Someone said later that it really had been Ralph Johnson’s fault. He had come out late to Armbruster’s annual camp-out two years ago, already well into the beer; he probably just wanted some way to break into a conversation. He walked up to the first group of campers he found and grabbed a few minutes’ attention by announcing that Ray Browning was dead. Said Ray had fallen over of a heart attack last fall and was sure enough dead. The news went round the clearing to every campfire; I know I heard someone tell me it was Ray’s son who had told Ralph directly. We were all stunned; there were a lot of people who were upset that they hadn’t been invited to the funeral. Not to be outdone, Armbruster said he’d heard about it months ago. For most of us, that made it official.
John Armbruster was lucky enough to have inherited 720 acres of pristine Texas ranch land west of Austin. He had done a couple of stints in the legislature and then, in spite of his liberal political bent, was elected land commissioner when his opponent punched out a reporter. In the early seventies, Texas liberals were experiencing a giddy, unfamiliar sensation of power. People who had banded together in the sixties, out of fierce purpose and the paranoia of Texas progressives, wanted to hoot and holler, wanted to savor their successes. In 1971 John opened up his ranch to idealist legislators, ACLU lawyers, liberal press people, campaign workers, and “Save Our Streams” veterans. The first weekend in March assured us that spring had come and it was going to be another great year for political change in Texas. We minor players in this grand drama got to rub elbows with the folks who seemed to be making it all happen. An invitation to Armbruster’s annual camp-out was a coveted honor.
About a hundred or so regulars came faithfully those first years, from all over Texas and beyond, from the places where politically active Texans were forced to live when doing good deeds for their state and for the environment: D.C., New Mexico, New York, Colorado. We came to take the nature hike with old friends and to brag on what we’d been doing since we were last here. We wanted to drink Shiner beer (in the seventies we wanted Coors until we found out that the Coors family was Republican). We wanted to watch the sun drop peacefully and magnificently behind a horizon of working ranch land and pretend that we’d achieved the Texas dream of owning a piece of land and a cow. We wanted to settle into folding chairs for the evening at our favorite spot around the campfire and sing every song we’d ever known, until we were too anesthetized to move our tongues.
Ray had been coming to the Armbruster camp-out from the very beginning. He was a television production man from Fort Worth. He put together local shows about things unique to Texas. He traveled constantly and knew the state by heart. Ray had been an essential part of the Saturday night entertainment. He could play the fiddle, the mandolin, and a pretty good style of guitar. He stayed relatively sober and he was tolerant of anybody who was sure they knew more than the first line of a good song. If he could figure out which key you were singing in, he could make enough background music so that the combination sounded decent, providing you could carry a tune at all. Most people readily admit their inability to play an instrument; it’s amazing how many think that just having lips means they can sing.
It wasn’t that Ray was ready-for-prime-time perfect. Some years, we’d be blessed with the presence of a real professional musician and Ray’d get kind of elbowed out of the way. And if you were cursed with perfect pitch, or timing, it was much easier to listen to him after the third or fourth beer. But we appreciated how he hung in there, just playing anything you’d want to hear, until the sleeping bags were filled and the folding chairs were empty and Mary Hoglemier stopped yelling, “Play ‘Goodbye, Mary Dear’ just one more time.” He encouraged musicians of lesser skill and gave impromptu lessons to the several kids who were interested in playing. As Mary’s husband Harold said many times (Harold says most things many, many times), “He would do to go down the river with.”
Ray was always polite, pleasant company. He knew lots of facts but he never ventured opinions on anything more controversial than the weather. And especially not politics. Which, at the Armbruster camp-out, left him with precious little to talk about. He sat quietly, ready to play a tune, enjoying the Saturday afternoon sunshine, or the twilight, or the stars overhead and the campfire at his feet. His instruments were carefully laid out around him and he sat on an old metal folding chair over a small ice chest that held more Dr. Pepper than beer.
When we heard that Ray had passed on, we were devastated. The camp-out was not the same. There were other musicians present, but they each had their own agenda; they had a hard time backing up us singers. Tom T. Oakson always did his inimitable rendition of “Ol’ Shep” and “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine,” complete with guitar and harmonica, right before he fell into his cup of George Dickel. Armbruster strummed his guitar and led us all in “Rosalie’s Goodies Cafe”; he knew all twenty-seven verses. Bob Burkhard, a lawyer from Killeen, also played guitar, but he had a voice one-and-a-half octaves lower than anyone else, so it was difficult to stay with him. And then there was Barbara, Tom T.’s ex-wife, who played at playing the fiddle, but really needed to practice between camp-outs, not just at them.
There was dissatisfaction that year among those of us in the chorus. We couldn’t play instruments and were at the mercy of those who did. The next year was even worse, for not only was Ray gone but Mary Hoglemier was temporarily absent. She had been procrastinating about her gallbladder; at the end of February, it finally revenged itself for years of abuse. She swore she would have come but the doctor refused to let her out of the hospital just two days after the surgery. Without Mary, there was no organization to the musicale. From her campstool, which groaned under the weight of sixty-five years of good food and an unending quantity of liquid cheer, she always managed to keep the major performers from hogging the spotlight. “Now it’s Bob’s turn, Tom T.” (Tom T. was fiercely competitive with Bob Burkhard; one year they got into a fight and fell in the campfire. Luckily, they were both wearing heavy coats.) We managed to get to “Amazing Grace” but people drifted off to their tents even earlier than the year of the sleet storm.
There were other signs that the Armbruster camp-out was losing steam. Nobody had arranged to bring the pig the year Ray’s death was reported. For some, the lack of a barbecued pig was a major disappointment. For others, it was a relief; there had always been too many “helpful” amateur fire-tenders putting cedar in the pit instead of mesquite, making the meat taste nasty. But it had been a tradition. And then there were the Republican victories at the polls which dispirited us all and crushed many political careers. A lot of old regulars couldn’t get back every year; the variety of attendees was diminishing. There were too many changes going on in people’s lives. Familiar couples became singles, separating to different campfires, and the rest of us would be sad. The next year one or both of them would have a new spouse or “friend,” and we’d try to be glad. There were a couple of years when the number of people introducing “significant others” was several times greater than the number showing off their new cars. It was hard on the few of us who were struggling desperately to stay married.
And we all missed our kids. For years they had come with us, as excited about the event as we were. They’d flown kites along the mesas and fallen in the cactuses. They’d skinny-dipped under the waterfall and done God-knows-what in their own campsite across the ravine. But then they got bored with it, as they got bored with us. Now most of them were in college and doing things that were more exciting than watching a bunch of old folks get drunk and make fools of themselves out in the cedar brakes.
So it was without much enthusiasm that, one Sunday evening, I looked at the calendar and noticed that the next Saturday was March 4. I couldn’t remember if I had cleaned the propane stove last year. I’d have to pull all the camp gear out of the shed and wipe off the grime and dust. I went to work Monday thinking I would do it later in the week.
Then it was Thursday and I was wondering if I was coming down with a cold. And I really needed to get my taxes started earlier this year. Thursday night came and I went to bed before 9, still unwilling to look at the gear and thinking of excuses for blowing the whole thing off. On Friday morning, the weather looked grim: cloudy and cold, with a sharp wind. My head still felt stopped up. It was a miserable, endless workday. At about 3 I gave up and snuck out of the office. At home, I cleaned the camp gear with a lick and a promise and packed it in my old Bronco, feeling like I was involved in a habit I couldn’t break. Then I sat down in front of the TV to decide what I really wanted to do.
Friday night was not officially part of the camp-out weekend. Armbruster actively discouraged it, especially if the legislature was in session. As host, he wanted to be present to greet folks. He was also nervous about some of his more irresponsible friends running loose among his prize Brangus cows. But he had given up on Mary Hoglemier. She had no intention of setting up camp for just a one-night stand.
The truth was that setting up camp fell on the shoulders of Harold Hoglemier, who preferred his own bed at home to a camp cot. But he was long-suffering. He would drive her out there with all the equipment and dutifully erect the pop-up trailer tent that was known to all as the Hoglemier Hilton — except for Harold, who had other names for it. Then he would high-tail it back to town, free to get into any mischief he pleased until Sunday morning breakfast. But Mary and her sister Annie Whitman and their best friend, Millie Fae Groesbeck, would sit out under the stars on their campstools and drink rum and Coke and “buzz and buzz about what a wuzzer we was” until dawn. They’d have the Bloody Marys ready when people began to arrive Saturday morning.
I enjoy the company of these ladies. They have memories for old stories and gossip and they light up like candles when they find someone who wants to listen. Some years I would go out on Friday night if I was feeling nostalgic for happier times. But it was always dangerous. Mary encourages a certain pace in alcohol consumption, so that an extra night of sharing her formal schedule of beer, rum and Coke, and Bloody Marys takes a toll that I can’t always afford. Monday morning stretches the whole week long after I’ve enjoyed all the good time I can stand.
I sat in my comfortable chair where I was warm and snug, and I thought about Mary and her crew, out there in the cedar brakes on top of the highest point of range land in Williamson County. The wind was probably making that pop-up trailer dance a two-step. At 5:30 I turned to the weather channel. The radar was showing a line of deep overcast out in West Texas, and the scratchy voice of the weather service said that the front was coming on at a good clip. The temperatures would be in the forties tonight and then drop below freezing by Saturday noon. There was talk of snow. That tears it, I thought. If I’m going out there at all, I’d better go tonight. While camping in a sleet storm is kind of adventurous the first time — that one in ’75 snuck up on us — nobody would be out there on Saturday night.
Reluctantly, I left my warm little house, backed out of the driveway, and headed northwesterly, stopping at three essential places before I hit the highway: the gas station, the liquor store, and the first quick-burger stand. It was fifty miles to the Hoglemier Hilton with its temporary bar and grill; now that I had finished struggling with decisions, I was starving and dry as toast.
It was about 7 when I made the fourth veer to the right and then the third veer to the left after turning off the road at the Everhope Cemetery. The gate was chained because of Armbruster’s cattle, but it wasn’t locked. I got out and opened it in the beam of my headlights, then drove through. Just as I was closing the gate, a set of truck lights came up behind me. Leaning out the window of the truck was a kid about twenty or so. He looked kind of familiar, but I wasn’t sure.
“Hi, am I at the right place?”
“Depends on where you expected to be,” I said.
“This is Armbruster’s, isn’t it? I used to come here camping with my folks years ago. My dad’s John Baden. I’m Travis.”
“My God, you’ve grown up,” I said. “You should know me, I’m Jim Harris. Andy and Todd are my sons.”
“Sure! I remember you. I haven’t seen them for years. Are they going to be here this weekend?”
“I wish they were. They’re away at school. Let me close the gate and let’s get up to the camp. Getting pretty cold sitting here.”
He jumped out of the truck. “No, let me get it, you go on up. I’ll catch up with you. I’d love to hear what your boys are doing.”
I got back in the car, still grinning, feeling good to see him. I pictured him at past camp-outs. He’d been one of the few kids who had stayed interested in the music. He learned to play the fiddle pretty well. He must have been fifteen or sixteen the last time he’d been out here, the same age that my kids had been when they’d given up coming. His folks had moved out to the West Coast about three years ago, I remembered now.
I drove on around the rim of the hill and followed the tire ruts into the cedars and oaks. It was pitch dark except for my headlights. I began to think no one had come until I turned into the clearing and saw a lone campfire and the light of a Coleman lantern. It hung from an awning pole of the familiar pop-up. Four people sat in its glare.
I pulled in on the other side of the trailer and got out, fishing around in the back seat for my down jacket. I could feel the head of that front coming through the trees.
“Come in this house!” Mary yelled when she saw who I was. There was no house, but that was her favorite form of greeting. She did not get up but put out her ample arms, knowing well that I would come and hug her neck, as was her due. Her sister Annie, her partner at a domino game of forty-two, chortled and called out, “We knew you’d be here, Jim!” She reached to get some hugging, too. I came around to her side of the table after stopping off for a smooch from Millie Fae. I got squeezed and loved on and it felt good. Then I dragged a chair over to the corner of the table between Millie and Mary. As I sat down, I looked across to the fourth person at the game.
I felt my jaw sag open and the hair on the back of my neck rise. I stared at him forever, it seemed. He was smiling at me with an air of uncertainty. Finally, he reached over to shake my hand. “Hi, I’m Ray Browning. You remember me, don’t you, Jim?”
I felt my head start to nod; my lips were saying, “Sure, sure, Ray, I haven’t forgotten you. Good to see you again. It’s been a while.”
“Well, I’ve been kind of out of touch for a few years but I was really looking forward to coming down here this weekend. I’m sure planning on enjoying myself, if it don’t get too cold.” He laughed and pulled his coat tighter.
I turned my head slowly to sneak a look at Mary, Annie, and Millie. They were staring intently at their dominoes, their lips pursed tightly together. It was clear to me that they had not told Ray he was dead.
I sat there quietly while they played their game. I could see that the three women had their entertainment all picked out for the weekend. One by one, each new arrival would notice Ray and the reactions would be gleefully noted by the rest of us. This camp-out would be filed away under the heading “The Year Ray Browning Returned from the Dead.”
I found I couldn’t make my voice work to ask, “What have you been doing these last years, Ray?” Maybe he’d say, “Well, I was sick for a while.” That was probably the explanation for the rumors. Or he might say, “I was just so busy at this time of year, I couldn’t come. Sure was disappointed, too.” But if he looked at me and smiled in that shy way of his, the hair on the back of my neck might get to rising again. I kept glancing at him, looking for a sign. Was that the same coat he’d worn every year since ’71, or was it new? Was he really drinking that Dr. Pepper?
“Here comes somebody else. We just might have a full house tonight.” Mary leaned back from the Coleman to get a better view. The other women had smiles of anticipation. Ray turned around in his chair.
“It’s Travis Baden,” I said. “I met him at the gate. It’ll be good to have some young blood out here again.”
“He was pretty good at the fiddle,” said Ray. “I got him started playing.” He turned around and beamed proudly. The women nodded to each other, snickering.
Travis turned off his lights and got out of the truck, carrying a sleeping bag and a styrofoam cooler. He called out a greeting and Mary waved her arms. “Come in this house!” She tried to smother him but he finally slipped from her grasp to hug the other two women. He came around and shook my hand again and then looked over at Ray.
By this time Ray was on his feet, reaching out his hand. “Howdy, Travis. You still playing the fiddle?” The women had their eyes glued on Travis. But all they saw was his big smile.
“Ray Browning! I sure am glad to see you.” Travis walked around the table and shook Ray’s hand, and gently touched Ray’s shoulder. “I haven’t played my fiddle in years, but I’ve still got it. The same one you gave me lessons on. I remember that.” He got another chair and sat down between Annie and Ray.
The women sat back, looking disappointed. Travis couldn’t have known, of course. The women were patient; they’d wait for the next arrival.
It was plain that Ray no longer had his attention on the domino game because Mary kept having to remind him it was his turn. I finally suggested that maybe I could take his place and he might want to play some music for us. He smiled gratefully and said he might do just that. When he got up, Travis got up, too. They went over to Ray’s truck and returned with four instrument cases. Ray started setting up on the other side of the campfire, as if he were making a nest. Travis went and stirred up the coals and added a few more stumps. Then they sat down together, both looking as if they were there to stay.
Mary looked straight at me and smiled that big grin of hers, almost closing her eyes.
I went and sat in Ray’s vacated chair. “Well, whose shuffle is it?” I asked. Annie leaned back and laughed until there were tears in her eyes. Millie and Mary joined in. I turned around to see what effect this had on Ray and Travis but their attention was on the instruments. Travis had Ray’s fiddle and was tuning it up. Ray had his guitar and was strumming chords to help him. They couldn’t have cared less what we were doing. I turned around and spread my hands as far as I could over the scattered dominoes and began to move them around the table, shuffling them for the next hand. Annie dug into her ice chest and fished out a beer for me. When I took it from her, she squeezed my fingers and blew me a kiss.
Travis started out playing “Faded Love.” It was kind of scratchy and off-tune. Ray came in with the guitar to get a rhythm going. It got to sounding better after they’d gone through it three or four times. They went on to “Cotton-Eyed Joe,” keeping it slow until Travis had it under control. I concentrated on the game and had another beer.
Mary and Annie whipped up on Millie and me for three rounds and then we skunked them. The music had been going on all that time and was sounding better and better. After a long string of good tunes, they went back to “Faded Love,” and Ray started singing. Travis had hit his stride and the sound from the fiddle was smooth and clear. “I miss you, darling, more and more every day, as heaven would miss the stars above. With every heartbeat I still think of you and remember our faded love.” The music spread out around us into the darkness. I started to sing along but suddenly felt my throat swell.
I looked over at Millie. She was crying. No sounds, just wet eyes, a little mascara running down those plump cheeks. Mary turned away, staring into the black distance. Annie was digging for tissues. I got up and walked away from the circle of lantern light, out to where I could hide in the darkness and look up at the starlit sky.
For Millie, it was her husband, Joe. They would have been married forty-eight years last June, but he didn’t quite make the anniversary. This was her first camp-out without him. Annie lost Everett five years before that. Both of those men had done their part to make us laugh, telling stories and dancing the ladies around the campfire. For Mary, it was Harold, Jr.; there wasn’t enough rum and Coke in this world to make her forget the pain of burying her oldest son. For me, it was my wife, Betty, dead of cancer two and a half years. And if Ray could be sitting out here, looking pretty much resurrected, where was she? Where were all the ones we’d lost?
What is it that we come out here to find? Is it just knowing that the old familiar faces will smile when they see us and our old friends will call to us to come sit at their campfires and talk and laugh and sing songs together? Maybe we expect to find some of the parts of our lives that have gone away. When we’re in the closeness of the firelight, memories of happenings out here become more vivid; it’s as if camp-outs ten, fifteen, eighteen years ago are just a few yesterdays. As if those moments are still somewhere out here and nobody’s really gone.
I came back to the table and turned my chair around and put my feet up on one of the rocks that circled the fire. The warmth slowly traveled through my boots and up my legs. I sighed and let my shoulders relax until they didn’t weigh so heavy. I felt the sadness drift away. Mary was in the trailer tent and Millie and Annie were putting supper dishes to soak and mixing another round of drinks. Ray and Travis kept playing and singing.
Sometime toward morning, I came up out of a doze, still hearing music. There they were, sitting across the fire from me, knee to knee. I fished another beer out of the ice chest and tried to decide if I had to pee bad enough to get up from my chair.
Annie and Millie had gone to bed, but Mary was still sitting in her chair, resting her chin on her ample bosom with her arms folded just below. I leaned over to her and whispered, “Do you think we ought to tell Ray that he’s dead?”
She slowly sat upright and reached for her bottle of rum. She poured two fingers and looked around to see if there was any Coke left. “If we’re lucky,” she whispered, “he might not figure that out before he runs out of songs.”