August. A quiet corner of Coryell County, Texas. And late afternoon, at that.
For 160 miles the heat—that thick, dusty, palpable heat singular to August—followed me and did its best to melt my bones and swallow me whole. Everything radiated heat—the road, the cab of my Jeep, my skin. I cut the A/C just east of Gatesville, afraid the old Wrangler wouldn’t handle the strain of the compressor and another 45 minutes of fifth gear. More than that, I wanted to listen, to hear the tires push the road, to hear the air make its familiar rattles through the car as it ferried the smells of copper and tar and sweat.
For most of the last hour, heading west on Highway 84 out of Waco, I drove with the window down, feeling the sunlight bake my arms and, despite a ball cap, letting the wind tangle my hair spectacularly.
At the edge of Coryell County, as the yellowed pasture grass became taller and closer, the road seemed to contract from a ribbon to a seam. Cotton fields gave way to wider and wider pastures dotted here and there with bovine. In this heat even the cows were smart enough to take pause under any available tree or lean-to. Brown, black and white, I remembered their names: Brown Swiss, Angus, Charolais, Belted Galloway.
The pretty wildflowers—the bluebonnets, primroses and Indian paintbrushes that make mothers herd their children into fields and medians for photos—had all dried up and gone to seed by the end of May. The only color in August came courtesy of yellow patches of Texas squaw-weed, white clusters atop leggy bunches of snow-on-the-mountain and bright star-shaped blossoms of nefarious bull nettle, the hardy staples of summer. All pale, faded white and puny yellow, the sun leached all color from the landscape.
What most people don’t know is that here, in central and southern Coryell County, is the beginning of the Texas Hill Country. Miles beneath the roadbed and topsoil, two tectonic plates in a past millennium bashed themselves together with enough force to cause the land to ripple and roll, turning the flat grassland into valleys and vistas. It’s easy to see why residents along this stretch of highway might just as well use the number of hills to mark a distance as they would the department of transportation’s mile markers.
I put more of the highway behind me. Knee-high, dry grass inhabited the draws and bar ditches for miles. In Dallas or Austin or some such big city, they would just be called ditches, truncated in favor of hasty communication or just from lack of imagination.
I stopped for the time being, parking my Jeep as best I could to negotiate a sliver of shade from a copse of live oaks and scrubby hackberry trees. Not that it did much good. The heat always finds its way in.
The ground under my sandaled feet was baked to rock hardness and sun-bleached almost white. Even so, I managed to kick up a small cloud of dust walking from the car, my toes between the sandal’s straps griming with dirt and sweat. In my mind, I heard my father’s voice: You shouldn’t be wearing those shoes, Sweet Pea. He’s right, of course. Naked toes in the middle of fields and pastures beg for clover burrs, thistle nettles and malodorous patches of croton, not to mention the jaws of various four-legged and no-legged critters. On that August day my appearance didn’t matter. I didn’t expect to run into anyone on my errand, and if I did, they probably wouldn’t fuss too much about me walking around a cemetery taking pictures of a tree. If they fussed at all, it would probably be about my ill-suited shoes.
Croton, I think as I lift the latch on the chain-link gate, otherwise known as goatweed or hogwort. Thoughts such as these had risen to the surface of my memory ever since leaving a certain sprawling, noisy north Texas city a few hours prior. The more the skyline diminished in my rearview mirror, as suburbs surrendered to cotton fields, the more pieces I began to recall of my rural upbringing. With every mile I felt myself slipping back into a familiar, if somewhat dusty, state of mind.
Purmela, Texas has never been what anyone would consider a big town. Town as a descriptor may itself be somewhat of a stretch even for those more prone to hyperbole. In 1880 the Texas Almanac recorded its population at nine. By 1911 Purmela had incorporated, and a post office had been established. During the first third of the 20th century, its most prosperous time, Purmela boasted about 200 residents and several businesses. In 1934 Purmela’s high school girls’ basketball team won the Coryell County championship. A photo from a county history book shows nine young women (among them two Hazels, a Flora and a Minnie Fae) sporting wavy, bobbed hair and skirted uniforms.
Today most drivers ignore the 60 mile per hour speed limit sign and yellow flashing light at Purmela’s major intersection of Highway 84 and a pair of farm-to-market roads. The three-pump filling station is closed. A handwritten sign on its middle pump reads “NO GAS.” The adjacent general store closed two or three years ago—even the realtor can’t remember exactly. There isn’t much else to draw the eye: a small junkyard, another abandoned storefront and a two-room post office with no posted hours of operation. Unless you knew what to look for, you’d think it just another sleepy rural town. For the most part, you’d be right.
It’s a curious thing, the ways in which a town can die. Wiped out by nature like the history books’ accounts of Pompeii or eerily abandoned like the colonial settlement of Roanoke, suddenly or slowly, a town can be erased from maps or just fade from memories.
Texas boasts many such towns. The coastal town of Indianola, on Matagorda Bay, was nearly destroyed by a hurricane in 1875. Its hardscrabble German settlers rebuilt only to see the town razed by another hurricane and subsequent fire eleven years later. In less than a year, the site was abandoned. At one time, Hebron could have been the largest town in Denton and Collin counties. For years, however, its land has been annexed by other communities as developers moved in to build subdivisions with nonsensical names like Castle Hills and Meadow Ridge. Today Hebron has been whittled away, its few remaining tracts scattered haphazardly like jacks.
When the Southern Pacific Railroad came through Lee County in 1913, many residents in Old Dime Box up and moved three miles southeast to resettle near it. Thusly, New Dime Box was established. The railroads affected many towns in this way. In the West Texas of the early 20th century the railroad companies worried not if a town was near the ever lengthening rail line. They built their own towns, their land departments turning a pretty dime selling “town lots” and establishing company stores. In 1933 the Texas & Pacific Railroad Company announced that it was abandoning the town of Thurber. The town’s infrastructure—utility poles, water and gas pipelines—were deconstructed or exhumed. Of this endeavor, A. C. Greene recounts in his West Texas memoir, “The rails of the T&P branch were reclaimed, the oil-company records were shipped to a new headquarters in Fort Worth—and Thurber ceased to exist even more rapidly than it had been born.”
So it seems that towns come and go just like people. They are settled, sometimes incorporated, and they can grow, diminish or in some cases remain relatively unchanged for long stretches of time. After Texas Monthly declared in February 2013 (and not without a hefty amount of research and census data) that almost 85 percent of Texans now reside in urban areas, I wondered about the towns in which we are not living. What of those towns that people—and time—had left behind? As a reluctant city dweller, well into my second decade of urban and suburban living, I had long held the belief that the wild, far-reaching agrarian landscapes that form much of Texas’ myth and identity were still very much inhabited. The prairie sky is wide and high forever, I thought. The data tells me otherwise.
My heart, however, knows that until the last window is shuttered and the last door closed, a town is very much alive. A town lives because it is borne from the land, from the earth and what we humans put upon and into that earth. How we till or pave the soil, how we physically divide the land with our homesteads, where we bury our dead—all of these age old activities create a place—and something more. The Romans called it genius loci. The spirit of a place.
So I came on a hot August afternoon to the Smith Cemetery on the southern edge of Purmela to find a tree. It was quiet and very still, save the ticka-ticka-ticka of grasshoppers. At my feet were the tiny, cone-shaped holes of ant lions. I bet they didn’t even realize they had taken up residence in a cemetery. Just another creature at the bottom of a hole, I thought. My cell phone noted the temperature at 99 degrees, and I did not believe that for a second. The grasshoppers, the lateness of the hour and my own senses told me it was at least 102.
The tree is half-dead but tall for a cedar. Its papery bark hangs shaggy in places. Above my head it forks, sending two thick branches more laterally than skyward. Drought has turned the left fork hollow and gray. Negotiating my way around headstones and brambles, I can smell its sweet, sharp musk. All of this is exactly as it should be—except for one thing that shouldn’t be there at all.
Just below the fork, the dull, rusted head of a hoe rests, nestled in a knothole, its broad face nearly the same color as the tree’s bark. Its wooden handle has long since rotted away. In the years it took for nature to reclaim the handle, the tree grew around the hoe, and by all accounts it has stayed there undisturbed for more than seventy years. Below it, someone has engraved a small metal plaque and affixed it to the tree. It reads:
In August 1942 Lynn Spencer hung this hoe here and went home to dinner.
He got his draft notice and didn’t get back untill the war was over. [sic]
Seventy-three years ago, on a hot August day, twenty-year-old Llyn Spencer was tending to his family’s plot, carefully removing grass and weeds from his grandparents’ and father’s headstones. Such was common practice at the time. Families would purchase plots in the cemetery and assume the caretaking duties until such tasks were passed on to the next generation. So it’s no surprise that Llyn would leave the hoe, leaning against the cedar tree, while he went to supper. What is surprising, though, is that the townspeople of Purmela chose to leave the hoe exactly as it was. Was it seen as a sort of talisman, a good luck charm for the safe return of one of the town’s young men? Or was it simply practicality borne of rural life that prescribed that the hoe belonged to Llyn, and he would finish his task upon coming home? For whatever reasons, the hoe remains, now a part of the tree.
Later, upon returning to north Texas, I fretted over Llyn. A young man with a draft notice could have ended up in any number of places, in any number of ways. Was he still alive? Did he come home? I wondered. I began to spend more and more time at the library. The Texas history resources—and the air conditioning—were plentiful, and in short order I located a list of gravesites at the Smith Cemetery. Having been denied access to Llyn’s military records on file at the Coryell County courthouse because I was not an immediate family member, I scrambled to find any clue to his whereabouts. I inquired about the Spencers at Purmela’s annual Memorial Day homecoming under the rafters of Baptist church’s tabernacle. I plumbed the remaining memories of my husband’s paternal grandmother. Her husband’s family had come to Texas with Stephen F. Austin and had eventually settled in Purmela.
This Smith Cemetery roll, more voluminous than I had guessed, gave me my first clue. I scanned the names, column after column. Unreadable stones, nameless infant graves, stones half obscured by age and deterioration. Back in time I went. 1935. 1869. 1833.
SPENCER. There it was. Quick calculations told me I’d most likely found a set of grandparents. Two more names and death dates revealed his parents. And then there it was. Llyn Spencer, January 29, 1921—. No death date. He was alive.
I returned to Purmela three weeks later, armed with more research and the name of a sibling, ready to find Llyn. I wound my way to the cemetery once again. This time I ventured to its newer, northern section that was less crowded by brambles and poison ivy. A swarm of grasshoppers preceded me with every step. Here were the newer, brighter gravestones. Some of them seemed almost fresh, but I suppose everything in a cemetery at one time seems this way.
Not 100 paces from the half-dead cedar I found Llyn’s gravestone. And I found Llyn.
The roll I’d found at the library had been compiled in 1998. Llyn Spencer died in 2005. His gravestone was simple, unadorned. I read it aloud. Sergeant US Army, World War II. I didn’t stay long after that. Now that I knew where he was, I knew I could always come back.
I should be getting on the road, but I want to make one more stop. A quick side-trip to Purmela’s Baptist Church to photograph its historical marker takes longer than expected. I am distracted by a group of boys playing baseball in the yard next door. Four of them, teenagers and sun-tanned brown as beans, seem immune to the heat. They run the bases, little more than big divots in the dusty earth, and shag balls and taunt each other as only boys can do. Right now, this game in this dirt yard in this map dot of a town is their world.
The pitcher, a stocky kid with curly brown hair, calls to the batter, “Ready, Babe Ruth?” The shirtless and shoeless batter whiffs the first pitch, and it thuds off the homemade plywood backstop. This earns him some good-natured ribbing and facetious catcalling, perfected in ways that only boys understand. He connects with the next pitch, though, and gives the lone outfielder a workout.
Then a tow-headed little boy, not more than four years old, comes down off the front porch steps of what was probably once the parsonage and asks to play. To my surprise, the boys readily welcome him into their game. The pitcher edges closer to the batter’s box and lobs him a few underhanded pitches before he gets a small piece of the ball and sends it bouncing. The older boys make half-hearted attempts to get the ball all while cheering the little one on, telling him to “Run! Go that way! Go to third! Run home, buddy! Run home!”
In that moment, watching those boys, I knew that some places are very much alive if you just slow down and look. There are people going about their lives, leaving their marks, reminding the rest of us that we are all physically part of a place. Our bones are formed from the soil. Our memories are shaped by the passing days. No place, no patch of this earth, means much unless you are a part of it—and it a part of you.
There are communities like Purmela, where the past and present coexist, where folks still gather for Memorial Day potluck luncheons at the Baptist church’s tabernacle and play pick-up ballgames without keeping score, where, if given enough time, the past becomes a part of the living present.
As surely as we inhabit a place, we are also of it. And even as we come and go, we leave behind pieces of ourselves, our homes, our little rituals like tending the family cemetery plot. These are the things that keep the spirit of a place alive. Like Llyn Spencer’s hoe and the cedar tree itself, part of a place may change, but there is always a place in today’s world for what remains.