from Cow Chips in the Cook Stove, A Living History of the Lower Texas Panhandle
Old Ironhorse #390, the Little Red Church, and Ole Skipper
By Gerry Lynn George of Olton, Texas
I, Gerry Lynn George, was born in Olton, Texas (Lamb County) in April 1942, which is on the southwest boundary of the Texas panhandle on Highway U.S. 70. As you probably already know the southern boundary of the Texas panhandle is commonly believed by folks here to be US Highway 70 which runs east to west from Oklahoma to New Mexico. Our farm and ranch was at the intersection of US 70 and state highway 385. A short biographical sketch of how I came to live here includes my grandparents who came here in 1922 in a Model T truck with all their belonging to purchase a homestead, part of the old X.I.T. Ranch.
I was born in April of 1942. My father left to serve in the 2nd Marine Division in the South Pacific in WWII in June 1942. He served in the invasions of Guadalcanal, Saipan, and Tinnean in which he personally viewed the departure of the Enola Gay from the island of Tinnean to drop the first atomic bomb in 1945. He returned in 1946 to farm and ranch this land and to raise myself and my sister. I remember when I first saw him…
Late afternoon at the old railroad station in the Southern part of the Panhandle of Texas and my mother and I are boarding a westbound train to San Francisco, CA, to meet my father who is being discharged from WWII. For a soon-to-be 4 year old who has had no contact with his father, I am so excited. This is my first train ride and what a treat I am about to experience.
Oh, that every child could experience this unforgettable adventure on an old steam locomotive train that tamed the Old Wild West!
We walk past the huge, black steam locomotive with steam pouring out the side. Its huge iron wheels have a fresh white paint job—it is so majestic. Maybe someday when I grow up I can drive her, and lean out the window as the engineer is now. I am so excited—my mother is picking me up to board the passenger car because the neatly dressed conductor has just yelled “Board, all aboard! Watch your step!”
We are assigned our seat by the window and shown our sleeper cabin. I clutch my teddy bear and wave bye to my grandparents.
Old Ironhorse #390 gives 3 short blasts of her steam whistle and lets out a blast of steam. The mighty engine wheels engage and at first slip on the rails. Our passenger car lurches forward—I hug my teddy bear—we are moving—the mighty locomotive is chugging slowly and straining, but with each mighty chug and smoke pouring out her smoke stack she gains speed and the chugs become closer and closer together. Faster and faster we go and a few miles out of town we are flying as we feel the gentle rocking of our passenger car, the unique sound of the tracks passing underneath. We see the beautiful countryside flying past.
The train conductor checks our ticket and advises us we can walk to the dining car for our evening meal when we are ready. So, we walk through a couple of cars to the dining car and are seated by a window and given our menu to select our order. What a treat as we dine and watch the world pass by. We visit with so many nice people.
Soon it is dark and we go back to our passenger car. The conductor prepares our sleeper cabin. My mother takes the lower bunk and places me in the upper bunk with my teddy bear. As the curtain is pulled and I pull the covers I hear the approaching clanging of the crossing bells. They grow louder and louder and then whiz past, then fade into the distance.
I hear the constant chugging of the steam locomotive and hear the unforgettable blast of her unique steam whistle that sounds like she is trying to sing a melancholy song, as she rounds a curve and strains up a hill. I feel the gentle, rocking motion of our sleeper car as she speeds across the tracks with the rhythmic clicking of the wheels rolling along the tracks. This reminds me of my mother rocking me to sleep in our old rocking chair. How warm and protected I feel. I soon fall asleep—sound, deep sleep—awakened only occasionally by the clanging of passing crossing bells, what a neat sound.
The next day, the mountains, wow! I look out the window at the majestic peaks and valleys with a river flowing through the gorges. This is beautiful but scary for a 4 year old seeing mountains for the first time. But look—I see our locomotive curving up the mountain ahead with black smoke pouring out her stack as she strains to move us over the mountain peak.
The next day we are arriving in San Francisco, CA. Our relatives pick us up and we go to pick up my father from the military base. I am excited to see what he looks like in person. My mom and I haven’t seen him in over 3 years.
I wonder if he will remember and like me. Here he comes—he and my mom “hug” what seems like forever. Then he looks at me and picks me up and hugs me. It really is nice to have a father again. Now we get to ride “Old Ironhorse” our train back home again as a family—Life is good!
Now, circa 1949 on a beautiful May Sunday morning in the southern panhandle of Texas, there was a picturesque “Little Red Church” about a half a mile from our house in the rural farming countryside that my grandfather had founded and built in the late 1930s. He was a very good carpenter and had invited some neighbors to help him build a local church from the ground up literally to serve the rural farming community so they would not have to drive many miles to town to go to church.
They built a picturesque country church complete with a white spire from old red tile that he had built his own house from. My grandparents had originally lived in a dugout complete with an old wood-burning stove (which I still have, by the way), which they used for heat and to cook on. In a few years he built their house out of the red tile which was very unique in design and color. He called it their Oklahoma Red Home because it resembled the color of the soil in the “Red River Valley” along the Texas-Oklahoma border. When the sun shone on the red tile it really made it uniquely visible for miles.
Usually on nice Sunday mornings I would walk the half mile to church followed by my best friend—my old dog Skipper—who would turn up on the church front porch to wait for me. However, on this day, my grandfather came early to give me a ride in his new Pontiac sedan and take me to Sunday School which he taught and I had the treat of riding in a new car with a new car smell.
I remember it being such a beautiful early May morning with the fruit trees of cherry, peach, and apple blooming so beautifully. The mockingbirds were singing, the king birds were fussing, and the sparrows were all chirping in the trees.
After church he took me back to their house to have one of my grandmother’s wonderful Sunday meals complete with homemade pies of cherry and pecan. On the way to their house I began to take an interest in his only bad habit, which was chewing tobacco. Perhaps my being 5 years old and watching him pull an old Folgers coffee can from under the seat of the Pontiac and departing with some of the tobacco juice, and then replacing the can under the seat, really fascinated me. He seemed to really enjoy this and I thought this is something I should try sometime.
After all, anything that my grandfather found so much joy in must be O.K. for me.
So, after a wonderful Sunday noon meal I slipped outside to play while they washed dishes. I headed straight for the Pontiac, opened the passenger door, reached in the glove box, and took some of the chewing tobacco and put it in my mouth and proceeded to play.
After a few minutes I accidentally swallowed some of the tobacco juice, practiced “spitting” like my granddad; but, I really did not care for the taste. I said, “I wonder why he likes this so much? It really doesn’t taste very good!”
The last thing I remember before the world started spinning was looking to the east and seeing the Little Red Church in the distance seem to turn upside down.
Then I am laying on my back feeling very nauseated, throwing up, and looking at the puffy white cumulus clouds spin round and round.
The only way I could keep the earth from turning upside down was laying flat on my back with my arms outstretched on the grass to keep me from spinning!
Well, after an eternity I could finally get up and walk without falling down. After building up my courage I decided to venture into my grandparents’ house for a badly needed drink of cool water or ice tea to settle my stomach. My grandmother looks up from drying her dishes and says, “Son, you look pale. Are you all right? How about some more homemade chili before I put it up?”
I quickly replied, “No ma’am, I think I had better go to the bathroom!”
Well, the moral to the story is “all things ultimately work together for good” as the Lord’s word says. The good news is I never used tobacco or ate chili the rest of my life! As for my grandfather, who was a fine Christian man who ever lived and was my role model, I can forgive him for using tobacco. Every man is probably entitled to one bad habit, besides, and he was the only man in my lifetime that I never heard use a cuss word! And, as Walter Cronkite used to say, “And that is the way it was in 1949!”
Now, about the early years of the 1950s, the Golden Era of America. If you were fortunate enough to live in this era of the USA, especially in the Texas panhandle, you experienced a wonderful family atmosphere of enjoying an era of taking in the delights of a place of financial growth and abundance, and enjoying the new technological advancements of life.
In 1950 this geographical area had enjoyed electricity for 2 years, thus ending the era of outdoor privies, real ice boxes, and no air conditioning. Ah, the joy of running water, indoor plumbing, and swamp coolers.
In 1950 we received the world changing technology of party line telephones. The world will never be the same! Gone are the days of actually going to fellowship with your neighbors on Saturday night to catch up on the gossip while playing cards or dominoes and having a great home-cooked meal.
Now, you pick up your black telephone—yep, the only color you could get, just like the Model T Ford car, basic black or basic black—you listen to see if the line is clear because there are 8 families on your line. The telephone line consisted of 4 silent partners and 4 ringing ones. Your home was assigned a ring tone of either 1 short, 2 short, 1 long, or 2 longs. You can only imagine how much fun it was to get a line to call during “prime time” with 8 families.
Of course every party phone line had at least one curious neighbor who would carefully pick up the phone to eavesdrop on everyone’s conversation. This provided the local newspaper with plenty of ammunition not to mention the local beauty shops where the women had their hair “fixed” as they say. These beauty salons were where the community secrets were discussed outside the ears of children and men who were not allowed to set foot on the premises!
1951, television arrives, and life will never be the same! My dad’s sister, whose family lived a mile down the road purchased the first black and white TV in the county, and a 19 inch screen that required a 100 foot outdoor antenna to pick up the signal from the nearest TV station 50 miles away! Saturday nights now consist of families gathering for a meal, popcorn, and soda, to watch the only program available in prime time—wrestling—yes, wrestling, from 8-9 pm.
Usually the reception was snowy (not clear) until 10 pm, then we had the treat of watching the news, weather, and sports, then a movie! However, this sure beat having to listen to the radio serials on Saturday night of the “Lone Ranger” or the “Green Hornet.” The fellowship was great!
Another precious memory of the early and middle ‘50s was the era of the drive-in movie theaters. The drive-in movie theater provided another outlet for quality family time in which you could load up in the family sedan (which were the size of small land yachts then) and see a different movie every third night. Who can forget a warm summer night at the local drive-in movie theater with the family to see the latest John Wayne movie, or perhaps Randolph Scott in a beautiful Technicolor Western filmed in the Sierra Nevada. Of course these movies always had a positive moral message, and the good guy always won!
And the food was great! Our local theater had the best hot dog ever made, which consisted of two weenies of real beef enclosed in a fresh bun with chili, melted cheese, and plenty of mustard, topped off with curly fries and a giant Coca-cola or Dr. Pepper… Life was good!
I always asked my dad, “Why can’t we park on the back row of the theater where I can see better?” His unforgettable reply was, “Son, when you are a teenager and start dating you will understand!”
What made the early and middle ‘50s so special for quality family time were the outstanding TV programs and sitcoms in prime time at night and especially on the weekends. A quality Saturday night at our house consisted of Mom’s home cooked meals as we settled in to watch our favorite TV programs of Gunsmoke, Bonanza, and the Comedy Hours of Bob Hope, etc. Everyone received a quality positive moral message, or they made you laugh and left you in a good mood which made life fun and looking forward to each new day!
Another very special treat for that era was gathering on a hot summer afternoon at the “old Circle Store” a couple miles away. At 3 pm everyone took a work break to gather and talk with your neighbors while drinking a cold Coca-cola and sneaking a “moon pie” or a Peanut Round-o! This old store was probably the first local convenience store where locals could sell their fresh cow’s milk and butter, along with fresh watermelon and cantaloupe, swap stories, and gas up. In the winter time you could pull up a chair, warm your feet on the old wood stove in the center of the store and have some fresh hot coffee to warm your bones! Life was great—honest, hard-working people who lived by a hand shake agreement and helped each other through life. The way life should be!
Next, this is a story about a very special dog named “Skipper” who was the smartest animal I have ever been associated with. I think God places special people and pets in our lives as guardians and friends to help us safely through life. Ole Skipper was my best friend and guardian for 15 years while growing up in the Texas panhandle from 1945-1960.
When my father returned from WWII from the 2nd Marine Division in the South Pacific his first present to me was a wonderful puppy which he named Skipper. Skipper was named in honor of the South Pacific Naval Fleet Commander Admiral Halsey who the Navy and Marine personnel affectionately called “Skipper.” Our dog Skipper living up the legendary name exhibited all the positive traits of the famous Skipper Halsey!
On my birthday my dad took me to town to one of our family friends and allowed me to pick out my puppy from the litter, or maybe it should be said Skipper picked me. The other pups cowered with their mother who suspiciously eyed us, but Skipper ran to me and jumped into my lap. It was love at first sight. He was a mixed breed German Shepherd and Collie with a calico coat of brown and orange.
While my dad visited I took him to the car and for some reason placed him in the glove box of our 1939 Chevy. Being 4 years old the reason escapes me but by divine intervention he escaped the 30 minute ordeal of a hot July afternoon in the glove box when my dad started the car and asked me where the puppy was. I opened the glove box and retrieved one very hot puppy with his tongue hanging out. At any rate he forgave me and we quickly became playmates and best friends.
Living far out in the country on our farm there were no other children to play with so he was my constant companion and playmate. Anytime he thought that I was in danger with the numerous barn yard animals, or strayed too far from the house, he would gently wrap his jaws around my wrist and lead me back to the house.
Ole Skipper was probably the bravest and most intelligent dog I was ever around. As he grew in size and stature he became fearless. He was the “King Dog” of the countryside, even the coyotes refused to mess with him. He was gentle and loving only with our family. Everything else was the enemy and did not set foot on our property without his permission only after my father or I said, “Skipper, it’s OK!”
His favorite hobby was to kill a rattlesnake or skunk and bring it and lay it on the back porch for our approval. Needless to say this horrified my mother. I don’t think he ever figured out why we refused to pet him for days after the skunk dealings.
Once upon a time when I was 4 years old we were playing out by the windmill and I was practicing farming with my toy tractor. Somehow, as I was barefoot on a hot summer afternoon I managed to step on a piece of broken glass and gash a major artery in my foot. For some reason it did not seem to be important enough for me to stop my “practice farming” and go to the house to get the bleeding stopped. After a few minutes I began to get a little faint and Skipper grabbed my wrist and forced me to the house and barked until my mother came out, found me, and rushed me to the doctor for 8 stitches. I always owed Skipped one for this.
Another time when I was about 10 years old, my dad decided I was old enough to drive the old 1930’s Model F-20 Farmall tractor and go plow the field west of the house. Of course ole Skipper thought his duty was to follow me up and down the rows until he decided he had to go to the house for a quick drink of water. While he was gone I plowed over a nest of “Blue Racer Snakes.” I decided to stop the tractor, grab my hammer, and make a quick end of the big mother snake, however, this quickly turned into a mismatch because Blue Racers can wriggle along pretty fast and she would chase me back on the tractor after I threw my hammer at her. This went on for about 5 tries when Skipper showed back up from his water break and made a quick end to the entire brood of snakes. Saved again!
In 1960 when I was 18 years old I awoke the morning of May 26th, the day after my High School graduation. I was getting ready to move and start my college career. I went out to feed Skipper and found him on the north side of the house.
The Lord had taken him to heaven on cue at the ripe old age of 15. I think Skipper knew he had finished his job well done here and it was time to go. I buried him in the cow pasture behind the house—tearfully—and look forward to seeing him again someday and look in those brave, intelligent eyes of his and say “Well done, my faithful friend and servant!”