A Letter From Austin №17: From Here to Infirmity
A Stroll Through the Boneyard
Every year I get together with friends to drink whiskey, raise hell, and, these days, talk about orthotics. Gray-haired, no-haired, increasingly impaired, we tell old stories and make up a few new ones, play our guitars, sightsee, talk about kids and grandkids and favorite dogs. This year we’re staying in a rambling VRBO in the Rosewood section of Austin, once an African-American enclave but these days a hodgepodge of modest residential and gleaming new retail structures lodged firmly in the uncanny valley between authenticity and avarice. The house is situated midway between the Wesley United Methodist Church, a mostly black congregation founded in 1865, and the Black Dagger tattoo parlor. It’s also just across the street from one of those urban convenience stores that sells bongs and knives along with the Pepcid, and which itself stands beside a self-styled “Gulf Coast Chop House” that is one of the city’s most expensive restaurants.
The house sleeps seventeen, with nine of the beds contained in a big dormitory-style room, like a combination commune and summer camp. It was built twenty-odd years ago by a Dutch immigrant who ran a wedding photography business out of the premises. The weedy backyard contains a jumble of makeshift art tables, two Quonset huts, a derelict sailboat with a tattered yellow sail, a giant metal rooster, a barrel-shaped sauna, a rainwater collection tank, numerous bicycles, a fallow garden, and several ornate lampposts. It’s the kind of place that discourages upscale tourists, who might look at the spot and figure it to be the residence of a deeply disturbed individual with little interest in discussing the merits of Ted Lasso and the daily Wordle.
In truth, though, the place is a rough-cut gem, a two-story mini-manse with firm mattresses, more plush towels than a Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and a perplexing number of couches. An upstairs bookshelf contains copies of Kurt Vonnegut and Carlos Castaneda novels, just like the old days. It’s a place unbothered by time. In fact, the one calendar I notice is open to November of 2020. It contains no exclamation points, Xes, or scrawled telephone numbers. In fact it displays no annotations of any kind, like a temporal snow bank unsullied by human footprints.
The bunch of us started getting together fifteen years ago, after the death of a dear friend. Our buddy Bill had diabetes that was gradually dragging him down, but he refused to go quietly. He was known for his love of spontaneous road trips, backyard campouts, classic movies and West Texas hikes. On this February Friday we gather at mid-day, with members filtering in from as far away as D.C. and from locations around the state: Nacogdoches, New Braunfels, Corpus Christi. We drink a toast to Bangin’ Bill, re-establish connections, look over some ancient yearbooks. I find this last exercise tedious, personally, and sometimes painful. I know we were prettier then, but I don’t have to like it. Besides, the day is too warm to waste. So around three o’clock we troop over to the cemetery. The Texas State Cemetery, to be specific, which lies just a short stroll to the south. It’s a quiet spot, meticulously maintained, laid out on 22 acres in a shallow depression that must at some point have nestled a creek bed. There’s still a waterway there, but it appears to be artificial, and it’s enhanced by several terraced limestone features. A wide sidewalk — so wide that a sign at the entrance prohibits buses — runs through the middle of the property, with gently curving walkways leading off on rambles between the tombstones. Our group splits up. Several of us wander ahead of the others, murmuring commentary to each other about various markers and the people they commemorate. Our PI lawyer pretends — at least I think he pretends — to urinate on the headstone of anti-student University of Texas regent Frank Erwin. The writer, who had vowed to throw his Frisbee on the fields of the dead, decides to show a little decorum for a change, and grows uncharacteristically quiet.
Stephen F. Austin’s burial site is marked by the tallest monument. The founder of the short-lived Texas Republic stands with his right hand extended benevolently out toward the east — probably the wrong direction, actually, as the city that bears his name lies mostly to the west. Also notably memorialized is Albert Sidney Johnston. The Confederate general, one of the South’s most gifted commanders, died in battle in 1862. He now lies in a wrought-iron cage of sorts, beneath layers of stone and plexiglass. We wonder if the cage was built to protect the old general from vandals. But unmolested in the field below stand several score of modest tombstones marking the graves of other Confederate veterans, at one point the primary residents of a cemetery that has evolved to be more of a Grumman’s Chinese Theatre of Texas notables.
Barbara Jordan is here, for example. The African-American woman from Houston’s Fifth Ward became a political legend for her stentorian rhetoric and staunch Democratic politics during the sixties and seventies. A state senator and U.S. congresswoman, the first black woman from the South ever elected to that body, she’s probably not the sort of person the pre-Civil War creators of the cemetery had in mind. Singer/songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker is here as well, with room for his wife Susan at some point in the future. J. Frank Dobie is present, along with the writer Fred (“Old Yeller”) Gipson and the historians Walter Prescott Webb and T. H. Fehrenbach. Federal judge Sam Sparks, bane of unprepared Austin lawyers for decades, is characteristically ahead of the game: though still alive, he is already commemorated by a headstone upon which perches a fierce bald eagle. Numerous Texas governors, legislators, bureaucrats, and other functionaries lie buried beneath the live oaks and khaki-colored grass. There’s a sports section featuring coaching legend Darrel Royal, Negro League All-Star Willie Wells, UT quarterback James Street and more recent star running back Cedric Benson, who died in a motorcycle accident in 2019. There’s a marker for Chris Kyle, the American Sniper, and a memorial to the victims of the 9/11 attack featuring a badly mangled girder from one of the Twin Towers. Set apart from all the other gravesites, on a knoll that is clearly the highest part of the cemetery, stands a marker for Gemini and Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon. He reportedly requested the spot because it is the closest to the lunar surface.
The dead are talking to us still. Many of their headstones feature Bible verses meant to illuminate or educate. Most contain references to the deceased’s spouses and children. Confederate veteran William Snider, for example, wants us to know that he fathered three daughters: Altazeria, Bulah, and Ophelia. Some are more specific. Judge William Wayne Justice’s stone declares him a “Defender of the Constitution.” The U.S. Constitution, the judge might have emphasized, as he more than once found Texas law fell short of the 14th Amendment’s requirements. We read the chiseled CVs of Secretaries of State, state senators, heads of the consumer credit bureau and the comptroller’s office. The headstone of East Texan Bill Kugle, a lawyer and legislator, leaves no doubt about his affiliations: “He never voted for Republicans,” it says, “and had little no use for them.”
Kugle’s caution stands near the southern end of the cemetery, just above East 7th Street, where a big beer garden and a Latina-owned coffee shop beckon to hops fans and hipsters in search of caffeine. Scooters roll past the metal fence, caravans of bachelor party bros and tourists from Tyler and Brownsville, hooting as they herd themselves on. The racket seems to fade before it can disturb the sanctity of the grounds. Which is nice: better to walk north again accompanied only by the soughing of a soft breeze through the oaks and the occasional lobbed indignity of a forty-year friend. Back past the tattoo parlor, up the artificial grass, and into the kitchen of our rented reunion house. Where someone turns the music on.
“Who’s staying up late tonight?” asks the former county attorney.
Every hand goes up. Visiting the State Cemetery is an altogether different proposition at 60 than it was the last time I was there, over two decades ago. The quiet is soothing, yes, but a little too insistent. I’m not the only one who feels it. We’ve loitered in the company of the dead for long enough. No need to tell these guys who I am or what I’ve done. Time now for fellowship with the souls still with us: the loud and the laughing, thick-fingered guitarists and pitch-challenged singers. We’re happy just to share a drink and, on this sun-kissed afternoon, make a little noise.