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.

Remembering Dad

Harry Louis Garison, Sr., was a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He lived in that house for the rest of his life. It was where my brothers and I grew up, and that was where he died on December 6, 2018 – about 75 yards from where he was born. When Hurricane Harvey flooded us out in August 2017, dad had to go live in a nursing home while my brothers and I rebuilt the house, but other than that, and the time he was in the army, he lived on that same piece of property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

My son Drew with his “Paw-Paw”

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him. Watching him went a long way towards making me who I am today.

One of the most important things learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these were the principles by which dad carried himself. It was how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To his final days, he remained a role model for my brothers and me. Always tell the truth. Treasure your family. When you give someone your word, follow through, even if it’s not easy. Treat others the way you want to be treated. Give a fair day’s work for a day’s pay. Do it right the first time.

One thing in particular that I remember about my dad as a working man was how diligent and focused he was at work, but when the working day was over, he had that special gift of being able to shut it off, come home to his family, and not think about work. He was that most rare of breeds – an honest mechanic. And I wish I could put into words how proud it made me whenever I would meet someone who would say, “Oh, you’re Buddy’s boy. You know, your dad is the only man I trust to work on my car.”

Another thing I learned from him was patience. (He was a lot better at that than I am.) Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In his last years, dad showed great patience in another way. He suffered from non-diabetic neuropathy, which destroyed his balance, crippled his ankles and feet, and left him confined to a wheelchair. It also turned his hands into claws and left him unable to use his fingers. He had to get very creative to find ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about them. He still got them done; it just took longer. But he was patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working at the chore in front of him, until he finished it.

There’s plenty more I could say about my dad, but one story reveals a lot about him. One of his favorite treats was ice cream; he used to buy frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that came to his house. One day he bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he lost his balance and fell, spilling ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him sprawled out in front of the fridge. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream back in the freezer before it melts!”

That was my dad.

The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. I discovered how much I enjoyed the strategy of the game, along with enjoying the fellowship of visiting with friends, old and new. I’m still not very good at it, but I do like the game.

During the past year, we’ve all been forced to spend too much time apart from others, but as we go forward from here, maybe we need to re-discover the simple pleasures of good friends spending time together, enjoying conversation and a good game.

William and Walter would be proud.

Lessons from Dad

I hope you had a pleasant Labor Day holiday weekend, and that you were able to do something fun with family or friends. I spent the weekend with my dad.

Dad & me 9-3-16Harry Louis Garison, Sr., is a remarkable man. Known to his friends as “Buddy,” he was born at home on August 25, 1928. When he got married, his father gave him an acre of land across the road, where dad built a house for his new bride. He still lives in that house where we grew up. Other than the three years when he was in the army, he has lived on that property in Orange County, Texas, his entire life.

Almost six years ago, my mom passed away from a stroke, and it was a hard blow for him, but he was determined to stay by himself, and he has. Well, not quite by himself – he has a gentle giant of a dog, an old German Shepherd named “Chica,” who is his faithful companion. My dad is also blessed with some great neighbors and good friends who regularly check on him and sometimes even bring him food.

Dad had a long career as a mechanic and a business owner. When we were boys, my brothers and I took turns working for him, and watching him and the way he carried himself has gone a long way towards making me who I am today.

The most important thing I’ve learned from my dad is that Christianity is not something you just talk about; it’s how you live. Dad has lived his life in accordance with the scripture that says, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (James 2:18).

Dependability, honesty, hard work, loyalty – these are the principles by which my dad has lived his life. It’s how he operated his business and how he raised his family. To this day, he is a role model for my brothers and me.

Something else I’ve learned from dad: patience. Whether it was fixing some stubborn problem on a car or dealing with a difficult customer, my dad always modeled patience for us, even though he would probably say he didn’t do a very good job at it.

In recent years, dad has shown great patience in another way. Dad has non-diabetic neuropathy, which has destroyed his balance and left him confined to a wheelchair. It has also turned his hands into claws, and left him unable to use his fingers. But he still lives by himself, dresses himself, and cooks his own food every day. He has gotten very creative in finding ways of doing things he used to do without thinking about it. He still gets them done; it just takes longer. But he is patient enough (and stubborn enough) to keep working on the chore in front of him, until he finishes it.

There’s a lot more I could say about my Dad, but one recent story reveals a lot about him. Dad enjoys ice cream as a treat, and he buys frozen goodies from the Schwan’s truck that comes to his house. Just the other day, he had bought a box of ice cream sandwiches, and decided he wanted one right then, so after the truck left, he opened the package and took one out, and was putting the box in the freezer above the refrigerator. As he was stretching up in his wheelchair, he slipped and fell, and spilled ice cream sandwiches everywhere. Just at that moment, his home health nurse arrived, and came into the kitchen to find him on the floor. “Oh my goodness!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing on the floor?”

“Never mind that,” he said. “Help me get this ice cream in the freezer before it melts!”

That’s my dad.

The National Game of Texas

In 1887, in the tiny North Texas town of Trappe Spring, two young boys had a problem. Twelve-year-old William Thomas and 14-year-old Walter Earl both really liked playing cards – not games of gambling, but trick-taking card games similar to Bridge, Spades, Whist, and the like. The problem was, both young men came from devout Baptist families, and playing cards was absolutely forbidden. What to do?

Playing dominoes was allowed in their homes, but the boys found regular dominoes to be, well, boring. So they set out to invent a new game, using the strategy and skill of their favorite card games, but utilizing dominoes instead of the sinful pasteboards. After a few months of trial and error, they had their game, which they taught to their families. Their families enjoyed this new game, and taught it to their neighbors. They liked it, too.

When their families moved to Fannin County, they took the game with them, and taught it to their new neighbors. It caught on there, too, and gradually spread across the whole state. And thus was born “The National Game of Texas” – 42.

domino-square_0Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Texans of all backgrounds and social levels would meet to play. In rural communities and big cities, neighbors would bring covered dishes to someone’s house on Saturday nights after work, and eat together. Then, after the dishes were done and while the kids played outside, the grown-ups would sit and sip their sweet iced tea (these are mostly Baptists, remember!), and play 42. The game was played in homes, at churches, on picnics, and around campfires.

When the Texas boys went off to World War II, they took the game with them. There are lots of stories about G.I.s teaching the game to their buddies from New York and California. But at its heart, it was – and is – a Texas game, officially recognized by the state legislature as the “Official Domino Game of Texas.”

And although some think of it as a game for older people, it’s actually making a comeback among younger players. In fact, every year in Halletsville, there is a state championship, to crown the best “42” player in the state.

Like many great games, 42 is easy to learn and hard to master. The game is played with four people – two teams of two people each. You draw seven dominoes, then you bid on how many “tricks” you can take for your team. There’s a total of 42 points for each round – hence, the name. Knowing how to bid well is the key to being a good player.

winning 42If you want to know more about the history and strategy of playing 42, you need to get a copy of Winning 42: Strategy & Lore of the National Game of Texas, by Dennis Roberson. There are also online versions of the game, where you can practice against computer-generated players.

The competition, skill and strategy of a well-played game is certainly enjoyable. But for many, the real pleasure of the game is the time spent with friends – the fun of getting together with neighbors to talk, to visit, and to share life together.

We played “regular” dominoes in my family when I was growing up, not 42, but a few years ago, I got to play a few hands when I was visiting a friend at her nursing home. Then last month, the teenagers of our “Young Leaders of Abilene” group were helping out at Cobb Park’s monthly game night, and there were some folks there playing 42. As I sat and watched, I remembered how much fun the game was. I began talking with some of my neighbors, and sure enough, discovered that several of them are devotees of the game.

So, coming up on Saturday, April 2, (4/2 – get it?), several neighbors and friends will get together here at the North Park Friendship House. We’ll set up tables, get out the dominoes, choose up teams, and play 42. At some point, we’ll stop long enough to eat, then we’ll play some more. Are you a 42 player, or do you know someone who is? Come join us.

William and Walter would be proud.

Holding On to Our Heritage

UP1996_borderAnyone who knows me well knows that I love trains. Real trains, model trains, amusement park trains – doesn’t matter. If it runs on rails, I want to see it, watch it, and ride it if I can.

I also happen to be a fan of history. I am fascinated by the past, by the forces that shaped our society and by the decisions that brought us to where we are today.

So I was thrilled when several railroads began repainting some of their newest and most powerful locomotives in the old, historic paint schemes of some of their predecessors. What’s not to love, right? It combines two of my favorite passions – history AND trains. (The photo shows a Union Pacific engine passing through Abilene, wearing the orange, red and black “Daylight” colors of the old Southern Pacific RR.)

I’m glad that some railroads are recognizing and honoring their history and their heritage, but it’s not just about trains. There is history worth hearing, all around us, in the neighborhoods where we live, and along the streets where we drive. Grandparents who can teach us, elders who can inspire us, and old buildings that can help us remember the struggles of the past.

Learning about the past doesn’t have to be boring. It’s a shame that so many history classes are being led by teachers who think that history is all about dates on a calendar. Truly, they are missing the point. History – real history – is about people and their stories.

Spend some time getting to know the older people on your block, or at your church. They have stories to tell. Another idea? If you’re in Abilene, go to the library and check out any of the fascinating series of DVDs produced by a GOOD history teacher, Abilene’s own Jay Moore, “History in Plain Sight.” You might want to start with his video, “Who is That Street?” It tells the story of the early settlers who came to Abilene, braved incredible hardships, and carved out a living for themselves and their families – and now we remember them by the streets we drive on. They are stories worth hearing.

Understanding something of our past reminds us that someone came before us and dreamed a dream, and we are the heirs of that legacy. It keeps us humble to realize that we are enjoying the fruits of someone else’s labor, and it inspires us to work for those who will come after us – to leave something better for our children and our grandchildren.

Holding on to our heritage helps us know who we are, where we’ve been, and where we are going. Remembering the past gives us hope for the future.

 

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe 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.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track 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, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, 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 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.

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.

Grayburg 2011So we 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 countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.

Heaven on Wheels

Ever heard of a chapel car?
Well, neither had I, at least not until I coverwas lurking in the basement of the Abilene Public Library recently, browsing through their railroad section, and I came across a book entitled, This Train is Bound for Glory. The book tells the story of a fleet of special-purpose railroad cars that were essentially church buildings on wheels.

In the late 1800s, much of the American western frontier was still a wild and untamed land. In most towns, saloons, gambling dens and “dance halls” (brothels) outnumbered all other establishments put together. Many towns did not have a church of any denomination, and schools were a far-off dream. As one wag put it, “This country is fine for men and cattle, but hell on women and horses.”

But there were many who wanted more than just a chance to make a fast buck: they were looking for a place to put down roots, get married, raise a family and build a home. Some came from “back east,” looking to start over. Some came from overseas, from Ireland and Italy, from Bohemia and Norway and Poland.  All of them knew that having a church in their community was essential.

ChapelCar1922And so the chapel car was invented, and over the next few years, 13 were built – seven for the Baptists, three for the Episcopalians, and three for the Catholics.   They were in operation primarily in the Western U.S. between about 1890 and 1940.

interior2Each of the cars was a little different, but they were all built along the same idea.  Most of the car was a church building on wheels, with seating for 50-80 people, a small lectern, and an old-style Estey pump organ.  The rest of the car was a small private area where the missionary and his wife would live, and it included drop-down beds that were mounted on the wall, a small kitchen/living space, a water closet/toilet, and a tiny office/study area.

rev._e.j._mcguinness._chapel_car._st._paul._a_church_on_wheels._come_in_and_see_it._1923_march_20The railroads were big supporters of the concept, and for many years, provided free hauling and parking services for the cars, as well as free or reduced-cost maintenance.  Some of the railroads helped the chapel cars because the rail owners were believers, and wanted to see the gospel advance.  Others supported them because they wanted to reduce alcoholism and violence among the rail workers, and saw the church as a great “civilizing influence.”  Whatever.

The usual pattern was for the railroad to pull the car into a town and park it on a convenient siding.  Sometimes it was parked in or near the railroad’s shops and offices, for the convenience of the people working there to attend services.  Often, it would be parked in proximity to the town’s “red light” district, to counter the influence of the whiskey and women that could be found there.

Railroad_workers_inside_the_railroad_chapel_car_Glad_TidingsThe missionaries who served on board these rolling churches had to have a special calling.  The men had to be willing to be open and welcoming to railroad men and others who would come to services on their lunch or dinner breaks, filthy from work.  They had to be willing to visit the saloons and dance halls and hand out gospel tracts and Bibles to the “soiled doves” who worked there.  They had to be people without judgmentalism, and willing to talk to everyone.  And they had to be tireless: most of the time, they would hold services twice a day, at noon and again at midnight, for the men working the various shifts.

History_chapelcarTheir wives had to have a calling of their own.  It was expected that they would play the organ and sing, hold Bible classes for the children of the town in the morning, and help their husbands counsel with the prostitutes and others who visited the car.  They had to try and make a home in a cramped, tiny space that was brutally hot in the summer and bitterly cold in the winter.  And they had to put up with the noise, the soot, and the constant banging and shuffling of cars that was part of life in a railyard.

It was not an easy assignment.

Most of the couples who served were young and newly married, and had not yet started having children.  Sometimes older couples whose children were already grown served.  There are also records of young moms suspending a swing hammock in the corner of the living area, and letting their babies sleep, “rocking to the rhythm of the rails.”

book2-1In her book Gospel Tracks Through Texas, author Wilma Rugh Taylor tells the story of Chapel Car #4, named “Good Will,” which served many years all across Texas.  It was owned by the American Baptist Publication Society, based in Philadelphia.  But there was a problem.  Most Texas Baptists were affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and were very suspicious of the “northerners” building these cars.  In spite of initial misgivings, though, most of the towns where the chapel cars served eventually welcomed them with open arms, and were won over by the dedication and hard work of those who served on board.

The author, Mrs. Taylor, has shown some dedication herself.  She and her husband, the late Norman Taylor, also wrote the previously mentioned This Train is Bound for Glory, based on literally years of painstaking research and traveling across the country to document the nearly-forgotten story of the chapel cars.  Tragically, he died from a fall in 2007, when he was working to help restore one of the cars.  If you would like more information about the chapel cars, Mrs. Taylor has a website, chapelcars.com, that has all the details and floor plans.

My wife says it would have been my dream job, just a hundred years too late.  And I have to admit, there is some truth to that.  On the other hand, I like the concept of using whatever tools are available to reach out to the marginalized and forgotten.  Mrs. Taylor tells several stories of the missionaries intentionally working among the newly-arrived immigrants who didn’t speak the language, as well as the town drunks, the dance hall girls, and others “written off” by polite society.

At the front of the partition of the chapel car was a glass transom with the message, “God is Love” carefully written across it in gold leaf.  It’s a message that was not lost on the thousands of lives touched by the chapel cars and those who served on board.  They could read it in the Bibles they were given, they could hear it in the messages that were preached, and they could see it in the lives that were lived out in front of them.

It’s a message that is still worth sharing – and living – today.