This is kickball, where every play has blooper-reel potential. Read more: Kickball Mania: Sport sparks fun, competitive spirit in many local players
This is kickball, where every play has blooper-reel potential. Read more: Kickball Mania: Sport sparks fun, competitive spirit in many local players
by WES FERGUSON
Joe Hernandez put down $20 to play the video slots at the new sweepstakes hall in Kyle on Tuesday afternoon. He hit the button on a casino game called Silver Stash, and the reel began to spin. It clicked and whirred. Bells whistled, and a row of red cherries fell into alignment. Ding-ding-ding.
“It’s fun,” said Hernandez, who lives in Kyle. “You don’t win much, but you enjoy yourself.”
Because he’s retired, Hernandez says he has all the time in the world to play in the popular gaming rooms that are popping up around Central Texas. At JB Adams Sweepstakes, which opened at a downtown storefront in Kyle last week, people can choose from 24 games at some three-dozen video terminals, and they win cash prizes.
“I was playing in Martindale yesterday,” Hernandez said. “Practically got down to my last dollar and came out winning $120. So I did pretty good yesterday.”
As Hernandez pushed buttons at the video terminal, however, he technically wasn’t gambling. He wasn’t even playing a game. The winnings — or, for that matter, the losings — had been determined when he handed over the $20 a couple of hours earlier. The spinning wheels and bells and whistles were designed to simulate a gambling experience, slowly revealing how much he had already won.
It’s not gambling. It’s a sweepstakes.
Supposedly this photo was taken on the Sabine River in Newton County. Jacob and I saw a few snakes during our travels, but nothing like this.
Three years ago, during a reunion for survivors of the infamous 1937 New London School explosion, in which 295 children and teachers were killed in the worst school disaster in American history, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert was speaking on stage when he started to cry.
Gohmert, choking back tears, announced that God had given him a message for the elderly audience at his feet.
“There was a feeling in New London that maybe people had done something wrong and deserved the explosion,” he said. “Everybody needs to understand that bad things do happen to good people. God did not destroy the school.”
Until that moment it had never occurred to me that all those children and their teachers might have died for their sins at the hands of an angry God. As though New London were some Oil Boom-era Sodom of East Texas. But that’s how fundamentalists interpret natural disasters that befall other people — the product of a scorched-earth, Old Testament Deity. When the natural disaster strikes within own own ranks, however, whether it is a tornado or cancer or some other incomprehensible phenomenon, religious views seem to have been evolving in recent years. No longer is it punishment for sin or even a Job-style test of faith. It’s just something that happens that can’t be explained.
How a person finds room for both conceits in one little brain, I don’t know. Here’s the quick daily story I wrote:
Survivors return to disaster site
By Wes Ferguson
March 16, 2009
Ira Joe Moore climbed through a window to escape the destruction.
Mollie Ward remembers her father sifting through the rubble, worrying that his efforts to rescue trapped children might in fact be crushing them.
And Bill Thompson for years lived with the guilt that a little girl died in his place.
This past weekend, Moore, Ward, Thompson and other London School alumni returned to the site of one of the worst school disasters in United States history.
In March 1937, a natural gas explosion killed nearly 300 of their classmates and teachers. The survivors and other alumni now meet every other year to reconnect with classmates and to commemorate the tragedy.
“It’s something that you never forget, and it stays vivid in your mind over the years,” Moore said.
A high school junior in 1937, Moore, 87, is a retired airline pilot who lives in El Cajon, Calif.
“It’s nice to be back and visit with old friends and renew acquaintances,” he said. “I wanted to make at least one more of these reunions.”
Ward, 83, was 10 years old when the school exploded.
“It was a sad thing,” she said. “Daddy worked so long he almost had a nervous breakdown. He was using a wench to pull up the concrete blocks, and he didn’t know if he was crushing somebody.
“As long as he was working, he was fine, but as soon as he came home and sat down he’d start shaking.”
Over time her father got better, she said. Moore helped found the London Museum across the street from the school, and she was a longtime mayor of New London .
“I know everybody. Of course, I’ve been around so long,” she said. “It just thrills me to death when everybody comes and hollers at me and hugs me. This is just a big reunion. It just gets people happy.”
Thompson, 85, said he swapped seats with a little girl the day of the explosion. Though he was injured in the blast, he survived, and she did not.
“I lived with that guilt for a long time,” he said. “It’s something one has to experience before you can know what that feels like, thinking you caused her death.”
In a speech worthy of a Sunday morning sermon, U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert said survivors such as Thompson should feel no guilt for their part in the 1937 tragedy.
“There was a feeling in New London that maybe people had done something wrong and deserved the explosion,” Gohmert said. “Everybody needs to understand that bad things do happen to good people. God did not destroy the school.”
Gohmert, R-Tyler, said New London residents, nearby oilfield workers and other responders should be commended for their efforts in the face of a great disaster.
“When you look at how they responded, I don’t think there has ever been a response like that in the history of our country,” he said. “That kind of response says this was an extraordinary community in March of 1937.”
A newsreel about the explosion:
Last summer, I happened to be one of the disaster tourists who drove through Joplin, Mo., to gawk at the tornado destruction. It’s a leafy, pretty town. Then we came over a hill, and the emptiness spread before us like a cemetery of bare white foundations. Row upon row of concrete slabs are the only testament to the homes that once stood there.
Fast-forward about 10 months. Earlier today, a Joplin native who now lives in Central Texas was telling me about the first time he saw the satellite image on Google maps. You can follow the tornado’s path through the city:
But the weird, eerie part is what happens when you zoom down to the street view. All those homes, now vanished, are just as they were before the storm.
A grad student called the other day to ask about my experience as a narrative journalist. He followed up by email with two more questions. My answers are not all that interesting or insightful, I guess, but why do I have a blog if not to stare at my own bellybutton?
If you were to think about the outside influences (environmental factors, editors, coworkers, workshops, authors, etc.) that have had the biggest impact in helping you become the writer and journalist that you are, what comes to mind?
I was born and raised in the Piney Woods of East Texas, which is kind of the bastard child of two regions: the American South and the Southwest. Most of my best stories are concerned with East Texas themes, such as poverty, race and violence, and more obliquely, faith and family. Stuff that has fascinated me since I was a child.
My dad’s people are storytellers. It’s how they connect with each other and solidify generational bonds. In addition to listening to their stories at picnics and get-togethers as a child I also read a lot of literature and fiction (and still do). My mom is a reading teacher so books were important in our house, as were Bible stories.
I was exposed to long-form nonfiction through my subscription to Sports Illustrated and my grandpa’s collection of National Geographics. In those days, National Geographic articles followed a wonderful formula: start with action and suspense, then step back, add context and boring but important facts, weave in the narrative and propel the story toward a satisfying conclusion. Sometimes I still rip off this structure.
In college I began to read The New Yorker and Texas Monthly and was smitten for a time with Rick Bragg, the former New York Times feature writer who showed me there was room in newspapers for the southern storytelling forms I had grown up with.
One coworker in particular has been a major influence in my development. At The Daily Texan, the student newspaper at the University of Texas at Austin, my colleague Jonathan York and I became writing partners. We collaborated on some long-form projects, critiqued each other’s work and spent many hours talking about literature and the storytelling craft.
My formal journalism education was more about news judgment, reporting techniques, ethics, grammar and AP style, foundational stuff. For electives I mostly studied English and American literature. I have never taken a class or attended a workshop for narrative journalism, creative writing, or anything like that, although I’d like to. While I have tremendous respect and love for my newspaper editors over the years, I have also wondered what it would be like to have an editor with a background in narrative or magazine-style journalism.
More recently, websites such as Gangrey, Longform and the Nieman Storyboard have added to my narrative journalism toolbox.
If you were to think about your choices and actions that have had the biggest impact in helping you become the writer and journalist that you are, what comes to mind?
Coming home to work in East Texas after graduating from college was not really an active choice — I had already committed to returning to the newspaper that had paid for a good chunk of my education — but it allowed me to explore my home and get to know my people in a low-stakes environment.
The turning point in my journalism career can be traced to a single newspaper project in the summer of 2008, when my buddy Jacob, then a photographer at the paper, and I spent four days boating down a local river. The resulting four-part series was very popular with readers and gave my editors the confidence to assign more narrative and long-form projects. (To my knowledge, prior to my breakthrough, the newspaper had never published straight narrative features).
My decision to quit the paper and write a nonfiction book has led to the next stage of my career development as a writer and journalist. I’ve proved to myself that I can successfully complete a book-length project, and I also see where I need to improve when I write the next one.
In a lot of ways, feature writing is a race against forgetting. The details and anecdotes slip away. Context evaporates. I’m finally sitting down to write a story about a local rattlesnake hunter and reading through my notes from our hunt last August. These three consecutive paragraphs have really stumped me:
where you’ve got water you’ve got bugs where you’ve got bugs you’ve got lizards and where you’ve got lizards you’ve got rattlesnakes
once your mind is clear you take your own authority back.
if you want to get old you won’t go in places like that. you’re going to hear the sound of scales on material. it’s a rustly sound. he probably won’t rattle until we get ahold of him.
I have no idea how the middle sentence fit into the conversation.
I didn’t write the story in August because the hunter and I didn’t catch a rattlesnake. Seven months later, I revisited my notes and banged out a quick writeup because I work for a seat-of-our-pants publication, and we needed to fill a gap somewhere.
It’s interesting how a new story can emerge from old notes and exist independently of the subject matter. What I wrote was accurate. The quotes are the words that came out of his mouth. But just think how much different the story would be if I could remember why he said, “Once your mind is clear you take your own authority back.” How does that fit into a feature article about snake hunting?
Another true story, refracted through my head, on its way to the reader.
Duo are first husband and wife to both win first place at world chili championship in Terlingua
Linda Odom will give you her recipe, but you can’t cook her chili.
Try anyway, and you’ll need floaters and dumps. It’s OK to use the tube, Linda has found, or you can grind your own, her husband George’s preferred method. Don’t worry about the jargon; you’ll pick it up soon enough.
No beans though. No exceptions.
“If you put beans in your chili,” Linda says, “you don’t know beans about chili.”
On a winter day in 1886, at a farmhouse east of Kyle, 16 German settlers gathered to form a church.
The body established by that long-ago meeting, now called Immanuel Baptist, celebrated its 125th anniversary this past Sunday. The church’s longevity is a testament to the enduring power of faith and family, but also of a willingness to evolve with the changing face of East Kyle.
That hasn’t always been the case. The Rev. Dennis Koger tells a story that shows just how small Immanuel Baptist Church used to be.
“Up until 10 years ago,” says Koger, who became the full-time pastor in 1999, “this really was a family church. Almost everybody was related to one another in some way.”
One day, Koger was talking to church Deacon Morris Schmeltekopf when – to his pastor’s surprise – the deacon addressed a fellow congregant not as uncle, aunt or cousin, but as mister.
“Hold it,” Koger recalls saying. “You mean there’s somebody in this church that you aren’t related to?”
The deacon thought for a moment.
“Yes,” he replied. “There is one man that I’m not kin to.”
At a farmers market in the Texas Hill Country, traders offer fresh produce, artisanal foods and more than a few stories. Click here to read the story in the Hays Free Press.
Kind of interesting to Piney Woods-o-philes …
The people who live in the pine woods of Eastern Texas are very primitive in their habits. As this was the first part of Texas that was settled by the early pioneers, their descendants form the principal part of the population. Traveling through the deep piny woods of this part of Texas, you often find grown men and women that have never seen a prairie country, mountain or valley, railroad or steamboat. They grow to manhood and womanhood in the heart of the thick pine woods, and are contended and happy in their log cabins. Oh, contentment, what a blessing! Their diet would by no means please the stomach of an epicure. Corn-bread, bacon and potatoes, with an occasional treat of venison, give them perfect satisfaction. Nearly all the children born and reared in the pine woods have light hair; it is a rare sight to see a black-haired family.
Very few of the descendants of the old settlers own any land. For the last forty years they have been in the habit of settling upon any land fit for cultivation. After finding a good, rich land (hammock) the piney woods settler will commence felling and cutting the trees and underbrush away from where he expects to have his field. When all the space he wants is cut down he informs his neighbors that on a certain day he will have a log-rolling. His wife makes preparations for a big dinner, and all his neighbors, for miles around, come and pile up the logs that have been cut down, then put the brush in piles and set them on fire. In a few days his field is all cleared and ready for the plow. After working some one else’s land for two or three years, he sells the improvements and his squatter’s claim to one of his neighbors, and then hunts up another piece of land to improve and sell in a like manner. The consequence of this way of living is that they are always moving and their children grow up without knowing the pleasures and comforts of a home that could be made comfortable and beautiful if the land was their own, yet the land can be bought very cheap. The people have been in the habit of using every man’s land as their own for so many years that they believe the land has no owners. Most of the timbered lands in East Texas are owned in large tracts by non-residents and their agents who pay their taxes seldom know where the land is situated; hence the squatter has it all his own way.
- From an article in The Sunny South of Atlanta, Ga., published Nov. 5, 1887
At SXSW this week I met up with an old college friend and his adorable new hipster girlfriend. We’d been wandering around downtown Austin all night and were exhausted. Then we found ourselves at one of those cool new bars that have been colonizing the impoverished East Side in recent years.
A band was playing on an outdoor stage, and all the hipsters were milling around a vacant lot while drinking Lone Stars and Brooklyn Lagers.
The night had turned off cool, and my friend Phil was wearing his girlfriend’s scarf like a gaudy shawl around his shoulders. The girlfriend went off to use the pink port-a-potty, and Phil sat down against a chain-link fence. I was standing over him, telling him about my latest side project. In my free time this spring, I have been writing about the childhood friends and acquaintances of mine who went on to murder people. It’s called “The Killers I Know.”
So there I was telling Phil about the killers. Any time I talk about my past in East Texas, the stories veer off on tangents that veer off on other tangents. Eventually the little anecdotes and vignettes accumulate and circle back to the main story I had been trying to tell in the first place.
One of my oft-repeated stories concerns the young rednecks who used to ride their horses into town on the weekends. Emboldened by their numbers — or maybe from sitting so high in the saddle, looking down on the rest of us — they’d clop up and down the main drag, picking fights with people. One day they yelled at me for playing “nigger music” too loud in my Jeep (chastened, I turned down the volume). Then they trotted over to the grocery store parking lot, where they berated Bobby Clayborn’s mom and girlfriend and called them all sorts of racial slurs.
Bobby was a sacker at the grocery store. He stood up for his women.
“Mama,” he said, “you and Shameeka get in the car.”
Bobby took off his white dress shirt, which he always wore buttoned right up to the collar, and he lay the shirt on the hood of his mother’s car for safekeeping. His chest and arms were massive and sculpted. In fact, he often kissed his biceps, which he had nicknamed his pythons. For all I know, Bobby kissed the pythons on that day in the parking lot of the Food Land grocery store in Liberty City, Texas.
The rednecks climbed down from their horses, and Bobby fought them. Six, eight guys he fought all at once, and he took down several before they could overwhelm him and bring him to the ground.
(A few years earlier, I had seen Bobby similarly jumped by another set of white bullies. We were freshmen, and the seniors were hazing us. When Bobby refused to submit to their paddlings, the older guys surrounded him and converged upon him. Four or five guys were trying to hold Bobby down so a sixth could paddle him. Then, suddenly, it was like the huddle exploded. Seniors flew backward, and Bobby was spinning in circles, snorting like an angry bull. He always snorted like that during times of violence).
Not long after his fight with the rednecks, Bobby and his girlfriend had a child together, and Bobby found a better job sacking groceries at a different grocery store a short drive into town. Eventually, though, Bobby and Shameeka broke up. One day they were fighting in the front yard of Shameeka’s parents’ house when Bobby grabbed her by the neck and strangled her to death.
I looked up Bobby the other day on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website. He’s not scheduled for release until 2020, although he’s been eligible for parole for nearly a year now.
I was telling Phil about Bobby, along with the stories of a couple of other killers, when Phil looked up from his seat against the chain-link fence. He grinned and shook his head in that wry way he has.
“Why do all of these stories sound so formulaic?” he asked.
I was still trying to come up with a satisfactory response when the girl next to us leaned down and projectile-vomited onto the asphalt. I turned and hurried off before the sounds and smells led me to throw up, too. We called it a night soon thereafter.
Two days later, I was reminded of Phil’s question while reminiscing about something entirely different — the preacher at my grandma’s church. The preacher used to be a used-car salesman, and now he dances around the pulpit of this little country chapel on Sunday mornings, delivering self-help sermons. You know the type: God wants you to be successful, God wants you to be happy. If you just believe in Him, then He will bless you and reward you not just in Heaven but here on earth, too.
“The check is in the mail,” the preacher promised, one Sunday when my brother Dan and I were visiting. “The check is in the mail.”
“The check,” he repeated. “Is in. The mail.”
“The check! Is in! The mail!”
“Hallelujah!” cried the congregants. “Amen!” And my brother and I sat there and snickered.
At our own church, Baptist, the sermons were much more dour. Expect to be persecuted for your faith, we were taught. Brace yourself for a life of sorrow and torment as you toil down the narrow road to Heaven. All this “check is in the mail” nonsense was so antithetical to our understanding of biblical doctrine that, years later, Dan and I still laugh about it.
“The check! Is in! The mail!”
Now I’m wondering whether that story, too, is somehow formulaic, as Phil put it, or stereotypical, or cliched.
One of my fears as a writer is that I’m too preoccupied with tired, old issues that don’t really concern modern thinkers anymore. While everyone else in my world has moved on to new debates and quandaries, I’m still obsessed with the stuff from my backwards-assed childhood in the Piney Woods.
I’m still consumed by fundamentalist Christianity, for instance, and all of its maddening contradictions. I still wonder about the allure of violence and mayhem and its place in our lives. I admire my neighbors for their love and brotherhood and am haunted by their equal capacity for hate and ignorance.
If my stories are cliches, maybe it’s because my people are cliches. We just keep repeating ourselves — and repeating our mistakes — generation after generation, spinning our wheels, digging in deeper, bound up by violence and religion.
And I doubt if I’ll ever stop writing about that.
man, i’m proud of east texas. the tagline for this new tv show: “please kill responsibly”
Whenever I try to use my words to change the world, the whole thing usually blows up in my face. Or worse, it just fizzles out, and I’m left holding the dud and mumbling some b.s. about best intentions.
Reminds me of the bottle rocket wars we used to have on the Fourth of July. The big cousins on one side of the pond, firing rockets, the little cousins on the other side, hiding behind some cattails, firing back. I snuck up and got the big kids’ asses with a roman candle. It singed a bunch of holes in their clothes.
Sorry, that had nothing to do with anything.
Oh yeah so I don’t try to accomplish too much with the printed word. I just try to tell a good story. Try to be true and accurate. Don’t worry too much about the consequences.
But with my story “Sassman’s last stand,” I made an exception. I was really hoping the main character would read my story and realize that he’s jeopardizing his health over some really trivial stuff. Maybe in some way my reporting could save him, by suggesting that he give up trying to save everybody else.
Also, to be perfectly honest, I was a little worried that he’d read the story and track me down and put one of those ass-whoopings on me.
Turns out I had nothing to worry about. To my relief, he liked the story. Said it was a good article. And — maybe not so much of a surprise, since he’s so wrapped up in his little feud — my story did nothing to change his outlook on life and his health. This is one fight he won’t back down from.
So be it. That suits me just fine.
When I’m writing a story, my only objective is to seek the truth, uncover it, and retell it as best I can. If I throw a few grenades along the way, so be it. I don’t worry much about the collateral damage.
Then the story is published. In the clear light of morning, when it’s too late, I begin to ask the deeper questions. Like: Why did I write this? Was being accurate worth the harm I’ve caused? Was it OK to betray my subjects’ trust if it was done in the service of a story?
The more I ask of myself, the more I am filled with self-loathing. I remember the oft-quoted passage from The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm:
“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. …
“He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Like the credulous widow who wakes up one day to find the charming young man and all her savings gone, so the consenting subject of a piece of nonfiction learns—when the article or book appears—his hard lesson. Journalists justify their treachery in various ways according to their temperaments. The more pompous talk about freedom of speech and ‘the public’s right to know’; the least talented talk about Art; the seemliest murmur about earning a living.”
Sometimes I hate myself for being a journalist, but I doubt I’ll ever change. I’ll keep writing these kinds of stories, because I can’t not write them, and I’ll keep feeling sick in my gut on the mornings when they’re published.
The latest example is my story ‘The worst time: Green Pastures grandma struggles to raise 13 kids.’ I was really conflicted the whole time I was writing this. It wasn’t my job to judge the family, but neither could I cover up every last thing I saw on the evening I spent with them. I tried to balance the bad stuff with things that would engender sympathy for the family, but I don’t know how well I succeeded. In the end, I feel like an executioner.
A confidence man, preying on other people’s despair.
“Hell, I could take you through it step by step, explain why your story stinks, but I won’t insult your intelligence. Well all right, first of all: This is a wrestling picture; the audience wants to see action, drama, wrestling, and plenty of it. They don’t wanna see a guy wrestling with his soul – well, all right, a little bit, for the critics – but you make it the carrot that wags the dog. Too much of it and they head for exits and I don’t blame ‘em. There’s plenty of poetry right inside that ring, Fink. Look at “Hell Ten Feet Square”.”
— “Barton Fink,” of course
Another passage that I cut from the manuscript.
The guy who hopped out of the car was fortyish and not wearing a shirt. In fact, he was not wearing much of anything — only shorts, sandals, and wrap-around sunglasses. A ponytail. A bronze tan. I was careful to avoid eye contact, but it didn’t deter him. He walked right over and started asking questions about the battle of Sabine Pass.
I answered, curtly, that a small band of Confederate soldiers had fought off a larger fleet of invading Union ships at this spot, which was now a state historic site.
“Those damn Yankees,” he said. “I say that in jest because I’m from the Northeast. So this was like a crucial port for the South during the war?”
“I have no idea,” I replied. “We just got here. But if you’ll walk around, there’s bound to be some reading material somewhere. At least a marker or something.”
He didn’t take the hint. “So where were you coming from?” he asked.
When I told him about our trip down the Sabine, he announced that he had once ridden a jet ski 180 miles along the Atlantic coast. Now his watercraft was in storage in his garage back home, needing repairs. “You know what they say,” he said. “You either have a new jet ski or you don’t have a jet ski.” He was from New Jersey, and he had taken off work for a few weeks to see the Gulf Coast between New Orleans and Brownsville. As for rivers, he added, “I’d love to explore the Hudson, because it’s so beautiful.”
“On a jet ski?” I asked.
Then he wanted to know what year the battle of Sabine Pass had been fought. I told him I really, truly had no idea.
“I’ll find out,” he said.
As he walked away, I thought about Jeff back up the river. Then I thought about the Tidwells and the rest of the people I had met along the Sabine. It hadn’t mattered that I was a stranger. They had invited me into their homes, fed me and treated me like one of their own. I realized that I wasn’t like these river people at all. I wasn’t as kind.
Jacob showed up with chips and sandwiches. We were eating at the picnic table when a voice shouted: “1863!”
I turned around. It was the shirtless guy. “What?” I asked him.
“1863,” he said. “That’s the year of the battle.”
“Oh, OK,” I replied.
He stood there beside our picnic table.
“Pringles, huh?” he said.
When we didn’t say anything more to the man he walked over to the piers, then circled back to his convertible coupe and sped off to his next destination. One hopes he found a place where the people were friendlier.
For your reading pleasure, a passage that wasn’t good enough for my book. (I have been cutting mercilessly, especially the parts that are about me more than they’re about the river). – Wes
I had deluded myself into thinking that I could scrape by the way earlier people had along the Sabine River, with a garden and a gun.
Though I had never been much of a hunter, I had inherited a good rifle from my father, and I borrowed a twelve-gauge shotgun from a family friend. I shot a few ducks in a flooded creek bottom, then found a tall hardwood tree that seemed like a good place for squirrels. Long about dusk, one of them revealed himself. I fired but missed widely. The rodent scurried to the back side of the tree. I could see his head peeking out, so I fired twice more. Two more misses. With all the stealth I could muster, I crept to the other side and got him good. In all, it took four shots to kill one squirrel. It was nighttime now in the woods. I grabbed the dead rodent by the tail and — since I’d forgotten my flashlight — felt my way back to the road. I was trying to clean him on the front bumper of my jeep, in the headlights’ glow, when a game warden pulled alongside me. I recognized him. He was a young guy who had stopped me a week or two earlier when I had been hog hunting with my friend Buddy.
“Was that you firing all them shots?” the warden now asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, feeling sheepish. “I kept missing him.”
“Huh,” is all he said.
I asked if I was cleaning the squirrel correctly. Its carcass had become a gunky mess of hair and blood on my bumper.
“That’s about like how they do it,” he said. “Can I see your hunting license?”
He unfolded the piece of paper and looked it over. Not a single tag had been used. Not for white-tailed deer. Not for turkey.
“Why, you ain’t shot nothin’,” he said.
The young warden watched as I finished cleaning the squirrel, then told me to be safe and headed back to his truck. By then, about half of the squirrel’s fur had stuck to the blood on my hands, drying in clumps, so I walked down to the creek to wash it off. I couldn’t see the water, but I knew from memory that I was getting close. I took one step too many and fell over a small ledge. The icy water was so deep my toes didn’t touch bottom. I flailed and grasped for anything on the bank to pull myself out. Water was filling up my rubber boots. I grabbed a tree root and jammed the toe of my boot into the mud, and slowly I climbed up from the water. As I rolled onto dry ground I saw the game warden drive past, with no idea what had just happened. I was thankful, because it spared me any further embarrassment.
The following day, I redeemed myself — sort of — when I felled two squirrels with one shot. I was able to accomplish this feat because one of the squirrels had mounted the other. Because they were mating. In a tree. In a pasture beside my backyard. A couple of weeks later, I shot three more squirrels in a flood bottom to console myself after an unsuccessful duck hunt. By now, I had enough squirrels for a stew.
One day when Buddy’s wife wasn’t home, I brought over the six carcasses, and we started cooking. As I snapped green beans and chopped potatoes and onions and other vegetables, Buddy fried a slab of bacon, dredged the squirrels in flour and browned them in the drippings. Before long, the pot was simmering, and a rich aroma wafted through the house. It smelled delicious. We let the squirrels stew for a couple of hours, then lifted the lid to take a look.
What we saw then made our stomachs churn. Dozens of half-inch hairs were swimming in the pot. We ladled some into bowls and found even more fur. The hairs clung to the meat, and they stuck to the vegetables. Buddy swallowed a few bites.
“It has a good flavor, but I’m just not that hungry,” he said.
As I pulled a particularly long strand of hair through my teeth, I realized I wasn’t very hungry either. I offered to divide up the leftovers with him, but Buddy insisted that I take home the entire pot. His family wouldn’t get around to eating it, he said, and I was a bachelor who could use a few home-cooked meals. Thanks.
This cemetery is on a dirt road at the county line, not far from my home. I’ve been going there for years. Don’t ask me why. Earlier this afternoon, I came across the marker for a girl (bottom photo) who was two or three years behind me in school. She had a child with a friend of mine. Bobby. I guess I’d call him a friend. A couple of years after high school, he strangled her to death. I’ve been wanting to write about him for a while now, part of a larger project about the murderers I grew up with. Don’t ask me why. I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to it.
Also, I wonder who makes the tombstones. Is it one guy who does them all? Pours the cement and traces the text? There is something heartbreaking about a homemade burial marker. But I guess that’s an awfully bourgeois thing to say.
1. Longueur — a tedious passage in a book or other work
2. Bathos — an effect of anticlimax created by an unintentional lapse in mood from the sublime to the trivial or ridiculous
I’ve been self-editing my manuscript before it’s off to the publisher on Jan. 15. I think the book will be a fun read for people, but it’s not the masterpiece I set out to write. So much for boundless potential! At least I’ve cashed it in for something real.
I’m not sure I want to recommend this movie, riddled as I am with liberal guilt. A lot of my own stories have toed the line between the celebration of white trash culture and the exploitation of it. But there’s something oddly compelling about the White family of West Virginia. These people do whatever the hell they want.
It’s a shame that our collective memory of Deliverance has been distilled into a single punch line.
You know, that hillbilly rape scene. A couple of rednecks sodomize this poor slob whose biggest mistake had been to climb into a canoe with Burt Reynolds. Next thing he knows, he’s being told to bend over and squeal like a pig.
I had seen the movie but never read the book. When I came across a used copy at the local bookstore, I felt obligated to give it a try, since I am reading everything about rivers these days.
It kept me up for two nights in a row.
Basically, the book (by James Dickey) follows an average guy who is bored with life; he needs some adventure, so he goes on a macho canoe trip with three friends. Bad stuff happens, and he’s put to the test — courage, endurance, will to survive, etc. If he succeeds he’ll be a real man, delivering himself from his modern malaise. Pretty similar to “Fight Club” in that way.
Deliverance was by far the best river book I have read. I recommended it to a friend, but he just laughed. Not even a good book can live down hillbilly rape and “Dueling Banjos.”
Sometimes, in the pursuit of a story, a writer becomes as creepy and obsessed as a stalker. During research for my latest project, I think I might have crossed into that dark side.
No, I’m pretty sure I did. I kind of disgust myself.
The focus of my obsession is an ailing nonagenarian. His name is John Graves. If you’re from Texas and you read books, then you might have heard of him. He’s the granddaddy, patron saint and progenitor of modern nature writing here in the Lone Star state.
More than half a century ago, Graves wrote a nonfiction book titled Goodbye to a River. It’s about a canoe trip down a stretch of the Brazos. The story drifts along as slowly as the river itself, meandering through local lore, pioneer tales, and meditations on a rural landscape that seemed to be slipping away. Somehow, the prose is both stately and subdued.
Lesser writers in Texas have been trying to imitate Graves ever since his book’s publication. If he’s our patron saint, then Goodbye to a River is our bible. And us noncanonical hacks are left to paddle in his wake.
I was trying to re-read Goodbye this summer when I came to an awful realization. Graves had written the definitive word on rivers in Texas. My own attempt to write about a different river in the state, the Sabine, felt almost superfluous. It was paralyzing.
I couldn’t compete with him, so I did the next best thing. I googled him. I found an address and wrote a letter. Meanwhile, one of the lines from Goodbye to a River had been sloshing around in my head for days.
“Canoes,” Graves writes, “are unobtrusive; they don’t storm the natural world or ride over it, but drift upon it as part of its own silence.”
That line in particular, about the quiet dignity of paddling, had revealed the folly of my own undertaking.
All this time, I had been storming nature in a rip-roaring motorboat. To really get to know a river, I needed to experience it as Graves had, from the vantage of a canoe. One weekend toward the end of June, I got my chance. A cheap plastic number appeared in the classifieds. The owner said he had bought the canoe to use when duck hunting, but he and his brother-in-law had capsized the vessel only ten yards from the boat dock. He hadn’t been paddling since. Now he was selling it for a couple hundred bucks.
I ponied up the cash, and the next day I was paddling down the mighty Sabine. By the time I’d lugged my canoe into the water and loaded it with gear, however, the sun was high and bright, and the air was predictably muggy. The temperature hovered around 95 degrees. No problem. If you’re afraid of a little heat and humidity in East Texas, you’ll be stuck indoors for months. You can squander an entire summer that way.
Usually summer is the good time to go to the Sabine, and when you can choose, June is the best month — if, for that matter, you choose to go there at all, and most people don’t. Snakes and ticks and mosquitoes are active then, likely thriving if the heat has come early. Nights are warm and days are green and thick of air, and in the spread abundance of a Texas summer the beer guzzling and the mudding overlap and are both likely to be good. Scores of kinds of bugs, buzzing and unpleasant to see, hover and sting before they fly off to harass some farther prey. Men and women are scarce.
The canoe allowed me to approach wild animals that would have been spooked by the motorboat. Once, I interrupted a mother raccoon’s afternoon drink of river water, and as she trotted away, a string of five fuzzy pups trailed after her. Later, I glided past a family of black-and-white hogs so close to the water I could have thrown my paddle and hit one of them, if I was an idiot. Turtles wetted their dusty, sun-dried shells when they plopped into the river.
I paddled along with the mechanical rhythm of the rusty pump jacks that extracted crude oil and natural gas from the strata. The plan was to travel a little more than ten miles, from one East Texas highway crossing to the next. Then I’d decide what to do next. I could set up camp and paddle a second day, or call someone to come get me.
On a few occasions, my blood boiled when the canoe dropped into churning chutes between rock formations, which would have been submerged if the water hadn’t been so droughty and low. But most of the time there was very little current in the river. Within hours my paddling lost its rigor. My lower back began to ache. The sun beat down, and the water in my cooler seemed to be nearing the boiling point. Twice, I crawled onto a sandbar and lay in the shade. Let’s face it: I was soft. John Graves had spent three weeks in a canoe for his trip, and my body was spent before I was halfway through the first day.
After about five hours, a barely audible hum grew louder, then faded into the downriver silence. It was followed by another hum of a slightly different pitch, and another. They were the far-off sounds of passing cars. The highway was ahead! I hurried around the bend and looked for the bridge. All I saw was another bend. Then another. And another. But after an hour of taunting, I saw my destination — Texas Highway 31, south of Longview.
I stumbled up the bank. Two young guys were tying hooks to their lines beneath the highway bridge. “How’s the fishing?” one of them asked.
“Didn’t … fish,” I said as I staggered past him and stretched onto the sloped concrete of the bridge’s abutment.
“What were you doing?”
I lifted one finger to signal for him to wait a minute, and I lay there with my eyes closed. He gave me a bottle of water. Finally, I raised my head and told him that I was exploring the river for a journalism project. “Well the fishing’s good when the river’s flowing,” he said. “I caught a ten-and-a-half-pound cat up around River Road last week.”
“What kind … of bait … you use?” I asked. Next thing I knew he was standing over me — my body still laid out flat beneath the bridge — as he demonstrated how to keep chicken livers from dripping off a hook. He tied a loose strand of fishing line to the eye of his swivel and wrapped the strand around the liver. “See, it holds the liver on there and the fish hate it, so they really have to yank, and that sets the hook,” he said.
“I’ll … have to try that.”
My canoe was docked to a pile of cement rubble. After catching a ride about a half mile down the road, I washed my face in the men’s room of a SerStaGro — as Graves would have called it — ordered a Dr Pepper and sat for a while in the refrigerated air. It was too hot to be out on that river.
A couple of weeks later, my letter to Graves appeared in my mailbox. The U.S. Postal Service couldn’t deliver it. I had written to the physical address of his ranch outside the Texas town of Glen Rose, aware that he probably used a P.O. box instead. So I returned to the Internet, and I found his phone number. I wrote it down and stared at it. No, I shouldn’t call him. He was an old man. Another website had said that his birthday was approaching, and he’d be ninety years old the first week of August.
That last paragraph was kind of creepy. Through a handful of Internet searches, I had found the man’s physical address, phone number and birthday. Nobody — not even a Texas legend, the grandaddy of Texas nature writers — is granted a smidgen of privacy anymore. Even so, I believed I needed Graves for my book, to give it a boost of legitimacy. So I wrote out a short transcript of our imagined phone conversation:
My name is Wes Ferguson. I’m a journalist; I’m writing a book for Texas A&M University Press about the Sabine River
I’ll be passing through Glen Rose for an unrelated magazine assignment in the next week or two
And I was wondering if you would allow me to come by and talk to you about something I’m trying to sort out.
I’m trying to get some context for the Sabine’s place among Texas rivers, and I know you have written a little about the differences between rivers in West Texas and East Texas
In his book Texas Rivers, Graves writes about an East Texas river called the Neches: “For those of us who live in the more open country of the central and western parts of the state, the wooded zone along our Louisiana border can be a little daunting. Blessed with copious rainfall, laced with the perennially flowing creeks that feed strong rivers, shaded by forests except where they have been cleared, … the region at times seems foreign to persons accustomed to the drier prairies, plains, rocky hills, and the dialects of the rest of the state.
“Yet not all that foreign.”
One could argue that his description applies as readily to the Sabine as the Neches, but I wanted to hear Graves say it.
Once again, I stared at the phone number and let my mind wander. If I had the chance to interview him, we’d sit on a rustic back porch, or in a cluttered room with comfortable chairs that emitted the faint, musty smell of old things. He’d talk for hours, and I’d further the conversation with respectful questions, illustrating my immediate and thorough absorption of his words. He’d explain why he and other authors have rarely included the Sabine when writing about Texas rivers. And he’d be so taken with his young disciple that he’d offer (unsolicited, of course) to write a blurb for the back cover of my soon-to-be-published book.
I hastily dialed the numbers, hoping to finish before I changed my mind.
A woman’s kind voice answered.
“Let me ask him,” she said. “He doesn’t like talking on the telephone.”
John Graves was now on the line. His voice was soft and frail, and higher-pitched than I had expected. Suddenly there was a crash and loud voices coming from his end.
“What?” he said. “I can’t hear you with all that hollering.”
My name is Wes Ferguson. I’m a journalist; I’m writing a book for Texas A&M University Press about the Sabine River.
“The SABINE RIVER!”
That was it — my sales pitch reduced to a shout.
“I’m nearly ninety years old,” he replied, “and I’m just not up for interviews and things of that sort anymore.”
This was foolish. I had no right to disturb this old man, this stranger. I needed to get off the phone. I needed to hang up right now. I thanked him and apologized.
“Well,” he said. “Okay.”
I thanked him again, apologized again, and the conversation was over. A week after our brief conversation, a magazine article about him appeared on newsstands. The article explained that Graves was still suffering after a fall from his porch the previous winter. The article said he was bent and frail.
If you thought that would convince me to stop pestering him, though, you would be wrong.
I didn’t stake out his ranch or anything. But it occurred to me how I could find his mailing address. His local appraisal district had to know it. Using the wireless internet in a public library, I found the appraiser’s website, and I plugged his name into the property records search. Bingo. The display told me the size of his ranch and revealed his property’s market value. It enumerated the taxes he’d paid over the previous three years. And sure enough, it gave me his address.
I wrote another letter. A week later, on a sunny East Texas afternoon — among a handful of bills and a catalogue or two — was my self-addressed, stamped envelope. The typed reply filled a narrow piece of paper, which measured nine inches by five-and-a-quarter inches.
In the second paragraph, John Graves wrote, “You sound like good folks, & I wish I could be of help in regard to the Sabine River, but I can’t.”
He said a few other things. Pleasantries, mostly. It was a generous letter. I’d tell you more, but I’d hate to violate an old man’s privacy.
Who will be the heirs of Larry McMurtry and John Graves? That’s the question in one of today’s DMN editorials (h/t Elliott).
My hunch? Nobody.
Lone Star pride still runs high, but it’s more of an abstract, sentimental feeling that has very little to do with the lives of most Texans. There’s no singular Texas experience waiting to be recorded by one author.
It’s about as futile as waiting for the Great American Novel. Or trying to write it.
A funny thing happened during the local football game last night.
Not so much funny haha, though. Picture bright stadium lights under a crescent moon. Bleachers decked in hometown red and blue. The green expanse of the gridiron. Electricity in the air. And it was beautiful, for a while.
I hadn’t seen my old high school play in a long time. The previous fall, I missed every single game because I was working Friday nights. Before that, I missed all the games because I used to have a social life. But this week, “our little football boys,” the Fighting Cardinals of Sabine, were playing their home opener against a team called the Rains Wildcats. Rains is never any good.
Both squads walked onto the field with 0-2 records.
And the home team seemed invincible. First play, sacked the quarterback. Second play, forced a fumble. Got the ball at midfield. Three snaps later, the Cards’ star running back, a kid named Bryan Chumley, broke a long run of at least 30 yards, scoring the game’s first touchdown. The crowd erupted.
The next time the Cardinals had the ball, Chumley again powered them toward the end zone. But on fourth down at the 4 yard line, a short pass bounced off the hands of a Cardinals receiver. It should have been an easy touchdown.
Instead, the visitors took over. Still fired up, the Cards’ defense pinned the Wildcats against their own end zone. The offense lined up to punt. But one too many defensive linemen was on the field for the Cardinals. He sprinted toward the sideline, but the snap beat him. A 5-yard penalty gave the offense a first down.
And that’s when things got interesting. At least from my point of view.
The home team’s intensity evaporated, and its confidence melted. Linebackers forgot how to tackle. Cornerbacks forgot how to cover. The first quarter was still under way — and the Cards were still winning, 6-0 — but mentally, they had given up.
Early in the second quarter, the visitors scored their first touchdown. Later, with around 25 seconds left in the half, Chumley fumbled on his own 15 yard line. The defense trotted back onto the field, demoralized. And they hardly put up a fight as the visitors’ running back scored again, as time expired.
The final was 21-12, visiting team.
The Sabine Cardinals have been losing games this way for a long, long time. I won’t belabor the point, because the last time I wrote about it, the story pissed off half my hometown. But when you expect to lose, you will find ways to fulfill the prophecy.
For my earlier article about Sabine’s losing tradition, I interviewed a sports psychologist named Trent A. Petrie. He’s a professor and director of the University of North Texas Center for Sport Psychology. Here’s what he had to say about the phenomenon:
“With a history of losing generally comes a loss of confidence — a loss of what we might call “mental toughness.” The athletes and coaches do not believe they have the ability to win and thus don’t push through tough times — often giving up instead.
“When in this mode, teams often do not communicate well, they don’t trust each other, they don’t put forth effort, they don’t believe in their leaders.
“Often you can see it in how they hold themselves physically (head down, shoulders dragging), how they behave in practices and competitions and how they think about themselves (“We’re no good … we’re only going to lose”) and their opponents (“We’ll never beat them”).
“It can have a strong influence on how they play each competition, and can take the fun out of playing sports.
“Turning around such a program starts with building confidence again — helping the athletes believe in themselves, helping playing and practicing to be fun again, helping them learn to trust each other and communicate.
“Such a change can occur in how the coaches work with the athletes, how they structure practices, the expectations they hold for themselves and the team or players, how they communicate positively.
“Coaches need to instill in the athletes the confidence that is lacking. They need to help that confidence grow, through successes in practices and ultimately in competitions. Community support is important — having the community believe in the athletes helps the athletes believe in themselves.”
One of these days, my Cardinals. One of these days.
The open road = freedom.
Heading west in Texas, the interstate freeway undulates through cedar-studded hills that eventually flatline into high desert. You can see for miles. You suddenly get what people mean about wide-open spaces, because you feel free here, like the world is full of possibility.
A place can grab hold of a person. Think about the awe you feel when you peer over a canyon’s edge or when you see and hear a river falling from a hundred-foot-high precipice. Or whatever feelings arise when you dig your toes into a sandy beach and gaze across the vast, blue emptiness of an ocean.
On the flip side, can a landscape also bring down a person? Educated people from my region of the Piney Woods often lament the “pine curtain” effect. In essence, these sophisticated types argue that the sheltering forest shields East Texans from the modern world. Because our lives are hidden behind the pine curtain, and our frame of reference is so narrow, we are closed to new ideas. We’re suspicious of people who ain’t from around here, we’re a bunch of unwashed bigots, and so on.
I’m not convinced. Maybe the insularity of the forest contributes to our ways of thinking and doing, but I’ve met plenty of narrow-minded idiots in wide-open spaces as well. Like the woman who set up camp next to mine at Balmorhea State Park. More on her later.
I recently returned from a road trip through West Texas. Business, not pleasure — my first big magazine assignment. The idea was to hang out with four rural veterinarians in four days, to glean anecdotes for an article about, well, rural veterinarians. My frugal editor agreed to pay for fuel but not other travel expenses like food and lodging. Luckily for me, last winter I bought a white Ford Ranger with this charmingly ugly utility shell, which transforms the bed of the pickup into a covered storage space. The previous owner had been a roofing contractor, and he had filled the back with power tools. But as I sized up the space, I had a different idea. The bed was the perfect length and width to unfurl a sleeping bag. If I slept in the back of the truck it wouldn’t matter if I couldn’t afford real shelter, because I had a bedroom on wheels.
This vagabond jaunt through West Texas would be no sweat. Paying my dues. Anything for a byline. I set off around the first of August. My truck’s utility shell opens into a toolbox on the driver side, and I had decided the toolbox would be my pantry. I packed it with cans of beans and chili, a box of crackers, a Coleman gas stove with a single burner, one saucepan, a knife, fork, and spoon, a coffee percolator, and a few other odds and ends. “This, that and the other,” as my countrymen say. In the open space of the truck bed were bulkier items like the suitcase, sleeping bag, foam bedroll, fishing pole and folding chair. I brought two hopelessly pretentious books, The Complete Works of Shakespeare and Ulysses by James Joyce, because I’ve found the surest way to finish a difficult book is to have nothing else to read. That’s how — after years of fitful effort — I finally made it through Moby Dick, in the solitude of a snow-swept mountain in Australia.
Toward the end of my first day on the road, I was driving through the hill country scrubland between Brady and Mason when I crossed the San Saba River. The water was low and clear, trickling over rough limestone and cascading into a deeper pool where a handful of young people were taking turns on a rope swing. I parked and fished for a spell with grasshoppers as bait — had one really good bite but couldn’t set the hook — and the first snake I saw was coiled and sunning on a half-submerged rock. Toward dusk I saw two more snakes. No kidding, one of them — thick, gray, very intimidating — was swallowing a littler snake head first. That night, as I slept beside the river bridge, with the doors of my utility shell raised to invite the intermittent breeze, the San Saba’s only other visitors were two men wearing waterproof bibs and L.E.D. headlights on their foreheads. Through the shadows I saw their fishing poles and tackle boxes, and I had intended to lie awake until they returned to their truck, so I could see if they caught anything. It was cold when the sun rose.
From there I drove to the South Llano River State Park, outside of Junction. Escaped the heat of the afternoon in the town’s public library, where I skimmed Buzz Bissinger’s nonfiction book Friday Night Lights and composed a story idea that I later mailed to the editor of the state’s best magazine, Texas Monthly. Here’s my pitch: “If high school football is the state religion of Texas, then I’d like to know more about the congregants in the bleachers. We take for granted our God-given right to be football fanatics, otherwise known as the team faithful. Not even Friday Night Lights, that bible of Texas ball, attempts to explain the psychology behind our zealous, more-than-spectator behavior. But ask the right questions, and revelations abound. Thoughts for psychologists and sociologists: How do we develop such deep, tribal connections with a particular squad; why do fans’ emotions and self-worth rise and fall with the achievements of teenage boys; and if affiliation with a sports team fulfills our need to to be a part of something larger than ourselves, does that mean high school football really is a bona fide religion in Texas?”
I have a feeling he won’t bother to respond. They never do. But a byline in this magazine is one of my life’s goals, so I’ll keep banging my head against the wall — and knocking on his door. My hope is that being a published author will give me some legitimacy, so that magazine editors won’t be as inclined to ignore every story query I float their way. Almost all of my professional writing has appeared in a small newspaper, the Longview News-Journal, which has zero cachet beyond East Texas. As an unwashed redneck I have almost no connections in the world into which I’m striving. I blame this barricade for my lack of success rather than my abilities as a writer, because I’m not prepared to accept that my talents aren’t equal to many more accomplished writers. In fact, I have a pretty high (and unwavering) opinion of myself.
After I had finished working at the library, I floated the river, ate a can of beans and slept on a picnic table in the state park’s primitive camping area, surrounded by junipers (more commonly called cedars). The next day I watched Junction’s veterinarian cut the tails off two lambs. I had been warned that I was in the line of fire, and when the vet cut through the tail’s main vein, blood spurted onto my running shoes. It was a cosmetic surgery, which might help the lambs earn a blue ribbon at livestock shows in the fall. “Basically I do some plastic surgery on his ass,” the vet told me. “It has nothing to do with meat. It’s an eye-appeal thing. But if these kids don’t have it done, they don’t have a chance of competing.”
I broke my own rule that night and ponied up $40 of my own money to sleep in a motel in Fort Stockton, a dismal, dusty town that bills itself as the gateway to Big Bend. The grocery store was teeming with long-haired neohippies who were stocking up on fruits and vegetables for the epic experience that awaited them in the desert. My motel’s nonsmoking room must have been occupied by smokers for the previous eight or so decades. A coating of air-freshener contributed a sickly sweet haze that permeated all of my clothes (I’d made the mistake of lugging my suitcase into the room). For the remainder of the trip, every time I pulled on a “clean” shirt, I could smell that motel room in Fort Stockton.
That gets us through the first half of my journey. The bad news is there’s still plenty more to write — puking in the desert, sleeping in a cotton patch, being asked if I’m a con artist, etc. Since this is just a blog post and not meant to be perfect in every little way, I’m posting what I have written this afternoon with the intent to finish the narrative tomorrow, as long as it will distract me from my primary job, which is to work on the book.
So I’m blogging now. Do people still do that? Write narcissistic, unedited scraps of essay and memoir, baring their naked selves before the anonymous travelers of the ’Net? I’m blogging so I can take an occasional break from the book without locking myself out of the writing process. I need a hobby that keeps the wheels turning, so I won’t miss a beat when it’s time to jump back into the book. Also, I’m blogging because I don’t know if I’m cut out for the solitude of this job. I need an outlet, a substitute for the discussion of ideas, thoughts, observations — the stuff I would normally say to co-workers or companions if I had any. That sounds a little more pathetic and self-pitying than I intend it to. But the truth is, for as long as it takes to write this book (and I’m about halfway through), my days and nights will mostly be spent in seclusion. The book’s regional focus and my intractable poverty compel me to live in my childhood home in the Piney Woods of Northeast Texas, where I act like a character in a Chekhov play, stuck in the provinces and dreaming of Moscow. East Texas is the only place on Earth where I feel halfway at home, but one does long for access to good music, independent theaters, and attractive women.
The gods of social networking say I should reconnect with Greg Thompson. It has been months since anyone has written to him. Facebook wants to give him a nudge, a word or two to draw him back into the fold. The site tells me over and over to reach out. Write on his wall. Send a message. He doesn’t have a profile picture. Can I suggest one?
No, I can’t. We were classmates from the first day of kindergarten, through the second year of junior college, but it has been years since our paths diverged. Though Facebook has transformed the way people stay in touch — with more than 400 million active members, it’s by far the world’s most popular site for online social networking — the website still doesn’t understand that some connections will never be made. It keeps trying to force things that aren’t meant to be.
Facebook prods, and still the Greg Thompson page resists its potential. There are no posts describing what’s for dinner, no thoughts on life’s blessings or its petty aggravations. He hasn’t been tagged in a single photo. And I’ve been forced to keep up with him the old-fashioned way, through small-town gossip:
The word had swirled through our town one weekend in February. As noon approached on that Saturday, at the height of a “Redneck Muddy Gras” party deep in eastern Texas, a group of friends were riding four-wheelers when one of them noticed a tire floating in a pond. As the woman rode closer she realized there were four tires, and they belonged to an overturned ATV. When she looked into the water about six feet from the bank, she thought she saw the crown of a person’s head.
Greg Thompson and I grew up in Texas’ Piney Woods, attending school in a class of around a hundred students. We have known death. A kid who sat at my table during art period shot his girlfriend’s brains out when she tried to steal the money he’d earned from crack cocaine sales. One of the guys who lined up across from me during countless football exercises — who had pummeled me in elementary, junior high and high school — broke into the home of an old invalid he knew, lay a pillow over the sleeping man’s head and bashed it in with a wooden bat. Another teammate strangled the mother of his child during a fight in her front yard.
Those classmates have killed others, but Greg Thompson is our first to die. It is his distinction. Beyond that, what can I tell you about this person I no longer knew? In school, he was shy and quiet and still had plenty of friends. Though he didn’t talk much, he had a way of looking at you and shaking his head, as though to say he could see through all of your phoniness. He’d let it slide, this one time.
After school he went to work in the oilfield, the default industry for men from our area. On Friday, Feb. 12, he was camping with friends at a muddin’ park called Shiloh Ridge, where they were partying for Muddy Gras. According to a local sheriff’s report, when his friends went to sleep around 11:30 or midnight, “Mr. Thompson was aggravated and advised he wasn’t going to bed yet and he was going to stand by the fire.” A couple of hours later, the friends awoke to the roar of Thompson’s Kawasaki leaving camp. He wasn’t seen again till 11:40 a.m. the next day, when a woman who happened to be a nurse from Louisiana noticed the top of his head in a pond beside the trail.
“I yelled to the others I was riding with,” the woman would later write in a police statement. The group stopped and pulled the man onto the bank. “He was rigid cold and completely pale without color except the very top of his head from the bridge of his nose upwards.”
Though he showed no signs of life, the nurse tried to resuscitate him. On the second set of compressions, muddy water spilled from his lungs. A sheriff’s deputy arrived a couple of hours later. He could find no sign of injury, and the best he could figure, Greg Thompson had flipped his ATV into the water and drowned.
I had bumped into him a few weeks earlier. Around the time of his thirtieth birthday, he came by my brother’s shop to have some work done to his car. We talked for a minute, and he didn’t say a word about dying.
When Facebook tells me to reconnect with him, I can’t help but think about his final moments at the bottom of that pond. It is horrifying to contemplate. I imagine the terror and panic as he thrashed to free himself from the four-wheeler; the instant when his need to breathe trumped everything else and he gasped for air, only to inhale muddy water. He tried to cough it up, thus inhaling more, and he probably choked for several minutes — minutes, not seconds — before losing enough oxygen that he slipped into unconsciousness. After that, more than half an hour could have passed before he died.
Poor Greg Thompson. It is horrifying to contemplate so much suffering, so much agony in one anonymous death.
I must have known him since kindergarten, although I really can’t remember. When children are that young, they become friends without noticing. They bond through shared experience, building a sandcastle or smashing one, catching bugs, exploring a playground, whatever.
Those little friendships can last for years, or they can be as fleeting as an afternoon at the park.
When I was very young I spent a lot of time thinking about temporary friends and saying goodbye, especially on summer vacations or during visits to other towns. In my mind, each kid’s life was represented by a red line that occupied the same dark plane. When our paths crossed, the lines would intersect and then shoot away. But even as our lives carried us farther from each other, we maintained a connection at the node where we had met.
Viewed from above, the crisscrossing lines from so many encounters resembled a giant web. I wondered who the other kids would meet and whether two friends of mine would ever connect elsewhere, someday realizing they shared a common link through me. I asked a kid at a campground in Texas if he knew the kid who’d helped me dig a hole in the beach the previous summer. If I met a kid from Oklahoma, I asked if he knew my cousins from Oklahoma.
Nobody knew each other, and I forgot about my web of lines till just now. If I were growing up today, maybe I wouldn’t see the lines at all but rather a Facebook-style digital network. Now that I’m older, Facebook is my principal tie to friends and acquaintances from the various periods of my life. Eventually, of course, we’ll all be dead.
When a person dies, Facebook does allow profiles to be “memorialized” so they won’t appear in friend suggestions and status updates. To memorialize a profile, friends or family must fill out a form and provide a link to an obituary or show other proof of death.
The etiquette for survivors is still open for debate. On a Facebook discussion board last year, a young guy in Japan wrote about the dilemma after one of his classmates died suddenly at the age of 22.
“First of all we are in doubt whether to remove her as a friend,” he wrote. “It seems too cold to remove her right away, but too Morbid to have a dead person as your friend. We sort of decided that we remove after her funeral, this marking some sort of ending. … One more thing is that one person wrote on that person wall, sort of a ‘nice knowing you’ post. People are divided over whether its a sick or nice gesture.”
Facebook, the guy wrote, is like a virtual grave. “However, this has a big problem. If you still want to be able to see their full profile you have to keep them as your friend, which is just bad style.”
Most of the time I ignore Facebook when it tells me to recommend a photo for Greg Thompson. I click on his link sometimes, though, and I visit his page. Since he doesn’t have a picture, he appears as the hollow, white silhouette with a cowlick and narrow shoulders.
It seems as though he’s watching me through a blue window. If I want, I can suggest friends for Greg, send Greg a message or poke Greg.
No one has written on his wall since Feb. 17, when a fellow classmate said, “RIP dear friend, you will be very missed by many.”
He will be missed, but he lives in Facebook. He is 30 years old. Next year he’ll be 31.
I paddled the Neches the other afternoon to compare it to my own favorite river, the Sabine. Read the story in the July edition of County Line Magazine.