Day the Mules Went Crazy
by Jim Foreman
LIFE IN A SMALL TOWN
Living in a small town is like living in a fishbowl; almost everything you do is visible to everyone else and even if you try your best to hide it, everybody still knows what's going on. In most cases, the majority of the residents usually know who is going to do what to or with whom even before the people involved do.
Take for instance the small town where I grew up. It's located in the middle of the Texas Panhandle, which was the last part of the state to be settled. An early explorer referred to the Panhandle as, "Miles and miles of nothing but miles and miles suitable for nothing but buffalo and coyotes." Prior to the discovery of oil, the Panhandle was nothing but grass and cows. Stinnett was founded shortly before the oil boom days of the mid 1920s but never really benefited from them. As my dad used to say about Stinnett, "It started off slow and then tapered." About all it has ever had going for it is possession of the court house and they stole it, but that's another story.
Stinnett was not only a one-horse town, it was also a one of just about everything town. It had one barber, one drug store, one grocery store, one undertaker, one church, one lawyer, one water tower, one rich man and one really poor family. There was one doctor, one town drunk, one village idiot and one strange little man who invented things. His last name had several x's, k's and z's in it and no one could pronounce it except him.
Stinnett had just one main street, unless you count the one running from the school to the train depot, but it had no businesses on it except the post office and Jake Early's place that he called a hotel. We knew what went on at the post office but were never sure about Jake's place. All that we knew was that there was usually several single women living there. Up until I was about ten years old, main street wasn't even paved. The only reason why it was ever paved was because it was part of the road from Borger to Spearman and the state paved it.
Stinnett was founded by a rancher by the name of Jasper Stinnett on a corner of his ranch which wasn't good for anything else. He wanted to call it Jasper but since Texas already had a town by that name, he decided to use his last name. Surveyors for the Rock Island Railroad were staking out a route for the new line from Liberal, Kansas to Amarillo and were planning for it to go across the Burdick Ranch about a couple miles east of town. It's claimed that Stinnett got the head surveyor drunk and then into an all night poker game in which he lost everything, including his dignity. When surveyor woke up the next morning, he found that Stinnett was holding his markers for two thousand dollars which he certainly didn't have. After a bit of negotiation, the route for the railroad moved west just enough for it to pass through the east edge of town. Stinnett got his railroad, the surveyor got his markers back and everyone was happy. Burdick wasn't really in favor of having the railroad cutting across his ranch in the first place.
The town of Stinnett also had one nosy, old maid telephone operator named Lena Belle Leland who not only served as the center of communication for the town, but was also the source of most of its really good gossip. Every phone call made in or out of town had to go through her. She not only connected the calls but also listened in on most of them, then passed along everything that she heard to most anyone who would listen. In fact, if she picked up an especially juicy conversation, she would ring up a couple of her old biddy friends and cross the plugs so they could listen in on the dirt first hand.
Lena Belle had the heart of a raging vigilante when it came to sin. She took it upon herself to correct what she perceived to be the sins and evils of everyone in town. She was something like a morals director in a house of ill repute. Take for instance the time when Ed Young over at the funeral home had quite a thing going with Marie Stimmons, the local beauty operator. Business must have been rather slow at both the funeral home and the beauty shop that day because they were indulging in a bit of telephonic foreplay in preparation for their clandestine meeting in the back room of the funeral home as soon as they could close shop for the day. All the heavy breathing and rather vivid descriptions of what they were going to do to, with and for one another as soon as they could get together was a bit too much for Lena Belle's moral standards. After listening to them for about half an hour, she decided that she just had to do something about their plans. She gave Helen Young the secret signal and plugged her into the conversation. Everyone in town knew Lena Belle's secret signal. If you got three quick dings on your phone, you were to pick up the receiver without saying anything and just listen.
Helen had known what was going on between Ed and Marie even before it got down to really serious sweating and heavy breathing. Ed's getting a little on the side didn't really bother her all that much because she viewed sex more as a wifely obligation than a pleasure. As long as Ed was trying to keep Marie's rather lusty sexual appetite satisfied, he was so pussy- whipped that he left her alone.
First Ed and Marie discussed doing it on the table where he embalmed the bodies for burial, but Marie complained that the stainless steel surface was always so cold that it was difficult for her to maintain her concentration on matters at hand. Ed, being somewhat of a romantic and certainly not wanting to do anything that might dampen her enthusiasm, suggested that they get it on among the flowers that were already in the back of the hearse for the Herbert funeral the next day. That brought a squeal of excited anticipation from Marie, then she said that it might be even more fun to take old man Herbert out of his fancy, satin-lined coffin so they could do it in there.
When Ed joked that making love in a dead man's coffin might be too much like having sex at home with his wife, Helen decided that she had heard enough and it was time to put out the fire in Ed's furnace. No one was ever sure of the punishment that Helen dished out to poor old Ed, but it was said that for the next couple weeks, he wore un-ironed shirts and went around looking like a deer caught in the headlights of a truck.
Stinnett had a town drunk who it was claimed, hadn't had a sober moment for at least the past thirty years. There was a joke going around town that he ran out of whiskey and came home sober one time and his dog bit him. The thing that I remember most about Mr. Adler was that the top half of his right ear was missing. Everyone figured that he had lost it in the war or else it had been bitten off in a fight. My dad finally told me the true story about the missing ear. Seems that he had been sitting in the shade on the front porch of the pool hall, drunk as usual and whittling on a slat out of an apple box with his pocket knife. A bee began to buzz around his head and as he batted at it with the hand holding the knife, he accidentally sliced off the top of his ear. Dad claimed that he kept his ear in a jelly jar of pure alcohol for several years in case he ever got enough money to pay a doctor to sew it back on. That plan ended one morning when he woke up with a particularly bad case of the heebie-jeebies and drank the contents of the jar, ear and all.
Being the only one of anything has certain advantages but it also has its down side because there is no one else to compare you with and you tend to stand out like a sore thumb. Take Crazy Walter for instance. He hadn't been crazy all his life; he got that way after being struck by lightning while walking home from his first day in school. His real name was Walter Johnson and he lived just across the tracks east of town where his father was the section foreman for the Rock Island Railroad.
Walter was balancing himself on a rail when the lightning bolt came out of a little cloud no bigger than your hat but it burned all his hair off, set his school books on fire and blew his brand new Keds tennis shoes to shreds. All that was left of them was the round blue patches which Walter carried around in his pocket for years. It also caused him to start talking like Donald Duck. All the other first grade students would scream with laughter when he said anything, but the teacher, Mrs. US Nicks, sent him home for talking funny. She said he was just doing it to create attention.
After about a month Walter stopped talking like a duck and seemed to get back to being more or less normal except that when his hair came back, it was bright red and no matter how much Wildroot Cream Oil they smeared on, it stuck straight out like the bristles on a toilet bowl brush. One day Mrs. Nicks told him to go to the bathroom and comb his hair. When he replied, "Your hair would stick out funny too if you got struck by lightning," it brought such gales of laughter from the other kids that she gave him five swats on the butt with the special ruler she kept on her desk for unruly kids. In those days, every grade school teacher had one of those special seventeen-inch rulers on their desk. No one knows why they were seventeen inches long, other than it must be the optimum length for hitting a kid.
Small towns seem to have a self-limiting factor which causes them to maintain exactly the same population year after year. Every time that a baby is born, someone leaves town and every time that someone dies, a shirt-tail relative moves into his house. It's a never-ending cycle which has maintained a stable population of about nine hundred people living in Stinnett for the past seventy-five years.
Stinnett didn't start out with nearly as many people as live there now. When it was founded in 1923, it was supposed to become a railroad town and shipping point for cattle from all the ranches in the area. Within the first couple years, it grew to around two hundred people with a few businesses, mostly associated with the ranching industry.
When oil was discovered in 1926, it shot up to its present size then sort of leveled out. It was still the smaller of three towns on the north side of the river. About five miles to the east was a place called Signal Hill, named after California's famous Signal Hill district where the new oil-rich people around Long Beach built their mansions. A land promoter from Amarillo figured that all those people in the Panhandle of Texas who were getting rich on oil needed a similar place to build their mansions so he bought a quarter section of land atop the only hill in the county and named his new town Signal Hill. The going price for a lot in those days was a hundred dollars. Greed got the better of him so he divided the 160 acres up into lots twenty-five by eighty feet in size in order to get as many as possible on his land. It's awfully hard to build much of a mansion on a lot only twenty-five feet wide.
What really made Signal Hill grow by leaps and bounds was the fact that when a person bought a lot, they also got the mineral rights under it. The first thing most of the new owners did was pitch a tent on their lot, set up a rig and start drilling for oil. Since few of them could afford a steam engine for drilling, most of the drilling was done by hand. As a result, progress on most of the wells was rather slow. Within a couple years, Signal Hill had a population of ten thousand people and more coming. I was one of the new arrivals when I was born there on November 3rd of 1928.
The death knell was sounded when all those people drilling on their property finally realized that there wasn't enough oil under the whole town to grease a pig at the county fair and every one of those holes they had been drilling was going to be a duster. Almost overnight, the people picked up their belongings and left. Hundreds of houses were either torn down or put on skids and hauled away. By 1932, there wasn't a single person living there and the only building left standing was the red brick bank and land office. A few of the Signal Hill residents, including my parents, moved to Stinnett but most of them headed for wherever the next oil boom was happening.
My dad bought an entire city block of lots along the northern city limits which abutted a section of grass that he leased for grazing cattle. This allowed us to live in town but still have a ranch.
The real threat to Stinnett's existence was Plemons, located on the river about four miles on past Signal Hill. It had less than half the population of Stinnett, but being the only town around in 1903 when the Panhandle was divided up into counties, it became the county seat. Possession of the court house gave Plemons a distinct advantage when it came to survival. Not only did Plemons have the court house, they also had the only school on the north side of the river. Relations between the two towns became even more strained when Stinnett forced a vote to split the school district down the middle so they could have their own school. Deprived of the school taxes that they had been collecting from the residents of Stinnett, the County Commissioners, most of whom lived in Plemons, reacted by refusing to spend any money keeping up the county road or bridges around Stinnett.
As a gesture of friendship and fence-mending, a group of businessmen from Stinnett offered to spring for a big picnic and dance on a Saturday night and even suggested that it be held under a grove of cottonwood trees along the river just south of Plemons. A couple fat steers were butchered and lowered onto the glowing mesquite coals in the barbecue pits. Tubs of potato salad were made, pots of beans were cooked and dozens of pies baked. The big party started just before sunset.
Even though this was during prohibition, several jugs of moonshine appeared and were passed around to anyone who cared to take a swig. Musicians were playing, people were dancing and the festivities were going full swing when darkness fell. While the men from Plemons were playing rub, feel and squeeze as they danced with the women from Stinnett, who seemed to be unusually friendly that night, a small group of men from Stinnett sneaked into the court house, pried open the vault door and hauled the county records away on a truck. When the residents of Plemons woke up on Sunday morning, all that they had to show for their night of gastronomic indulgence and flagrant attempts at debauchery was a hangover big enough to kill a horse and an empty vault at the court house. All the county records were safely locked away in Stinnett and having possession of the records made Stinnett the county seat. Plemons filed a lawsuit to recover the courthouse but the judge, who lived in Stinnett, threw it out.
While Stinnett had only one of most everything else, by the beginning of the war, it had more liquor stores and bars than all other businesses combined. When prohibition ended in 1932, the Baptists and bootleggers in Oklahoma and Kansas joined forces to keep those states totally dry. On the other hand, Texas had what was called "Local Option" which meant that each voting precinct could decide whether liquor could be sold there or not. Borger, being the naturally wide-open and rowdy town that it had always been, immediately voted to become the first place in the Panhandle where booze could legally be sold. As such, it became the point of supply for every drop of illegal whiskey sold and drank for hundreds of miles to the north.
Sitting in his office on main street, Lawyer Tate watched the procession of big, black cars as they rolled lightly through town going south, then back north a couple hours later with their rear bumpers riding close to the ground. There was no question that they were laden with cases of half-pint bottles of whiskey destined for the preachers, deputy sheriffs and other bootleggers in the dry states to the north. He immediately began to calculate the amount of money that was passing by in front of his office and plotted ways to get his fingers on some of it.
The Texas Highway Patrol set up a roadblock right in front of the court house and began to stop every car that looked even slightly like it might be hauling illegal booze. Hundreds of arrests were made. It was an ideal place for a roadblock because main street was the only way through town and stopping them right in front of the court house made for a short walk to the jail.
Being the only lawyer in town, Lawyer Tate was inundated with cases to defend. Suddenly, Lawyer Tate found himself with far more business than he could handle as he defended the parade of people accused of illegally transporting whiskey through a dry area. Even though he was doing very well as an attorney, he was still looking for ways to cash in on all the whiskey that made its way past the roadblocks.
In order to get his finger directly into the pie, his first task would be to get the people of Stinnett to vote to legalize the sale of whiskey. This proved to be no small matter because the moment that anyone mentioned having a local option election, the preachers would mount such vocal battle from their pulpits that the whole idea would never get anywhere.
As each trial was brought before the judge, Lawyer Tate would request a jury trial on the possibility that he could get his client off on some legal technicality like someone drank the evidence or a witness had been paid not to show up. In order to fill all those seats in the jury box, it was necessary for the judge to send the sheriff out two or three times each day to round up twelve men for jury duty. Since the sheriff tended to grab the first people he came across, the jury usually consisted of the barber and a half-shaved customer, the blacksmith, the guy who pumped gas at the Texaco station and the rest ranchers who were unlucky enough to have been drinking coffee at the cafe when the sheriff came in. Oh yes, and there was always Shorty Braxton, the town dwarf. Actually, Shorty wasn't really a dwarf, but he was the closest thing that we had to one so he had to do. He was so crippled by birth defects and a severe curvature of the spine that he stood only about four and a half feet tall and had to walk with a crutch.
Shorty was the only person in town who liked to be on jury duty because it paid him two dollars each time he served, which was a lot more than he made sweeping floors. He was so crippled that about all he could do in the way of work was to sweep out the pool hall. The man who owned the pool hall gave him a few dollars now and then for food and let him sleep on a cot in the back room. Other people in town wanted to help take care of him but he refused to accept what he called pity money. As an alternative, each time that there was a bet of any sort, they would let Shorty hold the stakes. When whatever the bet was settled, the winner would give him part of the winnings. That way they could give him a few dollars without it seeming like charity.
The men of Stinnett soon became so tired of being hauled in for jury duty three or four times a week that they decided that the only way to bring it to an end was to get rid of the Highway Patrol's roadblock by voting the town wet. In spite of all the pulpit pounding with threats of fire, brimstone and eternal damnation, Stinnett became "wet" at the next election, making it now the logical stop for the bootleggers. Lawyer Tate lost no time in opening four liquor stores and two bars of his own. He was also able to rent out every vacant building that he owned as either liquor stores or bars. He had to build half a dozen new buildings just to keep up with the demand. Even if the booze happened not to be bought in one of his stores, at least he got the rent on the place where it was sold.
The men of Stinnett were no longer being dragged away from their jobs for jury duty, but other than Lawyer Tate, few of the residents could see any benefits from having to put up with the drunks, fights, assaults and murders that came along with the bars and liquor stores. It took ten years for the people of Stinnett to reverse their mistake and return the town to what it had been before; a dull little place where the topic of the day was either the price of beef or who was caught sleeping with whom.