Going Home to Arlington

February 1974By Comments

I COULD ALREADY SMELL LILLARD’S hog farm.

At the crest of the hill we would be able to see the roof of Top O’ the Hill Terrace, that mysterious, long abandoned casino with its iron gates, secret tunnels and disappearing decor. That’s where we had our senior class party. On the opposite side of town on the edge of the old Waggoner spread would be the ruin of Arlington Downs, to my knowledge the only thoroughbred horse track in Texas history. Whatever else Arlington had going for it, it had geography.

The three of us were riding crowded in the cab of the pickup truck that actor Cliff Robertson had conned from Ford while he was freewheeling around North Texas scouting locations for the movie J. W. Coop, a film that Robertson would produce, direct, star in, and, finally, claim to have written; it was the story of a cowboy who returns home to Arlington after doing 15 years in the Big Rodeo at Huntsville. Bud Shrake, who co-wrote the script with me, was driving, I was in the middle, and Robertson was on the passenger side, talking a blue streak.

For the moment, however, I was directing, feeling that unique coming-home rush, watching the Cross Timbers flatten into black patches, indulging in a free stream of memories as the institutions of my youth flowed in review.

My plan was this: we’d run Death Crossing, then head out Davis Drive and turn back on South Cooper, past the University of Texas at Arlington (Arlington State, we called it, and before that North Texas Agricultural College and before that Grubbs Vocational. Arlington has been a college town since 1895.) Then we’d drive past the old high school, past the old Cooper mansion, east on Abram along the path of the long-dead Interurban trolley that once connected Fort Worth and Dallas, past the fine old homes deliberately constructed so that the gentry of those easier times could watch the Interurban from their front porches and the T&P Special from their back porches.

We’d hang a left on Center at the Western Auto. Then we would see it, what we drove all this way to see—the mineral well. It would be there in the exact center of Center and Main in downtown Arlington, a chalk-white Hansel and Gretel cottage buttressed by the heads of four lions, which were equipped with four drinking fountains used only when the college cadet corps was initiating freshmen. They dug the well in 1892 as a public water supply, but the water was so foul that even the horses refused to drink it.

When they used the water to dampen the dusty streets, a white crystal formed and that’s how the city serendipitously discovered it had drilled into the same strata that put Mineral Wells on the resort map. Somehow, the mineral water industry never took off in Arlington; perhaps Mineral Wells had more than enough to supply world demands. No one in Arlington thought of the mineral well as a water supply, but rather as a landmark, a place, something that was there, and presumably would be there forever. It was a place where old men gathered and chewed tobacco and cussed Eleanor Roosevelt and played moon and watched the world go around.

The town—town meant downtown, a place that hadn’t changed much since the turn of the century—the town radiated out from the mineral well like points of a compass:

Terry’s Drug, where we sat on the Coke box under a sluggish overhead fan waiting for the Rainbow Girls to get out…Coulter’s Drug with its fading photographs of Arlington Downs in its glory, and the fat Persian cat who hopped among the perfume bottles without incident…Mac’s Cafe where Harold Saxton tried and failed to eat three dozen scrambled eggs…the bowling alley where I stacked pins for 10 cents a line…Purvis’ Variety where the Guinea and his Friends made justice ring…the bank, the Texan, the Aggie, the gas company, Rockeyfel1er’s Hamburgers, Albert’s Pool Hall, the feed store…and past the feed store a grove of trees signifying what trees always signify, that sanity prevails. I remembered wide downtown streets where cars parked slant-in to the curbs or parallel in the middle. And I remembered high curbs where you could still see iron rings used to hitch horses.

“It’s just up ahead,” I told them. “Take a left at the Western Auto.”

“What Western Auto?”

“There used to be a Western Auto…just about where that bulldozer is sitting. Never mind. I’ll take you to city hall. Barney the horsetoothed janitor will fix us a mayonnaise sandwich and let us slide down the fire pole. Then we’ll look up Marshall Morton and go to the movies.”

“Who is Marshall Morton?” Robertson asked.

“Why the village idiot, of course. He’s…I don’t know, 35, 36, this beautiful, willing, shriveled little man who wears two cap guns and a hat and a badge. You can usually find him directing traffic around the mineral well or at the bus station helping people with their luggage or over at the college getting himself fondled by coeds. You ought to see his collection of girls’ pictures. He’s sort of the town mascot. He performs at halftime at all the football games, running from end zone to end zone firing his pistols.”

“A highly respected member of the community, I take it,” Shrake said.

“Precisely.”

Later, when I thought back on it, I realized that Marshall Morton was dead and they had razed the mineral well years ago, 1952 in fact, a year after I graduated from high school. My mind had played me a trick. But now my eyes and my heart were playing tricks. My town wasn’t there. You could still see the hollow shells of what had been the bank and drug stores and the pool hall, but they were gone, life was gone. Broken bricks and glass littered the wide sidewalks. And at the end of the street the grove of trees was a parking lot.

“Some location,” Robertson said.

“What was that village idiot’s name again?” Shrake asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. Most of what I know about the town I grew up in, the town where I lived from the first grade at South Side School through one year of junior college, I learned in November when I returned to do this story. Arlington started as a railroad and five cotton gins. By the time I moved there about 1940 the gins were tin ruins, their windows long broken out by other generations of boys with rocks. They say that old Hugh Smith shut down the last of those five gins rather than submit to new government regulations. If industry means payroll, the main industry in Arlington was the college. There was also an iron works and a can company where my old Granny worked as a stamp press operator. I can still see her walking down the railroad tracks with her wrinkled paper bag, glad to be working.

Not counting the college, there were three schools: South Side, North Side and Arlington High. There were teachers like Mrs. Crow, eternal guardian of the second grade, who checked every student’s hair, teeth and fingernails every school day, summarily printing the names of those who failed to pass muster in The Pig Pen at the upper lefthand corner of the blackboard. There is no humiliation like sitting all day in the second grade looking at your name printed in Mrs. Crow’s shaky hand next to the unmistakable form of a white pig.

That first year my dad operated a Firestone store in the same block as Terry’s Drug and the gas company, but the war was coming, things were changing, and when his business partner, his own father, refused to put another $500 into the business they came and padlocked the door. My dad worked out the rest of his life in aircraft plants in Grand Prairie and Fort Worth. My mom once worked as a window dresser at Sanger’s in Dallas, and what she remembers about Arlington is the window display at Purvis’ Variety: a gigantic washtub full of pink panties.

But when you grew up in Arlington you did not question. Boundaries were places of honor. Stillness was a virtue. The social scale went from the Lions’ Club to the Wednesday Noon Bridge Club. The pool hall, the domino parlor, Mrs. Doug’s Cafe, Smokey Kelly’s grocery, Mac’s Cafe—those places were where the men and older boys hung out on Saturday; and on Sunday everybody went to one of the three Protestant churches situated within a few blocks of each other on the fringe of downtown. I guess the Baptist Church burning to the ground while the city council and the fire chief met across the street to map plans for Fire Prevention Week is about the most spectacular thing I ever saw in Arlington, rivaled only by watching Marshall Morton fire his cap guns at the screen of the old Aggie theatre and shout: “Watch out, Hoppy, he’s behind you!”

The only blacks you ever saw rode in wagons or pushed tamale carts or carried tubs of laundry on their heads. They lived not along the railroad tracks—the rich people lived along the railroad tracks—but in a small pocket of dirt streets and tarpaper shacks on the north side, a few blocks west of North Side School. Even now, with a population estimated at more than 110,000, there probably aren’t 1500 blacks in Arlington. Jackie Ray Brown, my best friend in high school, now a newsman at Channel 5 in Fort Worth, recently reminded me that all us soda jerks at Terry’s were under standing orders to serve blacks in cones, not dishes, or paper cups, not Coke glasses. There was no rule about blacks sitting at one of the three marbletop tables, but I never saw one sit down.

“It never occurred to me to not accept all those things,” Jack Brown told me.

“Me neither. Where did they go to school?”

“I don’t know to this day,” he said. “But they sure as hell didn’t go with us.”

That’s one thing I found out when I visited Arlington in November: what happened to all the black kids. They bused them to Fort Worth. Arlington did build a black grade school called Booker T. Washington, but they built it in 1954, the year that the Supreme Court determined that separate wasn’t equal.

“Remember the Guinea?” Jack Brown asked. “My God, if we did that today we’d be arrested. Armed robbery, pure and simple. I don’t care if they were toy guns.” The Guinea, let it be mentioned, was a caped and masked avenger whose daring once prevented the hijacking of Purvis’ Variety. The Guinea was also known to drop from tree limbs and wave down approaching vehicles with a pair of ladies panties. The Guinea was okay.

In our Arlington, Jack Brown’s and mine, it could be said that if the Guinea didn’t exist it would be necessary to create him. Nothing ever changed. The routine seemed hopelessly permanent. Oh, Hopalong Cassidy came to town one time to sell War Bonds (Marshall Morton fairly freaked him out), and there was that summer they ripped out the old Abram Street Interurban tracks to melt down for the war effort. They sold Savings Stamps in the hallways at South Side, and Kathleen Bradford always bought a dollar’s worth. I always ordered one 10 cent stamp, but never got up enough nerve to ask my folks for a dime. Someone had to eat that 10 cent stamp. I hope it was Mrs. Crow.

“Up until we were sophomores in high school,” Jack Brown reminded me, “the people you knew, the people you went to school with, were people you had always gone to school with.”

“What happened?,” I asked Jack Brown.

“I think it started in the late Forties, when Chance Vought moved from some place in Connecticut to Grand Prairie.”

“Ah, yes,” I said. “The Yankee invasion. Suddenly there were new people, people who talked funny, who acted funny, whose fat, overdressed mamas rode around town on motorscooters.”

“And all their girls put out,” Jackie laughed.

“Every blessed one of them! Or that’s what we thought.”

There were forces at work we never dreamed of. One was geography: Arlington was located in the dead center of what the advertising men now refer to as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Another was Tommy Vandergriff, son of Hooker Vandergriff, the local Chevy dealer, far and away the wealthiest man in town. It was years before my dad quit damning Hooker Vandergriff for selling Firestone tires below dealer’s cost. All the same my dad and mama both supported Hooker’s son Tommy when he ran for mayor in 1951. Tommy was only 25 at the time. The Boy Mayor, they called him.

“I’m about as native as you can get in Arlington,” Tommy Vandergriff is telling me. “Back in 1936 my dad had a Chevrolet franchise in CarroIIton in Dallas County. He was partners with my grandfather, an old blacksmith who ran out of horses to shoe in 1926 and decided to go into another form of transportation. In 1937, Dad decided that Arlington would some day be the center of what I now call the 100-Mile Long City, and that’s how our family happened to move to Arlington.”

Vandergriff is now in his 12th term as mayor of Arlington—there is a campaign sign at city hall that proclaims VANDERGRIFF FOREVER (Or So It Seems). Tommy is a one-man show, operating out of his paneled office at the Chevy shop, running the city out of his pocket, a generous, serious toybulldog of a man on a high energy trip. There is hardly a blade of grass or a patch of concrete in Arlington that does not bear the Vandergriff stamp. The hospital, the high school band hall, Lake Arlington, Seven Seas, even the General Motors assembly plant literally owe their existence to the Vandergriff family. It would not be stretching the story to say that Arlington owes its 1952 state football championship to Tommy Vandergriff, because he is the man who bailed a key segment of the team out of jail one Halloween night after the boys burned down Old Man Lehrer’s shack while roasting a rabbit. The players worked off that debt the following summer at the Chevy shop. I don’t know what ever happened to old man Lehrer. I guess he went somewhere else to die.

The thing you notice first about Tommy Vandergriff is his manner of speech—Tiffany’s baritone. As a boy, he had a bad speech impediment so his dad sent him off to USC to study speech. Tommy’s ambition was always to be a disk jockey, and that’s what he was doing in Los Angeles when a happy accident turned him home again. Tommy and this other fellow were competing for a key job as a newscaster and much to Tommy’s surprise the other fellow got the job. “The other fellow seemed to have so little talent,” Tommy says. “If anyone like that could beat me out I figured I better come back to Texas and be the boss’ son. The other fellow’s name, by the way, was Chet Huntley.” So now Tommy talks like, well, nearly like Chet Huntley.

Until Arlington opened its third (a fourth will open next year) high school, Tommy was always the keynote speaker at every pep rally and the public address announcer at all football games. He still does the P.A. for college games, but politics and geography no longer permit him a voice in partisan high school affairs. I call attention to his voice because it had a lot to do with selling Arlington. When I say Arlington has disappeared I mean my Arlington: Tommy Vandergriff talked it to death. I don’t condemn him; but it is sad all the same.

Given its geography the miracle of Arlington was inevitable: what Tommy Vandergriff did was bring it about in the least amount of time with the highest degree of forethought. When GM decided to locate in Arlington in 1952, Vandergriff was already coordinating such diversified projects as the Great Southwest Industrial District (a 6000-acre industrial park where the Waggoner ranch used to be), the Fort Worth-Dallas Turnpike, Arlington Stadium, Lake Arlington, the new regional airport, not to mention utilities and city services sufficient to handle a population that would leap from 7500 to 44,000 to 111,000 in two decades.

“GM’s decision to move here gave us our leg up,” Vandergriff says. “It opened doors I couldn’t get in before. Suddenly we were on the map. We had a calling card.

“Now I know that growth is a dirty word in some minds, but it doesn’t have to be, not if it is planned properly. We have a lot of square miles [more than 90] in which to grow, more square miles than inside the San Francisco city limits. It’s a matter pure and simple of controlling density.

“A balanced community is the key to being a great city. We don’t want to be just an industrial community, although we have on our tax list one of the highest percentages of industrial-related firms of any city in Texas. We don’t want to be just a tourist town, although with Six Flags, Seven Seas, the stadium and so forth we are one of the leading tourist centers in the whole nation. We don’t want to be just a commercial center, although with two major shopping malls we have great drawing power. We don’t want to be just a college town, although UTA is a great college. We don’t want to be just a residential city, although that’s our strongest suit. We want to be all these things. We must move forward on all fronts.

“Arlington today,” he told me, “is a far better place to live than the town you and I grew up in. There sure weren’t any doctors back then, were there? There was no hospital—now we have one of the finest medical centers in the country. The library you remember wasn’t worthy of the name. Our new library would do justice to a city much larger than ours, and we already have three branch libraries and approval for a fourth. When you lived here there was only one park and hardly any recreational facilities. Now there are nearly 40 parks.”

“Why did you guys tear down the old mineral well?” I asked suddenly.

“We’re going to put it back,” he said, smiling as though he had anticipated the question. “Right where it used to be. The old downtown area will be our new Civic Center Mall.”

“Will the mineral well look the same as it did?”

“We’ll keep some of the old flavor,” he said, and we both laughed at his choice of words.

“NOT FARE WELL, BUT FARE forward, voyagers.” Eliot wrote that. “The memory is a treacherous companion.” I wrote that. I wrote it while winding along Randol Mill Road in the direction of the old Waggoner Ranch which of course wouldn’t be there, but then Randol Mill Road used to be a buffalo trail, a corridor where the Tonkawas hunted, and now both the buffalo and the Tonkawas were gone, vanished without a trace. The Tonkawas were cannibals, not ritualistic cannibals, not psalm singers; no, they ate the flesh of rival tribes cooked in a stew with corn, red peppers, squash and potatoes. This was a practical arrangement and a concession to survival. If a member of a rival tribe wandered into Tonkawa territory, it would be like a pig coming up and knocking on your door when you were half out of your mind with hunger.

IWhere the Waggoners once ran cattle and a few thoroughbred horses there stands now the incredible Great Southwest Industrial District. It is projected that by 1980 the GSID will encompass 1000 companies employing more than 100,000 people. There is very little smoke-stack industry out here; it’s mostly neat, modern office buildings, warehouses and computer banks.

Immediately to the east of GSID is the Six Flags entertainment complex which is expanding almost as rapidly as the industrial district. Already on the drawing board are plans for the Gold Coast, a 41/2-acre artificial lake with a wave-making machine which is supposed to create ideal surfing conditions, and The Way, a 100,000-square foot structure designed by Dallas stage designer Peter Wolf and described as a “multi-sensory journey through the time of Christ.” They say a pilgrim will be able to walk with Jesus and feel the cobblestones, smell the flowers of Gethsemane, experience the hard, dry desert air, watch gathering storm clouds, and perhaps enjoy a Jesusburger while listening to the Sermon on the Mount.

The city of Arlington has a $35 million investment in the stadium (home of the Texas Rangers) and in Seven Seas, which I had assumed would be the world’s snazziest aquarium. I was mistaken. There are roughly ten vending machines for every fish at Seven Seas. There are a few sea lions, some sharks, some doves, some flamingos and cranes, and the mandatory killer whale, but at its heart Seven Seas is merely a shopping mall for trinkets and junk food, a pleasant, brightly-painted place where the family can stroll among artificial rocks listening to a cafeteria organist play “Bye Bye, Blackbird.” It is a strained exercise in plastic heritage.

Not all the tax payers are happy with Arlington’s $35 million venture into the entertainment industry.

“IT’S AN OUTRAGE,” SAYS TOM Sutherland, a professor of English at UTA. “The worst part is not the cost, it’s the image, that never-never land where a person is not allowed to get his hands on the real thing. If the city wanted to do something, why didn’t they build a place where a boy could catch a fish? Why didn’t they build a place where you could ride a horse or even walk? There’s no place left to walk, much less ride a horse.

“They’re making it easier and easier to travel,” says Frank Gilstrap, the young [31] lawyer son of UTA Athletic Director Chena Gilstrap, “but what good is it when the place you’re going is identical to the place you left? A great example is the Waggoner Ranch. I mean it was real. Like downtown Arlington was real, an authentic turn-of-the-century Texas town. What do they do? They plow it under, replace it with plastic, and charge $6.50 to get in.”

We were sitting in Tom Sutherland’s beautifully cluttered living room, sipping whiskey and lamenting the loss of a sense of place. Earlier I had driven over to South Side school which sits abandoned now on a piece of land the owner is holding for speculation. Knee-high brown grass covered the playground where Jerry Harvey’s gang fought and won the Great Rubbergun Wars of the Forties. A loose board nailed over the window of the elusive girls’ rest room rattled in the wind. The twin concrete fountains sat where they had always sat, but no children came to drink.

So I had taken a hollow trip into nostalgia. It didn’t bother me, because the feeling was no simple nightmare where you see yourself running in place and diminishing, not an unfulfilled longing for overturned ice cream wagons and redeeming Disney finishes. No, it was like tumbling outward into zero gravity, a feeling of never was. Though our family hadn’t lived in Arlington for more than a decade and a half, they brought my old Granny and later my dad back here to bury them, feeling, I guess, that if there was such a place as home, this was it. My mom bought herself a burial plot, too, right next to dad. Damn if I will be buried in Arlington: I’d rather be buried in a mason jar. And yet when I walked back to my car, over ground packed by thousands of eager, busy feet, my own included, there was still something about it, something abiding; something that could not be talked to death.

“We’re sophisticated people,” I said. “We know that what is is, and what was can not be destroyed. But what is this lamenting?”

“We’ve caught ourselves in the limited interpretations of the evils of institutions,” Tom Sutherland told me. “What we thought we wanted to tear down only needed revising. We thought we were in a political revolution, but it turned out to be technological. Men like Tommy Vandergriff confuse size, physical growth, with quality of life. There is a paradox about size. Size suffocates.”

For no good reason I thought of Mr. Ewing (not his real name), a pious and self-righteous man, a pillar of the community, a deacon in the First Baptist Church. They caught him shacked up with a local car hop and in a few hours everyone in Arlington had heard of his indiscretion f1nd he was ruined. So he did the honorable thing; he killed himself. Could there ever be another Mr. Ewing in Arlington? No, even piety and self-righteousness could not exist in a vacuum. For that matter, could there ever be another Marshall Morton? Hell, if they didn’t lock him up they would surely run him over.

A COLD NOVEMBER WIND HAD thrashed all color from the sky and an early dark was settling over Mesquite Street when I found the home of Duncan and EIsie Robinson, newly painted but right where it had always been.

Duncan has taught English and journalism at the college since he moved here in 1928. He was head of the English department for 16 years, and although they’ve semi-retired him he is still the senior member of the UTA faculty, a gentle, thoughtful, remarkably human man, a story teller who can live in the past and not mistake it.

“We’re not all that aware of the changes,” Elsie told me. “We still live in the old Arlington. Of course it has got to the point where we have to lock our doors now, but in many ways this is still a fine place to live. There are a lot of young people who care. Some good artists have moved here, and there are several galleries. The college is a better place than it was.”

“We miss Mrs. Doug’s Hamburger and Beer Emporium,” Duncan smiled. ” And the little personal service grocery stores like Kelly-Sawyer.”

“Smokey Kelly’s door was always open on Sunday morning,” Elsie said. “In December he would always have a bowl of egg nog on the counter, and the old timers would come and hang around. Every single morning Smokey drove to Fort Worth and brought back the freshest meat and vegetables. If there was something you wanted, a special kind of cookies or blackberries or lettuce, he would drive all over Fort Worth until he found it.”

We talked for a long time: about prize pigs at the State Fair; and the time some NTAC cadets dive bombed the bonfire at JTAC (John Tarleton Agricultural College, the arch-rival from Stephenville); and how JTAC cadets downed the NTAC plane with a piece of fire wood and took the enemy prisoner; and how they had never built a memorial to the many NTAC cadets killed in the Battle of the Bulge (including two former cadet colonels); and of Uncle Dutch King who drove an ice wagon and kept accounts in his head, got elected justice of the peace by claiming that Lee’s surrender was illegal, and parked his ice wagon on the T&P tracks because, bygod, he’d been getting out of the way of that train all his life and it was time to reverse roles.

And of Dr. Jack Maxwell, the indomitable dentist who used to dance around his chair, singing, “I’m a ringtailed tooter from the farm”; and how I. T. Summerhill from the college came in one time and found Dr. Maxwell’s dog Blackie in the chair getting his teeth cleaned; and how Dr. Maxwell lost a customer when he told Professor Summerhill: “Get out of here, big boy. This black dog is ahead of you.” And of the books we had intended to write but hadn’t yet found the time.

And on and on like that until it was time to go.

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