Monday, March 29, 2010

A Texan in New York City Having Old West Memories in the Rain

The photo above is of what's called in philately a se-tenant block of 4. Se-tenant is the present participle of the French verb se tenir, which means "to hold each other." A se-tenant block of four shows 4 stamps of different designs being held together; they are from a sheet of 100 stamps that divides up into 20 of these se-tenant blocks of four. I am assuming most of my readers are not stamp collectors. Certainly not avid enough stamp collectors to have memorized a philately glossary or to have actually specialized in niches of stamp collecting represented by the above se-tenant block of 4. It is known as the "Texas Centennial Se-tenant Block of Four"--that's how you list it when you're trying to sell it on eBay. It was issued in 1936 by the Texas Centennial Commission who were in charge of the year-long celebration of the 100th Anniversary of the existence of Texas as a republic--becoming the Republic of Texas after it successfully defeated the Mexican forces under General Santa Anna at the Battle of San Jacinto (Houston area) in 1836. This year-long celebration culminated in October of 1936 at the State Fair of Texas held on the State Fairgrounds in Dallas, Texas.

The State Fairgrounds was once a huge part of Dallas, Texas, life. It sprawled all over East Dallas from the outskirts of downtown on out to the eastern city limits. Several Dallas main streets ended at the Fairground gates. It was also a terminus for several streetcar lines (yes, Dallas once had a fabulous street railway system). Though the State Fair happened in October, the Fairgrounds was opened year-round. WRR, the city-owned-at-one-time radio station, had their studios on the Fairgrounds. The grand old Cotton Bowl stadium was on the Fairgrounds (sadly, this year's "Cotton Bowl" for the first time was played in Arlington, Texas, at the Dallas Cowboy's new wonder-type football stadium of the billion-dollar-cost type--so the Cotton Bowl surely is headed for demolition). But the big attraction open year-round was the Midway and especially its famous wooden sit-down roller coaster called the Comet. My dad, by the way, was at the Fair in 1947 the day the Comet opened. He was in the first wave of riders who rode it because of a challenge from my mother. She loved challenging his manhood. The ride made him deathly sick and the next day he awoke with a serious back condition that he complained about the rest of his life. My first time at the State Fair I was 10. When I wanted to ride the Comet, my dad told me his Comet story and went on and on about what it had done to him and because of that he deemed me not old enough to ride it and that was that. I didn't ride the Comet until I was in college and went one year with a pack of my beer-drinking collegian cohorts to the State Fair and I rode the Comet drunk as a lord and sure enough, on exiting the ride, and I must admit it was very thrilling ride, I got deathly sick, I ended up in back of the Hollywood Strip Club tent throwing up like a drunken college kid who's just ridden a very thrilling roller coaster drunk as a lord and with a belly full of corn dogs and hot link sausage sandwiches and tacos and several gallons of Falstaff draft beer. I was upchucking so hard and loudly, one of the strippers stuck her head and one naked breast out a hole in the tent and told me to go fuck myself. That floored me and I suddenly started laughing--like a hyena--upchucking as I laughed--her telling me to go fuck myself striking me as cleverly funny--I laughed so hard I quit vomiting. That cured me and I immediately suggested we all trot around front and go into the Hollywood Strip Club and catch the show, which we did. Unlike my father, however, riding the Comet never affected my back in any way.
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The Comet at the Texas State Fairgrounds from 1947 until it was demolished in 1989 after no insurance company would insure it.
There once was a photograph that hung in my grandmother's writing room in her home. It showed her mother, my greatgrandmother, along with two other OLD women, on a platform at the Texas Centennial at the State Fairgrounds of Texas in October of 1936. This old hawk of a pioneer White woman is looking very strict; she's wearing all black including a very stylish black fedora that she probably got in the early 1930s from a hat shop my grandmother owned and operated in my hometown's finest hotel. The Governor of Texas, James V. Allred, is presenting one of the other women with a medal on a ribbon and a presentation case and an envelope. These three women were the last surviving widows of men who had fought under old General Sam Houston in Texas's "War of Independence" from Mexico in 1836. My greatgrandmother had married a 75-year-old Texas Republican army captain when she was 14. It was a horrible marriage--a marriage the 75-year-old dude's family denied ever existed--and to this day on the family's Web site my greatgrandmother is mentioned as a footnote--though throughout her life she kept his name--and in those envelopes those three widows received from the governor that day was a $12-a-month pension, which my greatgrandmother, pioneer and naturally frugal, lived mighty easy on the rest of her life--at least another 10 years.

These were wiry, serious-faced, tuckered browed, tough-as-nails women. My greatgrandmother had a scary young life--she was a mother of 7 before she was 20 years old. Only one of those 7 children lived, my grandmother, the poet and librarian and former hat-shop owner. One of my greatgrandmother's seven kids, her daughter Leeta, was self-delivered in a roadside ditch after contractions had started while she was running from where she was working in a field of corn her husband had planted trying to get back to the safety of her house after a "pow'rful" rainstorm full of lightning and hail had come up suddenly. She was running toward a road that was the quickest way to the house and when she tried to jump the ditch that lay between the field and the road, she didn't make it. She landed flat on her back in that ditch that by then was beginning to fill with water and becoming a very dangerous place to be. As she lay there flat on her back--she was afraid to move because of the way she had landed on her back--the contractions started, rapidly becoming closer and closer together and soon she realized she was giving birth--and very prematurely, too. At this point in the story, my greatgrandmother's eyes would be flushed with tears.

And then the baby came. It was so tiny, she said. So tiny, she kept repeating. "Hardly bigger than a newborn puppy. As blue-black as the sky above us." She bit the umbilical cord in two and tried to wash the baby as best she could and then she pushed the blue-black and by now freezing little withered and wizened body inside her blouse against her full breast trying to keep the baby alive and safe and dry until she could manage to get to her feet--or her husband would come looking for her, calling her name--and then she said the skies opened up and the rain poured what seemed like directly down on her and little Leeta--yes, she said she named the baby Leeta right then and there. When my greatgrandfather finally found his young wife and got her and his newborn daughter, Little Leeta (and that was how she was known in the family) back to the house they found Little Leeta was dead. She had drowned while in her mother's arms, tucked inside her mother's blouse against her breast. However, during the final downpour, the water that drenched my greatgrandmother had cascaded down her neck and rivered down into her blouse to drown the already half-dead premature child puppy--my grandaunt Little Leeta. That experience, the trauma of it, haunted my greatgrandmother the rest of her days--haunted her--in her sleep she dreamed the incident over and over again.

Just one of the many tragedies these tough women faced nearly every day of their young lives. Tragedies that forced them to live day-to-day lives. They already knew the sight and smell and taste of death--my grandmother was a survivor of the 1900 Galveston Flood in which thousands people perished in the sea as it tried to swallow Galveston Island, my grandmother and her husband and small son lucky enough to be at the highest point on the island when it hit full force, a point only a mean little number of feet above sea level.
Galveston, Texas, after the 1900 Flood. That could be my grandfather and grandmother out there on that beach--my grandfather did help gather up the dead and throw them in wagons that then carried the bodies down to the beach where they were put on barges and boats and taken out into the Gulf and dumped out there. My grandmother, who would have been in one of those buildings you see standing in the background--she was in a school and that white building straight ahead there on the right looks like a school, said the next morning after the men had gathered up the bodies and dumped 'em out in the Gulf the beach was covered in bodies--they had all washed back ashore when the tide came in. Then the men had to regather them, put them on pyres on the beach and set them on fire.
Most of their hardest parts of life were endured when they were single women, single mothers--my greatgrandmother married twice; my grandmother married twice--men didn't last long at all in those days--my dad's father, a big bulky man who ate like a horse they said, died of a heart attack when he was in his 50s; my mother's father died of what was called catarrh but was probably lung cancer when he was in his 40s--he was a sign painter and worked with lead paints and cadmiums and he also smoked a pipe.

The Texas War veteran (my first greatgrandfather) was 77 when my greatgrandmother ran away from him saying his older sons were out to murder her because she refused to have sex with the old gnarly bastard. At 15, she jumped out her bedroom window and escaped into a swamp in which she wandered for almost 2 weeks before making it up river to a close relative's house in Central Texas. Her second husband (my second greatgrandfather) was a schoolteacher, poet, violinist (fiddler they called him), and possessor of a fine tenor voice. But this charming handsome man had one problem: he drank. He played his violin and sang at local social events, weddings, etc., and someone always brought the jug out at these affairs and, yes, my greatgrandfather stayed long into those celebratory nights getting sloppy drunk--depending on his horse to get him back home when one of the celebrants who was still sober enough would throw his drunk ass up over his saddle and then spank the horse on the ass and tell him to go home. One night when my greatgrandmother had had a fright from a bunch of Night Riders (ex-Confederate soldiers who formed a white terrorist group called the Night Riders; the Ku Klux Klan was later based on these groups) who were looking for a runaway slave girl so when my greatgrandfather's horse trotted his drunk ass up to the dugout door (yeah, they lived in a dugout--a home built into the side of a hill (a dugout hole in the hill--dirt floors, walls, ceilings, with a regular wooden home front--like building a house-like facade over a cave entrance) my grandmother had her Colt revolver loaded and cocked, ready to fire, and fire she did when she heard that horse trottin' up to her door--another Night Rider she assumed and she emptied that revolver through that front door, hitting the horse once in the front leg and my greatgrandfather once in his left leg.

That greatgrandfather died a young death and after he died, my greatgrandmother settled down with her only living child, my grandmother, also a tough old bird.

My grandmother had grown up in that dugout. When she was about 10, she was playing in the front yard of the dugout while her mother was hanging out the wash. My greatgrandmother kept one of her hawk eyes cocked over checking on her daughter. Alertly that afternoon that cocked hawk eye caught a movement, a movement that woke up the mother protectorate in her and she turned full eye on the object and what it was was a full-grown black panther (yes, Texas had panthers in those days) slithering catlike up on my 10-year-old grandmother, a very tasty morsel in that cat's eyes. The old lady quickly grabbed an ax and went after that big cat--she hacked it to death only a few feet from her daughter.

My grandmother was home schooled until she was of high-school age when she attended a one-room schoolhouse in the nearest town to the dugout. She didn't graduate high school so she didn't have enough credits to get in a local college so what she did was every day during the school year when the weather permitted, she'd go up to that college and sneak inside the building and try and slip into a classroom--she tried it so often, one of the professors at the school took a liking to her and began loaning her textbooks to take home and study and then when she brought them back, he'd give her a test. From this college education, she developed a great fascination with the poetry and adventures of Lord Byron, a fascination that evolved into her writing her own poetry, an involvement that culminated in two published books of poetry in the 1930s and then her crowning glory in 1941 when her Texas novel was accepted for publication by a Los Angeles publishing house.

She was a brilliant woman. Lightbulbs were always going off over her head. BUT, she had one problem. She worried. She couldn't help it. All she had been through from birth to present made her naturally cautious. Instinctually wary. "Woe is me" was her motto. Always present in her words even if she were rejoicing--like when she stood among her flowers and talked to the birds, two of which, sparrows, Petey and Sally, would light on the electrical wires that ran just above her garden from the house out to the lightpole in the alley, and when she would take some flower seeds and put them in the palm of her hand, Petey and Sally would fly down, perch on her hand, and eat those seed. She could call those birds's names and they'd come flying in from wherever they nested. Sometimes only Petey would show up. Sally might not show up for days, then, zip, there she'd be with Petey. Even when communicating with her precious nature friends, her flowers, her birds, her dog, the earth, she kept that worried look somewhere within the make up of her face. Always in her eyes.

Her growing up a single child hanging with a single mother (her father died when she was 16) on the lone prairie made her cautious, suspicious, and, yes, sometimes dangerously afraid, the worrying factor developing out of all the horrible experiences either she suffered or were passed down to her by her family. Worrying became a part of her growing up.

I knew she worried. I'd heard her sigh many a time and say "Woe is me" after it, but I didn't consider how inborn it was, how sensitive she was to its alerts, until the first family automobile trip I remember taking with her along. It was a trip in my dad's 1938 Oldsmobile--a big green iron box of a car considered a semi-luxury car at the time, a poor man's Cadillac. We were heading out from my hometown in West Texas intending to drive nearly 400 miles down the center of Texas and then over to Beaumont in southeast Texas on the Neches River where my mother was born and where her sister still lived.

It was raining that early spring morning we set out on this trip. It rains in spasms in West Texas. Mean-looking thunderstorms building up into glorious thunderheads that appear first as baby heads on the horizon though soon those heads would expand, build up, billow up, roil up into what the Native Americans called thunderheads. The sky would darkened, turn almost to night, and then CRRRRRRRRRRRRACK, a bolt of lightning would slap down out of that thunderhead like a lizard's tongue to splinter into the ground and then be followed by an engulfing explosion of thunder that would then echo off across the prairie. Then the rain would begin. Just big hard drops at first but quickly turning into a deluge. Gully washers was the name the natives gave them. They moved through fast. And after they passed the sun would come out from under its umbrella, shake itself out, and then render the whole landscape a sparkling field of watery diamonds--the air refreshed--the wind refreshing. BUT, given my grandmother's past experience with water, killing water, flooding waters, such gully washers brought out the worrisome witchy woman from this otherwise calmly brilliant woman. Gully washers to her tough-bird, Pioneer-woman mind meant floods. It meant drowning. Washed out roads. Washed out bridges. They caused detours, where the road was under construction or worse was maybe washed out and you had to drive off the main highway and ramble off over these backroads until you were directed back onto the main highway by the highway patrolmen who were directing traffic through the detour.

Some of these detours led to creeks and rivers that had no high bridges over them but instead had concrete ramps called low-water bridges traversing them. Cars in those days were built high off the ground--so it was possible to drive cars through pretty deep water--but when it was too deep, you had to back up and somehow turn around and go back the way you came until you could find another road or way over that creek or river to get back on a main road somehow. You never went on a trip in those days without a good road map (and a good spare tire). All filling stations had racks of road maps--good ones, too. My dad liked the Texaco maps the best simply because my dad was a loyal Texaco customer. That old Oldsmobile even had a map light on the dashboard. While my dad drove, my mother would search out byways and farm routes and out-of-the-way ways back to paved civilization.

So the first time I took a trip with my grandmother the worrier, we headed out in this rain off down Highway 80, motoring over toward Fort Worth where according my map-reading mother we were going to take a cut off at Weatherford and follow the Leon River down state to somewhere around Bryan when we'd then cross the Leon and go over on the East Texas side and then on off down to Beaumont and my aunt and uncle's.

The first big river we had to cross was the Brazos. The Brazos is a major Texas river. It's a long river--over 500 miles long and flows from just northwest of my hometown all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico around Houston. Most of the time the Brazos is a mild stream winding through a sandy bed that is prone to sandbars and rumored to be full of quicksand...EXCEPT when you have more than one gully washer in a day, then suddenly a river like the Brazos goes from a lamb to a roaring lion--it becomes flooded--and flooded deep--a rushing flood, a muddy flood, a crushing formation of waving water bulldozing its way to its lover the ocean.

I was enjoying the scenery when I heard my grandmother asked my dad, "Isn't the Brazos coming up?" "Yes, you know it's coming up...after Ranger." "Didn't we just go through Ranger?" "Yes, why you asking me these silly questions?" "I'm concerned about the Brazos." "Don't worry...that's a rickety bridge over it but sturdy enough."

We drove on. I knew when the Brazos River was coming up because I knew the hill you went up steeply and then wound down off of to cross the old iron bridge with the wood runway that rattled and shimmied loudly when you crossed it in a car. We came over the hill and then started down grade, you couldn't see the bridge yet though you could see the bluffs that were the banks of the Brazos from there. We made a sharp curve and there it was, the Brazos River Bridge. We were headed for it, doing about 55 miles an hour, when out of nowhere my grandmother bellowed out, "STOP THIS CAR RIGHT NOW. STOP IT I SAY!" My dad hit the brakes. The car skidded a bit, but my dad brought the car safely to a stop on a siding just a matter of 30 feet from the bridge.
The remains of an old Brazos River bridge from back in the era of my tale--that is the Brazos below the bridge but it's not the bridge my grandmother deemed too evil to try and cross though it certainly looks like it.

Without a word, my grandmother got out of the dad was saying she was nuts...and she walked up to the edge of the bridge...she stood there a moment, then she stepped out onto the bridge and turned toward the river and raised her arms. Now I was beginning to think my dad was right, she was nuts.

She came back to the car. "I'll not ride with you over that bridge. It's got evil all over it and the river is evil, too." "You're crazy," my dad said and acted like he was going on across the bridge, to hell with her. She jumped out of the car. "Wolf, you're going to have to appease her," my mother said. "You know she was in the Galveston Flood, daddy...." "Oh, god almighty, mama, the Brazos River ain't the Galveston Flood." "Here, Wolf, there's a road here that runs down to Waco where you know there's a high bridge there."

And that's what we did. We drove all the way along the Brazos down to Waco. As we were coming up on the city limits of Waco, my grandmother said, "Waco's where they had that horrible tornado a year or so ago--don't those look like tornado clouds over that way?"

for The Daily Growler

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