My Hometown Series #4 – Fireflies

Last night I was driving along County Line Road between Grand Saline and Fruitvale. As I drove through the low-lying area at the bottom of “thrill hill,” under the canopy of trees whose branches extend across the entire span of the old oil top road, and mingle with their cousins on the opposite side, and filter out most of the last rays of the evening sun, creating a premature twilight, I saw a sight I hadn’t seen since I was a boy—fireflies—lightning bugs as we used to call them. There were hundreds of them twinkling along the roadside like a miniature meteor shower suspended just at eye level. I slowed to a stop and watched for a moment as they performed their magical choreography timed perfectly to the symphony of humming cicadas and chirping toads augmented from time to time by the tympanic obbligato croak of a bull frog nearby. I quietly watched and listened, careful not to let my presence interrupt their rhythm and harmony, and I was drawn back to my childhood, and to a time before the rush of reality pushed these special moments out of reach.

My family moved to Grand Saline when I was nine years old. It was the summer between my third and fourth grade years in school. When we first arrived we moved in with my great-grandmother and her sister, my great-great aunt. Their small bungalow-style house at the intersection of Florence and High Streets had been my mother’s childhood home as well. It was nothing grand; in fact, when it was built in the early 1900’s it served as the servants’ quarters for a large home next door. That house, a mansion by all accounts, had long since come down, but my family home was still there. The house had two large porches. The front porch was covered and had a brick flower box on the side where my grandmother once grown flowers, but age and years of disrepair made growing anything more than weeds a nearly impossible task. One Halloween, my sister and I managed to accidentally grow pumpkin vine there when the seeds and innards of our Jack-O-Lanterns were swept into it when we cleaned the porch. But, most of the time its single function was to provide a desert landscape where my plastic army men fought the WWII North African campaign all over again.

During that first summer, and most of the summers we lived there, we would sit on the porch in the late afternoon and evening. Back in those days we didn’t have computers or iPads or smartphones. Back then we didn’t even have cable TV, so our entertainment was whatever make-believe we could come up with beneath the shade of the dozens of towering oak trees in our front yard. Those summer evenings were spent playing ball or Cowboys and Indians or swinging on the swing set or exploring the mystical worlds we conjured up while my family sat and talked about the day’s events and enjoyed the cool of the evening. Sometimes friends of my grandmother and aunt’s would stop by unexpectedly, and my grandmother would pull me away to go get an extra chair from the kitchen so that they would have a place to sit. I especially enjoyed visits from Mrs. Starkey, a close family friend and former teacher, who would walk down from her house just a few doors away. Mrs. Starkey had traveled all over the world and I loved hearing her tell about those trips to Paris, or Rome, or cruises to the Caribbean Islands. It was a much simpler time and the things we did for fun were much simpler, too.

Each night, as the sun sank lower on the horizon, the fireflies would take flight. My sister and I would run all over the yard trying, mostly in vain, to catch one with the mason jars my grandmother gave us. Every once in a great while one or both of us would get lucky and snag one of the enchanting insects and quickly twist the lid on the jar as tight as we could. Then my grandmother would take her old ice pick and punch a few holes in the lid to provide air. Then we would wait….and wait….and wait for our captives to perform in their tiny transparent dungeon just as they had in the freedom of the open air. If we were lucky they would blink once or twice more before they died. I remember the overwhelming disappointment when my new “pet” didn’t come through like I’d hoped. But, somehow I overcame the loss, and the next night my sister and I would be in the front yard on the hunt once again.

It always amazes me that something as simple seeing some flying insects on the side of the road can cause such a flood of memories, but it did. Those memories of my childhood in Grand Saline were memories of a time when my world and the people in it were very different than they are today. Besides the insect stalking adventures in the front yard, seeing those fireflies brought back memories of riding my bike down High Street past the Darby’s, the Stewart’s, the Anderson’s and stopping to play on the playground at the Old Elementary School; then on past the Mayfield’s and the Jarvis’s to the Old Gym where kids would gather to play football or baseball on the big field. The early dying light reminded me of autumn when the days got shorter and cooler and Friday nights meant heading up to Persons Stadium to watch the high school football games. I remembered Christmas time when nearly every house on our street was covered in lights, and springtime when we would sit on the porch and watch thunderstorms roll in. I was reminded of all the things that made my childhood good and happy.

I’m not sure where all that time went. It seems like just yesterday, but it wasn’t. That was 35 years ago now and I’m a different person. We’re all different people. I suppose change is inevitable, but seeing those little “lightning bugs” last night sure made me long for the way things were back in the day when catching one of them was a moment of wild excitement.

My Hometown Series #2 – The Old Red Brick Building

Wow! I’m completely blown away by the response to the My Hometown Series #1 post yesterday. I guess I’m not the only nostalgic person around. In that same spirit, this second post was a piece I wrote for publication in the Grand Saline Sun in July of 2013 on the occasion of our school district opening a brand new elementary school. The old building had been the elementary school for over 60 years and simply was no longer a facility which could function as designed. There was (and still is, I guess) a lot of discussion regarding the fate of the building. To date, it is still standing empty with no plan for its future that I’m aware of. If you would like to contribute to the My Hometown Series (it’s not just about MY hometown), please see the contact info at the bottom of this post.

My Hometown Series #2 – The Old Red Brick Building

The building has stood through wind and rain; through heat and cold; through good times and bad. For more than sixty years, the old red brick building in the middle of Oleander Street has stood as a symbol of part of what we hold dear about our little hometown. For more than sixty years it has stood as generations of students sat in classrooms and listened to the thumps and creaks its old wooden floors made as their teachers returned with worksheets or textbooks.

“Shhhhh! She’s coming. Be quiet!!” The lookout would alert.

But, it was never fast enough. Before the warning was heard by most of the chattering students, the doorknob turned, the latch clicked, the big wooden door opened and Mrs. Starkey, Mrs. Watson, Mrs. Stacey, Fisher, McNatt, Grant or any of the others who gave more of themselves than they were ever asked to give, was standing in front of the class openly aghast by their disobedience but secretly laughing at their attempts to fool her. None of them were ever fooled. None of us were quick or clever enough to make that happen!

It’s a building full of memories – too many to number. Memories of students seated in the wooden seats in the auditorium before school watching cartoons on the old console television in front of the stage. Memories of swinging on the monkey bars or sliding down the slide at recess. Memories of kickball on the old baseball field behind the gym. Each of the memories unique to each of us, and yet a common bond between hundreds of people – young and old – who share them.

It’s a building full of people – some of them still with us and some long gone. Which of us doesn’t remember Mrs. Bogan seated in her wheelchair in the office diligently working to ensure that the day-to-day business of the school was successful? Or, Coach Yates with his four and eight count calisthenics, bear crawl, and “pickin’ peas?” Which of us doesn’t remember ‘Miss Dot’ Jennings collecting lunch money? Or, Mrs. Fisher

The old Grand Saline Elementary School building.

The old Grand Saline Elementary School building.

leading the class singing K-K-K-Katie?! They were and are one of a kind and the roll call is a Who’s Who of dedicated women and men who cared for their students as if they were their own children.

They’re all there – the people, the sites, the sounds – they are all part of what makes us nostalgic when we drive by the old red brick building in the middle of the street. To be sure, things have changed over the last six decades. New buildings have been built and a few of them have already been torn down. Countless coats of paint have been applied to walls and doors and trim. Playground equipment has come and gone. But, that building still stands as a keeper of memories; a keeper of hopes and dreams; a keeper of history.

The halls are empty now. The last students to ever walk them left weeks ago, but the floors still thump and creak as teachers and workers walk them while working toward the big move. Each thump is a footstep from history. Each creak is a memory of days gone by. No matter what happens in the next months and years, those memories will remain. It will be 2023 before that last student to walk those halls walks the commencement stage and that will be almost 80 years since the first student entered the new red brick building in the middle of the street.

August will bring a fresh start in a brand new building. The floors won’t thump or creak. The latches on the doors won’t click as loudly. There will be new faces and new names; new toys to play on; new desks and chairs to sit in, and new memories to be made. But, for those of us who are lucky enough to have spent part of our childhood walking those halls, playing on that playground, and learning from those teachers, the memories will remain part of us. Whatever the future holds, for us Grand Saline Elementary School will always be that old red brick building.


If you would like to be a guest blogger for the My Hometown Series, or any other topic, please email me — jason@jasonawalker.com

My Hometown Series #1 – Do You Remember?

I wrote this piece back in 2008 for publication in my hometown newspaper, The Grand Saline Sun. I no longer live in Grand Saline, and some of the things I wrote about have changed, but in general it is still relevant. A reader commented on this post earlier today and reminded me of our hometown back when we were growing up. Nostalgia got the better of me, so I am posting this as the first in a multi-part series called “My Hometown.” I will feature pieces not only about Grand Saline, but hopefully hometowns from all over submitted by guest bloggers. See information about contributing after the piece.

My Hometown Series #1 – Do You Remember?

Do you remember it — the sound that the big brass latch made when you pressed it? Do you remember the squeaky hinge on the big wooden door? Do you remember the sound of the small bell that alerted the clerk when a customer came in? What about the creaking of the hardwood floors that always seemed to shine no matter how many feet walked over them day after day? Do you remember the store even being there?

When I was a young boy – long before my mother, sister and I moved to Grand Saline – I always looked forward to coming to town to visit my great-grandmother, Marie Sharp and my great great-aunt, Hallye Watson. One of the reasons I liked coming to town so much is that, without fail, Miss Hallye (as she was known to all her former students) would take my sister and me to town with her when she and my grandmother had errands to run. Once they had finished what they had to do at the bank or the Post Office, we would make the short walk down Main Street to the W & W Department Store. I remember everything about that store as if I had been in it this morning. The latch, the squeaky hinge, the bell, the wood floors and even the smell — yes, I remember that smell that is impossible to describe and yet is so vivid to me all these years later.

Darby's Dept. Store - Now the future location of the Grand Saline Salt Museum

Darby’s Dept. Store – Now the future location of the Grand Saline Salt Museum

There was a charm about Grand Saline back then. That squeaky hinge could have been on just about any door in Downtown. Perry Brothers, K. Woolen’s, Jarvis’ or Darby’s Department store, they were all there. I remember getting Ice Cream at The Emporium and a fountain Coke at City Pharmacy. I remember sitting outside on the hot sidewalk while my mom, grandmother or aunt went into The Smart Shop or The Gazebo. I even remember Tolley Wimpey’s bench. It was a 1950’s town in a 1980’s world.

As I grew older I made memories walking with friends downtown during the Salt Festival. It lasted all week long back the and there were tons of people in town. On the one occasion I was exempt from final exams in middle school, I remember walking down to the Saline Café for lunch and eating a chili cheeseburger. When I was in high school I swept and mopped Darby’s Department Store after closing and washed the windows and mowed the grass by the railroad tracks on Saturdays. I remember seeing Mr. Maciel and Mr. Ellis standing in front of their storefronts talking to customers.

city pharmacy

The Old City Pharmacy

Back then we still had The Show. When the Johnson’s owned it, I helped out at the snack bar a few times. I didn’t care that I wasn’t getting paid – I got free drinks and popcorn and when it wasn’t real busy I got to go upstairs in the projection booth and watch the movie from there. When the show was over I got to take home as much popcorn as I could carry. I remember all of these things.

What I don’t remember from back then is empty buildings and empty streets. Maybe it’s nostalgia, maybe it’s just getting older and wanting to remember things more fondly than reality would allow, but in my memories there always seems to be something going on downtown. In my memories there are always people. In my memories Grand Saline is always open for business.

I work until 7pm these days. By the time I arrive home around 8, the streets are quiet and the shops are closed. If it weren’t for our restaurants, the movie store and Brookshire’s, the entire town would be down for the night.

Why the change? What’s the difference between the Grand Saline in my memory and our present day home?

The old K. Woolen's Dept. Store building.

The old K. Woolen’s Dept. Store building.

Where did the people go and what happened to the bustle of activity? It can’t be that the world just simply passed us by.

We’ve all heard the stories. Years ago, Sam Walton wanted to put one of his little stores in Grand Saline, but in a fog of short-sightedness, Grand Saline said, “No.” So, old Mr. Walton said, “Ok, I’ll just put one of my stores on either side of Grand Saline and choke the life out of it.” Who knows how much of that is really true and how much is legend, but whatever the case is – however true or false the story may be – the fact remains that somewhere along the line, Grand Saline lost what luster it may have once had and after that may have lost its will to live.

I’m not naïve. I know that change is inevitable. Nothing ever stays the same. But, I also know that whether change is good or bad largely depends on how it is dealt with. I’m not much for believing in an unalterable destiny that takes us down a path not of our own choosing. In other words, we don’t have to simply settle for something less that what we want because someone else tells us that’s the way it is.

There’s been a lot of talk over the last few years about bringing Grand Saline “back from the dead” so to speak. Our town has been named a Main Street City. We even had the First Lady of Texas come and make the presentation. Some money has been handed out and several noticeable changes have taken place to the look of the downtown area. We now have a very nice gazebo across from the pavillion and the library. At first I thought it was misplaced so close to the train tracks, but then I accepted that as part of the quirky charm Grand Saline still has.

I was happy to read that Mr. Darby has donated his building and that it will be used for a museum. I think that is a great place for one and offers plenty of space. If it is done right it can be an interesting look at how this town sprang up in the middle of nowhere and how a little part of us and our history travels around the world every day with that little girl holding the umbrella. It still fascinates people who don’t live here when I tell them there’s enough salt under Grand Saline to supply the world with salt for 20,000 years. “Are you serious?”, is generally their answer. Do we find our home interesting, or is Grand Saline just a place to be from? Maybe some of that fascination is what we need.

As fascinating as the town is, even more so are some of the folks who live here. In a time when veterans of World War II are leaving us more and more each day, we need to take the time to cherish the ones who are still with us. They are as much a part of what makes this town unique as any of those old stores or what lies under our streets. Let’s not let them and their memories go without capturing them. Recently, National Public Radio traveled around the country with a mobile recording studio letting people tell their stories and there were some pretty interesting ones told. Perhaps we should consider a project like that here in Grand Saline. Not just for our veterans to tell their stories, but for anyone who wants to share their memories from home. It would be a sad day if we let anymore of them go unshared.

Surely I can’t be the only person thinking about these things. There must be someonegs city limits else out there who doesn’t want to see Grand Saline simply wither away. Oh yes, I’ve complained about it many times. But, you know, your home town is a little like your family – it’s OK for you to make fun of it and complain about it, but you’ll fight anyone else who does. Let’s do something now before it’s too late. Let’s get people back to town. Let’s give people a reason to come TO Grand Saline and not just come THROUGH Grand Saline. There’s only one movie theater in Van Zandt county now – shouldn’t there be another one? First Monday is only 11 miles away – how about an antique shop or two? I like to bowl – do you?

We can do this, you know that, don’t you? We don’t have to resign ourselves to mediocrity. All it takes is the ‘want to’ to get it done. Yes, it will take some work. Yes, it might cost a little something. No, it won’t happen overnight. But, it absolutely can happen if we want it bad enough!

For all my gripes and complaints, I don’t want this town to die. And, the reason I don’t want it to die is because of those memories I talked about. Those memories are part of what made me who I am. Those memories are part of all of us – when they’re gone, so are we. Let’s not let that happen.

Do you remember?


If you would like to contribute to the “My Hometown” series, or be a guest blogger on any topic, please email me — jason@jasonawalker.com