UNCERTAIN TIMES

Stressed out? In need of solitude? Escape for the weekend to a place in East Texas where everything is more certain than you might think.

You have to like a swamp-country roadhouse where you can jump right into happy hour bonding. In this case the tail end of some sharing between a big ol’ boy with wrists the size of your neck and a grizzled graybeard on the adjacent stool. “I can weld anything from a broken heart to the crack of dawn,” the big guy declares. His friend nods, or perhaps teeters, in affirmation. In an instant, you revise your ambivalent expectations of a weekend in Uncertain, Texas. Too bad you’re laughing. Which, fortunately, gives you another reason to like Uncertain. “Bones” Brown, the guy with the wrists, doesn’t kill you on the spot, as might happen in, say, Pasadena or Fort Worth. Instead, he accepts your quick explanation that your mirth was an involuntary outburst of admiration at the best job assessment you’ve heard in your life. Except that you didn’t actually say “job assessment.” You said, “That’s damn poetic coming from a welder.”

Is this undiscovered rustic bohemia or what? Against all odds, “Bones” smiles at being recognized for his sensitive side. He also notices you’re wearing the same kind of denim work shirt and jeans as he is. He says, “You look like you could be a welder, too. Are you a welder?”

To which you say, “No, I’m a writer.” He looks at you over the lip of his beer bottle. You add, with just a hint of suicidal competitiveness, “I sorta weld words, I guess.” A half-second of hell ensues. Then “Bones” laughs. All of a sudden you’re one of the boys. Donna wriggles up to the bar from the stack of Red Baron pizza boxes back at the microwave and, leaning across the counter, asks if you want another beer. You really, really do.

And then, just as you relax, truly liking-no, loving-your first foray into Uncertain society, the stubbled-face in the camouflage hat at the table behind you leans over to his long-haired day-shift buddy. “Just kill him,” he rasps, holding his finger to the voice box in his larynx. You have no idea what that means, but it seems to bear a serious intent.

Donna brings you another beer-a dollar a draw; we don’t run no stinking tabs at The New Rocket Club-as your enthusiasm for the place wanes slightly. The poetry kind of evaporated. For company, you turn to the juke box. but the eclecticism of the selections-Hank Williams Jr. to Elton John to Taylor Dayne-disturbs you in a way you couldn’t possibly explain, even to “Bones.”

You study the jar of pickled eggs in front of you and begin to have second thoughts. Exactly what are you doing in a swamp-country roadhouse bar in deep East Texas? Must have been that damned Oliver Stone movie: No. not that damned Oliver Stone movie, the one before it-The Doors. In “Roadhouse Blues,” Jim Morrison sings: “I woke up this morning and I got myself a beer/The future’s uncertain and the end is always near.”

So I woke up in Dallas and got myself a cup of coffee and drove dead east for three hours to the Louisiana border at Caddo Lake because I’m a guy very interested in the future. Or is it the end? Whatever. Anyway, Uncertain, pop. 167. sounded like the place to be. Or not to be. You get the picture.



ONE THING FOR SURE-IF THE FUTURE IS UNCER-tain, buy stock in headstones. For an alleged weekend getaway, this little spit of bayou paradise comes on like a mecca for voluntary euthanasia. Except you don’t have to kill yourself; the town is so dead it can nail you through osmosis. If it does, ask to be buried near the Caddo Lake Church- nondenominational, of course-at the edge of town. The sign out front says, “Thanks Be Unto God For His Unspeakable Gift.” The funeral services have got to be theological dynamite.

But wait. There’s a funny thing about small towns, even those with half-hearted aspirations of tourism. They’re kind of like catalogs from Victoria’s Secret-far stranger, kinkier and more exciting than they look. Not that anyone in Uncertain looks like anyone in Victoria’s Secret, or, in all probability, knows what Victoria’s Secret is. Or cares. Uncertain has plenty of secrets all its own.

The most important as I arrived on a crisp winter afternoon, when the mosquitoes had migrated to Houston for a few weeks, seemed to be: “Who’s that guy dressed like ’Bones’ Brown?” What I wanted to know was who were they? What kind of people picked up and moved to a place so dense with cypress, moss and snakes it might as well have been in Louisiana? But I was in Texas; I expected better of these folk. And yet I knew I was broaching difficult emotional terrain, zooming into town with my German sedan and Cuban merengue cassettes, getting ready to probe the innermost psyche of a covey of Cajun ringers. So I stopped at the tourist information center.

Or so the sign said out front of The Fish Hook, the only liquor store for miles around and thus a sort of communications center. It’s conveniently located at the intersection of FM 2198 and Cypress Road, in the thick of the metropolitan core. To the immediate left is the Motor Supply Warehouse, the town’s major employer not counting the huge, underground Thiokol Longhorn Army Ammunition plant in neighboring Karnack.

I could see The Fish Hook was a happening place-anyone from the mayor to “Popsicle,” the friendly cleanup man from Bayou Landing Restaurant, might run into each other. Not that you’d run into the mayor that often, since he doesn’t live there and only drops by for occasional city council meetings in the front office of the pre-fab volunteer fire department headquarters.

I know because I tried to find His Honor to ask him the question I now felt obligated to seek through unofficial channels. The Fish Hook’s owner, G.D. Gibson, a retired schoolteacher and proud, though financially depleted, father of both an SMU and a University of North Texas graduate, looked like he’d do. I said, “Do you have any Jack Daniels?” But that was just a reporter’s trick question I use a lot. In fact, I was aiming to pry out of him the biggest secret around: How a George Jones and Patsy Cline kind of town wound up with a name from a song by the Doors.

This really marked the beginning of my stay, for the simple query drew me into a world of increasingly vague answers and disarmingly concrete people. They pretty much don’t care whether you come or go, but if you stay and don’t put on any airs, they’ll slowly make you start to understand why what looks like a cypress swamp is merely an illusion. It’s really an oasis. If Texas is a haven from the United States and the Piney Woods are a haven from Texas, Uncertain is a refuge unto itself.

If only the residents could figure out how their hamlet, so to speak, got its name. Uncertainites live in appalling etymological ignorance. Or did, until I arrived. Like Diogenes in search of the truth, I roamed from Crip’s Camp to the Dallas Caddo Club to the Big Pines Lodge to the Light-House grocery and beauty salon-which isn’t far. But I stopped for lunch at Terry and Jackie Weeks’ Shady Glade Restaurant, Motel & Marina. Easily distracted, I also had several cups of coffee and listened to the regulars try to make sense of why Clint Black married Lisa Hartman.

lt isn’t like people around here are rubes. Big, really big celebrities like Jan-Michael Vincent, Jack Elam. Ned Beatty and Y.A. Tittle have been in and out of town. A former Playmate was even here for a major theatrical role in the critically acclaimed soft-porn scuba classic Picasso Trigger, which some view as an artistic precursor to A Fish Culled Wanda. Altogether, more than a dozen films, including a few from Disney studios, have used Caddo swamps around Uncertain for a backdrop. Why? Why not? A swamp is a swamp on celluloid.

So people in Uncertain know plenty about the rich and famous. It’s just that local history thing. Had it not been for G. D. Gibson’s willingness to pause during the brisk after-work trade to make some phone calls on my behalf, 1 might never have solved the mystery. Nor would I, as Diogenes, have cast long-overdue illumination upon the darkness of the town’s murky paternity;

Myth #1: “Uncertain” was temporarily penciled in on a government application for incorporation and got made permanent by simple-minded state bureaucrats. People who believe the Warren Commission generally find this plausible. It has just enough crazy believability to suspend common sense.

Myth #2: Roads in and out of town were so bad you didn’t know if you’d ever get out once you got in.

Myth #3: Nobody was really sure if the town could get incorporated back in ’61 or ’62 or ’64 or whenever. The name was a simple expression of social realism.

Myth #4: Uncertain is uncertain because “Beer” Smith was damn sure what he was doing. Actually, this is the real truth.

The late W.L. “Beer” Smith, sort of the Donald Trump of the area, owned and operated the famous Fly ’N Fish lodge in a big field across the street from what is now Bayou Landing, a mildly genteel seafood restaurant owned by the estate of business magnate Sammy Vaughn III. Vaughn was killed in a freakish 1989 crash as his company plane took off from the new Uncertain airfield out by the Cypress Estates cutoff.

In its heyday in the ’50s, Fly ’N Fish was a gathering place not unlike Landy’s at Jim-mie Walker’s restaurant way down on the Gulf Coast. You could fly in, or drive, and stay at the lodge, and then you could fish for bass or hunt for ducks and generally have the kind of lost weekend people in Texas don’t have anymore, certainly not at the Fly ’N Fish, which recently burned down.

Despite Smith’s innkeeping success, he had a big problem. Harrison County was dry. Most of the visitors who flew and fished were men, and men are generally unable to have a good tune when they go back to nature unless they can take part in the ancient ritual of getting plastered every night. Wildman, Schmildman. What does Robert Bly know? He’s a Yankee, for God’s sake.

Smith figured the best way to be a good host and augment the local economy was to get wet. He laid out a plan incorporating a town with just enough people to vote in a liquor referendum. He called his creation Uncertain. It wasn’t an accident, nor was it a whim. Not only did Uncertain have a Sar-trean cachet-or “ring about it,” as they say this side of Paris (France)-it was drenched in tradition. Nervous steamboat pilots tracing the Red River up through the dicey Caddo bayous had been calling the place names since the 1840s. They tied up at “Uncertain” for the night before going on to Jefferson, at that time a bustling river-port center.

The water traffic ended about 1874 when the federal government lowered the level of Caddo Lake. After that the big boats couldn’t draw enough water for passage. The “Uncertain” landing sank into Conradian obscurity with the frogs.

You’d think most everyone in town would be as familiar with this simple civic genealogy as they are with snakebite remedies and cabin fever. But the only ones who really know the tale are those bred into it: people like “Beer’s” daughters “Pud” and Dottie, who. like other members of the extended Smith clan, pretty much constitute the ruling elite of the town, or at least the family with the oddest nicknames. “Beer,” by the way. doesn’t refer to drinking habits but to the height of the late patriarch. He was so tall he reminded people of the long necks served in bars. I have no idea what “Pud” (rhymes with “hood”) stands for-some things are best left in the dark of polite ignorance.

I do know that Crip’s Camp is named for the late “Crip” Haddock, who, in fact, was crippled and apparently not sensitive about it. “Crip” died in a duck-hunting accident several years back. His body was found in the take clutching that of a black, teen-age companion with whom he had apparently gone out for the day and who, it would seem, drowned trying to save Crip’s life.

Uncertain, not to say Gothic, mortality pervades the town like early morning fog. Not long before 1 arrived, the elderly Hilda York Walker, daughter of a former area physician, was found floating in the bayou by fishermen. Her local boyfriend was arrested as a murder suspect and put in jail over in Marshall, the county seat. The local buzz was he was guilty, but, as you might expect. no one was certain.

Foul play, too, hangs in the often sponge-like air. Local history is replete with outlaws, thieves, gamblers, bootleggers, speakeasies and a kind of general feeling that anything can and does happen in dark bayou mazes. Robert Potter, first secretary of the Texas Navy, pioneered swamp noir last century. He was shot to death by political enemies-in those days the Texas Navy was no plum job like it is today-while trying to swim to a cypress brake near his home at what, lest we forget, is still known as Potter’s Point.

But as best I could tell. the major crime in the area at the moment, other than the possible murder of Hilda York Walker, is limited to the ongoing theft of the green-and-white city limit signs, which get sawed off and toted away at the rate of about a half-dozen a year. You can see why. What teen-ager’s bedroom, duck hunter’s den or philosophy professor’s office would be complete without the very definition of postmodern Zen?

Once I had got all that settled. I was ready to eat, a practice that more or less formed the core of my socializing in Uncertain. That’s how I met Ardell and Bobbie Sweatman, retirees from Longview who now live along one of the bayou roads that in the last decade have become filled with hundreds of similar folk. Ardell and Bobbie now spend their days fishing and puttering in their back yard, feeding the raccoons and trying to live by the motto over their boat shed: “Les Le Bonne Temps Rolle.” On summer nights, though, they have to turn on their air conditioners- not so much for the cooling but to keep out the noise from the road and lake traffic. Over the last 10 years, word of the good life around Uncertain has spread, not just to Dallas, its major patron, but also to Shreveport and Texarkana and the greater ArkLaTex co-prosperity sphere. If only “Beer” Smith could see what takeout liquor hath wrought!

If only “Beer” Smith could show me where to cat! I’d been to Shady Glade and Bayou Landing-both excellent-but I’d heard there was still better. By better I mean improved variations on the basic East Texas food group: deep-fried. Catfish, bread, alligator, frog legs, shrimp, rabbit. Eat enough of this stuff and whatever else in your life is uncertain, your cholesterol level won’t be. But if your tastes run in the deep Tat direction-and you know they do-Uncertain is gourmet heaven.

The ranger at Caddo Lake State Park said the locals favored the catfish at Big Pines Lodge, a rustic bam of a place along Cypress Bayou. She was right. The catfish was downright succulent-and I say that about damn few bottom-feeders. Moreover, the beer was cold, the hush puppies spicy. But what I liked most about Big Pines was the gun shop behind the cash register.

This can be explained. For a start, it’s East Texas. Here, as with God, all things are possible, even a culinary fusion of the Second Amendment. Perhaps of more relevance is the owner, George Williamson, an ex-cop from Austin. A restaurant/gun store just combines his lifelong interests. A lot of cops, whose patrol cars frequently grace the parking area, apparently share George’s passions. Makes sense to me. A busy gendarme just doesn’t find that many places to get fresh channel cat and a sale-priced .357.

George was pretty smart, if you think about it. Big Pines gets nice word-of-mouth on a number of levels. And once the customers come in. they can fill even more of their one-stop shopping needs: mosquito repellent, candy, machetes, motor oil, dominoes. . .It’s like they say-in the Uncertain business world, you keep your options open.

My option now was to leave. I’d done all I could for these people, and if I didn’t go soon, they would start to realize it. Or I’d get sick. “This lake gets in your blood,” Terry Weeks had sighed one pensive morning at the Shady Glade. I’m sure he didn’l mean it as a health precaution, but I took it as such.

Or I might get trapped.

Glenn Kempf, a stocky, big-knuckled man who looks like actor Ed Harris might have if he’d grown up in Longview and worked in the oil patch, got stuck in the bayou in 1966. He and his wife, Bobbie, bought Crip’s Camp and have run it ever since. Sometimes, though. Glenn looks out past the floating john-boat docks and his collection of converted housetrailers and reflects. He asks himself the big Life Questions. His answer isn’t very big, but 1 kind of like it. “You can do just about anything you want to make a living, so you might as well do something you like. That’s why I’m here,”

All I can add is this: You can go just about any place you want to get away from the city, so you might as well go somewhere you can get good catfish, clean sheets and a room without a phone or TV.

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