Category Archives: Blog

Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine

cypress stump

The Sabine River’s namesake, a cypress stump. Photograph by Jacob Croft Botter

Check out my first book, Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, at www.sabineriverbook.com or Amazon.com. Praise for the book:

“The Sabine River has been like an artery to my heart for many years, and I felt I knew it, but Wes Ferguson’s new book, which compares favorably to John Graves’s Goodbye to a River, is a shining example of travelogue, history, and a fine piece of Americana, and it taught me I know far less about the Sabine than I thought. I adored this book. It’s a good clean picture of a long, brown snake of a river. I heartily recommend it.” — Joe R. Lansdale, author, The Thicket

“Anybody can love a lovely river, but to love the muddy, sluggish, dangerous, corrupted Sabine you have to first understand it. In this highly engaging tribute to an underdog river, Wes Ferguson proves that the places we might not think merit a second glance are the very places that reward our attention the most.” — Stephen Harrigan, author, The Eye of the Mammoth

Fresh pizza and old teachers

The Friday before our book came out, Jake and I met up with our friends Richard and Danea for dinner at Pizza King in Longview.

Pizza King is a ’50s-style, mom-and-pop diner that holds a tight grip on the hearts of many people who grew up in the area. You step inside, and it’s like you’re a kid again: the smiling cartoon logo dude, the wholesome red and white interior, the epic wait before you can stuff your faces with hot, delicious pepperoni, cheese and crust.

(To give you an idea of this place’s pull, when I thanked my buddy Todd for driving four hours from Austin to attend our book launch on Aug. 3, he just shrugged and said, “Well, it’s an excuse to eat at Pizza King.”)

So there we were, sitting in our booth, sharing a King’s Delight and riding the nostalgia vibes, when Jake asked a simple question: who was the first teacher who inspired us to pursue the path we ended up taking?

I realized then that I had not thought about my teachers in years. They had all been overshadowed by my newspaper adviser at Kilgore College, whom I owe for everything. But as I pondered Jake’s question, a long-forgotten name popped into my head.

In high school in the mid-’90s, I was a weird kid masquerading as a normal one. I played football, rode four-wheelers and worked in the oilfield to keep gasoline in my Chevy Silverado. I reckoned someday I would take a full-time job in the petroleum industry, like real men do.

English was by far the most boring subject in school. We trudged through never-ending grammar worksheets, and the way I remember it, most of the writing assignments involved formulas designed to pass standardized tests. As a younger child, I had written a lot of short stories and comics, and my teachers in elementary and junior high school had nurtured my interest in reading and writing. By high school, however, I had completely submerged that side of myself.

Then I met Mrs. Kerby, our junior English teacher. Mrs. Kerby’s enthusiasm was contagious. We spent the beginning of each period writing in a journal that no one else would ever read, let alone grade or judge, and I warmed to this newfound opportunity for creative freedom. When she assigned a “descriptive writing” essay, for example, I turned in an outlandish story filled with over-the-top and grotesque misfits. One of the characters was obviously based on my teacher.

My story deviated significantly from the prompt, but Mrs. Kerby didn’t scold me or give me a bad grade. Instead, she delighted in my quirky vision. With her encouragement, over the course of my junior year, I gained the confidence to consider myself a writer. (She also made us read The Scarlet Letter, but hey, no one said this is a perfect world).

As I contemplated my education, other great teachers came to mind. I was also reminded of an assignment in my third-grade class, when I first learned the power of the written word. Mrs. Wilson asked every student to write a paper explaining how to make a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich, and when we came back from recess, she had made everyone a snack according to our specifications. My friend Emmett Shankle III ended his paper with the directive to “Eat up!” Instead of a sandwich on his desk, he now found a napkin sprinkled with bread crumbs. Oh no! Someone had followed his instructions too closely! There was a moment of panic. Would Emmett not get a sandwich? Then Mrs. Wilson retrieved another PB&J from her desk, and we all laughed with relief.

Many years later, on a Friday night at Pizza King, my friends offered variations of the same answer to Jake’s question. We each had teachers who fostered our talents, nurtured our interests and sent us on a path to becoming an artist, photographer, microbiologist or writer. These people played an essential role in shaping our lives, and I hope their contributions will not fade from memory so easily this time.

The pizza, well, it was as good as we remembered.

Fake gambling hits real jackpot in Texas town

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.

Read the complete story at the Hays Free Press’ website.

SXSW, fighting rednecks, and formulaic stories

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.” Continue reading

Writing fireworks

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.

Postpartum remorse

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.

Lipnik’s advice for writers

“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

An intrusion at the Battle of Sabine Pass

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.

“Oh yeah.”

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.

“Yep.”

“Nice.”

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.