texasmonthly.com: How did you first come to know of the Ferris wheel tragedy?
Robert Draper: I learned of it purely by chance. In 2003, a friend of mine, screenwriter and Panhandle native Ann Rapp, happened to mention to me her recollection of a bizarre tragedy involving the Memphis High School marching band and the Ferris wheel at the State Fair of Texas. I’d never even heard of Memphis. Upon consulting a map, I called Memphis High and asked the person who answered the phone what she knew about this. Through a succession of events, I was put in touch with Kay Leslie McCarty, one of the survivors of the accident, which, she told me, occurred in 1955. I then realized that the story might gain significance if I held off two more years, until the fiftieth anniversary of the tragedy. So I told Kay to hang tight and stay off of amusement park rides for another two years.
texasmonthly.com: Did the accident make a news splash at the time?
RD: Newspapers all across the world seized on the tragedy. Life magazine ran a photo of the Ferris wheel. There was something particularly wrenching about the tableau of small town teenagers meeting disaster in an urban amusement park, and to this day it’s not hard to find old-timers who recall the accident.
texasmonthly.com: How large a part did the Ferris wheel tragedy play in the decay of Memphis?
RD: It wouldn’t be accurate to suggest a causal relationship between the accident and the town’s later economic misfortunes. Plucky town that it was, Memphis kept up a brave front and went on about its business. This, after all, was not the era of Dr. Phil. What is true, though, is that the town had long seemed (as one of its former inhabitants once told me) “bulletproof,” impervious to life’s vicissitudes. The Ferris wheel accident provided Memphis with its first bitter taste of mortality—a taste with which it’s now, sadly, quite accustomed.
texasmonthly.com: Did the accident contribute to Kathy Phillips’s departure to Japan?
RD: She simply said that it was time for her to move on. Still, several of her students suggested to me that she took the accident harder than anyone in Memphis and that it likely sped her departure.
texasmonthly.com: How did you compose such a detailed description of 1950s Memphis?
RD: Glimpses of that era are prevalent throughout the town square, and photos are archived at a heritage center on the edge of the square. But my primary source was the collective memory of people who could call up images of yesteryear’s Memphis in gorgeous, if heartbreaking detail. Their ability to do so was proof to me that Memphis had been special.
texasmonthly.com: How did you report the details of the band trip and the accident’s aftermath?
RD: As in most journalistic endeavors, there was no central clearinghouse of information. I simply interviewed everyone I could, dozens of people in all. From their fragmented recollections, I pieced together a chronology. Because of the awful drama of the Ferris wheel accident, former band members tended to remember only that—where they were, what they saw—and little if anything about the night before or the night after.
texasmonthly.com: Did you get the chance to talk to both survivors?
RD: There were three girls who fell, and one of them, Cynthia Combest, was killed. I spoke several times to her brother, former U.S. Congressman Larry Combest, who was at the Fair that day. The two survivors, Kay Leslie McCarty and Barbara Allen Thomas, generously shared their memories and scrapbooks with me.
texasmonthly.com: Why did you highlight Linda “Tooter” McCreary’s quotes? Was she more open to your questions or simply more eloquent?
RD: Because Tooter operated somewhat on the periphery of the story, I remember entering that interview with a certain nonchalance. It seems axiomatic of journalism that you encounter the most useful information in the most unexpected places. It wasn’t so much that Tooter remembered more than anyone else, but rather that her memories were so charitable. From the outset, I had struggled with the dilemma of how to write about a small town that’s down on its luck without it becoming a forbiddingly depressing tale. Tooter’s recollections provided the road map. They weren’t saccharine, and, to some degree, they were wistful. But above all, they were wise. And if this story were ever to become a movie (producers, my phone line is open), I would want hers to be the narrative voice.
texasmonthly.com: Did the two surviving women drift apart naturally, or do they actively avoid one another to prevent painful memories?
RD: By all rights, as Ouida Massey Bradshaw pointed out to me, it should have been her in that Ferris wheel seat along with her pals Barbara and Cynthia. But Ouida had forgotten her purse and so had wandered off to fetch—leaving Kay, who was friendly with the other girls but not part of their “gang,” to take the unoccupied space. Having said that, the reality is that the fifties weren’t known for self-inspection. Though Kay walked around on crutches for months, no one ever really asked her—or Barbara—about whatever psychic trauma persisted after the accident. Today, of course, it’s a different era, and all the participants observed with a certain bemusement how differently grief is handled.