Life’s greatest hometown stories are lost for the ages.

In my hometown of Kilgore, Texas, so many secrets were buried beneath the derricks.
In my hometown of Kilgore, Texas, so many secrets were buried beneath the derricks.

THE ROAD HOME IS NEVER LONG, but it’s one I don’t take nearly as often as I should. You grow up in a little town. You know the people. You hear the stories. You laugh with them and cry with them, and one day you wake up and realize that you left behind so many questions that were left dangling without answers.

I went home last week.

I still had the questions.

And I sat for a spell with those who had the answers.

My hometown had still been suffering from the rigors of an oil boom when I grew up on a farm just beyond the edge of the derricks.

We had the land.

Somebody else had the oil.

Oh, they came and asked my father if they could drill on his twenty-two acres, and he simply smiled and said they could take their rig and move on down the road and try their luck on some other little truck farm.

“Why did you turn them down?” I asked him.

“Were you afraid they would hurt the cattle?”

“Did you think they might pollute your stock pond?”

“Was mama upset about the noise a drilling rig would make?”

“Or did you think they’d scare the chickens?”

I always wanted to know, and I asked.

He didn’t say.

The publisher of the newspaper, as long as he kept the presses running been the town’s biggest supporter, and he buried the secrets that he thought would hurt or cast dispersions on the community?

If he didn’t print the secrets he locked away in his own mind, they they didn’t happen. That’s what he thought anyway.

“What happened during the hot oil scandal?” I asked him.

“Were the oil operators really stealing somebody else’s oil?”

“Why were almost three hundred good, god-fearing men indicted and none of them ever convicted?”

“Was the judge as crooked as the DA said he was?”

“And why did you keep the story off the front page?”

I always wanted to know, and I asked him.

He didn’t say.

Mattie ran the ballroom. It was the hottest spot in fourteen counties. She hired the big bands, and when roughnecks and roustabouts had a few dollars to spend, she went out of her way to help them empty their pockets.

“What was responsible for drawing the big crowds?” I asked her.

“The big bands?”

“The illegal whiskey you sold out of a trap door on the dance floor?”

“Or the taxi dancers?”

“And did the girls hire on just to earn a dime a dance, or were they looking for love and a husband?”

I always wanted to know and I asked her.

She didn’t say.

I only knew him as the man who never smiled. He had three children, two boys and a girl. He took them to school at New London that morning and was on his way to pick them up when he saw the school explode. He spent the next two days digging his way through the dirt and the ash and the rubble.

He found the broken bodies of so many of the children. Almost three hundred died in the blast. Three of the lives belonged to him.

“Do you remember what you told your children that morning?” I asked him.

“Did you hug them?”

“Did you say you loved them?”

“Did they say that they loved you?”

I wanted to know and I asked him.

He didn’t say.

 

I asked them all.

None of them said.

I had the right questions.

I just asked them too late.

The last vestige of daylight was disappearing behind the pines when I stood up, as I have so many times before, and looked out across the graves.

Some old.

Some fresh.

Mostly, they were old.

Life’s greatest stories, I knew, would go untold. Life’s greatest stories would be lost for the ages. Life’s greatest stories were wrapped forever in questions that would never be answered.

My novel, Deadline News, is a mystery set during the early days of the East Texas Oil Boom.

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  • This is so effective. I love your language–so direct and so simple. The effect of the sentence “He didn’t say.” or “She didn’t say.” speaks volumes. When I got to the part about the London school, tears built up. I wouldn’t let them overflow. You have made me want this book.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Thanks, Pat. The oilfield was filled with a lot of fascinating stories, and those who knew them aren’t around anymore, and it saddens me a lot.

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