Wheel in the Sky

Fifty years ago this month members of the Memphis High School marching band traveled to Dallas to perform at the State Fair. One of them never came home. And the town hasn’t been the same since.

THERE’S A 64- YEAR-OLD WOMAN in a small West Texas town who walks with an unmistakable limp. People where she lives know what happened and do not bring it up. Because there are no jobs in town, the woman commutes 29 miles to Childress, where she helps run a rural health clinic and where her history is not generally known. “Just an old injury,” she says when they inquire about that rolling limp that begins at the right hip and drops her foot with a heavy thud. It makes her a bit self-conscious. But at least she’s otherwise sturdy, and at least she no longer avoids highway overpasses or scrambles away from ledges as she once used to, back when the old injury was not just physical.

A few hundred miles away in an affluent northeast Texas retirement community, another 64-year-old woman dreams of falling. She wakes up shaking and gasping next to her husband, but she’s disoriented, because in the dream she was a teenage girl, as was the girl falling alongside her. She’s always trying to help that other girl in the dream. “Come on,” she begs as she reaches out. Doctors have asked the woman if there’s anything in her past to explain the dreams and the panic attacks that overcome her at unexpected moments. When she brings up that day fifty years ago, the doctors thoughtfully nod.

Farther north, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, a stooped and wiry 73-year-old woman with very bad hearing passes her days with her small dog in an apartment beside a golf course where she used to play daily before her back gave out. She also used to raise pygmy goats, and before that ran a dog-grooming salon. But the majority of her life has been dedicated to high school marching bands, which is partly why her ears are now no good. She is only nine years older than the woman with the limp and the woman with the nightmares. Nonetheless, she still thinks of them as her students. She too was acrophobic and suffered dreams of falling, though in her dreams, children fell while she helplessly watched. Many years passed before the images vaporized, along with her fear of heights. But the memories she retains are as keen as her world is barren of sound.

These three women are part of a community that exists largely in past tense. They have not spoken to one another in years, and only one of them—Kay Leslie McCarty, the woman with the limp—still lives where they once knew one another, in the Hall County town of Memphis. All the others in this community have for the most part abandoned Memphis. They are accountants and doctors and lobbyists and farmers and housewives spread throughout America, connected to youth only by children and grandchildren and yesteryear’s tattered scrapbooks and possessing desires and afflictions no different from those of the rest of us—except for one strange feature, one mechanical object that looms over their lives like the reaper that it once was to Memphis half a century ago.

That object is a Ferris wheel. In a day and age that has seen sexual predators stalk Kansas and Washington State, boy murderers shoot up Columbine High School, and terrorists lay waste to the World Trade Center, the notion of an amusement park ride traumatizing a small Texas town seems almost embarrassingly quaint. Did such a time even exist? Were we ever so innocent that all it took was three girls falling from a Ferris wheel at the State Fair of Texas to rob a town of its dizzy little dreams?

You hear people say today that it takes a village to raise a child. Well, believe you me, that was a village. You didn’t do anything wrong, because everyone’s parents were watching. Not that we did that much wrong. It was almost like we lived a fairy tale. You lived in this place where people loved each other. Those were the innocent times. It was a time where you could grow up and make a mistake and it wasn’t the end of the world.
—Linda “Tooter” Sturdevant McCreary, class of 1959

CHANCE A LOOK BACK, AND SEE MEMPHIS brazen with life again. From the Ritz and the Palace theaters, from the marble lobby of the Memphis Hotel, from banks and drugstores and clothing shops, hundreds upon hundreds spill out into the courthouse square. The cotton merchants kick their boots against the curb as they forecast the summer weather. Lean-faced gentlemen of Swedish descent escort their grandly coiffed matrons across the redbrick pavement and into their Buicks and Fords.

But it’s laughter that most animates the town. Memphis is for the young, and here they are, in hyperventilative clusters. The boys in their letter jackets and crew cuts, high on Pabst Blue Ribbon and braying in one another’s faces. The cotton-clad girls carrying on in stanzas of giggles as they gaze over the packs of local boys, awaiting the inevitable convoy bearing the altogether exotic boys of Lakeview and Estelline. They’ll let the boys chase them, and they’ll let themselves be caught. And then it’s back home, unsullied, through the unlocked doors, safe as always in the bosom of their hometown.

This was Memphis, Texas, before the fall of 1955, back when tragedy was in absolutely no hurry to pay a visit.

Memphis was cotton country. Its gins cranked out tens of thousands of bales, which would then be compressed and loaded onto railcars bound for the ports and then shipped to Europe and Asia. During the twenties and thirties, black men worked the fields. By the fifties, scores of Mexican migrants rolled in on six-wheel trucks to chop cotton and bed down in the gin yard shacks. When labor was scarce during World War II, Memphis Compress received German POWs from a camp in McLean, 43 miles to the north. Rumors circulated around Memphis that sympathetic German émigrés in their midst had carved swastikas into chimneys throughout the town, though in fact

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