“What do you want to do,” he asked. “Thorndale…I want to visit the Texas town where you were born and grew up.” We drive through Milam County listening to my Father’s stories as he points out his life landmarks. Travelling the farm-to-market roads in cotton country, we pass through mostly ghost towns like Bartlett, a once thriving farming community and sometime Hollywood location shoot, and San Gabriel, originally a Spanish mission. Under gray winter skies, the soil, where corn and cotton were recently harvested, still look rich and black. Farmers still grow these crops here, but you get the feeling, people don’t do much of their living here anymore. Living might be a few miles to the south where the economy has shifted to the technology industries surrounding Austin.
It’s Christmas Eve and Thorndale is quiet. Thorndale is about ten miles east of Taylor where my grandparents and my mother are buried and about forty miles from Temple where I was born. A few trucks are parked in front of the main street café where we get a last cup of black coffee before they close down for the holiday. A main state highway cuts through town paralleling the railroad tracks. Pick-up trucks roar by and now and again the sound of a Santa Fe diesel train engine horn moans lonesomely in the distance. We walk around town visiting the Victorian era farmhouse where my Father was born and grew up during the Great Depression. Living mostly in busy urban centers, it’s hard to believe that many of these ramshackle wood frame houses – that a strong wind might scatter – are still lived in.
When my Father was a boy, more than one thousand people lived in Thorndale. Ironically, the 2010 US Census counts the town’s population at over one thousand. As we walk, my father points out the now boarded-up movie theater where he watched Tom Mix movies, and the abandoned car dealership. Some businesses from his childhood remain, including Mr. Butts’s dry goods store where you can still buy a good pair of work boots. I feel like a human Historypin, my imagination does the work of the computer overlaying linked-data historic photographs of a busy farm town on the now sadly deserted streets. Down the street, stands a small brick building framed with Doric columns, still housing the Prosperity Bank; I laugh to myself, recalling a scene from the 1936 film My Man Godfrey.
Set in a “Hooverville” along New York’s East River, Godfrey Park (the actor William Powell) and Mike (the actor Pat Flaherty) exchange a few words. “Mike, I wouldn’t worry. Prosperity’s right around the corner.” “Yeah. It’s been there a long time. I just wish I knew which corner.” Prosperity’s right around the corner was a phrase employed by Republican Party members advising the country after the Wall Street Crash to be patient and trust the free market’s ability to right itself. Will patience serve us today as our Congress and President tango close to the fiscal cliff? As we stand in front of the bank, my Dad recounts a sight that remains stamped on his brain. As a young man in the early 1930s, he witnessed grown men leaving the bank with tears streaming down their faces when the bank foreclosed on their farms. He recalls they didn’t know how they were going to feed their families and hoping the federal government would continue to provide the five-pound sack of flour for free. Woody Guthrie’s song about the bank robber Pretty Boy Floyd comes to mind. The Smithsonian Folkway released a wonderful collection of his songs this year celebrating the centennial of his birth.
“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw, You say that I’m a thief. Here’s a Christmas dinner, for the families on relief.”
“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men; Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
“And as through your life you travel, yes, as through your life you roam. You won’t never see an outlaw, drive a family from their home.”