Everything Matters

Everything Matters
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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

B-17F Crashes and Burns
Four Miles South of Mineral Wells
By Jeff Clark

“Thank you for your request. Attached is a copy of the accident report covering the loss of B-17F, s/n 42-5719, at Mineral Wells TX on 11 March 1943…We hope this information is of value to you.”
I’m staring at a faded copy of a “War Department – U.S. Army Air Forces Report of Aircraft Accident.” The men flying that plane are no longer around to interview. This sheaf of papers will have to tell their story.
First Lieutenant Jack A. Nilsson; 2nd Lieutenant William F. Pitts of March Field, California; 2nd Lieutenant Morgan A. Regan; Staff Sergeant James F. Deaver of Bluff Dale, Texas; Sergeant Jamieson P. Ware of Dallas; William R. Thaman of Ohio; Corporal Olen G. Diggs of Lubbock and Private Joseph F. Yonack of Dallas are recorded on the Personnel Listing.
Nilsson was Pilot Instructor for the training mission, with Pitts and Regan on board as student pilots. Five enlisted men rounded out their crew. All were stationed at the Army Air Forces Advanced Flying School, members of the 955th School Squadron, Hobbs Field, New Mexico.
There is an extensive listing of damage, of what investigators found smoldering on the ground. By the time you read this, this plane crash’s anniversary will be two weeks away.
The men’s B-17F is known as a “flying fortress” four-engine heavy bomber, developed in the 1930s, a high-flying aircraft able to suffer massive combat damage and still stay in the air. The B-17 dropped more bombs than any other aircraft type during WWII.
This fated plane took off from Hobbs Army Air base on a navigational training flight March 11, 1943 at about 1500 hours. The crew received clearance to fly at 8,500 feet to Amarillo, then Tulsa, Shreveport, turning east to Dallas and then on to Fort Worth, where they were to RON (remain over night), returning to Hobbs the following day.
Nilsson writes, “I knew the weather was bad at Fort Worth…We had approximately 2,500 gallons of gasoline aboard and only a 6 ½ hour flight to make.” They pushed along at 180 mph for the first two hours, hoping to beat worsening weather developing around Cowtown.
Nilsson recalculated fuel consumption. “I discovered we were consuming it at an extravagant rate”. They throttled back to 1,850 RPMs. Speed dropped to 160 mph.
As they approached Amarillo around 1615 hours, transmitter trouble prevented them from making radio contact until they were 40 miles east. They were told to proceed to Tulsa. About 60 miles southeast of Tulsa, electrical storms prevented them from keeping radio contact with Shreveport. Nilsson relates “the static was so severe that we couldn’t hear the S. P. Range. We climbed to 14,000 feet in order to get on top of the overcast.” They finally reestablished radio contact.
The report states that except for “excessive fuel consumption and increasingly bad weather,” the flight was normal until the plane left Shreveport. It began to pick up ice. The pilot tube froze (used to measure air speed), but pilot heat was turned on and the instrument came back online. The pilot lifted the plane to escape icing and to maintain radio contact. Student Pilot Pitts said, “My radio would go out when I got into the clouds. We got over Shreveport so we could follow the beam and this side of Shreveport we ran into an electrical storm…When I got into the overcast, the radio wouldn’t work at all.” Rounding Shreveport, the plane turned east toward Dallas.
Cruising at 14,000 feet on the way to Dallas, they ran into large build ups of clouds and again started to pick up ice. They had to climb to 18,000 feet to get above the icing and retain radio contact.
As they approached Dallas, they dropped down into the overcast at 14,000 feet. They maintained radio contact this time. When they were over Dallas Radio Station at 2030 CWT, the ceiling in Fort Worth was reported at 800 feet.
“Contact Fort Worth for further instructions.”
Fort Worth told them to descend to 3,000 feet. The crew began going through their landing checklist while waiting clearance to make a procedure let down into Tarrant Field (later Carswell AFB).
Fort Worth reported a ceiling of 300 feet. “No go on your landing.” Climb to 8,000 feet and head for Abilene. The ceiling there was supposed to be 1,000 feet.
Pilot Pitts remembered, “As we came into Fort Worth and went on out the north leg for procedure let down, the ceiling dropped to 300 feet and in a very little while it was down to 100 feet and he told us to go to Abilene. As I was going around to make a 180 degree turn to come back onto the beam, my No. 1 engine went out….we were at 3,000 feet then.” The three-bladed prop fell silent.
Nilsson reached down between his student pilot and copilot and pushed the feathering button to reduce drag. The oil pressure slowly dropped to 30 lbs. They were advised there was an airliner coming in underneath them somewhere.
The crippled plane managed to climb to 8,000 feet on their three remaining engines. They only had 600 gallons remaining, enough for two more hours of flight. Nilsson transferred the gas from their silent No. 1 engine to the remaining three engines. He believed he could make it all the way back to Hobbs if he had to.
“The co-pilot and I trimmed ship as fast as possible, with full right rudder,” Pitts said. “Both of us were standing on the rudder. At the same time we were trying to maintain altitude.”
The weather outside continued to worsen.
About that time the No. 2 engine went out. It would not feather. Pitts called for full power on the remaining two engines. He called out that he needed help controlling the aircraft. Co-pilot Lt. Regan “gave all the help he could to the pilot by helping him hold full right rudder and setting the trim tabs in an effort to keep the airplane flying straight and level.” It made two complete turns to the left.
The left side of the plane was silent.
The right side rumbled and screamed aloud under full power.
Pitts wrote, “I was watching the flying instruments at the time but I knew No. 2 was out when I felt the plane lurch.” The left wing lowered. They were fighting to keep their aircraft level.
Pitts lets us look over his shoulder. “We asked (Fort Worth) for emergency landing fields and they wanted to know where we were. We couldn’t give our exact location because we were going around in circles with little fuel left and a 100 foot ceiling all around.”
They only had 500 gallons of fuel left.
Nilsson attempted to contact Abilene by radio, but couldn’t. Regan tells us, “We continued to try to get the Abilene beam. Lt. Nilsson had tried several times to set the radio but we could only get “jumble”. We reported this fact to the Fort Worth radio and asked for instructions but didn’t get any.”
The men were alone.
The pilot and copilot were unable to control the plane. They were going down. Air speed fell to 115 mph. They couldn’t keep a compass heading. Nilsson estimated they were 50 miles from Fort Worth with a ceiling no more than 600 – 800 feet.
“I decided to abandon the airplane,” Nilsson said. He told the engineer to get the crew into their parachutes and to stand by for his command to jump.
“I pulled the emergency release and opened the bomb bay doors and dropped the bomb bay tanks.” The plane had fallen to 6,000 feet.
Nilsson signaled Lt. Regan to “tell pilot Lt. Pitts to cut the switch and then jump through the bomb bay. Lt. Pitts forgot to cut the switch before jumping.” Nilsson was the last to leave the doomed aircraft.
He floated down, finally getting below the overcast. He could see the lights of Mineral Wells off to the north. He hit the ground hard, spraining his ankle and left foot. “I hobbled to a highway and a car stopped who had already picked up Lt. Pitts. By this time the Fire Department and the Highway Patrol had arrived. I gave them the names of the crew so they could be found and picked up. The airplane crashed three or four hundred yards from where I landed.”
Four miles south of Mineral Wells their downed B-17F warbird lay aflame in a scrub oak pasture. The Engineering Section at Patterson Field, Ohio later examined the power plants and diagnosed the cause of the crash as “dust”.
I’m still reading the report, my fingers gripping the 68-year-old report a little too hard. “First Lt. Jack A. Nilsson is to be highly commended for the coolness displayed in this emergency, and for evacuating his crew in sufficient time to prevent loss of life.”
Regan later tells that this plane had made a previous trip to Santa Ana where their No 4 engine went out. They were able to feather it and land at Williams Field. I was thankful this crew survived their trial in the skies above Mineral Wells.
Researching this story I began to find that mechanical failures and a “just make it work” mindset was SOP back then. We were at war. Get in the air. Get in the fight.

2nd Lt. Pitts later became Lt. General William F. Pitts. He retired in 1975 with a staggering list of accomplishments including Commander of the Fifteenth Air Force, Strategic Air Command headquartered at March Air Force Base, CA. Their mixed force of recon aircraft and bombers, along with missiles, conducted operations across the Western U.S. and Alaska.
General Pitts was born at March Field, now March Air Force Base, CA in 1919. He was chief of the Senate Liaison Office for Secretary of Air Force. He commanded the 327th Air Division in Taiwan, was chief of the Air Force Section of the Military Advisory Group to the Republic of China, was Commander of Third Air Force, U.S. Air Forces in Europe, stationed in England. He led the Sixth Allied Tactical Air Force Commander in Turkey. General Pitts received many decorations and awards.
Back in the final months of WWII, Pitts went to Tinian Island in the Marianas with his squadron where he flew 25 missions against Japan as lead crew commander in B-29s. Pitts’ training commander from that Mineral Wells crash landing Capt. Jack A. Nilsson also flew B-29 missions from the Marianas. Surely the two men saw each other there.
Mission 181 was destined to scramble the largest number of B-29s into the air that ever participated together on a single mission during WWII. During the night of May 23-24, 1945, 562 B-29s were sent to bomb urban-industrial targets in Tokyo, south of the Imperial Palace, along the west side of the Tokyo Harbor.
Nilsson’s crew number 41 plane that night was tagged T46. Its roster included, Capt. Jack A. Nilsson, Pilot 1st Lt. Adolph C Zastara, Navigator 1st Lt. Eric Schlecht, Bombardier Capt. Loyd R Turk, Flight Engineer 2nd Lt. Daniel J Murphy, Radio Operator S/Sgt Eugene P Florio, CFC Gunner T/Sgt Faud J. Smith, Left Gunner T/Sgt. Robert Starevich, Right Gunner Sgt. Joe McQuade, Radar Operator S/Sgt. Norbert H Springman, and Tail Gunner S/Sgt. John C. DeVaney.
“All aircraft bombed the primary target visually with good results.”
Nilsson’s plane came under heavy fire, crashing during their bombing run against the City of Toukyou on May 24, 1945, one kilometer off the east coast district of Oomori, Tokyo Haneda. Nilsson was thought to be the pilot at the time. His plane was one of 17 B-29s lost that day on Mission 181. His body was never recovered.
Germany had surrendered 17 days earlier. B-29s dropped atomic bombs on Japan August 6th and again on August 9th. Japan surrendered August 14, 1945.

One man who walked out of that 1943 Mineral Wells pasture went on to lead thousands in the defense of this nation for over four decades, all over the world. Another gave his life over the skies of Tokyo 6,410 miles west of Palo Pinto County. Heroes walked among us.

Special thanks to O. B. “Butter” Bridier, to the Department of the Air Force, Air Force Historical Research Agency, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, to Richard “Doc” Warner, Civ, USAF 7th Bomb Wing Curator/Historian (Dyess AFB), Rae Wooten, Michael Manelis, and to Paul G. Ross, whose father James S. Ross was shot down the same night as Capt. Nilsson.

albert whitehead story

Backyard Burials Have Stopped,
The Mysterious Cause Remains

By Jeff Clark
            Albert Whitehead buried people in his back yard. There, I said it. Before you phone the sheriff, please know that the last spade full of dirt was tamped into place back in 1960. Appropriately, this last burial was Albert himself. At least 17 graves preceded his, behind that wood-framed Whitehead house.
Where the garden should’ve been.
Mr. Whitehead was a good guy, a pillar of the Thurber community. His house sat on a street among many other houses, roughly east, north-east of where New York Hill Restaurant sits today. In the vernacular of the day, he was “colored”.

I can’t imagine that his neighbors back then didn’t know what was going on. Back behind the house.
Albert Whitehead towered above folks at six foot four, a large booming voice and a “hearty laugh” to match. One imagines a twinkle in his eye, a joke just told, in the photographs I’ve seen of this gentleman.
Mr. Whitehead was a little boy during the Civil War. He died at 98 years of age, four years before LBJ’s civil rights legislation was signed into law. He never heard Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
Didn’t sound like he needed to.
            I like Albert. He had five wives. A real contender. He may have had two at once, near the end. He didn’t care what folks thought. He married his last known wife Liza when he was 84. Hope springs eternal. Liza was the daughter of his fourth wife Belle (Liza conceived by another man). Albert outlived all of his wives, though he produced no surviving offspring.
Albert was well liked in Thurber, Grant Town, Thurber Junction and Mingus. Said to be the son of slaves, the story was told that Albert walked the 60 miles to Thurber from Fort Worth, looking for work in the winter of 1903. He’d just completed a railroad construction job. Why he didn’t take the train is not known. The T & P Coal Co. imported many of its workers of whatever color to Thurber by train.
Toward the end of Albert’s foot-bound journey, he navigated by following the black coal-fired smoke clouds that consumed that coal mining boomtown’s sky. When he topped the Gordon Cutoff hill, he saw Thurber’s brick plant, power house, town square and many neatly-tended rows of red and green miner’s homes. They say that the hope of a fresh start fired his imagination and fueled his steps.
            Albert’s house, Number 265, was just north of the black chain link fenced cemetery, unlabeled at the back of the puzzlingly-named W. K. Gordon Museum of Industrial History. If you’ve visited the turquoise-colored miner’s house down the slope from New York Hill, that’s likely what Albert’s home looked like. His house was near the west end of the Thurber Brick Yard. If you look at the large Whitehead Cemetery, then imagine it being behind this man’s small house, you see very quickly that Albert had a yard full.
            By 1936, most everything was gone from Thurber, but the T & P allowed Albert to stay, 74 years old and nowhere else to go. Albert worked a gray Jenny mule around the Thurber Junction/Mingus area about 1950, the last remembered working mule in those parts. Albert plowed gardens for local residents and did other odd jobs.
Saturdays this man would hitch his mule to his wagon and drive with his wife Liza two miles north to Thurber Junction/Mingus for supplies. He visited his white friends and was known to enjoy a few quarts of beer. Sometimes a second black woman rode with the couple, giving rise to the rumor that Albert was now marrying two-at-a-time. The story was that Wife Number Two had run her husband off and moved in with Albert and Liza. Miss Liza would ride up front with Albert on the wagon seat, while his backup bride rode behind, her legs dangling off the rear end of his wagon.
            Albert’s Thurber house burned around 1955, so the Whiteheads moved to Stephenville. Liza died two years later and was buried behind where their house used to be. Three years after that, Albert passed away.
            If you scan historical documents, then examine the site itself, it appears that five male adults, seven female adults, four male children and one male infant are at rest there. The only marked graves are Liza Whitehead (1875-1957), Albert Whitehead (1862 – 1960) and Henryetta Halversen (April 9, 1862 – August 29, 1936). Henryetta could have been a wife, mother-in-law or friend.
These three names are recorded on steel funeral home nameplates. There are no marble tombstones, nor any sign announcing this site as a cemetery. Oral history suggests that the unknowns could be Mr. & Mrs. Ed Jackson and John Bennett. It has been suggested that some of Albert’s wives may be buried here. One of the male children (stillborn) is thought to be Albert’s son (Nathan Griffin?).
            Why did Albert not take these people to the black section of the company-owned Thurber Cemetery a mere quarter of a mile away? Graves were free for the asking. What would T & P Coal Co. management have thought about an employee burying people in his backyard (on company property)? T & P ran its town in a very round peg, round hole manner.
The ground in the black section of Thurber Cemetery hill is famous for its shallow rockiness. Graves were often dug with dynamite, with miners down the hill asking “who died?” when periodic explosions rang out.
            There’s a story that the road to the black section of Thurber Cemetery washed out in the 1930s (though the stillborn child, if indeed buried in Albert’s yard, predates this). There are several other 1930s burials in Thurber Cemetery, nonetheless, so this reason seems unlikely.
            When Thurber was winding down, Albert remained behind as a caretaker for the few buildings and houses that were not torn down or moved. When Texas & Pacific brass traveled out from Cowtown to hunt and fish, Mr. Whitehead served as their guide.
            The Whitehead Cemetery was neglected during the 1960s, becoming overgrown with mesquite and cactus. Cattle grazed among the fallen brown earth rocks. It’s not known if any marble tombstones were ever there. Old timers would mention that there was a cemetery “over there” from time to time and point below New York Hill.
            Roland McMinn, a local historian and brick collector from Mineral Wells was exploring around the old Thurber Brick Yard around 1986 when he happened upon the little cemetery. After showing some friends his discovery, the site was cleaned and a fence was built. At the time, only seven graves were visible. There is no way to know the first burial date, though it’s thought to be after 1903, when Albert moved in.
            Few hard and fast answers concerning the Whitehead Cemetery or why it got started remain. The graveyard is fenced. The grass is mowed. And Mr. Whitehead isn’t talking. The burials have stopped, for now…

            Special thanks to Leo S. Bielinski, Ph. D. Jeff may be reached at jeffclarktexas@gmail.com..

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

A Farmer and a Friend

A Farmer and a Friend

I got a call from a friend, who got a call from a farmer a week or so back. The farmer has a place near the Baker Community, one of the first places to be settled in Parker County. Almost inside the Hood County line. That’d be Granbury. There’s some trees out in the middle of a pasture, he told my friend. There might be a stone, maybe a few, buried under this tree. We made plans to meet the man. To take a look.

We pull up to a pasture gate, two Chevy pickups. Shake hands. It’s impressive when a landowner calls. Like high school girls, they usually have to be convinced, talked into it. They usually don’t call back.

We follow this man into his pasture, great looking cattle bounding up behind our truck, its bed bereft of cubed feed. We pull up to a small clump of trees – a hackberry, an oak, some biting undergrowth. From the truck we see nothing.

We walk up. The man points at the ground. We see a small piece of flat stone, level with, buried in, the ground. The clump of trees sits above the rest of this field, maybe eight inches. The field’s been plowed, this area part of the county since the 1850s. For some reason, this small patch has never been cultivated.

My friend pulls out a whisk broom, some water, goes to brushing and careful cleaning. Ridges, then letters become visible in the hard brown limestone face. The rock smiles. We smile. We start digging. Carefully. And prying. And pulling. Carefully. The stone is four inches thick, taller than it should be, likely once the bottom of a creek half a mile away.

My friend is older. I’ve seen better days. We get a long pry bar and make noises I won’t repeat and manage to stand this stone up, vertically, as it was once intended. I’ve placed a water bottle at the bottom of the photo of the stone, to show how big it is, to show how strong we are. The stone is easily ten tons (or maybe 500 pounds). It hurt me bad that day, and worse the next morning. This is a real live tombstone, every surface of its huge face carved by hand. Its center hatched design one of the most elaborate I’ve ever seen. This cemetery’s not on the map. But it will be, on Monday.

Pretending to look around, really to thwart the need for Careflight, we notice other rectangular stones, likely footstones to other graves. We end up digging out two other large tombstone candidates. This is always the first step, figuring out if a stone is a tombstone or as Monica might’ve once have said, if sometime a rock is just a rock.

The farmer agrees to let the Parker County Abandoned Cemetery Association fence the site, once its boundaries are determined. Members will research this land, pore through county records, interview old timers and figure out who these three or fifty people were. Are. I didn’t hear anybody, but it was our first morning together. The elaborate carving on one stone makes us wonder if this wasn’t Somebody. Everybody’s somebody, but you know what I mean.

I’ve included some more photos in the Parker County photo file. I’ve enhanced one, trying to share the intricate cross-hatching (Civil War?) and the letters we were able to make out. As this saga progresses, I’ll write again. There’s always more to find.

Bless this landowner. And the man that drove me out there. This is probably his 40th cemetery in these parts to dig or research or fence or otherwise bring back into the fold. Doing the right thing. Putting other people and their stories ahead of our own.

That day was a needed breath of fresh clean air to me. To three.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Miss Walton

Miss Walton

By Jeff Clark

“My time isn’t worth very much,” the older voice had warned me on the phone. I’m driving west this morning to visit ninety-one-year-old Minnie Walton. Miss Walton graduated Alameda High School April 28, 1933. She lives at Mineral Well’s Crazy Water Hotel, built in 1927. The hotel gets its name from a local woman, crazy they say, who drank from Water Well Three beneath where the building is now and was healed. Eighty-one years later, the Crazy Water’s brick shell houses a glorified rest home.
I pull into Mineral Wells a little early. The once resort hotel soars six stories into unending sky. I haven’t planned for this, my fear of heights and all. I walk into the expansive, once-palatial lobby. Dusty paneled walls and gilt chandeliers grace a wide stairway up to the promenade. Young Judy Garland, Tom Mix, Gen. John J. Pershing, D. W. Griffith, Bob Wills and one bank robbing couple using made up names strode these marble floors, signed in at the now-vacant registration desk against that far wall over there. Prohibition booze fueled midnight flappers dancing the Charleston to big band orchestras atop the glass-walled rooftop high above us, broadcast by radio all over the South. Today the lobby is dark, two clumps of old people sitting here and over by the piano on past-its-prime cast off furniture.
Breakfast was served at eight, about an hour ago. Whoever came down to eat is nowhere to be seen now. I meet a nice man. Call Miss Walton on the house phone, he suggests, seeing that I’m lost. Minnie answers on the second ring--Room 438, the fourth floor, great, the elevator. Twin doors open. The elevator is cruelly slow, enjoying itself – wobbly, unsure. Days pass while it totters one floor at a time--uncertain. The tomblike, weathered box mercifully opens, releasing me onto the fourth floor at last.  There are no paintings, no pictures in this monotonous hallway of painted concrete walls.
Minnie pokes her head out from an opening four doors to my right.  “I’m down here.”  Her crowded room might be ten by twelve, one small window on the far wall, drapes tightly shut. Her bed boasts an intricate, brightly-colored patchwork quilt. A breathing machine the size of a console TV waits on the floor beside the bed. The room is clean, but there’s clutter everywhere. This woman’s life possessions have followed her here.
She asks me to sit down, in either her wheelchair or a five-wheeled stenographer’s roll around, pillows in the seats of each. Minnie is a small woman, frail. She takes short, shallow labored breaths. She has painstakingly arranged old photos all over the top of her bed. We begin our visit.
Minnie’s mind is sharp, precise, though she forgets names sometimes. She thinks she has Alzheimer’s, but she’s too alert. Her memories unspool like newsreels. She confirms that her doctor thinks she’s fine as well, but you can tell the Alzheimer ghost is on her mind.
Miss Walton attended first grade at the Alameda School, then grades two through seven at Cheaney’s school up the dirt road. Minnie remembers the wood frame Cheaney School as a one room building, a movable partition wall separating the space into two classrooms. Mr. Stephens or Stephenson was her teacher. The Alameda Trustees successfully talked Minnie’s momma into letting this bright young girl return to Alameda in the eighth grade, sweetened by the promise of a bus ride. I glance at the oxygen machine on the floor behind her.
Minnie never married. I don’t bring it up. I don’t know it for 100% true while we talk, but that’s the direction her family names lead me – still a Walton, her maiden name.  It appears she merged into her brother’s family at some point as she traveled through life. He’s gone now. His daughter lives south of town.
Minnie could hear Alameda School’s first bell from their house across the dirt road, the Tucker place to their east, Ollie Pilgrim’s store to the south. That black Liberty Bell-like alarum stood high on a steel pole, pulled by a knotted rope by farm kid hands from the ground. Miss Walton remembers with a smile when the Alameda and Cheaney schools became one. Jagged feelings were raw with some about the consolidation, certain folks suspecting that Cheaney joining Alameda would leech identity from Cheaney, the community.
Both school buildings were moved from opposite ends of each settlement, slamming together like bookends on the new midpoint campus. The Cheaney structure
came to a stop on the northern “Cheaney” end of the schoolyard. Alameda’s building was planted on the southern, “Alameda” side of its new neighbor.
Times were hard, she told me. Students could buy six school photos of themselves for twenty-five cents. She and her siblings did without. That money could buy food. The large class photo of the entire school cost one dollar, but in 1933 it too was out of the question for a family struggling from one day to the next. Minnie borrowed a friend’s all-school photo after she was grown, which she had copied. Her delicate fingers hold the treasure. She passes it across for me to take a look.
Miss Walton grew up in a log house, bigger than a cabin, later expanded with plank rooms on two sides. A third plank room, an attached second building, was added later. The log house survived into the 1940s. The boys slept in a loft above the main room. Drinking water was drawn from their cistern, a rock-lined hole in the ground into which rain water flowed from gutters nailed to the house. Later a clear water well was dug northwest of their home. Wells were a little unusual in that sandy country back then.  That fresh well water flowed into a trough built to pass under the Walton’s fence facing the New Alameda Road (now FM 571) so neighbors and passersby could partake.
Minnie’s grandfather George Washington Love (1858-1922) moved to the Cheaney Community from East Texas, following some of his children who had already migrated to Eastland County. Three Love boys ended up marrying three Tucker girls from the Tucker farm next door. Joe Tucker was her grandpa’s favorite son-in-law. Joe seemed to help with everything, including digging that well. Miss Walton’s parents
were William “Willie” Everett Walton and Martha Margaret “Mattie” Love Walton. William and Mattie married at the Love home in 1915.
Minnie Walton was ten months old when her daddy tragically died of pneumonia in 1918. She never knew him. Her mother was left with two babies and one on the way.  Minnie’s sister Josie died in 1932, also of pneumonia.
Miss Walton’s grandmother started having health problems about this time – falling and getting hurt. She’d been taking strychnine pills hoping to get better, a common practice back then. Minnie’s grandmother severely burned herself with a pot of hot coffee after one fall. Minnie’s granddad had a long talk with her mom Mattie one day – with her husband dead, and his wife unable to be left alone, their family was in a fix, he told her. They patched two limping households together and made it work.
The Waltons farmed peanuts like most of the community. Although times were tough and they had no money, Minnie said they never went hungry. The family worked a vegetable garden, had eggs, milk, and hogs. Minnie later moved with her mom to Ranger, working at the Ranger Peanut Mill, then a shirt factory owned by O. K. and Myvan Gray. Minnie followed that shirt factory to Brownwood in 1950, later working for Brownwood Manufacturing Company, retiring in 1982.
Miss Walton went to school with a girl named Minnie Bell Browning (her mother was a Cheaney), who she believes was an only child. Minnie Bell wanted a pair of gold fish for one of her teenage birthdays, Miss Walton remembers. The big day arrived.  Minnie Bell’s wish arrived in a big round glass fish bowl. She took meticulous
care of those fish and they grew and grew. They finally got so big that the family decided to put them outside in the water trough.
The gold fish went to having babies. It got to where there were more and more fish. So Minnie’s dad built a great big fish pond on the back side of their place. He also built a fence around the pond, with a gate.
Miss Walton paused, looked down at her hands, remembering. Years went by and her friend Minnie Bell’s fish prospered. But the little girl grew up, married a boy from up the road, Obie Elrod, and moved away to make a life. One Mothers Day, Minnie Bell returned home to celebrate with all her childhood family – parents, brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews.
Minnie Bell had one small son, Burnice “Dale” Elrod – fifteen months old, her first born. The older children played and cut up that warm spring day as the grown ups visited up at the house. One of the kids’ stops on that carefree afternoon was the gold fish pond.  But as the big kids moved on to their next adventure, they left the gate protecting the gold fish pond standing open. Fifteen-month-old Dale managed to toddle in, climbed to the top of the tank, and looked down into the bubbling water. Imagine the delight in the young boy’s eyes, seeing shapes of gold and orange dart back and forth in the wonderland beneath him. The little boy fell in. No one was close by. He drowned. Miss Walton and I sat silently, for more than a moment.
Even now it’s a hard story for her to tell. Her friend from school, a young loving first-time mom, returning to her childhood home on Mother’s Day, her only child,
dead, pulled from the gold fish pond she wished for, she loved as a little girl. Her little boy was laid to rest May 15, 1934 in Desdemona’s Howard Cemetery.
Miss Walton cherishes Alameda’s good times and the great friends she enjoyed as a girl there. We talk about her current life as I wind up to leave. I thank her for her time. She takes a Kleenex in her hand, and repeats “my time isn’t worth much anymore”. The hotel sponsors activities and little outings, she tells me, but it hurts her to ride in a car for very long. She pretty well stays here, in this little room, going downstairs three times a day for meals. She can visit with other residents whenever she wants, she assures me. I remember the cold, uninviting hallway – the silence.
When I arrived she had asked me to close the door--the bright sun hurt her eyes. Standing to leave, shaking her gentle hand, I pull the wooden opening closed behind me, glad of having met her. I stand alone in the sterile hallway, looking at the outside of her many-times-painted door resting in its frame. I cross myself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit--do it without thinking, like swatting a fly from your face. A blessing or a petition, I’m still not sure, but involuntary nonetheless.
Jana drives back to the Crazy Water the next morning with my jabbering four-year-old Savannah, returning photos Minnie let me copy. I ask Jana some follow ups for Minnie about the pictures. Also, woman to woman, to delicately explore, if the chance presents itself -- about kids, about husbands.
“Minnie was quite vague when I asked about children and marriage,” Jana tells me that night, after our own children are asleep. “She told me her childhood nickname
was Monk. She got a kick out of Savannah, gave her a sucker. I asked if she had any children of her own. She said no. Said she never married. I said Oh. She shared that she just never found the right one. She seemed reluctant to talk about it. Kind of sad, like there was something she’d missed, but moved on in the conversation without a second thought. I didn’t press it further.”
It’s been a year since I last saw Minnie. I still call her with obscure questions, her memory better than most. Minnie’s ridden up and down that rickety elevator over 2,100 times since her own wooden door closed to me that day.
It’s almost five, on the clock by this computer, on the clock in Minnie’s room.  She’ll stand, maybe put on a sweater. She’ll head down the hall, push the prehistoric Down button, and wait. She’ll ride to the lobby, walk into the dining room. What will they serve? Will the dining room be loud or somber? Will she push into a table full of friends to gossip, or sit alone in a corner, eyes down? When dinner’s over, that elevator will carry her back to her room, will carry her home.