Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Close Shave with Capt. Frank Hamer's Barber

The hot foam he daubed on the back of my neck felt great, but when the old man picked up that glistening straight-edge, my eyes locked on his brown-splotched hand looking for even the slightest tremor. I could always change my mind.

When I first started getting my hair cut at Austin’s Sportsman’s Barber Shop, the senior barber was a gentleman named Sidney C. Frost. In deference to his age, people called him Mr. Frost, not Sid. Born in 1909 and nearing 90, he had been taking a little off the top and sides since 1927, the year “Lucky” Lindbergh made the first trans-Atlantic solo flight.

Mr. Frost had started out downtown in the Littlefield Building at 6th and Congress Ave., moved for a time to a place on West 7th St. and then, as he put it, "went back on the Avenue" and opened his own shop at 918 Congress. In time, he followed the people to the suburbs, selling out to a younger barber named Jim Field. Field started Sportsman’s, filling its walls with mounted game heads and big fish.

Tall and thin, Mr. Frost no doubt knew his trade well. But as surely as hair grows, it also thins and turns gray, and he had trimmed his work load to only part time.

Knowing I handled news media relations for the Department of Public Safety and had written some books on Texas Ranger history, Jim mentioned to me one visit that I sure ought to talk with Mr. Frost if he ever happened to be in the shop when I showed up. Back in the day, he had been Capt. Frank Hamer’s barber.

As it happened, the next time I showed up at Sportsman’s needing a haircut, I found that Jim had a customer in his chair and someone else waiting. However, Mr. Frost was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper. Could he work me in, I asked, being polite. Sure, he said, slowly getting up from his chair.

I was headed out of town on state business and definitely needed a haircut before I hit the road. Necessity aside, I liked the idea of telling my grandkids that I’d gotten a haircut from the same man who had cut the hair of the storied Ranger who in 1934 presided over the sanguinary demise of the outlaw couple Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow.

“How you want it?” Mr. Frost asked, sizing up my salt-and-pepper locks. “Above the collar?”

Just a regular haircut, I said, and sure, nothing over the collar.

Settled into the chair, I decided on a slow build up to the one question I wanted to ask most, which was, “So, tell me about Captain Hamer…” That in mind, I started by asking Mr. Frost how long he’d been cutting hair. Soon I had him reminiscing about the good old days.

Early in his time under the revolving red, blue and white pole, most men got their hair cut weekly. That was a good thing, because even in the wildly inflationary days before the stock market crash in 1929, Mr. Frost got paid only 40 cents a haircut.

“After the market crashed," he recalled, clipping away at my hair, "we had to lower the price to 35 cents."

A lot of men also depended on Mr. Frost for their daily shave. One well-groomed customer came in twice a day, first thing in the morning and then again in the afternoon to get his five o'clock shadow taken care of.

Finally, I took aim at Hamer – at least in the interrogatory sense. Mr. Frost said that he didn’t remember much of what they had talked about, probably just typical barber-customer banter. But one thing did stand out in his memory.

"Hamer never would get a shave and a haircut at the same time," he said. "Guess he didn't have that much time, or that much money."

A shave cost a quarter, a haircut went for 40 cents before the crash. In other words, the whole shebang would have set the six-foot-plus lawman back all of 65 cents. Rank-and-file state employees have never been overpaid, so Hamer apparently opted for an economy of scale when it came to his tonsorial needs.

And then Mr. Frost recalled another of the late captain’s eccentricities.

"When he did get a shave, Frank never would let me completely cover his face with a hot towel,” he revealed. “He said he knew of too many people who wanted to kill him and he didn't want to let his guard down."

Given that Mr. Frost likely would have been in a position to catch a stray round or two if any shots had been fired at the captain as he sat in the barber chair, he didn’t mind Hamer’s cautious approach to getting a shave.

By the time I sat warming Mr. Frost’s chair, barbers no longer did much shaving of faces. When he asked if I’d like the back of my neck shaved, I said yes. If the ever-viligant Hamer trusted Mr. Frost to be steady with a razor, so did I.

"Just don't cover my face," I laughed as I snuck one last look at his hand. Was that a slight tremor?

When I stood up after Mr. Frost had shaken all the hair from the cover he’d draped over my lap, I looked in the mirror. Perhaps overly preoccupied with talking about the old days, Frank Hamer’s barber had removed almost all my hair! Mr. Frost’s “regular” was the shortest haircut I’d ever had this side of a burr. Maybe Mr. Frost's scissor work explains why most photographs of Hamer show him wearing a Stetson and a frown.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hunting Treasure

OK, I admit it. I have hunted treasure. Not with a crazed obsession like some, but over the years I've gone to various purported locations of buried gold or silver and kicked around, looking for whatever I could find. Usually, the only thing I ended up uncovering was evidence that I had not been the first guy poking around in the vicinity.

Beyond having been an occasional if informal seeker of hidden wealth, I have always been a sucker for good treasure tales. I got hooked reading J. Frank Dobie's "Coronado's Children" when I was in the seventh grade, and the passion for this branch of folklore remains. I say "folklore" because as much as I love a good treasure story, I take them as that, just stories.

Given this briefly explained background, I was eager to start reading W.C. Jameson's new memoir, "Treasure Hunter." (Llano: Seven Oaks Publishing Co., $14.95.) And I certainly enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone else who likes tales of lost riches and those who have tried to find their own Mother Lode.

Jameson has written 70 books and numerous articles and essays, the bulk of them on treasure. But as he recounts in his new book, he also is a lifelong treasure hunter. He writes that he got involved in his first treasure hunt as a result of stealing strawberries from someone's garden in the El Paso Valley in the 1950s and that only the passage of time has slowed his pursuit of that which glitters or can be polished nicely. Not only has he sought, he says he has actually found tangible treasure.

For 203 pages, Jameson tells of his adventures in Texas and elsewhere. Readers will be disappointed that Jameson admits that he often doesn't use real names and hedges on providing detailed locations and in some cases, actual circumstances, but given that treasure hunting can involve trespassing or tax avoidance (assuming you find something), I suppose that's understandable.

Some of Jameson's books have been fiction, and this book reads as much like a novel as a memoir. One thing for sure, read it and you'll find yourself itching to go treasure hunting.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Book on Crestview brings back a lot of memories

My home life didn’t quite stack up to “Leave It To Beaver” level in 1958, but all these decades later, it’s easy to understand why so many of us who were there tend to look back at the 1950s as an idyllic time.

You know. Safe streets. No TAKS tests or whatever they’re called now. Homemade Halloween candy. Life in the suburbs, at least in Austin, Texas, USA was generally good.

A year after Russia shocked the world by launching the first man-made satellite, I lived in the Crestview neighborhood in Austin. Just a block from our duplex was the Crestview Shopping Center that in one small area provided for most of our day-to-day needs. We could shop at a small grocery store (still in business all these years later), a drug store (yep, still here), a dry cleaners, and a hardware-variety store.

My grandparents lived in the same neighborhood, and I ended up inheriting their 1957-vintage house. My mother lived there for a time, followed by me. I sold it in 1999, though as housing prices began to mushroom, there were times I sure wished I had it back. That realistic transaction ended my legal connection to Crestview, but not my spiritual connection.

OK, that’s a brief introduction to set up my recommendation of a small book called “From Abercrombie to the Violet Crown, A History-in-Progress: Brentwood and Crestview, Austin, Texas” by Susan Burneson. (Available from the author at nimbus@austin.rr.com, $20.)

Those two neighborhoods did not develop until after World War II, but Burneson starts her story by tracing their history to an 1836 land grant. The “Abercrombie” part of her book’s title comes from the name given to a railroad stop in 1881 when the Austin and Northwestern Railroad came through the northeast corner of the future subdivision.

Anyone who grew up in either of these adjoining neighbors will find a lot of memories in Burneson’s 38-page book. And third- or fourth-generation occupants of all those hardwood floor homes will enjoy learning more about their heritage of their part of Austin.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Virtual Publicity Translates to Real Sales

The first book tour I ever made was in 1980, when my biography of Fred Gipson, the Texas author who wrote the classic novel "Old Yeller," came out. I traveled from Amarillo to Beaumont, missing only El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley, in doing media interviews and other appearances. It took time and energy, but it paid off with a lot of ink and air time, which of course had been the goal.

Now, from the comfort of my home office in Austin, I'm off on a virtual book tour thanks to my friend Stephanie Barko, my Austin-based publicist. (Check out her Web site at www.authorsassistant.com)I am "appearing" at various Web sites popular with readers of books, from www.bookgasm.com to the Web site of Portland's legendary Powell's Book Store, www.powells.com to discuss the final book of my two-volume Texas Ranger history, "Time of the Rangers: The Texas Rangers from 1900 to Present." (New York: Forge Books, $27.95)

For those of you who'd like to travel along with me, here's my virtual itinerary:

10/13/09 Texas Pages Blog http://booksblog.dallasnews.com/archives/2009/10/mike-cox-coming-to-fort-worth-1.html

10/14 Books & Writers www.books-writers-news.com

10/15 Bookgasm www.bookgasm.com

10/16 GoodReads / History is not Boring Group www.goodreads.com/group/show/435.History_is_Not_Boring

10/16 GoodReads / Texas Readers Group www.goodreads.com/group/show/167.Texas_Readers

10/16-10/29 GoodReads www.goodreads.com/book/explore#

10/17 Western Americana Blog www.westernamericana.blogspot.com

10/19 Rough Edges Blog www.jamesreasoner.blogspot.com

10/26 Texas Escapes www.texasexcapes.com/TexasBooks/TexasBooks.htm

10/27 Powell's Blog www.powells.com/blog

10/29 Straight from Hel Blog www.straightfromhel.blogspot.com

10/31 Texas Scribbler Blog http://texasscribbler.com/blog

11/2 Bookzillion Blog www.bookzillion.com/trenches/

11/3 Writers in the Sky newsletter

11/4 Powell's newsletter www.powells.com/newsletter.html

11/4 Powell's.com www.powells.com/essays?header=Sub:%20Author%20Essays

11/14 Texas History Page Blog www.texas-history-page.blogspot.com

TBD Texana Review www.texanareview.com

On Tour, Literally and Virtually

It's a literary cliche for a writer to write about his adventures while on the road trying to peddle his books through media interviews and assorted public appearances, but hey, when you're a writer, you write what you know.

Just back from a mini in-person tour to Fort Worth, where I signed copies of "Historic Photos of Texas Oil" at Neiman-Marcus for their annual In-Circle VIP party. Sold a good pile of books and met some interesting people.

Got up at 4 a.m. the following morning to drive home to Austin where a friend graciously drove me to Houston for a noon lecture to the Houston Heritage Society at the Tea Room in their complex at Sam Houston Park beneath the towers of downtown. With only minor technical concerns, presented a PowerPoint slide show of selected vintage oil patch images from the book (plus a selection of outtakes) and again, signed and sold books afterward.

Society educational director Elizabeth Martin gave my old friend Larry BeSaw and I a tour of the complex, and then we headed to a mutual friend's place for a little rest before the next appearance, another signing at Neiman-Marcus. Following that event at their Galleria store, we had a good sea food dinner (well, I did...Larry, having grown up in Gainesville near the Red River says something has to have two or four legs before he'll eat it) and then headed back to Austin. I'm glad he was driving, because by the time we'd reached Columbus, I had begun to nod off despite an enjoyable conversation.

Finally, with apologies to David Letterman, who has enough on his plate right now, the Top 3 most common lines from my oil book appearances:

1) Q: "Oh, are/were you in the oil bidness?"
A: "Yes, I am. I am an end-consumer of the product."

2) Q: "Did you take these pictures?"
A: "Do I really look that old?"

3) Q: "Are these books complimentary?"
A: "Of whom?"

In my next post, I'll talk about my virtual book tour.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

2009 Texas Book Awards

Just got word that the first volume of my Texas Ranger history, "The Texas Rangers: Wearing the Cinco Peso, 1821-1900" has been named a finalist for the 2009 Texas Book Award for non-fiction. The winning title will be announced at the Capitol on Halloween during the annual Texas Book Festival.

Meanwhile, volume 2, "Time of the Rangers: The Texas Rangers 1900 to Present," hit the bookstores August 18. So far, reviews (scarce as they are these days) have been favorable, as were the reviews for "Wearing the Cinco Peso."

Last time I checked, both volumes -- which amount to more than a quarter-million words and cover nearly 1,000 printed pages -- were selling very well.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Remembering Elmer Kelton (1926-2009)

I first met Elmer Kelton in the spring of 1967 when my granddad took me to San Angelo to help me find a summer job before I started as a freshman journalism student at Angelo State University that fall.

Granddad took me by the offices of the Sheep and Goat Raiser Magazine to see if the editor might need a staff writer. The editor was Elmer, who had been there since 1963 after leaving the San Angelo Standard-Times. As he had when he worked as agriculture editor of the Standard-Times, Elmer spent much of his time on the road in his part of the state. But on this day, he actually happened to be in the office when we dropped by.

Elmer knew my granddad and greeted me graciously when Granddad introduced us. Though understanding a young man’s need to earn some money before and during college, Elmer didn’t have any jobs to offer. Even if he had, he surely realized I was a city boy who didn’t know a rambouillet from a ram, not to mention which end of a cow gets up first.

While he could not help my career at that point, he did later on, as I’ll explain in a bit.

I ended up landing a job as a reporter with the San Angelo Standard-Times, which probably served me better than a job with the Sheep and Goat Raiser’s Association would have.

Other than buying some of his Western paperbacks at the Angelo State University bookstore, I had no other dealings with Elmer until the 1970s. By that time I was a journeyman reporter working in Austin. In addition to covering the news, I periodically reviewed Texana for then book editor Bill Warren and reviewed several of Elmer's novels.

By the early 1980s, I had written a couple of non-fiction books and qualified for membership in the Western Writers of America. At conventions in Santa Fe and Amarillo, I got to listen to Elmer talk about his craft and to visit with him and his wife Anna.

At that Amarillo convention, I taped recorded him at length about his association with Houston Harte, long-time publisher of the San Angelo newspaper and head of the Harte-Hanks newspaper chain.

In 1993, I was elected to membership in the Texas Institute of Letters, which gave me more opportunity to interact with Elmer. Not that talking with him was all that hard to do. As anyone who ever had any contact with him knows, on the affability and humbleness scales, he went off the chart.

He was always happy to sign one of his books for someone, always answered his mail (and later, email) and almost always answered his own phone with a brisk and businesslike, “Kelton.”

As for book signing, as the cliché goes, the rarest of his 60-plus books are the unsigned ones. “I’d drive across town to autograph a book for somebody,” he told me once. Actually, he’d go farther than that.

No telling how many younger writers he helped with favorable blurbs or introductions to their works. In 1997, Elmer wrote the foreword for my book “Texas Ranger Tales” and later wrote a very kind blurb about the first of my two-volume history of the Texas Rangers.

He and I were both among the featured authors at the Texas Book Festival in 1998 and participated in a panel discussion together. Our session was held in one of the hearing rooms in the underground extension of the Capitol.

As we talked, my then four-year-old daughter Hallie squirmed in the audience next to her mom. When our time was up, my wife Linda came up to join me in visiting with Elmer and Anna.

At some point, after just about everyone but us had left the room, Linda realized that Hallie was no where to be seen. Had she decided to leave the committee room and wander off into the 667,000-square foot underground area. Had someone decided she was cute and kidnapped her?

Having raised two boys and a daughter and by then grandparents as well, Elmer and Anna joined us in our search. Just as we were about to call the police, we found little Hallie hiding under a chair in the back of the room.

We all had a relieved laugh about it, and from there on out, just about every time Elmer and I talked with each other, he’d bring that incident up with a smile and ask how Hallie was doing.

The last time I saw Elmer was at the Way Out West Book Festival in Alpine in August 2008. Early on the morning after the last event, he and Anna were up early (in the fashion of most West Texans) for the drive back to San Angelo.

I had some stuff I had intended to donate to the West Texas Collection at Angelo State on my way to Alpine, but had run out of time. Talking in the parking lot of the motel where all the writers had stayed, I asked him if he would mind dropping the material by the library for me—no rush—and he was happy to oblige.

And that, to me, sums up the man. In addition to being a fine writer and gentleman (two traits not always connected), he was always happy to oblige.