by Paul Knight
There’s a newspaper cartoon taped to the wall here—the American Legion bar in Archer City. It’s black-and-white, a drawing of a haggard man at a bar with an intravenous line from a beer tap plunged in his elbow. Scrawled under the cartoon in pencil: “C.S. Green.”
The real C.S. Green sits at the corner of the real bar, about ten feet from the drawing. He’s seventy-three and arthritic, slumped on his barstool like a whipped boxer between rounds.
Green’s never been married. Never found work he much liked. He lived 25 years in Amarillo, did some work as a window washer, then moved to Archer City in 1984 to drive a tanker truck for Wade’s Well Service. There’s not much good he says about the “outside.” In fact, Green doesn’t say much at all.
But inside the American Legion bar he can sit in silence and sip Miller Lite from the can. And when it’s empty, the others in the bar argue for the $2-right of buying his next round.
For Green and the other American Legion regulars, this bar is a place of solace. A place to feel like a king. A place filled with the characters of Larry McMurtry’s broken West. They’re divorced, bankrupt and lonely. Broken, in a word. Broken dreams. Broken hopes. Broken lives. They feel the world stands against them, but at the Legion, they’re not alone.
At the bar, Green has found a family he never had. A brotherhood. A few months back, he left the American Legion and drove home, collapsed in his front yard and passed out. He wasn’t found until the next morning. Now, he calls the bar each night to let everyone know he’s okay. And when he has to visit the heart doctor in Wichita Falls, someone from the Legion always volunteers to drive. Here, brotherhood is thicker than blood.
Plenty of people in Archer City don’t much care for anyone or anything from the American Legion. A bar has never been easily accepted in this town full of Biblethumpers and teetotalers. But the Legion crowd could care less. They’re oil-field workers and ranch help, people with callused hands that don’t worry about the damnation of drinking in Archer City.
And the same roughnecks and cowboys who drank at the Legion in the beginning, or their sons, or a younger generation that speaks those names with reverence, sit here today, gathered around the bar top and beer tap, waiting for a cowboy’s communion.
They arrive at the bar each afternoon at four o’clock, or whenever Peggy, the full-time bartender, opens for business.
Peggy Hicks has lived in Archer City all her life and bartended at the American Legion for about five years. Most of the regulars know Peggy’s home telephone number, and if they ever wanted to start drinking early, they’d give her a call. When Peggy was twenty-two, she was thrown from a horse and pinched a nerve in her neck. Then, working at a chicken processing plant in Olney – about twenty miles south of Archer City – she was crushed by a 1,200 pound crate of chicken eggs. She’s been saddled with back pain through life, her work options few.
But as the Legion’s bartender she thrives. When a regular walks into the bar, she has their beer opened or drink mixed before they sit down. She introduced the Legion to margaritas and invented her own drinks, “The Rattlesnake” and “The Water Moccasin,” hits among the few women who brave the bar.
Cigarette smoke hangs here like the dark thunderheads that prey on the Archer County prairies; popping beer cans break the silence like thunder, the occasional flick of a match like lightning.
This bar – Archer City’s one and only – was born in the 1960s, about thirty-five years after the American Legion was built. It served beer out of Styrofoam coolers off a wooden display table donated by Jimmy Ashton’s Gun Shop. The Rodeo Association started holding its meetings at the Legion in the 1970s, and its cowboys started bringing in their own coolers of beer. The Legion stash couldn’t keep up, and in 1979, the bar expanded into what it is today, a watering hole for broken cowboys with broken dreams.
Tonight, Green stands to leave around nine o’clock. He rarely stays later. A younger, rowdier crowd will be in shortly. Everyone stops to say goodbye to C.S.
“There goes a good ole’ boy right there,” says Jim Wade, a white-haired scotch drinker in black pointed-toe boots and a black leather vest.
Jim lives across the street from the American Legion. He’d lived in Olney for ten years after he lost his job in Houston as a state prison inspector. Last year he moved to Archer City to live with his girlfriend. She frequently travels promoting her custom lampshade business, and whenever she’s on the road – tonight she’s in Denver – he walks over to the bar for a few drinks.
“You know about that McMurtry?” Jim asks. “You heard about his gay cowboy movie?”
McMurtry, Archer City’s Pulitzer Prize winning author, cemented his place as American Legion antagonist after he tried to rent the Legion and challenged the town to a public debate. It was 1965. His book The Last Picture Show had been released. Archer City folk fumed about the book’s depiction of their town as depraved, and they lambasted McMurtry and his family through letters printed in the town newspaper. McMurtry responded with his own letter, explaining he would rent the American Legion for one night, and he invited the entire town to debate him on any work of literature, including the Bible.
The challenge wasn’t accepted. The letters stopped, but a wound had opened between McMurtry and Archer City. Nowhere is the scar more evident than the American Legion. A small herd of regulars inside the bar will talk of a McMurtry sighting in town like seeing a coyote in a chicken coop. A woman claims he was standing out on the front porch at the Spur Hotel. It wasn’t McMurtry. He hadn’t been in Archer City for months. But it doesn’t matter, they’ve all seen him around town before—at Sep’s Liquor Store, Allsups, the Lonesome Dove Inn—and they all love talking McMurtry.
A cowboy with a steer’s face and a bull’s frame swaggers across the bar, spurs jangling, boots ticking against the hardwood floors like a clock, saying he worked on the McMurtry ranch as a teenager, saying Larry “wasn’t no cowboy.” And another man, wearing a white-straw cowboy hat, has everyone cackling like crows with his descriptions of Larry. “Looks like he just crawled out of a piss hole,” he says.
They talk about McMurtry buying up all the Archer City real estate for his bookstores. Chris Aultman, a twenty-two-year old volunteer fire fighter, stands outside the American Legion one night and squawks, “With all that money, he could do something good for Archer City. For our economy. But he wants to make it his economy.” Or they say McMurtry’s stories are just what Luke Smith or Bobby Stubbs told him.
Simth and Stubbs are revered Archer County cowboys. Stubbs with a dart tournament named in his honor. But lately, most of the foulest language directed at McMurtry centers on one thing: Brokeback Mountain. It’s an Annie Proulx short story turned screenplay by McMurtry and Diana Ossana. It’s about two men falling in love during a summer on Brokeback
Mountain, followed by lives of failure, disappointment and loneliness. At the American Legion, Brokeback Mountain is McMurtry’s ultimate sin. He wrote about gay cowboys.
Charlie McMurty, Larry’s brother, says it’s an oxymoron. No such thing. He hasn’t seen the movie and doesn’t plan to.
Charlie doesn’t live in Archer County anymore. He lives in San Angelo and teaches English at the university there. He’s worked in oil fields and owned a welding company in south Texas. He comes back to the family ranch when he can to work the cattle, and whenever he’s in Archer City he stops by the American Legion to say hello. The regulars at the bar say Charlie is the good side of the family. They say he’s always got his hair combed and a crease in his jeans. They don’t understand how the two brothers are related. Charlie’s one of them.
Judy McMurtry, Larry’s sister, drinks Sprite from a red Dixie cup at the Legion one night. Brokeback Mountain had been out about three months, just when relea it was released at a Wichita Falls movie theater. He told her not to think of it as a story about gay cowboys, but a story about life circumstances not allowing you to have what you want.
But at the Legion, there’s a brotherhood. Life is always better here. The first dance of the year at the Legion was on the last Saturday of March. They usually have three or four a year, whenever the war vets that run the place get the urge.The dance started at 8:30 p.m., and by the time the first twangy lick came from the band, C.S. Green was long gone. Most of the old-time regulars had gone. The ones that stayed sit around the bar as usual, ignoring the goings-on in the other room.
Every half-hour or so, Peggy shuffles out from behind the bar and around the bleached hardwood dance floor, her auburn hair bouncing on her shoulders, with a tray of drinks, returning with stories from the “other side.”
Paul Watkins, a 40-something regular who drinks Coors Original, had shown up early for the dance in cowboy boots, black Levi jeans and a striped polo. He didn’t grow up in Archer City. Moved here a few years back. His teenage son had
started finding trouble and meddling with drugs. Big City problems, he thought. His son found the drugs in Archer City, too, and now sits in prison. It’s ripped his marriage apart. After going through the divorce, Paul started drinking at the American Legion.
He fell right in with the crowd, entertaining the old-timers with tales of his travels in the insurance business. He talks about a biker bar on the Florida coast and a contest involving a woman’s bra.
At about 11 p.m., a woman with dark cropped hair and a white turtleneck walks into the bar. The regulars turn on their barstools and seem surprised to see her. She hadn’t been around town the last couple months. Never in the American Legion.
Her husband had worked as an electrician for TXU. He spent some time on the Gulf Coast for the Hurricane Katrina reconstruction. He died from a heart attack two days after returning home to his wife and Archer City. An instant widow.
When the band announces last call, Paul strolls gingerly to her table. He leans, whispers. He takes her hand and leads her through the hollow wooden door that separates the bar from the dance floor. They two-step the last dance, while the regulars still seated in their stools swig the last beers of the night.