Far east

The East, East Side

I hadn’t really consulted a map before I left. I just knew I was going east of the East Side, whatever that meant. About 14 months ago I was talking to a City gardener named Brad (who also goes by Bob), who spoke of a vast and relatively unknown part of town he would occasionally bike through.

“You have to run the gantlet through some bicycle unfriendly stretches,” he told me, but when you make it out on the other side, it will blow your mind.”

He promised a land San Antonio forgot: golden rolling hills, exotic horses, and an overabundance of nine-pin bowling alleys — another way of life. About six months ago, as gas prices began their ascent from $3/gallon, that conversation came back to me. The once affordable daytrip to Laredo or Austin no longer seemed viable. If one can’t as easily afford to travel outside of San Antonio, I thought, perhaps it was time to travel within. A few days later I headed east on Houston Street by bicycle in search of this Southern Shangri La.

Starting at “Theater Row” on downtown Houston Street, one can fully appreciate the spectrum of scenery this route provides. The Majestic Theatre becomes Bill Fitzgibbons’ light installation underneath I-37. The famous Tucker’s Kozy Korner becomes the lesser-known Midtown Bar. After passing the business district at South New Braunfels, the terrain shifts to the stark industrial zone of the AT&T Center. Then, at W.W. White Road, the street eventually widens and becomes more bike-accessible. For the next three miles, the transition between urban and rural is subtle, but by the time one arrives at the Foster Road intersection, the surroundings feel like the country. A barrier had been crossed. And I was only about one mile outside of Loop 410.

Another mile or two east is a hamlet called Martinez, notable for the Martinez Social Club and its nine-pin bowling alley. I happened by on a Sunday and found the parking lot overflowing with cars. Martinez officially registers around 100 residents, but judging by the number of pickup trucks there seemed to be three times as many people inside. Live music could be heard from the road when the door would occasionally kick open. In retrospect I should have tried to enter, but the idea of concocting a story about losing my Martinez Social Club membership card and still getting turned away convinced me to keep going. (A later call to the club revealed that the dances on Sunday afternoon and Wednesday nights are actually open to the public.)

From Martinez, the golden rolling hills stretch far into the horizon. To the south I could faintly discern the power lines heading to and from Calaveras Lake. I rode through several more miles of similar atmosphere — an abandoned building, a horse far off in the distance. At that point I realized I still hadn’t come across Loop 1604. Could that be possible? When I did finally reach that intersection it couldn’t have been more different from the 1604 crossings on the North Side: No strip malls, no cyclists in spandex doing laps on the access road, no cars … nothing.

Don’t build it, and they won’t come

A sign indicated St. Hedwig was up ahead (and, in fact, Houston Street had faded into St. Hedwig Street a few miles back). A towering steeple for Annunciation Catholic Church, the de-facto center of town, signaled my arrival. It’s a minor palace and almost seems out of place considering the size of the hamlet, but that would be the wrong way to look at it. Though St. Hedwig claims a mere 2,000 or so residents, its boundaries are vast. Next to San Antonio, no other town within Bexar County holds as much land.

I noticed a building that warranted a closer look. A faded, painted sign on the side read The St. Hedwig Club. It looked abandoned, but an ice machine out front made me think otherwise. I approached the door, and for some reason felt the need to knock. A small sign indicated it was open for business, so I walked in, slowly, letting my eyes adjust to the lower light level. To my left was an old wooden bar stacked high with newspapers and a few packages of peanut-butter crackers. To the right, a couple of refrigerator cases filled with six packs of cold beer. The St. Hedwig Club was indeed an active business, but it felt like I was walking into someone’s living room. A few pool tables, two flat-screen televisions, and an elderly man sleeping through the Sunday football game in a recliner did nothing to dispell this feeling. It was a new twist on laissez-faire capitalism.

I tried waking him up. After the third “Hello!” he finally came to. I felt bad; selling me a package of peanut-butter crackers probably wasn’t a huge priority for him.

It’s tempting to think of St. Hedwig as quaint or backward, but the town has worked to protect its identity and independence. There are no subdivisions here for a reason — in part because five acres is the smallest size lot allowed, but also because the rise in gas prices combined with the lack of proximity to a major highway or modern shopping centers precludes people moving out here en masse. As San Antonio changes, St. Hedwig somehow maintains. The owner of the St. Hedwig Club, “Dutch” Strzelczyk, says the business has been in the family since it opened as a mercantile store in 1879. His business card suggests: “In a club that’s the oldest, people who are the boldest, drink beer that’s the coldest; of all places — like an oasis.”

I biked back home, but St. Hedwig dogged me. I thought this one-day trip out East would suffice, but I soon realized there was much more to discover. I called the friend of a friend who lived in the area, and she invited me to dinner in an adjoining town called New Berlin.

I drove out to meet my St. Hedwig connection and her family. We zig-zagged across remote country roads, crossing Cibolo Creek on the way. I learned of the creek’s historical role as a dividing line between the predominantly Polish community of St. Hedwig and the German community surrounding New Berlin. According to my friends, this informal dividing line still holds true today.

As we drove toward the town, we witnessed a small fleet of single-prop airplanes taking off from a private runway, a surreal sight. I was informed the pilots not only stored their planes on the runway but built homes surrounding it. Moments later we pulled up to popular Brietzke Station, the center of New Berlin. Inside, the walls were layered with the past: newspaper clippings detailing the town’s history, as well as a residue of smoke from the lively kitchen.

The catfish was the signature dish. I could have easily survived with the regular plate, but for a dollar more the portions increased exponentially. Modesty became difficult. The sugar rush from a fresh fruit pie resuscitated me and gave closure to the evening, but I wanted to know more about those pilots.

The bar formerly known as Teddy’s

A friend of mine was getting his motorcycle repaired by a mechanic who lived near Zuehl, which is closer to the New Berlin territory, and very close to Rio Cibolo Ranch. I drove east again, my friend in tow, hoping the mechanic would lead us to the pilots. When we arrived, I quickly realized we were on a small-town time frame. I spent the next three hours getting a tour of the mechanic’s impressive vintage-gun collection, including a rifle from the Spanish-American War. This wasn’t really my goal for the night, but if we needed to shoot some empty beer cans into Cibolo Creek with a rifle older than Phyllis Diller before heading out to the runway, then that’s what we were going to do.

We finally drove to a popular beer joint that used to be called Teddy Bear’s under previous ownership. Most recently it’s titled the Double Ringer, but all the old-timers still refer to it as Teddy’s so we called it Teddy’s, too. Competing bowling clubs sit within musket range: the Germania Bowling Club on the eastern side near Zuehl, and the Bexar Bowling Alley and Social Hall on the other side of the creek.

I met a gentleman in his 60s or 70s who sat at the edge of the bar. On the wall, I noticed a photo of him in his youth racing a motorcycle. There were similar photos of other patrons. Many of them had grown up in the area and this bar was very much a part of their lives. Though Teddy’s occasionally changes owners, the patrons are really the ones who run the place.

Several rounds of Lone Stars later, the pilots began trickling in. After hours of waiting, drinking beer, discussing the Spurs, and shooting guns, things began happening quickly. At first, I just wanted to know more about the pilot community, but now I pushed my luck and asked if I could go up in one of the planes. They told me to come back to the airfield at 7:30 a.m. and they would take me for a flight.

I took the 7:30 start time too literally and was the first to arrive the next morning. One of the pilots let me into his house and gave me coffee and some background on Zuehl Field. In the early 1930s, it served as an auxiliary airfield for Randolph Army Air Base where training pilots would “touch and go” (a brief landing in which the plane touches its wheels to the runway and immediately take off again). Aviation scenes from a 1970s film called The Great Waldo Pepper — a bittersweet story about the end of the wild and free aerial barnstorming era of the 1920s backed by such Hollywood marquee names as Robert Redford, George Roy Hill, and William Goldman — were shot at Zuehl. Now Zuehl Airfield is a “flying community.” Most of the pilots are armed-services veterans who live on the airfield with hangars connected to their homes.

By 8:15 it was time to leave. I received brief instructions from my gracious host, Dave Caffey, on where to sit and what not to touch in the plane. The propeller began spinning. I looked around the tiny cabin. The plane was largley constructed of canvas and plastic, making it lighter, and therefore easier to fly. That’s right, a metal airplane would be less safe ... At least that’s what I convinced myself as we began speeding down the grass runway.

Flying above the Earth in a single-prop changes one’s perspective on life; I can understand why one would accept the obvious risks. In fact, I can see why someone wouldn’t want to come back down.

Darkness on the edge of town

As we flew back to Zuehl I looked down on the country roads below and thought back to how this story began. I came in by bicycle and now returned in a plane. The lifestyle here is special, but endangered. Just like the pilots in The Great Waldo Pepper who were the last of their kind, the blue-collar pilots of Zuehl may get squeezed out as fuel prices climb. And St. Hedwig? The proposed Trans-Texas Corridor 35 would run right through the center of it, destroying it in the process. St. Hedwig is putting up a strong fight to preserve itself, but will that be enough to stop the powerful interests working for the TTC? As we began our descent I kept my eyes on the never-ending horizon. Whatever happens next for the East, East Side, that is the image I want to remember.

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