"When dawn spreads its paintbrush on the plain, spilling purple... ," Songs of the Pioneers song from TV show "Wagon Train." Dawn on the mythic Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico, looking toward Raton from Cimarron. -- Clarkphoto. A curmudgeon's old-fashioned newspaper column, cross-breeding metaphors and journalism and art, for readers in 150 countries.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Ghost towns

Traveling to Wichita Falls and then Waurika this Mother's Day to visit Mom's grave with my brother Jerry of Lubbock stirs ghosts in those towns and in my life.

We gathered last night for dinner and personal time, in the city where my grandmother on my Dad's side, Cuba John Miller Clark Reasor, had a watermelon stand and restaurant downtown back in the early 50s. I barely remember it, but it was hot then when we visited in the summer. It was already 101 yesterday. That's the city where we drove every week for 12 years to have the newspaper printed when I owned the Waurika, OK, News Democrat 25 years ago.

Crossing the Red River
Jerry and I drove north through Burkburnett, crossing the Red River, and turned east on US 70 toward Waurika and the cemetery where Mom is buried. It's a long 28 miles and it was hot already at 9:30, going into the sun through the rattlesnake-infested Red River breaks, the mesquite, the wheat--land largely unpopulated except by cattle. Years ago, we used to travel that route west going to New Mexico and Texas.

At the windswept hill west of Waurika, we pulled off  the road, crunched over the gravel and drove up by Mom's grave. I've come most years to plant real flowers at the grave, saturating the plot with water and cleaning off the gravestone. This is Jerry's second or third trip. He said he was "going to see Momma."

Jerry at Mom's grave
We planted the flowers, and stood around, talking, to each other, and to her too, remembering, thinking, wondering, about the past and the future, as the wind slowly dried the water off her marker, leaving only the incised letters of her name and her dates of life wet:
Francis Faye Culp Clark
June 15, 1909
July 5, 1980

It's not quite in the cemetery. The wind always blows and you can hear doves and meadowlarks all the time. But we were quiet inside, I think. We wandered around other graves, commenting on the names and the dates. Babies and children, and a lot of people I remember personally having known them or worked with them when we lived there before leaving in 1986. The names themselves are stories, and ghosts. I should have written them down. Maybe someday. Ghosts.
My great partner and wife, Donald J. and Lorene B. Morrison
His meeting me there revived other memories and ghosts. Every year I search for the grave of my former newspaper partner and his wife, Donald J. and Lorene B. Morrison. Never have found it, because I thought it was in an older part  of the cemetery.

Wandering with Jerry, not far from Mom's grave, I found it. More memories and ghosts.

We didn't spend long there, lost in our thoughts and he with a four to four and a half hour drive ahead.  I kneel down and kiss the gravestone and say goodbye.

Jerry asked if I realized that when we're gone, no one will visit those graves. Mortality hangs in the warm air.

Red brick streets
Ghosts of a past life
Then I drive through the little town of Waurika, about half the size of when we lived there...withering like most of the state west of I-35. I can tell you stories about many of the buildings--with the people involved, as I drove up those red brick streets, past the old newspaper office, the railroad depot, vacant store fronts once alive with people and hope. I drove past crowded parking lots of the church were we went, and the one where Mom went. More memories, more ghosts. Took a picture of the first house we had there, when our youngest was born. Drove past the high school, turned north on US 81.

The restored Rock Island Depot--now the library. It was vacant for years.
I stopped to take a photo of vacant buildings in Addington, which had a Socialist newspaper in 1909, and is now barely there. I think most towns have ghosts, but they're easier to find in small towns, rather than metro areas where "progress" erases them.  I pulled into Comanche, 15 miles north of Waurika where my Dad was born, past the boarded up brick school of the Comanche Indians he and his brothers attended.  More ghosts. A new bank building is going up on the corner, replacing the old Chief Cafe where granddad used to sip coffee. Around the block a few cars are in the gravel parking lot of the Comanche Church of Christ where Dad's funeral was.

Terry and Jerry at Mom's grave
North of town I stop on old US 81 and drive up more gravel to plant a few flowers at Dad's grave. He died in 1973. Beside him is the grave of his father, Erle Thweat Clark, who died in 1963. Just north of his grave are two more. Mary Unit Watts Clark, who died in 1926, and Batte Peterson Clark, who died in 1916. My brother and I carry their name and more. Who will visit our graves?

I talk briefly to Dad, and then head north, not stopping in Duncan, because there are ghosts there too. I'm eager to get to Chickasha and the turnpike and head home at 75 mph. Slower speed and memories and ghosts and ghost towns are important

But it's important not to try to live there, or stir them too much.

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