Everything important happened somewhere other than Southeast Texas when I was growing up in the fifties. Important people visited Beeville, but appearances were few and far between and often disappointing. For instance, that team on donkeys was not exactly like the Harlem Globetrotters.
The biggest letdown was when the Grand Ole Opry came to town. My daddy (Eric Israel) seemed to enjoy the music and comedy as much as the rest of the family, but on the way home he astonished us.
“That wasn’t the real Minnie Pearl.” Daddy said with authority, “It sure enough looked like her, but it wasn’t her.”
He said Minnie Pearl had better things to do than come to Beeville, so they had sent someone who looked and sounded like her. Daddy was unusually trusting, so we all begin to have doubts. At home he quietly studied the program.
“Aha!” he said, thumping the signed picture of Minnie Pearl. “Told you that wasn’t her, she didn’t sign ‘Minnie.’ She signed ‘Mamie’. That way she wouldn’t get into legal trouble.”
We couldn’t be sure if Minnie Pearl had forgotten to dot that funny I and shorted her N’s a stroke, or if Daddy was right, denying us bragging rights of having personally seen Minnie Pearl. Delicious reminiscence of our Opry experience was now tainted.
Then an announcement in 1952 promised to more than make up for our long celebrity dry spell. Two words: John Wayne. Well, they didn’t come any bigger than that. Before TV big stars actually rode busses across the country and said a few words on a makeshift stage on a football field like ours. On the big day our high school band played for the crowd while they waited for the real show. That positioned the band in the lower section of the stands. I was a tumbler, and we and the majorettes got the front row. It was hard to hold still and wait for the big moment, but wait we did.
The time for the movie stars’ arrival came and went and the band played every tune they knew and some they weren’t too sure about. Just as the crowd was getting antsy, a limousine sped onto the football field and skidded to a stop in back of the stage. The band struck up Colonel Bogie’s March. Nobody paid attention to the music, not with Chill Wills stepping out of the white limo, waving his Stetson and smiling that wonderful grin that erased some of the ugly from his face. Then a red-faced David Wayne got out. People weren’t too excited about him. Dancer Vera Ellen brought down the house, though. She was beautiful, much thinner than we thought. I was eye level with her calf muscles and couldn’t take my eyes off them. This wonderfully feminine woman had legs as muscular as a lady body builder.
As we began to taste the metallic tinsel of Hollywood, and whip ourselves into a frenzy, it suddenly occurred to me that the real John Wayne would never come to Beeville, Texas. If another person came out of that limo it would be a tall look-alike who would sign his picture “John Wayme.” All of a sudden the shouts and squeals grew louder and the stands rocked. Some guy who looked a lot like John Wayne was unfolding himself from the front seat, nodding to the crowd, smiling. I tried not to get carried away and be a fool, but my heart was pounding. Then the imposter – for surely he was an imposter –strode across to the mike like he was walking sideways into the wind. Oh, my god! It was HIM –The Duke!
“Howdy, partners,” he said and kind of squinted his eyes. Well, there could be no doubt. Then he drawled, “Sorry to keep y’all wait’n in the hot sun, but we were held up a ways back.”
The other actors laughed. It must have been an inside Hollywood thing. We didn’t get the joke. John Wayne nodded and smiled at them, then us.
“No, we really were held up,” John Wayne repeated. “A few miles up the road, next county over, a deputy sheriff stopped us. He boarded the tour bus with his six-shooter drawn.” John Wayne paused, shifted his weight to the other leg and put his hands low on his hips like we’d seen so many times on the big screen. With a collective gasp the crowd signaled pure euphoria. “Now this guy was tall as me, taller with his ten-gallon hat, so we were kinda interested in what he had to say.” His mouth drew to one side in a smile.
We all laughed along with him this time, but I was beginning to feel uneasy. That deputy sheriff was sounding awfully familiar. Even in Texas not too many folks still wore a ten-gallon hat.
The Duke went on, “That officer waved the gun and told the driver to tell us all to file out of the bus nice and easy like. He holstered the pistol just as I stepped off the bus. Then that son-of-a-gun grabbed my shoulder and started pumping my hand like he was jacking up a car, smiling as big as old Chill here.” He nodded toward Chill.
“Said he heard we were appearing in the Beeville and there was no way he was gonna let John Wayne go through his county without even a handshake. So that’s why we’re late, folks. Honest truth.”
Well, you can be sure I was never reluctant to brag that I’d seen John Wayne in person. What I kept to myself for years, though, was the identity of the bandit in the next county who had ambushed the world’s biggest movie star. That would be Karnes County Deputy Hugh Kendall. – my grandfather.
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