The True Story of the Profound Lesson I Learned in 1963 on a Barber’s Chair
Just eight miles south-southwest of where I thought John Wayne fought at the Alamo was a spot in San Antonio where serious thinking and deciphering came into my life.
Slightly west of the halfway point along the street I saw President Kennedy on the day before his assassination–between the San Jose Mission and Kelly Air Force Base–is a region where my father was considered “patron.”
Starting on the Southeast corner of Southwest Military Drive, and heading south for eleven blocks on Commercial Street, was the first of five business pillars of our community.
Three proprietors were the foundation of commerce on Commercial Avenue and gaining the kind of momentum two others, Joe Barry and Mr. Stacey had held for a number of years.
The first was Raymond “Bud” Jones of the “Meal A Minute” 89 cent All-You-Can-Eat -Fish fame. Bud, who passed away in October 2018, opened his legendary restaurant in 1959 at the Military Drive/Commercial southeast corner. Today, this South Side institution still serves the All-You-Can-Eat-Fish for $9.75 with his daughter Cathy and family running it.
Joe Barry owned the Terrell Wells grocery and gas store that eventually became the original VFW Post 8541. My daddy, Walter “Corky” Dennis, would go in to buy a pack of Camels (later on, he graduated to Salem’s) as I would sit in the car and look at the screen on a front door. It was painted yellow and blue with a gingham dressed girl smiling with bread in her hands proclaiming that we should “Reach for Sunbeam Bread.”
Mercy, did I have a crush on that pretty blond haired-blue eyed beauty! I wondered often if she was kin to Dorothy of Kansas and Toto fame. Perhaps a blond cousin?
Later on, when I became at least as good at ‘cipherin’ as Jethro Bodine, I figured her out. I deduced she was the older sister of another girl and her dog– the little tan one on Coppertone signs who was embarrassed about having her panties almost torn off.
Across the street from Terrell Wells Grocery was Stacey’s Barber Shop. With a prominent barber pole on the south front lawn, Mr. and Mrs. Stacey lived on the north half of their shop in a small white wood framed house.
It was a matter of honor, but mostly courage, to sit up high on the board placed on the white arms of the barber chair of Mr. Stacey. I proudly received my trims from the same man who had cut my great grandfather John’s, grandpa Jack’s and father Corky’s hair.
I liked to go there with Daddy. But Mom, not so much. Momma would always make me sit close to the front door as we walked in. It just did not seem quite right for a girl like Momma, to be in a barber shop. There was nothing really wrong with it. Other mothers and even Mrs. Stacey came in. But a guy could not really appreciate the “feel” of the place with women in there.
There seemed to be more laughter and the men could talk about men’s things like “baseball,” or “a missile crisis” when the women were away.
In early December, Dad took me in. Grandpa Dennis was in one of the waiting chairs at the far right end facing the barber chairs on the left.
Without Momma around I could penetrate farther in and get away from the front door where the Porky Pig, Zorro or Superman books were. Sitting between Daddy and Grandpa I could scan the cover of nearby True Detective magazines. Mr. and Mrs. Stacey would never allow anything more manly than that. But to a guy just about to turn eight, True Detective was very mannish. (Note: The word “Macho” had not been invented yet as far as I know).
As each customer walked in, they were passed an 8 x 10 black and white glossy of what was purported to be the “last picture of JFK before he was shot.” One of the barbers had bought it for a dollar at the drug store located next to St. Leo’s Church on South Flores Street during their 1963 Fall Festival and Tamale Sale. Dad let me look at it and I felt important.
“Okay, Jack, you are next,” said one of the barbers. He was talking to Grandpa, who got up and sat down in a man’s size barber’s chair.
I did not notice who just walked in. I was determining if Daddy would let me go next, after Grandpa, instead of him. If so, Mr. Stacey would cut my hair. Then my odds for getting a sucker were better. Some of the other barbers did not always remember to pass out the suckers. Mr. Stacey never forgot, plus he would let me choose the color. I would leave the yellows or browns for the poor kids that were stuck with the other barbers.
Richard Floyd, my step grandfather sat down beside me grinning.
“Paw Paw,” I grinned back. We hugged.
Paw Paw was a tall human being. With only one good eye and a few good teeth, he was not much for the world to see, but to me he walked on water.
“What are you doing, gettin’ your ears lowered, Booger?” He waved his hand from front to back over his head.
“They only charge Paw Paw half price, because I only have half my hair.”
What a treat it was to have two grandfathers and a father in the same barber shop all at the same time.
“Are you ready for your birthday?” Paw Paw asked.
When Grandpa Dennis heard that, he called me up and reached in his wallet. He handed me a dollar bill.
“Grandpa didn’t forget your birthday,” he said. “You tell your daddy to get you something with this.”
Paw Paw saw what was going on and he pulled TWO dollars out of his billfold and handed it to me with Happy Birthday instructions to tell my Mom to get me something with them.
Three whole dollars in a matter of seconds and it was the most money I had up to that point in my life. (Note: That amount in 1963 is worth $25.36 today).
When I sat back down, secretly enjoying the $3 in my pocket, my mind immediately jumped to disenchantment. Suddenly, my brain realized what people meant when they said “bad luck or trouble comes in threes.” And it had nothing to do with the money.
I had been waiting for the third calamity to reveal itself ever since my beloved cockerspaniel Blackie died on November 4th and John F. Kennedy on the 22nd. Within a little over a month’s time, there I was, in the middle of the prohibited end of the barber shop and suddenly going through trauma numero tres!
It was at this moment I discovered that BOTH of my grandfathers had three fingers missing from their left hands.
What was this? Why hadn’t I really noticed their left hands before? Or maybe I did, but it did not register until I saw them both in the same room. Or was it because I was almost eight and noticing more adult things? After all, I had just scanned the covers of two True Detectives.
For at least the next few weeks I was terrified of everything my hands touched. Perhaps this was some kind of omen or family curse? What were the odds? Two grandfathers with the same hands missing three fingers!
Just in time for Christmas, Daddy explained that Paw Paw was only my step-grandfather, so it really did not count—-there was no family curse.
“You do not have to worry about it any more.”
Thank God for Daddy’s explanation. I didn’t know how much longer I could have held out keeping my left hand in my pocket everywhere I went. Each morning when I awoke, I would look to see if those fingers on that hand were still there. Somehow it would sneak out from under the pillow during my sleep.
Definitely, I would not dare do what the other boys were inventing in the cafeteria. By placing a pencil on top of their middle finger and bending the adjacent fingers over the pencil, they could “shoot the bird.”
Not quite understanding what that meant, as far as I was concerned if I shot that bird it was sure to be a recipe for the family curse. I knew that bird had wings for a reason. Around me it was going to just have to fly away. I did not intend to lose my three fingers over a bird.
A trip to San Antonio, the “Alamo City” isn’t just about the destination. The true beauty of this region can be found in the journey through and around it. Rolling hills, natural springs, meandering rivers and, come springtime, the beauty includes vibrantly painted landscapes of wildflowers up and down the highways and backroads.
As you head northwest west toward Boerne, Kerrville and Fredericksburg, you’ll begin to see the landscape open up before you, with rolling tree-covered hills, exposed limestone cliffs and an array of colorful wildflowers.
In this area, known as the Hill Country, you’ll also find Johnson City, home to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park. Here you can tour the family ranch and view artifacts such as his boyhood home and first school. This is also the final resting place of LBJ, our 36th president.
Johnson City is also the heart of the Hill Country wine region. Why not take a detour and sample some of the best wineries in Texas on the 290 Wine Trail? Ab Astris Winery and Kuhlman Cellars are a couple of our favorites.
In the quaint town of Fredericksburg, you’ll want to visit two unique museums: the National Museum of the Pacific War, dedicated to those who served in the Pacific Theater of World War II, and the Pioneer Museum, honoring the lives of the early German settlers of this region.
Heading back south toward San Antonio, a worthwhile scenic route offers serene Hill Country views through wildflower-lined back roads.
Look for Luckenbach. It’s a stretch to call it a town, but for country music fans, it’s a mecca. It was made famous in the ’70s by outlaw country musicians like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. You can still regularly catch country acts performing on the outdoor stage.
Continue on the backroads south around Canyon Lake on your way toward New Braunfels. Just outside the city, stop at Texas’ oldest continually operating dance hall, Gruene Hall.
Back in San Antonio. The Alamo is the Spanish mission made famous as a battle site in the war for Texas independence. But it is just one of five historic Spanish missions in San Antonio that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The other four comprise the San Antonio Missions National Historical Park. All five offer an incredible look back at the history and culture that still influence this proud city.
Just 10 minutes north of downtown, you will find the revitalized historic Pearl district. This area used to be the home of the Pearl Brewery. Today, you can walk the Pearl to explore trendy shops, delicious dining and even a weekend farmers market. Nearby is Brackenridge Park, Witte Muesum, Children’s DoSeum, Japanese Tea Garden and San Antonio Zoo.
Dating back to 1919 – and receiving major updates throughout the years – the Japanese Tea Garden features a lush year-round garden and a floral display with shaded walkways, stone bridges, a 60-foot waterfall and ponds filled with Koi. The garden’s entrance is punctuated by a moon gate created by a Mexican artist renowned for crafting wood-look concrete sculptures. Free admission.
When mean it when we say the River Walk is a must to experience. One of the nations’—most famous attractions is the vibrant River Walk. Restaurants and shops line the banks of the San Antonio River, which you can explore on foot or take a boat tour on one of the colorful river barges.
Sightseeing, shopping, food, and fun. All on this world-renowned 15-mile urban waterway. The River Walk, or Paseo del Rio, is a San Antonio treasure and the largest urban ecosystem in the nation.
Tucked quietly below street level and only steps away from the Alamo, it provides a serene and pleasant way to navigate the city. Explore by foot along the river’s walking path or jump aboard a river barge for a ride and guided tour. In the heart of downtown, explore nearby attractions like the Alamo, the King William Historic District and more. Or, shop local favorites along the river’s Museum Reach at the historic Pearl.
A good way to see downtown is by catching a ride with City Sightseeing San Antonio’s double-decker buses for tours and curbside drop-off to many of thw downtown attractions and landmarks.
If you missed the rodeo and February, be sure to end the night at Tejas Rodeo Company, where they hold live rodeos every Saturday night from March – November. You can also eat like a Texan at Tejas Steakhouse & Saloon and enjoy fun, and entertainment for all.
If you are staying downtown, don’t miss Mi Tierra Café and Panaderia is the perfect place for a traditional Tex-Mex breakfast, with everything from huevos rancheros to breakfast tacos. Schilo’s has been serving German-Texan fare since 1917 and is the oldest restaurant in San Antonio. You can’t go wrong when you order the Pioneer pancakes or biscuits. In the mood for some schnitzel and homemade root beer? Check Schilo’s out for lunch.
From this are you can take a walk through La Villita Historic Arts Village, San Antonio’s first neighborhood. Today La Villita is a cultural hub, home to local artisans, shops and restaurants. Walk down the river to the Briscoe Western Art Museum for stories of the cowboy, the vaquero, Native Americans and the western landscape.
San Antonio also features theme park giants- Six Flags Fiesta Texas and SeaWorld & Aquatica San Antonio.
In February of 1965, San Antonio’s largest unsolved mystery would take place at The Gunter Hotel in downtown in East Houston Street. Each evening, when my father returned home from his shift as a city police officer, he would brief our family on the day’s investigation status.
Albert Knox checked into the historical Gunter on February 6th. He was a blond man, said to be quite handsome. A charmer, really.
According to some, Knox was coming off a drinking binge. According to others, Knox was still in the thick of that partying run, content to thrive on the chaos until he sobered up and went back home to his parent’s house.
For two days, guests of The Gunter saw Knox come and go with a tall woman. The inquisitive gazes that followed the couple labeled the woman as a call girl–a prostitute– though no one will ever know for certain that she was. And so the party raged on.
On February 8th, one of the hotel’s housekeepers was bringing some items to Knox’s hotel room: Room 636.
Maria Luisa Guerra noted the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, but paid it no attention. Most people tended to forget to take it down, even just before they were ready to be checked out of the hotel.
Guerra pushed open the door, only to stop dead in her tracks.
Standing at the foot of the bed, Knox stood with a bloody bundle in his arms. Blood splattered practically every inch of the guest room, like a mosaic of death that needed no explanation.
In the face of Guerra’s horrified expression, Knox lifted one finger up to his mouth. “Shhh.”
The housekeeper’s mouth parted on a scream, and Knox used that moment to dash past her and out of the room. It took forty minutes for Maria Luisa Guerra’s report to make it to management. By that time, Albert Knox had disappeared.
The evidence remaining in Room 636 was clear: somebody had died…and it was brutal.
In a 1976 interview about the crime, I interviewed my father for an article about the murder. I was writing for the University Star as student reporter at Texas State University (in the 1970’s, it was known as Southwest Texas University).
Dad, or Detective Walter “Corky” Dennis, passed away in 2011, but I will never forget his words.
“It was the bloodiest place I had ever seen up until then. The bathroom was especially bad and just sticky with blood all over the place. We [he and the other detectives] noticed the bathtub had a red ring around it like it had been drained of blood.”
(Some wonder if, after murdering the woman with his .22 caliber-weapon, Knox then butchered the body and flushed her down the toilet and bathtub).
The San Antonio police suspected dismemberment, and one of the witnesses description only further pushed this idea.
The day before the murder, Knox had visited the local Sears Department Store on Romaine Plaza in search of a meat grinder. When the Sears employee informed him that they didn’t have the larger size that Knox wanted, the employee offered to order one from the warehouse. For Knox, however, that would take much too long. He stormed off in a huff.
Little evidence was found inside the room. A lipstick-smeared cigarette, brown paper bags, and luggage from the San Antonio Trunk & Gift Company. The purchase for the suitcase had been made by a check from John J. McCarthy . . . who happened to be the stepfather of thirty-seven-year old Walter Emerick.
Emerick had disappeared on one of his “drinking bents” at the end of January and had stolen his parent’s checks and some of their items.
Police scoured the city for the woman’s body, so sure were they that someone had been murdered. They checked construction sites, and even sections of streets where cement was being laid down.
On February 9th, a blond man walked into The St. Anthony Hotel, just one block away from The Gunter. He came with no luggage. And when he requested to book a room, he made it known that he wanted Room 636. That particular room was not available, and after some arguing, he settled for Room 536. He checked in under the name Roger Ashley.
But the man had aroused the suspicions of the front desk attendants, and after tipping the San Antonio Police that the murderer might have just checked in to their hotel, the detectives rushed over.
They hurried up to Room 536. Banging on the door, the police tried to apprehend Emerick for the crimes. But as they struggled to open the door, they heard the single, hollow sound of a gun shot.
Walter Emerick had killed himself, and taken whatever information he had with him to the grave.
It’s now over fifty-five years that have passed since those fateful nights. The woman’s identity has never been discovered and no missing reports have ever surfaced. About 20 years ago, however, the formal general manager of The Gunter received an envelope with no return address. It was directed to “The Gunter” (not the Sheraton Gunter as it is identified now) and the zip code dated to 1965. Inside the envelope was an old room key, the one for Room 636, and was the kind used during that period.
A bit of folklore to add to an already strange story? No one is quite certain, but many people have witnessed the murder replay in the years since then, as though the imprint of that devastating death has no choice but to reenact the scene over and over again.
Staff and guests both have reported such paranormal phenomena–one guest even witnessed seeing a ghostly woman who held her hands out and stared at the guest with a gaze that appeared almost soulless.
When I lived across the street above the Majestic Theater from 2007-2011, I would take guests to the hotel for sightseeing. In one case a clairvoyant from Florida wanted to explore the murder room. What she didn’t know was that room 636 today is not the same one it was in 1965. The original room has been remodeled and is now two separate suits. Current 636 is around the corner at the end of the hallway.
As we passed the murder location, she suddenly said “STOP!”
The lady placed her hand on the wall exactly where the doorway was in 1965.
Over the years, I have interviewed police officers, detectives, witnesses and hotel staff who were involved during the murder. Some of the most interesting people I’ve met were actual guests (that had no clue there was ever a murder there) who have experienced strange occurrences: screaming, crying, furniture movement, loud walking on the carpet floor and even ghostly images.
Today, the Gunter is a must see stop during guided downtown ghost tours that begin at the nearby Alamo.
According to the 2020 census, the resident population of the United States as of April 1, 2020, was 331,449,281. This represents a 7.4% increase over the population according to the 2010 census.
Texas, the only state to gain more than one congressional seat, added nearly 4 million residents between 2010 and 2020, reaching 29,145,505.
The Alamo’s Davy Crockett is an American icon, and worth remembering.
He was a man of principle, and served his country with dignity. Crockett was a husband, father, frontiersman, soldier of multiple wars and battles, statesman, and patriot.
Crockett was very unique in the respect that he was not a party-line politician. He once said “I am at liberty to vote as my conscience and judgement dictates to be right, without the yoke of any party on me… Look at my arms, you will find no party hand-cuff on them!”
In today’s American politics, an elected official could not honestly make this statement; and that is a grave misfortune and a part of our modern political struggles.
Crockett aligned himself with the father of our country, George Washington, and his belief on the subject of political parties.
Washington said in his farewell address, published on September 19, 1796, “However [political parties] may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion.”
Christian and a conservative Texas State Representative Kyle Biedermann (R), serves the district covering Fredericksburg, New Braunfels and Boerne in Gillespie, Comal and Kendall counties.
Re-elected in Nov. 2020 by an astonishing 74.8% of votes in his race, Biedermann has been promoting the popular idea of Texas returning to its status as an independent republic.
On January 26, 2021, Biedermann filed House Bill 1359, also known as the Texas Independence Referendum Act, which would allow the citizens of Texas to vote on whether the Texas Legislature should create a joint interim committee to develop a plan for achieving Texas independence.
Below are questions and answers he and other legislature representatives have posted.
Should TIRA be passed by the Texas Legislature and approved by voters in the November 2021 Election, an interim joint committee will be established to study and make recommendations regarding the most effective method for Texas to return to its status as an independent republic.
The committee will be composed of four State Senators and four State Representatives appointed by the Lt. Gov and House Speaker, who will also respectively serve as co-chairs for the committee.
Not later than December 31st, 2022, the committee shall report any findings and recommendations to the Texas Legislature and the citizens of Texas.
Is this un-American and un-patriotic?
Supporters for Texas Independence love America, our flag and our Constitution. Our grievances are not with America but with an out-of-control Federal Government.
It would be un-American and unpatriotic to not make our voices heard and fail to preserve the liberty our Founding Fathers established with their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.
Can we use Article V Convention of States instead of leaving?
It will be the job of the interim joint committee to pursue all potential avenues that would return power back to the states and to the people, including Article V Convention of States.
How can we become citizens of the Republic of Texas?
Obtaining citizenship will be determined by the Texas Legislature’s joint interim committee as the plan for independence is formulated.
What would happen to Social Security dollars Texans have paid into the system?
Any Texan who has paid into the Social Security system and is currently receiving benefits should continue to receive them. This is an obligation of the federal government to those who paid into the system and should, therefore, be met without question, hesitation, or reservation.
The federal government allows Social Security recipients to move to a foreign country and still collect their benefits. Additionally, those who have paid in should be able to preserve their accrued benefits for exactly the same reason. This will be included as a topic of discussion for the joint interim committee.
What would happen to veteran benefits?
If you are a Veteran who lives abroad, you remain entitled to the benefits and services you earned through your military service. Most VA benefits are payable regardless of your place of residence or nationality.
Source: Veterans Administration
What would Texas do for national defense?
Using the NATO target average of 2 percent of GDP for military and defense spending would provide approximately $37.74 billion annually, making Texas 11th in the world in defense spending. Funding at this level would cover the costs of recruiting, training, equipping, and maintaining an active duty enlistment in excess of 125,000 troops. This would be in line with the number of Texans currently serving in the United States military in all branches.
For more FAQs on the Texas Independence Referendum Act, please visit TNM.me.
Disclaimer: These sentiments on forming the Independent Republic of Texas have been discussed and researched by experts on the subject, however, there is no guaranteed outcome to negotiations that would take place between Texas and the U.S. government.
Are you looking to go farther, faster and longer on two wheels? If you currently use a traditional bicycle to commute to work or for leisurely riding, for off-road adventures or for long-distance cycling, you might be intrigued by the electric bike, also known as an e-bike.
If you’re an older rider, recovering from injury, or simply returning to exercising after an extended “brake,” an eBike could be a great solution to ease into the active life you want.
Dodie and I recently rented e-bikes to ride along the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River just south of the King William area and downtown. We loved them.
When I lived above the Majestic Theater for about five years, San Antonio introduced “B-cycles” throughout Downtown. I became a charter member and would often ride them to Hemisfair Park, the Alamo, Alamodome, San Antonio Art Museum and the Spanish Missions south.
I discovered these e-Bikes saved me a good of money. Of course, my first year was only $25, but it still paid off when regular rental costs kicked in the following years.
If purchasing one, there might be a slightly higher-than-normal purchase cost compared to traditional bicycles, but even that’s not a sure thing. Beyond the initial purchase, e-Bikes are also relatively inexpensive to maintain, especially compared to automobiles and motorcycles. Plus, I saved money on gas and parking.
It has been about 12 years since I rode one and have to admit I took a tumble right off the bat at the Blue Star Art Complex. Now, Dodie? Well, she took off like a champ.
In the simplest terms, an electric bike is just like a traditional bicycle but equipped with an electric motor that either helps while the rider pedals or handles all the throttling duties.
It consists of a rechargeable battery, motor, controller, drivetrain and, in some cases, pedaling sensor. The battery powers the motor, which in turn applies kinetic energy to the drivetrain. The drivetrain then applies torque and manual power to the wheels of the bike.
Wheels turn, you go
How do electric bikes work?
How is an e-bike different from regular bikes? Think of it like a typical bike but with the added assist of a motor to help you with speed or hilly terrain. E-bikes are both practical and entertaining without taking the physical fun out of the ride — you will pedal but get an assist. And if you’re not familiar with e-bikes, you will be soon. Domestic demand for e-bikes is growing, with 130 million of them expected to be sold in just three more years.
Compared to cars and motorcycles, eBikes consume very small amounts of energy and use absolutely no oil or gas. This makes them an eco-friendly option for those who are concerned about their environmental impact.
What are some e-bike riding tips?
Before you hop on an e-bike, there are some must knows on e-bike safety. Here’s some information from State Farm Insurance with ideas on how to use an electric bike and an overview of the different classes, motor types and safety precautions of e-bikes.
Seven foot, three inch Mike McCormick walked up to the Alamo with a smile in his eyes I had never seen before.
He shook his head in disbelief–in wonderment that he was really there. His ballcap came off and he placed his hand on the front wall between the historic door and right window.
“I just want to feel it,” he grinned, before we stepped inside to the hallowed chapel building.
He told me in Waco, the year before, he was going to see it someday. I wanted to make sure anybody who had as much reverence for the Alamo and as much respect for John Wayne as he did, would visit.
Just moments before we walked over from Rivercenter Mall after viewing the 45 minute Imax presentation of “Alamo–The Price of Freedom.” Mike was psyched.
Our tour of the mission grounds was over an hour. Mike didn’t usually talk much, but while we ate Mexican food on the San Antonio River Walk later, he went on non-stop about the visit.
The Productive Giant
I hired Mike in 1984 when he was 19 at Bellmead, Texas, a town and outskirt of Waco. H-E-B Food/Drugs was building a larger replacement store for the older one nearby and I was their Construction Superintendent.
My first thought when he walked up to the site was “Oh man, if this kid is any good, I’m going to save money and hassle from not having to use ladders.”
The productive and quiet giant was not hard to miss among the 60+ carpenters, laborers, electricians, steelworkers, masons, and others. He stayed busy and helpful.
At the end of his work day, I locked up my blueprints and phone (no cells in those days) in our tool shed and walked to my truck.
Sitting on the tailgate of his own pickup was Mike, eating a sandwich out of a black lunchbox, the size of a Panasonic boombox.
“What you still hanging around here for?” I asked.
“I live in Corsicana, it’s about an hour and I can’t afford the gas to go back and forth. I’m gonna stay here tonight,” he answered, pointing his thumb over his shoulder to the bed of his truck.
It was then I noticed he had a sleeping bag.
“Look, I have an extra bed in my hotel room,” I explained. “It’s not unusual to let someone else use it as I stay in hotels all over Texas.”
The Cement Pond
Appreciatively, Mike followed me to the motel on Valley Mills Drive. I told him I was going to take a quick shower and then go out to eat. He was welcome to go dine with me if he wanted.
When I came out of the bathroom after the shower, Mike wasn’t in the room or at his truck.
A family next to the swimming pool looked puzzled and disgusted about something. Trying to figure out what was wrong I looked out over a sight now permanently etched in my memory bank.
Straight out of a scene from the 1960s television classic series, “The Beverly Hillbillies,” was the real live Mike McCormick portraying the part of the fictional character Jethro Bodine, made famous by Max Baer, Jr.
Mike, clad in shorts, was soaped up and shampooing his hair in that Best Western’s cement pond.
Mike was often teamed up with Gary Athur, a journeyman ironworker AND carpenter from San Antonio who came up for the Waco project. Together they were the ‘A-Team,” a versatile and reliable duo.
Mike told us about a steakhouse down the highway called The Longhorn Tavern. It was perfect for our daily lunches: a bit dark ambience, with a jukebox of George Strait singing:
Pardon me, you left your tears on the jukebox And I’m afraid they got mixed up with mine I don’t mean to pry, it’s just that I Noticed you goin’ out of your mind…
The steaks, burgers, chicken fried steaks and iced tea were awesome.
After a particularly productive workweek, we locked the jobsite up an hour early so the crew could beat a heavy thunderstorm rolling in. Mike left towards Corsicana. Gary and I took off down IH-35 South to San Antonio.
The torrential rain was bad enough but it was the wind and lightning that concerned us. Gary kept his fingers on the radio dial in search of weather alerts while continuously peering out all windows. I kept my eyes on the road and hands firmly on the wheel of the F-250 sky blue Ford.
It was on this trip I learned how nervous Gary was about tornadoes. As he expressed his concerns my grip became tighter. At one point, near Round Rock, we pulled over and tried to wait it out at a Kentucky Fried Chicken.
I never really thought that much about tornadoes the way he did. In 1973 on a Corpus Christi H-E-B site on Weber Street, the crew ran into freezers and coolers while a tornado came over us. It was as loud as the cliche everyone says: “It sounds like a freight train.”
In junior high, my family lived in a trailer while our house was under construction. Under tornado warnings, we grabbed some items and sped over to my Aunt Lydia’s home a couple miles away. It was there I saw my first tornado dropping out of the dark clouds. Fortunately, that one never touched down.
As Gary and I were eating our fried chicken, I remember thinking about the tornado Dorothy encountered in The Wizard of Oz.
After the Waco project finished, I was sent to build a strip center near H-E-B in Flour Bluff, located between Corpus Christi and North Padre Island. There were no doubts Mike would go with us.
He joined what we called, “The Love Crew,” consisting of Gary Arthur, Jim Koenig, Sterling Tools, Richard Martin and Tom Kelly (all, except Richard, had worked with me in Waco. I originally hired Richard and another future H-E-B facilities manager, Ronnie Kaderka, as carpenters for the construction of Flour Bluff H-E-B in 1981). Our mission was to “build the best” and “spread the love all over Texas.”
There was another H-E-B Construction job going on South Staples Street in Corpus and about once a week each site’s crew would compete against the other in friendly games of baseball and basketball.
With tall Mike and Tom Kelly (a basketball wizard from Waco) we easily won basketball. But we also beat them at baseball.
During this time I took Mike and Mark McGaugh (a friend of his from Corsicana who worked with us for a while) to do some small job at a H-E-B there.
At lunchtime we went to a Bonanza Steak House and, following them in, I picked up a large green grasshopper.
Mike took his time at the salad bar providing me an opportunity to place the grasshopper in his iced tea glass. Mark couldn’t believe it, but kept his cool when Mike returned to our booth and sat beside him.
When he took a drink, he didn’t notice. Mark turned red and started laughing which caused me to do the same.
“What’s the matter?” Mike asked. “Did one of you pass gas or something?”
“No. I just mentioned you were building a masterpiece at the salad bar and you come back with the tallest and most perfect salad I’ve ever seen,” I laughed, trying to save our joke.
He’d take another sip and that grasshopper would kick and splash. Mark and I burst out laughing with Mike joining us, thinking we were laughing at his Taj Mahal of a salad.
Mike drank the entire glass with that poor grasshopper flailing around among the ice cubes and tea. We could barely eat, unsuccessfully trying not to explode into hysterics.
It wasn’t until he went up to get a refill that he finally noticed that grasshopper. We could see him shaking his head,”Mmmm Mmmm. What the hell?”
In 1985 my next project was to build a store in the Texas-Mexico border town of Del Rio. The Love Crew, (minus Jim and Richard) came with me.
One day during the project, a couple of unfamiliar men came up and asked about Mike. I remained minimal in my replies, because I didn’t know if he was in some kind of trouble (or even why two strangers would ask about him).
“We just drove by and saw him on that jackhammer,” one said. “We think he’d be good in a movie.”
They explained they were from a motion picture film company in the area preparing for a shoot in Brackettville, Texas. It would feature some famous country singing stars.
It turned out country singer Mel Tillis had developed a knack for writing. But he didn’t know it until he tried to break into the music business.
I had first seen Tillis appearing with Roy Clark at the Frontier Hotel in June 1979. As a university journalism student who had already scored interviews with Elvis Presley, Clint Eastwood, James Earl Jones and Rosalind Russell, I thought I’d try with Tillis and Clark.
(I also tried meeting Tammy Wynette during that same trip to Vegas. I didn’t get an interview but was thrilled to get a kiss on the cheek as she sang her hit, “Stand by Your Man.”)
I did get to speak with Tillis briefly prior to his and Clark’s show. He was especially excited that his daughter, Pam would be introduced and sing for her first ever professional performance that night.
During our talk he called me Jack Denny. Stupid me, I corrected him: “My last name’s Dennis!”
He laughed and told me about a man named Jim Denny.
”When I went out to Nashville the first time, I wasn’t a songwriter at all,” Tellis said. “Jim Denny had started Cedarwood Publishing company and said he wasn’t looking for stuttering singers. He was looking for copyrights. I didn`t even know I was a songwriter– but I had to do something.”
Uphill All the Way
“Well, when I went back home to Florida, I gave it a try. I wrote three songs, and they all turned out to be No. 1 country hits.”
Eventually Tillis would not only write songs, he’d go on to write books and movie scripts.”
Six years later Tillis and Clark paired up again to make a comedy western movie, “Uphill All the Way.” They had already filmed some up in Rusk, home of the Texas State Railroad. The actors and crew would be coming to stay at condos converted from the original living quarters of Fort Clark Springs, about 30 miles from Del Rio.
Because of his height, they were inquiring about Mike being cast in the movie.
Excited for Mike, I told them they were welcome to go talk to him. From a distance, it was fun observing his body language. Mike was startled and relunctant.
We talked about it during lunch. The actors and crew would be filming at Alamo Village, a movie set originally built by James “Happy” Shahan for John Wayne’s 1960 The Alamo.
Other movies filmed there included “Two Rode Together” (1961) with James Stewart, and “Bandolero!” (1968) with Stewart, Dean Martin and Raquel Welch.
Saying No to Hollywood
“Gosh Mike, your job will be waiting for you,” I said. “You should at least go meet with them, and give it a shot.”
The next morning or so he went to Alamo Village. He came back that afternoon shaking his head.
“I told them no,” he said. “Not going to do it. They want me to wear a derby hat, suspenders and frilly white shirt. No way. Because my shoe size is 18, they won’t let me wear my work boots and that’s all I have here.”
“They said something about going up around Lajitas near Big Bend (National Park) and riding in a pink car so my feet don’t show. I’m sure as hell not going to be in a movie dressed like that in a pink car.”
The good natured young man from Corsicana, Texas had said his peace. It was final!
Mike enjoyed being on the western movie lot, seeing their reconstructed Alamo, and walking on the same places John Wayne did. But it was all way out of his comfort zone.
A year or so later, shortly after the Challenger space shuttle explosion, Mike came to my office (I had been promoted and was out of the field) upset about the tragedy.
That weekend we watched the movie at a local theater and were surprised to see Glen Campbell, Burt Reynolds, Burl Ives, Sheb Wooley and TV’s Riddler, Frank Gorshin, from the 1960s Batman show, in it. Mike laughed throughout the film. In all the years I knew him, it was the only time I heard of him going to a movie theater.
Afterwards, he said he felt he would have enjoyed being in it, and revealed more about his visit to Alamo Village.
“They took me over to that old fort across the highway where everyone was staying,” he explained. “I saw where Mel Tillis was staying upstairs in one of those condos and Roy Clark was downstairs. This one guy, who seemed a little too girly, wanted to know if I wanted to go in one with him. I’m not exactly sure what he was asking for but I think he was trying to hit up or make some kind of move on me.”
“That’s when I told them to take me back to that Alamo (Village) place and get the hell out of Dodge,” he confessed and laughed. “And it did look a lot like Dodge City.”
“I’m just glad you didn’t go jump in their pool to shampoo your body in front of all those movie stars,” I teased.
Years later, I became Director of Facilities Management at H-E-B, and Mike worked in our Maintenance Department serving the Waco region. By this time he had married his sweetheart Jana, and started raising a family.
When H-E-B planned to install tortillerias in our stores, I took Mike, Richard Martin and Alex Portales to the Tortilleria manufacturer in Wittier, California near Los Angeles for certification and maintenance training.
When we arrived at John Wayne Airport on a Sunday evening, Mike was mesmerized with the 9 foot statue of “The Duke” in the terminal.
In the evenings we went to Universal Studios and Dodger Stadium. It was fun taking these guys to places they’d never dreamed they’d ever be.
We excelled in the class and earned our certifications a day early, on a Thursday morning. Because our flight back to Texas didn’t leave until Friday evening, I suggested a quick side trip.
“Where?” Richard asked. “Disneyland?”
“No, I’m kind of burned out on amusement parks,” I replied. “I was thinking y’all might want to go out to Death Valley and maybe to the Roy Rogers museum.”
It was unanimous. They all said yes. But I waited until we were well on the way before I announced “the reason I thought you wouldn’t mind coming this way…”
I could see Mike looking at me with curiosity from the rear view mirror.
“…is because it’s on the way to Las Vegas.”
Meeting John Wayne
“Waaaahoooo!,” he yelled. “Are you kidding me? Really?”
“Only on one condition,” I warned seriously. “That Mike doesn’t go jump into any of those Vegas cement ponds and take a bath.”
After we arrived in Vegas and they played awhile, I took them to another surprise: tickets to a Las Vegas show.
I could immediately tell Mike was reluctant. More interested in cranking slot machine handles, he really had no need or desire to go sit in a theater and watch any kind of performance.
I slipped the Maitre d’ a $10 bill (it was in the mid-1990s, so a ten spot would do the job). He sat us down at the center table, up against the stage. Mike’s hesitancy to being there increased. He slumped down as if just wanting to get this over.
The theater was in the Imperial Palace and the show was Legends in Concert. Fairly new back then, it has grown and spread to various venues across the world.
Just as Mike could take no more, Richard and I could see someone approaching him from behind.
Wearing a weathered, leather cowboy hat and matching vest, a blue Western-style shirt and ruddy old blue jeans, John Wayne tapped Mike on the shoulder and pushed his hand towards him.
(Legends is a tribute to world famous entertainers. John Wayne was protrayed by John Wain, whose given name was Lloyd LeBlanc. He legally changed it to Wain in 1978.)
“Hi Pilgrim,” the Duke shook Mike’s hand with the spotlight directly on him. “Stand up and stand straight and erect like you would if you were facing the American flag…”
Mike did as he was commanded and towered above the tall cowboy.
“.. Old Glory. Oh Glory me!”
The audience applauded. Mike McCormick and John Wayne were in the House!!!
“You are a tall one, aren’t Che?,” The Duke continued as the American Flag appeared on two large screens, on both sides of the stage.
“Remember when you see our flag, put your right hand over your heart, like this, and our great flag will salute back by proudly waving in the breeze.”
(Later I learned Wain served in the Marines in the early ’50s. After being honorably discharged he took a swing at a career in professional baseball — while in the Cleveland Indians’ minor-league chain, his roommate was Roger Maris, who broke Babe Ruth’s major-league’s home run record in 1961.)
The crowd roared. The flags waved. It was Mike’s finest hour.
Through the years Mike continued to mature and led all facilities operations in our North Texas stores and properties. Jana and Mike had three boys, Michael, Jerry and Christopher. They bought some acreage outside of Silver City near Corsicana and moved a double-wide mobile home on the property to raise animals and grow a garden.
In early 1998 while in San Antonio for a meeting he told me he was going to go into business on his own. After we talked for awhile, I knew he had thought it out. It was best for his family and he would stay closer to Corsicana more often.
We hugged each other, shook hands and said our good byes.
On Saturday morning, October 17, 1998, the McCormick family was sitting in their living room enjoying cartoons on television.
Mike was keeping an eye on a storm brewing and watched as it grew dark and ominous from the south.
He walked up to the back door and saw it coming through a row of trees on the back of his property. A whirling deep gray monster was coming straight at them.
‘I’ll See You in Heaven’
Mike ran to the bedroom and brought back a large mattress. The grinding noise of destruction screamed louder as he ordered everyone to the floor. Jana grabbed baby Christopher and Jerry.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” he told his family as he sheltered them with the mattress. “But if we don’t make it, I’ll see you in Heaven.”
Two men in a pickup driving eastbound on State Highway 31 approaching the junction at Farm Road 55, saw the raging tornado from a distance.
At 10:30 a.m. the McCormick’s home exploded. Jana was lifted through the whirling black force of mangling metal, shredding lumber and thousands of particles of glass, splinters, dirt, and other materials.
Spinning in the exploding storm, she lost Jerry. Somehow through shocking horror, she was able to keep Christopher in her grasping arms.
The men in the pickup could tell by now the mobile home and everything in it was gone. Amazingly, a shed with a goat just 50 feet away were untouched.
Little Michael survived and frantically ran towards the highway. The pickup stopped and saw the bloody boy in terror.
They searched for more survivors as someone called for emergency responders. Kerry was found in mud trying to get out. Jana was injured, not quite sure if her children had survived. Mother and children were rushed to the Columbia Navarro Regional Hospital as searchers looked for Mike.
The F-2 tornado had cut through 12.8 miles of Navarro County. Radar data and the eyewitness accounts of heavy rainfall suggest the tornado was spawned by a high-precipitation supercell…a deadly supercell.
I drove to Austin with Steve Johnson, our One Hour Photo Maintenance Technician, and picked up Richard Martin and we arrived that evening not prepared for the horror.
We tried to get to Richard sooner, but San Antonio experienced over 15 inches of rain. At one point some sections of Interstate 35 near New Braunfels were covered with over 5 feet of water.
Seeing it in person is far more devastating than what I had ever witnessed before.
“I’ll never forget just seeing that slab,” Steve recalls. Everything was splintered, totally.
At this point, for two decades I had participated in rescues, preparations and aftermaths of hurricanes, storms, fires and floods. By 1988, I led the corporate emergency command center operations for such catastrophes.
But never had I seen this much devastation in an area the size of the McCormick’s yard.
I was shown by a sheriff’s deputy the place they saw Mike’s size 18 boots sticking up out of the mud. He was carried over two football field lengths away and his back was broken on impact as his body became covered in the sludge.
“If it hadn’t been for the toes of his boots sticking up, we might still be out there looking for him,” the deputy said.
Storms in Texas that day killed four people. Forced evacuations were made across the state, especially South of Austin and in San Antonio.
The tornado was a bastard. It killed my friend. His funeral was postponed for six days while his wife tried to heal enough to be brought to the services in an ambulance.
Michael McCormick 25 Nov. 1965 Westminster CA 17 Oct. 1998 Silver City, Navarro Co. Texas
Mr. McCormick was killed when a tornado hit and flattened his mobile home near Silver City on Oct. 17, 1998. Services were held Oct. 23, at Griffin-Roughton Chapel, Corsicana. Burial followed at Hamilton-Beeman Cemetery, Retreat.
“Mike” is survived by his wife, Jana McCormick; sons, Michael, Jerry and Christopher; parents, Michael and Val McCormick, Corsicana; brother and sister-in-law, Danny and Lisa Pownall of Corsicana; two nieces and two nephews. Mike’s wife and three sons suffered severe injuries in the twister but are recuperating.
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