Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Jesse Strange, Country Star

 From my earliest memory until I was in high school, I can remember the Strange family living in our neighborhood. Mr. Strange worked for a prominent lawyer named Earl Porter Adams. The Adams family lived in a huge house just down the street from us. Mr. and Mrs. Adams were well up in years and needed help keeping up their house and property. They had several acres of land. Even though they lived in town, they had a large garden and several large pens full of chickens, which wasn't uncommon in the fifties and sixties in a small East Texas town.
The Stranges lived in a small house about two hundred yards behind the Adams home. There was a dirt lane that ran from the street to their cottage. Two-thirds of the way the road was wide enough for a car to drive down, but the last third narrowed to no more than four feet across. Mr. Strange couldn't drive and didn't own a car, so it didn't matter. The family bought its groceries at our store, and on many occasions my mother would load up the groceries and drive the entire family most of the way back to their house. She would stop where the lane narrowed and they would walk the rest of the way home. I rode with her several times.
Mr. and Mrs. Strange had two sons, Jesse and Curtis. Jesse was seven years older than me and Curtis was probably ten years my senior. Jesse attended school until he was a freshman in high school and I don't recall if Curtis ever went.
Even as a little kid I can remember Curtis sitting next to a drainage ditch across the street from my house. He would have a cane fishing pole and some line tied to it. If you asked him what he was doing, his answer was always "fishing for terrapins." He occasionally would venture down some of the small creeks and ditches and fish near other peoples houses, which in most cases wasn't welcomed. Curtis was probably harmless for the most part, but one could never be sure. Charlie Jackson's dad ran him off from their house on more than one occasion when he was fishing in their yard. As far as I know Curtis never caught anything. The fact that there was rarely any water where he fished might have been a contributing factor. He probably would have messed on himself if he ever did get anything on a line.
When we were little kids, Charlie and I would get Curtis in my backyard and try to play football with him. He had no idea how to play football. We would end up getting him to hold the ball, and then we would get a running start and try to tackle him. Curtis was much bigger than the two of us together and was in no danger of being injured. We were lucky he never got tired of the game and beat the hell out of us. One time one of us caught him from behind unexpectedly. He spun around and yelled. He had a wild look in his eye and scared us pretty badly. That was our last football game with Curtis.
My mother was reading my stories not long ago and she told me I was mistaken about the worst beating of my life coming after I set the pasture on fire. She said, "I guess you were too little to remember the day you walked to town with Jesse Strange." I don't recall it at all. She told me the story.
When I was five years old I stayed with my grandparents next door to the grocery store while my mother worked. I would be allowed to walk over to the store for a Coke and to visit with my mother. One of my grandparents would watch me walk next door, then my mother would supervise my return trip.
I was at the store one morning when Jesse Strange came in for a Coke. (All soft drinks are "Coke" to Texans, in case you didn't know.) Jesse was about twelve years old at the time, which to me was an adult. I asked him where he was going and he said he was going to town. I went inside and asked my mother if I could walk to town with Jesse Strange. You know what the answer to that question was. Being the obedient, angelic son I was, I walked right out the door and joined Jesse on his trip to town. Mother had told me to go back to the house, and most of the time that is what I would have done. She got a phone call before she got to the door to watch me, so for the moment she thought I was on the way home.
It was a mile from the store to downtown Crockett, so it didn't take very long for us to make the trip. Mother checked on my whereabouts when she got caught up in the store and found I wasn't at the house. My grandfather watched the store while she drove to town.
A block off of the courthouse square was Polk's Department Store. Mother found me standing next to Jesse Strange in front of Polk’s taking in the sights. She pulled in a parking place and jumped out of the car. She grabbed me by the arm and proceeded to give me a horrific ass whipping in front of the good citizens of downtown Crockett. Nowadays some do-gooder would have called the cops on her. In those days, when they observed me standing on the corner with Jesse Strange it was a miracle some local rancher didn't come up and offer her the use of a cattle prod just to be sure I got the point.
As the years went by I would see one or all of the Strange family on almost a daily basis. Usually they were all walking in a straight line. Mr. Strange would be at the front of the pack, followed by Mrs. Strange, then Jesse, then Curtis.
My grandfather had one of the first television sets in the neighborhood. It was a huge black and white set. The closest television station to Crockett was KTRE in Lufkin, fifty miles to the east. With all the hills and trees in the area, the reception wasn't great. He put up a telephone pole with a directional antenna, so on occasion if the weather was bad enough we could pick up the Tyler station too.
Each Friday night the entire Strange family would come to our house to watch television. An elderly couple from across the street, Callie and Jesse Graham, would also be there. The Gillette Friday Night Fights was the big highlight. This was a weekly ritual up until my grandfather died when I was about ten. My mother wasn't that comfortable with the practice, so she put an end to it after my grandfather passed away and my grandmother moved in with my aunt and uncle. At that point I didn't see any of the Stranges quite as much. By then I was busy being a little asshole around the neighborhood with Charlie Jackson.
A few years later Charlie and I were standing around in my backyard one hot summer night, no doubt plotting some mischief. We kept hearing some freakish-sounding music coming from somewhere, but we couldn't quite place the source. The sound seemed to be coming from the direction of the Strange house, which we could see across the pasture and up the hill. The porch light was on, but at that distance we couldn't see anyone. With nothing else to do, we decided to investigate.
We walked up East Houston Avenue, past the Adams house. By the time we reached the dirt lane that lead to the Strange property, it was apparent the noise was coming from there.
There were trees and shrubs along each side of the lane, so even with the full moon that night we were able to walk to where the trail opened up into their front yard without being seen. We stayed in the shadows and watched and listened.
Jesse Strange was standing on the front porch under a dim bulb. He had an old guitar strapped around his neck and he was twanging on the strings and belting out "Your Cheating Heart," or at least one verse of it. Charlie and I didn't know what kind of reception we would get if we just walked up to the house. The entire family knew both of us very well, but it was in the dark of the night and we were hiding in the bushes at their house. We decided to stay in the shadows for awhile and listen to the show.
Jesse was pretending to put on a stage show. He would talk to the audience between songs. He would tell jokes and advertise for various businesses in town. He knew a little bit of a lot of country songs. Surprisingly he didn't sound that bad, all things considered. They didn't have a television set, but they had a radio that was tuned to the local station, KIVY. It was your typical small town station. It played mostly old time traditional country music, so we knew where Jesse got his material. In most cases he had one verse down pat, and he would just repeat it over and over. The guitar was out of tune by a mile and was short a couple of strings, but it didn't sound that far removed from some traditional country musicians we heard on a daily basis.
A couple of years earlier my mother had given me a cassette tape recorder for Christmas. The first cassette recorders were thick, bulky rectangular beasts. They didn't have microphones built in, but they were on a three-foot-long cord and plugged into the side of the unit. They were powered by several "C" batteries that never seemed to last very long. After a few minutes we both agreed this was an event we needed to have on tape. It appeared the show was going to go on for awhile, so we retreated back down the trail and ran to my house to get my recorder.
When we returned Jesse was in the middle of a joke. I wish I could remember what it was. It was so stupid we had to stop and listen to the whole thing before continuing on to their house.
Mr. and Mrs. Strange were sitting in chairs just off of the porch and out of the light. We hadn't noticed them before. Curtis was in the house and would occasionally peek around the door. Jesse stopped the show when he saw us coming into the yard. We had wondered if he would keep up the performance with us there.
We immediately told him how much we enjoyed the show and asked him to continue. He was hesitant, but we figured he would eventually come around. We then asked if he would keep the show going if we went back down the lane and listened from the shadows, and he finally agreed to do it.
I then asked him if we could leave the tape recorder on the porch and record the show. He wasn't exactly sure what a tape recorder did. Charlie and I both spoke into it and played it back for him. He was amazed and seemed to be excited at the idea of being on tape. Apparently none of the family had seen a tape recorded before. It was as if we had arrived with the head of a unicorn. We had to demonstrate it several times. Curtis almost ran when we played it back the first time. He was convinced there was a little man inside the box that was talking to him. Of course Charlie and I told him that in fact there was a little man in the box talking to him. The entire family seemed to be satisfied with the explanation. We put it down on the porch/stage by Jesse and walked back to the bushes at the end of the yard. The show resumed.
The first cassettes would record for thirty minutes on each side. Jesse must have kept it up for at least another hour. We were getting a little bored standing out in the bushes. We finally decided we needed to be closer to get the full effect of the production. Using the bushes that lined the yard on both sides as cover, Charlie and I made our way past the house, then we walked up to the edge of the porch opposite where Mr. and Mrs. Strange were seated. Nobody had seen us at all. We stood within five feet of Jesse for the last part of his show.
Jesse almost jumped off the porch when he finally saw us. He decided the show was over at that point. I rewound the tape and played it back for him. He was obviously pleased. Curtis stared at the recorder from a distance and made a couple of comments about the little man singing. It must have been around eleven o'clock when we left that night.
The Jesse Strange country extravaganza continued for several more weeks. Charlie and I took a few friends with us on several occasions, but Jesse wouldn't allow anyone else to come right up to the stage except for us. We played the tape for so many people it finally wore out. Stephen Satterwhite and I made a few trips up the lane with my recorder as well.
Just behind the Strange house was a cul-de-sac at the end of Mimosa Lane. The owners of the development built a ten-foot privacy fence just behind the little cottage/Opry Stage to totally isolate it from the neighbors. The fence was built long before the music production began. We wondered how the people living just beyond the fence were enjoying the nightly performances. It turned out they weren't nearly as appreciative as Charlie and I were. A few of them got together and went to Mr. Adams and asked him to put an end to it. Jesse was without an outlet to express his talents, so he went back to walking the streets and being an ordinary person again. I wish I still had that tape.

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