Got a treat for you from the good people at Harper’s Magazine. They’ve taken Edwin “Bud” Shrake’s classic piece “In the Land of the Permanent Wave” out from behind the pay wall and made it available for all. If you’ve never read it before, do yourself a favor and check it out:
For about five hours I had been drinking Scotch whiskey and arguing with a rather nice, sometimes funny old fellow named Arch, who was so offended by my moderately long hair that he had demanded to know if I weren’t actually, secretly, a Communist. “Come on now, you can tell me, hell, I won’t hate you for it. Wouldn’t you really like to see the Communists take over this country?” Arch had said, placing his bare elbows on the table and leaning forward to look trustingly at me, as though he was certain that if I had one virtue it would prove to be that I would not lie to him about such an important matter. Arch was wearing a jump suit; swatches of gray chest hair, the color of his crew cut, stuck out where the zipper had got caught in it when last Arch had excused himself from the table. We were in the guest lodge of a lumber company in a small town in East Texas. Arch is an old friend of the president of the company. Sitting around the table or nearby were my wife, a State Senator in town to crown a beauty queen at a “celebration” the next evening, a U. S. Congressman who had come down from Washington to make a speech between the parade and the barbecue the following noon, a lumber lobbyist who is mayor of still another town owned by this same lumber company, and I think one or two more people but my memory of that evening has a few holes in it.
Willie Morris ran Harper’s during the magazine’s heyday in the Sixties. He said that Shrake’s story, along with Seymour Hersh’s devastating account of the My Lai Massacre, were his two favorites.
In his memoir, New York Days, Morris recalled Shrake as:
…a large, tall Texan with a blunt exterior that disguised a lyric but misdoing heart. This piece was infiintely less ambitious than “My Lai,” but struck a chord in me that I have never quite forgotten, having to do with how clean, funny, and lambent prose caught the mood of that moment in the country and mirrored with great felicity what we were trying to do at Harper’s. To me few finer magazine essays have ever been written.
The genesis of “The Land of the Permanent Wave” was itself a germane story of the magazine business of that era. Sports Illustrated sent Shrake down at his insistence to do a piece on the beautiful and haunting Big Thicket area of East Texas. This was about the time a Texas lumbering company was becoming a major stockholder in Time Inc. Shrake’s story on timber choppers and developers ruining the Thicket was not happily greeted at SI. Andre Laguerre, the managing editor later to be dismissed by the money men, broke the news to the writer at their daily late afternoon gathering in the bar around the corner from the Time-Life Building where many of their editorial decisions took place. It was the only SI story Shrake ever wrote that the magazine would not print and Laguerre embarrassed. Shrake got his permission to rewrite it and give it to Harper’s. He sat down and changed the main angle of the story from the mercenary destruction of the Thicket to his and his young wife Doatsy’s travels through Lufkin and down to the Thicket, about permanent waves and long hair in the Sixties and cowboy hats and rednecks and cops and the fumes from the paper mills.
This story speaks to that time and place as well as a movie like Easy Rider, but it is not at all dated (the same can’t be said for Easy Rider).
Shrake was part of a wonderful group of writers to come out of Texas, including his high school buddy Dan Jenkins, Gary “Jap” Cartwright and Larry L King (not the talk show host but the prolific writer who wrote the brilliant Confessions of a White Racist and later struck it rich with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). Shrake, Jenkins and later Cartwright got their start under the expert tutelage of Blackie Sherrod at the Fort-Worth Press in the Fifties. In his winning account of that era, Texas Literary Outlaws, Steven L. Davis describes Shrake’s introduction to the Fort-Worth Press:
When Shrake walked into the Press it was love at first sight: “I looked around at all the people, and the state editor was over there eating a can of sardines at his desk at six o’clock in the morning, and the bowling writer was back there drunk and had set fire to the waste basket, and the one-legged city editor was threatening people with this crutch…All of the sudden I walked into a world I knew I belonged to.”
The Fort-Worth Press wasn’t low budget, it was no budget, but it proved to be a terrific learning ground for Shrake, Jenkins, Cartwright and others. At one point, Shrake wrote about 50,000 words each week. He moved up in the world as a columnist, first at the Dallas Times Herald and then the Dallas Morning News. Later, he followed Jenkins to New York and Sports Illustrated where he was a feature writer in the Sixties and Seventies. He also tried his hand at screenwriting but had his greatest artistic success as a novelist. Strange Peaches is regarded as one of the finest books about Dallas in the Jack Ruby days (Shrake was dating a stripper in Ruby’s club when he shot Lee Harvey Oswald).
“When anybody asks me what Dallas was like during the time of the Kennedy assassination, I always refer them to ‘Strange Peaches,’ ” said Don Graham, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin who knows more than a thing or three about Texas literature.
Blessed McGill is also a classic of Texas literature. Shrake co-wrote several autobiographies–with Willie Nelson and Barry Switzer–and is the co-writer of Harvey Penick’s Little Red Book, which just so happens to be the best-selling sports book of all-time…Oh, by the way.
(The full interview can be seen here.)
Shrake died last year and was remembered in this touching tribute by Sally Jenkins:
Bud was always looking left — while everyone was staring at the main event, he would notice the things on the sidelines, in the margins. In the Best Sports Stories edition of 1963 you can find a piece he wrote about Arnold Palmer at the Masters, only it wasn’t about Palmer, it was about the ordinary stiffs in his gallery, the members of “Arnie’s Army,” who marched “under a dull aluminum sky” with their binoculars and umbrellas, “Ladies in pink tennis shoes standing on canvas stools. Men in muddy golf shoes with raincoats tied around their waists. Women in big straw hats decorated with golf balls and tees.” Arnie’s Army smelled “like grass, like beer and a freshly mowed lawn, like mustard and damp laundry.”
…His approach toward writing came partly from Bundini Brown, Muhammad Ali’s assistant cornerman, and an amateur philosopher. It was Bundini Brown who would get Ali mentally ready to fight, and who came up with “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee; the hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see.”
Bundini Brown told Bud that only 15 percent of the world was visible, the remaining 85 percent was dark matter and energy, and contained in that matter was “all the knowledge of all the stories that ever happened.” The molecules of words were just floating out there, captured in the ether, and if you attuned your mind properly, the words would just flow into you. Bud believed that, but he also believed what Harvey Penick said to him: “Life consists of a lot of minor annoyances and a few matters of real consequence.”
Bud took other writing advice from Mark Twain, who said, “The difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between the lightning and the lightning-bug.” And from Rudyard Kipling, who insisted that to write meant being patiently ruled by the subconscious: “You wait, you listen, you obey.”