[Note from Christopher: When my friend Bill Brett, cowboy and folklorist, died in August 2002, I wanted to write a eulogy of sorts. Bill was a fine man, a wonderful writer, and a great storyteller. So I wrote the following piece for the Beaumont Enterprise, a Texas newspaper circulating in his home area. For more on Bill, you can read a short magazine piece I wrote about him two years earlier, in May 2000, for Texas Co-op Power Magazine. That article, along with some photos, is on this website in the Magazine section.]
PRAGUE, Czech Republic — September 2002
They say the Big Man knows when every sparrow falls. But when an eagle plunges earthward, even us mortals notice.
So it happened that here, half a planet distant from Southeast Texas, I paused in my work on August 27. The ground trembled beneath my feet, and I shortly learned that Bill Brett had uncoiled his mortal self.
My first thought: The time back in the early 1980s, at a public event that must remain nameless, when Bill handed me a small jar filled with clear liquid and said, “Try a swaller.”
I did. It went down smoother than silk and tasted like spring water, but when it hit my belly a warm razzle-dazzle spread outward, then upward, and a pleasant gong in B major sounded in my brain.
Man oh man, I thought. I couldn’t believe how painless it was to swallow. Not caustic at all, no fire. Handing the Mason jar back to Bill, I commented, with a puzzled expression, “It don’t burn up your throat like that store-bought stuff.”
Bill nodded. “Yep,” he said, “that’s right.” He offered me a crafty grin. “Shore makes you wonder, don’t it?”
It sure did.
Back in those days I was a columnist for the Beaumont Enterprise, and in the course of my ramblings I’d met Bill somewhere or other. In his 60s, gray haired and handsome with twinkling blue eyes, he’d impressed me right away as a fella worth knowing. For one thing, he was the nearest to a real cowboy I’d ever met. For another, he could tell a story. And despite a seventh grade education, he could write one, too, as I soon learned from reading his The Stolen Steers: A Tale of the Big Thicket and There Ain’t No Such Animal and Other East Texas Tales, both from Texas A&M Press. They’re fine books, and still in print.
Anyhow, as I was saying, Bill impressed me right off. I had no idea he was such a well known folklorist, a winner of national awards and such. But he had a shrewd way of directing my attention toward matters both whimsical and serious without telling me what to think. He was respectful, as though he possessed a basic faith in my intelligence, my judgment, my very humanity. So I arranged to drive over to his ranch at Hull, in Liberty County, down in the Trinity riverbottom country, where I could sit at his knee, so to speak, and maybe learn a thing or two about telling stories, and about writing some, too.
When I drove up, in the afternoon, he was out in his yard braiding a horsehair rope. He was wearing boots and jeans and a khaki shirt, his faithful cowboy hat with a braided horsehair band cocked back. That was one thing I learned about Bill right away—he sure did like to braid horsehair. Before I left that afternoon, I was wearing a brown and white horsehair band on my own hat. I sat there and watched him make it, too, while we traded tales.
So I wasn’t too surprised to learn yesterday that he’d braided the horsehair rope handles used on his cypress coffin. Or to hear he was buried on his ranch, and that his coffin was hauled to the burial site on a wagon pulled by mules. I’m told his wife Anna Lou followed, leading his saddled horse. His grandchildren shadowed on horseback, and behind them came his cowboy buddies carrying flowers.
In the course of hearing of that event, I did learn a few things about Bill I didn’t know. His real name was Jesse Key Brett. His Aunt Sudie tagged him “Bill” as a boy because he was stubborn as a bull, only she didn’t want to burden him with “Bull”.
During his 80 years, Bill had been a cowhand, carpenter, truckdriver, oilfield worker, and postmaster at Hull. And, of course, a writer and storyteller. I knew that much. But I didn’t know he’d been a deputy sheriff. He’d even served in the U.S. Air Force.
About the only thing Bill hadn’t done, I reckon, is die. Then he up and did that, too.
Well, it sure got my attention. It got me to thinking about this small matter of my own mortality. Then I realized Bill had done it again. Most respectfully, as always.