Toughest town in Texas

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We rode into Luling at nightfall, tied up the hosses and walked bandy-legged, spurs clinking to the saloon, where some old timer gun slinger was playing honky-tonk. Actually we drove into Luling (Loo-ooo-lin’) and after checking several times there was no other option available checked into the oddly-named Carefree Motel. (More on ‘did we do the right thing not buying an old RV’ later). There are about 5000 people living here in a town that prides itself on its Watermelon Thump, ‘a four day fun filled festival full of music, watermelon eating, watermelon seed spitting, dancing, food, drink and good times’,  but few in evidence. The streets – or street – is empty, and for all the modern trimmings (the Hairtease Studio, the Silver Willow Boutique and Brushy Creek Outdoors for guns and ammo) it has the feel of a scene in a Western set the day after a big shoot-out.

And that’s about right, because Luling sits on the Chisholm Trail, the route that Texan ranchers used to get their cattle from Rio Grande to the Kansas Pacific Railway in Abilene. By the time cowboys got to Luling from whichever direction, they were beginning to get gnarly and thirsty. Fights and shoot-outs and general drunkenness gave Luling the reputation of the toughest town in Texas. You get the general picture in The Texans 1938 starring Randolph Scott, and Howard Hawks’ Red River 1948 with John Wayne and Montgomery Clift.But, as I say, now it’s known for its watermelon thump. And it’s oil which lies beneath the fields and gives the town its peculiar smell.

“Everyone has oil. I don’t have oil, but everyone does. Keep sucking it out and it’s all going to sink into a hole, know what I mean” grins the man on the next barstool in a dim-lit, corrugated iron hanger we’ve managed to find in a dark back street, the only place open after 8pm. He introduces himself as Thomas, Boston Irish, a chef, whose been living in ‘this po’boy pissing dump by which I mean small village’ for four years after trying a few other places, like Denver which he says, incredulously, is ‘made of bricks. all bricks, the houses are bricks the sidewalks . . . the roads bricks – all f***ing bricks. It’s all wood here and they wonder why they get cockroaches. If they can get their head into a crack, they can get everything in. Like mice. I worked in pest control for a time . . .’

He says his first job was in Boston when he was 14, travelling the subway delivering bags from the Irish in North Boston to the Italians in South Boston and vice versa, and getting $200 a time for his trouble. He shows us the tattoo his boss stamped on his forearm and told to keep visible to protect him. When his mother saw it she gave him a walloping ‘and that was that’.  He can do fighting talk in Boston and New York drawls, Mexican and Cajun, and says Jesse James initials are carved in the wall of the local jailhouse which he’s seen a few times, personally, close-up.

Three decades on he’s been here long enough to say ‘y’all’ (“I turned to the girl I work with and said ‘f**k, did I really say that?’, and she said ‘yeah, yeah you did’. No!”) and has just started as a chef at a new chicken place: ‘Fried, crispy chicken. They should have added juicy. It’s real juicy. The best I’ve ever tasted. People come in, try it and tell me that. That’s all you can ask for. That makes me happy. I love my job.”

There’s sweet country & western reverberating from the jukebox, two or three other men, elbows on the bar, nursing beers, and a feisty barmaid. This is how the nights go in Luling. I wondered why he was there, and he says he came to be with his boys. “I’ve got two boys, 8 and 13. Beautiful boys, very handsome. I’ve got a picture here . . . or maybe I haven’t. They live with their mother about 14 miles away I used to get them every weekend. I haven’t seen them for three years. But now I’ve got the job. I can get a lawyer and everything’s going to be alright.”

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