One night in late 1971, my friend, Dan McConchie had me drive us to an address over in old west Austin, just up the hill from Pease Park at 29th street and Lamar. Now this was a built up neighborhood of nice middle class 1940 or 50 vintage homes, but the address we stopped at didn’t look like anything else on the street. In fact, it look like an overgrown vacant lot in the gathering twilight, and as I followed Dan down a path that entered the lot under a dilapidated wooden gate arch (without a gate), I didn’t see anything to challenge that initial assessment. That was about to change.
At the very back of the lot was a little batt & board one room cabin that was every bit as dilapidated as the gate arch at the street—the home of Clarence Felter. Clarence was, when I met him, a frail, old man in his 70’s who walked with this funny little shuffle that never took his feet off of the ground. A friend of Dan’s (Paul Lalonde)who I had met for the first time a few days earlier was Clarence’s live in care taker, and was just helping Clarence into the house to go to bed when Dan introduced me to him. At that time, I had no idea who it was that I had just met—that would come later. Sitting around an old table were 2 or 3 other guys bull shitting, passing joints, and drinking beer; naturally, Dan and I joined them.
After that night, I began to hang out there with Clarence’s gathering. Most afternoons there would be a chess game or two in progress, and as many as 6-8 people gathered around. Clarence didn’t talk much about himself, but from the others I began to learn who this gentleman (our host) was. As a young man he spent time in NYC, calling himself Timaus –sometimes “tiny Tim”, hosting salons as a fortune teller and other wise being a “bohemian” which I suppose is why he attracted so many of us counter culture types. Somewhere amongst my stuff is a little booklet he authored during this time. He came home to Austin in the 30’s and built his little “nest” in wilds west of Shoal Creek, where he continued to host salons. Now I realize that fortune telling is the work of con artists and scammers, but Clarence was different—I truly believe he had a Physic gift that enabled him to see into the windows of the soul, as I saw demonstrated on more than one occasion. The tea leaves he “read” were just a prop—he just knew.
I was a rather divers group who hung out there. A strong Buda contingent (Paul was from down that way) that was pretty rough and tumble, and a couple of guys from the Burnet area who were a little more “refined” Some of them were really good chess players—I wasn’t, but I did get better over time. Most of us were well read, and many of the discussions were pretty deep, and very eclectic in nature. Never knew what someone would bring up around that table. In the midst of it all sat Clarence, taking it all in and enjoying his own twilight.
I remember coming out of the Spiral Staircase—a little bar and game room on 24th street just off of the Drag one afternoon just as Dan, Paul, James Lewis and John L. Guthrie were escorting Clarence to a car in the parking lot there. I say escorting, but really two of them had him by the elbows and were more carrying him, and I could tell Clarence was rather upset. Seems like they decided he needed an adventure, so they took him to an afternoon matinee at the Varsity Theater –the movie they saw was “The Clockwork Orange”. An awful lot for an old man to handle.
Another thing that I’ll never forget was one of those times I witnessed Clarence’s ability, and I was on the receiving end. During those years, I tended to go off on my own adventures, and I had gone off with a woman and her 2 kids to rescue her furniture that was in Phoenix Az. We got almost to Sonora TX on old HW 290—they were still in the process of building parts of I-10—when I lost control of her van on some lose gravel. It flipped three times and Suzi, one of her kids, and a hitch-hiker we had picked up were killed. Another Hitch-hiker, Suzi’s other kid, and I walked away, except I didn’t get too far. The Sutton County Sheriff didn’t care for the whole affair—hippies were not thought of too highly in that part of Texas then—and after finding marijuana, and beer in the van, he decided that I need to spend some time as his guest. Said I blew a 1.1 on the breathalyzer, don’t know if that was true or not, but the real reason I spent the next week in the Sutton County Jail (which is another story in itself) was because I was “dressed a little out of sorts” for the area. Anyway, a lawyer friend finally got me out on bond, and drove me back to Austin where he dropped me off at Clarence’s place. Again, it was nearly dark, and it was one of the few times no one was there—except for Clarence who was in the process of shuffling himself into the house (a long drawn out process). I walked up behind him and put my hand on his shoulder. Without me saying anything, and without him looking around to see who was behind him, he said—“my old friend John—you’ve had some hard times, but it will be alright.” And it was—eventually.
Clarence was not in good health, and as time went by it was harder and harder for Paul to take care of him. Plus Clarence had a son who was desperate to get his hands on that west Austin lot—condo’s for UT students were all the rage then. So, sometime in 74 or so, Clarence was put, against his will, into a nursing home. I visited him there one time, and could see that his fire had gone out—he asked me if I had my knife, which I always did, and then he motioned his hand across his neck. I knew what he was asking, but told him that that would solve his problem, but would just be the start of mine. That was the last time I saw him—he didn’t last but a couple of months in a place he claimed no one spoke his language.
So much for the background, this is the actual story of Clarence’s wake:
One afternoon in the summer of 74, (I think that was the year, but time is so compressed anymore it could have been earlier or later), I was in South Austin picking up some smoking supplies, and decided to stop in at the Armadillo World Headquarters for a bowl of beans, rice and cheese—a substantial meal put out by the beer garden kitchen—and a couple of Lone Stars. I was about to leave when Dan and Paul walked into the beer garden. They had just tossed old Clarence off of Mt. Bonnell above Lake Austin, and were ready to drink a pitcher in his memory. Of course, I had to join them, so we sat at a small table, and ordered the beer. We weren’t even finished the first pitcher when a couple of the Buda gang showed up—said that they had just gotten an urge to go to the Armadillo for some reason. So they joined us, a couple of more pitchers were ordered, and, since we were at the Armadillo, nothing was said when a joint started around the table. Before the next hour had past (and god only knows how many pitchers and joints) there were at least a dozen or more other people—all who had known Clarence, and all who just had a strange urge to go to the Armadillo that night. We had moved to one of the biggest round tables out there, and the crowd was several people deep in spots. Seems like our friend Clarence was having himself an unplanned farewell party, (or just maybe, he planned it himself), and it turned into a good one.
Now in those days, I traveled mostly by thumb, having had my driving privilege suspended by the judge out in Sonora. I also was living way out N. Lamar near Walnut Creek, which was a good ways from the Armadillo. Dan was driving a VW transporter with a load of telephone cut offs in the bed, and he offered to drive me home once the party was over, which by this time we all knew would be when they closed the bar. Some time prior to that, I’d hit my limit of beer and grass, and needed to lie down for a bit, so I went out to the parking lot, found the transporter, and laid down on the ground next to it and went to sleep. (Passed out??) Much later, Dan was waking me up, and giving me all kinds of grief—seems like I had chosen to take my nap right in the drive way, and it was a miracle that I didn’t get run over. Anyway, Dan and Paul tossed me into the back with all the logs, and took me on home. When we got there I was wide awake, having just spent the past half hour or so trying not to get crushed by the cargo. To show my “gratitude” for the ride, I pulled a couple of lids out of the gas mask bag ( what might be called a man purse today) I always had with me, and handed them to Dan through the window. Dan was astonished. Here I had spent time passed out in the driveway of the Armadillo parking lot, somehow managing to not get run over, or rousted by the police, and carrying around about a half pound of dope in the bag that I’d been using for a pillow. Obviously, I had an angel named Clarence watching over me and, as it turned out, everyone else who had been at his wake managed to get home without any trouble, drunk and stoned as they all were that night.