As major milestones in life approach, it’s been my style, so to speak, to do a personal inventory of…me.
Who am I? What have I done? What have I done that has been worthwhile, that has contributed to the betterment of the community at large?
I have been a part of amazing and worthwhile developments: Jason, Mattie, Brandie, Cameron are my proudest co-accomplishments.
But on a more earthly, human level, I am a writer. I must write to truly feel alive.
I write because I must, because the thoughts that swirl inside need freedom. That does not mean I am personally Trump-proud of the words that flow or that I want readers to heed my words as the Gospel According to St. George. To me, writing is an addictive obsession, a harbinger calling to read, research, analyze, think.
I have never written a single, focused phrase (or blurred one, for that matter) trying to change anyone’s mind. Ever.
But if any words that have ever passed through my fingers caused one person to truly “think” about their situation, belief or preference, then I believe I have accomplished something worthwhile.
Too many people today do not think, being content to be in the lemming-clan, kowtowing to mass-think, relieved to be released from the tiring process of reading, researching, analyzing, and thinking.
As my 75th birthday closers in, I thank God I never fell into the trap of just reacting and following the herd and … not expressing my hopes, dreams, opinions and beliefs in a straightforward manner, warts and all.
At this time in my life, all is good.
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Frankie Roosevelt said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Grandpa said Mister Frankie was always right about everything, so I figured I could do this thing.
* * *
By Lad Moore
From a distance, the Ming House was almost obscured. Wisteria vines had encircled it three layers deep, their tentacles winding through broken panes then retreating back outside in search of sunlight. The vines resembled the arms of an octopus, but not yet revealing if its once-gentle caress had now become the grasp of a constrictor.
The porch, unpainted and un-repaired for decades, sagged to the earth on one end, making the whole structure appear to be on incline—like a carnival fun-house. The clapboard siding had long since given up its whitewash except at the roofline where eaves had protected it from generations of rain and wind. The same overhang gave residence to years of wasp nests that dotted it like pimples on a powdered face. My friends would never venture even as close as the curb; insisting, as with most other old houses, that it was haunted by the owner.
Grown-up Northsiders claimed that Mr Ming had simply moved away when his business closed after the Great Depression and the lean years that followed. They said he moved to Dallas to live with an old maid sister—a sister he oddly called Aunt Dora. He never came back, just opened the place to its star boarders—pigeons, field mice, rat snakes, and maybe the odd hobo on overnight leave from the nearby Texas & Pacific tracks.
But my friends would have nothing of it. “Ming stayed around to get even with the bankers who abandoned him and took his store,” they claimed. “By count, four banker men met death at his hands, each having been strangled with piano wire, their heads sorely chopped off. And he kept them heads in a steamer trunk. Bet it’s still there.”
“Who said?” I asked.
My friend Benny Smitherman ventured that the details of the murders could be read in “them annals” they keep at the old Carnegie Library. “I seen the papers, and my dad read the foul accounts to me when we had scary-story hour on Friday nights after the boxing matches went off TV.”
“Old Ming haunts and soils that place,” Benny continued, “He got away clean because when they electrocuted him he didn’t die. The law says if you survive the volts, you are a free man; you can’t be fried twice for the same crime. So he roams that house dragging an old leg chain as a souvenir—‘the unchained butcher’ he’s called. He never so much as lights a candle at night. His green-marble eyes can see in blackness. His hair is a white shock of wheat—like that of a Cap’n fresh off’n the sea. Just last week the paperboy said he saw Ming in the upstairs window making a choking gesture. He’s in there, there’s no doubt. Bet you a dollar.”
I doubted the tale, but there was an eerie coincidence. The Flash Gordon serials at the Saturday matinee featured a character also named Ming, archenemy to the rocket ship hero. That Ming was a dweller of darkness too, and he cultivated some evil friends known as the Clay Men. Ming was a horrid sort who wore a black cape with a funnel neckline. His Clay Men would ooze out of the cave walls and do whatever bidding he asked of them.
My grandpa scoffed at the very idea of murders. For that matter, he said to heck with the boys’ further claims that Ming House was protected by demons just because it sat directly across from Greenwood Cemetery. It’s true that Greenwood was a cemetery long in neglect of care because no one claimed responsibility for it. Graves of sunken earth and tumbled tombstones spoke ill of the reverence it should hold. Over time, vandals roamed it freely, stealing the rusted iron fences and ornamental gates that once encircled many of the graves. Three years back a tornado skipped through the grounds, and the downed trees and debris still block many of the narrow aisles, preventing much of any access to the site. Almost no one visits the graves there anyway. Many are unmarked and rarely if ever do the tombs get adorned with holiday flowers. I’ve walked the area more often than any of my friends, searching out the giant black and yellow grasshoppers that favor the place. Even with my tame cemetery experiences, I would never venture into that place at night. I remember reading somewhere that “Graveyards are safe in sunlight, but haints lift up after dark.” That quote rings louder than anything President Frankie Roosevelt might have said when he was out politicking.
The sun was half-mast to the horizon. My friends and I sat across the street from Ming House, lined against the perfumed privet hedges that were the border to property owned by the Baptist College. Four crows perched to our right on the cemetery fence, barking their protest to the coming darkness that marked the end of their feeding day. Crow bellies are never full. They will eat both flesh and greenery; and they will chase away any other critter to lay claim to the food, even fighting off their own kind. I have to admit I didn’t like the crows being there.
The sun was finally gone and with light becoming scarce, we began to talk back and forth in whispers. It just seemed the natural thing to do under the circumstances. We were there to scout for any sign of Ming. It was just us four cub reporters, looking for a story long just rumored.
Nightfall also ended all street traffic. By now, everyone in town except the four of us had sat down to dinner, with Lassie on the television in the next room. We were alone, and just a silhouette of the house was visible across from us. It was unnervingly still and quiet. I had expected crickets would be serenading the few lightning bugs that usually speckled the sky, but nothing stirred. I could smell the house. An old house holds the fragrances of past life, and couples them with rotting wood long exposed to elements. It is a sweet smell, certainly not an odor that an evil old man who never bathed would emit.
Another hour passed and still nothing moved. One by one the boys began to desert me for home, certain of a scolding and a cold supper. Now alone, I walked across the street and stopped at the rotting picket fence, its gate long collapsed. The sidewalk beneath me had been pushed up toward vertical by the massive magnolia tree roots underneath. I touched the rusty gate hinge, and it swung away with a squeak. It was darker in the house than out, so I could see all the way to the back door, like looking through a dimly lit tunnel. I was studying the house when I thought I heard a creak—like the groan of a stressed timber. Maybe the fingers of the wisteria had tightened their grip. Then the air turned noticeably cooler. I headed for home, looking behind me every ten steps or so to appease the hair that bristled on my neck.
We came back to that spot four consecutive nights. Nothing was ever any different, and such a constant state soon emboldens the spirit. With my friends looking on, I crossed the street again and again, each time venturing a bit farther up the sidewalk. I finally reached the porch and with great trepidation, reached out and touched a wooden column with my finger. It reassured me to have touched Ming House and not have immediately been disemboweled by demon Clay Men slinging rusty scythes.
I heard a noise from behind. My friends were running off in the direction of Hendry’s Grocery two blocks away. Hendry’s was like the hub of a spoked wheel, a central spot where each of us met and later split off in different directions home.
My attention returned to the task. There were rusty cans and broken bottles on the porch, evidence of some traffic. Having reached the threshold of the steps, I decided that tonight’s achievement was conquest enough for now. Like a crab, I backed down the sidewalk toward the gate, not wanting to turn my eyes away from the house. At the street, I headed home. None of my friends were waiting for me at Hendry’s.
Benny Smitherman claimed that since we last met, he had been elected Chieftain of our group. I hadn’t even seen so much as a ballot. He said that it was the will of the group that I lead them in solving once and for all the question of Ming House. In honor of my bravery thus far it was suggested that an assault on the house next Friday the Thirteenth would further enhance the adventure and give us unequivocal credibility with the public. Further, we would all sneak out and meet at Hendry’s just before midnight. In so doing, we were flaunting all the traditional curses at once. The News Messenger headline would read:
“Local Youths Debunk the Legend of Ming House. Governor to Award Medals of Valor for Un-Haunting Premises.”
“I ain’t going inside alone,” I said. “I might fall through some planks.”
“We’re with you. It’ll take all of us to stand proper guard.”
It was misting on the night of Friday the Thirteenth at eleven-thirty. Parents sleep especially well in gentle rain, so slipping out through the bedroom window was easier than anticipated. At Hendry’s, I saw only Jimmy and Nels. Benny was missing. “Where’s the Chief? I asked.
Jimmy answered, “He saw a double feature this afternoon. A Roy Rogers and Nellybelle one, and a scary movie called The Thing. I bet he’s under his cozy covers dreaming about that luscious Dale Evans.”
We waited several minutes longer for Benny, then walked on to Ming House. Each of us brought flashlights with fresh batteries. I checked the pocket watch that Grandpa had given me. It was one minute before midnight. The mist looked like smoke drifting through the flashlight beams as we blanketed the house with light. Leading the way as assigned, I was first to place a foot on the porch. It gave a bit under my weight but did not break. I stepped up to the screen door and peeled it back. The front door was slightly ajar, and its hinges squealed as I pushed it farther open. I looked behind me. Jimmy and Nels had linked their arms together. I put the flashlight under my chin so they could see my grin. They immediately separated.
The open door led into what was probably once the parlor. The room was empty, and the far end led into a hallway. I started through the doorway, shining the light on the floor beneath me, wary of broken boards. Suddenly I felt a tangle of cobwebs and began swatting at the strands. It felt like I had shoved my face into a boll of cotton candy but it was not at all sweet. I’m certain I felt a fat spider in my palm as I batted the air.
Some sort of howling creature dashed between my legs, brushing my calf. I turned quickly to see a yellow cat nearly airborne toward the door. Nels bolted, matching the shriek of the startled cat. The two of them never touched a plank as they sailed from the house. Jimmy stood there jerking his face back and forth as if caught between two equally bad alternatives. Fight-or-flight was written in his eyes. I raised my hand like a traffic cop.
“Just a cat!” I said. “Just a big yellow cat!” The words were meant to both explain and comfort. The spider and the cat had been unnerving even to me, and I closed my eyes and began a quiet recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in my best Presbyterian dialect. The part about “Forgive us our trespasses” seemed to make a lot of sense at the moment. I added a sentence of my own on the end about keeping me safe from “whatever lurks in Ming House.” I figured God knew the house I was referring to and wouldn’t mind me adding a real short PS to his famous prayer.
It must have frightened Jimmy to death to see me mumbling that prayer with both my eyes tightly closed. His flashlight bounced on the floor as he did a u-turn—a pivot as impressive as a gymnast’s back flip. He was gone, and I figured he would quickly pass Nels and the cat in stride.
The next room was like a foyer. To one side stood the sagging hulk of an old upright piano, its white ivory curling backward like the bark of a shag hickory. I decided that indeed, ignorance was bliss; it was not the time to check for missing piano wires. To my left was a steep staircase with no handrail. More spider webs there, and my flashlight caught one in its beam. The spider was gently raising then replacing two of his legs like a soldier marking time for his sergeant. He was black with yellow racing stripes. Doesn’t a black widow have red markings?
I heard a crash of some kind. There was a sudden swish and something hit the side of my face and ear. It was an owl, disturbed by my presence and in a predictably bad mood. I could feel the warmth of blood on my cheek. I wiped it with my hand and looked at it under the light. There was a smear of blood—not much, really—but tomorrow my face would bear a battle wound nonetheless.
I raked the cobweb away with a loose board and placed one foot on the first stair step. It creaked loudly. My flashlight was growing dim and by now, Jimmy’s would be giving out as well, still turned on and lying on the floor. I decided that getting this far into Ming House was accomplishment-complete. I would be the only one deserving of the Governor’s medal.
Back into the street in the damp air, I turned around for one last look. The house had not given up any secrets. I figured there were none to give up, just as I suspected all along. I crawled back through my window and put my damp clothes on the footboard to dry. Grandma’s quilt was especially warm and welcome. I slept without dreaming.
For several days I had a swell time with my friends. I had poetic license and began to embellish everything about the night at Ming House. They hung on every word, but I don’t think they bought the part about finding a human-bone torso impaled on an old pike, and of course, I claimed my owl injury came from an ape-like man swinging an axe.
Three or four weeks went by. One Saturday we decided to meet at Hendry’s and go collect grasshoppers for old man Crain. He told us he would buy them, two for a nickel, for his trotlines. We took turns kicking a beer can up the street as we walked. As we got close to the cemetery, we stopped cold. Bulldozers were sitting at Ming House, having done their job of demolishing the place into a pile of gray rubble. On a flatbed truck sat the old piano, and beside it, lashed to the truck with ropes, was a leather-covered steamer trunk.
I celebrate the days when one could pull up to many a roadside joint and order something to be delivered to the car on a clever little window tray. The cold Cokes or Dr Peppers wore a paper napkin girdle to soak up the chill beads. The Cokes back then burned one’s throat as they went down. True “Original Cokes,” you know, contained a bit of cocaine. Today they contain, well, who knows. I suspect Creomulsion.
This was a time when Neely’s was in the old wooden building farther up on West Grand. The carhops announced their coming and going by the loud clap of the screen door. As they headed outside, we watched them closely to see if it was our order. If so, we knew to roll the car window up about the width of one’s palm.
The French fries had enough grease on them that they too needed napkin dams. The grease made them limp—not crispy, and the limpness was what made them good. A little salt was already on them from the kitchen. I always added a little pepper too. Once, while visiting in Niagara-on-the River Canada, I found some limp ones at a street carnival. The barker sprinkled them with vinegar instead of catsup. Not bad, but when I got home I resumed my Heinz.
World-Class were the French fries at the Lions Club trailer during 1950’s-era home Maverick games. The paper cones that contained them were soggy from lard, but the fries could not be replicated. There was something grand about Lions fries when the chill in the night air made them give off that wisp of steam that caused a swell of saliva to flow down one’s chin. I always bought two in case I reluctantly had to share, but I tried to empty one of them on the way back to the stands.
There was a dark side to drive-ins. I worked at the South Washington A&W Drive-In in high school. Mr. Neely’s training regimen said I must work inside for a low hourly wage and earn my way up the ladder to carhopping for tips. I figured I was as well off staying inside, because who would tip a flat-top-headed boy versus the pretty blonde with the bobbing ponytail? My inside job was washing root beer mugs—an endless cavalcade of them. The mug sink had a continuous replenishment of very hot water flowing into it. My face was slick with oil from my pores, which fertilized my bountiful crop of pimples. That sink was like an all-evening steam bath, and sometimes punctuated with a soggy cigarette butt someone had extinguished in a mug.
I gave up the carhop dream—trading it for a job with a roofing company. The day we fiberglass-insulated the attic of the Methodist Church in its 110-degree environment had me desperately wanting one of those root beers I got to see going out on those car-hop trays. My root beer job didn’t include all the free root beer I wanted. In fact, I can’t recall ever getting a free one. Mr. Neely was not one to dilute a profit margin.
Sonic eventually took car hopping to a new level when they introduced their rollerskating gals. The skates must have met with mishaps because today they wear tennis shoes. I still tip the carhops though, because I know what it is like. The only downside is that today, we place our orders through a microphone and have to guess what the person on the other end is saying. “Will that be all?” is about all I think I understand. I always answer yes and hope the order turns out right and I don’t end up with someone’s corn dog instead of a Number One. There’s no sweating Coke bottle at Sonic, only a Styrofoam cup that they say will remain in the planet’s landfill for twelve centuries. Aliens, trying to unmask the remnants of our lost culture, will be perplexed. More advanced than we, they never abandoned carhops and green glass bottles.
All this talk has made me hungry. There’s no curb service, and not even a hint of a carhop, but I’m heading over to Fugler’s Bubba Burger. He’s got a sandwich so big that it only takes 6 to make a dozen.
For most of my working career, the dictates of corporate employment took me to duty stations a great distance from home. Those absences seemed like exile, serving only to make me long to return to the place I had left.
True to this need for reconnection, I reserved one week a year to revisit my insatiable mistress; fishing and frogging the bayous and main waters of East Texas’ Caddo Lake. In the course of those years I took many of my friends there. Introducing them to the lake was like showing off some cherished personal belonging. Later, I began to regret my generosity. Many of my guests assumed the same level of ‘ownership’ that I held and began including their other friends. There was something about the pristine wildness and the rare beauty of the Spanish-moss tapestries that made me selfish. I did not like others losing their hearts to the lake as I had mine.
Caddo holds a special place in our state’s history. After its peaceful days as habitat for its namesake Caddo Indians, the lake was never again allowed to rest. Spanning decades, man’s ego devised many plans for this, the largest natural lake in the state. Some of the schemes were grandiose, some just folly. Steamboats once ploughed the waters from New Orleans to the port of Jefferson, serving as an important waterway from the south. Much later there followed private development of homes and businesses to support the growing popularity of recreation. Perhaps its heyday came in the 1950s, when there were few competing lakes. Norman Rockwell-modeled anglers in expensive outfits and wicker creels traveled great distances to enjoy Caddo’s unique character. Lodges and campgrounds were built to complement its beautifully rustic state park. The lure of the cypress and moss-framed scenery brought tourists by the carloads. Some visitors came and went in a single day. Some stayed a lifetime.
Thankfully, the sanity of time prevailed over these pressures and most dreams of aggressive development were one by one subjugated. But even today, with the adjoining property pending protection as a refuge, there still stir controversies over the lake’s purpose. There are those who wish it to enjoy a natural evolution. Others want to tamper with its heart to artificially serve special interests such as industrialization and water exploitation. Sadly, the squabbles about claims, ownership and rights of determination may go on forever.
Like some say about the state of Texas itself, everything at Caddo Lake is bigger and grander than anywhere else. It’s true of the nesting birds, its arm-girth moccasins, the spring and fall crappie runs, and especially true of the prized frogs that reach extraordinary size in its secretive backwaters. In keeping with this theme of grandeur, such was…
It was daybreak on a May morning that was forecast for scattered showers. As I sat on the pier with cane pole in hand, mountains of green-black clouds began to march menacingly at me from the North. Their darkness gave the scattering egrets an eerie contrast, like Styrofoam sailing against black velvet. At the bottom of the approaching curtain was a hundred-foot wall of churning sky, rolling like yesterday’s crawfish-boil. The wind brought a sudden chill, banishing the warmth of the yellow sunrise just past. Webs of electricity began to lace the clouds together, emissaries of St Elmo himself.
In an instant, campground tents were billowing like towels pinned to a clothesline. Coffee pot lids joined potato chips as impromptu airborne missiles. Campers still in nightclothes were scrambling, as would ants disturbed by a sudden exposure of their hiding place. Then came awesome arrays of cloud-toearth lightning, streaking like tracer bullets. Their brilliance illuminated the darkness to reveal a submissive heaven, engorged with rain and stones of ice. Random blasts of thunder trailed the lightning, crashing like the crescendo of a dozen angry kettle drummers.
Now poured a merciless torrent, cascades of water from a bottomless urn. I scuttled to the safety of the steel and cement canopy beneath Big Cypress Bridge. Golf-ball hail began to pound my new pickup truck, a weather-sin I could not forgive. I bolted for the truck, hoping to move it under the cover. I was quickly driven back. All things of man must relinquish their mastery, at least for this moment.
It ended as suddenly as it began, the storm losing its potency like the anticlimactic whimper of an extinguished Roman candle. I stepped out from under the bridge into a freshly washed day. Soon my stunned camping comrades joined me and we stared out over the water. A carpet of steam stirred gently across the now-placid lake, rising like the sweet vapor from freshly baked bread on a morning windowsill. Suddenly the wonderment all fit; this place, its history, the wildlife, and now this humbling, terrible storm.
It was heaven’s smorgasbord with melded recipes that contrast awesome power with the beauty of creation.
No, I thought, this place and its purpose must not be altered. Somehow we must always be reminded that we are merely overnight guests.
* * *
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or by accessing his web page at: http://laddiemoore.blogspot.com/
Seating is limited and reservations are required. Call 903-923-9500 for tickets. A percentage of ticket sales will benefit the Marshall-Harrison County Literacy Council.
Former publisher of the Marshall News Messenger (1982-1992) Smith conceived and developed the FireAnt Festival and, with J.C. Hughes Jr., founded the Wonderland of Lights.
Smith said, “Most folks who know me know I like to tell stories. These performances allow me to tell stories about a variety of humorous events without being interrupted by others who think they have something more important to say.”
He said, “I’m older now and my feet hurt so I am, truly, a sit-down act. I will tell stories about the newspaper business, about my decade in Marshall (without embarrassing anyone but myself) and will share some funny stories from my soon-to-be published novel, “Growing Up Mostly Happy”, subtitled “It Takes a Village to Raise an Idiot”.
Smith has been a frequent storyteller on the PBS radio series “Tales of the South”, and was a regular “Amateur Night” participant at a Seattle comedy club while serving as executive director of the Washington State Newspaper Publishers Association.
Smith said, “I want all my friends and some of my friendly detractors to show up for a great meal and fun and frivolity It will be an old-fashion homecoming with laughs galore.” Copies of Smith’s “Uncertain Times,” a southern humor mystery and romance novel set in Uncertain, Texas, will be available for sale at the shows.
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Texas Shakespeare Festival Foundation urges patrons and
to support the outstanding work of the Texas Shakespeare
by buying a raffle ticket for trip-for-two to Italy
– In this last week
of the exciting 2019 summer season of the Texas Shakespeare Festival, the Texas
Shakespeare Festival (TSF) Foundation urges patrons and community members to
support the work of the TSF by participating in the annual TSF summer raffle.
raffle is a trip-for-two to Florence, Italy. Raffle tickets are $100 each, with
only 350 tickets being sold. The estimated value of the trip is $6,000,
including airfare and hotel. The raffle drawing will take place during
intermission of the final performance of the 2019 TSF season on Sunday, July
28. Ticket holders do not need to be
present to win.
Shakespeare Festival, which was founded in 1986 by Artistic Director Raymond
Caldwell, is now in its 34th consecutive season and is the only professional
theatre in East Texas.
performances take place in the Van Cliburn Auditorium in the Anne Dean Turk
Fine Arts Center on the Kilgore College campus in Kilgore, Texas.
entity hosting the Italy trip raffle is the Texas Shakespeare Festival (TSF) Foundation
which is now in its 25th year of providing fundraising and volunteer
support, along with the TSF Guild, for the Texas Shakespeare Festival.
Foundation was incorporated in 1994 as a not-for-profit 501c3 and is managed by
a 19-member volunteer Board of Directors which is comprised of civic, business,
and community leaders from throughout the East Texas region. The Foundation’s sole purpose is to raise
funds and provide volunteer services and community outreach to support the work
of the Texas Shakespeare Festival and to provide a solid base to continue to
build for the TSF’s future.
Anderson, President of the TSF Foundation Board of Directors, shared, “The TSF
Foundation is very honored to support the important cultural, artistic, and
educational work that the Texas Shakespeare Festival does for our East Texas
region and beyond. Since 1986, the TSF
has provided superb, live productions of masterpieces, musicals, and other
great plays produced and performed by theater professionals who travel from New
York, Los Angeles, and throughout our nation each year to work in the summer
festival in Kilgore.”
Anderson added, “We’re also very grateful to the individual and corporate
contributors who have supported the work of the TSF and the educational TSF Roadshow
for more than three decades, plus the countless volunteers, as well as other
East Texas foundations who have donated generously, including the Rosa May
Griffin Foundation which has supported the Texas Shakespeare Festival since its
Anderson also underscored the deep appreciation that TSF and the TSF Foundation
and Guild have for the strong, valued, mutually-beneficial partnership they
have with Kilgore College through these many years.
Shakespeare Festival is truly a model for a successful collaborative
effort. TSF is a collaborative effort
between the Festival, the TSF Foundation and Guild, and Kilgore College.
College, where the TSF is in residence, donates financial and in-kind
contributions (including use of the Van Cliburn Auditorium) which amount to
approximately 30% of the cost of the TSF each year.
Foundation raises money to support the operation of the TSF and the Guild, through
its dues and volunteers, takes care of the hospitality of the acting company
while they’re in Kilgore. The work of the TSF Foundation and Guild accounts for
another 30% of the annual cost of the Festival.
remaining 40% of the revenue needed to produce the summer Festival each year is
made through ticket sales and programming by the Texas Shakespeare Festival
Kays, President of Kilgore College, echoed the sentiment with regard to the
collaboration between Kilgore College, TSF, and the TSF Foundation and Guild. “Nothing worth achieving is ever achieved in isolation,” Dr. Kays
shared. “Partnerships have allowed the Festival to continue its rich tradition
of excellence and to flourish. Proof that the Texas Shakespeare
Festival is a valued component of the East Texas Arts Community lies in the
extraordinary collaboration that exists between the College and the TSF
Foundation and Guild.”
raised by the TSF Foundation and TSF are used not only to assist with
productions, but also to purchase needed equipment that is used by both TSF and the Kilgore
College Theater Department. In addition, costumes, props, and scenery made by the
TSF professionals each summer are frequently used by the Kilgore College
Theater Department for their productions during the school year.
Simpson and Meaghan Simpson, Associate Artistic Directors for the TSF, also
serve as adjunct instructors of Kilgore College theater courses and guest
directors for KC theater productions. They have also reinstated and expanded
the very popular TSF Roadshow. The TSF
Roadshow provides valuable educational experiences and performances for more
than 17,000 students in elementary and secondary schools throughout Texas. Working with these students, in connection
with the Roadshow, assists Kilgore College with recruitment possibilities.
summer raffle is just one of the fundraising activities spearheaded each year
by the TSF Foundation. This year’s Italy
trip is co-sponsored by A.P. and Susie Merritt of Kilgore and Richard and
Christina Anderson of Marshall.
Raymond Caldwell, Founder and Artistic Director of the Texas
Shakespeare Festival, shared, “The Festival could not survive without the vital
support of Kilgore College, the TSF Foundation and Guild, and our loyal
patrons. This year’s raffle for a trip to Italy is a major fundraiser to help
the Festival accomplish our important annual fundraising goals. We thank
everyone for their support.”
addition to the summer raffle, individuals, businesses, and other foundations
wishing to make a contribution to the TSF Foundation throughout the year can
send a tax-deductible donation to the TSF Foundation at P.O. Box 2788, Kilgore,
The 2019 Texas Shakespeare Festival summer season continues through July 28, with matinee and evening performances from Thursday through Sunday. Box office (903) 983-8601.
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