My Hometown #12: No Greater Love (Series Finale)

This piece, the last of the “My Hometown” series, was originally published in the May 4, 2017 edition of the Grand Saline Sun.

For the second time in two years, our county has been rocked by the worst Mother Nature has to offer. At 4:30 Saturday afternoon, I was seated at my computer anxiously awaiting the end of my shift. I knew that thunderstorms were moving in—I had been getting weather updates on my phone all afternoon. I cheated a little and checked Facebook, something I’m not supposed to do during work. The first thing I saw was a picture of the tornado that had formed just south of Grand Saline, and just as I hit the “Share” button, the weather alarm on my phone sounded—TORNADO WARNING FOR VAN ZANDT COUNTY! I thought to myself, “well, better late than never, I guess,” assuming it was for the tornado in the picture I’d just shared. Then I read the details of the warning and realized that, in fact, it was for a second tornado moving into the southern part of the county from near Cedar Creek Lake. It was headed for Canton, so I informed my supervisor that I needed to seek shelter. Thus began the ordeal that, for me, did not end until power was restored at my house early Monday morning, and for thousands more will not end for weeks, months, and possibly years.

I hunkered in my bathroom, covered with pillows, couch cushions, blankets—the only things I had time to grab as I listened to Mark Skirto say that a large and damaging tornado was making a beeline for the city. That is, for all intents and purposes, where I stayed until a lull in the action allowed me time to head for my sister’s house where we took shelter from the third and fourth tornadoes in her hallway. By then the power was out and cell phone service was, at best, spotty. We relied on updates via text message from family members who were out of town and watching the weather from where they were. The sound of the rain and wind was accompanied by the almost constant wail of the city storm sirens and sirens on what seemed to be far more emergency vehicles than the City of Canton has. Altogether, we were sheltered for over three hours until we were finally assured that the worst had passed us by. With the limited cell service available to us, we were able to get spotty reports of major damage, especially south of town. It wasn’t until daylight, however, that the real extent of the devastation was evident.

By now, we’ve all seen pictures, read, and heard stories of homes completely destroyed; vehicles tossed about like the Matchbox cars I used to play with as a kid; a brand new car dealership demolished; people seriously injured, and, most tragically, four lives lost—four families forever changed. Those stories and pictures will stay with us for a long time, as well they should. But, as we move further away from the event itself, something truly remarkable has also become evident—community spirit. None of us are strangers to this most special sort of “congregation” of support, love, and encouragement in the wake of tragedies. In fact, we see it all the time; but, until we experience it personally, I don’t think we can ever truly appreciate how important the idea of community really is.

Long before daylight on Sunday, hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers from near and far had gathered in Canton waiting to fan out into the county—to Phalba, Jackson, Martin’s Mill, Fruitvale, and even up into Emory and Rains County; and to Eustace and Henderson County. These were first responders from all over North and East Texas. I saw trucks and cars from Garland and Rowlett, cities where a monster tornado had hit just over a year ago. I saw them from Dallas, Athens, Tyler, Arp, Bullard, and many other towns and cities miles and miles away. These brave men and women left their own homes and families to come and lend aide to the families here—to our families—who were suffering and hurting. And, they’re still here offering assistance with traffic control, security, first aid, and other recovery efforts.

Sunday morning I drove past Wal-Mart in Canton where the parking lot was filled with dozens of trucks carrying crews of linemen preparing to head out into the worst hit areas in an effort to restore power as quickly as possible. These crews do some of the most dangerous work there is—removing downed power lines, some of them still live, and replacing lines, poles, and transformers. Many of the crews that I saw were from out of state, and they had come to join the local crews who had begun working Saturday night even as the rain, wind, and lightning were still battering them while they worked.

I also witnessed an entire convoy of tree trimming trucks rolling into town from various places around the state. Many of them had surely given up their days off and left their families at home to begin the work of clearing massive amounts of debris from roadways and driveways so that the first responders and line crews could do their work, and so that families who had been unable to return to their homes could get back and attempt to salvage what they could from the wreckage.

Some of the most amazing stories of heroism in the face of grave danger come in the form of ordinary folks doing extraordinary things. Stories like that of the motorists passing by on a flooding roadway who jumped from their vehicles and into raging flood waters to save two infants from an overturned vehicle even as a second violent storm was bearing down on them. Stories like that of Brandon Edwards, a disabled Marine war veteran, who saw one of the tornadoes as it crossed Highway 64 and dragged a truck into an open field. Brandon jumped from his own vehicle and ran to the side of the mortally injured man—he stayed with the man even after he had succumbed to his injuries because Brandon didn’t want him to be alone. And, stories of storm spotters and intrepid Grand Saline Sun editors in the field risking their own lives to keep the public informed about the approaching storms.

It’s people like these and the countless others who have brought food, water, clothing, and supplies to local churches; it’s people like the volunteers who are now beginning to come in and offer hot meals, a safe place for displaced pets, medical care, tools, strong arms, and even shoulders to cry on who are what make the word COMMUNITY a real and tangible thing and not just an idea that we claim to believe in. It’s people like these who are readily available anytime help is needed; who are readily available to restore our faith in humanity.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus teaches us that, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (ESV) I like to think that Jesus wasn’t just speaking about literal, physical death. I think he was also referring to people willing to set their own needs, their own wants, their own desires to the side in order to help those in need. And, this is what we’ve all been witness to over the last few days—women and men who have set aside their own lives to come lend a hand to those whose lives have been ripped apart. It makes me wonder why COMMUNITY seems so easy in times of trouble and so difficult during the good times. Wouldn’t it be a better world if we could see that “greater love” always?

My Hometown #11: Shopping Local

This piece was first published in The Grand Saline Sun on April 27, 2017.

Saturdays were made for kids when I was a kid. Saturdays began with Bugs Bunny & Friends, The Superfriends, and Cap’n Crunch Crunchberry cereal; and they ended with The Love Boat and Fantasy Island on our television which was still connected to the tall antenna outside the living room window—no cable TV with 300 channels back then, kiddos. We knew the struggle of rabbit ears and aluminum foil, and the struggle was real! But, in between the familiar refrains of “you do not need another bowl of cereal” and “it’s time for bed, we have church in the morning,” there were, quite often, trips downtown to fill grocery lists, get haircuts, purchase clothes and shoes, and always find some unnecessary plastic item that we just couldn’t live without.

In my very first “Hometown” piece, “Do You Remember,” I wrote about growing up in Grand Saline when the downtown area was still bustling—at least somewhat. Stores like Darby’s, Perry Brothers, W&W, and Jarvis’ Department Store were still open. While not as cavernous or colorful as the so-called “big box” stores we are familiar with today, they had what those stores have always lacked—charm. Regardless of how much stuff is available on dozens of aisles spread over thousands of square feet, there is nothing particularly inviting about the blue and red giants which have, slowly but surely, siphoned away virtually the entire market share from the all-but-extinct mom and pop shops I grew up with. Those stores were not just places to buy things, they were places to go. We dressed and meticulously combed our hair before those trips downtown because at Darby’s, Perry Brothers, W&W, and Jarvis’, we expected to run into neighbors and friends and engage in leisurely and lengthy conversations. Pajama pants, house shoes, and caps to cover an unkempt coiffeur were not acceptable.

There were other stores we visited on Saturdays which I remember with particular fondness.  Back in those days, my mom wore Merle Norman cosmetics. Now, I will admit that my memory is a little hazy on just exactly where she purchased them—mostly because I almost always refused to go into the store with her and my sister, and partly because that was over thirty years ago and middle age hasn’t been kind to my memory. But, what I do remember for sure is that whether she was buying make-up or the ever-popular “twist-a-bead” necklaces, she frequented both The Smart Shop and The Gift Galleria. Both stores were small, quaint, and full of that small town charm I mentioned earlier. Joyce Sloan and Monteen Joslin, their respective proprietors were always present, polite, and helpful to their patrons. I do have one particular memory of a visit to The Gift Galleria where I saw the first Aggie joke I ever remember seeing. It was an “Aggie bookmark.” It was, of course, maroon and white and emblazoned with the Texas A&M logo. It read, “See reverse side for instructions” on both sides. Just think about it for a second. If you’re still thinking……….well, anyway! The store was full of both funny and fantastic gifts. Believe it or not, though, it wasn’t the only store in town where serious loot like that could be found.

Just down the street and next door to City Hall, in the building where Sammy’s Beauty Shop is today, was The Gazebo. The Gazebo was pure magic for kids. They carried every conceivable trinket, sticker, pencil, eraser…I mean, seriously, talk about an extensive inventory of everything a kid couldn’t resist and a mom or dad couldn’t fathom the need for! It was one of my favorite places to go when I was a kid. Back in those days asking mom for permission to walk down the street to The Gazebo or The Sportsman’s Corner while she shopped for herself was perfectly okay.

Oh, The Sportsman’s Corner! The store where my fascination with fishing lures and iron-on decals was fomented. I can still remember the smell of those iron-on letters and numbers as they were heated and pressed onto the backs of baseball and soccer shirts; and what seemed an entire wall covered with fishing lures in every shape, size, and color. Plus the trophies, ribbons, and medals on display. I’m sure every kid who ever went in the store remembers thinking to him or herself, “I’m going to win that trophy one day!” I also remember an intense curiosity about what was upstairs—the same sort of curiosity I had about the second floor of Jarvis’. I don’t think I ever found out and my curiosity about such things hasn’t waned.

The best thing about Saturdays—really about every day—growing up in Grand Saline back then, was that there was always something to do. There was always somewhere to go and shop or just hang out. I suppose that nostalgia makes my memories of that time far more exciting than it actually was, but it was still a fun time. There was no internet, no Netflix, no PlayStations or Xbox’s. There was just stuff. There was stuff to do and stuff to look at and, if we “acted nice while we’re in the store,” there was stuff to buy in the shops downtown.

While I was preparing to write this piece, I drove through downtown just to jog my memory a bit. While there are still a number of empty store fronts, I was glad to see that things seem to be picking up again. Changes are being made. Positive and encouraging changes. Changes that maybe, just maybe, will give a kid like me some good memories of Saturdays to share someday.

My Hometown Series #7 — A New Year’s Midnight Parade

Almost every known culture celebrates the turning of the new year. They don’t all celebrate it in the same way, or even at the same time of the year, but at some point during our perpetual 365 1/4 day trip around the sun, billions of people mark its completion and the beginning of the next. New Years celebrations are full of happiness and hope, and offer a metaphorical, and sometimes literal opportunity to wipe the slate clean, start over, and resolve to do this year what we were unable to accomplish in the last. From Sydney Harbor in Australia to Times Square in New York City, those resolutions are made under fireworks, crystal balls, and to the tune of the Scottish poem, “Auld Lang Syne.” Growing up, I was always allowed to stay up until midnight to “watch the ball drop” and toast the new year with a drink of sparkling grape juice before I was shuffled off to bed. At midnight on January 1, 1981, standing on my great grandmother’s front porch, I was introduced to a new and uniquely local tradition–the New Year’s midnight parade in Grand Saline.

We had just moved to and spent our first Christmas in town. I was still missing the friends I’d left behind in Irving. Before, there always seemed to be something going on at our house or atsydney someone else’s house on New Year’s Eve with other kids around. That first year in Grand Saline, it was just us. At the stroke of midnight, just as the local stations broadcast the Times Square ball drop our time, the “fire alarm” (as my grandmother called it) downtown sounded one long alarm and in the air beyond it, I could hear the sirens of every emergency vehicle in town tune up and join in. If my mom hadn’t told me what was going on, I would have been convinced that something terrible was happening. As the fire alarm wound down and went silent, I could hear what sounded like hundreds of car horns alongside the sirens. We lived about a mile from downtown, so as the parade headed east down Highway 80 and up Highway 17 to Bradburn Road, the sound, now far away in the darkness, seemed almost as if it were part of a dream. Soon, however, the long line of New Year’s revelers following fire trucks, ambulances, and police cars made their way back to High Street and headed toward our house. I was disappointed when they turned on Houston Street before they passed by, but my grandmother told me it was because they couldn’t get that close to the hospital “making all that racket.” Who knows if that was the actual reason, but it sounded legitimate. Before long, the last of the cars had turned, and once again, the sounds of the New Year grew further away. I went back inside, toasted with grape juice, and headed off to bed having just experienced my first New Year’s parade in my new hometown.

 

I’ve asked a number of people how the tradition got started and how long it has been going on. No one I asked seemed to know, although I’m sure there is someone around who does. Regardless of its origins or age, the Grand Saline New Year’s Parade is one of those wonderfully quirky traditions that so many towns and cities across the country New Year's Celebration, Times Square, New York City.still practice. I don’t remember how old I was when I first participated in the parade, but I do remember loading up in my mom’s car with a friend, driving downtown and waiting in a long line next to the train tracks. We anxiously looked at the clock on the dashboard, which apparently was about three minutes ahead. At precisely 12:03 (according to that clock), the fire alarm sounded, the sirens wailed, and all of those horns began honking. Being in the parade added a new layer of sound–the shouts of “Happy New Year” from inside all of those cars. As we wound slowly through the streets of Grand Saline, we passed house after house with lights still on and folks out on their front porches, in their driveways, and standing curbside returning our New Year’s wishes with enthusiasm. There were even a few employees and residents waiting outside Anderson’s Care Home as we passed.

As I got older, I opted to ride or drive in the parade with friends. One year, the 1984 Chevy Celebrity that I drove in high school was loaded down with six passengers. Another offered the chance to ride in the bed of a pick-up truck, freezing with several other friends. As naturally cynical teenagers, we spent more time making good-natured fun of people standing outside in the freezing weather at midnight waving at car loads of high school students passing by. But, it was all in fun, and we did have plenty of that. In 1989, a dense fog had descended on Grand Saline, and the parade route got cut short. But, I was riding with friends who were somehow uninformed of the change. It didn’t take long to figure out that we had been separated from the main group and we never managed to find them. So, we drove around town honking and screaming solo–I’m sure residents appreciated our efforts. Two years later, I was the youth director at the Methodist Church, and had a New Year’s Eve lock-in for the youth group. At 11:30, we loaded the church van and drove downtown to take part in the parade. I had no idea until we were followed back to the church by the person in the car behind us that a couple of the kids had smuggled Roman Candles on board and were shooting them out the back windows of the bus during the parade. Of course, I played the part of the responsible adult and gave the kids a good dressing down, but secretly I wished I had thought of it myself!

There are, no doubt, countless stories that could be told by the countless people who have participated in the parade over the years–stories of good times with good friends celebrating the new year in our own special way. It’s been well over ten years since I’ve participated in the parade, but during the time that I still lived in town, hearing those sirens wail at midnight brought a smile to my face and, somehow, made me feel “at home.” Let’s be honest, it’s a kind of goofy The "crystal ball" in Times Square.tradition. Over the years, when I’ve told people who aren’t from Grand Saline about our little midnight parade through the streets, I’ve gotten reactions which ranged from raised eyebrows to outright belly laughs. The thought of multiple emergency vehicles and dozens of private cars creeping along the streets at midnight honking, screaming, and causing a genuine ruckus, is fairly humorous. But, it’s part of the charm of growing up in and being from a small town in East Texas. It’s part of what makes our little hometown feel like home. It’s part of what makes us who we are.

Even though I won’t be there to be a part of it, I know that tonight, at the stroke of midnight, Grand Saline will wake up to 2017 and the hope that comes with the new year. Holding on to traditions like our midnight parade provides us with a touchstone, a landmark to return to when times get tough and when we’ve somehow lost our way. They help us mark the occasion of a chance to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and start all over again–doing away with the old; taking on the new. With a little luck, and an ample serving of Providence, this new year will be at least a little better than the last and will be filled with health, happiness, and prosperity. May that be what 2017 brings to you and to your family and friends, no matter how far from home you may be.

 

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