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 the marks in question were Navajo symbols bestowed by the town’s earliest architects.
“There were just masses of people,” remembers a local, recalling the town square on Saturday night, when farmers flocked to the Hall County seat and Memphis’s population of nearly four thousand swelled to two or three times that number. “There were five hamburger joints on the square and, what, four or five grocery stores.” Nearly every business on the square stayed open until the big First National Bank clock gonged ten times. Simpsons Drive In, Hamburger Haze, Cyclone Drive-In, Old-Fashioned Freeze…And half the town drove that languid circuit, round and round, while the other half perched gawking on the hoods of parked cars. It was what Memphis did—this, and sit at the train depot and wave at the fancy people in the Zephyr dining cars chugging toward Denver or round up a dozen cars and paint “Memphis” on the doors and gun them through a succession of other small towns, hollering out, “Go, Memphis!!!”
You would not call the town a place of beauty, splayed out in the unchanging netherlands in the southeast nub of the Panhandle and west of the pine thickets. And because Memphis dwelled in a less than perfect world and because the fifties were an imperfect time, a critical eye could discern blemishes in the town. There were bootleggers and infidels. Folks in town puzzled over the heavy raiment of its lone Orthodox Jew and snickered at the young man in shorts and sandals who evinced no desire to marry. Children were instructed not to go to the square when the migrants were passing through. The good people of Memphis locked their car doors when they drove on the other side of the tracks through Morningside, where their domestic help lived—Negroes who sat in the movie theater balconies and were schooled in a little building underwritten by a liberal white doctor. And from time to time private tragedies fell into public view, like the day when the 35-year-old daughter of one of the town’s most prominent families drove alone to the city park, cut the engine, and from the driver’s seat silently toasted Memphis with a lethal dose of poison.
But Memphis remained comfortable in its plain skin. Every hard knock registered as a glancing blow. In June of 1953, a whole block of businesses on Main Street was consumed by fire. Reported the Memphis Standard four days later of those victimized: “Several Memphis merchants…either were back in business this week or getting ready to be.”
In the summer of 1954, four teenage girls were speeding along the Friendship Highway on the outskirts of town, playing a game of “ditch ’em” as a carload of Lakeview boys gave chase, when the girls’ car lost control in a divot of sand and flipped off the road. One of the four girls, Barbara Allen, flew out of the green-and-white Chevrolet and landed in a cotton field. She was unscathed. So were Barbara’s three friends. These were the four princesses of the town: Barbara, daughter of the Memphis Compress owner; Linda, or “Tooter,” Sturdevant, who’d been baton twirling in town parades since toddlerhood; Ouida Massey, the town’s dishwater-blond beauty queen; and Cynthia Combest, whose granddad owned ranchland and service stations and whose mother was the young lady who had committed suicide in the city park.
Cynthia had been driving the Chevy. Of this boy-crazy quartet—“wild by Memphis standards,” “too high and mighty for the rest of us”—she was the undisputed queen bee. When Cynthia said, “Let’s all wear our plaid dresses today” or “Let’s form a square-dancing club” or “Let’s not talk to her anymore” or “Let’s all go to the drive-in theater so I can make out with Don,” the other girls gamely fell in line. Cynthia had gotten her driver’s license earlier than her friends; she had nicer clothes, a more lenient curfew. Though the five-foot-one brunette wasn’t nearly as pretty as Ouida or her family as wealthy as Barbara’s, leadership came naturally to her. She could be bossy but also terribly needy, even before her mother’s death. “Give me a hug.” “Hold my hand.” “I can’t wait for Don to marry me!” She was not yet fifteen.
Cynthia, Barbara, Tooter, and Ouida performed in the Memphis High marching band. This being Texas, the townsfolk lived for its Cyclones football team, and the school’s basketball squad had won the state championship in 1949. But by 1955, the band was the hottest thing going on campus.
Kathy Phillips was the reason. She had shown up in town the previous year, 22 and single and poor but determined to prove that a young lady could be a band director. The school’s bombastic football coach had chased off the last directors, who had been male. Though petite and fresh out of college, Miss Phillips wasn’t easily intimidated. She possessed a drill sergeant’s strictness. Everyone in place. Uniforms tidy. Utmost attention paid. Consequences paid as well. She threw out three cornet players for acting up. The parents backed the young teacher. Some of them tried to fix her up on dates. Miss Phillips told them not to bother. Her work was her life, and she spent almost every waking moment encamped in the band hall and ignoring the town gossips—convinced, she would one day say, that her kids, like all kids, “can accomplish things they never dreamed they could do, once they develop pride and an esprit de corps that makes a band much better than its individual parts.”
In the summer of 1955, Miss Phillips’s efforts paid off: The school’s 51-member marching band was among the 22 bands selected from the entire state to play for that year’s Cotton Bowl Music Festival at the Texas State Fair. They were going to Dallas! Most of the Memphis kids hadn’t ever seen the big city before. For them and their farming families, a day trip to the department stores on Polk Street in Amarillo, eighty miles away, was a monumental event. But Dallas! A few parents were fretful. Miss Phillips assured them she was leaving nothing to chance. Plenty of chaperones would accompany the band, and the bus driver, Tooter’s father, was a skilled auto mechanic. The complete regimen would be outlined in the “poop sheet” Miss Phillips handed out to her charges: 5 a.m. load bus. 5:30 leave. (If you don’t think so, just you hide and watch.) Lunch stop on ride. Immediately upon arrival, we will check in at the Baker Hotel. Go to rooms to change and rest awhile. No one will leave the hotel at this time without permission…
Fifty years later, Kathy Phillips—still petite but now gray-haired and rickety—would sit on her apartment sofa in Fort Smith and consider with wistful hazel eyes that banner moment in the life of Memphis, Texas. “I’ve always been an inveterate what-iffer,” she says. “Still am. Especially in the position I was in. I couldn’t make any mistakes. I’d given the kids permission sheets to make sure the parents would allow them to go on rides at the fair. But the night before we left and I was packing, I remember thinking: ‘If anything ever happened to one of these kids, I don’t think I could teach anymore.’”
Silence overtakes her. The past engulfs the present.
She measures her words. “There was never, of course, any hint that I was to blame.”
THE TEEMING SQUARE OF MEMPHIS in 1955 was a virtual ghost town compared with downtown Dallas in the throes of the 1955 Texas State Fair.
Men in fedoras and women in high heels packed the sidewalks. Streams of pennants flapped overhead. And this was Monday! The hayseeds of Memphis filed out of the Baker Hotel and regarded the elaborate window displays and sleek pedestrians with amazement and more than a little nervousness. Several of them retreated to their hotel rooms, where they contented themselves with leaning out the windows and chunking ice and water balloons at the passersby below. Cynthia, though miffed that Tooter hadn’t made the trip to Dallas and that beautiful Ouida had seen fit to go shoe shopping with the baton twirlers, took to the streets with Barbara in tow. They wandered through the gift shops and bought matching stuffed poodles. But they didn’t stray far from the hotel. They were Memphis girls, this was the big city, and as Miss Phillips had admonished them, tomorrow would be a long day.
At eight-thirty in the morning on Tuesday, October 11, the school bus containing the Memphis High marching band and its instruments pulled away from the hotel and headed for the fair. Cynthia was in a sulky mood. She’d asked a Dallas girlfriend who went to school at Hockaday to meet her at the fairgrounds. When the friend said she had other things to do that day, Cynthia snapped, “Well, you probably won’t see me again. I’m going to meet my mother.” She casually recited this story on the bus to another band member, who scarcely knew what to make of it.
Tooter’s father parked the bus on Pennsylvania Avenue. The band members lugged their instruments across the parking lot and into the warm-up room located in the bowels of the Cotton Bowl. Miss Phillips began her litany of instructions. After performing a morning concert, they would rehearse on the football field and then have lunch at the fairgrounds, followed by free time to enjoy the park rides. They would meet back at the bus at three-fifteen. Rehearse one more time at four. Return their instruments to the bus and then have supper. Meet back at the bus at seven-fifteen. Line up at the end zone at seven-thirty. Say, as was customary for all of Miss Phillips’s bands, the Lord’s Prayer in unison. Then the performance in the Cotton Bowl, followed by fireworks. She noticed one of her students was heedlessly staring off into space. “Cynthia!” she hollered.
The band director led them out onto the Cotton Bowl field. It was their time to rehearse, but another band had only just begun its drill. The Memphis kids gaped. This band, obviously from a big-city school, stretched its formation all the way across the football field. While her charges admired the band and kicked their shoes through the lush green turf, Miss Phillips consulted with the other school’s director, then with her watch, which read roughly eleven o’clock. Then she wheeled back in her distinctive bowlegged gait.
“Leave your instruments here on the field,” she told them. The band members could spend the next hour entertaining themselves on the fairgrounds while Miss Phillips went back to the hotel to check on a sick student they had left behind. A few of the Memphis kids stayed to watch the other band. Most, however, bolted out of the stadium, out into the thickening carnival crowd and the aroma of fresh popcorn and the tangle of roller coasters, the merry-go-rounds, the Twister, the Scrambler, and the myriad ring toss booths.
From the stadium entrance, however, the first object in sight was a double-wheeled metal contraption looming nearly a hundred feet over the fairgrounds like a predatory counterpart to the unctuous figure of Big Tex at the opposite end of the amusement park. Cynthia issued the command: “Let’s all ride the Ferris wheel!”
Barbara agreed. So did Ouida, only to realize that she had left her money on the bus. “I’ll catch up with you,” she called out, while Cynthia, Barbara, and three other Memphis girls joined the ticket line.
The man standing at the gate of the Sky Wheel took their tickets. Cynthia and Barbara headed toward a seat. There was room for a third, but Ouida was still back in the bus. “Come on, Kay,” one of them said to a third girl.
Her name was Kay Leslie, the town florist’s daughter. Kay was a tall, skinny girl with glasses and a ready, toothy grin—well liked but also relatively new in town and somewhat shy, certainly not one to chase the boys of Lakeview and Estelline in the manner of Cynthia’s frisky gang. She slid into the seat first. Cynthia took the middle, where she could hold both girls’ hands. Barbara slid in beside her best friend. A fourth Memphis girl, Judy Miller, tried to squeeze in as well, but the man told her the seat couldn’t hold that much weight. Judy shrugged and took the next seat with another band member, Sharon Harrison.
After some twenty seats were filled, the machine hummed, the wheels began to grind, and the girls screamed with delight as they began their ascent. It was a clear autumn day in Dallas. From their perch, the Memphis girls could see the thousands of schoolchildren bunched around the mile-long expanse of amusements. They could see boys in ducktail haircuts and the picket line of Negroes protesting segregation at the edge of the fairgrounds. They could see the exhibit hall containing displays from Sweden, Japan, Belgium, and other nations. Climbing farther, they could see the Dallas skyline, the pancake sprawl of the Metroplex. The three girls in the one seat and the two girls in the other called out to one another—words that none of them would remember, except that, as Judy Miller Davis would reflect half a century later, “It was sheer joy. It was youth. It was youth.”
Still, as the wheel conveyed them again to its peak of 92 feet, their gaiety faltered. They were very, very high up. A child of Memphis was not so accustomed.
“I’m ready to get off,” said Barbara nervously.
“I am too,” said Cynthia.
“Me too!” said Kay.
The snapping noise was both definitive and foreign. People hearing it clear across the park knew it was not a good sound. They looked up. What they saw was a seat at the virtual peak of the Ferris wheel swivel off its pivot at an asymmetrical dangle. From that fractured seat, three small figures in bright uniforms flew into the air. The fairgrounds erupted in screams. One of the figures sailed clear over the Ferris wheel. Another tumbled straight down through the metal apparatus. The third figure headed down toward the guts of the Ferris wheel as well. But then, almost monkeylike, the third figure reached out and grasped ahold of a metal bar and clung there, swinging some 25 feet from the ground, until she fell as well.
The man operating the Sky Wheel stopped the machine almost immediately. Hundreds began to run toward it. Those who arrived first saw one teenage girl lying still on the pavement and another motionless on the platform. Those who reached the third girl were stunned to see her spring to her feet and cry out, “Where’s Cynthia? Is she okay? Cynthia!”
Judy Miller and Sharon Harrison sat crying thirty feet from the ground as workers began to scale the motionless wheel. They could see their friends splayed out on the ground. Ambulances and policemen arrived on the scene. A Dallas Morning News photographer began to snap pictures. Climbing off an altogether different ride, Ouida and another band member were accosted by a breathless stranger. “You’re wearing the same uniform as those girls!” he told them. Ouida followed the rush of fairgoers in the gravitational pull of the accident.
Elsewhere on the fairgrounds, a ten-year-old boy and his grandfather were strolling through the crowd when a park official approached them and began to speak quietly to the elderly man. The boy, Larry Ed Combest, could tell by his grandfather’s expression that something was wrong. They were ushered into a building and into a room where a number of cots lay on the floor. On one of the cots was a blanket covering a body. The official lifted the blanket. Larry Ed stared back at Cynthia—his sister and single constant presence after his mom had died mysteriously in the park two years before. Forming around Cynthia’s head was a pool of blood.
The medics loaded Kay and Barbara into an ambulance. The latter was bruised, and her ankle hurt. The medics told her to lie down next to Kay, who seemed to be sleeping but was moaning loudly. The noises scared Barbara. She remembered that sudden sick descent. Remembered thinking, with abject certainty, I’m going to die. But remembered as well flailing with her hands for something to grab onto, and somehow, with her eyes closed, her fingers curled around some metallic object and…Where was Cynthia?
The other Memphis band members watched shell-shocked as the ambulance left the fairgrounds. “Let’s everyone go get their instruments and put them back on the bus,” said Tooter’s father. There would be no evening performance at the Cotton Bowl. As one sobbing band member prepared to board, a boy stepped out of the crowd. “I’m sorry,” he said to the crying girl, and gave her his handkerchief.
BACK AT THE HOTEL WITH THE AILING BAND MEMBER, Miss Phillips answered the phone. The voice on the other end asked, “Are you in charge of the band from Memphis? There’s been a tragic accident, and some of your kids have been taken to Baylor Hospital.” Miss Phillips was already out the door and heading toward the parking garage when the awfulness of the message fully registered. Tragic accident.
Three hundred miles away in Memphis, Kay’s mother was home eating lunch in the kitchen when her portable radio blared: “We interrupt this program…” The town’s telephone operator, Ouida’s mother, saw the entire switchboard light up at once. Over the loudspeaker, the students of Memphis High heard the names of three of their classmates. Within the next couple of hours, three two-seater private planes were located to ferry Barbara’s father and Kay’s parents to Dallas.
Miss Phillips reached the hospital long before the parents did. She was led to the hospital director’s office and asked to sit down. The official’s voice was somber. “Is Barbara Allen your student?”
When Miss Phillips said that she was, the director stated, “She has a sprained ankle. Is Kay Leslie your student?”
Miss Phillips nodded. “She’s quite seriously injured,” said the director. “She’s upstairs being worked on. We don’t know the extent of the injuries, except that they’re bad. Is Cynthia Combest your student?”
“She was killed.”
A wave of dizziness overcame the band instructor. She heard the man say, “Put your head between your legs.”
As she did, Miss Phillips realized, And we didn’t have a chance to say the Lord’s Prayer.
The office telephone rang. After answering it, the director said to Miss Phillips, “A reporter wants to talk to you.”
“Tell him to go to hell,” she said.
Miss Phillips sat outside Kay’s room. She could hear the unconscious girl screaming. A doctor informed her that the back of Kay’s head had been smashed so badly from the fall that they had notified one of the finest brain surgeons in the country. Word had come down from the lawsuit-conscious Texas State Fair officials: Spare no expense.
Mr. Leslie arrived at the hospital before his wife did. Miss Phillips began to stammer her sympathies. He coldly ignored her. The band director thanked the hospital staff and boarded the bus, which drove all evening in near silence, other than a few half-stifled sobs. They arrived at Memphis High School after midnight. As the children filed out, their parents rushed to embrace them.
The next evening, Wednesday night, Barbara Allen returned to Memphis by train. She stepped out onto the platform on her crutches. Nearly everyone in town had turned out to greet her at the depot. They cried and hugged her as she passed through the crowd with her parents. That night, while paying their respects at the Combest household, Barbara saw something she had never seen before: She saw her father cry.
Cynthia’s funeral was on Thursday. After a full day of holding her emotions in check, Miss Phillips began to crumble. Her hands and feet were tingling; her sobs came out in tortured little whimpers. Doc Goodall, a local physician, could see that the band director was terrified of going to the funeral. He gave her a shot of something that would put her under for a full day.
But nearly everyone else in town crammed the pews and otherwise formed a ring around First Methodist Church. The organist played one of Cynthia’s favorite songs, “Autumn Leaves.” Barbara, Ouida, and Tooter sat in front with the Combest family. It’s just a bad dream, Tooter thought numbly. We’re gonna wake up.
WE’RE NOT BULLETPROOF. This would occur to Ouida Massey, and surely to others in Memphis. But what to do with that fact? How does a plucky town surrender to its mortality?
It didn’t—not at first. Kay Leslie came home two months after the accident, just before Christmas. For weeks she had been in a coma, and the Leslies were warned to expect the worst. So fixated were the doctors on her head injury that they all but overlooked her hip, which had been badly disfigured. In fact, Kay suffered no lasting infirmity from the neck up, other than hearing loss from a lacerated eardrum. She arrived in Memphis on crutches. Students volunteered to carry her books from class to class throughout the spring semester. In the summer she returned to Baylor Hospital for hip surgery. By the fall of 1956, Kay was walking under her own power again, though with a heavy limp. Classmates wrote obliquely in her yearbook about how much they admired her. Barbara invited her over for a slumber party. But no one spoke to her about the accident. No one spoke to anyone about the accident.
The most visible reminder of the tragedy was, of course, the Combest family, reeling from two deaths. Young Larry Ed returned immediately to school but in the middle of class would have to excuse himself to go vomit in the restroom. His father relocated the boy to Corpus Christi for a short while. The family terrier, Butch, quit eating after Cynthia’s death and soon died. Eventually, Mr. Combest remarried and, in 1959, moved his family west to the Panhandle.
Barbara, Tooter, and Ouida went on without their queen bee. Another girl from the neighborhood, Addie Lou—a year older and with a driver’s license—filled Cynthia’s slot. They formed a singing group, performing Buddy Holly tunes at school dances. And they continued to torment the Memphis boys with their out-of-town preferences.
One day, about a year after the accident, Barbara and Ouida traveled to Gunnison, Colorado, and visited the local fair. Someone dared Barbara to ride the Ferris wheel. “You’ll never get over it otherwise,” she was told. Ouida climbed into the seat next to Barbara. They had not reached the top before Barbara started to panic. She grabbed at the bars, began to cry out. The operator stopped the ride.
Miss Phillips missed several days of school. But she was back on the football field with her marching band the week after that. On October 11, 1956, a year to the day after the accident, the band director went to the cemetery with a bunch of flowers. As she stood over Cynthia’s grave, she became aware of another presence. It was Kay’s father, the florist, who had said nothing to her at the hospital a year earlier.
He said nothing this day either. He simply walked over to Kathy Phillips and wrapped his arms around her shaking body and held her for a long time.
In 1958, after four years in Memphis, she said good-bye and set sail for Okinawa, Japan. It seemed that the kids on the military base needed some of Miss Phillips’s discipline.
WHEN DID MEMPHIS SUCCUMB ALTOGETHER? Everyone from the town has a different answer. No doubt the decline of the local cotton industry, along with increased mechanization, dried up much of the labor base. Others point to the systematic shutdown of the town’s three hospitals. (Memphis couldn’t keep its doctors for long, and those who were willing to stay hailed from foreign countries and were not thoroughly trusted by the older folks.) Or maybe Memphis went silent, says one local, with the advent of modern communication: “Before TV, everyone went to the square. Now they stay home. TV ruined visiting. People don’t even know how to carry on a conversation anymore.”
No one can pinpoint a precise moment in time. Was it in the late sixties, when the Zephyr train made its last stop in Memphis? Was it in the seventies, when General Telephone and Electric closed its district office and the town’s picture show operator died, causing all three downtown theaters to close? Was it during the Carter years, when the skyrocketing interest rate took down half the businesses on the square? Or did the final shoe drop during the optimistic flush of the Reagan years, when Wal-Mart came to Childress and worked its dubious wonders on the area economy?
On one point there is universal agreement: The spark, the promise, and the innocence of Memphis have all gone away. Where once the procession on the square was bumper-to-bumper, now there’s deathly quiet. Where once the townsfolk were all too eager to build and spruce up, new construction and renovation are scarce since, as one lifelong resident puts it, “Everyone’s statement is, ‘It won’t be long before someone tears it up.’” A meth lab was discovered operating in the county. Drug-dealing squatters took over one of the town’s abandoned older houses. Meanwhile, the two prisons in Childress provide Memphis’s most reliable employment base. If it weren’t for crime, the town would have little work. And if it weren’t for the town’s Mexicans, who once arrived during the summers by truck and returned south when the last bales were loaded, there would be almost no place to eat on the square and few students at Memphis High.
Though his mother and his sister are buried in the local cemetery, Larry Combest doesn’t visit Memphis anymore. Until two years ago, he represented the U.S. congressional district for which George W. Bush unsuccessfully ran in 1978 and presided as chairman of the House agricultural committee. Ouida Massey Bradshaw lives in Fort Worth, Barbara Allen Thomas near Tyler, Linda “Tooter” Sturdevant McCreary in Mead, Oklahoma. Sometimes the three of them get together. When they do, they talk about what wasn’t talked about before—about grief and harsh dreams and lost youth. And sometimes they, unlike former congressman Combest and many others, return to Memphis for high school reunions.
It’s not easy to face the sparseness that now defines a once-abundant birthplace. Equanimity has no easy recipe. People walk with limps. They wake up in the dark aswim in monstrous images. And the woman who was once a girl dubbed Tooter, who twirled a baton through the bustle that is no more, has seen a divorce from her husband, the death of her daughter, and a career in banking that has improbably delivered her to an office in Dallas that sits a short drive down Interstate 30 from the fairgrounds where Cynthia fell. She avoids the Texas State Fair, avoids Ferris wheels, like every single soul from Memphis.
But she does not avoid the little cotton town that fell under the wheel. When Linda McCreary goes home to Memphis, she’s not afraid to open her eyes:
Yes, in a sense I would like to see it go on forever, knowing that it will never be as it was. But don’t you think everything’s changed that way? I guess I never wanted it to grow away from the way it was. But the memories I have are so wonderful, and no one can take those from me. And when I go back, sure, it saddens me. It makes me sad we’re all growing old and someday we’ll all go away. And what happened with Cynthia probably rocked that little community more than anything. You think about that: I’m gonna retire in about a year, and I end up about a mile from where she died. But I can look around and always feel at home. Walking back into my past. That’s how I see it, and I pray at night that God won’t let me lose my memory.
Because, you see, I can go back in time . . .
For the story behind this story, read our interview with Robert Draper.