A Miracle Maker
Preface & Reader Response
I dismissed my dread as the over-active imaginings of a boy who had watched one too many late-night monster movies and an episode more of The Twilight Zone than might have been healthy.
WATCHFUL EYES ON A TEXAS HIGHWAY
by Jerry Murley
It was a black night on a lonely stretch of two-lane Texas highway. At close to 10 p.m. it was so dark that everything was black, white or shades of gray. I was sitting in the back seat of our car behind my father, who was driving our family of four to a retreat with church friends at Garner State Park about 60 miles west of San Antonio. It was 1960, our first year of residence in Houston. The trip was to be our first Thanksgiving way from Memphis. As usual, we were running late. But my father was getting too sleepy to drive. He pulled off on the side of the highway for a brief nap. We were all tired and all were expected to be quiet and sleep.
When our car slowed on the gravel shoulder and our headlights were extinguished, there was not a light, a car or building in sight, except for an darkened one-story building beside the highway some 75 yards to our rear on the far side of the highway. The silence was deep and quick, as my nine-year-old sister was already asleep and my mother and father settled in for a roadside rest.
Even before eleven years of age, from the day I first neared Houston, Texas, in our family sedan, I knew Texas was not a hospitable place for the solitary traveler. It was not a place that spares innocence. That was doubly true at night far from town. It was as foreign a place as I had yet ventured. The radio news and newspapers seemed over full of horrendous stories of crime and violence. Living in Texas for a couple of years would never induce me to drop my guard. I am not necessarily a suspicious person by nature, but there have been a few times in my life when all the cues a sentient human being can process screamed, "Danger ahead, watch out!"
I did not shut my eyes, but watched. The slight sound of my family breathing in the dark hastened my heart beat. Then came an occasional car, with headlights growing from tiny dots to blinding bright flashes as they passed us at speed, the faint engine zooming by us and then diminishing.
Perhaps two cars passed in an interval of 10 or 20 minutes. Then a car from behind us drove past and slowed perceptibly as it did. I watched for what seemed an eternity as the car drove slowly about 100 yards and did a slow U-turn in the highway ahead. I slid down several inches in my seat and my heart's pace quickened even more. The car passed us again from the other side of the highway. Then it slowed again and turned into a driveway on the near side of the building behind us.
There must have been a drive path, maybe a small parking area behind what I could better see as a white-clapboard house-like building. As ever, I dismissed my dread as the over-active imaginings of a boy who had watched one too many late-night monster movies and an episode more of The Twilight Zone than might have been healthy for a preteen in the early sixties.
But minutes later I saw the same car come from behind the building and slowly turn in our direction. It crept toward our car. When it moved toward the shoulder of the road beside us, I urgently exclaimed, "Dad! Dad, go!"
It's an indication of the trust that my dad had in me and perhaps a sign of his own apprehensions, that he wasted not thirty seconds in starting the car and pulling out on the highway toward Garner State Park. I watched the car that had stalked us pause before doing another U-turn in the highway, heading in the opposite direction.
So began my more mentally alive relationship with Texas. From that point on I was more confident of my intuition and my ability to rumble Texas style. I say it started then, but it probably started some weeks earlier when to my surprise my hustle and shear obliviousness to the prevailing social wisdom won me a prime first-string position on a football team from a life-long Houstonian who everyone reckoned would be the team fullback.
There were more stories about that trip to the Texas hills that were memorable. The one most vivid in memory of my parents was about the family of the friends who we were sharing cabins with at Garner State Park, who arrived at camp later that same night with a dead deer they had hit on the road lashed to the hood of their car. Our friends and the late arrivals proceeded to dress the deer then and there to avoid the deer being counted as a legitimate kill during the weekend hunting. They then buried the leavings and put the fresh, hot meat in the refrigerator in my parents' cabin, where all the girls were also staying. The smell of steamy road kill permeated the cabin by dawn – and has long lingered in the olfactory memory of my parents.
My stories are a bit more personal in nature but sometimes no less acrid and longlasting. Early next morning, we boys took off for the hill overlooking the cabins and the park. The path up the hill was a bit more steep than anticipated. It was lined with scrub bushes and briars to scratch our shoulders and full of small rocks that cut our hands as we fell or put them on the ground to balance going up and down the hill. From that hilltop we felt wild and free, particularly when we saw what appeared to be wild horses running free in the area down past the cabins and across the river. We were both thrilled and made immediately dissatisfied because those horses were too free for our tastes: we wanted to be a part of that herd as bareback riders, an utterly harebrained notion.
It was a day later that we schemed to try to get to those horses. It was an odd objective for us since none of us were experienced horseback riders. First of all we had to get across the river. There was a small dam down by the park pavilion and concession stand, which was pretty much dead in November. To walk across the dam, about thirty yards through a quarter inch of overflowing water in November while risking a fall in the river, didn't seem to be an attractive option. The best idea seemed to be to grab one of the paddle boats by the pavilion that wasn't locked up and take it across. Why not? There was no one around to stop us and maybe those boats were there for anyone to use.
So that's what eleven-year-olds do when given such a choice. The plan appeared flawless, except that no sooner had we gotten on the other side of the river than a park ranger patrol car pulled up to the pavilion and boat dock. Well, I guess we church boys knew that those boats weren't there for the taking and we started dreading the trouble ahead for us with our parents. So, for some reason – I was feeling in control of my destiny I guess – I volunteered that it would be better if it looked like only one of us took that boat out of ignorance rather than a gang of three boys. In those days, adults could concede the innocent ignorance of one preteen, but no one belived that three boys acting in concert were simply unaware of the rules. While my two companions hid behind the bushes, I walked out to meet the park ranger and his companion, who were paddling across the river to track us down.
Now at that time and for years after, I thought I was pretty clever in avoiding trouble for us all with our parents and with the park ranger. And I thought I was fairly brave as well. I told the ranger that I had taken the boat but had not known that I shouldn't. He said, "Son, these boats are property of the park and their use is not allowed at this time of year." I apologized a couple of times and he said, "Well, don't let it happen again." Then his companion took our borrowed boat back and the ranger took the one he came in back across the river. We were stuck across the river but relieved. It took about 30 minutes and we got our feet wet, but we carefully walked along the top of the 8-inch wide dam back across the river. Our parents were never the wiser about the mishap. But it took years before I realized that the laugh was on us and that the ranger probably knew full well that there was more than one boy involved. So much for the delusions of grandeur of the eleven-year-old boy – and so much of the hard-earned lessons to be learned in Texas.
Less than six years later in August 1966, following a deafening but inaudible concert by the Beatles at the Coliseum in Memphis, my sister, a friend of mine, and I joined my parents to begin a driving trip to south Texas. That night, as we traveled southwest, most of the family slept in the car, a Plymouth Barracuda with the back seat let down to make bedding for my friend, myself and my sister. By late the next day we were driving on a two-lane Texas highway toward Brownsville, where we expected to spend a week vacationing.
Ever wary of Texas, I observed all around me. We were driving behind a pickup truck pulling a trailer with pipes extending out over the highway several feet from the rear edge of its tailgate. It was near sundown and the trailer had no taillights. Suddenly I noticed a break in the expected pattern in my field of vision. As the truck crested the midpoint of a bridge with a steep hump in the middle, it began moving forward at a faster rate than the trailer. We were in short order heading right for the trailer, which by then was propelled only by inertia and guided only by road friction and the incline that led directly into the path of our car. I alerted my dad – he says that I yelled, "Stop!" He slowed to pull our family around yet another hazard lying in wait on a Texas highway.
There were other adventures between 1960 and 1966 on Texas highways. But none were so dangerous as those two, unless you count the time I was hit in the head by a surf board on Galveston beach during a road-trip stop, or the time in 1969 that I drove all night from Memphis to Dallas for a pop festival, or the time I drove non-stop with a friend from Los Angeles to Memphis in late December 1970. Rather than stop my Volkswagen van in the late-night snow on a highway in the flatlands of Texas, we swapped drivers while maintaining speed on the interstate highway. At least that return trip I got to sleep an hour or two and didn't have to drive the whole thirty-six hours by myself while my friend slept. What's more frightening, the hazards of Texas highways or a twenty-one-year-old non-Texan traveling them mostly on his own and very much aware of their barely concealed dangers? Well, I am no longer twenty-one and I still keep watchful eyes on Texas highways. After the first decade of the twenty-first century, I am more certain of why I should: not because of immigrants but because of a nativist and prodigiously perilous product that endows an expansive free-range state with a tad too much Texas.