The stars at night are big and bright,
Deep in the heart of Texas ...
June Hershey & Don Swander, 1941
While crossing the vast state of Texas during a cross country trip we found ourselves driving through a steady rain with no end to the weather in sight. It was getting on toward dinner time and I was thinking that this might be one of those rare nights when we took the day's food budget and spent it on a restaurant instead of cooking outside with the bus kitchen.
It had been raining most of the day and there wasn't much to do on the bus, so a group of the guys had bought a case of Lone Star beer at a truck stop just after lunch. They bought another one at our last stop and that was almost gone. A couple of them were pretty well-oiled by this point and had found a great game to pass the time: if there was a lull in the conversation one of them would belt out "The stars at night are big and bright ..." to which the rest of the bus would clap and then return the chorus: "(clap-clap-clap-clap) deep in the heart of Texas!". This was the same summer that the movie "Pee Wee's Big Adventure" had come out, and it had clearly made an impression on people around the world.
Without expecting much I checked the Driver's Guide for that part of the trip and found only one entry:
"If you're in the middle of Texas and need a place to buy a meal be on the lookout for the Longhorn Saloon in Brewster".
Sitting on the buddy seat next to my co-driver who was at the wheel I asked where we were.
He said, "we passed a sign a few miles back that said we're about 40 miles from Brewster". I checked my road atlas.
There wasn't much around this area, so this sounded like our best option. I had him pull over at a payphone so that I could call the restaurant to see if they could fit us in. The manager seemed genuinely excited to have us come when I explained who we were and why I had a group of 38 hungry diners.
We pulled up outside the Longhorn a few minutes later, our group spilling off the bus and stumbling (some more than others) across the parking lot to the front door. My co-driver and I talked to the manager at the front desk. The room was packed, but they had a back room that they used for functions and had set us up in there. At least we wouldn't offend any of the locals if we were locked in the back room, and I believe the Longhorn is frequented mostly by locals, because everyone seemed to turn from their family style tables and say hello as we walked in. The drunker passengers would start talking to the folks sitting at the tables. The families at the tables thought this was right friendly behavior and kept on talking. "who are you?", "where are you from?" "how do you like Texas?". It took a while to get our whole group into the back room because half of them were stuck talking to friendly Texans.
After getting us a round of beers (except for me as I was going to drive the next shift) the waitress took our order and started with me. I had noticed that tonight's special was a Chicken Fried Steak. Growing up in New Jersey I had heard of these, but never actually had one. Sensing my best opportunity to fill in this gaping hole in my culinary repertoire I order one. "What's that thing you ordered?" asked the passenger who was next to me, still scanning his menu. I explained that I'd heard of it all my life, but never tried it, so he ordered one too. The woman next to him asked what it was and he said that's what the driver ordered, so she did too. This happened all the way down the table, so I believe our table ordered 38 Chicken Fried Steaks.
Finally our very nice (and very patient) waitress called out, "I've got everyone's food order is there anything else I can do for y'all?".
There was a moment of silence while the beer levels were checked, then one of the Australians said with a wry smile and in full Aussie accent: "Yeah darling - can you tell me if there are any other words to the song that starts out "The stars at night are big and bright..." and of course the whole group chimed in for the clapping and the chorus.
She laughed and said, "I know there's more words, but I don't know what they are, but I can ask my Manager."
I told her not to worry about it, they were just looking for an opening to sing the song one more time. She said that was fine and left. A minute or two later the manager came into the room. He headed right over to me, a look of concern on his face, and I imagined that we'd cleaned them out of their weekly allocation of Chicken Fried Steak.
"I'm really sorry to say this, but I have no idea what the words to the song are, but I think my cook might now, so I'll go ask him right now".
I envisioned an overworked cook in the back already close to blowing a gasket because he just got an order for 38 Chicken Fried Steaks on one ticket coming out with a meat cleaver if he was asked to sing while he cooked.
"No, no, he's got enough to do" I quickly said, "we're fine with the one verse".
The Manager was on a mission though. It was clear that he ran a restaurant where customers got what they ordered, even if it was the lyrics to a song. He was back in about 90 seconds with a cook, who looked equally concerned.
"I don't know that words to that one, but I think my mother might. Let me go up to the front desk and give her a call".
Now I'm feeling like we're putting these poor folks through the ringer. The restaurant's full and both the manager and cook are on the phone looking for song lyrics.
The room is getting more crowded now because our group keeps singing the one verse of the song that they know and of course, doing the response. This makes the locals outside think there's some kind of pro-Texas rally going on and they want to be part of it. Word has also filtered among the patrons that a group who is not only from outside Texas, but outside the USA, is trying to learn a song about Texas, so the Manager keeps coming by with random patrons who don't know the song but swear they know someone who does and they'll just give them a holler and have an answer in two shakes.
By now it has become clear to me that this quest has gone way beyond my control and that phones across the state will be ringing until someone tracks down the one old timer who knows the rest of the song.
Chicken Fried Steaks begin to arrive and our group sits down to eat, along with a couple of Texans who come by to say hello and then set a spell. The reports indicate that they are honing in on the lyrics now the music teacher from the local High School has been found and his aunt in Amarillo has a songbook that has what we're looking for. Our waitress is standing at the host desk furiously writing while the Manager covers her tables and brings me our check. I tip them way too much because of all the work they've done.
With everyone fed we start herding the troops back to the bus, which takes longer than it did going in because they've had even more beer and the remaining patrons from the dinner rush all seem to want to shake hands with the group that keeps singing songs about Texas. As I herd the last bunch out the front door the waitress hangs up and hands a placemat to the Australian bloke who started it all with all verses to the song hand written on the back, transcribed over the phone from a little old lady in Amarillo. We sang the song clear to Louisiana.
Say what you want. Make fun of the accent and how much they talk. Laugh at the hats, the boots and ever-present pickup trucks. But don't even try to say that folks in Texas ain't friendly.