Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Sage of Premont, Texas

     Johnny Weeks is the son of the owner of the Lopez Tire Company. Don’t try to figure that out. It’s complicated.
      I met Johnny last fall as I was driving out of Premont, Texas, a flat, dry and desperately poor hamlet in Jim Wells County eighty miles due north of McAllen. The town isn’t famous for anything but the county is. In 1948, the local political bosses stuffed 203 votes into the infamous Precinct Box 13—just enough to launch Lyndon Johnson into the U.S. Senate and on his way to the White House.
      Johnny wasn’t a part of that. The day I met him, he was sitting on the steps of the former gas station that is now the Lopez Tire Company, chatting with two young Hispanic guys, neither one of whom spoke much English. I needed to talk to someone from Premont because I was working on a book project — a photo book about Texas high school football stadiums. The tiny, dilapidated Premont High School stadium is one of the stadiums that’ll be included in the book. My job was to provide the text, and I’d been talking to all kinds of people connected to high school football: coaches, players, cheerleaders, homecoming queen candidates, sportswriters and such. I’d tried to find someone “official” — or at least more official than Johnny — and had almost given up when I caught a glimpse of the three of them.
      So, I wheeled my Toyota Tundra around the block, parked, walked up and said, “Good afternoon, gentlemen. My name is Bobby Hawthorne. I’m a writer from Austin. You got a minute to talk?”
      The two Hispanics eyeballed me quizzically and grinned, and Johnny said, “What can I do you for?” I explained as briefly as possible the project and told him I needed a quote and asked if he was willing to be interviewed.
     “I don’t see no reason why not.”
      So I asked him if lived in Premont (yes), was he a Premont High graduate (yes), was he a football fan (Hell yes), does he go to the games (what do you think?). I pretty much knew the answers to those questions before I asked them, but I wanted to get everything on the record. Then, I asked him the big question: Johnny, are you a stander or a sitter?
      Johnny Weeks, Premont High class of ’98, knew exactly what I meant.
     “I’m a stander,” he said. “We stand around and watch the game in a group. Some of us are young. Some are old. Always on the home side. We haven’t been good for a while, so we usually yell at the coaches. We’ve had four in four years. We have a new coach this year, so we’ll see how that goes. We tend not to yell at the kids. Kids always try hard.”
      That’s all I needed and more than I expected. I shook Johnny’s hand and the hands of the two Hispanic guys, sauntered back over to my Toyota Tundra and headed south toward McAllen.
      So, why am I telling you this? Because journalism is mostly about pulling over, getting out, walking up, introducing yourself to someone with whom you otherwise might never exchange a word and asking him or her or it four or five questions. Journalism is not about writing. It’s about reporting. Nothing happens until you talk to someone.