Chasing Ghosts that Haunt Him Still

Volunteers worked into the night searching for survivors after the school exploded. Photograph: Texas State Library and Archives Commission.
Volunteers worked into the night searching for survivors after the school exploded. Photograph: Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

He came back to the pine forests and red clay hills of East Texas to bury the ghosts that had trailed after him every waking hour, and mostly when he was asleep, for the past forty-six years, seven months, and sixteen days. He had not lost track of the time. He could never forget the moment. He heard the cries even now.

Time and space, and mostly the miles, had not dimmed them.

His muscles jerked slightly, and he felt far older than he was as he drove down crooked little highway 323 from Overton to New London. He dreaded what he would find. About the time he left one dying little town, he reached the other.

The afternoon was quiet. And gray, much as it had been forty-six years, seven months, and sixteen days ago. Skies overcast. It looked like rain.

His was the only car on the road.

It had once been so different.

The name on his paycheck had been Travis Flowers, but a lot of names were lost, misplaced, thrown away, and forgotten in the oilfield. He had taken the train to East Texas in the autumn of 1933, trying desperately to escape the Great Depression, on his way to anyplace that had a job and paid him enough to buy all of the white bread, bologna, and cigarettes he wanted.

They were drilling oil wells in East Texas.

And Travis could drill oil wells.

Never had.

But he knew he could.

Travis had worked his way from roustabout to roughneck long before the spring of 1937, and he had married once, lost a baby, and then put his wife on a bus back home to Holly Springs, Mississippi. He thought she would come back. She never did, and, after awhile, her letters, if there were any, no longer found their way to either the oilfield or Overton.

He parked beside the New London School. He thought he would never see it again. It looked so bright, so new. Not even the past forty-seven years had been able to age it or stain the bricks. Travis shook his head. The last time he saw it, the school lay in ruin.

And still he heard the cries.

The rubble was gone.

The cries had not left him.

The afternoon of March 17, 1937, had been unusually cold, and an uncomfortable rain peppered the ground around Travis Flowers. The well was in. The flow had been controlled. The slush pit was full. Not much left to do but pack up his tools and go on home.

The time had clicked down to three-thirty. He knew. He had checked his watch. Didn’t know why, but he had checked it all the same. Inside the school, just beyond the clearing in the pines, children were beginning to line up in their classrooms, waiting for the final bell to dismiss them.

Thirteen minutes. That was all they needed.

Such a short time.

It became eternity.

As Travis Flowers leaned against the rig on the platform, while he was rolling a cigarette in the rain, the school exploded.

Suddenly.

And without warning.

For years, he later learned, the school had been heated by raw natural gas, piped straight from the oilfield. No one knew why, but a leak began spilling fumes into a darkened basement. No one could smell it. No one knew it was there. And no one would ever know for sure what ignited it. That’s what hurt worse. Plain and simple, no one knew.

But for one frightening, grieving moment, all Travis knew was that the sky before him had turned black with smoke and debris and ragged bricks falling to the ground. The day became a shroud of leaded gray in the midst of a chilled rain, and the walls of the school came tumbling down.

Travis knew that the sound must have been deafening, but all he heard was silence.

Nothing.

The day was ending.

The world was ending.

In silence.

Then came the cries. And he would never be the same again.

Travis Flowers was one of the first to reach the burned-out hull of a school dead and dying. He heard someone say, “There was a spark, a flash, and then it was gone.”

All gone.

Around him, almost three hundred students and teachers lay beneath mounds of rubble. Like Travis Flowers, oilfield workers were leaving their jobs and rushing to the pile of twisted metal and shattered bricks. Some were searching for their own children. Others were simply searching for life, any sign of it. Travis could hear men cursing. And praying. And one was no different from the other. The shattered walls of New London became a wailing wall.

He pushed away metal and wood and bricks and carried child after child to an Ideal bread truck. The driver had thrown the bread onto the ground and turned his truck into a rescue vehicle. Bodies were limp and broken. He hugged them. He held them tightly. He kissed them. He brushed dirt and blood from their faces. Only the ones crying had hope, and so few of them were crying.

Day became night, and night became morning, and Travis no longer felt the rain. He was too tired to lift another brick, but still he stayed, crawling through the debris, praying that another life remained and he could find it.

Mothers stood hollow-eyed in the cold rain, hoping that missing sons or daughters, listed among the living, would still be alive. Tired workers knew that at any minute they might roll aside a stone and look upon the lifeless body of their own child.

In the sparse light of an early day, Travis stumbled across a blackboard, and upon it, in a childish scrawl, someone had written the lesson of the day: “Oil and Natural Gas are East Texas’ greatest mineral blessing. Without them this school would not be here, and none of us would be here learning our lessons.”

Travis erased the words with his sleeve, and the rain washed away the chalk dust. Around him was a hurt that would not heal.

Forty-seven years, seven months, and sixteen days later, he walked across the campus and watched the children at play.

He was surrounded by laughter.

All he heard were the cries.

The sun cut sharply through the pines.

All he felt was the rain.

Travis Flowers had come back to the pine forests and red clay hills of East Texas to bury the ghosts of his past.

Forty-seven years, seven months, and sixteen days later, he drove away at dark.

He was not alone.

The ghosts rode with him.

And the muted silence of the cries were almost more than he could stand, and they sounded a lot like his own.

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  • Don Newbury

    A tragedy that won’t go away. And an account of it that hangs around, too….

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’m thinking about putting the account in a book, Don.

  • Caleb Pirtle

    Don, my mother worked as a waitress in Turnertown. My father worked the oilfield. Both were two of the first people to reach the school after the explosion. And years later, I attended New London. It’s a tragedy that has long cast a shadow over my life.

  • Wow. Terrible tragedy. I feel guilty for loving the post, but it’s so superbly written.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Sue. The veil of tragedy still hangs heavy over New London.

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