As if the Covid-19 pandemic wasn’t enough, apparently the weather has also turned against us. I hear the wind howling in the trees tonight outside my window – with the possibility of tornadoes on the way according to the weather forecasters. I feel like we are caught between hell and hackeydam, a place most undesirable. I first introduced the phrase and the man who shared it with me to my followers eight years ago, but the story will be new for some. Whether you remember him or not, Bubba Sage should give you a smile.
Once upon a time not long ago and certainly not far away a great Texas storyteller held forth on a Sunday afternoon as his audience gathered around a small dining room table, and it was my good luck to be there for the performance. He was the last guest to arrive for the barbecue luncheon but proved to be quite the addition to a little band of friends and family who gathered for a traditional birthday celebration for my cousin Martin at his brother Dennis’s home outside Navasota.
I should’ve known I was in for a treat when Carroll “Bubba” Sage announced his presence with an entrance worthy of royalty. This very large man with a closely trimmed grey beard moved into the kitchen as the screen door slammed behind him. He balanced a homemade German chocolate cake in a single layer aluminum cake pan as he came in, and I felt the energy in the little house went up a notch. When he retrieved a package of coffee he’d also brought and declared he never went anywhere without his own Dunkin’ Donuts coffee because he couldn’t possibly drink anything else with his cake, my antenna was up and ready for the ride.
What a ride it was. Bubba grew up as the younger child of parents who owned and operated what was affectionately known by its patrons in the 1950s as a beer joint. He was born and raised in Navasota which was, and is sixty years later, a small town in Grimes County, Texas, a county that was dry back in those days so his folks opened their establishment across the Brazos River in Washington County which was wet. Dry county equals no adult beverages allowed. Wet county means go for it.
In addition to serving beer, the best barbecue and hamburgers in the state made the place standing room only for a long time, according to Bubba’s stories. I know barbecue like that from years of chasing brisket in Texas hole-in-the-wall restaurants and could visualize the scene as Bubba’s daddy cooked the barbecue outside behind the tavern on a long open pit built out of bricks with a crusty black grill to put the meat on. I swear I could smell the aroma, or maybe that was my cousin’s chickens and sausage cooking outside in a smoker for our lunch.
And my, oh my, talk about entertainment. The Sage Place had music on the weekends when Bubba’s daddy played the fiddle in the band. As Alabama sings, if you’re gonna play in Texas, you gotta have a fiddler in the band. The women’s petticoats swirled to the fast music and then swayed to the slow tunes as they danced the Two-Step. The female patrons particularly liked the little boy who was always there and let him wear their costume jewelry sometimes when they saw him eyeing it with lust in his eyes. He was in heaven.
The young boy grew up to become one of the teenagers that puffed the magic dragon in the middle of the Brazos River at a place he and his friends appropriately dubbed Smokey Point. They also created a theater of sorts at Smokey Point where Bubba developed a reputation as the Star of the Brazos. I was mesmerized by this big man’s recitations at our dining table. He took me totally by surprise when he began quoting a section of Young Goodman Brown, an obscure short story by the nineteenth century novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne. I could picture him standing on the rocks at Smokey Point as the Brazos River flowed past the theatrics this young teenager performed.
As all good storytellers do, Bubba threw in a few words to grab his listeners’ attention and he grabbed mine when he said, “I’ve had close calls – been caught between hell and hackeydam more times than I like to remember.” Excuse me I said as I interrupted him. But what does that mean and how do you spell it? Bubba laughed and said it was like being between a rock and a hard place but for some reason his family used this phrase instead. (He added he had no idea how to spell it so I’ve spelled it phonetically here and will now use it as if I created it.)
The lunch was delicious. Bubba’s German chocolate cake was the best I ever tasted which includes both of my grandmothers’ efforts so that’s high praise. I stayed to play dominoes after we ate and then began to say my goodbyes when the game was over. As I cut a piece of cake to take with me, Bubba made one final rendition in the kitchen. He recited portions of “The Hill” from Edgar Lee Masters’s Spoon River Anthology which ends with the line, “… all, all are sleeping on the hill…”
Honestly, does it get any better than that?
view from my cousins Dennis and Martin’s place
Stay safe, stay sane and stay tuned.