Dear John, Please Bring My Saddle Back Home . . . To the Red Carpet Lounge
“DEAR JOHN, PLEASE BRING MY SADDLE BACK HOME … TO THE RED CARPET LOUNGE”
By Bill Winsor
As a child in South Texas during the drought stricken 1950s, I participated in what seemed then to be rather mundane Saturday morning rituals. While still clear in my mind today, these events seem a part of a different era completely. Perhaps because they were.
One ritual involved traveling 13 miles east out of Refugio toward the coast to feed our small herd of crossbreed cattle on the family ranch. Dad drove the 1951 red Chevrolet pickup truck, and I sat next to my grandmother, whom I knew as Mema. Mema was a fiercely independent and egalitarian woman, then in her 70’s, who had been accustomed to working cattle with the men during her younger days.
As we arrived at our dry destination, Mema whooped her signature cattle call from the passenger window, while I honked the mournful horn of the pickup. Meanwhile, Dad waltzed among the bawling and milling Brafords, after breaking open two 30-cent bales of hay among the leafless mesquite. Within a short hour, our chores at the ranch were completed.
Upon our return, we deposited my grandmother at her home, where she inevitably rested in her favorite iron rocker on her porch fronting Purisima Street so she could capture what remained of the morning breeze. Dad and I then bid farewell until the following Saturday, and we were off to our final destination of the forenoon in downtown Refugio: Buster’s Place, a legally registered concern known as The Red Carpet Lounge.
The sole proprietor of said establishment was none other than Buster Spinks, part-time oil man, part- time cattleman, and full- time entrepreneur. He was short, stocky, and a strikingly boisterous double of Teddy Roosevelt, complete with a wide, ever-present grin and rounded spectacles. His unique emporium had formerly been a Hispanic movie theater, and its conversion to a pool hall and domino parlor was architecturally inelegant but functional. The name was derived from the sea of red carpet salvaged from the abandoned theater.
As we entered the Lounge, Buster predictably boomed out a greeting. Dad tipped his rumpled straw, and we proceeded directly to the back of the building behind a lattice-work wall, an area reserved for a select group of locals. This was the domino parlor where three tables of regulars gathered every Saturday to play Moon Dominoes. I was the only minor permitted behind the lattice, other than Little Richard, the young beer tender that waited tables for Buster. He was a year or so younger than my ten years but cursed like a sailor. The only other non-player permitted behind the lattice was Stiff Finger Perkins, a local sign painter who was allowed to “sweat” the games. Stiff Finger accepted comp beer from the players in exchange for his silence. His nickname resulted from a peculiarly stiffened middle finger, frozen in an extended salute and producing what could have been considered a permanently fixed obscene hand gesture that he, with childlike amusement, found the need to display from time to time during the matches.
The domino players were the same regulars every Saturday and represented a cross section of cattlemen, oilmen, and an occasional lawman. Sheriff Charlie Brown was a regular, fastidiously dressed in full khakis and felt grey Stetson or straw, depending on the season. He wore a large Colt revolver on his hip, anchored in a woven leather holster that I admired. The stakes in the game were 50 cents per mark. And all players committed to a minimum of one hour.
My most prized recollections of these gatherings were the colloquial expressions and sayings that have long since faded from daily exchange in South Texas. Prominent among them were several good-luck wishes such as, “Dear John, please bring my saddle back home,” or another popular phrase used to improve a player’s fortune as he drew his dominoes –”Bring them together like Tenaha, Timson, Bobo and Blair,” which were successive railroad whistle-stops in East Texas, memorialized in a Tex Ritter song.
The play of a double deuce was presented as a question: “How do ducks go to water?” and answered in unison by all players:”Two by two!” When the double six was exposed in a game, it was commonly announced by an exclamation of joy– “And up jumped Charlie Toups,” a reference to a larger-than- life local of Refugio County at the time. And “holding a cow and a calf” meant the player held the trump and highest domino of the suit. Players experiencing a winning streak often remarked that they needed to quit the game early to “go grease a windmill,” a threat met with open and colorful resistance from those losing.
My last, and perhaps most cherished, remembrance of Buster’s was a winter night in 1969, when I drove down from college to visit my parents. I asked Dad if he wanted to grab a beer and shoot a game of pool at Buster’s, and we were off as soon as he located his hat.
As we entered that evening, Buster boasted to the congregation that he could beat Dad at arm wrestling or a foot race, with the choice of contest being left to Dad. And before I knew it, Dad had wagered the first bet of $10 on a foot race. At the time Dad was 65 and Buster at least 15 years his junior. The entire establishment became invigorated by this impromptu challenge, and I was appointed the banker for those placing bets on Dad, numbering three. Raymond, the local pool shark, held the bets for Buster, numbering over 25. Wagers ranged from $10 to $25. We promptly assembled outside the Lounge. The on-duty patrolman, upon learning of the contest, parked his squad car diagonally across Ymbacion at Alamo Street to divert traffic, before placing a $20 bet on Buster.
I put Dad through some light calisthenics in the street and cautioned him about the perils of running on concrete. Privately, I was increasingly concerned that this wager had gotten out of hand. The pot had reached a sum that I could not possibly cover, and I knew it was beyond Dad’s reach without fair notice. With adrenaline flowing and the pressure on, Dad and I stood alone in the street as he awkwardly jogged in place, admittedly an unsettling sight for me.
Approximately 50 spectators had gathered by the time Buster proudly declared that his route of choice was down the sidewalk. Dad offered to join him, but I strongly urged Dad to remain on the street, which was smoother with fewer obstacles. With no notice, the starter abruptly shouted, “Go-ooooooooo!” and the race commenced. I ran alongside Dad to prevent him from falling, shouting words of encouragement. Within a minute, Buster stumbled and fell headlong on the sidewalk. I immediately coached Dad to pull up and fast-walk to the end of the block, knowing that Buster could not recover from his spill, given the commotion and profanity emerging from the sidewalk.
Dad and I reached the intersection of Commerce and Ymbacion clearly victorious, out of breath, and alone, as the spectators bemoaned their losses at the far end of the street. I walked back to check on Buster and, aside from torn khaki pants at the knee, he was fine. He muttered to those helping him up that he should have taken the street course as well. Dad was stunned to learn he had won over $300 and, in his inimitable fashion, returned inside the Lounge and bought a round for the house before we drove home, laughing until we cried.
The Red Carpet Lounge burned a few years later and the colorful characters that gathered behind the lattice-work have since passed on, with their sayings and banter buried with them. Mema and Dad passed away within two years of each other, in 1980 and 1982. And Buster spent his last days in a rest home, ascending to the great lounge in the sky in 1999, having suffered from Alzheimer’s in his final years.
With no family members left in Refugio, I seldom visit my hometown. But when I do find myself there, and I drive by the corner of Alamo and Ymbacion Streets, I always look in the direction of the vacant lot that was once The Red Carpet Lounge. With fondness, I recall that night over 40 years ago and how proud I was of my dad.
Dear John did bring our saddle back home that night.