from the Gillespie County town of Harper
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.
His broke 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 Cafés.
Space permits 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.
Like many exceptional Texans, Bones was born out of state, but
spent a lot of time in 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.
Bones told 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.
Bones honed 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.
His observant 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 place.
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 good
The story 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.
Several years 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.
don't have bones, but….
Bones has 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