Day to blast off in my little Ford to my hometown, Stamford, Texas. I hadn’t visited it in nine years, since a fifty-year class reunion in 2007. This trip was what I called my “Roots” book tour. I had scheduled a reading at Noteworthy, a bookstore on the town square.
Ready to Ieave early that morning, I glanced at the microwave clock: 6:12. Hmm. Wasn’t 6-12 what we used to spray on ourselves when we went down to the river on Sundays?
I laughed in the connection between protection from stings and my travels into an area I might find less friendly. I had heard murmurs of opposition to parts of my book from family friends in Stamford. One man had told me: “Your family meant so much to me, Martha. I found your book very sad. I doubt I can come to your reading.”
What? I really didn’t understand. I interpreted that as a hint of betrayal. Mine. Of a family venerated in the community.
That was not what I meant. Was my 6:12 departure from a safe haven a warning sign?
“Courage” I told myself as I rolled out into the pale dawn light and was on my way.
The first event occurred at 8:03. At least that was the time indicated on the State of New Mexico Uniform Traffic Citation. Coming out of the mountains just north of Las Vegas, I had felt very sleepy. I might have pulled over for a short nap, but seeing a straight shot of highway on level ground, I decided to press on. Unfortunately, my right foot pressed on a bit too much—and I saw red lights flashing behind me. Oh brother. Not two hours out on a ten-hour trip and I was already in trouble.
I pulled over. I wasn’t sleepy anymore. Officer Conner Russell had cured me of that. I wondered if I were his first victim. That well-scrubbed youthful countenance peering into my window, greeting me brightly, had to belong to someone fresh out of the law enforcement academy.
“Do you know why I stopped you?” he inquired, staring at me intensely.
I felt like someone caught with a bloody knife standing over a dead body. I didn’t answer him because I was thinking, Wonderful. Here in New Mexico we have stalwart young officers protecting the citizenry from sleepy old ladies, trying to pick up some time on a fine road in full light and no traffic.
“You were going 70 in a 60-mile zone,” he said and collected my license and insurance card and returned to his vehicle. He came back soon to deliver his paper work. I was grateful for his choice to give me only a warning.
Another warning. For the rest of the trip I was diligent about setting cruise control on the speed limit and keeping my foot off the gas. Should I be going on this Roots tour after all?
The next event took place in late afternoon, in Levelland, a seemingly prosperous town surrounded with flat plains populated with pump jacks. They looked a bit like metal grasshoppers sucking petroleum from the oil-rich fields.
As I drove through Levelland, suddenly a strong hot wind brought a rock rocketing into my windshield. The impact was much louder than a “ping” and it left a star on the lower left hand side. Then the star became a shooting star, the crack zigzagging across the driver’s side of the glass. Significant damage.
I should have been cautious about Levelland. I had had trouble with a piece of level land north of Las Vegas, where Officer Russell presided.
Now my clear vision was impaired by the cracked windshield. Did this mean something? Was I truly thinking clearly in my decision to go back to my hometown?
I soldiered on, the engine humming gently as I motored beside planted fields and watched farmers driving heavy machinery. I was surprised that each one of these little towns in west Texas had a sign with an arrow pointing to its cemetery. I was used to advisories about locations of hospitals but not of cemeteries. Did that mean anything?
Then the terrain became gnarly, not nearly so flat, covered with bushes, arroyos threading through. I was getting close to my home country.
The final checkpoint before Stamford was Aspermont. I had heard that one of my high school classmates, Darryl Schoonmaker, lived there now. He had suffered two strokes and needed residence at a nursing home.
As I buzzed into town, I saw a sign for the Gibson Care Center. Whoops, I bet that’s where Darryl lives. How many nursing facilities could there be in a small west Texas town?
So I doubled back and parked near the large, brick ranch-style building. Under the portico a fellow was sitting in a wheel chair. As I approached he looked interested in my arrival. He looked as if he knew me.
He wore a baseball cap and gold-tinted sun glasses. He had a little pot belly which filled out his gingham short-sleeved shirt. He didn’t look like Darryl but fifty-five years had passed since I had seen him.
I peered into his face and stretched out my hand. “Darryl?”
He smiled and nodded.
“Do you know me?” I continued. “Someone you used to know a long time ago?”
He grinned and shook his head.
“Darryl, I’m Martha.”
He looked incredulous, but very delighted.
“Martha,” he drawled. “Well, I’ll be…”
I explained what had brought me to Texas. He took it all in. I asked him about his brother.
“Oh, Jake died here a while back. So did his wife.”
Darryl’s brother’s name was not Jake, but maybe he used a nickname. I expressed my sympathy.
“I can’t believe you’re just sitting out on this porch, Darryl, the very person I came to see.”
He looked pleased. “You’re just as purty as you ever was, “ he said.
I told him I’d written a book. It had a lot of Stamford in it.
“Well,” he said, pointing to his yellow lens, “I don’t see hardly nothin’ these days. You’ll have to read it to me.”
“Maybe I could do that on my way back, in three or four days,” I said. Then I excused myself to go inside to the bathroom.
The lobby hummed with activity: folks in wheelchairs and nurses at their circular station. I stopped there to inquire about a restroom and something prompted me to get more information on Darryl.
“You see that fellow on the porch?” I asked. “Darryl?”
The two nurses looked puzzled. “You mean the fellow with the cap sitting outside?”
“Oh no, that’s not Darryl,” one nurse said. “I just came from his room. He’s right down the hall. The man out yonder? That’s Mr. Craft.”
Well, I had to hand it to Mr. Craft. He wasn’t Darryl but he had a vivid imagination. We must have talked twenty minutes, all about our dating briefly in high school. He even mentioned where we had gone on our dates.
I proceeded to a room down the hall and met the real Darryl and his loyal wife Mickey. Darryl could barely speak and the conversation was only between us women. After a few minutes, I asked if I could give him a hug and a kiss. Permission granted, I did just that, then headed for the front door.
Mr. Craft was still on the porch. “You’ll come back to see me in a few days?”
I explained that it might be hard for me to stop, I wouldn’t have much time, and with a handshake of goodbye, I left both Darryls behind.
On the road again I mused about the mistaken identity. Was this trip a mistake? Thirty minutes later, I was rolling into Stamford.
It was only five o’clock. There was the Deluxe Inn, one of two motels in Stamford, where I had a reservation, but I didn’t stop. I had been on the road for ten hours but I didn’t want to stop. I had come home and needed to see what was there.
I first drove to the town square and noticed its differences from my description of it in the book. I also noticed that the color of the post office brick was not red. Those bricks were beige. How could I not have remembered that? A mistake like that was unsettling.
The trip around the square just whetted my appetite. I needed to see the library, and down the road there it was, the Stamford Carnegie Library. At least it looked the same. I drove down the hill to the highway and turned east to go to the Country Club. Would I remember how to get there? Oh yes, and there were cars in the parking lot. I went around to the back where the swimming pool and the bar were. Dad had helped raise money for the pool. I had been a life guard there.
A couple of fellows were in the bar, and I had a question to ask. Not only was I in Stamford to read from the book. I was going to the rodeo and the western art show. I asked the bar flies, “How do I get to the rodeo grounds? I know they’re west and south of town, somewhere out there, but I’ve forgotten exactly where.”
They told me exactly and I soon found myself on the grounds of what had once been the largest amateur rodeo in the world. There was the pavilion, where the art show and party were held. The Art Foundation had been established by my father in the mid-seventies and forty years later it was still going strong. But at the moment it was locked up.
I walked over to see the big sand-filled rodeo arena and the grandstands, which I remembered as packed. Overflowing, like the grand entry with hundreds of horses and riders, jostling one another. I remembered the whinnies, the loud band music. Now the arena was empty. There was no sound or color at all. The opening was the following night.
I left the deserted grounds but I was close to something else of interest: the water tower. It was so high I couldn’t miss it. Now there were two towers. And where was the ladder? How in the world did those two boys and I ever make it to the top in our ill-fated attempt to paint “Class of ‘57” on it?
Then I tried to find the Stamford Clinic, where Dad had spent his professional life. I learned later it had been razed years ago. I couldn’t locate the house where Bobby Young grew up either. Bobby had joined me in climbing the water tower and I had fallen in love with him soon after.
I drove through other residential areas that evening and folks outside their homes always waved to me. It was the custom in this small town. I used to do it myself. That was the only thing that felt familiar. I was astonished to see many houses left derelict and abandoned. I knew that Stamford had suffered from the poor economy. I was seeing the effect.
It was close to seven o’clock when I finally ended up at the Deluxe Inn. It turned out to be a perfect sanctuary for me during my stay. It had a swamp cooler to chill the air and a king-sized bed that was as soft as clouds.
The nearby restaurant was closed that evening so I settled for Mi Familia, a Tex-Mex place nearby, and a tostada and cold Dos Equis in a huge frosted mug.
I wasn’t done with the day though. I wanted to go to the Stamford Cemetery where my father and his parents are buried. It was a perfect place to be as the day was dying, but I still had to find the graves. I had been there to bring Dad’s ashes to rest between his mom and dad, but couldn’t remember where they were. It’s a huge cemetery. I noticed a small building right in the middle and found it open. There was a black notebook there with an alphabetical listing of all those buried there. The location was recorded in a code that wasn’t clear at first, but I finally figured it out and after lots of walking and bumping into graves of folks familiar to me, at last I found the three metal markers. As the sun set, I stood paying honor to my dad and grandparents, being with them in the only way still possible.
The next day I called folks who were expecting me. I wanted to remind them of the reading scheduled for the next day. I also made some visits. Bland Harrison is 95, and he’d told me not to expect him at the reading. He was the second person who had told me what a sad book I had written. “I just can’t come, Martha. I am a very traditional person.” Although I didn’t understand how that explained his staying away, I said I understood.
I visited the home of Tony Selmon too. We always referred to Tony as Dad’s youngest partner in the Stamford Clinic. He was now 99 years old, stooped with osteoporosis, using a walker, but still looking dapper in his crisp sports shirt.
I went by the Stamford Inn, once owned by Daddy and operated as a nursing home. I had driven by it the evening before, and been alarmed by what I saw: the wind was blowing the front door open and closed. Entering the next day, I noticed all the window glass had been knocked out. The floor was littered with broken glass and debris. The place looked as if it had been bombed. It was eerie. I didn’t stay long. I was afraid something would come crashing down on me or that I would fall through the floor.
I met with the owner of the bookstore where my reading was scheduled. Unfortunately, Noteworthy wasn’t merely a book shop. It was crammed with all sorts of gift items: needlepoint pillows, china cups and saucers, jewelry, you name it. But it was the only book store in town.
The high point of my stops around town was a visit to the Cowboy Country Museum on the east side of the square. Dad had founded that too, and it had grown immensely. From one room to eight, all crammed with historical items donated over the years. A chuck wagon dominated one of the rooms, along with a wood tub washer with roller/wringer dated 1899 and wedding dresses from that time. All kinds of football memorabilia too from the Bulldogs’ supremacy in Texas high school sports history. I even found a photo of me in a pop music singing group. The glory days for Stamford clearly were in the past, not the present.
At the art show and party that night another picture impressed me. Behind the desk at the entrance was a framed portrait of my father, wearing his familiar Greek fishing cap. He was still remembered as its founder.
When I got back to the motel after the full day of events, I realized I had lost an earring. I made some calls to places I’d been, but nothing was reported. I have a thing about losing an earring. It seems like an indication that I am not listening enough, or hearing properly. This particular earring was special to me. I hoped it wasn’t lost.
The following day I had waited for a long time: my reading at Noteworthy. I was hoping for a decent turnout. At least I knew one person was coming: Barbara Davis Washburn. She was driving over from her home in Abilene, 38 miles away. We had a date to have lunch before the reading scheduled for the early afternoon.
I had never been close friends with Barbara. She was the cousin or sister of many of the outstanding football players and high school leaders but we’d never been good friends. That changed. She and I had a ball together. At the Blue Jean Café the wait person took our photo together with a photo-shopped picture on the wall of Marilyn, Elvis, Jimmy Dean, and Humphrey Bogart, all together at the bar.
As it turned out, Barbara was one of eight at the reading. At first I wondered if we would be the only two there besides the Noteworthy staff, but soon four more trickled in, half of whom had already read the book. I read the sections that pertained to Stamford. Everyone listened in rapt attention. I even sold some copies.
The low turnout surprised me. If a classmate of mine had driven ten hours to deliver a reading, I would have showed up. These people had many reasons for staying away which had little to do with the book: the heat, poor health, or family visitors during rodeo time. They had lives of their own, which might not have included any books at all. But I was still disappointed. The classmate who now lived in my old house had actually left town that morning on family business.
After the reading was the rodeo parade. Barbara had headed home, but I soldiered on through the heat, finding a place on the square to view what turned out to be not much of a spectacle at all. No band. A few horses and floats, some old cars. Folks hadn’t come out for that either.
The rodeo that night delivered much more. I was invited to join a high school friend in the No. 1 box, located right by the stalls where the bucking bulls and broncs came out, mounted by all kinds of good-looking, long-legged cowboys from all over. Our seats were close enough to overhear their conversations. My friend had been a sponsor in 1957, and had ridden the barrels. It was fun to view the rodeo with someone who had some history with the events.
The next day turned out to be my last in Stamford, and for the closing of my time there, I had planned a reunion with Ralph, one of my dearest friends from high school days. He had been one of the boys with whom I’d climbed the water tower. He lived with his wife in Clyde, 40 miles away. He’d consented to drive over with Judith to the motel for a visit.
Ralph wasn’t in the best of health. He had had lung cancer which was in remission but his health was fragile at best, although he looked wonderful, so trim in his white sports shirt and jeans. His hair was gray and thin—but still there. Seating was limited in the motel room. There was only one chair, a straight-back, and we gave that to Ralph. Judith sat on a bedside table with a pillow as cushion, and I sat on the bed.
I don’t even remember our conversation. It was unremarkable at best. Little snippets of things we knew about our classmates, short anecdotes of notable happenings to us in the decades since we’d seen one another. But to be there, together, enjoying one another’s presence, was everything. We didn’t have to say a thing. When time came for them to go, Ralph and I hugged each other, said “I love you,” and vowed to get together before too long. It was a precious time for me. Most things were different about Stamford. This wasn’t.
After they left, I headed out too. It was time to go back. But before I left, I wanted to make one more visit to the cemetery. It seemed appropriate to book-end my visit in such a way. Plus, I wanted to find another grave, Bobby Young’s. He had died in the late sixties in a plane crash. I had been told by a mutual friend that it would not be hard to find.
It wasn’t. I consulted the log of occupants at the cemetery. I went right to his gravesite. It turned out to be only fifty-five yards or so from my dad’s grave. Death brings us all together.
On the way home, I had time to reflect on the trip’s surprises: how different the town was, how faulty my memory, the disconnect between expectations and reality, how weird the visit had been. Yet I still came away with this thought: some things change but other things don’t. I had become myself of fifty years ago. I fell right back into a southern accent and into the langor of life in a small hot Texas town. The easy friendliness of everyone. In all the meals I ate out, I never saw a table in which people were on their cell phones. I hardly ever even saw a cell phone. Families were together, children and adults laughing, joking, and enjoying one another.
Were any of the warnings I imagined about this trip based on reality? My cracked window only meant that what I expected was not what I found. I had nothing to fear in Stamford, Texas. Even people there who didn’t approve of the book completely welcomed me with love. Folks hadn’t said much about the book. Whatever they thought, if they thought anything at all, I might never know. My book was still true and I was proud of it.
Did that lost earring mean anything?
When I got home to Taos, there was a message waiting for me. Bland had my earring. Three grandsons visiting, young enough to play on the floor, had found it. Their mother happened to be a silversmith. She could solder the broken post back on the earring, and would send it to me in the mail. Another happy ending.
I had not made the trip alone. I had traveled with the past and my memories. I had been able to experience my dad’s legacy in action, after all these years. I had connected with people who knew me only as a girl. I had felt the love and friendship of folks both dead and alive.
Notwithstanding the low attendance at the reading, the trip had been about my book, a record of my past. Growing up, I had not been an author but I was one now. On some level I wanted to honor the book and the people of Stamford by bringing them together. I wonder if deep down I hoped for a reconciliation with those folks who had been disappointed by the book. Did that happen? I doubt it, but now that idea seems irrelevant. The book simply didn’t matter. The love remained.
Although I had called my trip my “Roots” tour, I had never expected it to be so much about my roots. mmHHGHH