The little white church in El Campo had smooth oak pews and stale green hymnals. It was at that altar where I became a Christian, in those pews where I took my first communion—Welch’s grape juice and oyster crackers. It seemed to be a perfect world, but for my mother, it was something less than that; marrying my father was supposed to have gotten her out of church, not get her stuck deeper in it.
My father’s preaching career consisted of two year-long interim positions at two East Texas churches. We were happy then, or so I thought. My father was following his calling as a servant of the Lord, my mother was a preacher’s wife and church accompanist, and my sisters and I were model preacher’s kids.
If our parents fought, they did so at times and in places where my sisters and I wouldn’t see. We only witnessed the silent treatments our mother served our father for one day or several (though never overlapping a church service). During those times, my mother fortified the wall she had constructed around herself. I’m not sure what words or action pulled her out of it the last time, but in breaking her silence, my mother said, “If the Lord wanted me to be a preacher’s wife, He should’ve given me a call, too.” With that, my father’s preaching career was over.
After El Campo, we headed north to New London, Texas. It turns out the only thing new about the town was its name, chosen by the city council after their post office application was returned because the other London, Texas, beat them to the punch. New London was, for a time, the richest town in the country. In my mind and in my stories, though, New London will always be known as the Town of Tragedies.
On March 18, 1937, 35 years before our arrival, an explosion at the fancy new school building killed nearly 300 students and teachers. It was common, even in towns made rich by oil, to tap oil lines to fuel heaters. An overnight leak in one of the connectors in the basement turned the school building into a tinderbox. In 1937, natural gas had no scent, so when the shop teacher flipped a power switch on the sander for the last class of the day: KABOOM! Onlookers reported that the two-story schoolhouse rose slightly off the ground before crumbling into a heap of concrete, steel, flesh, and bone. The news of the tragedy traveled far and wide; even Adolf Hitler sent condolences. Legislation was quickly passed by the Roosevelt Administration to add mercaptan to natural gas, forever making us equate danger with the smell of rotten eggs.
A tall metal slide in my fourth-grade playground had reportedly been standing there that fateful morning; the hundreds of rusty dings in its surface made my imagination run wild. A granite cenotaph stands today in the middle of Main Street in front of the rebuilt school, the names of the dead chiseled into its base.
Natural gas was still the town’s main commodity when we arrived there in 1972, and every inch of red clay earth not designated buildable within the city limits bore the scars of the excavation tools searching for one more healthy vein of Texas Tea. My sisters and I often snuck soup spoons out of the house on lazy weekend afternoons to try to deepen half-dug caves in the walls of manmade gorges surrounding our neighborhood, which we believed had been started by Native Americans. Ours was one of several model homes on the upside-down horseshoe-shaped street forming the subdivision, and the first house we lived in that had never been lived in, although, by the time we arrived, anything identified as “new-house smell” was more a salesman’s talking point than it was fact.
When the builders rambled along the paved roads during construction of the follow-up homes, they cared less about the neighborhood’s condition. There’s an inch-long scar on the bottom left side of my right palm I got after walking backward up the street drinking chocolate milk and tripping over a concrete blob that had been there since those days. I pulled a triangle of glass out of my hand and ran, hoping no one saw, convinced I’d get in trouble if they did. In the bathroom, rinsing the blood with water, the bumpy subcutaneous substance fascinated me. I pulled at it, not realizing it was fatty tissue, trying my best to remove it. Suddenly, my father appeared, yanking me away from the sink, yelling, “What are you doing?”
My father worked for one of the natural gas companies in town, doing what, I have no idea, but I’m sure he didn’t feel like he was doing the Lord’s work anymore. He couldn’t have been happy since my mother had snuffed out his dream. However, he moved through life like someone whose purpose it was to be a good father. On Christmas Eve, he arrived late, his jacket bulky from a puppy hiding there. When it was freed from captivity, he ran circles, wetting himself uncontrollably and making us laugh. My mother said, “Oh, you little Stinker!” and it stuck.
Stinker and I were fast friends. He stayed close by my side except when I was at school or church. But because he was allowed to run free—and because New London was the Town of Tragedies—Stinker contracted mange. Telling me there was no cure, my father decided to use it as a teaching moment. I only had a vague sense of what it meant to “put down” a dog, but as Stinker had an incurable disease, I knew it couldn’t be good. He intended the lesson to make a man of me.
Stinker willingly followed me as I less willingly followed my father over and under a fence at the back of the neighborhood with a metal No Trespassing sign dancing wickedly in the wind, deep into a wooded lot. At a sandy clearing, where Stinker investigated the surroundings, stopping intermittently to scratch himself pitifully, my father handed me his .22 shotgun.
I took it without thinking. With one eye, I squeezed tight and focused on my miserable mutt a few yards away.
My father said, “Easy, easy,” like he didn’t know how hard this was.
A tear stained a dark path along the rust-colored barrel of the gun. My shoulders collapsed, my body quaked, the shotgun dropped to the ground just before I did, blubbering. Meanwhile, my sisters were waiting at the living room window with our mother, curious how their pudgy “effeminate” brother might emerge as a man. But father, son, and dog returned because I’d failed.
When my father and Stinker headed back into the woods, I sat on my bed, awaiting punishment upon his return, my ears plugged to save me from hearing the echoing crack of Dad’s “manhood”.
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