The Trip to Explain a Lifetime (Part 2)
(part 1 here)
We left dad’s childhood home and drove a few blocks to the elementary school he had attended. Anything that isn’t an adventure to a child seem so far away… such a long journey. Dad was amazed that the old school was less than 2 blocks from his house. I was amazed because the two story school house is now a private residence. I could not imagine how much effort was needed to keep the place clean. Just to mop the floors in this place would be a killer not to mention its outrageous monthly utilities. One thing that was in the owners favor though; they don”t have to water their grass. The entire school yard was dirt, just like all the roads in this part of town. Dad won a school talent contest one year for singing, Somewhere Over the Rainbow (he must have paid someone off because he can’t sing a note.) Dad got his first school whipping in this school when he was in the fourth grade and it was here that he began his life-long love of studying history.
The tennis courts and baseball field, long ago neglected, were behind the school. Dad’s memories of the enjoyment and many hours he and his friends played baseball here were still vivid, even though overgrowth had taken control.
Dad sat back and visited the memories of his youth; my brother drove to the train depot where my granddad and dad used to work. I hopped out of the car to take some pictures and to get a feel for things. It was hard for me to visualize, as I looked at the neglect, that these grounds were once part of the mighty Rock Island Railroad with its switching tracks, pump houses, locomotive maintenance, round houses and track maintenance employees. The existing depot now housed the memories of those who once dedicated their lives to the Rock Island. I don’t remember much about my granddad; he passed when I was pretty young (I’m the youngest of about 4.3 million grandkids). I do remember my granddad’s double garage at his Kansas City home, though. Various train parts from the now bankrupt mighty Rock Island, graced the shelves lining the walls. Even 20 years ago, the stuff he had collected made it seem like stepping back into a different era.
We poked around outside the depot for a few minutes when the yardmaster (head-honcho) approached us and pointed out that these grounds are now posted property (we were trespassing)! My brother explained that our dad grew up in Dalhart and once worked as a brakeman for the Rock Island out of this Depot (this was back when trains still had cabooses). My brother went on to explain that our grandfather also worked here for 26 years. His granddad was the depot’s pump master (head honcho of pumpers, I reckon). The Yardmaster took pity on us and gave us free run of the grounds. He even invited us to go into the depot! This was a big deal for me because my Dad had not been inside the depot since 1962. We entered the depot and Dad was silent for a short while as he looked around. Finally, he said that the depot looked almost exactly the same as he last saw it 47 years ago. It was hard to avoid seeing the mist in his eyes as he spoke. The only difference, he explained was the missing assignment board which had been mounted on the wall directly in front of us. The assignment board listed each employee’s work schedule and which train number he was expected to work. The yardmaster overheard this conversation and said he had found the assignment board in the basement. Names were still listed on it, but my dad didn’t know anyone listed.
We left the depot and drove to Main Street where it seemed like the entire town was participating in the annual XIT celebration. Dad had warned before we left Kansas City to brush up on our Alamo and XIT ranch histories. We had to know this information by heart, especially the Alamo history, just in case one of the real Texas cowboys asked us questions about it. Dalhart is home to the XIT ranch and celebrates its history each year with a parade, rodeo, dances and other activities. This is a (very) brief history of XIT and why Dalhart is named Dalhart. The XIT Ranch in the 1880s was the largest ranch in the world and was enclosed in over 6,000 miles of fence. All of it lay in the Texas Panhandle. Its three million acres sprawled from Lubbock, Texas northward to the Oklahoma Panhandle, in an irregular strip that was roughly 30 miles wide. It covered portions of ten counties which apparently helped perpetuate the disbelief that the brand, XIT, stands for “Ten in Texas”. The brand, in fact, was originated to thwart rustlers. It was ultimately sold to 2 brothers from the Chicago area in a trade to donate part of its acreage onto which a new Texas State Capitol would be built. The brothers also began bringing in cattle to the XIT Ranch and at one point ran 150,000 head of cattle. Dalhart, TX houses the XIT museum and historical society. Dalhart straddles the county lines: Dallam and Hartley, thus, the town was named Dalhart.
I was terribly exited because the parade seemed like such a great little small-town festivity, and since I’m being totally honest, I’m just cheesy like that.
My dad had memories of the parade as a child where all of the town’s children would line the streets and the parade participants would toss candies and pennies to the waiting children. The tradition continues even now. The parade began with the presentation of colors, the playing of the National Anthem and I kid you not, everyone stopped what they were doing to pay homage to the Flag. My brother, of course, stood at attention while the Dalhart Air National Guard slowly made their way past us.
The weekend of the XIT festivities is like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. As a city girl, I’d never been to a town that literally shuts down to celebrate heritage. I thought it was charming but my dad and brother wished the town were a little livelier (and in retrospect, think of all the shopping I missed out on! It was a conspiracy by my husband!) We headed out to find other memories as soon as Elvis left the building parade and we’d seen the largest harvesting combine I had ever seen.
Civil Air Patrol played a major role in my dad’s life. Civil Air Patrol is the only civilian component of our Armed Forces that is sanctioned by Congress. Dad’s parents and siblings participated in Civil Air Patrol activities and events. My grandfather built a small tower on top of the bank building right after the Korean War ended. Civil Air Patrol had directed that these towers be built and manned by CAP members to scan the skies with binoculars looking for enemy aircraft. Civil Air Patrol supplied these spotters with a book of black silhouettes of all known aircraft flying at the time. Enemy aircraft were included in these silhouettes. Dad remembers spending many hours scanning for enemy aircraft but failed to see any. My brother spent the larger part of his youth with CAP and attained almost every honor of the States of Missouri had to offer its cadets. My husband is now teaching young CAP kiddos in our own community.
Knowing the Civil Air Patrol connection, we wanted to sniff out the local digs so we headed out to the airport, formerly known as Dalhart Army Airfield. The airfield was used during WWII as a training base for both aircraft and glider pilots. The airplane hangars and living barracks from this era are still standing. Dad spent many nights and weekends working with the Civil Air Patrol at the airfield. Amazingly, the building he spent countless hours of his youth in still stands.
From there we made our way back across town in search for lunch as well as a cowboy hat for dad. We had decided that we wanted to eat one of those famous Texas steaks; it didn’t happen. Strangely enough, even the restaurants in town were closed to celebrate XIT but we found a great little Mexican joint that was out-of-this-world good. Since the downtown stores were closed and there didn’t seem to be any other stores open throughout town, my brother suggested we stop at a feed store and found the perfect hat for dad. Dad slapped the hat on his head and grinned like a schoolboy, he’d found comfort in the form of straw.
The three of us made our way to the XIT Museum where we poked around and enjoyed some much needed air conditioning. The XIT Museum is filled to the brim with memorabilia from an era long past. Inside is a replica of the ranch chapel, the inside of the original courthouse and more railroad memorabilia than you can imagine, including all of the old high-school Annuals. While there, we beefed up on our knowledge of the Worlds Largest Free BBQ. How all this beef is BBQ’d overnight is a story of its own. A hodge-podge of things made up the museum and honestly, I could have spent a few more hours there, but there were more ghosts to chase, a BBQ to attend and cowboys to watch (giddyup!)
Our next stop was the Dalham/Hartley Veterans Memorial Park.
All three of us have different feelings of our veterans, the sacrifices that were made to keep us safe. For each of us, visiting the Veterans Memorial was a deeply personal experience. After a moment of silence and a prayer for my boys abroad, I walked around and tried to capture the feel of the Memorial. Dad found his childhood buddy’s names etched into the marble depicting the Vietnam War. We didn’t stay long, just like the men and women who had sacrificed so much… in the blink of an eye, we were gone.
The Worlds Largest Free BBQ was waiting for us at the lake along with my very first rodeo (in adulthood). The night was young…
The final installment of The Trip to Explain a Lifetime coming soon. Again, many thanks to my dad, who has done an incredible job of injecting historical facts into my story.