By Edwin Shrake
Harper’s Magazine, February 1970
For about five hours I had been drinking Scotch whiskey and arguing with a rather nice, sometimes funny old fellow named Arch, who was so offended by my moderately long hair that he had demanded to know if I weren’t actually, secretly, a Communist. “Come on now, you can tell me, hell, I won’t hate you for it. Wouldn’t you really like to see the Communists take over this country?” Arch had said, placing his bare elbows on the table and leaning forward to look trustingly at me, as though he was certain that if I had one virtue it would prove to be that I would not lie to him about such an important matter. Arch was wearing a jump suit; swatches of gray chest hair, the color of his crew cut, stuck out where the zipper had got caught in it when at last Arch had excused himself from the table. We were in the guest lodge of a lumber company in a small town in East Texas. Arch is an old friend of the president of the company. Sitting around the table or nearby were my wife, a State Senator in town to crown a beauty queen at a “celebration” the next evening, a U.S. Congressman who had come down from Washington to make a speech between the parade and the barbecue the following noon, a lumber lobbyist who is mayor of still another town owned by this same lumber company, and I think one or two more people but my memory of that evening has a few holes in it.
“I don’t mind telling you what I believe, Arch,” I said. The Congressman, John Dowdy, was sitting in a chair in his shirt-sleeves holding a glass of bourbon and water that had been paid for—as had the Scotch that Arch and I were doggedly pouring down—by the lumber company in whose lodge we were comparing philosophies. Dowdy is a plump man with a pink face and sparse white hair. He sat forward with quite some interest when I spoke. Probably this was the first time he had ever been so close to a person he considered to be a Communist dopefiend hippie terrorist drunk. At first Representative Dowdy had been reluctant to drink in my presence. He knew I was a writer by trade, and thus unreliable, and it is not at all good for the Baptists in East Texas to discover their politicians have any vile habits. Most of East Texas is dry except for moonshiners and those who can afford to join country clubs or the private clubs to be found in motels. Representative Dowdy had no faith that I would not cruise the lonely roads through the pine forests shouting, “Dowdy drinks!” to the farmers on their porch swings and their wives chopping weeds in hollyhock beds in front of their wooden houses. However, a pretense of fellowship had been built up by the State Senator, Charlie Wilson, a tall Annapolis graduate who also works for the lumber company but is one of those curious creatures in Texas politics, a liberal. Wilson is enthusiastically disliked by Dowdy, and returns the feeling, but politicians will smile at and drink with their lowest, sorriest enemies. So Dowdy took a drink of bourbon and then two or three more and got interested in listening to me as he might have got interested in listening even to a nigger cotton chopper after sufficient liquor and with no physical menace.
“Arch, why are you scared of Communists, anyhow?” I said. “Do you think they’re going to raid Waco and steal everything you’ve got?”
“Damn right!” said Arch. “Haven’t you read Karl Marx? They’re gonna take over our whole country if we let them! And you’d really like to see that happen, wouldn’t you now?”
“You know what I think about Communists?” I said.
“You tell me,” said Arch, waiting.
“What I’d like to do to Communists, like in North Vietnam for example, is I’d like to blow their ass to yellow powder,” I said.
“What?” said Dowdy.
“I mean take that big bomb and blow their dirty ass to yellow powder!” I said.
“The whole country?” said Arch.
“The whole north part. South part, too, if that’s what it takes. You can’t give a Communist a damn inch, Arch. You know that.”
“Well, but the whole country…” Arch said.
“Me, too. That’s what I’d like to do, too. Use that big bomb over there,” said Dowdy.
“That’d get our boys home in a hurry. Just blow their Communist ass to yellow powder. Turn ’em into sulphur,” I said.
“You’re right!” said Dowdy.
“You know it, I know it, the generals know it, Arch knows it, so what are we waiting for?” I said.
“We ought to do it right now!” said Dowdy. Dowdy’s bullshit detector had not been functioning while wet, but now there was a clattering in the machinery inside his head and he cast a suspicious, stricken look at us.
“I need to get some sleep,” Dowdy said abruptly and headed off into one of the bedrooms.
I noticed that whoever had made my last drink had done so with too light a hand on the Scotch bottle. Arch and I required a couple more and, with the Communist worry settled (if not to his total satisfaction), we talked about fishing. East Texas has some fine fishing and used to have better before towns, lumber companies, oil companies, paper mills, and real estate developers began pouring their crap and garbage into the rivers and creeks, and sportsmen’s clubs began blocking off the choicer streams from the public. There are two very large lakes in East Texas—Sam Rayburn and Toledo Bend—and several smaller ones, as well as countless bayous and ponds where the water is held by the red clay soil. Four sizable rivers carry crap down through East Texas into the Gulf of Mexico. One of them, the Trinity, flows through both Fort Worth and Dallas in the north and has become the color and consistency of green paint by the time it reaches the Big Thicket, a truly vanishing wilderness.
The Big Thicket has been a hiding place for bears, wild pigs, panthers, ghosts, Civil War deserters, moonshiners, whooping cranes, ivorybill woodpeckers, Texas’s only reservation Indians, snakes, magnificent stands of hardwoods and virgin pines, so many rare plants that they have hardly begun to be identified, and some very withdrawn, reclusive people. Biologists view the Big Thicket with profound wonder, and ecologists regard its passing with despair. Roy Harris, the heavyweight fighter, came from the town of Cut and Shoot, which used to be in the Big Thicket before the invention of the power saw. Six Texas governors have sprung from the Big Thicket. For many years its tight-eye forests blocked the westward trek of pioneers and forced them onto the plains to the north. But the Indians hunted in canoes in the Thicket’s bayous and knew its few footpaths. Sam Houston intended to hide his Texan army there if he lost the battle that was finally fought at San Jacinto. Not far from what is now the Hoop N’ Holler Estates, weekend cottages for people fleeing Houston and Beaumont, the Indians used to bathe in hot mineral springs and drink crude oil as medicine. The springs are dried up now, panthers are seldom seen, bears wander in confusion as far north as Lufkin, where they are shot trying to escape, and the oil of the Indians has been drilled in dozens of pools that bred boomtowns and formed such giants as Texaco. Senator Ralph Yarborough, a Texas Democrat, is trying to save a piece of the Big Thicket as a National Park, but it is perhaps a vain hope. As much as they may feel blood kin to the woods and streams that have nourished them for generations, most of the people who live in the Big Thicket, and in the rest of East Texas, depend for their livelihood on the industries that are destroying them, and so they vote for candidates chosen by the big companies. “I don’t see how anything can be done about a park, no matter what the Sahara [sic] Club wants,” Representative Dowdy had said earlier in the evening. As a lumberman’s friend, Arch would prefer to see the Thicket leveled. “It’s a hot old swamp, full of bugs and snakes and not fit for man,” he said.
“Well, like I said. I could get used to your hair. But there’s no way in the world I could ever make myself like your wife’s hair.”
After a while, as we were arguing about the Thicket, it occurred to us that all in the house save Arch and me had gone to bed. The two large ponds out front lay silent in the moonlight. The ducks, geese, pigeons, and peacocks that roam the grounds of the guest lodge had ruffled themselves into a great restless quiet for the night. The squirrels had ceased to dart about in the cage that my wife had wanted to release them from, and there was no sound from the sawmill along the railroad tracks beyond the fence. Now it was just Arch and I, keeping up the noise at the table in the living room of the lodge, and we became congenial, no doubt from the liquor as much as from the sensing that someday, disparate though we were, we might be the only two whose asses were not blown to powder, the only two left alive, as we now were alive on this night.
“I’ll tell you something,” Arch said. “You’re not such a bad fellow. I could learn to live around you, and I could even get used to your hair. But there’s one thing I’ve got to admit. I hope you won’t get mad at me for saying this.”
“Let’s hear it,” I said, having begun to be fond of the old man and finding it unimaginable that he could anger me.
“Well, like I said. I could get used to your hair. But there’s no way in the world I could ever make myself like your wife’s hair.”
My wife’s hair! So that was part of it too! I had assumed the hostility we had encountered in the last few days of driving through East Texas in our convertible was directed at me. But my wife had been receiving her share of it, and maybe more, all along. My wife’s hair! My wife Doatsy is young and pretty and her hair is the color of caramel; it is soft, it shines, it smells like baby soap, and it is long, hanging to the middle of her back, a glorious drop of hair that my grandmother would have been proud of, that young girls of today strive for, and that Arch could never make himself appreciate!
“I’m amazed there is a man in America who objects to long hair on a woman,” I said.
My hair was not really all that long; it was just rather shaggy, somewhat in the manner of an old-fashioned country lawyer or editor or judge. If I had worn a white cotton suit and black string tie, we probably would have had no trouble at all.
I don’t know what Arch thought I was calling him, but he got up and went to bed, and I could tell he had been insulted. But as I thought of the way we had been treated for the past week, I understood what Arch was telling me. As the beatniks long ago learned, out there in America hair matters, and here we were in the land of the permanent wave. The shellacked bouffants and beehives, sprayed hard as a real hornets’ nest, had become acceptable at last, along with high-heeled shoes, in East Texas, where information does not readily penetrate, but the thing for a real lady still to have was a permanent wave like my mother used to come home with twenty years ago. In East Texas, long-haired women went out of mode with long-haired men, about the time McKinley was shot, and in my big-city naïveté I had thought I was the only one being scorned by the natives for disregard of custom in a place where custom means everything.
My hair was not really all that long; it was just rather shaggy, somewhat in the manner of an old-fashioned country lawyer or editor or judge. If I had worn a white cotton suit and black string tie, we probably would have had no trouble at all. In East Texas, the older ones would recognize that character. I would have smelled of the courthouse to them, and they would have been no more curious about me than about the rows of slave shacks that had stood in the fields all their lives, or about the black people who lived in those shacks and worked in those fields as if there had never been a Civil War, or about the black children who still went to black schools as though there were no Supreme Court in this country. To the younger ones, I could have pointed out that my hair was no longer than, say, Pat Moynihan’s in a photograph in the New York Times, but then I would have had to explain who Moynihan was, and in the process I would have bored and annoyed them.
We had been at the Indian reservation on the north edge of the Big Thicket in splendid forest and dogwood country and then had visited the Heritage Museum—the only town rebuilt in the manner of a hundred years ago that I know of that is accurate in detail and does not look as if it were put together by Walt Disney’s set designers. We drove up Highway 69 through a corner of the Angelina National Forest, and it was growing dark as we approached Lufkin. Billboards for the Shangri-La Motel advertised color TV. We were tired and that attracted us: dinner in the room, color TV, a long sleep, and the next day a drive over to the lumber company guest lodge near Sam Rayburn Lake. It was a good plan. Nothing went wrong with it until I checked in at the Shangri-La and discovered the color TV was in the lobby instead of in the room, where I would have preferred it. I looked in the Yellow Pages and saw that the Holiday Inn also advertised color TV. The girl at the desk in the Shangri-La had been examining me as though I were a maverick Lear, and when she figured out my desire she said, “Naw, they don’t have no color TV ove-ur.”
“It says so in the Yellow Pages.”
“Shoot! I don’t care whut’s in at book. I use to work ove-ur, They don’t have no color TV.” She phoned the Holiday Inn. “Marge, yew got color TV ove-ur ? Naw? I knew it, but they’s some guy here says yew do. Yeah, he sure is.” She hung up, giggling. I signed the register. The sight of the motel name on the card threw me into a fit of melancholy. “Thet’ll be fourteen dollars in advance.”
“Why in advance?”
“Why yew thank?”
A cop was at the desk talking to the girl when I returned to the office, and in my rapidly expanding, galloping East Texas paranoia, I knew they were talking about me.
I thought it was because they catered to traveling salesmen and urgent shackups. I paid, and the girl gave me a card that would allow us to buy a drink in the private club that occupied the rear of a restaurant. “We got a good barbershop here,” she said as I went out. I stopped and looked around, understanding. The door of the private club looked as if on many occasions someone had tried to propel someone else through without turning the knob. The rooms at the Shangri-La faced directly onto the parking lot, in the middle of which sat a swimming pool with a brick wall around it. My wife and I sat on the bed in our room, listening to car doors slamming, thoroughly despondent, peering wearily at a menu while the black-and-white TV played static and ghastly figures for us. Then I jumped up.
“This place is on fire!” I said.
“A car is burning in the parking lot!” she said.
When I opened the door, a heavy white choking smoke floated into the room. I rushed to the office. “Something’s burning!” I cried. The girl at the desk sniffed and said, “Uh, thet smoke? Thet’s just the creosote plant. It gits like thet ever nat.” I went back to the room, and we hustled our bags out to the car. By now smoke was drifting up from the bedspread and clinging in wisps to the grimy towels on the rack, like swamp mist rising early in the morning. A cop was at the desk talking to the girl when I returned to the office, and in my rapidly expanding, galloping East Texas paranoia, I knew they were talking about me. I said I was leaving because of the smoke and wanted my money back. The cop eyed me as if he expected I would pull a pistol and begin to speak with a foreign accent.
“I tole yew it’s only the creosote plant!” the girl said. “Nobody ever complained about it before. Thet smoke’ll be gone by mornin’.”
I said my wife had terminal bronchitis and would also be gone by morning if we spent the night there. After protesting that there was no procedure for this, the girl grudgingly gave back the whole fourteen dollars. The cop followed in his car as we drove to the Holiday Inn. He parked near us and sat watching and chewing gum or something. I paid in advance without asking why, we went to our room, locked the door, called room service and requested a menu. “You got to pay in advance or we won’t send you no menu,” said the room service woman.
“Pay in advance for food? Is that a general policy, or did they specify this room?” Doatsy asked.
“This is the deal for your room. You send down twenty dollars or we won’t send no menu.”
A frightened bellhop, an addled white boy who had probably seen Bonnie and Clyde at the drive-in and expected to be greeted by a kick in the belly, stood well back from the door as he collected the twenty dollar bond and handed over the menu.
“Is this, ah, unusual’?” I asked.
“I just started work here today, but I ain’t done it before,” he said.
We ordered dinner. The boy brought up the food along with change from the twenty. I asked if the cop was hanging around the lobby. “Y-y-yeah,” said the boy, trying to sneak a look at the famous mad dog outlaws without rousing us to violence. I will always wonder what that boy overheard in that lobby.
In the morning I compounded our crime by wearing rubber shower thongs into the coffee shop where I ordered breakfast in a room crowded with red-faced, crop-headed men in short-sleeve shirts. The waitress had but to glance at me to know she did not wish to approach very close, lest Godlessness somehow leap from me to her like a pox. The problem of serving she solved by sailing my plate to the table as if playing Frisbee. Still ignorant of the measure of our offense to society, I thought matters would improve when my wife arrived; at least they would see I wasn’t queer. I hadn’t reckoned that few people in East Texas believe there is such a thing, anyhow. In vast sections of America, sexual deviation means the woman on top (this of course does not take into account rural love affairs with cows and chickens). My wife caught her breakfast with both hands as it skipped on the table bound for the window.
In the coffee shop I sat down at the table with my hat on. My wife, her long hair flowing down off either side of her face, whispered, “They’ll kill you.”
Then the notion struck that I could quite simply change all this. I went to the parking lot, opened the trunk of the car, and put on a battered, well-crushed cowboy hat that I have owned for years. As I turned back toward the coffee shop, there stood the cop. His mean face slowly resolved into a baffled, respectful expression, like that of a weasel facing a trap.
“Good mornin,” he said.
“Hot sumbitch today,” I said.
“Yes sir, it is.”
In the coffee shop I sat down at the table with my hat on. My wife, her long hair flowing down off either side of her face, whispered, “They’ll kill you.” But the waitress came right up to the table and called me sir. As we sauntered dramatically out, I paused at the front desk and told the clerk I’d made a local call from my room. “That’s all right, sir. No charge,” she said, smiling.
On the way out of town we stopped at a drive-in grocery to buy ice for the cooler. I still wore my hat. When I got out of the car I was assailed by another of the noxious stinks that Lufkin is distinguished for. This one came from the huge paper mill across the road. Smoke poured from the stacks and spread across the neighborhood like a fog that smelled of rotten egg puke. The odor wrenched the stomach and made one hesitant to breathe.
“If I lived around here, I’d blow up that place,” I said to the man at the drive in.
“No sir, you wouldn’t,” he replied. “If you lived around here, you’d work there.”
For the “celebration” the following day I kept on my hat, partly so as not to cost Charlie Wilson any votes. He congratulated me on having lived for a week bareheaded in East Texas without getting beaten with a tire iron. “With that hat on, they can see your hair hanging down, but a long-haired cowboy is likely to be a dangerous man that is best left alone,” Charlie said. We leaned against Charlie’s car parked on the main street and watched the parade. There were a couple of black children on one of the floats, and a plump black tuba player marched with the high school band. Charlie, the liberal, said that was progress. To hear the speechmaking we sat on pine logs in a field. Representative Dowdy, the main speaker, fretted about luring the people away from the Ferris wheel that had been set up across the road. The rides were shut down. Dowdy spoke about the ship of state on the river of life. The crowd gazed dully up at the platform where Dowdy’s white and pink head bent forward as he read his text through glasses. Three women cantered past on palomino horses, raising dust. “A patriot is a man that don’t take orders from Washington,” Dowdy said. A fellow in tooled boots hopped up and cheered, and they had to carry off an old man, overcome, in an aluminum chair.
Afterward I told Dowdy I liked that part about the ship of state. He seemed neither to have heard me nor to have ever seen me before. For most of the afternoon we sat and ate—barbecue, fried chicken, venison chili, potato salad, coconut cream pie, chocolate pie—while I kept my hat on and people smiled and inquired politely about news from the other world, as though my wife and I were peculiar but important visitors from the Pampas. Except for my wife’s, there was not one skirt much above the knee to be seen in town, not even on the cheerleaders. I searched among the throng for a pair of bellbottom trousers, a moustache, a peace symbol, any small sign that the styles of urban youth had been heard of. But no. They were clear-eyed, home-loving, right-thinking folks here. They would tell the Easy Rider to crawl on his bike and haul his bones out of the county, and if he moved fast enough he might make it.
The final phase of the “celebration” was held that night in the parking lot of the shopping center. Kids in cowboy boots and hats danced with girls in cotton dresses, a scene from years past. A fiddler, imported from Fort Worth, scraped at his fiddle and made scrowling noises; you couldn’t tell what tune he was playing but the kids danced the two-step cowboy polka, nevertheless, and what did it matter? Their elders formed a square and clapped hands, waiting for the drawing at which a boat, a shotgun, and a TV set would be given away. Charlie Wilson stood on the truck trailer platform with the beauty queen contestants. Charlie had got a haircut for the occasion. The beauty queens were sweet-looking girls, all of them very nervous and shy in their evening gowns, their hair newly done up and crinkly as valentines, reeking of cologne. “Hey, Sen-ter!” someone yelled. “The people back here say that fiddler’s got to go!”
Charlie introduced the beauty-queen candidates and from an envelope pulled the name of the winner, who cried as he lowered the crown onto her permanent wave. “Bless your heart,” he said and kissed her. Lugging her trophy, the bawling girl wobbled down the ramp into the arms of her beaming family and boyfriend. At the top of the ramp stood Charlie, an enormous bouquet of roses in his arms. “Your flowers! You forgot your flowers!” he called. But the girl was gone. Charlie shrugged and said into the microphone, “That’s all. The program’s over.” The crowd stayed where it was. There was a spreading mutter. A voice shouted, “Sen-ter, who won the damn boat?”
My wife and I went to our car before the drawing. We ran into Arch, still in his jump suit, his eyes showing that his hangover ranked right up there with mine and that he was troubled, besides. “Listen, I hope you’re not mad at me,” he said. “By God, I can’t help how I feel. I’m an old man. It’s too late for me to change, but it ain’t too late for you.”
“Yeah, Arch, it’s too late for me,” I said.
We shook hands. With an old Southern courtliness, he said goodbye to my wife and wandered into the crowd around the platform. Then we were on the road again, heading out of East Texas, the headlights picking up bits of sparkling water, black patches of thicket, dark houses well back from our passing, and we could smell the pines in the night wind with the car top down. I took off my hat. It was giving me a headache.
The late Edwin “Bud” Shrake was part of a rich crop of writers that came out of Texas in the ’50s and ’60s and included Dan Jenkins, Blackie Sherrod, Larry L. King, John Graves, Larry McMurtry, Grover Lewis, and Cary Cartwright. Shrake was a newspaperman, a magazine writer, screenwriter, and a fine novelist. “The Land of the Permanent Wave,” first appeared in Harper’s during the magazine’s heyday. Willie Morris, their celebrated editor, said that along with Seymour Hersh’s devastating account of the My Lai massacre, Shrake’s was his favorite story.
In his memoir New York Days, Morris recalled Shrake as “a large, tall Texan with a blunt exterior that disguised a lyric but misdoing heart. This piece was infinitely less ambitious than ‘My Lai,’ but struck a chord in me that I have never quite forgotten, having to do with how clean, funny, and lambent prose caught the mood of that moment in the country and mirrored with great felicity what we were trying to do at Harper’s. To me, few finer magazine essays have ever been written.
“The genesis of ‘The Land of the Permanent Wave’ was itself a germane story of the magazine business of that era. Sports Illustrated sent Shrake down at his insistence to do a piece on the beautiful and haunting Big Thicket area of East Texas. This was about the time a Texas lumbering company was becoming a major stockholder in Time Inc. Shrake’s story on timber choppers and developers ruining the Thicket was not happily greeted at SI. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor later to be dismissed by the money men, broke the news to the writer at their daily late afternoon gathering in the bar around the corner from the Time-Life Building where many of their editorial decisions took place. It was the only SI story Shrake ever wrote that the magazine would not print and Laguerre was embarrassed. Shrake got his permission to rewrite it and give it to Harper’s. He sat down and changed the main angle of the story from the mercenary destruction of the Thicket to his and his young wife Doatsy’s travels through Lufkin and down to the Thicket, about permanent waves and long hair in the ’60s and cowboy hats and rednecks and cops and the fumes from the paper mills.”—AB
[Photo Credit: Peter Richmond]