As an inveterate scribbler of verse for over 40 years, I have long followed–without knowing until very late that I was doing so–the injunction of British novelist E.M. Forster that we should “Only connect.” What often comes together in my poems are the unlikely pairings that I have found lying about me, especially in my own Texas habitat. On a recent trip to West Texas, the paradoxical conjunctions seemed more apparent than ever, perhaps because I had decided to visit the town of Baird, the birthplace of my father. Located 20 miles east of Abilene, Baird is home to just 1,600 citizens, but was once an important railway junction, born of the need to transport beef to major markets. This, of course, is the story of many small towns in Texas, but as I would come to realize, Baird stands for more than declining numbers.
The original impetus for my trip north and west from Austin was an invitation to give a poetry reading at the library of McMurry University in Abilene. Along the way, I was struck by road signs that evoked thoughts which had little or nothing to do with the pinoaks, mesquites, Indian paintbrushes, bluebonnets, cacti, and Rattlesnake Ranch that I was passing at 70 miles an hour. One sign read “Thurber” and another “Mingus,” the former reminding me of that writer’s story entitled “A Couple of Hamburgers,” about a couple traveling in a car and disagreeing over where to stop for a bite to eat, and the latter recalling the many recordings I have by that hardbop bass player and his Jazz Workshop, which included several Texans. Another sign read “La Mancha Lake Ranch,” and flashed before me the pages in Cervantes’ classic Spanish novel where Don Quixote’s neighbors burn his books of epic poetry because they credited the like with driving him mad. Of course, the road sign to Cisco recalled “The Caballero’s Way,” the famed story by O. Henry, with its trademark twist at the end. One billboard was an enticement to tourists to come see Albany, “A Martha Stewart Meets John Wayne Thing.”
Twenty miles outside of Abilene I stopped in Baird, where grandfather Oliphant had brought his family from Nashville, Tennessee, around 1907. Grandfather had worked as a railroad “hostler,” that is, one who services a vehicle–in this case a locomotive. My father, who was born in Baird in 1915, moved to Fort Worth as a teenager and eventually went into the printing business. My mother worked in the shop with him and also operated a linotype machine for another company. Much about their mechanical skills are now largely obsolete. Trains run on computers, as do printing presses. On March 22, 1967 the Baird train station was closed, after having seen thousands of troops pass through during two world wars, some 14 freight trains and four passenger trains coming through daily, stopping until the engines and cars could be serviced by the hostler. By that date, Grandfather had been dead for 35 years.
A local committee is now trying to preserve the depot; I myself was out to preserve something of family history by visiting, for only the second time in my life, my father’s birthplace. He had been delivered by Dr. Robert Lee Griggs, a legendary physician who loved wrestling and breeding Hereford cattle. Griggs had been sought out by the Mayo Clinic for his brilliance as a surgeon and diagnostician. He was also renowned as the only doctor in the area who would deliver black children. Despite the Mayo Clinic’s best efforts, the doctor would never leave West Texas.
After reading about Griggs in the train depot, I moved on to the library-museum. There I found an exhibit on the town’s only official hanging. A local waitress was murdered by a man who suffered from unrequited love. His letter in Spanish to his mother in Zacatecas on the day he was hanged is heartrending, his longhand script beautifully written, and his remarks, quoted in an Abilene newspaper, are probably true for the ages: “And I will tell you that anyone is liable to do it at any time and at any moment–that is if they get in the same fix that I was in. A good many men in this world would just as soon have gold as honor. In this world all the desire is to sell and buy.”
The morning after my poetry reading I drove to Albany, where I had breakfast at Y’all Come Back Café. No sign on the white frame house indicated the name of the establishment–the only evidence that it was a business was the red and blue neon OPEN in a front window. Ordering two pancakes and grits, I found them quite tasty, but wanted to complain about the fake orange juice until I read the wooden signs around the walls: “We have a five dollar fine for whining”; “Open seven days a week, except when there is a rodeo–I have something else to do–I don’t feel like working–Sundays”; “Albany seasons: Already summer, summer, still summer, deer season.” This seemed neatly to sum up the town, or at least, with the antlers on one wall, the John Wayne side of things. As for the Martha Stewart facet of Albany, I didn’t see much of that, unless that meant the town’s antique stores. (The state Legislature has designated Baird as “The Antique Capital of West Texas.” This I label living off the past, which so many small towns have been reduced to and which, in my own poetry, I have been doing for decades.)
The most metaphysical combination of Martha Stewart and John Wayne would have to be Albany’s The Old Jail Art Center. Created from the limestone walls of a building erected in 1877 and saved from demolition by native writer Robert E. Nail, the Art Center boasts a permanent and very impressive collection that includes pre-Columbian art, works by Roualt, Renoir, Klee, Picasso, Matisse, and Modigliani, as well as painting of the so-called Fort Worth School. A piece of sculpture by Umlauf, entitled Torso, from 1954, is the most affective work of his that I have ever seen, created from Texas marble and taking full advantage of this luscious material full of dark, pinkish, sensuous veins.
I was drawn to a room devoted to cowboy artifacts, filled with typical items, such as guns, boots, saddles, spurs, ropes, and photographs of cowmen rounding up or branding cattle. Also in this room was a patchwork quilt of an exquisite design, very unwestern and even un-American. It was composed of silken scraps of fabric sewn, along the lines of each, with yellow-gold thread in a wide cross-stitch pattern that adds greatly to the work’s rich overall effect. This piece seemed to belie the common image of such homecrafts, leaning more in the direction of a consciously artistic intent. But Albany, like many other small towns in present-day West Texas, has come to combine sophistication with the traditional imagery and lifestyle of ranching and the oil industry. Not that this is anything new, as witness the example of Dr. R.L. Griggs of Baird. There have always been those who have been capable, even in “the middle of nowhere,” of creating stimulating artwork or of practicing brilliantly a profession other than the ones typically associated with a particular time and place.
Talking with Bobbye Griggs in her home in Baird, hearing her stories of her doctor father, made me aware once more of the inexplicable connections that exist between ourselves and our past, as well as the unchanging nature of so much about the human condition. I thought of lovelorn Alberto Vargas, hanged on October 19, 1906, and of Emma Blakley, his innocent victim, who, for whatever reason, was unable to return his affection.
How I came to require poetry and jazz in my own life remains to me a mystery, especially when I look back on a grandfather whom I never knew, who left no more of himself than a pocket watch that still tells the time but says nothing about what he would have thought of a grandson who writes poems, listens to Charles Mingus’s My Jelly Roll Soul, married a speaker of Spanish who gave birth to a son and daughter who are half Chilean, and whose granddaughters are half Brazilian. All of this is of utmost importance and value to me, but would probably have meant little or nothing to my grandfather. Or maybe it would have.
Returning to the small towns of Texas reveals that it was not long ago that much that is vital to us–in terms of transportation, careers, amenities–was unknown or even unthought of by our forebears. Even so, almost nothing that makes our lives truly meaningful is any different today. We still look for someone to reciprocate our love, seek out a doctor who can understand and cure us, try to find a mechanic we can trust to service our vehicle. Some of us–as in every age–go on searching for a work of art or literature that can quench a mysterious thirst for the ineffable and enduring. I’d like to think that Grandfather did have me in mind as he checked the schedule for a train’s arrival time; perhaps he even envisioned a poet and trilingual great-great grandchildren among his successors.
Dave Oliphant is the author of Memories of Texas Towns & Cities (Host Publications).