This piece originally ran in Lonn Taylor's "Rambling Boy" column in the Big Bend Sentinel on April 5, 2012. A selection of those columns, entitled Texas, My Texas: Musings of the Rambling Boy, has recently been published by Texas Christian University Press. Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
March 18 would have been the eighty-sixth birthday of my favorite cousin, Norton Rugeley. Norton was born in Wharton, Texas, in 1926, which made him fourteen years older than I and ten years younger than his cousin, Horton Foote, whose plays and screenplays about Wharton emphasized the family ties among its people and their Southern roots. Norton had a slightly different insight into Wharton because Norton was gay, and he had all of Foote's storytelling abilities.
Norton's mother, Elizabeth Norton Rugeley, was the daughter of my grandmother's oldest sister and her husband, A. A. Norton. Mr. Norton owned the Norton Opera House in Wharton. Because the Norton Opera House had a bar on the first floor, Elizabeth, who was a beautiful and strong-willed woman, spent her life trying to overcome the stigma of being the saloon-keeper's daughter. She married Norton's father, Alex Rugeley, when she was quite young. Norton was their only child.
Alex owned Rugeley's Drug Store on the courthouse square, but he was a member of an old Wharton family. His grandfather, John Rugeley, came to Texas in 1840 and established a sugar plantation on Caney Creek. The Rugeleys lost most of their wealth during the Civil War, but an aristocratic air still hovered around Alex. He was a big man with a head like a Roman senator. He wore his gray hair long and curled over his back collar and, like most of the older people in Wharton County, spoke with a broad Southern accent, closer to Mississippi than Texas. His aristocratic bearing was enhanced by the house he built for Elizabeth when they married, a two-story home with white columns in front and a Florida room, complete with a tile floor, rattan furniture, and potted palms, in the back.
When I was a little boy I shamelessly envied Norton his bedroom in that house. It was pine-paneled and was equipped with window seats, Navajo blankets, a record player, a Hallicrafters short-wave radio, and a globe. It was a wonder that Norton was not spoiled, but he was not; he was the most thoughtful and considerate adult that I knew, and was infinitely entertaining. He was a wonderful mimic and could tell hilarious stories about everyone in Wharton. He claimed that when Horton Foote went off to drama school and came home for the summer he had completely lost his Southern accent and his little brother charged Norton and his friends a quarter each to come to the Foote house and listen to Horton talk. Norton would do Foote's voice before and after drama school. Another specialty was a prominent Wharton citizen, Hawes Vineyard, as a little boy, going to the Saturday matinee with his big sister and quarreling with her all through the movie.
The Rugeley house had several telephone extensions, and as a young boy Norton developed the habit of listening in on his parents' conversations. When the 1936 Texas Centennial celebration in Dallas was drawing near, the seventh-grade Texas history teacher in Wharton, Miss Gooch, a maiden lady in her sixties and a friend of Norton's mother, could talk of nothing but how Texas history was finally going to come into its own because the Centennial Exposition was going to have Texas history exhibits everywhere. In fact the most popular exhibit at the Exposition was something called the Streets of Paris, a sort of sideshow in which visitors could watch nude models posing for artists. When Miss Gooch came back from her trip to Dallas she called Elizabeth to report on her visit to the Exposition, and Norton picked up the extension. When he was in his seventies he could still mimic Miss Gooch saying, “Elizabeth, Texas has gone crazy over naked women.”
When I was ten we were living in Washington, DC, and Norton was attending Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia. He frequently came to Sunday dinner at our house. He always treated me like an adult and took my concerns and interests seriously, and he became my best adult friend. At the time I was deeply interested in antique automobiles and Norton gave me a treasure that I still have, a Klaxon horn from an ancient Rolls Royce Roadster that he had driven in college. At that time Norton had not come completely to terms with his sexuality, and he was dating a young woman named Pamela. One Saturday Norton invited me to go to the movies with them. My father, who had a somewhat bizarre sense of humor, suggested that I put on my dress-up blue suit, white shirt, and tie, take a bamboo cane that I had recently won at a shooting gallery with me, and tell Pamela that I was a midget who had been employed in an aircraft factory during the war, driving rivets inside the wings of B-29 bombers. Norton seemed a little surprised when I fed his date this story but he went right along with it, supplying supplementary details and telling her I had worked at the Convair plant in Fort Worth and received a citation because of my riveting skills. We kept it up all through the movie and ice cream afterwards. Pamela must have gone home thinking she was involved with a very odd family.
Norton eventually enrolled in graduate school at Columbia University and received an MA in English. He took a job teaching at a prestigious boy's school in New York and later taught in San Francisco. I did not see him for many years. But after his parents died he retired from teaching, moved back to Wharton, and renovated his parents' house, where he gave parties for Houston's gay community. On his seventieth birthday he sent me a photograph of himself, a lithe, tanned man with a white beard, sitting in Santa Claus's lap at Sakowitz's in Houston. In his later years he was given to long late-night telephone calls in which he told stories about my grandmother and her sisters that kept my wife and me shaking with laughter. On his eightieth birthday he surprised us by calling at midnight to tell us that he had just gotten married to a widow that he had known for twenty years. They had decided that they needed to care for each other in their old age and they lived together happily until Norton died in 2009.
I miss him. Whenever the phone rings late at night I momentarily expect it to be Norton with another story about Wharton.