Before ‘ trips’ became artificially induced.
* * *
I grew up on Marshall Texas’ North Side, a reference to the neighborhoods north of Grand Avenue and beyond the Texas and Pacific Railroad tracks. People said our kind were poor and called us Northsiders. They said we were from the Shoebox Neighborhoods because our houses resembled uniform rows of sameness.
In contrast, Southsiders had the fairy-tale houses that dotted areas like Washington Place and Henley-Perry Drive. Here were quaint homes, chalets and bungalows having distinctly varied architecture and amenities that set them apart from the rest of the town. In Washington Place there were homes built entirely of rare petrified wood. Many had stucco alcoves with little statues and plaster carvings. Others had European-style roofs, some having clay tile and some with expensive faux-tile roofs made of metal. Mailboxes were forged of iron and had hand-painted ceramic insets depicting fox-hunting scenes. In the winter the owners decorated for Christmas with a flair that had the rest of Marshall driving past in caravans of awe. It was a storybook-like child’s eye version of a trip through Santa’s home town.
My visits to South Side were seldom, and not by invite. Our family didn’t mingle with Southsiders unless we needed to hire a lawyer or see a doctor. When we were flush with gasoline after payday, we often rode through their neighborhoods and hung our heads out the car window to try and breathe in the wealth. Packards and Cadillacs sat glistening in pea-gravel driveways. I didn’t see any Henry J’s like ours. In backyards I could see brick barbecue pits with forged metal hoods. To the side would be brightly-painted triple-swing sets with Jungle Jims. I bet the kids there shot Roman candles all year long.
North Side boys were late getting bicycles. We didn’t start with a small one and graduate through four or five sizes up to twenty-eight-inchers. We started with the twenty-eight-incher, always second-hand, and had to use a washtub as a step to mount it. For the next few years there would be no way to make it all the way up onto the seat. Burlap sacks wrapped around the top-tube and tied in place with a stocking had to do. Sometimes we had to add wooden blocks to the pedals to reach them. If we fell during our ride, we used curbs or stumps as assists to remount. If there were no curbs, we pushed the bike all the way back to the washtub.
Bikes aside, my favorite activity was climbing. I climbed everything. I sat on top of my garage until the red tin roof got too hot to manage through blue jean cutoffs. I walked the length of my house on the asphalt ridge cap like a circus high wire performer, arms spread out for balance and effect. I climbed the huge sweetgum tree and tossed its burrs toward a coffee can I had positioned on the storm sewer cover below. One point for each basket. At night, that same perch had me shooting burrs with a slingshot toward the Baptist College girls who passed beneath the streetlight. If one hit the mark, they cried out “Bats!” and fled screaming into the night.
At my uncle’s farm in Overton there was a working windmill. Its tail fin spelled the word ‘Aeromotor’ in faded letters. I could climb the cross braces as easy as I could a ladder. So could my uncle’s bird dog Wilbur, a skinny old farm hound that regularly joined me at the crow’s nest platform halfway up. He climbed down like he climbed up. His toes splayed out like a fan to steady himself on the metal angles. Sure footed as a goat, Wilbur was wasted in Overton. He could have easily made sway with John Ringling North.
I admit to having some climbing fears. Sometimes hackles of hair on the back of my neck would stiffen like those wild bristles on a used-up paintbrush. My palms revealed the same lingering cold sensation as when gripping the neck of a soda bottle to hoist it out of its ice cooler. Climbing meant placing one hand on the next rung or brace and keep moving. Rules emerged: Never stop, never ever look down.
The rest at the end of any climbing adventure was always interrupted by that dreaded fear of the trip back down. How did I actually get up here? Sometimes I would swear that some strategically-vital tree limbs had somehow been removed since I last used them. Climbing down was like having forgotten every good move, like being out of body. I would repeatedly swipe my palms down the legs of my jeans to dry them. One hand, then the other. Carefully position each foothold. Footholds on the way down were much more calculated than those of the brisk ascent. The last step was more of a leap, skipping one or two levels. The only means to quickly end the fear was to hasten that happy jolt when feet met earth.
Sometimes at night a group of other climbers joined me downtown to scale the rows of buildings like today’s Spiderman. There were streets where one building nearly touched another and we could traverse an entire block on rooftops. Pigeons scattered like gray apparitions against black canvas as we disturbed their rest. Oddly, we often found empty beer cans and bottles up there. We glanced around nervously. We weren’t the only visitors.
Nader’s Store had several rooftop skylights. Each had a pane that could be opened for emergency ventilation. I opened one, its rusty hinges squealing for oil. In the dimmed store lights I could see rows of shoes on display shelves far below. I dropped a handful of roof gravel down the vent for the discomfort of those trying on shoes tomorrow. I wondered what Nader must have thought. I bet he wrote the shoe company a letter.
Sam Houston School had a metal fire escape that was a chute with a section of covered tunnel stretching down several stories. I climbed it backwards many times on weekends just for the joy of a wax-papered ride back down.
Of all climbs, the cone-topped water tower known simply as The Standpipe was the cosmos of all fear and danger. To fall would be to careen off the hill into the pit that Marshall Pottery used as a dump for sharp pieces of broken pots. Standpipe therefore stood as did Everest, a magnet to the dauntless climber, knowing that such a fall would add severed arms and legs to mere broken bones. But many had done it before me. “MHS Seniors ’55” and “I Love Carol” were emblazoned on the tank’s sides along with the initials of many heroic conquerors. The city water department didn’t even clean the writing off. Standpipe legend was allowed to advertise.
Standpipe must be scaled at night to maximize both drama and covert act. Even so, it would not be uncommon for the odd patrol car to come by, dobbing its spotlight on the tower frame and catwalk. My friend Troy would stay below both as watchman and cheerleader. He was also assigned to remove the body if called upon.
I began my climb with a kiss planted on the tower’s massive outlet pipe, a climber’s bid for good luck. I had a can of spray paint tied to my belt. I chose red, the high school color. I had bought the paint two weeks earlier, fearing that the hardware store man would alert the police to such a purchase and Standpipe would be placed on a prolonged stakeout. The News Messenger headline would read: “Alert Clerk Foils Latest Standpipe Attempt. Climber Sent to Reform School.”
Seven or eight feet into the climb, one had to navigate a barbed-wire barrier installed to deter the weak and easily discouraged. The wires had been spread apart enough times that they had become spacious and I easily passed between them. Troy gave me my first cheer but I didn’t look down. The ladder welds had broken in a few places and the sides quivered more than I liked. In a few spots it wobbled enough to clank, triggering a “Shhh!” from Troy below.
I brushed away a bird’s nest and dirt and debris fell on my face and into my eyes. I locked my leg through the back side of the rung and clamped the toe of my shoe on the next rung below. That move allowed me the necessary comfort and insurance to free one arm and wipe my eyes on my sleeve. I blinked over and over. Irritant tears began to well and eventually a muddy stream stained my face.
Soon I reached the pinnacle; a catwalk that encircled the tank like a metal garter belt. I crawled from the access hole onto the flat surface and lay still. I could see Troy sitting on the grass with his flashlight illuminating his face. He said something I couldn’t understand. I continued to lie there and catch my breath. My chest heaved up and down enough that it felt like pushups. I turned onto my side. Gripping the braces on the catwalk, I slowly stood upright. My fingers clung to the rail as though fused to the metal.
A twinkling panorama stretched out before me. I let go the rail long enough to wipe my eyes with my shirttail, removing the last of the bird’s nest. To the south I could see a bright red haze. It was the glow of the rooftop neon letters spelling Hotel Marshall. In the distance to both the left and right blinked twin radio towers. One was KMHT. The other one? Maybe Wiley College had a station. The towers’ red pulses were ironically timed to the pace of my breathing. At the ten o’clock position I could see the alternating green and white waves of the Marshall Airport beacon. Directly in front I could make out the shiny dome of the old courthouse. Farther right at four o’clock was a cluster of lights knitted closely together. Baptist College?
Above me unfurled a mosquito net of stars, brighter than any other time I had looked into the heavens. Was I just closer to them? While looking up I saw a blank spot on the tank’s east side. As high as I could reach I painted my initials there, followed by the date. Then I noticed something curious. Some of the painting was well above mine, reminding me of six-foot-four Raymond Craig. Raymond played varsity basketball and could hurl himself off the rim like Tarzan from a vine. Even Ray couldn’t reach that far up. It had to mean just one thing. Certain others before me had stood on top of the catwalk handrail to paint! I regretted having already put my mark there; others might see mine as less legitimate. I contemplated a re-do but only briefly. A return of neck hair like a Mohawk and palms like ice blocks quickly tamed my zeal. To seal this welcome rush of good sense, I let the can of paint fall to the ground.
“Dang! You dropped your paint,” said Troy. “No way can I throw it up that far.” “Deed is already done,” I said. Another cheer from Troy.
I made my way back to the firm red clay. My legs were trembling like I imagined an earthquake might cause. I felt weak all over. Not from the climb, but from an ebb of fear flowing out of me.
The next day Troy and I rode over to Standpipe. I felt the chills of pride and opened a wide smile meant solely for me. My initials were more prominent than I had hoped. Troy beamed at me like I was a brother just home from the war. It was a look that mixed awe with respect.
Our neighborhood slowly changed. First the T&P railroad shops were razed. Then the old East Avenue Viaduct was toppled by an over-height railcar crane and never rebuilt. The Standpipe Tower outlasted almost everything until a few years ago when the city tore it down for no reason whatsoever.
The destruction of Standpipe removed yet another monument to the legitimacy and honor of North Side. There are damn few left.
* * *
The author’s three collections of short stories, Tailwind, Odie Dodie, and Riders of the Seven Hills are available at all traditional booksellers. Copies signed by the author may be obtained by contacting him directly via email@example.com or by accessing his web page at: http://laddiemoore.blogspot.com/
The story featured here holds © Copyright 2010 by the author, Lad Moore. All rights reserved.
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