Wanderer Springs: A Novelby Robert Flynn
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Wanderer Springs is a dying town in Northwest Texas, one of that string of dusty towns left to wither away when the highway from Fort Worth to Amarillo bypassed them. For travelers on that highway, the harsh and unforgiving countryside passes as no more than a blur. For Will Callaghan, that country and the town of Wanderer Springs are carved into memory, indelible in their clarity.
Called home from San Antonio by a funeral, Will begins a journey, both physical and imaginative, that crosses not only geographic and cultural boundaries but darts back and forth in time, mixing stories of the town's frontier past with episodes of Will's high school days. In sometimes hilarious and sometimes painful detail, Will relives the football game where he dropped the pass that lost the championship for Wanderer Springs forever, the time he got his gum stuck in his girlfriend's hair, the strangely distant but close relationship of a motherless boy and his taciturn father. Equally clear are the tales from the past--the Turrill family's desperate wagon ride to find a doctor for their daughter, dying of appendicitus, or Lulu Byars who danced and danced in town and caught pneumonia riding back to her dugout in a norther. Wanderer Springs said she died of frivolity.
Through it all, the clear voice of Will Callaghan, a good old boy grown into an intellectual, gives meaning to the chaos, seeks sense out of the past, recognizes our inextricable link to the past.
Wanderer Springs is a wonderfully witty, sensitive novel that will stand out as one of the more serious, thoughtful, and memorable novels to come out of recent Texas writing.
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By Robert Flynn
TCU PressCopyright © 1987 Robert Flynn
All rights reserved.
where history runs as deep as the river
Going back was a mistake but it was one of those mistakes I had to make. Not to go back would have been bigger than a mistake, it would have been a sin. A mistake is something you do to yourself, like shooting yourself in the foot. A sin is something you do to others, like forgetting a friend. Like not going back for Jessie Tooley's funeral. Wanderer Springs taught me that.
That was one of the quaint values the Institute wanted me to write about. I was writing booklets about the Germans in Texas, the Wends in Texas, the Poles, the Chinese, so that schoolchildren named Hinojosa or Drieschner or Chinn could read about their heritage and know that they were the descendants of Abraham and Moses Austin, Luther and Carry Nation, George Washington and Samuel Colt. I outlined Texas history for them—the longhorn, the fence, the plow, the railroad, the windmill, the oil field, the highway, and the military installation.
"Write about Wanderer Springs," the director said. The Director of the Texas Institute for Cultural Research is from Chicago. He is also young and a member of a minority—those being unwritten requirements to give him a broad perspective on Texas. By its own rules the Director of the Institute cannot be from Texas, the South, or Southwest. Something about "political disinterest." Every effort was made to assure that the director's opinions were not colored by experience. In terms of political disinterest, a black ghetto in Chicago was considered somewhere east of Pennsylvania.
I am the token Texan at the Institute, my fifty years in Texas treated with amusement and awe. I am everything a black from a Chicago ghetto could expect a Texan to be. I am tall, lanky, talk with a drawl, and say ma'am. I have ridden horses, herded cattle, played football, and owned guns. I am a walking exhibit of Texas culture, brought out to demonstrate authenticity to natives who view Dr. Roosevelt Hopkins with suspicion. "This is Will Callaghan, the third," the director says. "A real Texan. His grandfather, uncle, and mother were all shot in gunfights." A benchmark of Texan machismo.
Roo, as the director likes intimates to call him, saw more stabbings, shootings, and beatings before he was eight than I have seen in a lifetime. But those were family, gang, and barroom fights with not a corral or showdown in sight. They were sudden, senseless, bloody killings, and guns were associated with crimes and cowardice, not heroism and romance. He imagined shootings in Texas were different.
With wise men from the East bearing grants, I portray a different kind of Texan. "This is Will Callaghan," the director says. "His grandfather was an Irish immigrant who came to Texas to build the railroad. His grandmother was from Vermont. Will spent most of his life in a small Texas town. How small was it, Will?"
"Wanderer Springs was so small there was only one Baptist Church. It was so small you had to go to Center Point to have a coincidence."
"Tell them about love in a small town."
"The only great lover we had was Bud Tabor." I remembered to drawl. "Bud was a married man, and Sherry McElroy's father shot him through Box 287. Ed McElroy was the postmaster and when Bud came in to get his mail, Ed stuck a pistol in the open end of the box and shot Bud in the eye. Ed was a conscientious man and he waited until Bud opened the box and looked inside so as not to deface government property.
"They never found Bud Tabor's eye; buried him without it. They fixed him up with a glass eye for the funeral, but afterwards Sherry and Bud's wife got in an argument over who got to keep it for a souvenir. Sherry won. She put it on a chain and wore it hanging down between her breasts. Folks used to say Bud may have gone to hell, but his eye went to heaven. Some folks' idea of heaven is mighty small." That's a Wanderer Springs joke.
"Were you a great lover, Will?" Roo is black, short, and cheerful enough for a "black is cheerful" poster. He loves playing straight man.
"The only time I came close, I was nuzzling Roma Dean Tooley's ear and I lost my chewing gum in her hair. It was Fleers bubble gum and it still had some of the sweet in it. I spent the next hour and forty-five minutes alternating between kissing her eyes and frisking her scalp, and holding my hands over her eyes while chewing her hair. Her mother called her three times before my jaws came unstuck.
"The only sex education we had in my day was Delmer Lance's pet heifer, Snuggles. Snuggles was raised on a bottle and was as friendly as you'd want a heifer to be. Until Delmer locked her in the barn with Earl's range bull. The next morning Snuggles was gone. Also the barn door. The top rail off the fence.
"Delmer chased the cow all over the county but Snuggles went wild as a new rope. One night Delmer was driving down the highway and ran over Snuggles. Delmer said he recognized her when she passed over the windshield by the puzzled look on her face. I spent half my life thinking I could recognize a bad girl by the puzzled look on her face."
I didn't mind playing Texas bumpkin. I have always been good at roles. I played "victory-or-death" Travis on the football field that was our Alamo. Like Bonham, who had returned to the Alamo knowing it was doomed, I had escaped Wanderer Springs and then returned there to teach school, out of loyalty. Or friendship. Or maybe to exact the retribution I thought Iwanted to escape. Once I was back in Wanderer Springs, like Fannin, I vacillated between being a hero and a fool. It isn't easy to measure up in Texas.
Finally, I followed Deaf Smith to San Antonio de Bexar playing John Wayne playing David Crockett playing Coonskin Davy. We all have our skinning and grinning to do. The grant money made it possible for me to live in San Antonio and to send my children to the university, and it permitted the Institute to produce books and information for public schools and libraries in Texas, and for national and governmental demographics and social research.
I liked the job. It was similar to teaching but without the fawning on superiors; similar to writing the column of county history for the Center Point paper, but without the truckling to important people. And I believed I was helping the young people of Texas to understand the forces in their lives. But when Roo said, "Write about Wanderer Springs so that kids today will know what growing up in a small town was like," I balked. Texas is one of the most urban states in the union, but no one knows it yet. Certainly Texans don't. Even those living in Dallas and Houston think they're cowboys. They may have sold their saddles, but they're hanging on to their boots and guns. And every one of them takes the freeway in pursuit of the riches and pleasure at the end of the trail, believing that nothing can stop a salesman who keeps on coming, and that a contract nails coonskin to the wall.
Wanderer Springs goes back only three, at most four, generations. No one important lived there, nothing of importance transpired nearby, and the town was powerless to influence the times, even to shape its own destiny. Its history could be written in one sentence—born beside the railroad track, died beside the Interstate.
The new interstate highway bypassed the town, cutting it off from its last lifeline, turning it into an asphalt-age ghost town. There are still buildings there and a business—The Wanderer's
Rest—which houses most of the people of the town, the old and infirm, most of them strangers to each other and to the town. They sit under shade trees or walk down streets they never knew, past houses they never visited, where rusting stop signs still guard once-dangerous crossings. Delivered to Wanderer Springs to die.
As a community, as a place where people live rather than die, Wanderer Springs is defunct, although its name still appears on county maps and although the cemetery continues to grow in Ira Ferguson's wheat field. But we were not the kind of Texans Roo was looking for—the Texans of legend and song who died at the Alamo, drove cattle to Kansas, fought Indians, and killed each other in gun duels. We were not oil barons or cattle kings. We were the kind of Texans who were on our way to someplace else and who for some reason got stuck in Texas and who for some reason breathed the Texas myth.
Roo had no understanding of rural Texas. Sometimes he imagined it as a modern Eden where we went skinny-dipping in sky-clear water, lounged in glades, frolicked in the grass.
I explained. "The reason you go skinny-dipping is because the only water is in dirt tanks and holes in creeks and it is red with mud and stains your clothes. The grass is about as inviting as bob wire. Haven't you ever heard of cactus, mesquite, grassburs, cockleburs, goatheads, bull nettle, or chiggers? And when it comes to glades a cow will get ahead of you every time. That's what makes the grass so green."
On the other hand, Roo believed Wanderer Springs was a Saharan wasteland with miles of nothing but sand and barbed wire fences. I suppose I was responsible for both misconceptions. It was the land of the mirage, the land of false hope, heartbreak, disillusion. The country was rich enough to draw those hungry for land, eager for isolated exemption, desperate for another chance, ripe for dreams. The railroad lured settlers and left a string of little towns it had platted, sold, and then abandoned.
The land was good enough to hold those who believed in hard work and predestination, but it was not fertile enough to reward them with more than sustenance for a lifetime of toil. Those who prospered were those who were rewarded for the work of others, like Otis Hopkins who shot his Aunt Velma, Dr. Heslar who discovered a gold mine in the infirmity of the old, and Ira Ferguson who was bound by loyalty to nothing but profit. Nevertheless, those who left the land were regarded as deserters, unable or unwilling to bear the burden of belonging.
It was not an ugly land, but it was plain, its best features of the utilitarian kind like a new cottonsack or gooseneck hoe. And like a cottonsack or hoe, the joy of it was quickly forgotten.
The country alternated between flood and drought. "The average rainfall is twenty inches," I told Roo. "But I've never seen an average year." It was a Wanderer Springs joke. In times of drought the wells went dry, cattle died, crops withered in the fields. In times of flood, the rivers washed away crops, soil, houses, bridges, roads, and livestock. The record high for the county was 120 degrees; the record low was twenty below zero.
One year Red River froze so solid it could be crossed by wagon. One year it was so dry the ground cracked open and swallowed Delmer Lance's chickens. One year the grasshoppers ate the crops so that the only thing the farmers had to eat was eggs. Dad said the hens ate so many grasshoppers the eggs had blood in them.
Every year high winds damaged crops and rooftops. Before the farmhouse was built a high wind blew away all the bedding that Grandmother had brought out of the dugout to air. She chased it across the prairie but what she recovered was so full of prickly pear it had to be burned. One year a high wind grounded a French air show and turned Otis Hopkins into a conscientious objector.
Roo, who remembered the noise, smells, and teeming humanity of the ghetto, found San Antonio about as isolated ashe wanted to get. He shuddered at the spaces and "the awful silence of the plains," which he imagined as some post-holocaust still. The plains were never silent. The first sound a child heard was the wind outside the door. The wind whispered, whistled, shrilled, and howled. Insects droned, cattle lowed, dogs barked, passing their messages of alarm across the countryside, farm machinery clanked and roared. The first thing a child saw beyond his mother's face was the sky extending to the horizon. His first step was into the limitless land.
The terrible silence folks talked of was the absence of human sounds: laughing together, telling stories, making plans, expressing feelings and ideas. On the plains silence was not golden, silence was death. To withhold speech, to refuse to share feelings and plans was a fearful punishment, a powerful weapon, the only weapon some had.
When the Rural Electric Association brought electricity to the county, the first thing most folks bought was a radio. Avidly they listened to the weather, the market prices for cotton and slaughter hogs. The news elicited nothing but complaints but there was magic in the human voice, and some men and women talked more to the radio than to each other.
Roo paled at the emptiness of our lives. There was no television and for most no radio until after World War II, but our lives were not as barren as Roo imagined. Families worked together. Grandmother, who had been a school teacher in Vermont, taught Irish songs to Dad and Uncle Emmett as they worked in the fields and taught them the alphabet and multiplication tables by coal oil lamp when the work was done. There were no schools for blacks but Zollie Cox taught all her children the Bible and to read and write as she worked beside them in the field.
Folks got together for a dance played by Ferguson the Fiddler, who wasn't much of a farmer. He was long, gaunt, with a sad face, and all he liked to do was play his fiddle at dances, get drunk, and shoot at dogs that gathered to howl. Until Joe Whatley bit off his thumb. After that he wasn't much of a fiddler.
Folks got together for the Mollie Bailey show or Sister Druscilla Majors's camp meeting. They went on picnics at Turtle Hole or Medicine Hill. They got together to worship, led by Brother Malcolm Murdock who had a voice that could be heard in Sand.
And they talked. At the gin, the barber shop, the grocery store. The men sat on the high curb in front of The Corner Drug and the women sat in cars between the depot and the Live and Let Live Grocery Store so they could watch the train come in, and see what farm wives were buying. They talked of their friends and enemies, polishing rumor into myth.
But the most exciting thing they talked about was DOOM. It was going to hail, or blow, or rain the bottom out. Or Otis Hopkins was going to foreclose. People loved the talk of doom and every successful preacher and politician knew it. Chris Arp built his newspaper around it, scoring his first triumphs by successfully predicting a yellow fever epidemic and a lynching. If the grasshoppers didn't get us, then the integration, or the Day of Judgment would. If we had been there at Wink Bailey's Big Pile Up probably half the town would have believed along with Wink that the end had come.
Some like Buster Bryant and Clifford Huff found fulfillment working with animals. Others followed obsessions, like Elmer Spruill spending his life searching for an animal that no one but Josh Kincheloe ever saw, or Mattie Lance looking for two strange children who weren't even hers.
There were women who found fulfillment in taking care of the needs of their families. Augusta Worley gave up her dream of husband and children to care for her ungrateful father and, after his death, gave her home and life to those who needed her care. Opal Drieschner became a son to her son-less father. "If I'm going to work like a man I want to be talked to like a man," she said. "I don't want to be yelled at like a woman." Her sister, Amanda Drieschner Slocum, wasted her life caring for her good-for-nothing husband, Albert Slocum, and died of his imaginary heart attack.
Ida Ballard came to the county as a bride of sixteen and lived with her husband, Limp, in a dugout on the Mobeetie River, south of what would become Bull Valley. Limp, one of the first farmers in the county, had selected some worthless land near the river because Limp loved to fish. Folks didn't call him Limp because he was crippled, but because he lacked the ambition that was a commodity among the early settlers.
Ida charged groceries at Dodson's trading post until Limp made his first crop, and when the bill came to nine dollars and forty-two cents, Limp threatened to send Ida back to Iowa because he didn't want to be married to a spendthrift woman. "When I married Limp, my mama told me, 'That man will keep you at the wash tub the rest of your life and don't expect nothing better,'" Ida told me when I interviewed her for the column I was writing for the Center Point paper. "I couldn't go home and tell her she was right so I got down on my knees and promised that man that if he'd let me stay, I'd never ask for another nickle. More than a dollar of that bill was for his Tinsley chewing tobacco, but I never said nothing about that."
Limp let her stay but he refused to speak to her. For two weeks Ida heard nothing but the wind and the lobos sniffing and howling outside the dugout. When she ran out of flour, Ida was afraid to charge at the store, so she ground up redtop maize for bread. "Damn woman don't know how to make biscuits," Limp grumbled to no one in particular. Ida was happy just to hear a human voice.
Ida bore their first child unassisted—Limp was off fishing—while a lobo prowled outside the doorless dugout and killed a calf. "I've heard folks say them lobos won't eat a body," Ida said, "but it was folks that lived in houses that said it."
Excerpted from Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn. Copyright © 1987 Robert Flynn. Excerpted by permission of TCU Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Robert Flynn, an accomplished author of novels and short stories, is a native of Chillicothe, Texas, the inspiration of his fictional Wanderer Springs.
He is the author of three novels--In the House of the Lord, The Signs of Rescue, the Signs of Hope, and North to Yesterday--and many short stories, the best of which are included in a collection entitled Seasonal Rain and Other Stories. Flynn's writing has won him awards and recognition from the Texas Institute of Letters, the NEA/Pen Syndicated Fiction Project, the Theater of Nations in Paris, and the National Cowboy Hall of Fame.
Like Will Callaghan of Wanderer Springs, Flynn left the small towns of rural Texas to make his home, with his wife, in San Antonio where he is novelist-in-residence at Trinity University.
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