|Exit 135 pointed towards Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and I thought of a friend living on her farm up there. There was a bridge over a river, and I suddenly found myself crossing the Rio Grande. About 110 miles from the City of Rocks I crossed the border into Texas. Four more miles put me in El Paso. That was where I pulled off the highway.|
Back on the road, mountains appeared ahead, towards the north. To the south, I could see the green Rio Grande valley, lush with farms and croplands. I'd been shadowing the Rio Grande on Interstate 10 ever since Las Cruces. Not quite a hundred miles from El Paso, the interstate turned east, away from the historic river and into the vastness of West Texas. Past rolling sand hills, I headed towards blue and ash grey mountains.
Right before Van Horn, coming over a steep hill, I went over a county line and crossed back into the Central Time Zone. My watch had still been on Arizona time, but crossing the line it suddenly went from 11:30 AM to 1:30 PM. I started seeing signs for the nearby McDonald Observatory. I had been looking for the turnoff for Interstate 20, and was surprised to see it was only 32 miles away. My map made it appear much further away. I passed a gas station and wondered: if nobody sells leaded gasoline anymore, why do we still call it unleaded gasoline? Why not just call it... gasoline?
About 300 miles away from the City of Rocks, I turned onto Interstate 20. It was 114 miles to Odessa. Once I got on I-20, hills mostly gave way to flat prairie, the West Texas I remembered from my youth: a vast, empty land. It looked like rain clouds were lining up to the south. At mile marker 28, the shell of a bar and grill rose out of a vacant field. The radio station I was listening to started playing "American Pie," and I remembered singing it at the top of my lungs the first time I drove into California. When I passed Pecos, it looked like there was rain had off to the north, and the highway was taking me straight towards it.
I kept seeing signs for places I'd heard of all through my childhood: Kermit, Rankin, Wink, Andrews, Crane. There was only one place I wanted to see that day. At the Kermit exit, there was a roadside rest area. A sign warned the next rest area was 121 miles away. It was after 3 PM Central Time when I went through Monahans. The sign for Sandhills State Park reminded me of the school field trip we took there way back in 6th grade. I wished we'd gone on more field trips. Just before 4 PM Central Time I stopped in Odessa for some gas ($2.43 a gallon). I thought of my pilot friend when I passed the turnoff for the Commemorative Air Force Museum. Blue skies appeared ahead. It looked like I'd driven past the line of storms. The highway was lined with oilfield businesses, machine shops, huge oil tanks and parts warehouses. The radio was playing an REO Speedwagon song as I drove through Midland, home of the Petroleum Museum. I was back in the Permian Basin. All the time I was growing up, TV weathermen would give the forecast for the Permian Basin. I came up to a bunch of wind-powered generators. They seemed to stretch away in a line off to the north.
As I came into town, the road split into two one-way streets, 3rd Street headed west, and 4th Street headed east. When I was a kid, it seemed like it took a half hour or so to get across town, but in just a couple of minutes I found myself already downtown. At Gregg Street I pulled over and parked in front of the Howard County Courthouse, unchanged in 34 years. To the east was a brick building where the Woolworth's used to be.
Towering over downtown Big Spring was the Settles Hotel. It closed in 1980. The neon letters had been taken off the big sign on the roof. At street level, the doors and windows were boarded-up, and a fence erected around the base. Across the street from the Settles was the old State movie theater. That was where I saw horror movies with my friends Junior and Jesse Torres. When Becky was in high school, she got the job of painting the lady's rest room. It had a big round mirror, so she painted the wall to look like a face with the mirror a huge, staring eye. It had closed for a while, then reopened in 1970 as the CR-70 Theater. The last movie I saw in Big Spring before moving to Oklahoma was at the CR-70; it was an Elvis Presley movie. The theater was closed and up for sale.
I passed the newspaper offices of the Big Spring Herald (formerly the Daily Herald.) Up the hill, I passed the health food store Mom used to get vitamins and health food from. It was good to see it was still there. Across the street was the old boarding house where Clark & Becky's friends used to live. The old stone gas station on the corner was gone. I passed 14th Street, and there I was. My old stomping grounds. The house I grew up in was long gone, moved a few blocks away, as was Mrs. Terrell's 2-story white house on the corner. In their place was one big grassy lot. Growing up, Scurry Street between 14th and 15th Streets was my world. Something wasn't right...
When I pulled up into what was left of the driveway, my Dodge Caravan barely fit between the curbs. There was no sidewalk left. Walking around the lot, I only found pieces of the bricks that had made up my house. The bank across the alley had bought the land to make a parking lot, only after getting rid of the houses they never made the parking lot. It was just dirt, with patches of scrubby thin grass. Mom and Dad worked so hard all those years making the yard green and lush, and it had all reverted back to prairie. I couldn't get over how small the lot was. When I lived in that house, I used to marvel at how big the rooms were, and how lucky we were to live in such a spacious house. Standing on the scrubby grass, I couldn't figure out where it would've gone. There wasn't enough room for the home of my childhood. We had a side yard-- where would it have gone? We had trees in the back yard. Where was the back yard? We had a detached garage in back, big enough for two cars-- where was the room? I have vivid memories of running full tilt across the front yard, all the way from the side yard over to the driveway. Now, I could cross the space in just a few steps. The vegetable garden we had on the farm was bigger than the lot the home of my youth once stood on. This was my world... and my world was dinky.
At last, I understood. I understood why Dad was so insistent on moving from Texas to the family farm in Oklahoma. There was no room to grow here, no room to spread out, nowhere to grow. I guess when we moved to Oklahoma, away from every friend I'd ever had and everything I'd ever known, I had felt a little resentment. I couldn't figure out why we couldn't just stay where we were, just keep living in that huge house. But now I know. Dad had worked hard for years working towards the day when he could leave the hot, dusty land of West Texas and return to the fertile ground of his youth. He just wanted to be happy. The mansion I remembered from my childhood... never was. It was a stunning, humbling revelation.
Looking north on Scurry, I could see downtown and the spider-shaped water tower built in the 1960's. It had been considered a radical design at the time. That stupid, ugly old warehouse was still across the street. Where's the justice in that? I got back in the car and pulled down 14th Street to Gregg. This was the street the high school used to drive up and down on ringing a big bell whenever they won a football game. Football isn't the unofficial religion of West Texas. It is the religion of West Texas. The movie "Friday Night Lights" was more like a documentary for me. Gregg Street was the main north/south street through town. Highway 87 goes down Gregg Street, headed towards Lamesa to the north and Sterling City to the south, making it usually pretty busy. There was construction on Gregg that day, so traffic was especially hectic.
Cowper Clinic and Hospital, where I was actually born, a block from
my house, had changed its appearance since I saw it last. It used to have
a sound-muffling wall of ornamental bricks the front. I think it
had since been removed to make room for parking. Gone was the Jimmie Jones
gas station at 15th and Gregg. The big flood retention hole in the ground
along Gregg Street was still there, overgrown with trees and bushes.
The Safeway store was gone, but other businesses had taken over the building. There used to be a tall Safeway sign out front that lit up our backyard at night in different colors. It was gone. Out behind the Safeway, there used to be an old Addams Family house up on the hill. It burned down when I was in first grade, I think, but behind it was a wooded gully with lots of little paths and hiding places. I called it the Wilderwood, and it was the site of many childhood adventures. The thick growth of the Wilderwood remained.
I drove south on 87. I passed the old barn-shaped restaurant that opened about 1967. Up the road was the old bowling alley that reopened as a dreary petting zoo with a concrete giraffe out front. It had eventually turned into (I think) a veterinary hospital. The highway was a lot more developed than I remembered. Of course, I remembered back when it was just a 2-lane road leading out of town. A modern dam held back the waters of Cosden Lake, hiding its waters from the highway. When they expanded the road to 4-lane, construction was halted because of ancient Indian artifacts found near the lake. I remembered going swimming at the country club there a couple of summers. The highway went by the city park. I was headed someplace that meant a lot to me.
Immaculate Heart of Mary Church & School was founded in 1961. I
started first grade there in 1963. It was my school from the first through
the sixth grades (except for a few months when Dad was assigned elsewhere).
I turned my car down Hearn Street. There used to be a sign for the church
at the turnoff, but it was gone. I headed up a little hill towards Immaculate
Heart of Mary Church. To the left before you got to the church was a trailer
park. People parked their mobile homes there and lived for years. I remembered
when the trailer park was first built. The streets were named after when
they were put in: January Street, March Avenue. Now, it was an RV park,
the streets renamed unoriginal titles like Rodeo Drive.
|I passed the house where the priest used to live, and around the corner I heard the sound of ... children? I had not expected to see anyone at the school, but the parking lot was full of cars. Out on the grass were groups of kids playing football and soccer. Parents sat along the sidelines on folding chairs. A coach yelled out instructions. I didn't understand. Was the school open again? I got out and walked around.|
I stopped to talk to some of the parents on the sidelines. They said the school was still closed, but catechism classes were regularly held there. The kids on the playground were from other schools. They used the playground because it was big enough for the Little League teams to practice. There were also regular masses held in the church. The parents seemed amused to meet someone who when to the school when it was still open. (Some of them might not have even been alive when the school closed in 1984.) I also must have looked --and smelled-- pretty wild after a whole day on the road. I pointed out the house where Pat Keller lived before he and his family moved away in the 5th grade.
I drove around Vicky Street. I remembered when the first houses were built on that street. Turning north on Parkway Road, it looked like the greens of Cosden Golf Course had seen better days. There were still golfers out there, braving the high grass and sand burrs. I saw a building on Wasson Road that used to be a convenience store. I remembered getting a Batman ring out of a coin machine there. When the Batman TV show first came out, having a Batman ring was the height of fashion. Turning west on Wasson Road would have taken me where the Air Force base used to be. I visited friends there when I was a kid, riding on the Air Force busses from the school to their little houses with postage stamp yards. In 1977, Webb Air Force Base closed, and Big Spring’s population dropped from 35,000 to 25,000. That and the oil bust had devestated Big Spring. That turnoff also would have taken me to Scenic Mountain, where we used to go on the Fourth of July every year to watch fireworks. I turned right on Wasson and went to the city park. The park had been there for a long time when it was renamed Commanche Trail Park in the 1960's.
I passed the studios of KBYG radio. My brother's friend Jim Strickland was a DJ there, and I remembered visiting one holiday when he was on the air, surrounded by shelves of 45's, piled floor to ceiling. Was all the music digital now? I used to enter all the contests. One time, I won a Peter Max poster. The park brought back lots of memories.
I found the playground where I used to play in the little pillbox house at one end. The pillbox had since been removed, but the jungle gym remained. I found the swing where Dad used to push me higher and higher until it seemed like I'd go into orbit. I drove around the city pool, now closed, where Mom used to take me on hot summer days. They had baskets in the office where you could store your clothes while you swam. I was never so scared in my life as the day I jumped off the high driving board. The pool seemed a quarter mile deep back then. The candy machine there had Zero candy bars. That was the only place I ever ate Zero bars.
I turned east on Marcy Drive, going under the underpass next to the Veteran's Hospital. I remembered the hot, dusty summer they dug out underpass, backing up traffic. Down the road, I passed a closed gas station I visited the day it opened. They rented a searchlight for the occasion, and I rode my bike in the dark all the way over from 14th Street. I missed the turn for Goliad Middle School, formerly Goliad Junior High, but I did find my way over to the high school. So many familiar streets, so many empty buildings, so many houses up for sale. There were lots of places I would've liked to visit, but it was getting late in the day, and I had miles to go before I slept.
I guess I was in shock. It disturbed me to see Big Spring like that. When I was growing up, Big Spring was a vibrant, living city. Now, it was run-down, empty, hollow. Turning back onto the interstate headed east, past the "Camlot Inn" (?) motel, I thought of Wupatki and Pueblo Grande. Once, they were vibrant centers of life, where the Hohokam lived for generations, raising children, living their lives... but something happened, and the people left, leaving the empty structures behind for Nature to slowly reclaim. The Hohokam were "the ones who had gone before" ... but this time, we were the Hohokam. We were the ones that left.
I should have felt really sad... but then, driving down the interstate,
I thought of the kids playing on the grounds back at Immaculate Heart.
It was nice to hear kids playing on that playground again. I thought, as
long as there's the sound of children at Immaculate Heart, all was right
with the world.
|Outside of town, I was struck by the number of wind powered generators. There were literally hundreds of them, spreading out all the way to the horizon. It made sense to put wind powered generators there, however, since West Texas really blows. The wind, that is.|
Comanche Trail Park
Big Spring, Texas
Webb Air Force Base
Abilene State Park
El Paso, Texas
The 1969 Graduating Class of Immaculate Heart of Mary School