March 28, 2013 – Hail, Hail Flatonia
Phinehas and I go back in time. First to the 1800s and then to our childhoods. This all happens as a result of our reading Richard Zelade’s splendid book Hill Country - Completely Revised 2nd Edition - Discovering the Secrets of the Texas Hill Country and planning adventures. Phinehas got the book for Christmas and has been suggesting a trip to the “Devil’s Playground” since he moved here. Somehow we haven’t gotten there yet.
For now, it’s the weekend and the book is out on the table. I’m being lazy. Phinehas is making eggs for his breakfast. Ben is washing dishes with Shea, and Marie is outside watering plants. For something to do I’m reading snippets out loud from the Shiner-Lockhart section because this is the part of the country we live in.
“This is such a great book!” I say over the sound of the running water. “Check this out.” Then I read to them about the local circuit-riding preacher Andrew J. “Andy” Potter.
Parson Pastor Preacher Potter (as Phinehas and I later dub him) was “warned not to come to Red Rock on the next Sabbath. Potter replied that he would most certainly be there and that furthermore he expected a fine chicken dinner afterward. When he arrived at the meetinghouse the following Sunday, Potter laid his shootin’ irons on the rude pulpit table in front of him and announced, ‘Now I sent word that I was coming to Red Rock to preach and I’m gonna preach. But I can shoot too. And if anyone wants a fight and starts one, we’ll shoot it out.’ Potter preached his service and got his chicken dinner.” (Hill Country 346-347).
It’s any number of Old West tales—preaching, shooting, traveling around on horseback—and is as familiar as the characters and scenes we, my siblings and I, came to love from the Louis L’amour books we all read. It’s history and rattlesnakes, it’s not staring into the firelight so as to keep your night vision clear and looking over your shoulder so that you’ll know your way back. It’s tracking and surviving. It’s the late 1800s before Texas was tamed. It’s the time when Lockhart “enjoyed a reputation as a tough town” and people were killed on the very town square that’s less than a mile from the house inside which I’m calmly reading. Fighting Parson Potter even died in a Tall-Tale type of way in the church I walk past nearly every day on my way to the library.
This is how Zelade tells it: “It was the year of our Lord 1895, on a Sunday evening in a little country church just outside of Lockhart, and ‘as Fighting Parson Potter raised his hands in a closing prayer, the lights of the little church were suddenly blown out by a strong gust of wind, and when the lamp were relighted the audience gasped to see the preacher lying dead in the pulpit. As the lights had gone out, so had gone out the life of Texas’ most picturesque preacher. Fighting Parson Potter’s wish – that he might die in his pulpit – had been granted.’” (ibid 382).
What a difference a century makes.
I ferret out more stories to read aloud and towards the end of the book stumble across the section on Flatonia. This town has such wonderful draws as Friendly Tavern which is “short on décor (except for the domino tables) but long on local color” (Hill Country 442) and Grumpy’s Restaurant which Zelade says “is about the only place in town to get a sit-down meal” (ibid 442).
“Where’s Flatonia?” Phinehas asks me.
I do a quick online check. “It’s only forty-nine miles from here.”
“We should go,” Phinehas says.
So a few days later we do. Because the internet says that Grumpy’s is permanently closed we eat a hardy breakfast to sustain us, and pack water and tea to drink along the way. It’s a good day for a drive. The clouds add texture to the sky and there’s enough of a chill to warrant the wearing of a jacket. We accidently leave Hill Country the book at the house, but we already know what Flatonia is doing out in the middle of Hill Country. The name has nothing to do with the flatness of the country (which is a slightly disappointing fact. I would have liked the irony).
The town was named after F.W. Flato who came to Texas in the 1840s and did brisk business having something to do with shipping and the railroad.
We leave Lockhart then Luling behind us.
Our first stop is the Oak Hill Cemetery.
As we turn off of Highway I-10 onto TX-95 I spot the tall trees and the looming monuments to the dead. I say something like, “Cool cemetery.”
“You want to stop?” Phinehas asks.
“Yeah,” I say.
We park and make our way onto the memorial grounds reading names and dates and inscriptions as we go. Some of the people were born as early as 1822, others not until after the turn of the twentieth century. Some died as recently as last year. Phinehas and I remark on plot sizes, names, years gone by, and the monuments themselves. The grave markers tell such incomplete stories in their brevity: a baby who lived nine days, a man named Richter who was a veteran of the Spanish American war, a woman who lived to be nearly one hundred years old, and James C. Doggett who died in 1902 when he was only 24 years, 4 months and 26 days old because God loved him best and called him home.
Being here among the dead is sad and it’s not. Cemeteries are beautiful for keeping names, not alive, but rather unforgotten. Our being here gives these ones a kind of immortality. Because living forever might just be others knowing that you once lived.
It’s with this on my mind that we get in the car and drive into Flatonia and back into a long ago time. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a horse drawn carriage. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pastor Parson Preacher Potter swaggering down the street with his pistols on his hips and a bible in his hand. The town is quiet. Most of the shops look closed. There’s not much to do, but we knew this coming in. It was part of the appeal. We venture into an Antique store.
“Where are y’all coming from?” the friendly shop owner asks us, knowing immediately that we’re not from around these parts.
We chat about nothing in particular, the shop owner recommends that we visit the Saddle Shop around the corner and to not miss out on the antique shops ten miles away in Schulenburg, and Phinehas buys Shea a toy cow.
This is small town living, this is old America where there’s no such thing as chain stores and I imagine that people still order things out of a Sears and Roebucks catalog. This is farm country, the place where people know their neighbors and talk kindly about the weather and health with the out-of-town strangers.
We visit the Saddle Shop and chat with the owner about business and where we’re from, where we’re going. Phinehas buys a wooden frog and fox for Shea. “Y’all enjoy your stay and come back and see us again next time you’re here!” the Saddle Shop owner says when we leave.
“Take care,” I say.
“We will,” Phinehas says.
We go around the corner and walk past Friendly Tavern. It looks closed, lonely, well-used. It feels like a ghost tavern. We don’t even try the door. But we do go inside The Flatonia Argus building. It’s the local paper.
“You want to go inside?”
“No,” I say.
“Are you scared?” Phinehas asks, his hand on the door handle.
We step inside. It’s an old building, long and narrow. There are old front pages in color and framed hanging on the walls. The girl who comes from the back room at the sound of the door looks surprised to see people inside the building. We make friendly small talk with her to justify our intrusion and are both disappointed to discover that they use computers instead of type setting. There’s no thick clicking of keys or whirring of machines. No smell of ink leftover from the past. Only the long, narrow building and a movement into the present—everything is computerized.
Outside again and we’ve seen what there is to see in Flatonia. At least in the daytime.
So we pack ourselves into the car and decide to head, not to Schulenburg as the antique shop owner suggested, but to Shiner which is home to the Spoetzl Brewery and maker of Shiner beer.
It’s a twenty mile drive and we’re there in no time at all.
We’ve arrived too late to get a tour of the brewery and settle for the free beer samples that are given there in the gift shop (Zelade calls it the “hospitality room” (341)) and content ourselves in watching people, checking out the gifts, and critiquing the tastes of the different beers on tap. We’re given four wooden tokens to use to redeem our samples, four is the limit. The cups are small.
“Now what?” Phinehas asks.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Maybe we can drive through the rest of Shiner and see what’s here and then head back?”
That’s what we do. I’m scanning streets as we go and see an old opera house down off to the right. “An opera house! That looks interesting, turn at the next street,” I say.
It’s a park like the ones we played at as children. With a skyscraping slide made out of metal and not plastic. With swings that go so high we can almost touch the sky with our feet, we just have to go a little bit higher. We almost touch the sky. With a merry-go-round, an old school merry-go-round. I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid. We get on the merry-go-round. We have to. I have to. It’s as fantastic as it ever was.
“This is better than an amusement park,” I say. I’m transported back decades to summer days and laughter and running and spinning dizzy play.
“Faster! Faster! Faster!”
This is immortality; the remembrance of youth, the taste of childhood in my mouth, the breeze of the past on my face, the rush of centrifugal force pulling me to joy, a brother there to share in the fun.
This is adventure.
This is living.