Most every time I put my foot here there’s something going on, but today we’re just rolling dice. I’m not much of a dice player so Gary slips me a couple bucks under the table to throw in when I’ve lost my last pot, just to keep the game going. No matter how much he spends, it still ends with me losing. Simple fun for an afternoon. This is how you do things in Rockne, Texas.
It’s solid quiet and the wind is totally still when I roll off of highway 535 and on to the graveled parking lot. Carol, Tom and Gary are already at ease in the cool and welcoming dark when I enter this old beautiful wooden shack. It’s Carol’s shift and she tends both the store and the bar, but at 3 pm there’s plenty of time for some “Ship, Captain and Crew”. All I have left after the game is a bottle of Old Crow I brought with me when I came so I pour myself a consolatory drink and offer the others some. “Nah,” they say. They stick to beer for now.
Herman Goertz, owner of Leon’s, walks in and tucks a cold can of Miller Lite snugly into his prized koozie, greets everyone with a silent nod and then head to the store side of the joint. He practically grew up here and has been walking these floors since the age of 8 or 9. He don’t exactly remember, because it doesn’t really matter.
Herman’s father, Leon, took over the store and honky-tonk in 1969 and ran the business until 1983, then when the time came for him to quit, he offered the job to Herman, telling him he could “get a real job” — or take over the store. Easy choice. Herman shucked the thought of a real job for Leon’s and hasn’t regretted it since. He knows this place, and its customers, like the back of his hand. When I asked him about running the joint, the answer I got was a short “This place takes care of itself pretty good.” I get the feeling growing up in a joint like this kinda makes it your home.
I wipe the loser’s sweat off my face and take another sip of bourbon while I think about all the things that must have happened here since it was built in 1929. The friendly atmosphere makes it easy to get stuck at the bar so I haven’t really checked the store out yet. I fill my plastic cup up to the brim as I take in Howlin’ Wolf’s interpretation of Spoonful, then I slip off the stool to take my first real tour of the place.
Leon’s reeks of old. Old everything. Old shoelaces from the forties or fifties still in their original case, yellowed business cards on the store counter hawking businesses long shut down. Plumbing, fence building, house repairs, legal advice and used cars. Also a former filling station, Leon’s sold both Gulf and Chevron gas up until the early nineties. There stands the old Gulf sign as a reminder of days gone by, the walls carry shelves full of artifacts, but Leon’s doesn’t feel like a museum or even nostalgia. I get the feeling the old coffee grinders and Dr. Pepper bottles have been left and simply forgotten, and now naturally meld into the surroundings.
When Leon’s was built, Ford had just stopped producing their first car, Model T, and was on to the Model A, Ernest Hemingway was still reflecting over the war in A Farewell to Arms and Bonnie and Clyde hadn’t yet met, much less shed innocent blood.
I’m wandering out to the back rooms, away from the heart of the building, when I hear the jukebox switch to yet another song from Gary’s personal CD. My harvesting of impressions is accompanied by blues recorded while this old honky-tonk was still in it’s teens – it’s staggering. I think about other recordings from that time and feel a yearning to hear Hank, but I don’t have a quarter to command his lonesome whine.
Walking through the back rooms, all I find is stashes of old beer cans and dusty debris. Herman later tells me that’s where they kept the feed they sold on credit to the local farmers. They supplied the farmers until just a couple of years ago. I play with the thought that the dust under my boots is corn meal and that I’m standing in the stand still of time.
Back on my stool at the bar, I sit and contemplate for myself. Suddenly the music comes to a halt and only then I notice we’ve all been in a reverie, isolated in our own minds. We’re all still in a moment of silence while Carol puts a frozen pizza in the old oven. It feels completely natural sitting at a public bar sharing silence, as if the soul of Leon’s is resting for later to entertain its patrons. It’s like we all share one frame of time, abiding by the same inner clock when suddenly a bell dings and wakes us up announcing the arrival of food for the belly. Carol shouts, “Anybody want some pizza?”
We gather around. Gary orders another beer from Carol, then nods in my direction. I’m thinking he’s silently saying that bourbon and pizza don’t mix, when a fresh bottle of Lone Star lands in front of me. We’re quiet as we eat, with our eyes locked on the doughy feast.
Tom antes up a buck to hear Patsy Cline, a favorite play on the jukebox, and her bold, smooth voice graces us with “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray.” I feel the urge for another bourbon when I notice that my plastic cup’s been tossed away, probably by Carol while cleaning the bar of clutter and trash. I can’t ask for a new one without buying a complete set-up of coke and ice and I don’t want to start drinking straight out of the bottle—not yet, anyway. I’ll just be frank, tell her I have no money and ask for a cup on credit. Ask a straight up question and you might get a straight up answer.
“No. No credit,” Carol says. “But I’ll give you a cup if you’re nice,” she says playfully. I promise to behave and thank her for the cup. She answers shortly, “We like to keep our customers happy.”
Old regulars are walking in and a few leaving newcomers ask for the tab, keeping Carol busy behind the bar. Between Hi, Bye and Hello, she manages to take care of everyone’s order and seems to know what most everyone is having. This is no doubt a honky-tonk phenomenon, as I have witnessed this at every beer joint I’ve had the pleasure of consuming a beer. These establishments have their locals — and the locals have their bartenders. No unnecessary questions asked. The community of Rockne extends all the way from taking care of one’s spiritual needs at church to satisfying one’s drinking and gambling needs at the bar. Solicitude thrives, Monday to Sunday. No one stands alone!
There’s been a build-up of people and a crowd of youngsters gather by the pool tables. Few of the customers are new to Carol or Herman. They know almost everybody by name and chitchat with them about the God-awful drought, car problems or weekend plans. I notice that Gary and Tom are gone and, for the first time ever at Leon’s, I find myself feeling out of place. I ask Carol their whereabouts and she says matter-of-factly that they’ve gone to cool off with the breeze blowing through town again.
I grab my bottle and head out the door. The dark reveals the silhouettes of two ghosts hanging around the back of a car, its trunk wide open. The ghosts move around under a large mesquite tree made immortal in a picture hanging on the wall inside Leon’s. The picture is from the late forties and it portrays the country singer Ernest Tubb standing on the roof of a delivery truck, with the mesquite tree in the background. The surroundings look the same today as they did in the photograph. Gary notices my shadow, waves me over and asks me if I want a shot. “A shot of what?” I wonder. Gary points to the trunk at a bottle of sotol kept cool in an ice chest. I take I sip out of the cork and offer some Old Crow in return. Gary always carries sotol with him – good to have.
We talk about not much for a while and in a moment of clarity, it strikes me I’ve been drinking way too much to drive home. This isn’t the first time I’ve enjoyed a honky-tonk more than I planned, and I’ve spent more than a handful of nights sleeping it off on a foam mattress in the back of my Suburban. I remind myself to ask Herman permission to park in the back and spend the night here. The air is clear, the sky full of stars and I think to myself it will be a night well spent.
Gary, Tom and I talk about other honky-tonks. We all agree that your local joint’s always the best, but with good company you can call any of them home. Tom tells me about a few bars around here he’d like to show me. Places with dirt floors and jukeboxes with old 45s, locals-only spots at the end of the dirt road on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. Standing in the hot night air, listening to music seeping through the walls makes me realize this is the real version of the soundtrack to this journey. This is what Guy Clark sings about in the song Out in the Parking Lot. I shiver!
Back inside, Herman’s sister Lea Ann has joined the night’s festivities. It’s Thursday and she works as a teacher — bright and early in the morning — but stops by for a beer and to catch up with the neighbors. After all, Leon’s is the living room of Rockne. Lea Ann tells me this is where Wayne Hancock and Hank III sat when Lea Ann and Wayne were dating many moons ago. She says the three of them sat here drinking and playing guitar with Herman. None of the customers were impressed much by Hank III being blue-blooded country music royalty. Or maybe they didn’t know. I ask her for more stories about the place.
“One time I was working here and… you see the leg up there? It used to have black pantyhose on and you see the shoes up there, they where mine. Anyway, I had the leg down on the counter and I was putting on a red shoe and red pantyhose, dressing it for Christmas, when this one-legged man walks in on crutches. He has his buddies with him and they starting making jokes about it. So he takes the leg, tries it on and it corresponds to the one he didn’t have. He had a good sense of humor, and a few Budweisers, so he walked out to the parking lot to try it out and ended up keeping it for the evening. He went out bar hopping with this fake leg dressed in red pantyhose and a red shoe. That leg’s been around.”
Lea Ann left Rockne when she was just a kid to live with her grand mother in Alabama for a couple of years and tells me she really missed home while she was away. Like many Texans, her roots called her back. “I’d rather be sweeping floors here for no money than working for a big corporation” she says. She fills my hungry ears with stories and anecdotes from her life as a child here at the store. “The counter over there used to be glass and it had all kinds of candy displayed. All I heard was “Your dad has a candy store and you have a charge account kind of life” until I got a little older. Then I had to sweep the floors to pay off all that candy.”
My drinking is catching up with me and I ask Lea Ann if I can park in the back and sleep there overnight. She says yes and mumbles an excuse for not being able to accommodate me in her and her husband Marks trailer. Tipsy, thankful and on wobbly legs I make it out to the Suburban and move it to a spot where I can see the sky. Duly noted, I settle in on my foam mattress and wait for slumber. It doesn’t take long and soon I am fast asleep under the stars, somewhere between an 80-year old honky-tonk and a God-knows-how-old cemetery, while my hand gently holds on to a half-empty bottle of Old Crow.
The Goertzes are one of the founding families of Rockne, dating back to 1856 when Rockne was still known as Walnut Creek. A vote taken in 1931 changed the name of the community to Rockne—after famous Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, who died in a plane crash that same year.