The next weekend was time for the other end-of-summer ritual, the World Championship Barbeque Goat Cook-off in Brady, Texas. It was my 21st consecutive appearance as a judge, and I was pumped. I needed a haircut, but scheduling complications prevented a visit to Rick, my regular, so after a nice lunch with a former colleague at American’s corporate headquarters, I tapped my iPhone to find a barber in Euless, a working-class suburb just southwest of DFW Airport. Carlos the Barber caught my eye, but when I drove there he was outta business. Next stop, the Midway Barber Shop on Euless Blvd. As soon as I entered I knew I was in the right place. Five chairs, four in use, lots of banter. I introduced myself to Ken, and we had a great time yakking about softball, his late friend from Minnesota, barbering, and life in 1970 as an Army grunt along the DMZ. Lots of people would not visit a barber in a place like that, but I’ve always been one for stepping out of the comfort zone, and it was a lot of fun – and a great haircut.
Worked a bit at the airport, and at 5:40 flew 160 miles west to Abilene, Texas, where I met Jack, just arrived in his Subaru from Lubbock. Threw my stuff in the back, hopped in, and we were off, down Texas Highway 36, past a landscape parched but still interesting for its occasional hills and creeks, and cap rocks, the flat-topped hills formed from more resistant rocks.
Driving across Texas, Jack and I were reminded of our love for our adopted state and the importance of place in identity. As we sped down the road, Jack and I talked about others’ ignorant prejudice of places like ours (we experienced it a couple of weeks earlier, up north), often formed by dislike for politicians, or by the comments of smart-ass comedians and other uninformed observers. Neither Jack nor I voted for Texas’ capital punishment, nor for Rick Perry, but bad policy and a dumb politician don’t make the state a bad place. “Placism” is nefarious. Jack said it best on the drive: “those people discount humanity, and that’s bad.” Amen to that.
We made it to Brady, 100 miles south, in no time, and soon were tucking into dinner at the Hard Eight Barbeque. Checked into our motel, watched a little college football, and clocked out.
We were out the door about 8:20 Saturday morning, driving 17 miles west on U.S. Highway 87 to Melvin, Texas, population 184 (yes, it’s redundant to add the name of the state, and although I am a spare writer, I hew to local tradition and include it). Jacoby’s Café in Melvin was hosting the judges’ brunch, and in no time we were shaking hands and slapping backs and catching up with old friends. After the meal, Jack peeled off for extra judging duties, assessing cooking rigs with three other younger judges, and I poked around Melvin; like many places of its size, it was forlorn in places, though the Jacoby family’s feed mill was going strong. Drove back to Brady and headed into Richards Park, site of the cook-off. Barbeque smoke was in the air.
I ambled around and met some of the characters that make the event what it is, like the Little Lebowskis Urban Goat Herders team, in pirate attire, and fresh from a 20-hour drive from Athens, Georgia; or the Waco Boys, resplendent in orange shirts, shorts, and cowboy boots. Talked at length with fellow judges, seasoned pros and some newbies; had an interesting chat with rookie judge Drew, a lecturer in business ethics and other topics at UT’s B-school.
Before the judges could get to the main event, we had to sample and assess the Mystery Meat Competition, which this year was barbequed salmon. There were some nice flavors, and we didn’t get too filled up. At three, we began the goat judging, first, 25 plates, then 15, then 10, then 5 (judges work in teams and move from table to table, creating a fair way to assess quality); because there were a few ties and some so good they merited seconds, I ended up sampling more than 60 pieces, and was full to the brim. But we helped pick a winner.
During the judging, each judge was introduced. When they got to Jack, the announcer (from the Chamber of Commerce) mentioned he was an addiction counselor in Lubbock, then ad libbed: “Some of you certainly need a referral to that place, and I’m sure Jack will give you a discount!” It was hilarious. With the judging done, we stepped off the stand – two flatbed trailers – and yakked a bit more. At five, Jack and I ambled back to the car and headed north to Lubbock, rather than back to Abilene. It was an easy drive on back roads, through Winters (where, appropriately, we stopped for frozen treats at the Dairy Queen) and Sweetwater, and were at his house by 9:05. Met his new roommate Ford and his dog Mason, showered, and clocked out on the living-room couch.
A cold front arrived overnight as promised, and when I stepped onto Jack’s front porch Sunday morning, it was 64, 36 degrees cooler than the day before. Folks all across Lubbock were raising their arms and you could almost hear the entire city saying “Ahhhhhhhh,” after a very hot summer. At ten, Jack, Ford, a buddy John, and I motored to a caloric breakfast, then up to the Ranch at Dove Tree, for a tour of the treatment center where Jack works. There was a powerful moment of truth up there, when a client, visiting with us about the cook-off, looked me in the eye and told me how much my son was helping him. I have always been proud of Jack, but maybe no time more than that.
From the ranch it was just a few miles to Lubbock airport, where I caught a little jet and was home by 3:30, happy to be in the Lone Star State. Not a perfect place, but a good place. Home.