I Say Me for a Parabola

January 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

I Say Me for a Parable is the title of Mance Lipscomb’s autobiography; Mance Lipscomb, of course, being the great Texas bluesman from Navasota.

In mathematics, a parabola (which shares the same Greek root, parabellein, as parable) is a “conic section.” For all of us non-mathematicians, the easiest way to understand a parabola is to apply it to the human head, which is most recognizable in the “Coneheads” of Saturday Night Live fame, and the “Pinheads” of Freaks (the movie) and Zippy the Pinhead (the comic strip) fame.

As usual, the freshly minted (freshly demented, if you prefer) Texas legislature has already put me into parabolic paroxysms with their various agendas (Their collective parabola, my resultant paroxysms).

All of which leads me to the telling of a parable. Now, I’m no Jesus, as anyone who knows me will attest, and this is my first attempt at parabling, but hopefully I will be able to get my parabolic point across in the following ramble.

I own a couple of houses in the picturesque but dying little town of Sanderson, at the edge of the fabled Big Bend of West Texas. Sanderson began its downward spiral in 1995 when the Southern Pacific Railroad pulled up stakes and left town. Its population has since dwindled from nearly 3000 to about 900. And among the handful of things the SP left behind, besides of dozens of vacated employee houses and memories, was the original 1883 depot, a sprawling building that was considered one of the top ten historic depots in the United States. “Was” is the operative word; the Union Pacific Railroad (which subsumed the Southern Pacific some years ago) demolished the depot, with the complicity of all but a few Sandersonians, in October 2012, citing the dangers caused by its deteriorating condition.

At a time when dozens of railroad towns across Texas are celebrating their rail heritage by restoring their much humbler depots and promoting railroad tourism, Sanderson simply said, “Cram it with nuts” to its rich railroad heritage, beginning with its depot. More visionary people in Marfa (some of them ex-Sandersonians) looked into moving the depot there, but the difficulties of getting it through Alpine proved to be a show-stopper.

At one point, a decade ago, Sanderson had a half-million dollar state grant in hand to restore the depot. But the newly elected county judge (Sanderson is unincorporated, meaning that it is run by Terrell County authorities) rejected the grant, basically saying that there were too many strings attached and citing the potential future costs the county might incur, despite the county’s budget surplus of about $1 million (Is this beginning to sound familiar?)

More than a dozen significant railroad buildings dating from the late 1880s, such as the old crew bunkhouse, remain scattered across Sanderson but are rotting away like the depot did, because no one gives a damn about them (Except for me and perhaps one or two more folks; I have lovingly preserved an old railroad section house from the early 1890s that I bought for about $4000 in 1999).

Sanderson is also one of the best spots for train watching in Texas. Being located in a twisting canyon, viewers from atop the canyon walls can see a variety of freight and passenger trains winding their way for miles through the canyon in either direction, and hear the train whistles echo up to seven times off the canyon walls. Yet, does Sanderson do anything to promote its rich railroad tourism possibilities? Nada. Zip (as in pinhead). It has preferred to wallow in willful, isolated mediocrity, with a handful of mostly minimum wage jobs, substandard healthcare, and a history of high teenage pregnancy rates (kids have little else to do than slip into the hills and drink and fornicate) rather than spend a few dollars to turn it back into a thriving, showcase town with employment opportunities that extend beyond working for shitty pay and few benefits at the town’s one 24-hour truck stop.

Except for a short-lived residency by a small, custom silver jewelry manufacturing shop, Sanderson has pulled in not a single new industrial concern or other meaningfully sized outside business since the SP pulled out.

Other than for some nearby sheep and angora ranching, Sanderson was always a railroad town, a place where train crews switched, meaning that many railroad employees lived in Sanderson, all of whom pulled pretty handsome wages, among them the engineers.

The other Sanderson property I own is an extremely humble, undersized, stucco-over wood frame house on the edge of town that everyone calls the Hank House, after its final owner/occupant, whose last name will go unmentioned to protect the eccentric. In a town and region filled with eccentrics, Hank stood head and shoulders above the rest. An SP engineer, Hank was textbook obsessive/compulsive, which manifested itself in hoarding and world-class stinginess. Hank stories are as numerous as fleas on a yaller dog in Sanderson. He never met a plastic shopping bag he didn’t like, and he had a similar fondness for empty match covers, especially ones with locomotives on them. Not that he particularly cared for locomotives; everyone in town says that he drove the hell out of his engines, with none of the loving care that engineers are legendary for.

He evidently did his shopping, save for breakfast, lunch and dinner, at the county dump. He owned two cars; a 1974 Honda Civic that he had painted by brush with bright orange house paint, and a 1963 Volkswagen, which seems to have been his primary mechanized form of transportation. To save on gas, he drove the occasional 60 hilly, twisting miles to Fort Stockton at 30 miles per hour. Whenever he drove to the post office to get his mail, he rolled to a stop by bumping into the metal-pipe parking-lot guard rail, to save wear and tear on the brakes. He washed his clothes with rainwater he collected from roof runoff in 55-gallon oil drums and dried those wet clothes, Mexican style, atop a pile of limestone rocks in the back yard.

One day he tripped and fell on his face, resulting in several bloody scrapes. In a manner reminiscent of Mickey Rourke’s character in the movie, Barfly, Hank went about town several days with the dried blood decorating his face like warpaint. “Hank, why don’t you wash that blood off your face?” people asked. Hank replied that he didn’t want to waste the water.

His one extravagance was a TV satellite dish, not for himself, but for his common-law wife, Connie, who in a rich twist of fate, owned my other property, the railroad house. Hank, evidently, was of the “Why buy a cow when you can buy milk by the gallon” school. Their relationship was evidently a tumultuous one; at the time of his death in 1994, they had been separated for some period of time, although she remained named as his beneficiary on his railroad life insurance policy. That fact was sufficient ammunition for her survivors to battle Hank’s niece and nephew for his estate.

Hank did not die a poor man. Among other assets, he had almost $200,000 in un-cashed pay and retirement checks squirreled away in the little house. Dozens of his neighbors have told me of the buried treasure that they are sure he had buried in the back yard and that I really should buy or borrow a metal detector and find it.

Given the usually low relative humidity in Sanderson and the rest of West Texas, air conditioners really aren’t necessary; “swamp coolers” work very nicely on all but the most rainy of days and cost but a couple of pennies an hour to operate. They use about as much electricity as a small electric fan and about as much water as you might drink on a summer day. Hank didn’t have an air conditioner or any fans, but he had a swamp cooler; I still use it. But for Hank, a penny saved was a penny earned.

Hank died one day in early June 1994, probably of heatstroke, although no one knows the date or cause of his death for sure. He was barely of retirement age and had no known health problems. The first 10 days that June had been extraordinarily hot; 100 degrees-plus every day. After townfolk hadn’t seen Hank for a week or so (he walked everywhere most of the time), it occurred to someone to check in on him. What they found was little more than a greasy puddle on the floor of the closed up little house. The swamp cooler was in the turned off position. Despite the heat, Hank had been too cheap to turn on the swamp cooler. Connie’s family claimed what was left of his body and buried it in the Mexican section of the local cemetery, not far from the graves of the last train robbers in Texas, who had tried and died just east of town. Hank and Connie were ultimately reunited in death, and thus they lie side by side for eternity.

Hank was rich by anyone but the “one percent’s” standards, but he died trying to save a lousy handful of pennies. Was he saving for that proverbial “rainy day”? Call it whatever you want. Dead is dead.

Texas’ Rainy Day Fund is back to well over $8 billion, and sales tax revenues are up 10 percent from the same time last year (an estimated $2.17 billion for December 2012). The taxable value of oil produced in Texas surged to $39.1 billion in 2011 from $18.4 billion in 2009 and is still on the rise. Yet in the face of this robust economic rebound, our esteemed governor and a majority of our all-wise (guy) legislators are calling for continued budget cuts in the face of continued public education devastation, the highest number of people without health insurance in the nation, a crumbling public infrastructure, crippling drought, ad nauseam. And calling for tax cuts (mostly for businesses) as well, even though Texans are already relatively lightly taxed compared with the citizens of many other states, and despite the regressive nature of the sales and property taxes that favor the rich and penalize the poor (If the period of time since the last time Texas’ pump gas tax was raised were a living person, he/she could legally drink a beer.).

The governor and most of the lege recite a litany of reasons to justify their budgetary decisions in the face of brutal reality. I’m sure Hank had his litany of reasons for the decisions he made. I wish I could have been around to listen to them. Unfortunately for him and for me, Hank died, at least in the corporeal sense, in the process of justifying them. But I do take heart in the knowledge that a bit of Hank lives on, at least in spirit and in new digs, imbuing our state’s leaders with his peculiar wisdom.


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