photo by Tom Dodge Lindon Dodge and the telescope he made with Ronnie Dawson. :f,king September 19 to say that Ronnie hadn’t returned my calls because his medication had kept him sleeping all week, except for a couple of trips to the doctors. She said he’d fallen trying to get out of bed. I drove over that day. “The bottom dropped out:’ he said when I came into his room. Friends and family visited every day during this time, as did Ronnie’s halfbrother Louis. They’d shared a father, Pink Archie Dawson, who’d been the bass player for Mel’s Merrymakers, a Texas swing band, until 1936, after which the group morphed into Pinky Dawson and the Manhattan Merrymakers. Pinky died January 5, 1959, of a coronary occlusion, at the age of 58. On Ronnie’s last day, Tuesday, September 30, 2003, the house was filled with family and friends who took turns sitting with him. He looked up as I came in, but then drifted away. His television was set to TV Land. When I turned the sound down, he opened his eyes and said, “What happened to the TV?” “I thought you were asleep:’ “You don’t like MacGyver?” “Uh, I, uh, sure:’ “Pretty good show:’ he said. Then he smiled faintly and floated away again. Lindon and his brother Lowell waited their turns outside, and as I got up to go I remembered the geese. They had flown over the previous April on the day Ronnie and Lindon finished their telescope. Ronnie had watched the birds for a while and said, “I wanna go:’ to no one in particular. I looked at him one more time before leaving. Emaciated as he was, he looked like a giant, featherless bird. He had opened his eyes. I considered reminding him of the geese, but said instead, “Brenda and the boys are waiting to see you:’ “Have fun,” he said, and smiled. We’d had a lot of fun in our day. He squeezed every happy moment possible from his experiences, but I’ve heard stories about the bottled-up anger that came roaring out of the brimstone of his childhood when he drank too much. And with Ronnie, according to his friend Lenny Stan, now 81 and living in Florida, even a little booze was too much. In the 1960s, Lenny was the doorman at the Levee, the famous Dallas nightclub where Ronnie headlined. Lenny lived upstairs from Ronnie and his roommate Ed Bernet, their boss and bandleader of the Levee Singers. Ronnie had a new Plymouth Fury convertible, Lenny said, and Ed used to drop cigarette ashes on the carpet. Ronnie wanted to whip him, but Ed was his boss, and as a former football player outweighed Ronnie by 100 pounds. So Ronnie just vacuumed the ashes up, went to a bar, had a few drinks, and threatened to whip the owner instead. Lenny led him away before the cops came. Getting out of there in a hurry, Ronnie drove his ash-free convertible into a bridge. Ronnie and Ed had clashing egos, Lenny said, but when Ed announced he was getting married, Ronnie was furious, not wanting him to move out. During the ceremony, Lenny sat with Ronnie outside on the lawn as he drank and threw full bottles of champagne against the church wall. By the time Brenda and I met him in 1970, Zen, exercise, and a disciplined diet had tempered the smoldering fundamentalist flames. In his later years, Christi encouraged him to take up woodworking. I was surprised at first to see him working in his shop, but in a way it wasn’t so different from the work he did in the studio and on stage. He made some pretty good music with his jigsaw, router, table saw, and drill. The art objects he made, and the furniture, and one very fine telescope, had their lyrical aspects, too, I thought. On a warm April Saturday in 2003 I drove Lindon to Ronnie’s workshop to install the mirrors and eyepieces on the telescope. Lindon was suffering from an infected pilonidal cyst, an open wound on his tailbone that wouldn’t heal. It wouldn’t heal because, sitting in a wheelchair, he could never take the pressure off. The pain made his head hurt and gave him the shakes and the sweats. Five days later he would go in for surgery that would require six weeks of recovery. Ronnie’s injection therapy at Baylor was also scheduled to begin the next week, so they were intent on finishing the telescope as soon as possible. They still talked about taking it to Fort Davis for a pollution-free view of the stars, some of them dead, maybe, others still burning bright. They were in pretty bad shape physically, but friendship, the music of Diana Krall and Louis Armstrong, and the Texas sun energized them. They finished before noon, and Christi came out and took some photos. I said, “Will you be able to see Jupiter’s new moon with that telescope?” Lindon said no, but that it was still 10 times more powerful than the one Galileo had used to see Jupiter. At lunch, Ronnie pureed his food into 30 THE TEXAS OBSERVER SEPTEMBER 5, 2008
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