from the Gillespie County town of Harper
He knows who really shot the Sheriff, and, as a matter
he does have Prince Albert in a can.
by John Troesser
A short drive
from Fredericksburg you can meet a transplanted East Texas philosopher
who went to Washington-on-the-Potomac. He wanted to dig graves
but became the "lion and tiger man" at the Washington Zoo. Along
the way he donated a motorcycle to the Smithsonian Institution
and narrowly escaped getting rich.
We were passing
through Harper, Texas.
A town that is not mentioned as frequently as Fredericksburg is.
We spent a few minutes in the town's shady midtown park and crossed
the highway to read the historical marker about the McDonald
massacre. We spotted a huge flowering cactus next to the door
of a 1930s era gas station, which is now a residence. While we
photographed the cactus, a man appeared in the door and gestured
to us to come in. He didn't wait for an answer but turned back
inside, confidant we would follow.
never has to hunt for his glasses
and were offered a chair and a Coke. Our host wore an under-beard,
overalls and work boots. The room was comfortable and neat as
a pin. If it wasn't for the cowhide chairs and the nail keg-bongo
drums, you might have thought the room to be military barracks
ready for inspection or a monk's quarters.
A high clothesline passed between the living area and the bed,
but rather than supporting a screen, the line suspended twelve
cow rib bones, joined by string to form six pair. They were draped
over the cord much like pairs of sneakers thrown over power lines
in the better neighborhoods of Houston. The man had introduced
himself as "Bones" so we knew right away there was a connection.
He took down a set and positioned them in his fist like they were
a primitive martial arts weapon. He then flicked his hand like
you would if you stuck your two longest fingers in a bowl of boiling
oatmeal. The sound of bone on bone was crisp and clean. It sounded
like last call at a Mahjong parlor or one of those 1930s cartoons
featuring a chorus line of dancing skeletons.
into a smile, not out of pride, but out of reaction to the sound.
It's a sound that even makes the performer smile. He said he had
learned it from a man in Newton County and while many people
have heard spoons played in a similar way, it is definitely an
art (and a different sound) playing Bones. Bones (the man) plays
harmonica as well, and sits in on jam sessions in one of Harper's
only a few of Bones' stories, but each one deserves to
be recorded. Bones has been featured in Texas Monthly. We asked
for the month and year of the issue so we could read what they
had to say. He told us he couldn't remember the month or year,
but that "it was on page 65." It seems he caught the writer's
attention when he was selling handmade horsehair fly whisks in
the replica oil field town of Gladys City in Beaumont.
exceptional Texans, Bones was born out of state, but spent a lot
of time in Bon Weir, Newton County. Bon Weir is French
for Good Weir. It's so close to Louisiana you can hear their loud
music. He reached under his chair that had a swivel built in to
accommodate a family- size tin of Prince Albert. This is the chair
he sits in when he stretches cowhide over chair frames, nail kegs
and even (at least one) toilet seat.
us he bought this place after it had just finished being a gunsmith's
shop. Since it was built in Bones' birth year of 1929,
it has also been a laundromat, several cafes, a bakery and a store,
besides it's life as a gas station. About the only enterprise
he didn't mention was a bowling alley.
the difference between Bones and Vidal Sassoon?
A: Vidal Sassoon probably never skinned a possum.
his skinning skills as a boy, and his father taught him to cut
hair as well. He recently donated this talent to the Salvation
Army men's facility in Kerrville,
cutting the hair of "about 400" men. He observed that out of all
those souls, only 3 or 4 felt their circumstances were a result
of their actions or attitude. An observation worth repeating.
nature and his knowledge of animal anatomy have served him in
the capacity of "jackleg veterinarian" when the real McCoy wasn't
around. You'll have to admit, he'd taken enough critters apart
to know where things belonged and when they weren't in the right
As for himself,
he's never been sick after being discharged from the Army in 1946
and he considers himself to be blessed. He's able to pay his mortgage
with his social security benefits, and still has money left after
buying his groceries to extend small loans to friends. One of
his sons and a daughter-in-law do volunteer work in Guatemala.
Pecans don't fall far from the tree.
Plots Thicken in The Big Thicket
He told us
an interesting story of a formerly well-known suicide in an East
Texas county that shall remain nameless. The suicide was a Sheriff
who had run the County like George Pharr ran Duval County
or Huey Long ran Louisiana. Except Huey had his
was told to Bones in 1986 by a man in his seventies. Bones said
he "sort of went into a trance" while telling the story, "like
he was reliving the event." The man had been a boy during the
depression and helped feed the family by slaughtering found hogs.
A calf crossed his path one day, and let's just say he didn't
look too hard for the owner. He butchered it and was caught with
a smoking cleaver. The Sheriff made a special effort to get the
boy tried as an adult. He got 18 months in Huntsville.
passed and the Sheriff had shot not a few unarmed "fugitives."
We mention this to establish the fact that this guy was not a
nice person. The narrator saw the Sheriff entering his office
alone one day, when he (the narrator) just happened to be returning
a borrowed pistol to someone in town. He entered the office and
got the drop on the Sheriff who asked him what he wanted. "I'm
here to kill you," he supposedly said. He had the Sheriff call
his son on the telephone. With the gun pressing the flesh, he
was told to say "I've decided to kill myself." The son heard these
words and then a bang. It was ruled a suicide. Bones might be
pulling our leg bone, which is (eventually) connected to our head
bone, but he did furnish the name of the Sheriff, so we'll check
it out and let you know. Bones has also said that neither the
Sheriff nor the shooter have living kin.
One day while
he was working in Washington, his boss at the Zoo asked him to
retrieve a canoe from Chesapeake Bay. It was, of course
after hours, and the boss paid him $6.00. He was also asked to
dispose of some trash, including a 1918 Stearns Motorcycle. He
told his boss if he could have the cycle, he'd give him back his
$6.00. Bones and his brother rode it around D.C. for quite sometime.
A man from the Smithsonian talked them into donating it and indeed,
there's a photo on Bones' wall of a Smithsonian Motorcycle
Exhibit. Bones tells us that the donor's plaque is actually
hanging around the headlight of another cycle, three cycles to
the right of his.
have bones, but….
a miniature of himself, which is so lifelike it's scary. About
a foot tall, the effigy is hunkered down in overalls made from
real ones, with the real metal buttons on the suspenders. His
hat is made from a real hat as well, including the Stetson nameplate.
The beard is coyote fur and the face and hands were baked. The
mini-he was given to him by a woman who made Abraham Lincoln dolls.
Bones' took her husband to the hospital after he had had a heart
attack, thereby saving his life. Looking for a way to partially
repay Bones, she noticed how much he resembled Abe Lincoln and
made the few alterations necessary on a doll she had just started.
We had to
get on the road, so we left Bones there in Harper,
although we would have enjoyed having him come with us. We'll
be visiting him again, for stories, observations, or just to refresh
our outlook on life.
You cannot imagine the nostalgia you invoked when I read your
article about Bones in Harper! Being his neighbor for 3 years
we could not have done a better job writing his story - we even
read a few things we did not know about him in your article! There
are a couple of things, though, that I think are worthy of adding.
True enough Bones plays the bones in the Friday night jam session
at the Harper Cafe, but you didn't mention his friend Spoons who
plays the spoons you talked about. The whole thing is great, but
it wasn't the same after the washtub lady died.
I can't remember when Bones set up his "Bovine Fecal Art Gallery,"
but it was probably some time after you passed through based on
the fact that you didn't mention it at all. He shellacked cow
pies to a wooden plaque, fashioned some yellow rope to look like
blonde braids, and hung it on the outside of his gas station/home.
I suppose he had to have something to do after he stopped covering
stuff with hides he got from the Raz Auction rejects!
I could go on and tell you about the breakfast burrito operation
that was quickly abandoned for a scuba gear shop, but it's getting
late. Thank you for so accurately depicting the charm of Harper
- the people!
-The Myers family formerly from Harper across the street from
Bones in the white house that always looked like a zoo/construction
site! September 12, 2002