My Texas Gentleman

By Carla Kelly

Erwin Massengale

Reminisce is a hard word for me to spell, and I’m a really good speller. I was doing some reminiscing recently and somehow that took me back to Erwin Massengale of Beeville, Texas. 

In 1961, my dad was stationed at NAS Chase Field in Beeville. It was a place to train pilots. My father’s gig was generally sub-chasing, but the Navy rotates some of its personnel between sea duty and shore duty. At 100 miles south of San Antonio, Chase Field was most definitely shore duty. I think Beeville was as inland as we ever lived.

Erwin Massengale was a classmate in A.C. Jones High School’s Class of 1965, well-known as the class that went to war. Ah well. That came after graduation. He was a well-liked friend to many. During the planning of our graduation, Erwin and I were chosen to give the humorous ‘Looking Back and Looking Forward’ talks. Erwin had the ‘Looking Back’ because he was a lifelong Beevillian. I obviously wasn’t.

We coordinated our talks and laughed a lot. He asked me to do the post-graduation dance at the country club and I accepted. I had a little cash on hand from an article I wrote, so a seamstress made me a great black dress. I mean, why not?

Graduation was about a week after we seniors ended our classroom time. Like others, Erwin started work in that interim week in the oil fields. We had a rehearsal the day of graduation, and Erwin dragged himself in. 

Oh, my. He had fallen off an oil rig, broken a few ribs, and was otherwise banged up. We went through our talks, but it was pretty obvious he was feeling none too good.

After graduation, I went home and put on my cool black dress and Erwin picked me up. We got to the dance, and mostly mingled with friends. Erwin had trouble laughing because boy howdy, he really wasn’t in his prime.

Before the first dance, he told me, “Carla, I’m hurting so bad, and this is awful, but would you mind terribly if I just took you home?”

I was disappointed, but hey, this was Erwin and he was in pain. I said sure, and he drove me home. It was ok. We were scheduled to leave Beeville the next day. Dad had received orders to Adak in the Aleutian Islands. I was going to Montana to stay with relatives and eventually work in Yellowstone National Park. We were leaving early, so I went to bed.

Fast forward twenty years. I hadn’t attended the tenth Class of ’65 reunion, but I wasn’t going to miss the twentieth. I flew into San Antonio, rented a car, and drove to Beeville, where I spent the weekend with Jean Dugat, my journalism teacher, a dragon, and the single person, besides me, to whom I owe my writing career. 

The first event was a get-together. I saw so many wonderful friends. Absolute heaven.

I was only there a few minutes before Erwin came to say howdy. I knew he’d served as a Marine tank commander in Vietnam, from 1967-68. Khe Sanh was the worst.  I heard there were medals involved because this was Erwin. Incidentally, his tank crew called him Tex. Their tank was dubbed “The Lonely Bull,” because they had attached water buffalo horns to it.

Erwin returned to Beeville, married Lana Nance in the Class of ‘66, worked as a lineman for the telephone company, and had three daughters.

He took me by the arm and led me to chairs in a quiet spot. “Carla, I have to tell you what happened after I took you home early from that dance,” he said.

I figured this was going to be good, and I do like a good story. Indeed. First, he apologized for what had happened twenty years ago, then this: He said he went home, took a bunch of aspirin, lay down for a while, then felt better.

Felt better enough to go back to the dance, after he picked me up again, and explained himself. “I got to your house and was just about to knock when I noticed that the place was completely dark,” he told me at that 20th reunion. “I stood there a moment, then drove home.”

We had a good laugh. I told him that we moved the next day, and everyone was glad to get to bed early. “So you stewed about this for twenty years?” I asked him, amused. 

He had. You see, Erwin Massengale was what I call a Texas Gentleman. It’s my term, as far as I know, and connotes someone good to his horses, polite and kind to women, and honorable in all ways. I doubt he had an enemy anywhere unless it was the Viet Cong. That was Erwin.

Fast forward to the 50th reunion, the reunion no one who is among the quick and not dead wants to miss. Beeville was experiencing a glancing blow from a hurricane and it was overcast and raining. 

So many former classmates came, probably the bulk still from Texas, but many of us from farther away. We paid tribute to those now gone from us – some in Vietnam – and caught up on many years of life. Erwin and Lana were there, and we had a nice visit. 

On the last night, we had an informal gathering, dancing optional, at Travis Tindol’s Honky-Tonk on Washington, the main street. All of us were still talking non-stop. I think none of us really wanted to say goodbye.

I was about to leave when Erwin came over and asked me to dance. “We never did get that dance in 1965,” he reminded me. We danced, and he walked me outside, kissed me on the forehead, and said goodbye.

That was Erwin. He died in 2017. I am so thankful he asked me to dance that first-last dance. Erwin, my Texas Gentleman. You’re more than a reminiscence. 


Erwin Massengale — Texas Capitol Vietnam Veterans Monument