The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Anticipating the Bluebonnets

One of my favorite parts of living in Texas will soon be with us again. It’s almost time for the bluebonnets, our state flower, to make their annual visit.

When I was growing up in East Texas, bluebonnets were not as common as they are now. The state had not yet started the practice of seeding wildflowers along Texas highways, and the beautiful blue flowers were not as widespread as they have since become. We had plenty of the pink primrose wildflowers – my brothers and I used to call them “buttercups” because of their yellow center – along with a type of daisy, crimson clover, and lots of other types of “pretty weeds,” but bluebonnets – well, not so much.

I was in high school the first time I saw a giant field of “Lupinus Texensis,” as the most common variety is known. We were on a school trip, going to Brenham, and I spied what I thought was a beautiful blue lake beside the road. It was a pasture completely covered in bluebonnets; to me, it looked like looked like there were two skies, one above the other. Fifty years later, I still remember how beautiful they were.

My mom tried for years to get some bluebonnets to grow at their home in Orange County, but without much luck. Even under the best of conditions, they are hard flowers to get started, and it’s just too wet in that part of the state for them to do well (that’s hard for folks in West Texas to imagine!). But bless her heart, my mom kept trying. And then one spring after she passed, my dad sent me a picture he had snapped of mom’s bluebonnets blooming there on their place. He was so proud. She would have loved it.

Bluebonnets were designated as the “official” state flower in 1901, and contrary to popular belief, it is NOT illegal to pick them. It is not recommended, though, because like any wildflower, they will wilt almost immediately after you pick them. And it’s a right of passage for Texas families to take pictures of the kids, posing in the middle of a bluebonnet patch. Just be careful doing that: in some parts of the state especially, you’ll need to watch out for rattlesnakes in the middle of the flowers.

There are believed to be six different versions of the bluebonnets, from the common ones that are best known, to the giant “Big Bend” variety that can be found in that part of Southwest Texas. Some versions that are totally white, and the research plant specialists at Texas A&M even created a maroon variety! But the familiar blue and white kind are the best known. And whether you call them buffalo clover, wolf flower, or even by their Spanish name of “el conejo” (“the rabbit”), they are close to the heart of most Texans. And I’m thankful for the work of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and the Texas Highway Department for their efforts at expanding the flower’s coverage.

Besides bluebonnets, of course, be sure to look for the many other gorgeous Texas wildflowers, including Indian Paintbrush, the red-and-yellow Indian Blanket (also known as Firewheel), the pink or purple Coneflower, Giant Spiderwort, various colors of Phlox, and many more. By the way, Coneflower is a type of echinacea, which has long been used in natural medicine and which can be found in different types of cough drops.

Central Texas around Austin, and the Hill Country, are great places to see big fields of bluebonnets. Ennis, Texas, is also a popular location, along with Burnet, but the best places in the state will vary somewhat from year to year. If you’re interested in taking your own road trip, you can check with the Texas Highway Department and their magazine, Texas Highways. I also highly recommend printing out your own free guide to Texas wildflowers, downloadable at ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trv/wildflowers/wildflowers_brochure.pdf.

However you choose to enjoy the bluebonnets, have a safe trip as you spend time with your family and enjoy the awesome Texas scenery and perfect spring weather. And God bless Texas.

A Loving Look at the Lone Star State

Texas Country Reporter is a TV news magazine show built on an unusual format. Every week the host and crew travel around the state and present a half-hour program of good news and positive stories that celebrate Texas people and Texas culture. (There are several such programs now, but TCR was the first.) The long-time host has been Bob Phillips; in recent years, he has been joined by his wife, Kelli, and the two of them crisscross the state every week, from Beaumont to El Paso, and from Dalhart to Brownsville, telling the stories that make Texas special.

It started out back in 1971, when Bob was a young staff member at Dallas TV station KDFW, channel four. He saw the “On the Road” segments that Charles Kuralt was producing for the CBS Evening News, hosted by Walter Cronkite. Bob figured he could do something similar in telling Texas stories, and 4 Country Reporter was born. A few years later, it morphed into an independent, syndicated TV program, and became Texas Country Reporter, or TCR. The program is found locally on Abilene’s KTXS-TV, channel 12, along with a number of stations across the state, as well as the RFD-TV cable channel and YouTube.

In celebration of their fiftieth year, Bob and Kelli have produced a live musical program that they are taking around the state. The format goes something like this: they arrange for a local band or orchestra to play the music, featuring familiar and historic Western and Texas tunes, music from the TCR show, and original compositions. While the music is playing, the hosts provide narration that recounts the history of the state from the days of the first European settlers up to modern times. It’s called “A Texas Tribute.”

During its running length of about 90 minutes, the show celebrates many of the things that make Texas unique and special. This past Friday evening, they brought the show to Abilene’s Historic Paramount Theatre, with the World-Famous Cowboy Band from Hardin-Simmons University providing the music. Bob and Kelli took the stage, and as Bob’s familiar voice began and the music drew us in, we in the audience were treated to a special evening.

Bob & Kelli Phillips in front of the HSU Cowboy Band, at the Historic Paramount Theatre in Abilene. They were presenting their affectionate tribute to the history and culture of our state in the program, A Texas Tribute, produced as part of TCR’s 50th anniversary celebration.

As the program got started, we heard narration from a speech by Stephen F. Austin, given to prospective settlers, in which he discussed the outstanding qualities of the land and the place to which he was inviting them. We heard the letter that Colonel Travis wrote from the Alamo as the band played “El Degüello,” the bugle call of the Mexican army, meaning “No Quarter” – no mercy for the enemy. The narrators then took us to San Jacinto, where legend says General Santa Anna was keeping company in his tent with a beautiful former slave named Emily Morgan, who was – ahem – “distracting” him from his duties with the army. And legend says, that’s where we get the song, “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it’s a good story.

One of my personal favorites was during the time they were talking about the cowboy way of life, and they read an excerpt from a memoir by an old cowboy from the famous XIT Ranch. He talked about his last days of riding for that brand, and some of the memories he had of being alone on the range with only his horse for companionship. And he talked about the day that he rode to the nearest railroad town, took his saddle off the horse and turned him loose. He watched as the horse made his way back to camp, then the cowboy turned towards town and his cowboying days were over.

From there, it was ragtime music and remembering the Spindletop oil gusher of 1901. We also heard a new arrangement of our official state song, “Texas Our Texas.” Back when I was in elementary school, we used to sing it regularly, but these days, not very many folks even recognize the tune anymore, let alone remember the words. The first verse goes,

Texas, Our Texas! All hail the mighty State!
Texas, Our Texas! So wonderful, so great!
Boldest and grandest, withstanding ev’ry test
O Empire wide and glorious, you stand supremely blest.
      God bless you, Texas! And keep you brave and strong,
      That you may grow in power and worth, throughout the ages long.

It was a wonderful evening of Texas music, history, and legend. Kathy and I thoroughly enjoyed it, and we saw several Haskell friends and neighbors there. Thanks to our daughter Brittany who gave us the tickets.

And God bless Texas.

More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Railroad Memories

It’s difficult these days for us to realize how much significance our ancestors living a hundred years ago placed on the railroad, but imagine if the internet, the news media, your communications system, the mail, the future of your business, and your transportation system were all rolled up into a single entity? Throw in the chance for economic development as well as the opportunity for face-to-face social networking and interaction, and you have some idea of what the railroad meant to those who came before us.

The first community in Haskell County to see the “Iron Horse” was actually Sagerton. The Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad was building north on its way to Kansas City in the summer and fall of 1905. The story is, they wanted to go through Stamford, but a wealthy rancher blocked them, so they went a few miles west and arrived in Sagerton on December 9, 1905. The town was actually named for local landowner William Sager, who donated land for the depot, the right-of-way, and certain town lots. Later the Stamford & Northwestern arrived there in 1909 on its way to Spur, making Sagerton the only town in the county to have TWO railroads. Historical accounts state that the two depots were located “some distance apart, to the inconvenience of the public.”

The “Orient Line,” as it was known, continued on its way north, creating the towns of Rule, Rochester, and O’Brien in 1905 and 1906. The KC, M & O was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1930s; it was salvaged in 1996, although some of the historical depots remain in the communities they served. (For now, I’m having to leave out some colorful stories, including a fascinating one about residents in northwestern Haskell County who, when they realized the railroad was bypassing them, just picked up and moved the town and became part of Rochester. But I digress.)

Early histories of the county reveal some of the negotiations – along with lots of broken promises and double-dealing – in the early efforts to bring a railroad to the city of Haskell. In 1906, the Wichita Valley RR, owned by Abilene rail entrepreneur Morgan Jones, was on its way to connect Wichita Falls with Abilene. They came through Weinert first, then they arrived in Haskell at noon on August 2, 1906. In their August 4 edition two days later, the Haskell Free Press described it as a “Consummation Long Desired,” adding “Haskell is now a railroad town, bound by bands of steel to the outer world.” The WV was eventually merged into the Fort Worth & Denver, then the Burlington, and finally the Burlington Northern. It was eventually abandoned and torn up in the mid-1990s.

Did you know that Haskell once had its own streetcar? A gasoline-powered streetcar owned by Mr. M.R. Hemphill ran from the WV depot to the square, then three miles north through what would later be known as the “Shook Addition,” to Hemphill Lake, and ending near the present location of the Haskell Country Club. The line operated from 1909-10 and cost ten cents to ride. At the lake was a bandstand, a golf course, and recreation facilities.

Haskell’s streetcar was in operation from 1909-1910. Pictured are Frank Craddock at the controls; Mrs. B. Baker, front seat; Mrs. C.L. Lewis, second row.
Photo from Haskell County and Its Pioneers, by Rex A. Felker.

Many of you have been kind enough to share with me some of your train-related memories from the old days of Haskell. Sam Pace tells the story of his grandfather, William Lynn Pace Senior, who owned Haskell’s first Ford dealership, near where Kay’s Cleaners is now. Mr. Pace also knew Henry Ford, and back in the day, the new Fords would arrive in Haskell by train, disassembled and boxed up in crates. Mr. Pace’s mechanics would go down to the depot and unload the crates, reassemble the cars, pour in a cup or two of gasoline, and drive the contraptions down to the Ford house.

One common memory that I have heard from several folks has been about “riding the Doodlebug” – a self-propelled rail passenger car. For many years in the 1940s, riding that railcar was a much-anticipated school field trip. Do you remember riding it? Do you have any pictures of it, or other rail-related recollections to tell from the old days of Haskell? We would love to hear from you! We will share some of those stories, and more, in our next column.

A Place Called Honey Island

(Dusty’s note – I have printed this article in the past, but it is my favorite story about Labor Day, so I’m going to run it again. I hope you don’t mind.)

Labor Day always brings back memories of family reunions at a place called Honey Island. How that came about is the story I want to tell you.

My grandmother, Mazura Linscomb Garison, died in July 1964 – less than a month after the picture was made. (The date shown, August 1964, was the processing date. Mom was a little slow in getting to the drug store sometimes.) Anyway, as I understand the story, after Grandma’s funeral, several family members were talking and decided that it was a shame that we needed a funeral to see each other. So, a few weeks later, our tradition of a family reunion began, with all of the cousins, family members, the Garisons and the Garrisons (we spell our name with only one “R,” but we do have some “2-R” cousins), the Linscombs, the Cottons, along with the in-laws, out-laws, and some assorted friends.

Here I am with my grandparents, my brothers, and a bunch of my cousins. I’m the shirtless one, second from the left. My grandmother died not long after this snapshot was taken.

In the heart of Southeast Texas, in the middle of an area known as “The Big Thicket,” you will find the towns of Saratoga and Kountze. And back in the day, there was a little place called Honey Island, where there was a large park with open air pavilions, picnic tables, and two giant swimming pools, fed by artesian springs. One of the pools was shallow and perfect for us kids, with water that went from about three feet to eight feet deep. The other (which mom wouldn’t let us go in) was deep, with a diving board that must have been 200 feet in the air! (Okay really, it was probably 20 or 30 feet over the water, but it LOOKED really high and scary to me.)

I remember the water had this vague, sulfur-y smell – kind of like the crude oil that was just under the surface in that part of Texas in those days. We didn’t mind the smell. It was a great place to swim, to play, and to see (or meet!) kinfolks we hardly ever saw.

Near the swimming pool was an open-air pool hall with a jukebox. CCR’s “Green River” and The Hollies’ “Long Cool Woman in a Black Dress” seemed always to be playing. (“Saturday night I was downtown, workin’ for the FBI…”) Momma didn’t want us going near there, but you could hear the music from the pool. And I remember a sign in the pool house/concession stand that said, “We don’t swim in your toilet. Please don’t pee in our pool.”

And the food that we shared at the potluck, of course, was great. Lots of (homemade) fried chicken and potato salad. Mom would sometimes fix a giant pot roast, with lots of potatoes and carrots, and always plenty of other good things to eat. Sometimes there would be homemade ice cream, and ALWAYS, lots of ice-cold watermelon. It was a great time to be a kid. And part of the family. The tradition continued for many years.

Eventually, of course, we stopped going to Honey Island. One by one, the older folks passed away. The kids grew up, moved away, had kids and families of their own. But I remember those good times of Labor Days past, and those cousins and family members I loved so much. Each funeral makes thinking of heaven that much sweeter.

Having family reunions is a lot of bother and fuss, no doubt about it. But I deeply appreciate my parents for going and for taking us, and for all the trouble they went to so that we could enjoy those times together with family. Those memories are very precious to me.

Meanwhile, here’s a shout-out to all those cousins and loved ones who remember with me our family reunions at Honey Island. And to all of us, let me say, cherish your families. Try not to wait for a funeral to see each other.

Happy Labor Day.

The Altar of Freedom

Part of our recent trip to DC included visiting two memorials that commemorate significant events in our nation’s history. The World War II Memorial opened in 2004. It is located between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, near the end of the rectangular Reflecting Pool. The installation features two large, semicircular areas – one honoring the European Theater of the war, the other for the Pacific.

When you start talking about that war, it’s easy to get “bogged down” in the minutia of historical details, dates, places, and people, and to get lost in arguments about the political and economic causes about what started the war and how did it conclude. But the designers of this memorial have made sure that you don’t forget those who “more than self, their country loved, and mercy, more than life.”

It was during World War I that families of military personnel first began displaying Service Banners with blue stars for each member of the family that was on active duty in any of the branches of the armed forces. If that family member were killed in action, the blue star would be replaced with a gold one, and so the term “Gold Star Family” came to be.

The “Gold Star” wall at the World War II Memorial

At the World War II Memorial there is an enormous curving wall over a pool, and on that wall are placed thousands of gold stars. At one side is a small panel explaining what Gold Stars mean, and that each of the 4,048 stars on the wall represents 100 Americans. Do the math, and you can figure out that more than 400,000 Americans were killed or remained missing after that war. Let that number sink in a minute: so many sons, brothers, husbands, fathers. Such a dear price paid for our freedom.

Later that afternoon, we had a chance to visit the Vietnam War Memorial, with the names of more than 58,000 service men and women who were KIA or MIA engraved on those somber black stone walls. It was a controversial design when it was dedicated in 1982, and to some, remains so today. But whatever your opinion about the wall, there is no denying the impact that seeing it creates.

I didn’t serve in Vietnam – it was winding down by the time I graduated – but one of my best friends from high school did, and I know many others who did as well. One Haskell boy who served was Charles B. “Chuck” Goodwin.

Chuck is remembered as a good boy from a hard-working family. After graduating from HHS, he joined the Navy and became an aviator, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He flew off the deck of a carrier to provide air support for the ground troops, and then one day, he didn’t come back. He was listed as “missing” for many years, but his body was eventually recovered, and he is buried in the Veteran’s Cemetery in Abilene.

When Kathy and I first moved here in 1980, I met his mom; she was a member of the Christian Church where I was preaching, and she lived over on South Avenue L, I think. In her living room was a shadowbox with Chuck’s picture and his medals, and next to it was a framed pencil tracing of his name, made from the memorial wall. With our guide’s help, I was able to look him up in the directory and find his name on the wall.

LCDR Charles Goodwin – Naval Aviator, Hero & Haskell native

At the Vietnam memorial that day, not far from the Lincoln Monument, I thought about a letter that President Lincoln had written to a grieving mother, Mrs. Bixby. He had been shown a file that five of her sons had been killed in Civil War battles – information that turned out not to be completely accurate; “only” three of her sons had died – but his letter still remains a powerful tribute. Let his words honor all those who never came home.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

The Train to Yesterday

I have been fortunate enough to get to take a number of passenger train trips over the years. One of my favorites was a special trip a few years ago with my youngest brother, David Ray. He’s a pastor at a church in Spring, Texas, just north of Houston.

My brother David and I in front of Amtrak’s “Sunset Limited” in Houston.

He and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

The old Missouri Pacific RR main line ran right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad sidetrack where they used to load freshly cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, the New York Central and Central of Georgia, Chicago, Burlington & Quincy and the Santa Fe, the Denver & Rio Grande and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made, and I remember running back to the tracks after the train had passed, to find those little squished pieces of copper, still hot from the friction of the wheels that ran over them.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train. I have a very sweet memory of sitting on the freight platform with my dad, next to the tiny beige and brown depot, absolutely enthralled as the massive trains roared past, and watching the rail joints move up and down as the car wheels went across them.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

So David & I climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the Southeast Texas countryside and past the little towns.

Grayburg is literally just a blur when you go through there on a fast train.

The Grayburg depot is long gone, but the siding is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. As we went through there and saw where we used to play, I looked over and saw my brother wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking.

He said he thought he saw four little boys running over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

Honoring Old Glory

This coming Monday, June 14, is Flag Day – the day set aside to honor our nation’s flag. It was on June 14, 1777, that the Second Continental Congress officially designated that the new national flag should be “…thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation.” President Woodrow Wilson was the first to issue a proclamation recognizing that date in 1916; Congress made it an official designation in 1949, even though it is not a federal holiday.

The flag is a beautiful and meaningful symbol of our country and the values we hold dear. White represents purity and virtue; blue stands for justice and vigilance, and the red represents courage, and of course, the sacrifice of those who have shed blood defending that flag. It is a powerful national symbol, which is why so many Americans find flag burning and desecration to be so offensive.

At the risk of upsetting some of you, I would point out another type of flag desecration that is all too common by some people: neglect. I have seen many flags flying that should have been taken down and retired a long time ago –the flags have been shredded from the wind and faded by the sun, and their edges are frayed to threads; sometimes, the flag is reduced to less than half its original size by the wind and the weather. It may not be deliberate misuse, but perhaps that makes it even worse, because it shows a lackadaisical attitude of thoughtlessness and neglect.

Many years ago, when I was a Boy Scout, I remember one time when our troop held a “flag retirement” ceremony. Our Scoutmaster, Oscar “Red” Davis, had several old, torn, faded flags. He gave some of our more senior boys scissors and directed that we carefully cut out the blue fields, then cut the red and white stripes into separate strips. Mr. Davis then had one of our Eagle Scouts read a poem about the meaning of the flag and what the colors symbolized. Then with care and reverence, we burned (yes, that is the honorable, appropriate way of disposing of a faded flag) the different components of the flags and buried the ashes, again with great respect.

You see, Mr. Davis was a combat veteran – he had been with the U.S. Army in Korea, in that brutal winter of 1950. He knew how precious that flag was, and is, and he instilled in us – in me! – an awe and patriotic awareness that continues to this day. So I don’t worship the flag but I do hold it in high honor, with deep appreciation for all that it means.

On a lighter note, if you’re looking for a scrumptious, sweet way to think about the flag, you might try my daughter Brittany’s “Flag Cake” recipe. Coconut – strawberries – blueberries – what’s not to love? She often makes it for summertime events. The recipe is attached below.

One interesting local story relating to the flag relates to a certain community in eastern Stonewall County, Texas. The town was originally laid out in 1903 by G.R. Spielhagen; he was one of several German immigrants to the area who had arrived beginning around 1900. Herr Spielhagen called his town “Brandenburg,” after the German city of the same name. When the Stamford & Northwestern Railway bypassed the community on its way to Spur in 1909, the citizens picked up and moved the town to the trains, renaming it “New Brandenburg.”

During World War I, there was a strong, anti-German sentiment across the country; “Hate the Hun” was a popular slogan. And so, to show their pride and allegiance to their new homeland, the folks in New Brandenburg petitioned the post office to change their town’s name, choosing instead the most patriotic name they could think of. And that’s how, on August 9, 1918, the community of “New Brandenburg” became known as “Old Glory.”

God Bless America.

Brittany’s Flag Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 “Classic Yellow” cake mix (brand of your choice), along with its required ingredients (eggs, vegetable oil, water, etc.)
  • 12-16 oz. Cream of Coconut (found in the mixers aisle of the grocery store)
  • 8 oz tub of Cool Whip
  • 1 cup Shredded Coconut (sweetened or regular) 
  • 3/4 cup sliced strawberries
  • 1/2 cup whole blueberries

Directions

  1. Bake the yellow cake according to the instructions on the box in a 13×9 inch glass or metal pan.
  2. Set aside the baked cake to cool in its pan for 1-2 hours. Remember to set out your Cool Whip to thaw (if needed)!
  3. Using the skinny end of a wooden spoon or toothpicks, poke small (1/4 inch) holes in the cake that reach all the way to the bottom. The holes should be about 1.5 inches apart.
  4. Pour 3/4 cup of the Cream of Coconut over the cake, spreading with a knife to cover the entire surface and fill the holes.
  5. Mix the remaining 1/2 cup of Cream of Coconut into the thawed cool whip, and then spread the entire mixture over the cake.
  6. Sprinkle shredded coconut over the cake as evenly as possible.
  7. In the upper left corner of the cake, place blueberries in rectangular pattern to create the field of blue in the American flag. Slice the strawberries width-wise and place on the cake to create the stripes of the flag (remember, the top stripe is white, the very bottom stripe is red).
  8. Refrigerate until ready to serve. 

Brittany’s note: This recipe is easily adapted to celebrate any flag! Rearrange the blueberries and strawberries to make the Texas flag, or use sliced kiwis and strawberries to create a tasty homage to Mexico or Italy. 

“WHIS-key” – The Road to Ruin – A Haskell Memory from Long Ago

A few weeks ago, I wrote about visiting the National Ranching Heritage Center in Lubbock (see Stepping Into the Past). Seeing all those old buildings and other artifacts made me start thinking about the old frontier days here in Haskell. The first generation of settlers into this part of Texas certainly had more than their share of interesting events and occurrences – and none were more unique than the story of Haskell’s first saloon.

According to R.E. Sherrill’s book, Haskell County History, two early-day Haskell businessmen, a Mr. Draper and his partner, Mr. Baldwin, sometime around 1886 or 1887, discovered that a license they already had to sell whiskey wholesale also permitted them to sell it at retail. A large, two-story building was erected on the eastern end of the south side of the square; long-time Haskell residents will remember that as the location of the Haskell Free Press for many years. The original name of the establishment was the “QT Saloon.” “QT” was an old slang term for “quiet;” to keep something on the “QT” meant to keep it quiet, private, secret. These days, people might say “keep it on the down-low.”

If running a “quiet” saloon had been the owners’ original intention, the reality did not match up. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Not long after the building was built, a new preacher came to town, looking for a place to hold services. It was not unusual in those days for a minister to preach in places other than church buildings. The saloon was stocked with inventory but had not yet opened. Mr. Draper told the preacher that he was welcome to hold services at the saloon, which he apparently did before moving on to the next town.

Messrs. Draper and Baldwin continued running the QT, and one day, a one-legged sign painter showed up, looking for work. The owners apparently felt sorry for the man and agreed to hire him to paint a new sign for the establishment. The sign painter sat down and began to sketch out some ideas for Mr. Draper, including one that looked something like this. Mr. Draper loved it, and reportedly said, “That’s the one. That suits me better than any of them. That’s the most honest saloon sign I ever saw. Put her up.” And so the “QT” became the “Road to Ruin,” with its distinctive “WHIS-key” sign.

This is an approximation of the sign that hung outside the old Haskell saloon, which was known as “The Road to Ruin.” The “Whis-Key” advertising was allegedly done by a one-legged sign painter.

There were four murders in Haskell over the next fourteen years. Three of those killings were inside the saloon; the fourth was next door. The first occurred on Saturday, October 3, 1887. George Scarborough, sheriff of Jones County, was in the saloon, writing a letter to his wife. Another customer, A.J. Williams, who had been drinking in the saloon, attacked Sheriff Scarborough for reasons unknown; the sheriff shot and killed him. A few days later, October 17, W.M. Carter accused owner J.L. Baldwin of being unfair to the late Mr. Williams; guns were drawn, and Mr. Carter was killed. Both killings were determined to be self-defense, and Scarborough and Baldwin were cleared of all charges.

The next shooting was on May 27, 1890, when George Mason and a Mr. Marshall began having an argument about a recent horse race. Two other customers became involved, and one of those men was shot and killed, with that shooter also cleared for self-defense. The fourth killing happened next door to the saloon, in a livery stable that used to be where the county extension office is now. Saloon co-owner J.L. Baldwin also owned the livery stable, and he had a running feud with another livery owner, W.L. Yoe. On May 13, 1899, Mr. Yoe came to Mr. Baldwin’s stable to continue their disagreement; he attempted to draw his pistol, but it got hung up in his clothing. Mr. Baldwin drew his weapon cleanly and fired, killing Mr. Yoe.

Local history is not clear as to when the saloon closed; it may have been when national Prohibition went into effect around 1920. But many area residents were no doubt glad to see it shut down; an old poem from that time known as “Called a Bar” summed up the feelings of many:

— A Bar to joys that home imparts
A door to tears and aching hearts;

— A Bar to heaven, a door to hell
Whoever named it, named it well!