Since we were to live in Houston only about a year, long enough for dad to make his contribution to the engineering of a new polyethylene plant in Taft, Louisiana, we moved into an apartment instead of buying a house. It was in a complex, the likes of which we had never seen and which probably did not exist anywhere in our home state of West Virginia in 1966. There may have been a hundred or even two hundred units in the place; I don’t really trust my memory here. I probably remember it being much bigger than it really was. It was all brick and two-story, with three-bedroom units upstairs and down. The development was divided into sections, some still incomplete when we moved in in June. Each section, probably twenty apartments a piece, enclosed a rectangular courtyard, a real lawn, much bigger than would ever be allowed in such a plan these days. In each of the five or six or seven ( I really don’t remember) courtyards was a swimming pool, each just a bit different from the others and all just big enough for a run and jump in and for a few kids to horse around in at a time. That is what we did, of course, because it was very hot all summer. Hotter than West Virginia, and more humid. In a little time I discovered that you could have your run of any of the pools in the place. You heard that each pool was only for the section of apartments that surrounded it, but that wasn’t written down anywhere that I saw and it certainly was not enforced. I went from one pool to another like a jet-setter from one resort to the next for the first few weeks until I learned that the McNair’s pool was the best of them all. There were three McNair brothers and they had attracted a few other kids to their group. They had their jumping and diving games in their pool and their own special words for lots of things that were really funny among us, partly because no one else understood what we were saying. The bunch who played in this pool were sixth and seventh graders, just a bit younger than me, but I had just arrived and the kids my age must have had other things to do.
The oldest McNair brother, Dennis, was in high school and he did not swim in the pool at all. He would come out by the pool sometimes on his way to the laundromat to buy himself a bottle of pop. He would stop and look at us when he passed and put his hands on his waist and shake his head. He was skinny and wiry and taller than his brothers, but probably not much taller than me.
His younger brothers said that Dennis was going to be getting an electric guitar. Their sisters, who were older even than Dennis, got Dennis snuck into The Rendezvous downtown all the time. The sisters were friends with the guy who ran the club, so he let them do it. Roy Head played there. He had a hit record called “Treat Her Right,” and his guitar player, they said, was one of the best in the world. Dennis would stand right next to the stage and watch the guitarist and he could see how he played the guitar. A lot of the time the guitarist would try to hide his hands while he played so that people in the crowd could not pick it up, but if you knew where to stand you could get it. They said that Dennis had already been to a music store downtown and was already talking to the guy there about getting an electric guitar. He was probably going to get a Fender Telecaster, which was the kind of guitar that Roy Head’s guitarist played. If you wanted the right sound, you had to have a Fender. The guy at the music store also went to The Rendezvous and knew the McNair sisters and knew Roy Head’s guitarist personally. Dennis McNair knew that if he had a guitar he could already play it, just from what he had seen and just from the feeling he had about it. Everyone believed that. He just had a way about him. He was one of those guys who picked things up. Who could do anything.
I had been lobbying my parents for a guitar for a long time, myself. Long before we left West Virginia. Right before we started school that fall, they took my sisters and me to one of those big discount stores on the freeway to get clothes and supplies. There was a music section in the store and probably because they felt that the transition from home to Houston was going to continue to be difficult for me, they let me pull one of the guitars off the wall and take it home. It was not an electric and it probably cost under twenty bucks. But those were the days when they made guitars, even cheap guitars, out of real wood and this one was a beauty. It was blonde and glossy bright with a big round shoulders and when I set it on my bed it changed my room from that of a child to a cowboy’s bunkhouse or the garret quarters of some romantic. I don’t remember the brand, and I don’t remember what finally became of it, but even today I think of walking by some pawn shop and seeing that guitar in the window. I would recognize it like an old girlfriend and I would walk in, throwing all the discipline and caution that a life of family budgeting has taught me to the wind, and pay the first price the guy named and never part with it again.
I ordered Mel Bay’s Modern
Guitar Method Book One from a magazine and learned the song “Drink To
Me Only With Thine Eyes” which was the first song in the book and used only the top two
strings. I worked on it for hours and
days on end, developing callouses along the way. I had never heard the song anywhere else, so
I had nothing to shoot for, but somehow after so many tries I heard the song
when I played it and it sounded, I knew, like it was supposed to sound.
Dennis McNair heard that I had a guitar and told me that I should bring it by sometime and he’d take a look at it and tell me what I needed to do to get it right. Although I had not been told not to take the guitar out of our apartment and into the next section of the complex, I did not feel right about doing that. By that age, I knew how and where my parents would draw the lines. So, as much as I wanted Dennis McNair to see and play my guitar, and as much as I wanted to show him how I could play, I somehow could not bring myself to take the guitar over there. One day he was in the laundromat in our section getting a soda and he saw me coming out, probably headed to go swimming with his brothers. He yelled at me and called me by the name the kids called me then and said to bring “that famous guitar” out and let him have a look at it. That was the only time I ever heard him say my name. We walked back into my courtyard and I got my guitar and I showed him how I played “Drink To Me Only With Thine Eyes” to which he had no reaction. I handed my guitar over to him and he did not play it or even hold it like he was going to play it, but just held it up this way and that, looking down the lines of the body, up and down the neck. He said that it was a lot like he thought it would be and that there were some problems with the neck and the frets and with the way the strings were put on the guitar. He said he could take it to the music store with him, to the guy he knew, and get it all fixed right for free. It would play better and sound better. I was about to let him take it with him. He said he was on his way to the music store right then. But my mother, who, unbeknownst to me, had apparently been monitoring our conversation from a window, came out and said she was sorry but that she knew that my dad would not allow that guitar out of the house and I shouldn’t have even brought it outside. She spoke more quickly than usual and in a tone that I had never heard her use before. I expected to get a lecture about this later, but she never said a word to me about it.
(OR But my dad came outside then and said hello to Dennis and stood with us as he continued to inspect the guitar and then Dennis McNair handed it back to me and left.)
After school started, we had no time for the swimming pools, even though it stayed hot enough for swimming clear up into November. Because ninth graders went to high school in Texas then, I rode the bus with Dennis McNair and his bunch and not with his little brothers and my other friends from the pool. I made new friends right away, but I was not among Dennis McNair’s friends, who were all upperclassmen and who sat in the very back of the bus. I sat most of the time with Sally Watts, a girl in my science class who lived in a house just across the bayou from our complex. We sat nearer to the front of the bus, always in the same seat, and thus out of the way of the hell that Dennis McNair and his bunch raised, sometimes to the extent that the driver would have to stop the bus and make threats.
The bus stopped at each one of the sections of the complex. It stopped at the front section last, just before getting onto the freeway, and there, always, were a twin brother and sister, taller than the few other kids waiting on the bus. Both of them were blonde-haired and both wore metal-framed glasses. They always seemed to have on more clothes than anyone else. The girl said almost nothing and the boy spoke only to be polite, to let people ahead of him in the line and things like that. One thing people didn’t like about the boy was the way he walked. He stood too erect and held his head straight up, almost back, and he did not move his arms when he walked. It made him look like he always thought he was in some kind of ceremony. When either of them spoke it was immediately obvious that they were recent immigrants. The boy was very big and thick and boxy looking. His face was horribly ravaged by acne.
It was halfway through the year, while the weather was cold, at least by Houston standards, when Dennis McNair took an interest in a belt that the big, blonde guy had on. It was a horsehair belt, McNair said, and he wanted that belt. He joked around with the guy for a while, wanting him to take off that belt and let him try it on. They boy stayed in the bus seat, next to his sister. I can’t remember what all Dennis McNair said to the guy, but I do remember that my last illusion of there being anything good or worthy of imitation in McNair dissolved then and there. McNair was taunting the boy and ridiculing him and poking him in the shoulder and saying things like a guy like that guy had no business with a belt like that, that it was too nice for him to have. The guy’s face got real red. I thought that the guy was scared. I remember one thing the guy said, word for word. He was fending McNair away from his belt, pushing McNair’s hand away over and over and he said “You are being foolish.” It was like something a teacher would have said to a grade-school kid and everybody heard it, which I thought was bad for the guy.
In the 42 years that have intervened since that day, I have obtained a law degree, married a local beauty, raised two sons and prosecuted five racketeering cases in Federal Court. I have taught Sunday School for the last thirty‑three years. If these years and experiences have given me any perspective or self‑knowledge ‑ and I think they have ‑ I am by now painfully aware that my moral failings have not been of the impulsive, active or indulgent type (those were the failings of the friends I remember best). My unabated (besetting) tendency is to moral cowardice ‑ not standing when and where I ought to have stood. What I did ‑ or failed to do ‑ on that day is perhaps the strongest case in support of this verdict ‑ the most burning and disgusting memory. I watched McNair follow that poor lunk of a guy off the bus, knowing exactly what was going to happen and I stayed right there in my seat. I could have gotten off, and I could have given some support. I did not at that moment think I could have whipped McNair, but I knew as I sat there that I could have made a difference. That I might have been able to protect the guy or at least offer some sort of ameliorating influence in that situation. But I also knew that if I helped the guy out there would be a price. Not so much that I would then and there take a beating, but by taking the other side here I would be forever cast out of even the outer rim of the McNair circle ‑ the brothers, the sisters, the cousins, the people who went to clubs and saw Roy Head. All of their influence would be forever against me. And so I just sat there.
One of the great mysteries and graces of my short time in Houston was the unmerited favor of Sally Watts. She was blonde‑haired and blue‑eyed ‑ the kind of girl you would have expected to see on the cover of a Beach Boys album in that day. Although I disappointed her, time and again, by not asking her to school dances, she for some reason stuck by me and sat beside me every day on the bus to and from school that year. People thought we were an item, but I never so much as lifted a finger to deserve her attention. Things have never been so easy for me with women, before or since. On that day she paid me another great compliment. As McNair followed that guy off of the bus, Sally fixed her feet on the wheel-hump in the bus floor underneath the seat in front of us so as not to let me out. She really thought I was going. She looked at me and shook her head. This is not your fight, she told me. She was right.
I cannot remember why the bus stayed parked there. The driver must have known that something was up and he may have even tried to intervene. Whatever happened happened fast. I didn’t even hear a scuffle. What I do remember was hearing something thud against the side of the bus and seeing the big Polish guy walking fast by my window saying something like “He thought I would give him my belt.” He was still flushed. Then a few seconds later McNair came by, limping and bleeding from his nose and mouth. The Polish guy climbed back onto the bus and sat back down next to his sister and we went on. Nobody said a thing. Dennis McNair did not get back on the bus.
My dad’s stint with Brown and Root would be over at the end of the school year and my family and I would then return to our home in West Virginia. I only saw Dennis McNair one time after that. He never came back onto the bus and though I expected to hear some adoring buzz that he had dropped out and gone to work on an oil rig somewhere, I never heard a thing. I would never have believed that McNair’s leaving would go so completely unremarked. It was as if the warming weather, the proximity of year’s end or the collective aging of all of us or maybe just McNair’s absence brought sort of a key-change to life on the bus. One morning, a week or two before the end of term, when the bus was passing by the Seven-Eleven beside our complex I saw McNair get out of a car with his mother and sisters and go into the store.