Below is a portion of the fourth chapter of “Vinyl Highway,” titled “Tour of Texas.” This chapter covers Dick and Dee Dee’s first tour and the “Gary U.S. Bonds Tour” in August of 1961. The action takes place near the end of the tour.
From far away it looked like a Western ghost town and when we got closer we saw not a whole lot had changed from its frontier days. We'd driven through other faded, dilapidated dots on the map, but this one reeked of centuries-old dust and decay. Driving down the tiny, one-street town somewhere in rural Texas, I felt exhausted. We were in a time warp. Not a good place to be.
"God, look at that," Bob said.
We stared out the window at two tiny diners, their window sills covered in a thick film of dirt. Torn, faded awnings hung forlornly on rusted poles. A pale sign proclaimed "Good Eats." As we rolled by we saw "For Whites Only" signs in the windows. Further down the block we passed a Greyhound Bus station cafÃ© with filthy windows and a few rusty, dented cars parked nearby.
Bob pushed his foot down gently on the brakes. Our van rolled to a stop.
As we rolled by we saw ‘For Whites Only’ signs in the windows.
"Look, I'm going for gas," Bob said. "Your best bet is the Greyhound Station. I think you'll all be able to get something to eat there. I'll be back in half an hour. Don't be late."
We piled out into the scorching sunlight, wilting in the furnace blast. Bob drove off leaving Dick, Gary, Mel, Earl and me standing on the sidewalk. In our exhausted state, we started in the front door of the Greyhound Station restaurant, but were met by a burly man who blocked our path. He stood about six-foot-three, with beefy arms and a beer belly handing over his too tight Levis overalls. His face looked like someone had sandblasted it. He wore a cap advertising some kind of tractor company. His tiny, black, pencil-point eyes bore into us. He glared at the boys.
"The colored entrance is around back."
I stood perfectly still. As Gary, Mel and Earl turned around abruptly and marched in resignation around the building toward the back of the restaurant, something inside me snapped. After a month in Texas, I'd had enough of segregation policies.
"Let's go eat in the colored section," I said to Dick.
Dick stared at me, and then grinned.
"Sure, why not?" he said. "We shouldn't leave the Lone Star state without at least touring the 'colored' section of a restaurant."
The burly man glared at us.
Dick and I turned our backs on him and tagged along behind Gary.
"Do ya'll know what you're doing?" Gary asked, stopping at the broken screen door entrance out back. "These folks take this business pretty seriously."
"We're tired of this shit," Dick replied. "Let's just order our food, eat and get out of here. If it gets bad, we'll ask for food to go."
I studied the rickety back door, a torn screen puckered on one side and the "Colored Only" sign nailed above it. It looked like a child had written the sign with green crayons. Gary pushed the creaky door open and we followed him inside.
A little girl wearing tiny braids on her head tugged on her mother's arm. "Mama, look." She pointed at us.
"Hush." The mother pulled the child around in her seat, facing her toward the wall.
I noticed mixed expressions of fear and discomfort registered on the faces of the black customers. We marched to a table and sat down.
"Y'all better leave or there's gonna be a heap of trouble," the waitress whispered, glancing around nervously.
Dick gave her a big smile.
"I'll have a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich," Dick replied loudly. "No pickles."
After Dick gave his order, the diners around us began to relax. Their voices rose in quiet chatter. I started to feel less self conscious.
‘Y'all better leave or there's gonna be a heap of trouble,’ the waitress whispered, glancing around nervously.
We all gave our orders and I had a chance to glance around the room. I realized that it had probably once been a storage shed/bathroom and now, as a memento, it still housed an old, unused toilet in the corner of the room. The floor was worn. Gray linoleum squares peeled away from the walls. Faded, broken blinds covered the back windows and several dead flies graced the floor. I found the room disgusting.
A plastic partition, covered in mesh screening, separated us from the white dining room. You could sort of make out the forms of the white diners. Their blank, confused stares in our direction told us they were aware that two Caucasians had entered the "colored only" dining area.
It was quiet in that section, too quiet. I wondered what everyone was thinking. They probably imagined we were Freedom Riders trying to integrate their small town.
My sweaty hands stuck to the cheap paper placemat and I could feel my pulse like a drum beating. Dick began to hum quietly. Suddenly the room became perfectly still. It felt like the calm before a Los Angeles earthquake. The only competition to Dick's humming was a droning fan on our side of the partition. Dick's hum turned to singing and increased in volume until both words and melody, familiar to everyone, floated through the partition.
"God bless America, land that I love,
Stand beside her and guide herâ€¦"
I looked at him in shock. Was he insane?
Through the partition I saw the shadows of three men, as they leapt to their feet and ran out the front door. I knew trouble was coming.
"We've got to get out of here," Gary shouted. His voice ricocheted off the walls, echoing in my head. I felt a surge of fire rush through me. A voice in my head shouted, "Danger, Danger!!"
We dashed out the back door. Frantically running down an alley into the street, I saw our van cruising toward us. I wildly waved at Bob. He slowed to pick us up, as if he had all the time in the world. Just then the three men, now carrying baseball bats, emerged from behind the Greyhound depot and ran at us, like a bull heading for a red flag.
The man who'd blocked our entrance to the "white" section led the charge, his face screwed into a tight, perspiring image of hatred. The other two men wore dirty white tee shirts, stuck to their bodies with sweat. One tall, lanky man with short cropped hair was missing two teeth in front.
"Get 'em," he yelled.
Bob saw the men and turned pale. He froze like an armadillo in front of a semi doing ninety. We ran toward the van, trotting alongside it as it slowly rolled by. Gary reached up and unlatched the sliding door. It swung open with a "whoosh." The boys in our group pushed me up into the van and started to climb in after me. But Bob saw the ugly, twisted faces of the bat-wielding men growing closer in his side mirror and panicked. He gunned the accelerator. The van lurched forward before Dick could climb aboard. He ran down the street alongside the van, desperately trying to keep up.
"Don't leave Dick!" I cried.
Bob slowed the van briefly. That gave Gary just enough time to reach out and grab Dick's arm, pulling him up and inside. Then Bob floored it, but not before one of the bats smashed down on the rear fender, -CRASH-, putting a huge dent in the metal.
"Are you crazy?" Bob screamed at all of us. "What did you do to those men? We've tried to keep a low profile this entire trip. Do you want to get us all killed?"
I retreated into a depressed silence, too exhausted to even speak. I was totally burned out. I realized we had been on tour a long time, way too long, because when I tried to visualize my bedroom in Santa Monica, nothing was there.
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