Home: Ghosts Haunt but Woody Guthrie Sings

NOTE: Part 3 of a 4‐part post about returning to my Pampa, Texas hometown.

I smiled as I turned onto downtown Cuyler Street, Pampa’s first paved road.

1926 & an oil boom led to the moniker "Town with Muddy Streets."
The moniker “Town with Muddiest Streets” followed a 1926 oil boom.

Red bricks, laid last century by “Indian Jim,” extended south as far as my eyes could see. Perfectly aligned rows and rectangles dissolved into muddy crimson, eventually to meet railroad tracks on the far end of the street.

Thank you Mike Cox for this "Texas Tale" excerpt.
Thank you, Mike Cox, for this excerpt from “Texas Tales.”

One thing about my hometown had not changed.

Black circles (for mourning, anyone?) mark the old night deposit dropoff, the 1940's bank name over the front door, and the eagles keeping watch over downtown.
Three black (cough) circles, from left to right, mark: the old night deposit slot (pre‐ATM days), the bank’s name over the main entrance, and granite eagles that watch all.

Something across the street had.

Resound” headlined the former First National Bank building.

How can a hometown survive without a ‘national bank’? 

Resound offers wireless internet. Good news for a rural town.

WiFi takes over The Bank? 

I remember opening my first bank account here with my father talking in the car about how the building was built during the Great Depression — “jobs for too many unemployed men.” 

I whisper now, At least it’s been repurposed for good,” and drive away.

Next, it’s to the hospital where I survived double pneumonia.

Worley Hospital looked in bad shape the last time I saw it. No time to stop then. It was Mother’s day.

The black circle notes my ’62 hospital room.

Years before, owners had abandoned Worley Hospital. A newer hospital on the town’s north side drew more doctors and patients. 

I cringe at the building’s extreme deterioration. Then my eyes, unconsciously, flick upwards. To the window I can never forget.

For two mostly‐black weeks at age five, I lived in that circled room. Life‐threatening fever seizures led to pain‐filled treatments. But the day before dismissal, Mother lifted me up to that window. I watched traffic on the street below and giggled. I looked over at her and didn’t understand why her eyes were wet.

Ah, a little girl’s scary experience transformed into a sweet memory.

A half century later, scary returned. Thank you, A&E Network.

The film crew profiled Worley Hospital and its new owners, youngsters who dreamed of a B&B. They began renovating. Hauntings began. “Ghost Hunters” came to visit. 

“Ghost Hunters” profile a haunted hospital.

So much stuns in this TV clip:

  • Ghostly entities sidling up walls
  • Green bars recording voice echoes
  • Ghastly state of hospital interior
  • A B&B? In this building?

Outside Worley, I don’t know whether to laugh, roll my eyes, or go inside.

No Trespassing” signs stopped me.

I needed a happy close.

On its north side, Pampa hosts a one‐of‐a‐kind “musical fence.” It ‘sings’ the opening bars of “This Land Is Your Land,” as composed by Pampa’s most famous citizen: Woody Guthrie.

If you can play an instrument, you can play the song by following the fence.

Pampa welder Rusty Neff created the art piece and its 12‐foot treble clef to honor his father. And Woody Guthrie. At night, the fence illuminates in red, white, and blue lights.

Woody lived in Pampa throughout the 1930s. The folk singer dropped out of high school to self educate at the city library. In addition to songwriting, illustrating, and painting, he worked as a busker (musical street performer).

I wonder, “Did Woody busk on the downtown bricks?”

By the way, check out the final verse of “This Land Is Your Land.”

We need more Woody Guthries.

Can You Go Home Again?

NOTEIn this second of a four‐post series, I answer the question, “How’s my hometown, 37 years after I abandoned her?” 

I journeyed to the Texas Panhandle to bury my eldest sister.

A sad moment, yes, but an opportunity, too. A chance to cruise old “stomping grounds,” using wizened eyes, peeling away teenaged angst, and replacing memory with meaning and appreciation.

A drive‐by to First Home revealed a house I recognized only by outline, shape, and a large front window. At the large trees, I smiled.

From birth through first grade, I learned here to walk, talk, and eat dog food. Future blog post?

From the pinkish‐paint to the solid front exterior, everything looked new. Extended carport, enclosed porch. Two sticks: flag pole and yard light.

My family’s decade here — mid-‘50s to 1964 — vanished into history. Except those massive trees, adult children of my father’s planting days. I hear fierce hammering as he pounds wood squares tied with twine into backyard dirt still winter‐hard.

I drive across town to New House. My eyes squint. This is, once again, a New House. Not ours. 

Second grade to high school graduation, I learned Life in a home and town I couldn’t wait to escape.

A stranger tree guards where our willow once loomed. On the upper lawn, weedy grass covers where pink petals from our mimosa tree fluttered. The garage door holds windows and a stained picket fence graces our wide porch.

My second floor bedroom window is hidden. I take that as a good omen.

I’m two down for Home. Surely, School will be different?

At my first school, Sam Houston Elementary, I spot bare ground. When did this happen?

I imagine the terrifying teacher of that one year: Esther Ruth Gibson. You may remember my profile of her.

By the tree stood my first grade classroom, a loud, cavernous space filled with strangers.

Mrs. Gibson terrified me. She stood six feet tall (or more) and greeted me the first day of class. I cranked my neck skyward then buried my Size five torso into my mother’s skirt and burst into tears.

The terror of that year lingered in my memories until last year. I found a letter Mrs. Gibson wrote my parents and closed with, “Melanie is a writer.”

Mrs. Gibson knew first. 

This bike rack beats the decrepit mess of steel we had. 

One more elementary school to view: Austin Elementary where I attended grades 2–6.

I recall a playground filled with non‐stop action. Swing sets, slides, and a see‐saw, plus some kind of whirly‐bird contraption.

None remains.

Where do today’s kids play? Or do cell phones and iPads count as recess?

Potholes dot a cracked parking lot, offering metaphor?

One last school stop: Lee Junior High, a name now buried into history and, soon, dust.

I marvel at the unintended symbolism: an abandoned flag pole and a broken handicapped ramp. With potholes for a bonus.

Too delicious for words.

Intentional? Or merely clueless?

I left my hometown with one more question.

Where is Home when your houses and schools vanish?

Pandemic Road: What Is Normal?

A Saturday evening in August 2020. The Houston Symphony live streams a performance from Jones Hall in Houston, Texas. My dear friend and I are curled up on my couch with the laptop on the coffee table waiting for the music to begin. Before 2020 and Covid, we would be looking forward to the beginning of the new cultural season. We would schedule our tickets for the Houston Symphony, the Houston Ballet and the Alley Theatre. Are we culture snobs? No, of course not. But we are old, retired and healthy. And we like music, dance and theatre. Life is good.

So far this year we have enjoyed performances from the Houston Symphony, the Alley Theatre and Stages Theatre all from the comfort of home. Is it as exciting as getting dressed up and going down to the Theatre District for dinner before the show? Not really. But it is nice. The music is still just as good. We have heard Mozart, Vivaldi, Schubert, Stravinsky, Marsalis and others. It is great fun to see what kind of performances come out of a resident acting company while practicing social distancing. The actors are still as talented.…..maybe more so considering the new restrictions. The Houston Ballet has been very busy on Facebook. Many of the dancers have danced on roof tops, in back yards, and in parking lots. It is wonderful to see them.

In the midst of everything, Hurricane Laura made her appearance in Texas and Louisiana. It was a close call for Houston. Laura finally went east of us. How nice of her. However, no one really knew until the last minute where she was headed, so I am still enjoying some of the snacks I purchased and I have enough water to last me until Thanksgiving. Who would ever have known that between Covid and Hurricane season, the main supplies for any responsible household would include toilet paper, water and peanut butter. What an interesting time for our civilization.

However, do not despair! Today is September 1st!!! We know what that means, don’t we? Halloween will be here very soon! It is time to start decorating! Here is a picture of my new doormat. During the past years, I have had other Halloween doormats, but they all eventually wore out. I thought this one was particularly appropriate for 2020. Just wondering how many people are going to try to dress up as a “coronavirus”? The possibilities for creativity are endless.

As you can guess, from here on out, I will keep you appraised of all my Halloween decorations. I have a balcony and it will be decorated. I can throw candy down to any potential trick or treaters who happen to walk past. Now it is just a matter of how many skeletons and witches and such will join me on the balcony!

Until next week.….

Hometown Road Trip, Part 1

NOTE: In a first of four part blog, I answer the question: “how’s my hometown of Pampa, Texas, 37 years after I left? 

News of Pak-a-Burger’s demise stopped my heart.

Technically it’s a drive‐around as in drive‐to, park‐near, walk‐up, sit‐and‐wait, then drive‐around.

Home of the best hamburgers in the Milky Way, this drive‐in burger joint earned its reputation for cheap food, sold hot and greasy.

Locally owned and operated, Pak‐a‐Burger opened the same year — 1954 — my parents relocated the tribe to this Texas Panhandle town. Like so many families in Pampa, we were in the “oil‐bidness,” my father earned the money, and my mother raised the children.

Eating out was a Big Deal. My parents complained of the cost, similar to their carping about long distance calls and new school clothes every August.

They broke down on some Saturday nights, opting for Pak‐a‐Burger treats. Even the best mothers break down after too many tuna casseroles.

My order never changed: Combo #3, Cheeseburger and Fries. We never ordered drinks or dessert. We had plenty of Dr. Pepper and stale cookies at home.

Mention Pak‐a‐Burger and I go Pavolovian. Yes, drool. Consider:

Little white sacks dotted in grease stains.

Seven‐inch burger buns smashed down, the insides branded with charcoal stripes. Thin beef patty hanging beyond the bun. American cheese dripping over tiny fingers. Lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle imprinting against the meat.

Second sack held French fries too hot to touch. But when these long oily slivers cooled off, they stuck in bunches of six or seven so you learned early to eat them fast and free. As in sans ketchup: why adorn perfection? 

Today’s menu includes Mexican food and BBQ? Egad!

Several years ago, we buried my mother then treated the nine grandchildren to Pak‐a‐Burgers.

Their response?

These are good?”

I noticed all the food was consumed within a half hour. Or the youngsters were really hungry on that long, tough day.

Two weeks ago, we buried our oldest sister in the hometown church.

I insisted on one last Pak‐a‐Burger run after the service.

Perhaps green means go — for a later opening on an hot August afternoon?

We spied the green light, read the  diner’s urgent message, “Call In/Take Out Only.” The white shoe paint on the window boosted its homespun appeal, as it reminded us. Small town America suffers the Covid blues, too. 

Drive‐up side reveals an interesting synchronicity: the burger shack and my eldest sister each lasted 66 years.

Later we learned the news: Pak-a-Burger’s owner sold the real estate for development.

This town of 17,000—less than half the population of my childhood years—needs that promise of something better.

I hope it comes.

Sooner rather than later.

I leave with one question.

What’s home without Pak‐a‐Burger?

Pandemic Road: Finally Some Good Stuff

Boo!Finally! Some good news to report! Amazing how in the middle of a global pandemic, it just doesn’t take too much to excite me. My First Sighting of Halloween Decorations in local stores! Yes, I may have found these at PetSmart. That doesn’t matter. The point is that local retailers are selling Halloween decorations! Usually these gems show up for me at either the annual Halloween Store or Home Depot or Target. Typically this happens sometime in September. However, I don’t mind this occurring early this year. Everything else is different because of Covid. Why not Halloween?

I have seen some posts on Face Book about Halloween being cancelled this year. Has everyone lost their collective minds? No, don’t answer that question, because I am honestly beginning to believe that is a side effect of this virus. You don’t have to actually catch this disease. You can lose your mind just by hearing about it day in and day out while self isolating and worrying about friends and loved ones.

Of course we are celebrating Halloween this year! It’s more important and essential than ever! Since March we have all had to face our fears about life, death, and the uncertainty of our individual universes. Haunted decorations of viruses chasing us wily nily around our homes or neighborhoods should be a shoo in. What a great opportunity to find humor in our human condition. Most costumes involve masks anyway. Relieve stress through humor.

By all means, continue to wear your masks, wash your hands and socially distance. Do everything you need to do to stay safe and healthy. But take the time to relax. Self care. Halloween mindfulness. I personally am coming up with some creative ways to decorate my balcony. My neighbors can enjoy the decorations while continuing to social distance. I will certainly enjoy the decorations.

Old Radios, Aging Broad

Despite years as a radio journalist, I never looked inside the machine that sent my stories out into the world.

Then I found this, the backside of my grandmother’s old radio:

Guts-eye view of my grandmother's 1948 Crosley radio
Guts‐eye view of a 1948 Crosley radio: aren’t those vacuum tubes gorgeous?

At the bottom of the picture, as if lying down for a long nap, lies what you’re no doubt looking for: the radio dial. Here it is, full frontal:

Four wave bands — AM, FM, shortwave, and police — with push buttons for on/off, sound, and station controls.

I’d forgotten that radios once had shortwave and police bands on top of the information and music channels we utilized most.

In my grandmother’s day, AM radio was primo. Lawrence Welk was her favorite! When he switched to television, so did she.

Scope the station buttons on the lower right of the picture. You’ll find my grandmother’s favorite AM station, KPO, marked by its broken, smudged glass. It’s an old San Francisco radio station. Did Welk produce his show there?

From the station buttons, my radio friends will recognize KGO, KARN and KONO. The others are all California‐based, still on the air, 70+ years later.

The FM band would have meant Future Media to my grandmother. But I wonder if she ever listened to the police band. Maybe shortwave radio? On a lonely Saturday night after her son had left home for university?

This old radio enchants as does the larger set of my grandmother’s furniture.

Entertainment center with cocktail cart; console includes turntable on upper left with storage for 78‐speed records below.

I remember the glitz of her Adolphus Hotel apartment. Dinners included soft jazz emanating from the black box and cocktail ice clinking from the cart. Fancy, intimidating moments for a little Pampa girl.

Perhaps it’s not the memories, but nostalgia for old equipment? Today’s gizmos can’t replicate the simplicity of a one‐function device. Solid state and digital technology isn’t as warm as wood and doesn’t glow like tubes. Also, satellite voices talking to the masses never impact as deeply as locals who name names.

But you reach a point where the past can’t keep talking to you.

So, we donated these pieces to Vintage Sounds Houston. They’ll find a home for these gems.

Meantime, I clear out my space, listening to the future now.

Which voice do you tune in?

Pandemic Road: The Going Gets Bumpy

You’ve seen her before. This is my cat, Hannah. Isn’t she beautiful? She’s 15 years old, but doesn’t look it. Suffice it to say that I love this cat. I would do anything for her. Risk life and limb? What exactly is meant by “risking life and limb”? Let’s consider, the events that took place two weeks ago when Hannah was having a bit of a medical emergency.

After several days of intestinal distress which was stressful for both Hannah and me, I decided it was time for a trip to the veterinarian’s office. So early on a Thursday morning, I put Hannah in her carrier and began walking towards my car. Since this in the middle of a pandemic, I no longer carry a purse. I was carrying the cat carrier, sunglasses, mask and water bottle. Of course being in the middle of a Houston summer, my glasses fogged up as soon as I stepped outside my home.

As I neared my car, things started going out of balance. I was trying not to drop anything.…most of all the cat carrier. My glasses were still fogged up. Next thing I knew I was headed down over the cat carrier. Yes, I went head first onto the concrete floor of the garage. When I stopped falling, I realized that my glasses were broken and there was a certain amount of pain coming from various parts of my body.

Now please keep in mind that I am the same person who grew up in the South with a mother who spent lots of money for years while I took dancing lessons at the Jane Bischoff School of Dance. Nine years worth of tap, ballet and jazz so I could turn out to be a graceful and dainty Southern Lady. Oh well, some dreams just don’t work out.

I got myself up and was grateful no one witnessed my uncoordinated and very ungraceful tumble. When I stood up I realized that no bones were broken in my legs, arms or ribs. I put Hannah in the car and drove her to the vet. After depositing my cat, I returned home and surveyed the damage. I had small cuts over and under my right eye. The skin around my eye was beginning to turn various shades of purple. I could see out of my eye and I could move my eye. Both good signs. I guessed I would have a black eye for a couple of days so I laid down on the couch with an ice pack over my eye. Except for picking Hannah up from the vet’s office Thursday afternoon, I stayed on the couch with the ice pack to combat any swelling as much as possible.

Except for feeling a little achy all over, I was amazed at how much pain I didn’t feel. There were no signs of a concussion and I was grateful that the fall was not any worse than it was.

Then Saturday happened. I blew my nose. The skin under my eye blew up like a balloon and my eye was swollen shut. A quick call to my Dear Friend and we were off to the Elite Care Emergency Room. A cat scan later showed that I had broken one of the bones under my right eye. After following up the next week with a surgeon, I was delighted to discover that I did not need surgery. Just time to heal.….and go at least a month without blowing my nose or sneezing.

The trip to the vet was a total cliche. One old broad takes her geriatric cat on a road trip and damn near kills herself. The most important outcome from this adventure? The cat is doing just fine. Is she a fur‐baby or a four‐legged‐ supervisor? Yes.

Until next week.……

Fast, Masked & Waaay Far Apart: Corona House Closings

Six months to clean, 73 days to sell, and ten minutes to close.

That’s a pandemic time stamp to wrap up the “house” part of my sister Mimi’s life.

This timing mimics, with numbing speed, the roller coaster of grief and estate matters that first hijacked my life last October.

Like clockwork, coronavirus hijacked our last biggie: the closing of my sister’s house last week. But this day brought the quick dealmaking I’ve ever experience with a house sale.

The red alerts began with the title company’s final email the day before: 

Email screams: “This is not your average house closing!” At least we were warned: nothing ‘ordinary’ here. But we’ve known that since last fall…

We gathered at the house of my other sister, Merrilynn Stockton. The thick wad of house‐closing papers arrived.

Thank the hand model (Merrilynn) for displaying the customary wad of dead trees, all “required” for a house closing.

We sisters signed. And signed. And signed. Even as our fingers and palms cramped and ached.

DH had paperwork, too: a silly affidavit with legalese about inherited versus community property.  

Merrilynn delivered the completed papers. I took the historic photos. Terri, the Title Lady, inspected our signatures.

Who’s missing from this party?

Yes, the buyer.

A young couple from outside Houston bought our sister’s house. From the documents we’d signed, we discovered they had sat in their own remote location the day before. They wrote their names a bazillion times, too. All we learned or saw of them was their signatures.

Closing on a house used to be fun. Now, it’s only memorable.

This one I’ll remember as the most creative. Which has taught me one thing.

When chaos reigns, you can do anything — even clean, sell, and close a house.

All you need is willpower.

By the way, have you updated yours—your will, I mean?

I promise that’s my last friendly reminder.

You don’t want to live this road trip.

Have Shields, Will Travel

Four months buried in the ‘burbs, this RoadBroad needed a break.

Off to The City — that’s Houston, by the way — I drove, my trunk bearing sack loads of face shields. Each was destined for other broads, all writers like me.

We Wednesday Writers “talk” weekly to share stories either written or read in the previous six days. Yes, it’s a Zoom chat — what else is there nowadays?

Each visit renews my life. Literally. And connection matters.

During last week’s screen visit, I casually mentioned a recent find: face shields, available by the table‐full at a local store.

What do they look like?”

The question landed in multiple. I tried to describe: It’s a sheet of clear plastic that hangs below your chin, almost to your chest, with a blue plastic band that goes around your head.

I modeled mine then volunteered to gather more for those interested. On Sunday, I delivered, realizing on the way that the drive marked only my second trip into The City since March. Another first in 30‐plus years living here.

How many more firsts will I live? How many in this pandemic alone?

The next surprise came with when I saw my writer friends for our carefully‐planned, all‐masked, mostly‐distanced reunion.

Happy.

No hugs.

Sad.

I learned it’s hard to stay physically away from people I care about. It’s triple‐hard when it’s several people.

I learned real human connection delivers a buzz that nothing else can. That buzz amplifies the more I connect with others in person as evidenced by another friend reunion later that day.

Maybe that’s my Big Learning from this entire coronoavirus pandemic: relationships really do matter to me, the self‐proclaimed, fiercely fiesty, independent creature.

Pandemic Road: Week 17

Last I wrote, I was on the cusp of beginning a 10‐day writing intensive retreat. I had planned on doing this in Boulder, Colorado and sharing the glories of a road trip with my faithful readers. However, thanks to Covid‐19, the road trip turned into a zoom fest. I imagined the flat irons every time I logged on for a meeting.

While it wasn’t as scenic as actually being there, I did get a lot of writing done. So much so I wore out my printer. No problem, you might think. I thought I could get a printer today via curb side pickup. Silly, silly me. My dear friend and I looked up both Office Depot, Microcenter and Best Buy.

Apparently too many people are working from home and ink jet printers are nowhere to be found within the city limits of Houston. We even checked with Amazon and could not get the printer delivered in under 10 days. Great big expensive laser printers.….no problem. Practical, compact, inexpensive ink jet printers.…..no luck. So I ordered one that should arrive before the middle of July. I will keep my fingers crossed that my old and cheap printer will last.

This wouldn’t be a problem, except that I’ve just been invited to join a new critique group. It meets via zoom once a week and I need to be able to print out submissions so I can give feedback. I will figure out a way. I am honored to be included in this group and many thanks to Fern Brady, author and publisher for inviting me.

All this reminded me of how things have changed during the global pandemic. Tuesdays used to be the day that DF and I would enjoy culture from any of the local museums followed by a quiet and relaxing dinner at one of our many favorite restaurants. Bollo Woodfired Pizza was one of those establishments that we would visit.

Today we dined again at Bollo’s…virtually. We ordered the pizza by phone, picked it up and took it home. It’s amazing how easy it was! Have credit card, will charge!

Printer ink will be delivered tomorrow, critique group begins later this week, and the printer will show up soon.….I hope.

Please send positive thoughts to my old printer so it won’t die in the next 7 working days. If it does, I will come up with “Pandemic Printer Plan B”.

Until next week.……