(Plagiarism―even regarding a title―is not my style. But when life imitates art to this degree . . . Well, hell . . . sometimes you just have to commit the crime.)
By Don Kenton Henry
The red, white and chrome Continental Trailways bus wound southbound down that ribbon of Highway 59 ensconced in the darkness of the piney woods of east Texas. Head lights of the coach lit the road ahead and stars lit the clear night sky I gazed upon, my head propped against the window in the forward most seat across from the driver. In the terms of the Louis L’Amour paperback on my lap, Houston was about a two day horse ride ahead . . . or about forty five minutes at the rate we were traveling.
It would be my third time to Space City. I had first visited with my family during spring break of my eighth grade. We toured the Astrodome. The second time had been going north on the bus ride home to Finn’s Landing, Indiana. I changed buses in Houston coming and would do so going. It was New Year’s Day 1971. My journey had begun two weeks earlier in McAllen, Texas and that’s where it was scheduled to end. Three hundred fifty miles further south, in the Rio Grande Valley, in a place where pine trees would be replaced with palms. I was sixteen years old, an age many might consider young to be making a three thousand mile trip by bus unaccompanied by an adult. But it was a safer time, or what many believed, a safer time. And in certain terms for me . . . a more innocent time. Besides, beggars can’t be choosers. And that is exactly what I had done. I had begged to go home. Begged to visit my mom and family. Begged to visit the girl back home. Begged to escape the culture shock of being a kid from the Midwest who stuck out like an Indiana cornstalk in a field of Valley melons. I had no one to blame but myself as I had seemingly gone out my way to get myself in the position I was in. I had already be expelled from two high schools when my mother took a second mortgage to cover the tuition of the military academy she sent me to in early November. Three short weeks later I was expelled from there and―with no other options available to her (as I was not yet old enough for the United States Marines to whom my maternal grandfather wanted to consign my care)―she shipped me off to my father in McAllen. I will not distract you with all the reasons I was expelled from schools except to say I was an incorrigible and borderline felonious prankster suffering an acute case of small town boredom and inspired by the same curiosity which killed the proverbial cat. My psychiatrist said, in spite of my high IQ, I was a dumbass. And as to why my mother was reluctant to send me to live with my father, I will only say the same could be said for my father as said for me except that his behavior exceeded any borders and was more convenient, enabled and enhanced by living on the border and channeling Pancho Villa in weekend raids into Mexico for booze, what, on this side, would have been prescription drugs and a lifestyle which would have made Hemingway blush. Given all the disappointment and accompanying expense I had generated, precipitating my predicament, none felt me deserving of the airfare for a plane ride home for the Christmas holiday. But, such was the degree of my contrition, my mother sprung for the bus fare.
In spite of his rapscallion ways, on the rare occasions of his sobriety, my father honestly was capable of tendering the responsible kind of advice a parent typically offers one’s child. “Now, Junior. Your bus is going to be stopping in a lot of towns, big and small, on the road to Indiana and back . . . and sometimes in the middle of the night. I know you think you got the whole goddamn world figured out but it’s obvious you don’t or you wouldn’t be taking the fucking bus in the first place. So when it stops in a station, I want you to either keep your ass on the bus or make a quick trip inside to take a piss―or whatever―or― if you have to change buses―to keep your ass inside that station until you board the next fucking bus. Is that damn fucking clear?” And, over the phone, my mother said the same thing. “Now, Donnie, I’m worried about you. You’re only sixteen years old and those are big cities, Louisville, Little Rock and Memphis, you’ll be going through. So please―for safety’s sake―promise me you won’t leave the bus stations at any time, day or night! I pray . . . do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” I assured them both. And I meant it. And, as they hoped, the trip up had been uneventful. I was certain the return trip would be also but was cognizant and proud of the more confident and experienced world traveler I had become.
I had left Finn’s Landing the day before, on New Year’s Eve. My mom and my best friend had taken me to the bus station to see me off.
DON KENTON HENRY PRIOR TO DEPARTURE 12.31.70
Through the window of the bus I watched my mom wipe her eyes with a kerchief she kept specifically for the times we shared together. As we pulled into the street for my long ride back to Texas, a light snow fell from a gray Indiana sky. Now, evening the next day, the highway signs indicated we were only one hundred, seventy-five, fifty then twenty-five miles from Houston. I sat straight up in my seat peering ahead down the highway while most of the passengers slept. I had already napped a good portion of the day’s trip and was wide awake and excited about the prospect of seeing the big city once again. As we neared closer and closer the lights of Houston loomed larger and brighter through the bus’s big windshield. The skyscrapers were lit up and the view reminded me of the one Dorothy saw as she Toto and the gang skipped along the road to OZ. Magical. Alluring. Drawing me closer to the infinite and wondrous possibilities my imagination indulged me. Not that I intended to partake of any of them. Just imagining them was exciting enough. As we entered the outskirts of the city I leaned forward in my seat. My eyes widened as the buildings loomed taller and the lights burned brighter. I could hardly contain myself as we approached and the bus took a long curving exit ramp into downtown. Why was everyone else not awake taking it all in, I thought. It was Friday night and, even though it was almost eleven at night, the city was alive with activity. From my view high above the street, I could look down inside all the fancy cars with beautiful women in the passenger seats, their jewelry reflecting the light of street lamps and neon. Billboards offered suggestions of things and a life of which I could only dream. How lucky people were to live in a city like this.
The bus slowly traversed the streets and intersections of downtown making its way to the bus station. I gazed at the seemingly endless blocks of restaurants, pawn shops and night clubs. A person could eat in a different restaurant every day of his life here and never try them all. Of course, it would have taken more than the twelve dollars I had left in cash in my pocket from the two tens my mom stuffed there the day before.
We pulled in the station amidst other buses coming and going from all points of the nation’s compass. The Houston Continental Trailways bus station at 1114 McKinney Street was a crossroads for the south in the forties through the seventies. Before air travel became affordable, there was hardly a southern girl bound for fame and fortune in Hollywood or a Texas farm boy bound for war or coming home from one that didn’t stop there. And that’s where this kid with Indiana hay seeds in his hair found himself.
Houston, Texas Continental Trailways Station at 1114 McKinney St. and San Jacinto, Circa 1970
First on, and first off, I took my place next to the bus and waited for the driver to open the horizontal door to the luggage compartment between the front and rear wheels. My two, by three, by one and a half tan, heavy duty fiberboard foot locker with a brass latch and lock and brown leather handles on each end stood out among the rest and the driver tossed it off first. It was too cumbersome and heavy to carry and most everything I owned was in there. It’s not that it was much. At sixteen you don’t own much. At least not back then. It wasn’t like I could get a bicycle in that foot locker. It held my clothing, pictures of my girlfriend and family, along with a favorite book or two. I had dragged it with me from my home in Finn’s Landing, to my grandparent’s when I attended high school number two. Then to military school, to Texas, back home and to Texas once again. I wish I’d a gotten a sticker to slap on that trunk. One for every little town, city and place it went with me. You know, like the immigrants and rich folks who brought their belongings in steamer trunks back and forth across the Atlantic and pasted labels bearing the names of exotic places like London, Paris and New York. Mine would read Howe Military Academy, Gnaw Bone, Evansville, Paducah, Buck Snort, Arkadelphia and Texarkana.
I picked my trunk up by the leather handle on one end and dragged it through the boarding doors of the station into the lobby. I immediately stopped and processed the sheer number of travelers amassed in a venue far too small to accommodate them. It was, after all, New Year’s Day and I wasn’t the only one returning home from visiting family for the holidays. The room was filled to standing room only capacity with people holding children and carryon bags. They were standing next to each other, tired and weary, most simply wanting to get safely home and rest before the work week began. I dragged my foot locker to the departure board and saw that my bus to McAllen, by way of Corpus Christi, did not depart until 4 a.m. That gave me four and a half hours waiting in the hot and crowded lobby imbued with the scents and complete sensory experience that comes with sharing a confined place with diesel fumes, tobacco smoke and fellow travelers, some of whom had not showered or had a change of clothes in three days. What would I do to pass the time but sit on my locker and read a little more L’Amour. Before resigning myself to that, I made my way to a wall of windows bordering the street and from there assessed the situation. It was, eleven thirty and I could see the street was still alive with traffic and the sidewalk with people. I also knew there must be a lot to see beyond the station door. I know I had promised my parents I would not leave a station but this was the last stop with a layover before arriving at the trip’s end the next day. Besides, I had been good so far. In fact, I had almost kept a promise to my parents for once. I thought to myself, “What harm would it do to just take a walk on the street to see what was out there? But what do with my locker in the meantime?” I went back to luggage check-in, in an attempt to check my foot locker but was told I could not do so until 3 a.m., three hours prior to departure and an hour and a half from now. I could hardly lug it down the street with me. I stood there for what became obvious to me was a waste of my young life until I noticed a large mass of people congregated in the middle of the lobby beyond strays like myself outside the herd. I deposited my book inside the locker and, with it in tow, made my way to edge of the crowd. I nudged in far enough to see that, like settlers circling the wagons, they had given up holding their luggage and had placed it in the center among that of other travelers. They were now free to stand back, relaxed and unencumbered but still able to observe their items. “Hmmm . . .” I thought. “All I have to do is place my foot locker among their luggage, retreat to the crowd and watch for five minutes and no one will remember I am associated with it. I can then withdraw from the scene and look for a storage locker in which to place my own, secure it and, key in hand, go into the street for a little tour.” This I could do knowing my belongings were safe. And so I did. According to plan, I waited then slowly backed out of the throng of people to the walls of the station in search of a locker. To my disappointment, every locker in the station was occupied. A key extending from a lock was the indication the space was available. And not one was visible. What could I do. I made my way back to the inner circle of people and could see my foot locker remained untouched. Now, I wouldn’t want to go out and for any extended stay or adventure but what if I simply left it for ten or fifteen minutes on a short reconnaissance mission. Surely, under those circumstances, no one would notice that I, the owner, was not present. Surely, it would be safe. Secure with that thought, I again backed away from the crowd and made my way to the door. I opened it and stepped into the streets of Houston, at that time, the fifth largest city in the country. Immediately my ears were filled with the sounds of car horns and distant sirens and my lungs filled with what, even in January, was humid, Gulf Coast air. Not knowing where to begin, I thought to walk around the block and began by turning left. This took me to what I now know to be Fannin Street. There was a jewelry store on the corner and I gazed in awe at the items on display.
Continental Trailways hostess of sixties on their Five–Star Luxury Service, running from Dallas to Houston, gazes in the window of the jewelry store around the corner from the station on Fannin Street.
They were nothing like the high school class rings and Timex watches in the window of Fitzgerald’s back in Finn’s Landing. “Somebody would have to be a movie star to afford this stuff,” I thought. I walked on past pawn shops and window after window filled with neon lights advertising everything from liquor and dancing to adult porn. I caught a reflection of myself in the glass, my mouth agape. Embarrassed, I straightened myself and attempted to look more adult like. I was just about at the end of the first block, and at a total loss as what to do for the next three and a half hours, when I spotted a movie theater’s lights flashing brilliantly. Encouraged, I jogged to its marquee. Much to my delight, it was showing a James Bond triple feature! And it was only $1.50 admission! Why, I could see at least one and half or more movies and make it back to on time to catch my bus. But what to do with my luggage. Surely I didn’t want to leave it unattended that long. I rushed back to the station.
As I reached to open the door, a tall man standing just inside opened it for me. He had seen me coming and politely paid me this courtesy. I said thank you and rushed past him to make certain my foot locker was where I had left it. To my huge relief, it was. But this didn’t solve the problem of what to do with it. I again searched for an empty storage locker and, again, found none. Once more, I assumed my position in the crowd, arms crossed across my chest, contemplating a solution.
“Those are some pretty big shoes you’re wearing, son. Do you play football?”
I looked up to my right, directly next to me, almost pressed against me in the crowd. It was the man who had held the door open for me. He was about 6’3″, a good two or three inches taller than myself, medium build and between thirty and forty years of age. He was neatly dressed. In fact, very neatly by bus station standards. He wore a light blazer of gray and tan, small checkered fabric over a crisply starched shirt with an open button-down collar. I stepped to my left a little to create some space between us and, as I did, I quickly looked him up and down. In addition to the blazer and shirt he wore black dress pants pressed with a sharp crease and black dress shoes that appeared to have been spit shined. He had the bearing of a military man and looked like the school principals at the high schools I had attended. All four of them. “Why yes, sir. I do play football.”
“I thought so, he said, continuing to size me up. “What position?”
“Quick tackle? Well, you have the shoulders for it. Where do you play?”
“Mac High, McAllen, Texas,” I answered.
“Awww . . . the Bulldogs.”
I was a surprised. “You know McAllen?” I asked.
“I used to get around the Valley a lot. Is that where you are headed? Headed home I bet.”
“Yes, sir. I live there with my Dad now. But I was back home visiting my mom and family.”
He asked my name and a lot of questions about my family and Indiana but always brought the conversation back to football and asked if I had seen the day’s bowl game scores. I told him, no, that I’d been on the bus all day. He said that Notre Dame had upset Texas, the previous year’s National Champions, 24 – 11. At the same, Notre Dame had gotten revenge for last year’s Cotton Bowl loss. I had grown up fifty five miles south of Notre Dame University. “Well, those boys on the McAllen winter football team are going to want to take that out on me when I get back to McAllen,” I said with a grin. He laughed at that and carried the conversation. Uncertain about him at first, I began to relax. Consistent with my first impression of him, I came to perceive him as a football coach or teacher. He was articulate and confident. He smiled easily.
“Say, I couldn’t help but see you come in off the street. In fact, I saw you leave the station. What were you looking for out there?”
“Well, sir, I have never been in a big city like this without my parents so I thought I would just do a little exploring and see what was out there. You know, see if I could find something to do until my bus leaves for the Valley.”
“And what did you find?”
“Well, I saw a lot of fancy stores but they were all closed. But (my eyes must have widened a little and I know I was I was grinning as I told him with no small amount of excitement in my voice) I found a James Bond triple feature! And I figure if I go there I can see a lot in the next three hours before my bus leaves!”
He pulled back, squared up and, looking down at me, said, “Son, you mean to tell me that you come from small towns like McAllen and Finn’s Landing and you find yourself in the largest city in the South and the best you can come up with to do is go to a James Bond triple feature?” He laughed heartily and incredulously as he said this.
My smile dropped and I felt my face flush. “Well, sir, I am only sixteen years old and there’s only so much I can do at age sixteen.”
“Sixteen! Why I thought you were older than that! Hmmm . . . well let me see. I know a lot of people.” He seemed to be giving something a lot of thought. “Say, what if instead of coming to Houston, Texas and seeing a movie, the next time you came through here you could put a quarter in the phone and call somebody your age? They could come down here and pick you up and you could have some friends to hang out with while you were in town. How does that sound?”
“Gee, I guess that sounds pretty good. Who are you talking about?”
“There are a lot of nice young people your age who live where I live and, in fact, one of them, a nice, pretty German girl is having a party at her place tonight. It’s probably just getting really going right about now! How’d you like me to take you there and introduce you to these kids?”
“Well . . . that would be pretty cool. But what am I going to do about my foot locker there?” I asked him pointing toward it.
“Let me worry about that.”
He made a bee line to my trunk, picked it up by both handles and carried it through the crowd. I followed right behind him as he went to the luggage counter and threw my trunk on it. “I want to check this in to 3:30 bus to Austin, ” he told the clerk.
“Wait!” I exclaimed, “I’m not going to Austin! My bus leaves at 4:00 to Corpus!”
He turned around, put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in, and, lowering his voice, said, “Listen, Don. We can’t check it in to Corpus Christi for another half hour. Don’t worry. We’ll be back in plenty of time for you to give him the ticket, he’s about to give us, and reclaim your trunk in time to get it on your bus to Corpus.” And with that, he paid the clerk, who gave him a yellow ticket, and put my trunk on a rack behind the counter. Handing the ticket to me and said, “Follow me.”
I followed him through the crowd, through the station door and onto the sidewalk where he immediately hailed a yellow cab. It pulled to the curb and he opened the back door and told me to get in. Shutting the door behind me, he climbed into the front seat next to the driver, gave the driver an address to which I paid no attention and we were off. I watched where we were going, more out of curiosity than anything, but within minutes had no idea where the station was from that point. It was now past midnight and, with little traffic, we traveled quickly. Within ten minutes, we had left downtown proper and, in another five, had entered a residential neighborhood. We pulled up outside a relatively small, older, three story brick apartment building. There was a palm tree in the front yard. We got out, he paid the driver and I followed him to the entrance leading directly into a hallway with doors to each unit. It was well lit, clean and all was quiet as we headed to a stairwell in the center of the floor. It was dead quiet. There was certainly no party going on, on the first floor. I followed him up the stairs to the second floor where there was something of platform we had to traverse to the stairs to the third floor. There was nothing but silence on the second floor. “The party has to be on the third floor,” I thought.
I followed him up the third and last flight of stairs and we exited onto the floor. Again, dead silence. No music. No laughter. Not the sound of a voice. Just total quiet. I followed him to a corner unit not twenty feet from the stairwell. “I don’t hear anything. I can’t hear any party going on,” I said, as he stopped at the door and removed a key chain from his pocket. “This is a nice place. People are respectful. I live in this apartment. I want to get some things to take to the party.” With that he opened the door and motioned for me to go in ahead of him. I did, and turned as he entered and closed the door. There was a dead bolt lock on the inside and he took a key, locked it and put the keys back in his pocket. It occurred to me that I was locked in but I determined that as this was a big city―it probably had a lot of crime―and one couldn’t be too safe. I would do the same, I thought. The apartment was small and dimly lit. He brushed past me and within three steps we passed a short hallway leading to a bathroom on the left and very small kitchen across from it. This put us on the edge of his living room. It was no more than about eight by ten feet. He paused and pointed to an orange vinyl sofa along the left wall. The middle, bottom cushion had a long horizontal tear in it with dingy white cotton stuffing sticking out. He pointed at it and told me to have a seat. I took a seat on the far end against the wall. “Let’s get going to the party. I don’t have a lot of time before my bus leaves,” I told him.
“Patience, kid. I’m just going to get a few things and we’ll go down there.”
I looked about as he entered the bathroom and, having left the door open, I heard him brush his teeth. Next, I heard him gargle. He gargled in earnest and for what seemed an inordinately long period of time. I think it was somewhere, just prior to his spitting in the sink, a sense of uneasiness began to come over me. When he spit, it enveloped me.
He re-entered the living room and, before he could sit down or say anything, I asked him, “Could we please get going to the party!”
“Easy, kid. Let me call down there and see what she needs us to bring.” With that, he made his way to a black rotary dial phone on a stand across the room from the sofa. He picked up the receiver and dialed some numbers. I couldn’t hear a thing but he looked toward the ceiling and appeared to be waiting for an answer. Finally, he put the receiver down. “There’s no answer. They must have gone out to get some more things to eat or drink. We’ll just wait a little while. I’m certain they’ll be back soon. He then took a seat at the opposite end of the sofa from me, leaving the torn seat cushion between us.
I did not at all like that we were not going immediately to the party. Something was just not right about that. I sat rigid with my hands on my knees. He leaned forward and slightly in my direction and, as he leaned, he reached to a shelf under a coffee table and grabbed a pile of magazines. As he withdrew them, he slid a little closer to me and placed them on my lap. I looked down.
“Take a look at these kid. These should get you in the mood for that cute little German girl I’m going introduce you to. I focused on the cover of the top magazine. It took some moments to appreciate what I was seeing as I had never seen an image like the one that appeared there. In black and white was something entirely foreign to a sixteen year existence shaped by an insulated small town upbringing and alternating indoctrinations in the Presbyterian and Church of Christ. It was certainly nothing like the crusty Playboy that made it around the barracks at the military academy. I felt a wave of revulsion wash over me. Apparently, I had skimmed over Galatians in bible study and, thankfully, that was probably because it wasn’t illustrated with pictures like these. The scene was of every possible sexual combination of men with women, women with men, men with men, women with women, of every race and color in every possible combination of copulation, penetration and―for the introvert in the corner―masturbation. I felt the blood run from my head. He scooted a little closer as he asked, “What do ya think of that, kid? Does that do anything for you?”
“No. No that doesn’t do anything for me,” I said. “Look, could you please call the girl and see if we can go.”
“Would you relax. I just called!”
Now I was scared. I wanted to stand but I was frozen. He reached and turned the cover, and a page or two, to one with a photo of a woman giving oral sex to a man endowed with nothing like I had ever seen in the junior high locker room.
“How ’bout that!”
“No.” It was all I could manage to say.
He moved even closer. Now he had covered most of the distance of the middle cushion and leaned against my right shoulder as he turned to another photo. My knees began to shake. I tried to stop them by holding them tight with my hands but now my hands were starting to tremble and the harder I tried to stop them both from shaking the harder they shook. He kept turning pages and asking the same question. Then, getting more specific, “Does that make your dick hard, kid? C’mon, tell me. I know it’s gotta make your dick hard!”
“No. No, it doesn’t,” was all I could manage.
My mind raced. What had I gotten myself into. All my parent’s nightmares were materializing and I was in the middle of the worst of them. With no idea where that was except Houston, Texas. And my parents had no idea where I was. And no one at the bus station knew where I was. If this was going where I ingeniously realized it was going, and I refused him, all he had to do was get up and go the kitchen around the corner, come back with a butcher knife―or worse―go to the bedroom and get a gun and he could kill me. All they might find of me would be my foot locker unloaded and waiting on the bus station luggage dock in Austin one hundred sixty miles west of my last scheduled stop. My mother would never be the same. I had read about people like this but never believed they really existed. Long before Cold Case Files became a TV series . . . I realized I could become one.
I had to get out of there. But how to do it. First I would have to steady myself but now my entire legs were shaking so hard I couldn’t stand. I tried but they just wouldn’t respond. My knees were literally knocking. Even if I could stand and run, the deadbolt on the apartment door was locked and the key was in his pants pocket. I had to make a decision. I knew I would not let him touch me. I could not consider a man touching me in a sexual way. I could not live with the memory of that. I could not live with myself. I would let him kill me before I gave into that. I saw one possible solution short of that. There was an approximately four foot high by six foot wide window on the wall opposite me. Under it was the phone, on the stand, and a small wooden dining table to the right with a two foot gap between. If he came at me with a knife or gun, I would run and dive straight through that window and take my chances with the three story fall before I would allow this man to compromise me. I was committed to that as I am to each breath I now take.
His questions about this photo or that photo had taken on a frustrated, almost angry tone, when he made his final move. He slid hard to the left, directly against my right side. He pressed his shoulder hard into mine and his leg against my leg, forcing it inward. There was nowhere to go. My left shoulder was up against the wall. Then he reached with his big paw of a left hand, grabbed my right knee from above and squeezed hard. Very hard. The message was clear. He was tired of fooling around with some nervous kid. “C’mon, kid. I know your cock has to be hard by now. Let me feel it! I’m gonna feel it now!”
A switch flipped. A switch flipped and it was like a bolt of lightning shot through me. I grabbed his hand with my right and crushed it. I could feel his knuckles folding over each other as I squeezed. Never letting go, I shot straight up taking hand and arm with me. My legs no longer shook but felt like might oaks as I spun on the ball of my right foot to face him. I held his hand and arm fully extended above his head then slammed them down in his lap. I leanded directly into his face. I could feel my teeth bared like a wolf’s and in a slow growl I said, “Now you get in your pocket . . . and you get that key out. You go straight to that door . . . and you let me out of here!” Then―practically screaming―added, “Do you understand!” His eyes got wide and he flushed white. I felt I could strangle him and he sensed it.
“Ok, kid! … Ok, kid! I understand! Calm down! I’ll get the key out.” I took a step back and he rose to his feet and, as though in slow motion, reached his right hand into his pocket. He brought it out holding the key. I stepped aside and motioned to the door, “Now open the damn door!”
He began walking slowly toward it. “Faster! Faster!” … I thought. Would he really unlock the door or gather his courage, spin on me and make me fight him. I was ready. I stayed one foot behind him and had he started to turn I would have jumped on his back. But he moved to the door. His hand raised the key toward the dead bolt. The second dragged on like hours until the key stuck in the lock. It seemed like there was a pause and I prepared to go for the key. But slowly it turned. I could hear the tumblers. Then he let go and turned the knob of the lock, reached for the door knob, turned it … and the door opened. It was only a crack but when I saw the bright light of the hallway I jumped around him, shouldered him aside, shot my hand through the door and flung it open as I ran toward the stairwell. I hit it flying and practically sailed to the second floor. I crossed the platform and started clearing multiple steps. Just as I hit the first floor, I heard him and looked up to see him leaning over the rail of the third floor. “I’m sorry, kid! I didn’t mean to scare you . . . ”
“You fucking pervert!” I yelled. I wanted at whole building to hear me. “If I’d known you were a pervert―I never would have come here!”
“Yeah? Well someday somebody’s gonna get in your pants, kid!”
“Yeah―and when they do―it’s gonna be a girl!” And with that I shot through the doors of the building and wind sprinted the next two blocks before slowing down. I looked over my shoulder to make certain he wasn’t coming after me. And there I was. On a dark street in a place that seemed a million miles from the bus station. Not knowing which in direction I just kept walking straight ahead, looking behind me every twenty feet or so. I walked and caught my breath. Soon, I could see a well lit area about three blocks ahead. It turned out to be an elevated freeway. Getting closer, I could see the lights of an Exxon station under the freeway on the opposite side. All I needed to do was get there, call a cab and get back to the bus station.
(Now, my friend, I know you’re probably thinking this adventure ends here. How naïve of you.)
I had no change for a pay phone. I would have to get change. I continued to walk toward the Exxon station and, as I got closer, I could see the interior was well lit. This was good because that meant it was open and there would be an attendant on duty. 1971 was before self service and, if a station was open, there was always someone there to pump your gas. I would need him to get in the register and break a dollar. As I got to the edge of my side of the freeway I had a clear view and could see the attendant leaning back, his feet propped up on a desk. Checking for what little traffic there was at this time of night, I jogged across into the parking lot of the station and through the front door. It was a young man (probably mid to late twenties) behind the desk and, “Boy!” was I glad to see him. He perked up, took his feet off the desk and sat straight up looking me in the eye. Somewhat breathless and, I am certain, wide eyed, I walked to edge of the desk, produced a dollar from my wallet and asked him, “May I please have some change for the pay phone?”
A smile crossed his face as he leaned forward. “We don’t have a pay phone,” he answered.
“What! You don’t have a pay phone? You have to have a pay phone! I have to call a cab and get back to the bus station or I’m going to miss my bus home. Please! You gotta have a pay phone!”
“What’s your name, boy?” he asked me.
“Don. Don is my name. Now, please tell me where I can find a pay phone and could you please give me some change?”
“I’ll tell you what, Don,” he said, “you just keep your money and go into the office right behind me. There’s desk in there with a phone on it and a phone book right next to it.”
A sense of relief came over me. Finally, I was getting somewhere. I walked to the door and entered into the back room of a well lit office. Sure enough, there was another black rotary dial phone and a giant Yellow Page directory next to it. I thumbed through it for cabs, then taxis and went straight to Yellow Cab. I glanced at the round clock on the wall above the desk. It was 2:10 so I had an hour and twenty minutes before my luggage departed the station ahead of me and in the wrong direction. That should be plenty of time I thought. I dialed the number and the dispatcher picked up. “I need a cab. I need a cab to take me to the Continental Trailways bus station, please.”
“The Continental bus station,” she confirmed. “And where will you be picked up?”
“At an Exxon station. An Exxon station next to a freeway.”
There was a long pause. Then she said, “Son, I’m going to need an address.”
“Yeah. Yeah, oh sure! Just a second. I’ll get you one.” I set the phone receiver down and ran through to door into the lobby. The young man grinned as he gave me the address. I went back and picked up the phone. “I’m at Montrose Boulevard and the Southwest Freeway.”
“Roger that. Exxon station at Montrose Boulevard and the Southwest Freeway. I’ll send a cab. It could take up to half an hour or more.”
“Half an hour! Oh, no. I have to catch my bus!”
“I’m sorry son, but at this time of the night … that’s the best I can do.”
I hung up the phone and began to feel a sense of panic once again. “At least I wasn’t about to be molested,” I thought, in an attempt to calm myself. That’s when I turned around and saw him standing behind me. The attendant had managed to enter the room and close the door without me even knowing. He was in my path and I just looked at him. “So your cab won’t be here for at least half and an hour, is that right?”
“Yes. That’s right.”
“Well, it’s the weekend and a half hour gives us time to party,” he said, as he moved around me and plopped into the leather seat behind the desk, rolled back and opened a drawer and reached in. “Ok, I thought, “What’s he got in there? Is this where the gun comes in?” His hand came out and he was holding a fifth of Jack Daniels.
“What a ‘ya say you and me have some of this and get to know each other, kid?”
“Oh, no!” I thought. “What’s wrong with this town? Is everybody a pervert!”
“No thanks, sir,” I told him, “I’ll just stand outside on the corner and wait for my cab.” And I bolted out the room, the station and across the parking lot to the corner. I stood under a street light on the feeder and Montrose Boulevard. And waited. Every once in awhile I looked over my shoulder and the attendant, with his feet once again propped up on the desk, would smile real big and wave me in. I quickly turned my eyes back to the streets and looked for my cab. Time seemed to drag on forever. Once I got back to the station it would take some time to get my trunk out of baggage check and get it on the right bus. I waited nervously . . . and waited. Three times a car pulled over and some young man or middle age guy would ask me if I wanted a date. (I did not know it at the time, but would subsequently learn, I was standing on a corner, under a street lamp, at 2 something in the morning, in the second largest gay community in the United States, “Montrose”.) “A date! No, I don’t want a date!” I said with little semblance of composure. At last, a streak of yellow flew by me and I jumped into the street, thinking he had missed me. Then he slammed on his brakes, did a u-ey, accelerated toward me and slid the driver side of his tires right against the curb. Fortunately, I had jumped back on the sidewalk in the nick of time.
(Once again, I bet you think this story is basically said and done here, don’t you? Read on.)
“Boy, am I glad to . . . ” my words trailed off as I peered in at the driver. The biggest afro I have seen, before or since, sat atop the head of a giant, shirtless Mandingo warrior. I know, once again, my mouth was agape. This dude was in his prime. I would say he was in his late twenties to thirty years of age. His hugely muscular arm rested on the frame of his open window. His wrist bore a beaded bracelet, every finger rings and multi-colored love beads draped his neck and lay against the black, tight curls of the chest hair carpeting his pectoral muscles. (You have to remember this was 1971. It was the height of the “black pride” movement and this cat was workin’ it better than Shaft.)
“You the kid going to Continental bus station?” he asked. I hesitated. I looked past him and saw a big machete blade on the seat directly next to his right leg, its point almost making contact with the radio of his cab. “Well, is you my ride or is you ain’t, kid?” He asked again. “Cause is you ain’t―I gots other rides to catch!” I looked back into the Exxon station. The attendant hoisted the bottle of Jack Daniels above his head and grinned. I concluded I would rather have my head cut off and shrunken than deal with that.
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I’m your ride. Please get me to the Continental Trailways station downtown. I have to get home!” I started to get in the back seat but the door was locked and he told me to get up front beside him. I slid onto the vinyl bench seat, closed the passenger door and hugged it. He put the car in gear and burned rubber taking off. We drove along and I could not take my eye off the machete. Eventually, I assured myself this guy would not decapitate me and shrink my head as it was the pygmies of New Guinea that did that kind of thing and, for certain, this guy was no pygmy. He was at least six five and that might have qualified him as a Watusi but not a pygmy. His taxi id identified him as, Walt. I don’t recall his last name. “Walt The Watusi” is how I remember him.
“Whatcha’ doin’ away from the bus station at this time of night when you s’pposed to headed home, kid?” His tone was friendly. All that nervous energy was pent up inside me and I just opened up and told him the whole story.
“Man, you one stupid white kid, that’s all I can say. You is damn lucky!”
“Yes, sir. Yes, sir, I know that.”
We were back on the edge of downtown and, being about the only vehicle on the street, were cruising along at a pretty good clip. I knew we couldn’t be more than five minutes from the bus station. That’s when we came to a slow stop. Not at a stop light. Not a corner. But in the middle of a long street. “Why are we stopping, here?” I asked.
“‘Cause we outta gas, kid.”
“Outta gas! How could we be outta gas!” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it, kid. I be right back.” And with that, he put the flashers on, jumped out the door and flagged down another Yellow Cab driving by and, jumping in its front seat, off they sped. Probably for what he thought was my safety more than his, he took his machete with him.
The clock on the cab’s dash said it was now 3:10. This left me twenty minutes to get back, retrieve my trunk before it was bussed to Austin and fifty minutes to catch my own. I peered down the street leading into the heart of downtown. I looked to my left and saw vacant lots where it appeared buildings had been torn down. Then I looked right and saw them. “Them” was about five or six black guys propped up against the side of a long white two story building. Four of them were seated and two standing. Semi-standing, anyway. They were passing a bottle or two between them. And then them saw me. That’s when the whistling started. I heard, “Hey, white boy!” and one of the two standing started making his way toward the cab. Even for January it was a warm and humid night in Houston and my passenger window was down as well as the driver’s side. I quickly rolled mine up and locked the door, along with the back, and did the same on the driver’s side. Fortunately, my latest acquaintance of the evening, about to make his introduction, was stumbling at a rate slow enough to allow me time to do his. As I sat back straight up I heard him knock on my window. “Hey, white boy . . . you sure is cute. Yeah, you is!” I looked straight ahead not wanting to make eye contact. But then he tried to open my door and I couldn’t help but jump to my left and look at him. He couldn’t get in, of course, but that didn’t stop him from trying. He pressed his lips up against the glass and made like he was kissing me. I could hear his friends laughing hysterically. “C’mon on, fish. C’mon out and play wid us. We nice be to you. Dat’s a promise.” That’s when the his buddy stumbled out and climbed on to the hood of the car. I couldn’t stand to look and that’s when I noticed a folded evening addition of the Houston Chronicle. Walt had it opened to the sports section and the headline was “Irish Defeat Longhorns In Cotton Bowl.” I pretended to be absorbed with the statistics as Houston’s version of Welcome Wagon crawled around on the hood of the car and the Chairman of the Chamber of Commerce tried the remaining three doors of the cab before joining his friend on the hood. The latter appeared to be attempting to suck the antifreeze solvent out of the passenger side windshield washer port. “C’mon, sweet pea . . . you shoo is purty! Open up and share some hooch wid da brothas!” he said, coming up for air.
That’s when I again heard the sound of tires screeching to a halt and a car door slam. With a can of gas in one hand and his machete high above his head in the other, he charged the car, screaming, “Offa my cab, niggas or I’ll cut ya fuckin’ heads off!” (Later, in calmer moments, I would reflect . . . “So Walt does cut heads off after all.”)
I have to say, whether it sobered them or not, the boys on the hood acquired a new found spring in their step and beat a hasty retreat over the curb and back to their rightful place on the wall. Walt emptied the gas can into the tank, jumped in and didn’t say a word as he revved the engine, slammed the care in gear and raced toward the bus station. It took no more than three minutes at the 70 miles per hour I estimated we were traveling. I don’t think Walt ever came to a stop without sliding and that’s how he arrived at the station on McKinney. The meter had run to about fifteen bucks after sitting still on the street and I told Walt twelve dollars was all I had.
“Don’t sweat it, kid. We cool. Not everybody in Houston be bad. Dis here one’s on Walt.” And with that his radio squawked and he burned rubber into the night. I ran to the luggage counter waving my claim ticket as I went. I could hear the PA system announce, “Bus to Austin departing loading zone four in five minutes . . .”
“Oh no!” I thought, “My foot locker has probably already loaded on the wrong bus!”
I ran to the luggage counter, a look of panicked desperation on my face, and tendered my claim ticket to the clerk. He looked at me with a wry smile. It was the same clerk that had checked it in a few short hours earlier. He reached under counter and produced my trunk. He gave me a wink and said, “I held yours till last.” I took it from him and―suddenly able to carry it in both hands―ran to loading zone five where we would both soon be on the bus to Corpus. A few short minutes later, it was loaded and I took another seat next to a window. This time as far back in the bus as I could get.
Continental Trailways loading zones.
As the bus departed, the lights of the streets replaced those of the station’s boarding area but I couldn’t bear to look up or out. I could only see their illumination on the seat back in front of me. I felt dirty. I wanted to go home. I felt us come to stop after stop until there was a long period of acceleration and I knew we had entered the freeway and were headed south to Corpus Christi. “The Body of Christ”, I thought. “Our blessed father . . . thou hast delivered me from evil.”
When we had traveled continuously for some time, and the cabin darkened, I knew we were well on our way. Flat marsh land and prickly pear cactus told me I had escaped the dark and seedy experience that, for me, was Houston. “How could people live there? How could people live in big cities?” I thought. I could not wait to get back to my safe, small town in Texas and . . . maybe someday . . . to the one in Indiana.
Postscript: Later, upon returning to Indiana, I read in the Indianapolis Star: “Dean Arnold Corll was a Texas serial killer who abducted, raped and murdered a minimum of 28 boys in a series of killings spanning from 1970 to 1973 in Houston, Texas.” The majority were found buried in the sand bottom of a boat shed on High Island Beach, Galveston Island. The crimes, which became known as the “Houston Mass Murders” were, at the time, considered the worst case of serial murder in America.
Dean Arnold Corll, shortly after his enlistment in the U.S. Military in 1964.
Based on a description of his behavior and documented residences (which were at least several miles from the Southwest Freeway in Houston) I do not believe he was one in the same with the individual who invited me to join him at a party hours post New Years Day 1971. Then again . . .