Friday, July 24, 2015

Wagons West

My Wade ancestors were true pioneers.  They came to Texas in a covered wagon.  It is easy to imagine their trek in wagon train as I saw it in a dozen movies: a brave leader raising his rifle to point the way westward followed by a long line of wagons, their immaculate white tops like a row of cumulus clouds, the kind that float across the Texas sky in summer, pure white without bringing any rain.  Horses strained to pull the wagons.  The wagons themselves are portrayed as a kind of early version of a camper-trailer with room inside for couples to sit and talk – or do other things.

Life is not like the movies.  Horses were for riding.  Wagons were pulled by oxen, who moved slowly, very slowly, laboring under the weight of wagons loaded high with household goods plus items the settlers hoped to trade with the Indians.  They did more trading than fighting.

Someone drove the oxen, keeping them on the track westward.  The drover did not sit on the wagon but walked beside the oxen, urging them forward.  Women and children also had to walk every foot of the journey.  They helped to herd cows and sheep, as many as the family could afford to bring.  At least they only tried to go a few miles each day.

At sundown the wagons would stop.  A fire would be lighted so that the women could cook supper.  The meal was always something simple that could be fried in a skillet or boiled in a pot. 
My grandmother and my mother both considered themselves good cooks.  The truth is they were masters of the iron skillet and the big pot school of culinary arts.  Like their pioneer ancestors, they knew no other kind of cooking For each meal my mother cooked meat, usually pork chops or “chicken-fried” steak, fried in her grandmother’s iron skillet.  On Sunday she boiled vegetables in three big pots.  Then for the next week she would serve us the same vegies as leftovers every night.  Eventually my father refused to eat any more carrots.  By the time I was five years old I’d eaten enough black-eyed peas to last me the rest of my life.  .

I can see the influence of my pioneer ancestors in other ways.  My brothers  were all Southern Baptists.  All three owned guns.  Don has a collection of a dozen rifles and is a passionate member of the NRA   He is ready to defend his homestead against an attract by wild savages. 

And me?  I’ve strayed.  What happened to make me take a different path?  That’s the story of my life.  Education.  Further study.  Experience.  I lived in five states and traveled to foreign countries.  I went to Europe many times, once to China and Thailand, twice to Russia. 

A fifth-generation Texan, I married twice, both times to first-generation Americans.  Wally’s parents were Danes who emigrated to Chicago.  John’s parents came as teenagers from Poland to Pittsburgh. This gave me an understanding – and appreciation – of other ethnic groups.

Bur before I can write about Wally and John, I have a lot more to tell about growing up in Texas.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Rockwall, Texas

My ancestors were true pioneers.  The Wades came in a covered wagon from Missouri to establish farms and lay out a town, the first in this part of North Texas.  There were still buffalo and Comanche Indians roaming around where the skyscrapers of Dallas now stand guard over one of the largest cities in the U.S.   I was born in Fort Worth and grew up there, but my roots were 20 miles east of Dallas in the small town of Rockwall. .

A few years ago I was a member of a writer’s group which met at the senior center in Garland.  One day a man read a piece on the establishment of Rockwall which he had “researched” on the internet.  He wrote about the “rock wall” which was the basis of the name of the town.  Every “fact” in his paper was incorrect. 

This man was always writing pieces attacking someone or something.  Previously I had been incensed by his essays claiming all Muslims were terrorists and another in which he claimed President Obama was a secret Muslim planning to overthrow the government and turn the U.S. into a Muslim caliphate. 

I learned from others that he had tried to be a fundamentalist Protestant preacher and had failed to obtain a following.  He was bitter and frustrated and vented his anger by grabbing any excuse or false rumor to attack other people and organizations.  His paper on Rockwall was a diatribe against geologists and archeologists for “not properly investigating” the rock wall.  I was outraged when he quoted my Mother as saying she went through a hole in the wall and discovered a series of rooms, a settlement built by pre-historic Indians.  Mother never said any such thing!  My brother Don, who disagrees with me on many things, agrees with me: The man’s quotation from Mother was a lie.

This is what I know about the naming of Rockwall:

When my great-great-grandparents, Grandpa and Grandma Wade, arrived in North Texas, they unloaded their covered wagons on a hilltop overlooking the east fork of the Trinity River and decided to lay out a town.  Another family, whose name I forget, joined them in this project, all of them envisioning the beginning of a great new city.

There was a dispute with the other family over what to name the settlement. Each wanted the town named after his family.  Wadesville and whatever.

Despite their disagreement over the name of the town, Terry Wade and a man from the other family agreed to work together to dig a well.  After digging through several feet of thick black top soil their shovels struck a massive rock formation.  Those early well-diggers thought they had discovered a wall built by pre-historic Indians.  The two families decided to compromise and call their town “Rockwall.” 

As a child, when we went to Rockwall to visit my grandmother’s sister, Aunt Lou, we passed Cousin May’s place on the highway with a sign in front saying, “See the Rock Wall.”   Once we stopped to visit Cousin May, and her husband let me go in for free since a I was a relative.  Usually he charged 10 cents for visitors to go down the steep steps, smelling of mildew, like going down into my Grandmother Pattie’s backyard fruit storage and storm cellar (Remember The Wizard of Oz). Far underground I saw a section of rock that truly looked like a man-built wall of neatly stacked oblong shaped blocks of stone. .

Geologists say it is a natural formation with layers of stone with cracks that look like a man-built walls.  I saw similar formations in cliffs in New Mexico.  I was still learning things when I was 55 years old – and am still discovering new ideas in my 80's.   

On that hill overlooking a branch of the Trinity River, Rockwall remained a small town, while 20 miles to the west on a hill overlooking another branch of the Trinity, James Neely Bryan laid out the town he called Dallas.  No one has explained to me why Rockwall remained small while Dallas expanded like a balloon, quadrupling in size within my own memory.  Below Rockwall the Trinity has become damned to become Lake Ray Hubbard, and Rockwall is a suburb of Dallas where Realtors advertise lakeshore lots with a view of the distant Dallas skyline.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Rockwall, Texas; Rockwall, Texas

The banner headline across the top of the real estate section of the Dallas Morning News proclaimed:  “Rockwall/Heath known as one of Dallas’ ‘best-kept secrets”. 

Let’s ignore how something that is ‘known’ can not be a secret. .  The article turns out to be a puff piece for a real estate developer promoting his project where “The residents of Rockwall and Heath love living lakeside and the relaxing lifestyle that is offered only 20 to 25 minutes outside of Dallas’ hustle and bustle.”

I was surprised to read that Rockwall County, “the third wealthiest county in Texas”, is also one of the fastest growing areas in the state and country,    Quite a contrast from the 1930's when Mother and my grandmother took me from Fort Worth to Rockwall to visit my grandmother’s sister, “Aunt Lou”.  As a child I was bored, as wedged in the back seat between my cousins, the car drove slowly on the two-lane highway through the little towns of Arlington and Grand Prairie.  We crossed Dallas on city streets, then saw cotton fields on both sides of the road. 

My grandmother, whom we called “Nonna”, would wave an arm to a hillside on the right and say, “That’s Rowlett over there.”  The “town” consisted of three or four buildings.  The surrounding farms were reputed to be one of the few predominately Catholic communities in North Texas.  It was taken for granted that most people were Baptists. 

The old center of Garland, where I first lived when I returned to Texas in 2006, was not even on the highway.  There was a gasoline filling station and a hamburger stand where we sometimes stopped on the way home. 

Today those towns, each with over 100,000 people, are welded together in one vast urban complex.  Bordered on both sides of the six-lane road are fast food restaurants and shopping malls.  There is nothing to indicate the city limits between towns. 

As a child, I seem to remember a single traffic light on the highway at Arlington.  Off to the left was a race track standing derelict after the Texas legislature banned gambling.  Today the state permits betting on horses, the ponies race at a track in Grand Prairie.  Crossing Dallas County are two interstate highways, I30 and I-20.  Traffic is horrible, especially bad on I30 at Arlington, site of Six Flags Over Texas with its giant rollercosters, and also that monstrous stadium where the Dallas Cowboys bash other teams in football.

Rockwall has not caught up.  The Dallas Morning News says the “fastest growing area in the country” consists of the “city” of Rockwall with 40,000 people, while Heath, “a bedroom community of Rockwall”, has 8,000 residents. 

Those lakeside lots which the realtor is promoting are on Lake Ray Hubbard, which was not there when I was a child. We would come down off a little hill into a valley where the Trinity River flowed sluggishly.  Beyond was a high hill on which we could barely make out the dome of the old court house. 

“There’s Rockwall,” said my grandmother. 
“Where’s Aunt Lou?” I asked.
“Don’t you see her?” said my precocious cousin Pat.  “She’s standing on the front porch waving her apron at us.” 

I knew she was teasing me.  My cousins always treated me as if I were slightly retarded.  But why do I remember that particular remark? 

Today Pat is an old lady, 97 years old, living in a retirement home in South Dakota.  We talk on the phone now and then.  Our attitudes towards each other have changed.

When I was a child, the trip from Fort Worth to Rockwall took all day.  We always stayed for several days with Aunt Lou and Uncle Lon in their little Victorian house a few blocks from the court house. 

After grandmother died, we took her back from Fort Worth to Rockwall on Interstate 20.  The trip from Fort Worth to the old cemetery in Rockwall cemetery on I20 took less than an hour. 

We buried Nonna next to her husband, Lyle McDonald.  He died in the 1918 flu epidemic.  She had been a widow for more than 60 years.  Nearby are the graves of were her parents,  “Grandpa” and “Grandma” Wade.  (I did not know them by any other names.)  In the same plot are my grandfather’s parents and also three little graves of my grandmother’s little brothers, who all died in infancy before she was born – mute testimony to those days when infant mortality was frequent.  Many things have changed, but my roots grow deep in Rockwall, Texas.