fawlty Towers. We had almost identical record collections although his far outnumbered mine. We had a mutual love of Prog-rock when we met but he turned me onto the up-and-coming punk bands of the day, many of which we went to see perform live. We saw The Cramps, the Dead Kennedys, Wall of Voodoo, Black Flag and so many more we drove to Dallas and beyond to see and that’s what led us to driving to Austin in his battered ’76 VW camper van to see New Order in 1983.
Tom and I also saw many films together; we sat through countless “B” films at the local drive-in theaters and art houses. The list is way too long to name them all here but among them was the original 1974 TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE; that film left much more than a lasting impression on both of us.
We couldn’t drive past a barbecue joint without cracking a Leatherface joke. But as the years went by we started seeing less and less of each other. There was no falling-out or hard feelings between us; our work-related hours kept us from seeing a lot of each other. I got up before dawn and crashed early in the evening; he worked from noon to 10pm. The last time we spent time together socially was the night before Halloween in 2009; we drove to Dallas to see the Butthole Surfers do a stellar reunion show.
Couldn’t help but think about Tom as my girlfriend and I exited I35 and took our first detour; he would have loved our first stop in the small town of Leander, Texas. I steered the car west and we followed directions from a print-out she had made earlier to the Bagdad Cemetery which was featured in the opening scenes of CHAINSAW. We drove down a two-lane farm road for a few miles, took a couple of turns and were about to give up when I spotted it. From the road I could see some very memorable monuments from the movie, particularly one with a broken-off column. “There it is; there it is!” For the first time in hours I got excited about this trip.
We had just pulled into the entrance gate and were almost to the markers I recognized from the film when two large black rats the size of squirrels darted across the gravel path in front of my car and crawled into a hole they had furrowed under a large cement crypt. She refused to exit the car after that; I got out and took several photos of the cemetery, including a full 360 panoramic sweep around the markers from the film. She took photos from the car including one of me pretending to cut my palm with a knife like the hitch-hiker in the film.
The east side of the cemetery had old tombstones dating back several decades while the west side of the cemetery had newer, more recent markers. The rats spooked my girlfriend but the one grave that really got to me was obviously that of a child; a stuffed teddy bear was tied to a tree limb hanging over the tombstone and watching over it like a sentinel. We pulled out of there in silence and retraced our route back to I35.
We passed through Austin and made our way down to Wimberley shortly after that and checked into our suite at the bed and breakfast. We spent the next four days taking in the beauty of the Hill Country and doing touristy things: exploring the back roads, dining at quaint cafes and barbecue joints, rummaging through small town thrift stores and just relaxing. I enjoyed waking up whenever I felt like it instead of being jolted awake by an alarm clock. We had pulled pork sandwiches at a picnic table under shade trees at Luckenbach Texas.
We explored Lockhart Texas where many movies are filmed such as one of my personal favorites WAITING FOR GUFFMAN. We ate barbecue at the Salt Lick in Driftwood Texas whose impressive stone pit I had seen on The Food Network and The Travel Channel.
The day before we left Wimberley we found another CHAINSAW shooting site in Bastrop, Texas; the gas station featured in two scenes. Like the cemetery it was on a long stretch of middle-of-nowhere farm road, and while the Gulf sign and gas pumps had long since been removed I recognized it instantly as we pulled up to it. Apparently it had been a resale shop in some past incarnation; the sign on the roof read: “BILBOS TEXAS LANDMARK “ and underneath in smaller letters: “Owned by Texans- Run By Texans” An adjacent shed bore a sign that read: “Flat tires made round” and I noticed when I got out the parking lot was paved with plenty of objects (nails, screws etc.) that could make round tires flat. Bars had been installed over the door and windows to keep souvenir hunters from taking anything home other than photos and other than a few blackbirds there was no sign of life anywhere.
We were going to Lockhart for lunch after that so we drove down the road and found a place that gave me the creeps even more than either of the CHAINSAW filming sites. An American flag on a pole waved proudly in the breeze over a white picket fence in front of a blackened, burned-out house AND a torched double-wide mobile home; I could see about a half-dozen more mobile homes behind it that all looked as if they had washed in from Hurricane Katrina. None of them looked inhabitable, but I was to soon learn otherwise. In black spray paint on the fence was a message: “DO NOT ENTER-YOU WILL BE SHOT” underlined in red spray paint. “Jeez, Meth Lab Central” I thought to myself as she snapped a photo of that message on the fence oozing with Southern Hospitality.
Just as she snapped the photo I noticed a character straight out of DELIVERANCE staring at us from the doorway of one of the double-wides. Whoops… I gunned the engine and got us out of there as fast as I could.
On the very last day of our trip we checked out of our cozy little bed-and-breakfast with much regret and drove north back to Fort Worth. But we had one more stop to make before returning home. We drove once again down a series of farm roads for a long time until we came upon the quaint little town of Kingsland, Texas. Kingsland was at a crossroads of railway routes and was also where we found the Grand Central Cafe which coincidentally was located in the house featured in many of CHAINSAW’s key scenes. The house was originally on a farm near Round Rock but was taken apart in sections and moved to Kingsland where currently it is in its second reincarnation as a restaurant. According to Yelp and Urbanspoon the first restaurant was closed, so I was pleasantly surprised to see a Cisco truck backed up to its rear entrance (Cisco is a wholesale food supplier to restaurants) We were expecting to find it boarded up with a FOR LEASE sign out front; on impulse I asked my girlfriend if she was hungry enough for lunch yet.
I could barely contain my excitement as we walked up to the oh-so-familiar porch, up its steps and through the front door and into the front hallway with its even more familiar stairway. “Table for two?” asked the woman at the door. She led us into one of two dining rooms and despite the new owners attempts to make the place as non-threatening as possible I recognized the dining area as the one with the caged chicken and the furniture made of bones in the film. Lunch specials were on a chalkboard by the front door; we both ordered chicken-fried steaks. My girlfriend took a photo of me sitting at the table with its white table cloth grinning at her but my eyes ruined all attempts at a straight face.
The walls were decorated with vintage sepia-toned photos of trains and Marilyn Monroe but the house was still very much recognizable from the film. She wanted to wash her hands and I had to walk her to the restroom holding her hand because to access them you had to walk past the stairway and through the door where Leatherface first appears in the film. The antlers and horns were no longer on the wall and the steel door Leatherface slammed shut was no longer there (much to my disappointment) There was only the kitchen and a hallway leading to the restrooms.
We ate lunch without incident; it would be unfair to not mention the food was excellent and the dessert we shared ( a delicious slice of pecan pie ala mode) equaled that to desserts we’ve had in any four-star resort. The waitstaff was friendly and told me to take as many photos of the inside of the house as I wanted although I only took a few because the stares of the other diners made me a little uncomfortable about doing so. The other diners were for the most part a geriatric crowd who were just there for a quiet lunch; no one there seemed to share my morbid interest in the house’s background so out of respect I took a few photos and left quietly. Hours later we finally pulled up into my driveway in Fort Worth.
I returned to my menial job for a couple of very long days and on Saturday I was sitting at the computer looking over photos of the trip and thinking about how eager I was to show the photos of the Chainsaw locations to my friend Tom when the phone rang. The voice on the other end ( a mutual friend of Tom and I) wanted to know if I was sitting down; I assured him I was seated. “Tom is dead…”
Talk about a sucker-punch to the stomach; I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
“Okay here’s what little I know. He took a couple of days vacation and went to a casino in Oklahoma. He collapsed on the floor, someone asked him if he was alright, he told them he was. Then he went down a second time and just flat-lined there on the floor.”
I hung up the phone in disbelief and sat in silence. My father just passed away a few weeks ago but his doctor gave us a month’s “heads-up” on that one; there was no notice this time. I had known this guy since 1979; he was only a year or two older than me. How many reminders of one’s mortality does a person need in a single month? I didn’t even get to give my father his Fathers Day card this year because he was in the hospital at the time. Now I can’t show Tom my pictures of the Chainsaw filming locations either. I’m an adult; I’m old enough and mature enough to know that life isn’t always fair. But it doesn’t make it any easier to accept.
Tom was a fun-loving guy who didn’t have Enemy One in this world; he was friends with everyone who knew him. Most of my memories of him are associated with smiling and laughing until it physically hurt. And up until the time that I (and he too later on) quit drinking, he could mix a White Russian that was like drinking liquid candy. We did all the things friends in Texas do together: we traveled, we shot guns, we dined on food grilled over open flames, we drank like fish, we went to concerts and watched movies together under a vast star-filled sky. Now he’s gone and he WILL be missed. But if I have any consolation it’s knowing he went out at one of his favorite places; the casino. Or as one of my Facebook friends put it: “He did it HIS way…” And I really can’t imagine him wanting it any other way.