Magazine - March 10, 1972
by Larry L. King
to Garland Wood for taking the time to scan and submit this
its way to no place in particular, Texas State Highway 302 bores
through the center of Mentone, county seat of Loving County.
last boomer has passed by - his spirit, alas, has passed too
the nation moved west seeking new frontiers, Texas, a rude young
empire won in blood, was inhabited by restless and adventurous men
chasing their own special dreams. One of these was Oliver Loving, a
legendary cattleman who, passing through the barren reefs adjoining
New Mexico in 1867, was shot, scalped and left for dead. He crawled 18
miles, chewing an old leather glove for sustenance, and emptied his
pockets of valuables to a roving band of Mexican traders against
assurance that he would be packed in charcoal and returned east to
Weatherford -- almost 500 miles -- for burial. It was perhaps typical
of the breed, the period and the place that Oliver Loving stubbornly
refused to die until he had arranged his own terms.
literature and our legends abound with tales of the frontier spirit,
of men who lived out of saddlebags or sod huts, carving and sweating a
new civilization in which they attended their own fractures, made
there own rules and raised their sons to independent and taciturn
ways. In 1893, 26 years after Oliver Loving's death, a county
bordering on New Mexico in the westernmost part of Texas was named for
him. Loving County today is the most sparsely populated county in the
contiguous United States, 647 square miles with 150 people scattered
among 451 producing oil wells. This is land no less desolate than in
an earlier time, and it is reasonable to suspect that the folks who
remain here -- the sons and daughters of gritty dry-gulch farmers,
wild-horse tamers and oil-field roustabouts -- would naturally retain
their forebears' adventuresome pioneer spirit, coupled with their own
stubborn dreams of self-fulfillment.
the nation drew its strength from these lower regions, masses of
individual songs melding into one symphony of hope and pride and
individual doing. Now, so much in America seems to have homogenized
and dulled us that it is not too much to imagine that one day soon we
shall all sound like Jack Lescoulie. Perhaps out on those few old
frontiers where there is still elbow room, we can rediscover charms,
virtues and vitalities that speak well of our roots and suggest
options for our futures. These are the hopes, at least, that one can
bring to an examination of Loving County.
best place to meet Loving County's last frontiersmen is in the town of
Mentone, and more specifically in Keen's Cafe, popularly known as
"Newt's and Tootsie's." Keen's is the only place in all the
county where one may purchase a beer -- or anything else of value,
though they do sell marriage licenses across the street at the squat
county courthouse. On this boiling day,
Cafe is the only place that sells beer in the whole of Loving County's
647 square miles. It's also the communal center for 150 residents
Better the lawman had come to
poison the water
Weepin' Willie Nelson is
warning on Newt Keen's jukebox of all the gratuitous
troubles love provides when another kind of trouble --
wearing a big-brimmed hat and a snub-nosed pistol --
clatters through the front screen door.
Garnville Lacy, ruddy-faced to the bone, is
toting the snub-nosed pistol under the aegis of the Texas Liquor
Control Board. He has driven from Odessa across 78 miles of burning
desert sands -- past oil-well pumps, nodding their rich extractions
like gentled rocking horses, and past infrequent hardscrabble ranches
-- to serve a seven-day suspension notice of the beer permit entrusted
to Keen's Cafe.
Newt Keen, proprietor, is a graying former
cowboy with jug ears and a sly country grin that says he knows the
joke and the joke is not on him. He seem to harbor some secret mirth,
a submerged mysterious bubbling that has survived tornado funnels,
droughts, bedroll rattlesnakes, rodeo fractures and the purchase of a
ranch from a salty old pioneer woman who, it developed, did not own a
ranch to sell. Equipped by seasoning and history to expertly sense
disaster in its many forms, Newt, on spotting the lawman, mumbles,
"Oh, hail far! It's liable to get a whole lot drier around here."
Newt greets the liquor agent aloud,
however, as if in the hire of Welcome Wagon: "Come in! Come in! Y'awl
been getting any rain over your way?" He crashes about in scuffed
cowboy boots, his body a tad stooped as if permanently saddle-sore,
and offers the lawman a mug of thick coffee.
Granville Lacy sits at one of the two
rickety counter between a factory-tooled sign instructing: AMERICA,
LOVE IT OR LEAVE IT! and a homemade sign running alternately uphill
and down, as if maybe it had been painted in the dark: OUR BEER
LICENSE DEPENDS ON YOUR GOOD CONDUCT. The six other customers in the
cafe, which seats a maximum of 20, watch the lawman with obvious
distaste and apprehension.
"Mr. Keen," the lawman says, "I've got some
papers to serve on you."
Conveniently deaf, Newt gestures toward the
coffee he's poured Lacy: "You want me to cripple that with a little
dab of cream? Looks like it was dredged up from the Pecos River
bottom." A head shake. Newt tries again: "How's them two big old boys
of yours? They doing all right?" Above the counter are likenesses of
Newt's own two older sons, Vietnam veterans, proudly in uniform.
The liquor agent unfurls and crackles his
official documents: "Now, Mr Keen, this temporary suspension begins
next Monday..." But Newt is clomping across the wooden floor to
replenish beer supplies and honor orders for cheeseburgers or
chicken-fried steaks with cream gravy.
Agent Lacy inspects his papers while Newt
relays food orders to his red-haired wife. Tootsie, who retains a high
faith in beehive hairdos. The jukebox has fallen dumb, permitting the
lawman to better sample a united community hostility among the
oil-field workers and ranchers. It is one thing to retard the flow of
alcoholic comforts in any one of Manhattan's countless aid stations --
or even one of Odessa's -- but it is quite a deeper sin to dry up the
only watering hole in all of Loving County. Newt and Tootsie dispense
approximately 50 cases of beer each week; a shutdown theoretically
would meanly deprive every man, woman and child in the county of eight
bottles or cans. Better Granville Lacy had come to town to poison the
water, which leads on the believe that Sheriff Elgin "Punk" Jones --
who reported the infraction -- will have to pay for his nefarious
When Newt Keen next passes within range,
the liquor agent reads in a low monotone: ... did on the some-oddth
day of August, 1971, in violation of section this, paragraph
Newt shuffles, pulls an ear, shoot
concerned glances at Tootsie. She attends her griddle with jerky
motions of anger, slapping hamburger patties with unusual vigor...nor
sell, nor give, nor consume, nor allow to be consumed, any alcoholic
beverage on said premise until.... Wearing the abashed grin of an
erring schoolboy, Newt laboriously scratches his signature.
owners Newt and Tootsie Keen trade familiar jokes and fresh gossip
with coyote hunter Bob Weaver
claim cruel and unusual punishment!'
formal surrender seemingly reassures the lawman, who jovially says:
"Now I got another complaint. You've got four beer signs outside,
and you're not allowed but two."
I can't count but three."
four. Your main sign counts as two. One for each side of the
uncertain of the bureaucratic bogs, says, "Well, what's the big
is mute and uncomprehending. This is happening to him in downtown
Mentone -- population 44 -- where from any vantage point one can see
for three days in all directions and still have nothing to tell. He
gazes across all that empty territory until his eyes lock on a distant
windmill. "Well," he finally drawls, "I sure would hat
to cause any traffic jams." When the locals snigger over their
well-catsuped home fries, the lawman reddens: "We've got no
choice but to enforce the law. It's an old law the church folks got
passed back in the '30s." He makes it out the door unaided by any
the lawman's dust departs, all the customers compete to damn the
prying old government. Warren Burnett, a prominent Texas lawyer who
has paused at the cafe in mid-passage to El Paso, offers to represent
Newt for free should he wish to fight the suspension order:
"We'll claim cruel and unusual punishment! A man could die of
thirst out here. Hell, Newt, your place is more than a community
center -- it's an outpost, by God, offering new beginnings and
shelter against the elements...."
it, Newt." Tootsie said.
I got to live with that old boy. Besides, this ain't his fault."
the lawyer said, "come next Monday it'll be a long hot path to
beer. So whose fault is it?"
drawls it out like Gunsmoke's Festus: "Accordin' to that
batch of official papers, it's mine!" After the laughter abate,
he says, "Aw, one night a while back we got to dancing and
barking at the moon in here and, well, maybe we run a little past
closing time. Mister, I been in this country since the sun wasn't no
bigger than a orange and there wasn't no moon a-tall and windmills
wasn't but waist-high, and I've learnt that when you can sell
something out here -- you better not worry about what time it
says: "That ain't the whole story."
okay, Mama. Awright, I was drinking nearly as much as I was selling
and business wasn't too bad. The sheriff -- old Punk Jones -- he come
in and caught me and snitched to the liquor board."
oughta run for sheriff yourself, Newt," one of the locals
sir." Newt says, "I ain't gonna say a mumblin' word against
old Punk -- right on up to election day." Appreciating the
laughter, he fishes in icy waters and pops himself a beer. "Punk,
he don't have nothing to do but enforce the closing laws in this one
little old place, and I sure wouldn't wanta interfere with law and
order here in Loving County."
dominant political strain in Loving County runs to an abiding
conservatism. The natives -- well-off and poor alike -- reject
anything smacking of charity, and so they regard federal aid as being
no less poisonous than the ever-present rattlesnake. When a federal
court instructed every county in Texas to participate in the Family
Food Assistance Program for the poor, Loving County Judge W. T.
"Bill" Winston said: "We don't need it, we don't want
it, and we can't use it if we're force to take it." Snorting and
jiggling his beer glass in Newt's and Tootsie's now, Judge Winston
gloomily says, "They finally forced it on us. We've got nine
people getting it -- seven in one family. And they're Mexicans."
When the Department of Health Education and Welfare ordered the county
to either racially
land in Loving County is dry, flat, melancholy, with only an
occasional building to break the horizon
face it, it's boring here'
Mentone's 16-pupil school or lose its federal money. Judge Winston
fired off a terse letter informing Washington that Loving County: (1)
had no black residents; (2) had never received a dime's worth of
federal school aid; and (3) didn't covet any.
has brought the problems of New York, Watts and Saigon to the
attention of the neglected territory. Everybody worries about blacks
or dope or crime or the Vietcong just as if they had some. Newt Keen
no longer goes off and leaves his cafe doors unlocked to accommodate
stray customers because "you can't tell when somebody might come
over from Monahans or Pyote and clean you out." But the Mentone
jail has not had a customer in seven years, and Loving County's crime
wave last year consisted of a profitless burglary of the schoolhouse
and the theft of several rolls of steel cable from an oil lease.
Blair, a pretty young blond who works in the courthouse for her
mother, County Clerk Edna Clayton, frets that the outside world may
taint her two small children. "Let's face it, it's boring here
for adults, but there's no better place to raise kids." says Ann,
a graduate of Odessa Junior College. "We have a good family life.
My fifth-grade boy has learned work and the value of a dollar. When I
went off to college, I saw wild kids and all kinds of temptation. And
it's so much worse now, with drugs and sex crimes."
is taken for granted. The nearest movie house, beauty shop, physician,
lawyer, bank, weekly newspaper, cemetery or grocery store is from 55
to 90 round-trip miles away. Fifteen of 16 Mentone School pupils are
bused in from six to 60 miles away. Sixth-graders and above are bused
almost 80 round-trip miles to Wink.
the riches of oil and gas under the earth, each Loving County family
must provide its own bottled-gas system. And there is no public water
supply. Water is hauled in a tank from Pecos at 50 cents per barrel.
Even cattle balk at drinking the brackish product of the Pecos River,
long ago polluted by potash interests in upstream New Mexico, a fact
that, surprisingly, no one here rails against even though their
forebears always raised hell at anything - fences, sheep herds,
squatters -- infringing on their freedoms or presuming to prosper at
land is stark and flat and treeless, altogether as bleak and spare as
Russian literature, a great dry-docked ocean with small swells of
hummocky tan sand dunes or humbacked rocky knolls that change colors
with the hour and the shadows: reddish brown, slate gray,
bruise-colored. But it is the sky -- God-high and pale, like a blue
chenille bedspread bleached by seasons in the sun -- that dominates.
There is simply too much sky. Men grow small in its presence
and -- perhaps feeling diminished -- they sometimes are compelled to
proclaim themselves in wild or berserk ways. Alone in those remote
voids, one may suddenly half-believe he is the last man on earth and
go in frantic search of the tribe. "Desert fever," the
natives call it.
while the endless dry doomed land and eternal sky may bring on the
fever, so, too, can the weather. The wind, persistent and unengageable
for half the year, swooshes unencumbered from the northernmost Great
Plains, howling, whining, singing off-key and covering everything with
a maddening grainy down. Court records attest that during the windy
seasons the natives are quicker to lift their voices, or their fists,
or even their guns, in rage.
summer sun is as merciless as a loan shark: a blinding, angry orange
explosion baking the land's sparse grasses and
Elgin "Punk" Jones has not locked up anyone in his jail for
can, move on when they can
quickly aging the skin. In winter there are
nights to ache the bone, cold, stinging lashings of frozen rain. Yet
ever the weather is not the worst natural enemy. Outside the
industrial sprawl of the prairie's minicities -- on the occasional
ranches or oil leases or in the flawed little country towns -- the
great curse is boredom. Teen-agers in the faded jeans and glistening
ducktail hairstyles of another day wander in restless packs to the
roller rink or circle root beer stands sounding their mating calls by
a mighty revving of engines. Old men shuffle dominoes in the shade of
service stations or feed stores. There is the television, of course,
and the joys of small-town gossip -- and in season a weekly high
school football game may be secretly considered more important than
even Vacation Bible School. Newt Keen laments the passing of country
socials where people reveled all night at one ranch house or another:
"Now you got to go over to Pecos to them fightin' and dancin' clubs.
But, you know, it ain't near as much fun to fight with strangers."
The young and the imaginative in Loving
County are largely disaffected, strangers in Jerusalem. And those who
can, move on when they can. Today's desert youths belong to a
transitional generation. Born to an exhausted frontier where there are
no more Dodge Citys to tame, no more wild rivers to ford, no more
cattle trails to ride or oil booms to follow, theirs is a heritage
beyond preserving. The last horseman has passed by, leaving only myths
and fences. Industrialization has come and gone: having drilled and
robbed the earth, the swaggering two-fisted oil boomer, heir apparent
to the earlier cowboy or Indian fighter, has clattered off to the next
feverish adventure, leaving behind sterile sophisticated pumps and
gauges and storage tanks that automatically record their own dull
technological accomplishments. Only the land remains, the high sky,
the eerie isolation. The wind hums mocking tunes of loss and the
jukeboxes echo it: "...Just call Lonesome-seven-seven-two-oh-three..."
"I'd trade all of my tomorrows for just one yesterday...."
The songs are of rejection, disappointment,
aborted opportunities...of finishing second. And the music is
everywhere, incessantly jangling, the call of the lonely. Even many
graybeards who have trimmed back their dreams -- if they ever had any
-- cannot sit still unless the jukebox or radio is moaning to them of
unrequited love, of the tricks of the wicked cities, of life's rough
and rocky traveling. Few know that the music says more about them than
they say of themselves.
The young sense the loss of
a grander and more adventurous past. It is these -- the young and
those who secretly know they never will be truly young again -- who
prove most susceptible to fits of desert fever. And so they sometimes
go lickety-split down the rural highways at speeds dizzy enough to
confuse the ambidextrous, running like so many Rabbit Angstroms,
leaving behind a trail of sad country songs, beer vapors and the echo
of some feverish, senseless shout. Some may find themselves at dawn
howling in the precincts of a long-forgotten girl friend, or tempting
the dangers of the "fightin' and dancin' clubs." Some keep running: to
the army or to a Fort Worth factory or maybe to exotic Kansas City.
Others, their fevers cooled and with no place to go, drive back slowly
-- a bit sheepishly -- to join the private chaos and public tediums of
Keen's son Jack begins to boot-stomp across the wooden floor in a
jukebox dance with a tall visiting airline hostess. Jack is dipping
snuff and wearing an outsized silver belt buckle he has won riding
bulls. Over the whines and thumps of the music he regrets that after
next weekend he can't rise at a 4:30 each morning to cowboy on one of
the area ranches because school is imminent. Jack does not appear to
be real partial to school, where they take a dim view of 12-year old,
83-pound boys who appreciate snuff more than arithmetic. To somebody
who first dipped at age 5, who slew his first snake at 7 and who is
impatient to ramrod his own ranch, the arbitrary restrictions on
scholars can be mighty vexing.
worries about her son. "Till school takes up, Jack's the only kid
in Mentone. The rest live on ranches or oil leases. All he's ever been
around is adults and he don't get along real well with kids."
Jack proves his mother right on the second day of school, decking
another boy who has earned his disapproval. Jack's reward is three
licks from the principal's paddle. "It stung," he admits,
taking a pinch of Copenhagen from his personal tin. "I got to
sign the paddle, though. You ain't allowed to sign is unless you been
whupped with it."
you hit that boy for?" Tootsie demands.
roping a cane-bottomes chair, Jack says, "Aw, he's about half
but what'd he do, look at you crosseyed? Jack, dammit, stop
roping them chairs. This ain't no rodeo arena."
his lariat, Jack says, "He put his hands on my book."
Tootsie says, apparently mollified.
is amused: "Jack despises school much as I do a rattlesnake. He
swears he's gonna quit when he gits to sixth grade."
the seventh," Jack says. "Maybe the eighth."
Jack," Newt says, "you're liable to wind up a full
professor. What's got into you?"
boy, vaguely embarrased, tilts his western hat over his eyes:
"Mr. Knott says sixth grade ain't enough anymore."
Knott, 43, is the new schoolteacher in Mentone. When asked why in
mid-career he has deserted El Paso's modern school system for the
lesser ecstasies of Loving County, he says, "I like small towns.
I had 30-odd kids to the class in El Paso, damn few of them Anglos.
The kids here are eager. You take little Jack Keen. Now, he may wind
up ranching and live here all his life. If he wants that -- well,
fine. But he ought to have options. He ought to know that another life
exists. You know, kids from small towns -- well, there just seems to
be more to them. I grew up in a little old East Texas town -- one
picture show and a one-gallus night watchman. And a higher percentage
of the kids there made it than ever will make it in El Paso. They were
more aware of themselves, aware of life. Maybe it's nurturing their
isolation, having time to think things through. Whatever, I think
small-town kids use more of their potential."
next day, as school lets out, Tootsie is gazing through the shimmying
heatwaves when suddenly she say, "My Lord, little Jack
must be sick. Yonder he comes wagging his school books home
with him." Apparently she doesn't realize that Jack may have a
Jack Keen, age 12, is literally the only kid in town
would have drunk when thirsty, by God
after day, as the suspension lengthens, the mood in Newt's and
Tootsie's beerless free-enterprise cafe grows more and more subdued.
Since the suspension, Sheriff Punk Jones -- who rose to his present
eminence after serving as courthouse janitor -- has begun to hear
rumors that a disgruntled Newt Keen might oppose him on the ballot
after all. A good country politician who knows that a handful of votes
might return a sheriff to mopping the courthouse, Punk Jones begins to
stress the vast stores of bookwork attending his office; it is well
known that Newt's painfully concocted customers' checks for chili or
cheeseburgers require more translations that the Rosetta Stone.
the cafe, customers are infrequent. Those who drop in jangle around
aimlessly, some lamenting the lack of liquid comforts with the sorrow
of one whose dog has died. Tootsie sits at a table near the soundless
jukebox, making do with coffee. Abruptly, she says to her husband
behind the counter, "Newt, what we doing in this fool cafe
hon, I just plain tard of being governor, and the gold-mining business
was boring me."
Tootsie helplessly shakes her head. Daring for once to question life's
random assignments, her reward is another of Newt's drawling jokes.
One has the impression she suddenly requires answers to questions that
did not exist for her before. Something in the restless sweeping of
her eyes hints that she has come on some new, if myopic, vision.
made a living," Newt defends, walking over and putting a quarter
in the jukebox.
Tootsie says, "I don't buy a whole lot of diamonds."
"Naw, Mama, but you don't live in some old line shack and cook
for the range camp neither." They are silent while Willie Nelson
sings of how "it's a Bloody Mary mornin' since baby left me
without warnin' sometime in the night..." "Say," Newt
says, "you remember when we was fresh married and lived in that
old dirt-floor dugout?" Tootsie nods, smiling, he face softened
by some special old memory. "Well, hon, I always wanted to ask
you something about that: when you snuggled up so close to me that
first winter, was it on account of you loved me so much or because you
was scared of the rats?"
a monotone as flat as sourdough biscuits, she says, "I was scared
of the rats." They look at each other and laugh.
this will straighten out in a day or two," Newt promises, seeming
to have missed the point of her question, her mood.
we got more food business that we do beer sales."
shuffles over and sits beside Tootsie who is stirring her mug of thick
coffee at the table. The two of them gaze out the screen door at the
lost frontier. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is moving on the
ribbon-straight highway. They sit and stare, their faces in repose as
melancholy as a plain old three-chord hurtin' country song, while Eddy
Arnold croons to them of big bouquets of roses.
old and precious and a close kinsman to steel -- some abiding
chemistry of hope and grit -- seems to have disappeared from the
frontier blood. The men who shaped and settled this desolate waste
relied on a fierce, near-savage independence coupled with a vision
that made them feel captains of their own fate. That vigor, that
vision, is gone now, as exhausted as the frontier itself.
is sad to see people so tamed and hobbled and timid and dreamless in a
land born wild. The descendants of the old breed may roar like wounded
lions at distant menaces -- the pretensions of sociologists, the pious
prattlings of politicians, the mod and the unfamiliar -- but they
grapple ineffectually with their immediate concerns, their boredoms,
small, mean jobs, polluted rivers and officious bureaucrats. In the
old days, the people simply would not have tolerated the closing down
of their only communal outpost: No, they would have told Punk Jones
that they would drink when thirsty, by God, no matter the preferences
of some chair-bound Austin bureaucrat with nothing better to do than
sign suspension orders. This lethargic acceptance of fate's
happenstance gifts, with no more than a shrug or a token grip, gives
one the sense of being a visitor at a wake, of witnessing some final
burial of the spirit, of watching people without purpose merely
getting through another day. Frontiers were made for better uses.
on does encounter qualities to admire and enjoy here. A withered
rancher who will identify himself only as "Jesse"
contentedly saws into one of Tootsie's steaks and says, "This
country's soothin'. The country's close to you out here. You feel a
kinship with it. It don't have no boundaries." Newt Keen says of
his neighbors: "We come together like a family when there's
trouble. You take over here in Kermit" -- he jerks a thumb toward
the highway -- "this stranded family stopped at a church one
Sunday to ask for a little food and gas money. All the got was a
promise the congregation would pray for 'em. Well, they limped on over
here. We supplied 'em a big box of groceries and took up a collection
is little Jack Keen, who probably has spunk and survival instincts
superior to most children and surely has more room to discover
himself. Some essence of the pioneer woman's endurance survives in
Tootsie. Newt is improbably cheerful in a time full of frowning; he at
once preserves the old colloquialisms and speaks a native American
much has survived, and must be clung to. But over the years,
generation by generation, the resources and the spirit of Loving
County have been dried up, and there is a lesson to be learned here.
As in the nation as a whole, each generation spoke much and thought
little of the future requirements of its heirs.
we must plan far better with far less.