Romancing the Bean, A Series of Short Stories
By the CAFFEINE COWBOY
By the time I met Tom Robinette, he was walking with a cane to help him bear the years he carried on those stooped shoulders. I didn’t know it then, but now I know that years are like gravity.
His short cropped balding head was usually covered by a worn and venerable cowboy hat. All scrunched up and sweat stained, that hat was usually tilted to one side. Tom would scratch the side of his forehead when he was contemplating serious questions. I caused him to scratch a lot.
I clearly remember those hands. His fingers were bent and knotted. His skin had the look of fragile leather as they opened and closed in an almost robotic dance I have witnessed often.
Tom ran the old pool hall in Sunray, the tiny town where I grew up in West Texas. I watched those hands many times as they caressed his pool cue with chalk and then slowly plant those fingers on the pool table to set his bridge. They looked like the roots of an old vine growing out of the green felt of the table and into his long shirt sleeves that were always buttoned.
I don’t know why they call it West Texas. We’re the very northern part of the state. It’s the Panhandle! It should be called North Texas, but that name was taken by the Dallas/ Fort Worth area. Still, if you drive about 400 miles north and west of Dallas, you’re near my home, and you are still in Texas!
If you keep on driving north past Amarillo, Dumas, and Stratford, you are in the Oklahoma Panhandle and another 40 miles will get you in to Kansas. Now, that’s really North Texas! From there, only a barbed wire fence separates us from Canada ‘so they say.'
Sunray, Texas, sprouted up in 1930 as a station for the Rock Island Railroad. It quickly built a square with a hotel and theatre that included the pool hall but never could claim 2,000 residents. There are only so many jobs when most of the farms and ranches are thousands of acres. The few nearby oil refineries, feed yards, and meat packing plants keep it alive.
Back in the ’70s it cost a quarter a rack for a game of 8-ball and 30 cents to shoot a game on the snooker tables. These were oaken; hand carved, and inlaid tables that must have been some of the first ones in the Panhandle.
Ice cold Cokes in those little bottles were a dime at the pool hall. That little oval topped Coke machine was a great reason to stop and quench a thirst. The pool hall was a place where the cowboys and farmers alike traded stories and challenged man-hoods. There were eight grand old tables in two rows that were the only entertainment to be had in town.
Someone brought in a pinball machine at one time, but it made too much noise so it ended up at the Tastee Freeze (our only restaurant). The pinball machine was quickly banned from the Tastee Freeze because too many kids began hanging around just to play it! Imagine that!
Sunray, Texas, doesn’t even have a stop light but now it has a Dairy Queen, a Mexican diner, and a good old fashioned café called Judy’s. There are no longer any pool tables or pinball machines except in private homes that I know of!
To protest the banning of the pinball machine, teens used to gather at the four-way blinking caution light eight miles away to drink beers, swap lies, share aspirations, and watch something change.
The back tables in the pool hall were usually used for gambling. If one of the front tables was open at the pool hall, and no one else wanted a game, you could play against old Tom. If you won, you didn’t have to pay.
I would stop by anytime spare change came into my possession to buy a Coke and maybe get asked to play. Over time, I came to know the rhythm and ways of the pool hall. Inside those old walls, young boys and men interacted and shared their stories. I cherish those times. Especially, when it was just Tom and I.
Back in Time
This was the late 1960s and Tom was in his eighties. He was an old-time cowboy. A real cowboy! I would sit for hours listening to stories from Tom and some of the other old timers who would kill a little time over a snooker game called 101.
What I was hearing was history. It was the Texas panhandle of the 1880s after the first of the barbed wire began to spread its tentacles all over Texas and beyond. It was a time when teenage boys became men on the open range.
It wasn’t until after the late 1870s that the Indians and buffalo had been decimated or relocated from the panhandle. That is when the settlers began to move in.
Tom and some of the other old timers claimed that time as their own. They were there at the end of the days of the trail rides of legendary proportions. At the Sunray drive-in that closed in ’69, there was the Old West starring John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, at the pool hall you could hear the truth!
Many times Tom would pick me to be his partner among those hanging around looking for a game and I relished the relationship and the affection we shared. He was patient and gentile in nature, and he was slow in movement and speech. So sloooow!
I didn’t realize it was due largely to severe arthritis until I developed some of my own. If you don’t know patience, arthritis’ll teach it to you. (That’s cowboy talk!)
I became a pool shooter to be reckoned with over those years. I could almost claim daily visitations except on Sundays. Tom didn’t seem to see the need to be open seven days a week. Sundays were consumed by Church activities and the Dallas Cowboys or Wild World of Sports. Our preacher knew to end sermons in time for noon kickoffs!
There was no home mail delivery in Sunray, Texas. Still, isn’t! The post office was across from the city hall, the Boy Scout house was also in the town square next to the library and across the street from the dilapidated row of buildings which once held an old hotel, theater, grocer, the local news paper office, and the pool hall. The Black Cat Saloon once operated on the west side of the square and it is said to have been one of the panhandles first houses of Ill Repute. The Baptist Church owns that lot now.
My house was four blocks north of the square, and the Church of Christ (with a Sunday school) was two blocks south. I could not escape the pool hall’s shadow or its lure.
During my junior and senior years, I developed the film and reported on school events for the local weekly news paper operating next to the pool hall. The Sunray Sun! Great memories! I sometimes was paid more for a week than my high school teachers by reporting on football, basketball, track, rodeo, and any other school events. I was paid $10 for every photo that made the paper and by the inch for the accompanying stories. I learned to always have a camera around my neck and a pen and note pad in my pocket. I got away with so much because of the power of the camera and pen. Still do!
Before I had a job, I picked up coins and change regularly just to have that quarter for pool. When I had money, I played almost daily. The pool hall was the last business to close on that once vibrant side of the square. Fortunately it didn’t close until after I left for Lubbock and Texas Tech (Guns up!). Unfortunately, but fittingly it was closed after the caretaker was laid to rest, for Tom Robinette was truly a caretaker, not only to the pool hall, but also to the many young boys and men who had learned their game over the years.
I don’t remember any women ever coming in except for the mothers, wives, and girl friends who were looking for their men. I don’t recall them ever playing.
Passing close to the pool hall was frequently required, and for me, it was an irresistible magnet. My ears should look like Spock’s from the many times my mother dragged me by a twisted ear in her patented grip as she led me out the door. This was witnessed often, especially before or after any church activities. We never missed any of those.
Eventually, I received carte blanche privileges by sweeping, cleaning, brushing the tables, replacing the cue tips, racking and collecting the table fees. There were only two racks in the house, so you would have to pay for your last game before you could start another. Tom held the racks! That’s how he kept them honest. You paid and Tom racked. As Tom’s walkin stick became more important, I racked more often. Me and Tom, we be mates!
The Robinette Rodeo
Just north of town was the city corral and rodeo arena. By the time I moved to Sunray, it was well worn at best. By the time I left, it was barely standing It was for public use and our high school rodeo team practiced there. I myself took fierce splinters home from that place and almost dreaded the risk over the thrill. Almost! The risks were the splinters from the aged and sagging corral as well as the unpredictable livestock.
One particular bronc we would practice on was predictable! He liked to rub you off with the corral! I almost had enough when Mom had to remove the largest of the splinters from my backside before I could shed my shirt and jeans.
Tom’s family and friends worked their horses and practiced roping early mornings. They would arrive before the sun along with other kids who would try to get in an early ride before school. These kids were my classmates. In a school system of fewer than 100 in high school, the morning Robinette Rodeo was common knowledge and several of us showed up early. It was like family. We went to the same church where my father was an interim minister.
The first time I showed up at school with a tear in my shirt and dirt on my seat from an early morning ride was huge point of pride. It was my first attempt to ride on a small steer. It was also my last.
It is my opinion that cattle are not meant to ride! It’s their opinion too!
The Cowboy Way
On those early mornings, Tom would sometimes make his own fresh coffee the cowboy way! The way he had made it on the open range as a teenager in the late 1890s.
When wranglers were sent out for days at a time to round up strays, they were often given a hunk of corn meal cake, a chunk of bacon, and either a piece off of a brick of tea or some green coffee beans. Whenever the cowboy stopped to rest and eat, he would boil some water and make one of the only two beverages that were practical.
7-11’s were a hundred years away. Boiling their water helped with sanitation and flavored the water. The grounds would be used to season the bacon grease that was used to soften the corn cake.
I was the kid who hung on Toms every word when it came to cowboying in the Old West. So when Tom decided to show me how cowboys made their coffee, I quickly learned his brewing method and have shared the experience as if I were Johnny Coffeeseed.
Over a small camp fire, Tom began by heating the well-cured little skillet he had once carried with him on the open trail. He would count out fifty green coffee beans from his worn leather pouch. The pouch was made from the scrotum sack of a calf. They make great handy bags and come in a variety of sizes. They are still used today. You can find them with Mexican and Indian curios. I have even made hacky sacks out of a few and given them as gifts.
The green coffee beans were rattled around in the skillet until they browned and swelled, and began to smoke. This takes about 10 minutes. When the beans are beginning to release their oils, they are a dark brown and they begin to sizzle. With judicious timing, Tom removed the skillet with the now dark roasted coffee and picked up a large smooth stone to pulverize the smoking beans. The smoke changed quickly from a smell of burning to the scent of invitation.
Tom told me that he once used his revolver as a kid to crush the beans “till it fired of early one morning and spooked the cattle they had just rounded up.” He said it started a bit of a stampede, and I remember I believed him. Tom didn’t tell tall tales, he told good ones.
After the beans were satisfactorily crushed, Tom would place the skillet back on the fire and add water. The measurement was two tin cups of water. The pungent smoke of the coffee beans around the morning campfire became warm rich flavor floating around us like a blanket of aromas.
The water would come to a boil, and after the grounds were sufficiently soaked and settled, he would lay his bandanna over the cup for a filter and pour. The coffee was strong and rich. It wasn’t anything like the Folgers in our kitchen or the often burnt coffee at the café. I shared my first cup of fresh roasted coffee made the Cowboy Way in the extra tin cup Tom provided.
In that tin cup were the past and my future. I just didn’t know it yet! Exposed to fresh coffee in such a dramatic fashion, the memories of the smells and taste have never stopped resonating.
Once, Tom cooked a little bacon and corn cake too. He used the coffee grounds in the mixture. It was an earthy porridge by the time he served it. My first, cowboy breakfast on the range, sort of!
Oh the logic of it all!
It all made sense to me then. You know, the reason the Westerns always show the cowboy making a campfire even in the heat of the day. If you could smell and taste the coffee, you’d understand too. It’s that blanket of comfort a hot cup of aromatic coffee provides.
Tom also taught me something else I’ll never forget. Often, when there appeared to be no make-able shot on the pool table, scoffers would ponder the impossibility of a shot and declare “There’s no shot! Not a chance!” It was to those without the vision that Tom would slowly, casually drawl, “Don’t need no shape, if you’re a shooter!” That simple phrase seems to apply more often and in more and more circumstances. It’s a fact of life!
Thanks Tom … and, where’d you get those beans?
- J.B. Blocker is a media consultant based in Historic Downtown McKinney, Texas. Phone: 469-334-9962