Around the year 1900, several miles outside the little farming community of Fentress, Texas, a boy working in the field looked up and saw a funnel cloud. He ran home, shouting that that a tornado was coming.
The family gathered in the kitchen. They were frantic. The whirling black cloud was headed directly for the house. At any second, it would hit. All they could do was pray.
So they dropped to their knees and closed their eyes, and the father prayed the only prayer he could think of:
“Father, for what we’re about to receive, make us truly thankful.”
And then he jumped to his feet and shouted, “Oh, no! That won’t do!”
The story is true. My great-aunt Bettie Waller, who had known the principals, told it while her husband, Uncle Maurice, sat by and shook with silent laughter. Last fall, while going through old pictures, I found a piece of paper with story notes written on it—in my great-aunt Ethel’s handwriting—a scrap of the history of a small place.
Epilogue: The tornado turned, missed the house, and hit the barn. Neither humans nor animals were harmed.Everyone was truly thankful.
David and I were looking at images of Fentress, Texas—thank you, Google—when he said, “Maud and Carmen Barber.”
“Where?” I said. I get very excited when names I know crop up on the Internet.
In 1922, Fentress was in its heyday, larger and busier than it was when I arrived thirty years later, and its social events were reported in the Austin newspaper.
Here’s a little something extra:
Carmen Barber, who attended the Confederate reunion at Driftwood and co-hosted the melon party, was my father’s first cousin on his mother’s side. Among the the older of his twenty-seven Woodward cousins, she spent her married life, as Mrs. Jack Harper, in nearby Martindale, where she was one of my maternal grandmother’s best friends. When my parents married, she went with them to the Baptist preacher’s house in San Marcos to be a witness.
Ophelia Waller was my father’s first cousin on the Waller side—a total of sixteen cousins there. Married to Tom Ashworth, she lived most of her life in La Feria, Texas. She died there in 2011 at the age of one hundred six. At the time of the party, she would have been seventeen years old.
Mamie Ward (Day) was the daughter of W. F. “Dick” Ward, owner of the town’s ice cream parlor. She taught school in Refugio, Texas. I remember Miss Mamie well from her visits to Fentress during the summers. I contend that her family was the closest thing to royalty Fentress ever had, because of the huge double-dip nickel ice cream cones Dick sold there for close to fifty years. If you dropped yours while getting on your bicycle, he rushed back inside his shop and scooped you up a replacement cone for free.
That’s what I know about three of the girls at the melon party.
What I don’t know—and sincerely wish I did—is the identity of the Beau Brummells who were barred from the delightful little social affair. If I think hard enough, maybe I’ll come up with some possibilities.
When I think of my hometown as it used to be–and I do that often–two people immediately come to mind.
I’ve written before aboutDr. Francis Carlton Luckett,who practiced medicine in my hometown of Fentress, Texas from 1917 until shortly before his death in 1965. I won’t repeat myself here except to say he was an extraordinary person and physician. In the words of my great-aunt Bettie Waller, his presence raised the level of the community. To people who knew the town in the first half of the 1900s, he was Fentress.
But what prompted this post–Dr. Luckett was also a musician. He worked his way through medical school at Tulane by playing a theater organ, accompanying silent films. In Fentress, he gave recitals and played for weddings. And he composed “Hospital Rag” for the piano.
As a child, I was fascinated by the idea that my doctor, who hated giving children injections (I never got mad at him for popping me with a penicillin shot every time he saw me; I blamed my mother instead), came to my house to take my temperature (and give me a penicillin shot) when I was sick, and took out my tonsils, had composed a rag. But I never heard him play it, and he didn’t commit it to paper, so I gave up hope.
Until Doctor’s granddaughter sent a recording to my friend Patsy Munk Kimball (whose husband was named for Dr. Luckett, and whose two sisters, in addition to her first child, he delivered), and Patsy sent a file to me.
Wow. That man was all over the piano.
Patsy had shared with me many old photos of Fentress in its early years, when the Fentress Resort drew people from miles around.
I wished aloud that I could share everything with folks who remember Dr. Luckett. David offered to make a video and put it on Youtube.
Suddenly the topic broadened–we couldn’t make a video about the town without includingDick Ward,who owned and operated what used to be called an ice cream parlor in the early part of the 19th century and continued until, like Dr. Luckett, he retired in the 1960s. He, too, was Fentress. I’ve written about him, as well.
There was a big sign on the awning in front of his store–W. F. Ward Conf. After I learned to read, I asked what Conf. meant. Confectionery, my father told me, but he’d heard someone remark it ought to say, W. F. Ward Cone, because that’s what he sold–huge double dip ice cream cones for a nickel. And if the top dip fell off, as sometimes happened, especially to children without the manual dexterity to hold the cone upright (or who tried to get on their bicycles with cone in hand), he automatically replaced the dip, free.
That had to be the best deal anywhere–the only price in the world that was never affected by inflation.
And ice cream is therapeutic. After a penicillin shot from Dr. Luckett, one of Dick’s ice cream cones made everything okay again.
(And make no mistake–it wasn’t just kids–I saw plenty of adults walk out of Dick’s store carrying ice cream cones. And smiling.)
But back to the video. Patsy supplied the pictures, I put them in order, and David made the video. It’s onYoutube for all to see.
If you want to know more about Fentress, the bare facts are covered in the Handbook of Texas. But if you want to know the whole story–like
why the Methodist Church was founded, or
what J. C. Dauchy always carried in his pocket, or
which teenager made the owner of the telephone company so mad–and how the teenager did it–that the owner threatened to cut off service to the Fentress School, or
which new bride invited visitors to “Come right in” when her husband was taking a bath in front of the fireplace in the living room (in 1905), and
what the new husband did when he heard his bride invite company to come right in, or
what the members of the Staples Baptist Church did immediately after their minister preached against the Sin taking place in Fentress on a daily basis (I’ve been told that during Prohibition, the skating rink/dance hall did get a little loud)–
If you want to know anything like that, don’t ask the Handbook of Texas.
Yesterday I shared a Juneteenth memory–roasting ears. Today I’m sharing memories of two more foods that made June special.
The first is even better than roasting ears: watermelon, which is grown around Luling, ten miles from my hometown. Corn could be frozen for use any time, but when I was a child, watermelon made you w-a-i-t. And once the season was past, that was that. It took forever for Juneteenth to roll around again.*
In 1989** a Guinness World Record was set for the first time in Luling for the longest watermelon seed-spit. The record of 65 feet, 4 inches was set by John Wilkinson, a festival attendee from Houston, Texas. Then in 1989,** a local man, Lee Wheelis, re-established the record spitting a distance of 68 feet, 9 1/8 inches. This year a $500 cash prize will be awarded to the top spitter in the Championship Contest and should Luling’s record distance be broken, an additional $500 will be added to the top prize.
In addition, “[s]pitting champions have also been featured guests on the Tonight Show starring Jay Leno, the Regis and Kathy Lee Show, and Howie Mandell’s show.”
Luling also claims to have the world’s largest watermelon. Click hereto see a picture.
But, although the Watermelon Thump is a grand festival, it’s really beside the point. The pleasure is in the eating.
I don’t have the words to describe the taste of watermelon, but Mark Twain did:
“The true Southern watermelon is a boon apart, and not to be mentioned with commoner things. It is chief of this world’s luxuries, king by grace of God over all the fruits of the earth. When one has tasted it, he knows what the angels eat. It was not a Southern watermelon that Eve took: we know it because she repented.”
The italics are mine. And Twain was right. Who could repent of eating watermelon?
(Not wishing to spread misinformation I looked it up. The Bible doesn’t say Eve repented after eating the forbidden fruit, but, all things considered, I’ll bet she did.)
My last Juneteenth memory is Aunt Bettie Waller’s birthday. She was married to my great-uncle Maurice from 1905 till his death in 1970, and I don’t think they ever had a cross word between them. That’s not an exaggeration. They were crazy about each other and spent a lot of time laughing. He was the quietest person I’ve ever known, though; when other people guffawed, he just shook. Occasionally Aunt Bettie would decide they should do something, such as air condition the house or turn a screened porch into a sitting room, and he would disagree. When that happened, she talked–quietly, mildly, just mentioning it from time to time–until, after a while, she’d convinced him it was his idea. And after it was done, he was always so pleased with the result.
She did report one major subject of discord. When their son, Pete, was very young, Uncle Maurice refused to discipline him because “he won’t love me.” Aunt Bettie pleaded: “If you don’t make him behave, he won’t know you’re his father.” Once when Uncle Maurice corrected him, Pete retorted, “Uh-uh. That’s Ma’s job.” Then one night at dinner, Pete lobbed a plate of food at Uncle Maurice, and family dynamics underwent a radical change. Everybody kept on loving everybody else.
We often celebrated Aunt Bettie’s birthday with a dinner, featuring corn and watermelon, of course–but the entree was always hamburgers. To her, that was what the angels eat.
Treated to lunch once at a fashionable restaurant, Aunt Bettie ordered a hamburger. Her host expressed disapproval, something along the lines of, “Miss Bettie, I didn’t invite you to this restaurant for a meal you can get at the Dairy Queen. Order anything you want.” Aunt Bettie wanted a hamburger.
The menu at our gatherings rarely varied. Each woman brought a signature dish. Even for her own party, Aunt Bettie made potato salad. Unfortunately, no one asked for the recipe; there probably wasn’t one. The secret ingredient was probably sugar. That generation of Wallers put sugar into everything–and still, most of them were built like scarecrows.
Aunt Bettie lived to be 101. She would have been 132 last Tuesday. She was a delight to be around, and I miss her.
I miss that potato salad, too. I wish I had the recipe. More to the point, I wish I had a big bowl of it.
And I wish I were one of the Wallers built like a scarecrow.
*Watermelons are available all year in grocery stores now, shipped in from Elsewhere. No waiting. Small. Bland. They’re not the same.
** The paragraph from the Thump webpage was copied and pasted into this post. I assume one of the dates reading 1989 is a typographical error.
The following Senior Will, excerpted from Prairie Lea High School’s May 1966 War Whoop, was presented at that spring’s Junior-Senior banquet and prom.
Because I had not yet reached the alpine heights of junior-senior-hood, my name doesn’t appear in the list. I do, however, remember the students whose names do appear there. I also remember most of the circumstances leading to the bequests.
By this time tomorrow, the sycamore tree in my front yard will be gone. Sycamores need a lot of water, and over the past few years, Texas, like the rest of the Southwest, has suffered a severe drought. The tree was one of its casualties.
So tomorrow it has to go. I’ll be there when it does.
That sycamore and I have been friends all my life. While I watch it come down, I’ll have my crying towel close at hand.
Consequently, the average age in the coffee shop–aka my office–is considerably lower than usual. I estimate it at approximately two.
Normally I filter out noise and activity to concentrate on writing. The ability to hyperfocus is a gift.
Today, however, what’s going on around me is more interesting than the story to be revised.
Behind and to the right, a little-bitty with black eyes and a pixie cut sings, “E-I-E-I-OOOOO.” She began in atonal mode but soon picked up the melody.
Directly behind me, a little boy I imagine as blond protested. “I don’t like to sit down.” Then he shrieked and wailed.
“OoooooooooooooooooOoooooooooooooooooOooooooooooooooo.” Finally he settled down to snuffling. I assume at some point, probably while the Ooooooooos were wearing down, he sat. Now he’s either resigned to his fate or he’s left the store.
There’s been a lot of wailing today. I don’t know why, considering the petting zoo is here. Maybe it’s tension. Maybe it’s that little kids are like adults: some days you get out of bed in a snit and you just have to share it.
Mothers have changed since I was a child. In my day, a mother would have taken the child outside and given him a choice: behave or go home and not get to see the animals or have a cookie or whatever special treat has been promised. I don’t know a child who was actually hauled home, and I don’t know a parent who meant what she–or he–said, but generally things quieted down a bit.
Something similar happened to me when I was a child. But I wasn’t offered a choice. And I wasn’t hauled home. I imagine a lot of people wished I had been.
At church one Sunday, the Methodist little-bitties–or, as one of my teacher friends calls them, ankle-biters–were all decked out to stand at the front and sing a song. Our teacher, who should have known better, had seated us in a pew, side-by-side. While the adults were doing their thing, Helen Ruth and I took the opportunity to converse.
My parents sat in the pew right behind us. They disapproved of talking during the service. My father picked me up, took me out on the front porch, and gave me a swat.
Ours was a small country church, and Daddy and I were maybe twenty feet from the back pew, so the congregation got the full benefit of my caterwauling.
And when we returned to the sanctuary, I refused to perform with the rest of the class.
Have I mentioned I don’t remember any of this?
Talking in church got me in trouble, but the swat got Daddy in trouble.
Because Mother blamed him for my declining to stand in front of the communion rail and be cute–and she was right; no way would I display myself in front of a bunch of people who’d heard that swat–and she stayed righteously indignant for the rest of her life. Periodically, she would say, “I was so mad at your father. All he had to do was lean over and say, ‘Girls, stop talking.'”
What really got her goat was that I refused to perform in Sunday school programs for several years thereafter.
I can’t fault my father, however. An inexperienced parent, he was trying to do the right thing.
Knowing what I do about myself, I’m sure I was angry and embarrassed. I was an eminently embarrassable child. I was also obstinate.
I know something else, too.
Years later my parents and I were sitting in the First Methodist Church in San Marcos, waiting for the choir to perform selections from The Messiah, when Daddy said, “I haven’t been in this church since I was ten years old.” That was 1925. “I went to Sunday school with Johnny Graham [a cousin], and they made me stand up and say my name and where I was from, and I never went back again.”
So there you are. Embarrassable is hereditary. So is obstinacy.
It gives me satisfaction to know that if my father had been removed to the front porch and given a swat, he wouldn’t have just refused to sing with his Sunday school class.
My father would have waited fifty years before he darkened that Methodist door.
I started this post for the purpose of telling a personal anecdote about a petting zoo but somehow got off onto Methodists and lost my way back. Because I have much more experience with Methodists–and Presbyterians and Baptists–than I do with petting zoos, it’ll be a while before I return to the animals. But that’s okay, because the church stories are a lot more interesting. And you won’t read them anywhere else.
Only Day 2, and I’m already tempted to drop out of Writing 101.
Yesterday I had all day. I started early, ignored the instructions and wrote what and how I wanted, and took my time doing it. Fine.
Today I had both morning and afternoon meetings, and now I’m as tired as I was when I had an eight-to-five job. In addition, I don’t like the topic. There’s no place I want to beam up to right now except bed. I’m trying to get my sleep patterns straightened out, and I can’t do that if I stay up writing.
Furthermore–and this the heart of the matter–I don’t like doing descriptive writing. I’m not good at it. When reading, I often skim or skip. I miss a lot of great prose, I know, but I prefer to get on to what the characters are doing. A professor remarked that Hemingway‘s description of the scenery during a drive through the Pyrenees in The Sun Also Rises was some of the finest writing in the English language. We had just read the novel. I tried to look as if I agreed about the quality of the description I hadn’t noticed.
Now that I’ve expressed my discontent with the topic, I’ll move on to a place I memorized:
My great-grandmother’s house two blocks from the house where I grew up. After you cross FM 20, the street angles off toward the left, and the one house and the foliage between hid Grandmama’s house from ours. The houses weren’t far apart, but when you crossed the two-lane road we called “the highway,” and the street made that little jog you felt like you were in a different part of town altogether.
My great-grandmother died three years before I was born. When I was a child I called it “Aunt Ethel’s house” for the great-aunt who lived there. When my uncle inherited it, it became “Donald’s house.” My father, who, with his four brothers, had lived there as a child, after his mother died called it simply “the house.” “I’m going up to the house,” he would say. No one ever asked him to explain.
It sat on the corner a block from Main Street, a white frame house with a big front porch. At each end a door led to a bedroom; the door to the living room was in the middle. Queen’s crown growing up the brick supports (pillars and columns sound too grand) and provided shade in summer and sometimes a measure of privacy. Inside there was no privacy at all: there were lots of windows, and most rooms had french doors. That they had sheers was little comfort. When we spent the night there once, my mother commented it was like living in a fish bowl. Surrounded by trees, it was hot in summer. On winter nights, when propane space heaters were turned off, it was absolutely freezing.
While my father called it “the house,” my mother called it “Grand Central Station.” Two of Grandmama’s sons lived across the street. Their children and grandchildren were in and out all day. Some walked in through the front door, stopped in the kitchen for a glass of water, and walked out the back without saying Hello. (I always said Hello.) When there was a funeral, four generations met there for lunch, sitting in the dining room, spilling out onto the front porch and the back yard. Those who lived there gathered there in the evenings. Mother offended my father early in their marriage by saying she’d rather stay home and listen to Jack Benny on the radio.
By the time I was out of high school, things had changed. For the first time, I knocked on the door before walking in. The house was no longer a gathering place. Later, it passed out of the family, and none of us went there at all.
Several years ago, I was invited back. An estate sale had been scheduled, and the auctioneer, knowing that many things there had been in my family for years, allowed me to come in for a pre-sale sale. I bought an old china cheese keeper that my mother had coveted, and some demitasse spoons from what had probably been Grandmama’s first set of flatware, and a place setting of the flatware used daily when I was a child, entirely utilitarian and, in my opinion, about the ugliest pattern imaginable.
It was strange being back after all those years. I remembered huge bedrooms, huge living room and dining room . . . Everything had shrunk. Except the porch. There was still room for several card tables of domino-playing ladies on summer afternoons.
For years, I felt as if that house belonged as much to me as to the great-aunts and the uncle who lived there. When it passed into new hands, I was sad. But it was a house. People had made it special.
The house was sold. My memories were not.
Recently, the house was sold again, this time to a friend. I’m pleased to know it’s in good hands.
Five Sons of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Waller Are Servicemen
The Record is glad to present in its Service Men’s Corner this week another group of five fine young men, all brothers, now in the service of their country.
These are sons of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Waller of Fentress. An interesting and significant feature of this story is that the young men pictured here are first cousins of the five Graham brothers that were featured in a recent issue of the Record, all being in the service. Their mothers, Vida Waller and Bruce Graham, are sisters and their fathers, Ed. Graham and Frank Waller, are cousins.
The Waller brothers pictured above are as follows: Joe Waller, U. S. Navy; Pfc. Maurice Waller, overseas; Pfc. Bill Waller, Hd. Co. 32 A. B., Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania; Cpl. Donald Waller, Base Weather Station, Luke Field, Phoenix, Ariz.; Pfc. Graham Waller, Co. B. 155 Inf., Camp Shelby, Miss.
The above pictures and script appeared in the San Marcos Record of January 29th and are reproduced here by the permission of that newspaper.
Mr. and Mrs. Waller and their sons are due thanks and admiration of all Americans for the sacrifices they are making for their country.
Source: Lockhart (TX) Post Register, 1943
Joe, Donald, and Graham served in the Pacific. Bill and Maurice served in Northern Europe. All returned. Bill came home deaf from bomb concussion and spent the next twenty years telling curious children that his hearing aid was a telephone. In 1967 and ’68, a new surgery being taught at the VA hospital in Houston restored his conversational hearing.
The Cottonwood community lay along Cottonwood Creek, Guadalupe County, across the San Marcos River from Fentress, Texas. The photograph above was taken at the Cottonwood School Reunion in–I believe–the 1930s. The people I know are identified in the caption. Some of the other surnames represented are probably Gregg, Rector, Daniels, Ward, and Fleming. I would be grateful for help in identifying individuals I don’t recognize. (The faces here aren’t exactly clear, but more of these pictures are out there in albums and attics, so if you find one with IDs, share the info, please?)
The picture was taken in front of the skating rink at the Fentress Resort. The skating rink now resides on Hwy 183 just south of Lockhart. It looks a lot smaller now than it did when it was in its proper home on the bank of the river.
I believe my grandfather, Frank Waller, is wearing a necktie. That didn’t happen often, at least when I was around.
In the caption, I note that Maurice Waller is partially hidden. I knew he was in the photo but had difficulty finding him until I realized he had to be beside Aunt Bettie. He was always beside Aunt Bettie. And partially hidden would have suited him just fine.