At the end of the 1948-1949 school year, we moved to Wickett, Texas, where my cousins Sydney, Tommy Dan, and David Lynn lived. Wickett was made up mostly of Gulf Camp—thirty or forty neat white cottages for Gulf Oil employees in a fenced area with grass and trees. The other houses in town were far apart along a few dirt roads. We moved to a small unpainted house with a sad struggling tree in front and a yard full of scraggly yellow grass in back. I read Tom Sawyer sitting on a cellar door in that scraggly back yard. We never dared open that door. Billie Ann Bien, my first best friend ever besides my cousins, came to play, and we tagged each other around the malnourished tree.
I was still just six years old in the summer of 1949. I was excited about enrolling at Wickett Elementary School, where it was noted that I was the youngest pupil in third grade. The school, grades 1-4, occupied a state-of-the art one-story brick building. It had a small auditorium, a gymnasium, a cafeteria, a good-sized playground with merry-go-round, slide and swings, and a concrete volleyball court. The grounds had a small water tower for the town, and, on the far end, there was a neat little house surrounded by trees and flowers, where the principal, Miss Carrie McGlasson, lived.
Most of my classmates lived in the Gulf Camp, but I did not, and neither did Billie Ann. Daddy had applied for a job at Gulf, but he had come to Wickett without a job, doing day labor wherever he could until he finally got a steady job at the Texas Electric plant between Wickett and Monahans. Billie Ann’s father, a handsome and pleasant man, wore denim coveralls most of the time and raised gamecocks for the lucrative illegal sport of cockfighting.
Ann Piper was the most beautiful girl in school. She had dark eyes and skin and one long shiny black braid that reached her waist. She was the daughter of an army sergeant from nearby Pyote Army Base. Ann played a Chinese princess in our end-of-the-year international festival. Festivals and plays were important in Wickett. A living Christmas card tableau to the music and lyrics of I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day brought tears to my eyes (…and in despair I bowed my head, ‘There is no peace on earth,’ I said; ‘for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth goodwill to men). Once a year, we painted our faces with burnt cork, and sang and danced in a “Negro minstrel show.” At the Halloween carnival, there were tubs of bobbing apples, fishing booths, cakewalks, and a fortune-teller wearing Mason jar rings as hoop earrings divining the future in an upside-down fishbowl. One day a week I stayed at the school for a piano lesson with a pretty young teacher named Miss June Joyce. I was still on the one-hand Here we go, up the row, to a birthday par-ty and envied my friend Billie Ann, who could already play The Fairies’ Harp with both hands and a crossover at the end.
In 1949, there were no black people, Mexicans, poor people, or rich people in Wickett. My cousin Sydney, who had already lived there for awhile before we came, told me that two brothers from Mexico had once attended Wickett Elementary School. They moved away before my family arrived, but they had taught her to sing Allá en el Rancho Grande, and she proudly taught it to me. She also taught me how to count to ten in Spanish.
All houses were modest; no one felt inferior in comparison with neighbors. Someone might acquire a rug or a refrigerator or some whatnots for walls and shelves, but no one had much that inspired envy, admiration, or ambition. The houses were cool in summer, warm in winter, and cozy against the howling West Texas winds and sandstorms.
We moved from the unpainted house to a stucco house, next to another very similar stucco house where my aunt Dorothy, uncle Popeye, and cousin Sydney lived and ran a small dairy in a barn behind that house. Sydney, who was in junior high school in Monahans, was learning to play the trumpet. Aunt Dorothy made her go to the dairy barn to practice.
Our house had concrete floors and an evaporative cooler, so it was comfortable in the hot dry west Texas summer. Mama liked to sit in a rocking chair in the living room, wearing shorts, smoking, and drinking cokes, putting out her cigarettes by dropping them into an almost-empty Coca-Cola bottle, producing a sizzling sound. One day as she sat smoking and drinking a Coke, she looked out the window and saw the Baptist preacher coming. She ran to the back room, threw a skirt over her shorts and put out her cigarette. That preacher was probably no stranger to the lingering smoke from hastily extinguished cigarettes.
Mama taught me how to play Canasta so she would have someone on call to play anytime. I was seven years old, but she never just let me win, and she took great pleasure in amassing almost all the cards in “red (no wild cards) canastas” or “going out” while I was still unable to put down the minimum required to get on the board. She always had a favorite song. She would say, “Oh, they’re playing my song.” That particular summer it was See the pyramids along the Nile, watch the sunrise on a tropic isle, just remember, darling, all the while, you belong to me. Mama craved Heath bars and Cokes, and she loved to get in the car and “drive around,” stopping at the filling station or the grocery store to satisfy those cravings. I loved sweets, so I was a lucky beneficiary at those stops.
I don’t know why we moved so often, but soon we were living near another Gulf Camp, located between Wickett and Monahans, in a town with the official name of Gulf Camp, Texas. As in the Wickett Gulf Camp, there were white cottages with neat green yards in an area surrounded by a fence and cattle guards. It was a short distance to the roadside grocery, café, variety store, and post office which were town. Our house was one of three identical houses on a dirt road not far from the camp. Daddy bought me my first bicycle, a small red one with no trainer wheels. Fear of falling over when he made me ride it caused early sessions to end in wailing tears, but I eventually learned, and pride overcame the anger that I had felt at Daddy for forcing me to face the fear and learn to ride the two-wheeler.
After Gulf Camp we moved back to Wickett to a house across the street from Wickett Elementary School. Aunt Nita, Uncle Tom Ed, and cousins Tommy Dan and David Lynn had lived there before us. It was unpainted and ugly on the outside, but it had some nice features: a big automatic washing machine in the bathroom and ceiling vents which exhaled water-cooled air in summer and warm air in winter. The house felt spacious. It had a good-sized bedroom on one side, a sunny kitchen with an eating area behind the long living-dining room, and enough space under the tall front porch for me to sit upright and play. Nana rode the bus for eight hours from Nocona to visit us, and on a rare snowy day she gathered up enough clean snow to make ice-cream by covering it with milk, vanilla, and sugar.
Wickett had about 400 people. Along the one blacktop road, there was a drugstore whose owners lived behind a curtain at the back. Lucky’s grocery store down the street smelled of wooden floors and oranges wrapped in tissue paper. At the lean-to which served as the post office, there was a brass spittoon in the corner and a sign on the wall that read, “Don’t spit on the floor.” Behind the counter, an indifferent postmistress made smacking noises as she chewed gum all the time.
Down the street were a couple of gasoline stations and the Blue Moon Saloon. I never set foot in there, but from outside I could see that it was dark, hear that it was loud, and smell the sour odor of beer. On the other side of the blacktop, separated from the rest of the community by a low fence and a cattle guard and distinguished by small green lawns in front of neat white houses, was the Gulf Camp. Just down the road from the camp was a Gulf office building and shipping yard. The refinery was out of sight on a country road. The blacktop ended just across the railroad track from the Gulf offices, where it joined a small highway, the road to Monahans (population 5,000), seven miles away.
I went to Sunday School alone at the First Baptist Church. My parents didn’t go to church in Wickett as they had in Prairie Valley. I sometimes stayed for the preaching, but I stopped after a particularly loud sermon informing us that “our country is nestled in the Bosom of the Devil!” I preferred the comforting and colorful Sunday-school flannelgraph stories of Moses and the Ten Commandments, Daniel and the Lions’ Den, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego walking around alive and well in the fiery pit, Jonah and the Whale, Baby Jesus in the Manger, Young Jesus in the Temple, and Grown-up Jesus performing miracles and “suffering the little children to come unto Him.” These were told in dramatic voices by a sweet-faced middle-aged woman, who changed the cut-out figures gracefully at just the right moment in the story. We sang Jesus Loves the Little Children, Every Day with Jesus, and We’ve a Story to Tell to the Nations. Billie Ann went to the altar and accepted Jesus one Sunday, but I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, and I was embarrassed to ask.
Best Friends, Movie Stars, and Scary Prowlers
Our last move in Wickett was to a little house on a dirt road just a short distance from Billie Ann’s and across the street from the Parkers, who had a lot of kids. Our house had a front-room-and-kitchen divided by a counter, and a bedroom. The bathroom was just off the kitchen. I slept on a fold-out couch in the front room, but when I got an ear infection, I was allowed to spend my days on my parents’ bed. We lived there for most of my fourth-grade year. There were a lot of children in the neighborhood, including the Parkers, and we would gather after school to play in an abandoned oil rig shack with metal seats that could be lowered or raised on chains. Other times we would play in the dirt road. My favorite game was Red Rover. On Saturdays, we would go to the schoolyard and jump rope on the volleyball court, climb the water tower and dangle our feet over the edge of the platform, or play Indians in the mesquite bushes behind the school, grinding little mesquite beans up to make “corn meal.”
Billie Ann and I were both only children. She remained an only child; I would be joined by my sister Candi in 1953. On Saturdays we would listen to radio serials of The Lone Ranger. We shared movie magazines, and each of us had a favorite star. Mine was Elizabeth Taylor; Billie Ann’s was Jeanne Crain. I was secretly in love with Tony Curtis, but I didn’t tell anyone about that, though I did write a fan letter to an address in one of the magazines. I was thrilled when I received a glossy photograph signed by Tony himself.
Billie Ann owned a fabulous collection of little plastic people in uniforms and costumes; we would play with them for hours, inventing lives that were exciting and full of adventure. Many afternoons we would play together at her house from the time school was out until Mama called me home for supper. Many afternoons, that is, until our mothers decided to start working–mine at the Monahans hospital and Billie Ann’s at a clothing store. Fearing that two little girls together were more likely to get into trouble than two little girls apart, they forbade us to play together until they returned from work, reducing our precious play-time and robbing our three-inch people of love and adventure for most of the afternoon.
Nothing much ever happened in Wickett. No murders, no robberies, no highway accidents, not even a fire while I lived there. Kids walked fearlessly all over town. On summer days, we would leave home barefoot, forgetting that the pavement would be hot at mid-day or that something interesting might lie across a patch of grass burrs or the even more painful goat heads. Strangers were rare, but there were warnings about prowlers and parental admonitions about strangers, especially men. One day, latched into my solitary little house playing alone and listening to the radio, I was startled by a knock at the door. Looking out the window I saw Billie Ann, breathing hard and looking scared. “There’s a man in my house, in the bathroom, behind the curtain, in front of the commode. I was on the commode and I saw his shoes under the curtain!” The words tumbled out. I enjoyed the vicarious thrill of danger almost as much as she was enjoying her very real fright.
There was a strange man, a prowling housebreaker, in Billie Ann’s house, but we ran down the road to the home of the nearest telephone owner and called the ones we knew could protect us from all harm: Our Mothers. To our great satisfaction, our mothers not only believed the account, they were gratifyingly alarmed. We believed it too; in fact, I believed it until a trip back to Wickett in 1992 for the centennial celebration caused me to reflect on the town, and the story, and the fact that Billie Ann’s father’s shoes had been found facing forward, their toes just under the curtain. “The shoes I saw were different from Daddy’s!” she had insisted.
Best Friends Forever
Billie Ann grew into a beautiful young woman. Her beauty was marred only slightly by lumps and scars on her knees and elbows. She suffered from a rare disorder that robbed her body of calcium where it was needed and deposited it on her knees and elbows. She never complained, and it didn’t slow her down one bit. Every summer, she would spend a few weeks at the Shriners’ Hospital in Dallas, where they surgically removed the lumps, but they kept coming back. She liked the novelty of the trips to Dallas and the special treatment she got in the hospital.
After I moved from Wickett to Wichita Falls at the end of fourth grade, we wrote each other often with details of school life, crushes, and breakups. I visited her at Christmas vacation and in the summers, but after tenth grade, Billie Ann became seriously interested in boys. I was interested in boys too, but marriage was far from my mind.
Easter vacation of our tenth-grade year was the last time I saw her. Unable to enter her world of hope chests and bridal registries, I stopped writing and visiting. I heard from Aunt Dorothy that she got married at Christmas of our senior year, and in January, 1960, she had a baby boy.
On February 11, 1960, Billie Ann died of pneumonia. She was 19. She was buried in her wedding dress. In 1991 I visited her grave in Monahans, Texas. This is on her tombstone:
Remember, friend, as you pass by
as you are now, so once was I,
and as I am so you must be,
so prepare in life to follow me.