Leon’s Store, Rockne, TX
Most every time I put my foot here, something is going on. Today we’re just rolling dice. I’m not much of a dice player, but my new friends help me out. Gary slips me a couple bucks under the table to throw in when I’ve lost my last pot, but it still ends with me losing the game. It’s just simple fun for an afternoon. This is how you do things in Rockne, Texas.
It’s really quiet and the wind is totally still when I arrive. I’ve decided to spend the day under the roof of Leon’s Store and I brought a bottle of Old Crow to make sure I’m not too dry on this hot day. Carol, Tom and Gary are all there when I walk in. It’s Carol’s shift at Leon’s and she runs both the store and the bar. But at 3 pm, there’s plenty of time for some “Ship, Captain and Crew” and all I have left after the game is the bourbon I brought with me. I pour myself a drink and offer the others some. “Nah,” they say. They stick to beer for now.
Herman Goertz, owner of Leon’s, walks into the bar and tucks a cold can of Miller Lite snugly into his prized koozie. He greets everyone with a silent nod and heads to the store side of Leon’s. Herman practically grew up at Leon’s and has been walking these floors since the age of 8 or 9. He doesn’t really remember, because it’s not really important.
Herman’s father Leon took over the store and honky-tonk in 1969 and ran the business until 1983. When the time came for Leon to quit, he offered the job to Herman, telling him he could “get a real job” —or take over Leon’s. Easy choice. Herman shucked the thought of a real job for Leon’s and hasn’t regretted it a single day. He knows this place and his customers like the back of his hand. When I asked him about running Leon’s, all the answer he gave me was a short “This place takes care of itself pretty good.” I get the feeling growing up in a joint like this kinda makes it your home.
I wipe the loser’s sweat off my face and take another sip of bourbon while I think about all the things that must have happened here since it was built in 1929. The friendliness at Leon’s makes it easy to get stuck at the bar and I haven’t really checked the store out yet. I take my plastic cup and fill it up to the brim as I take in the tones of some blues I’ve never heard before. I slip off the stool and take my first real tour of the place.
Leon’s reeks of old. Old everything. Old shoelaces from the forties or fifties still in their original case, yellowed business cards on the store counter hawking businesses long shut down. Plumbing, fence building, house repairs, legal advice and used cars. Also a former filling station, Leon’s sold both Gulf and Chevron gas up until the early nineties. Out in the store stands the old Gulf sign as a reminder of days gone by. The shelves are full of artifacts, but Leon’s doesn’t feel like a museum or even nostalgia. I get the feeling the old coffee grinders and Dr. Pepper bottles have been left and simply forgotten. They naturally meld into the surroundings. When Leon’s was built, Ford had stopped producing the Model T and was on to the Model A, Ernest Hemingway was still reflectingover the war in “A Farewell to Arms” and Bonnie and Clyde hadn’t yet met, much less shed innocent blood. I hear the jukebox switch to another blues from Gary’s personal CD. Lots of low keys being played here today. I yearn to hear Hank, but don’t have a dollar to command his lonesome whine.
Walking through the back rooms, I find a stash of old beer cans and dusty debris. Herman later tells me that’s where they kept the feed they sold on credit to the local farmers. They supplied the farmers until just a couple of years ago. I play with the thought that the dust under my boots is corn meal and that I’m standing in the stand still of time. Back on my stool, I sit and think by myself. The music comes to a halt and only then I notice we’ve all been in a reverie, isolated in our own minds. We sit in silence while Carol puts a frozen pizza in the oven. It feels completely natural sitting at a public bar sharing silence, as if the soul of Leon’s is resting for later to entertain its patrons. It’s like we all share one frame of time, abiding by the same inner clock. A bell dings and wakes us up announcing the arrival of food for the belly. Carol shouts, “Anybody want some pizza?”
We gather around the bar for food. Gary orders a Lone Star from Carol, then nods in my direction. Maybe he’s silently saying to me that bourbon and pizza don’t mix. We’re quiet as we eat, with our eyes locked on the doughy feast.
Tom antes up a buck to hear Patsy Cline, a favorite play on Leon’s jukebox, and her bold, smooth voice graces us with “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray.” I feel the urge for another bourbon. My empty plastic cup has been tossed away by Carol while cleaning the bar of clutter and trash. I can’t ask for a new one without buying a complete set-up of coke and ice and I don’t want to start drinking straight out of the bottle—not yet, anyway. I’ll just be frank, tell her I have no money and ask for a cup on credit. Ask a straight up question and you might get a straight up answer. “No. No credit,” Carol says. “But I’ll give you a cup if you’re nice,” she says playfully. I promise to behave and thank her for the cup. She answers shortly, “We like to keep our customers happy.”
New regular’s are walking in and a few begin to wander out. Carol is busy behind the bar. Between Hi, Bye and Hello’s, she manages to take care of everyone’s order and seems to know what most everyone is having. Establishments like this have their locals—and the locals have their bartenders. No unnecessary questions asked. The community of Rockne extends all the way from taking care of one’s spiritual needs at church to satisfying one’s drinking and gambling needs at the bar. It’s taking care of each other’s business, Monday through Sunday. No one stands alone!
There has been a build up in the crowd and youngsters here play pool. None of the customers are new to Carol or Herman. They know everybody by name and chitchat with them about the God-awful drought, car problems or weekend plans. Suddenly I feel like a stranger here. I notice that Gary and Tom are gone. I find myself feeling out of place for the first time at Leon’s. I ask Carol their whereabouts and she says matter-of-factly that they’ve gone to cool off with the breeze blowing through town again.
I grab my bottle and walk out. The dark silhouettes of Tom and Gary hang around the back of a car, its trunk wide open. I walk over and lean against a large oak made famous in a picture at Leon’s. The picture is from the late forties with Ernest Tubb standing on the roof of a delivery truck, the oak in the background. The surroundings look the same today as they did in the photograph. Gary looks at me, waves me over and asks me if I want a shot. “A shot of what?” I wonder. Gary points to the trunk at a bottle of tequila kept cool in an ice chest. I take I sip out of the cork and offer some Old Crow in return. Gary always carries tequila with him. Good to have.
Gary, Tom and I talk about other honky-tonks. We all agree that the local joint is always the best, but with good company you can call any of them home. Tom tells me about a few bars around here he’d like to show me. Places with dirt floors and jukeboxes with old 45s. Locals-only spots at the end of the dirt road on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. I’m lost in honky-tonk dreams when I hear him tell me we should do it the very next day. I can’t wait for tomorrow.
Standing in the night air, listening to music seep through the walls makes me realize this is the real version of the soundtrack to this journey. This is what Guy Clark sings about in the song “Out in the Parking Lot.” I shiver!
Back inside, Herman’s sister Lea Ann has joined the night’s festivities at Leon’s. It’s Thursday and she works as a teacher–bright and early in the morning–but stops by for a beer and to catch up with the neighbors. After all, Leon’s is the living room of Rockne. Lea Ann tells me this is where Wayne Hancock and Hank III sat when Lea Ann and Wayne were dating many moons ago. She says the three of them sat here drinking and playing guitar with Herman. None of the customers were impressed much by Hank III being blue-blooded country music royalty. Or maybe they didn’t know. I ask her to share another story about the place.
“One time I was working here and… you see the leg up there? It used to have black pantyhose on and you see the shoes up there, they where mine. Anyway, I had the leg down on the counter and I was putting on a red shoe and red pantyhose, dressing it for Christmas, when this one-legged man walks in on crutches. He has his buddies with him and they starting making jokes about it. So he takes the leg, tries it on and it corresponds to the one he didn’t have. He had a good sense of humor and a few Budweisers, so he walked out to the parking lot to try it out and ended up keeping it for the evening. He went out bar hopping with this fake leg dressed in red pantyhose and a red shoe. That leg’s been around.”
Lea Ann left Rockne when she was just a kid to live with her grand mother in Alabama for a couple of years and tells me she really missed Rockne while she was away. Like many Texans, her roots called her home. “I’d rather be sweeping floors here for no money than working for a big corporation,” she says. She fills my hungry ears with stories and anecdotes from her life as a child here at Leon’s. “The counter over there used to be glass and it had all kinds of candy displayed. I had a Your dad has a candy store and you have a charge account kind of life until I got a little older. Then I had to sweep the floors to pay off all that candy.”
The drinking is catching up with me. I ask Lea Ann if I can park in the back and sleep there overnight. She says yes and mumbles an excuse for not being able to accommodate me with her and her husband Mark in their trailer. I’m tipsy but thankful. On wobbly legs I make it to the Suburban and move it to a good spot –where I can see the stars. Leon’s is one of very few bars in Texas located within a hundred yards of a church. In between the two lies a graveyard. Duly noted, I settle in on my foam mattress and wait for slumber. It doesn’t take long. Soon I am fast asleep under the stars, somewhere between an 80-year old honky-tonk and a God-knows-how-old cemetery, dreaming of vast corn fields passing my windshield, my hand gently holding a half-empty bottle of Old Crow.
The Goertzes are one of the founding families of Rockne, dating back to 1856 when Rockne was still known as Walnut Creek.
Almost Out of Gas is a platform for projects surrounding Texas culture. Wine, spirits, beer and cook-offs with great food bring people in communities together, and we are compelled to seek out and document the social and cultural impact of the true “social networking” of the common man—that is the lifestyle we feature. We know the host of these get-togethers is the main draw, and we are intent on bringing you the same beauty we see in the rickety, creaky and sometimes forgotten gathering spots: the Texas Honky-Tonks.
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