My parents were stuck in Oklahoma on Christmas. The massive winter storm across most of the Midwest piled enough snow around their place, it was too risky to drive to Amarillo for the holidays. The bi-annual pilgrimage back to the city where they grew up would have to wait. As a result, after the rest of the family left, I remained at my grandparents’ house, wondering how to carry on the conversation.
Joe Smith – my 79-year-old Pawpaw – is a man notoriously lacking in words. What he does say is witty and gruff, but it’s also increasingly rare through the years and bouts of sickness. Sitting in his stuffed, leather recliner, he uncrossed his ankles and adjusted the tennis shoes he was wearing. The footwear came with comfort, something, after many years of wearing cowboy boots, this real-life western man could no longer do. In fact, for a great deal of his life before getting sick, he made boots, setting up shop in his garage. His stitching was intricate, and you could tell he loved the craft. My dad and uncle had various pairs from decades before, rarely worn today. Pawpaw cleared his throat and muddled a question concerning my recent move to Austin. I paused. Suddenly, John Wayne popped into my mind.
After eight months of living in the Texas Hill Country, I received word from my bosses that I would soon be moving from the bureau to the main KXAN station. I was thrilled at the thought but also knew there was a lot to do to make the move. My absence from this blog was, in part, due to using every spare moment of time to pack, haul, and settle into my new residence.
I still receive tips and story ideas from sources in my prior role though. I pitched one such idea in our assignments meeting, wondering if the managers would let me travel back out that far. For months, people had been talking about a Coen brothers‘ remake of the movie “True Grit” (watch the original trailer). Central Texas casting for certain roles led to a lot of excitement, especially considering the movie’s popularity among western lovers.
My pitch involved the Old Blanco County Courthouse in Blanco, Texas. Built in 1885, the structure didn’t last long in its legal capacity. Just 4.5 years later, Johnson City decided it would be the county seat instead and constructed a new courthouse there. From what the manager at the former courthouse – now a historic site – says, the move caused quite a bit of upset among residents of the two towns – something that’s continued somewhat for more than 120 years.
The old courthouse held up well. Over the decades, it was a restaurant, a museum, even a hospital. More than a thousand Blanco residents were born there, so it’s no wonder pride for its presence runs strong. Now, Blanco’s loss could be its biggest streak of luck ever. The courthouse manager recently received a call from staffers with the Coen brothers.
Because of the building’s excellent condition and the fact that it had no court proceedings, the Coens apparently felt it was the perfect site to shoot True Grit’s courtroom scenes. It also matched the time period for the movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar in 1969. His portrayal as Rooster Cogburn, the man enlisted by Kim Darby to track down her father’s killer, was definitely one for fans to remember.
As I told Pawpaw how the movie’s filming could boost Blanco’s economy and tourism, he looked at me sternly. I stopped talking, trying to decide whether he enjoyed the story. Then, he said, “Fill your hands, you son of a…!” We both started laughing at Wayne’s classic line. This was definitely going well. Next, he began to recount the other movies he loved, line after line. It was great! Everyone in my family knows Pawpaw is a huge fan, but I’d never heard him speak so freely about it.
Understanding his interest in John Wayne’s work, before I shot the story (watch the full KXAN report) – which my managers had approved – I dug deep into the closet of my new place. A few years before, I had taken a few pairs of the boots Pawpaw had made for my dad. The dust on top was an indication Dad wouldn’t miss them too much. I slipped them on, knowing Dad and I wore the same size.
Two inches taller and feeling as if I was doing something in honor of Pawpaw, I unsteadily slinked up the steps of the courthouse a few hours later. The boots put me in a western mood, and I left thinking this wouldn’t be the last time I’d be trying them on.
Telling Pawpaw I had worn his boots gave us another subject to dive into. I sat there soaking up the unusually, pleasant time. The Coens will begin filming this spring. Perhaps once it’s released to DVD, we’ll figure out a way for Pawpaw to watch and discuss. Until then, footwear and Wayne will have to do.
Take a FlipCam tour of the Old Blanco County Courthouse below:
UPDATE: My younger brother, Dace, and I sat on the edge of the bed in Pawpaw’s room just over a month after I published the preceding blog post. We laughed loudly, as he worked hysterically to squeeze his long, narrow foot into a tan and burnt orange pair of one of our grandfather’s creations. That couple and the closet-full of others were actually the ones he once wore himself. Pawpaw passed away on February 1, 2010. After reading the blog post, our grandmother suggested we take the boots. At first, I hesitated at the gesture. After all, they were…his.
Earlier that day, my dad shut the door to the visitation room at the funeral home, leaving my brother, me, and Pawpaw alone for a few minutes before the rest of the family arrived. We were his only grandchildren, and everyone kept saying how proud we made him. Standing there next to the casket, staring at Pawpaw, we just took in the silence. As much as I don’t want to embarrass him by saying this, my brother broke the moment when I heard him wipe some tears from his face. Dace is a lot like Pawpaw, probably more than anyone in our family. Very subtle. Very serious. This display surprised me, and I remember telling him how rare it was to have a moment like this with Pawpaw.
Dace told me about a business trip he made in the area a few years before, stopping by our grandparents’ house along the way. It was the only time he could recall having an in-depth conversation with Pawpaw, but it was the best memory he had of the man. I think it was like a transformation for both of them, acknowledging a change in life. Dace had become an adult. Pawpaw had become a friend.
It made me think about the Pawpaw I knew as a kid, always tickling me and driving me to the edge of town to watch the prairie dogs pop out of their holes. My last memory was the friend Pawpaw had become to me, the person I found myself chatting with about John Wayne and my job as a reporter. I couldn’t have asked for a better memory.
As much as that moment will stick with me, a few extra reminders would end up in my suitcase on the way back to Austin. The boots that seemed to represent the life Joe Smith led became ours. Dace’s toes bunched up too much to actually pull them on, but I planned to slip my feet – a perfect fit – into some for the plane ride home.