Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Brownwood, The Burma Road, John Wesley Hardin, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Just typing that post title makes me feel a little like Karnak the Magnificent, except that I don't have a punchline for it. Sim-sallah-bim! Oh, by the way, nostalgia ahead, so consider yourself warned.

I mentioned the other day that I went down to Brownwood last week for a family get-together. Here's one of the pictures from that gathering. That's my brother Harold to my left, my sister Norma to my right, my cousin Robert on Harold's other side, and my cousins Pam, Lafreda, and Frances. Sitting in front is my uncle, Fred Reasoner. Fred is the only one of my uncles still living. My aunts have all passed away. While we were eating, Fred told several stories about his service in World War II. He was in the army and drove in truck convoys over the Burma Road from Burma to China, which is some of the most rugged terrain in the world. It's kind of amazing to me that a young man can be sitting at home in Zephyr, Texas, and a few months later be on the other side of the world driving a truck over a road with a cliff on one side and a drop of hundreds of feet on the other, so close that you can't even see the ground when you look out the window. There's a reason they're called the Greatest Generation.

By the way, if you ever find yourself in Brownwood, stop at the Section Hand Steakhouse to eat lunch. Great chicken-fried steak.

Going to and from Brownwood, I drove through the town of Comanche, which means I passed within a block of the place where John Wesley Hardin shot and killed Brown County deputy sheriff Charley Webb. Although accounts vary, I suspect that Webb was there to ambush Hardin, and while you couldn't exactly call the killing self-defense, in this case at least I don't think Hardin was quite as bad as he's sometimes painted. Right there on the corner of the square the old hanging tree still stands, where a mob lynched Hardin's brother Joe and his cousins Bud and Tom Dixson.

The square in Comanche is also where a Rexall drugstore was located in the 1960s, and it was in that drugstore that I bought the issue of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. digest magazine containing the novella "The Pillars of Salt Affair", which was written by Bill Pronzini under the Robert Hart Davis house-name. Although Pronzini has written much better and much more important novels and stories since then, this U.N.C.L.E. yarn remains my favorite of his work, because I still remember sitting in an old brown armchair in my aunt's house in Blanket and racing through it as fast as I could turn the pages, totally enthralled by the adventure. I've never reread it. I'm not sure I want to. Why take a chance on spoiling such a wonderful memory? One of my great hopes as a writer is that someday something will spark a memory in one of my readers and make them think, "Oh, yeah, I remember reading that book by Reasoner. What a good time that was!"

Such were some of my thoughts driving those Central Texas highways last week.


Bill Crider said...

Great stuff, James. I should take a trip back to Brownwood one of these days, but I probably won't. If I did, though, I'd skip the Section Hand and go to Underwood's just for the rolls and cobbler. If the places where I bought used books were still there, especially the Cherokee Trading Post, I'd go back for sure. I pulled some great things out of there.

Randy Johnson said...

Nice post. I understand your reluctance to reread PILLARS. As you say, Pronzini has written better before and since. But it's not about that. It evokes pleasant memories about a comfortable time in your youth. Always important.

Oh, by the way, I reread PILLARS after forty-five years and it didn't disappoint. But like you, I'm a Man From U.N.C.L.E. junkie.

Which reminds of an old story from my high school days. I was in band and during one rehearsal, the band director announced a night time practice. One young fellow, not me, raised an objection. He actually said out loud, "The Man From U.N.C.L.E. will be on then!" He was upset.

James Reasoner said...

Underwood's is great, that's for sure. I wish they were still all over the place like they used to be. Was the Cherokee Trading Post the store that was in a shed in some guy's back yard? You took me to that one once, and I remember some of the books I bought there. As far as I know, the store on Coggin Avenue is the only one in Brownwood now.

Nice to know that U.N.C.L.E. story holds up. I suspected it would. It took a real emergency to keep me from the TV set on the nights that MFU was on.

Jim Wilsky said...

James, wonderful post.

You sparked a memory for me, talking about your uncle. The most memorable and possibly the best all around war movie I have ever seen was a long, long time ago. Watched it with my dad at the Virginia Theatre back home. The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Absolutely fantastic movie and marvelous acting. I bought the DVD awhile back. I will always love that whistle and the birds in the background and Alec Guiness saying My God what have I done?...Holden running, telling the kid to Kill Him, KILL HIM! Unforgettable.

Walker Martin said...

I guess that's one of the reasons that I love collecting books and magazines. So many of the old magazines I remember buying and then reading in a certain chair or location of the house.

Speaking of THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, I used to be able to enjoy it also. Then I saw a special on The History Channel where surviving vets who worked on the bridge discussed the film. To a man, they all criticized it especially the scenes showing the British prisoners whistling and keeping their morale up, etc.

It seems in real life, the Japanese guards did not put up with any such activity. If the prisoner did not bow and scrape, then you might get a bayonet in the stomach or at the very least a good whack on the head with a rifle butt. There was no marching around whistling or keeping a stiff upper lip, etc.

The Japanese soldiers had no respect for prisoners because they did not die rather than surrender. They were constantly mistreating prisoners since they viewed them as worthless and without honor.

Hollywood strikes again.

Jim Wilsky said...


Well, if reality and make believe could/would ever align I would be amazed. As a WW2 history nut I would fully agree with you. Don't worry about me being fooled by Hollywood and Alec Guiness smartly walking abut with his riding crop. For that matter the bridge was not blown up by commandos or in that location portrayed in the movie either. Filmed in Ceylon not Thailand. The real bridge was bombed in an air raid. I know my dad would agree too about the harshness of the Japanese, having served with distinction on Guadalcanal and a few other little Pacific parties. I have first hand knowledge and years worth of conversations with him of the Japanese brutality and their views of p.o.w.'s. Just so you know, the whistle I was speaking of was the train approaching. I enjoyed the movie for what it was - a movie. Innaccurate as hell sure, but still well done. Then and now.

Walker Martin said...

Jim, I've been a long time student of WW II also and I've always felt that the Pacific area fighting the Japanese was the most horrific campaign. For the most part they would fight to the last man and the jungle warfare was very terrible due to the heat, disease and insects, not to mention the Japanese attitude toward prisoners.

My father also served in the Pacific area and though he survived the war, he later died when I was 12 of complications contacted during his service. My mother tried to prove his death was service connected but to no avail.

After his death, I found an enormous duffle bag full of war souvenirs in the basement. About 50 pistols, revolvers, lugers of all types plus a Japanese sword and rifle. We had to sell everything to pay bills but I kept and still have the Japanese rifle.

Without men like our fathers I shudder to think of a world ruled by the Japanese military and the German Nazis.

Charles Gramlich said...

Great pic, man. Good to see some of the family. Nothing like the Adams family at all. :) I gotta get to the SEction hand steakhouse. Country fried steak. Haven't had a good one since the last time I went to Cross Plains.

Suresh Ramasubramanian said...

:) JT Edson would have agreed with you about John Wesley Hardin not being as bad as he was painted. The surname was enough (along with his pet philip jose farmer fictionist genealogy / wold newton theory) to make John Wesley a cousin of the hardin/fog/blaze clan, and turn up more than once in various cattle drives and saloons in JT Edson novels.

And yes - nobody ever accused "Bridge on the River Kwai" of being realistic. The bridge was actually on an entirely different river miles away from this one. After lots of tourists, POW relaties etc started turning up at the kwai river trying to find the remains of the bridge, the Thai authorities finally gave up and renamed the other river Kwai.