On the cusp of our front page presidential transition, I thought it might be interesting to reflect on a back page transition that’s happening in my hometown of Oakville down in South Texas.
We used to know it as “Billie June’s Cafe.” The short, low-roofed building stood just across Highway 59 from the First Baptist Church of Oakville. Sometimes Dad would herd Mom, Debbie and me over to Billie June’s after church to order a hamburger or whatever was least expensive on the menu. This was the late fifties, and we were still saddled with the tail end of a drought that had started in 1952 and that dried up bank accounts as well as the land. The proprietors were Billie June and her husband, Lonnie. I remember Billie June wore the reddest lipstick I had ever seen, and Lonnie was the chef. The counter had those silver stools with red sparkly tops that spun. Side booths were equipped with small silver jukeboxes that carried the latest western hits and a few Elvis songs. It cost a dime to play a song, but Dad said we couldn’t play any songs since the Mafia collected all the money from those jukeboxes and used it to commit “nefarious” crimes.
‘”How often do they come to collect the money,” I asked.
“Once a week, I imagine,” Dad said.
I’m imagining gangsters in dark suits and fedoras carting off heavy dime-filled sacks of loot as I flip through the songs and artists: Jambalaya, Hound Dog, Conway Twitty, Hank Williams. “What do they do with the money?”
“I don’t really know. Nefarious things.”
“Can we come see them?”
“They come at night. That’s how they work. Eat your hamburger, Reg.”
“Hey Dad, look—they’ve got Marty Robbins. Streets of Laredo.” It was dad’s favorite song.
But Dad wouldn’t budge. Not once did we ever contribute to the Mafia’s warchest by paying to hear Marty or Elvis or Conway. Not when we had a perfectly good AM radio sitting on the kitchen counter.
Years later, Lonnie got an offer from a fancy hotel in Corpus and he and Billie June packed up and took off for the big city. Not too long after, Billie June’s morphed into Van’s Barbecue.
Van’s serves up some of the best BBQ in Texas this side of Lockhart (Blacks) to a clientele that ranges from visitors like President George W. Bush, to a host of Country Western stars, and pro-wrestlers (autographed pictures festoon the walls). Then there are the regulars—ranchers and cattlemen who occupy the long table most early mornings to catch up on what happened overnight in Live Oak County and any news regarding the Cowboys or the local high school teams. These are the best folks in the world. They always greet me with a “Hey, Reg” when I walk in the door. They are real.
But now Van’s is going away. Well, not for good. Some nice foreigners bought out the owner and they are building a “new and improved” Van’s along with a big gas station and a country store. While they haven’t said so in so many words, I get the impression from my one 5-minute conversation with the new owner that he wants to “make Van’s great again.”
Now to the casual observer, that might not seem like too much of a stretch. There isn’t a lot about Van’s to recommend it in terms of modern accoutrements. But what makes Van’s Van’s isn’t the building, or the rudimentary toilet (there’s a cast iron bathtub in case you need it), or even the food, as good as it is. It is, of course, the people. Generations of cowboys, cattlemen and farmers come and go, slowly, at an Oakville pace, and they maintain a dignity and a rooted joy in living that is the happy effect of divine providence.
The greatness of Van’s—and of our great nation—will, undoubtedly continue in the “new and improved” iteration, currently under construction. But it will owe any future greatness to the blessing of God and the character of the its patrons.