In seventh grade, in Texas, every kid has to take Texas History…or at least they did when I hit it in 1975. As a Texan I take pride in my state and will confess that I have that Texan bravado that other Americans find quite nauseating at times….well, maybe all the time. It is the one of the few things that I have in common with George W. Bush….we both love Texas and don’t mind talking about it. Texas is different and if you live here or visit, you will understand. Texas is tangible property, but it is a state of mind above all else.
I won’t bore you with actual Texas history here today, this story is about something else, this story is about an old man and a porch. I have a grand porch at my house, it has the original tile floor from 1915. My house is a Fort Worth landmark, I am only the third owner in the last 95 years. It was on that porch the other day that I remembered Mrs. Campbell’s Texas History class at Hurst Junior High. There I was, a middle-aged woman, sitting in a rocking chair, drinking a cup of coffee when a memory came flooding back to me as clear as a bell. A memory about another porch and another time, as seen through the eyes of a thirteen year old.
Mrs. Campbell was in her mid-thirties and always really animated as she paced back and forth in front of the class. I enjoyed her Texas history class because I have always been a history buff and her way of teaching just made me laugh. She was one of those teachers that had the gift. That talent for making kids listen to boring, dry material with a smile on their faces, while at the same time actually learning something.
The first half of the class was a lecture and the second part was always a class assignment questioning or reinforcing what you had just been taught. Being the nerd that I was, I was finished most every day with about 15 minutes to go before the bell sounded. I spent this luxurious 15 minutes of nothingness most days by reading magazines. I would tuck the magazine inside the giant history book and no one was the wiser. The Texas History book was the size of most coffee tables and had a large picture of the Alamo on the front cover.
One day I was reading a story about Freddie Prinze of Chico and the Man getting married when I noticed something out the window. Hurst Jr. High was situated in a middle-class neighborhood in my hometown. It was dominated by small homes built around WWII for the returning fighting men and their soon to be expanding families. It was inside those homes where the baby boomers, like myself, were conceived and raised. They were not fancy, but they were pragmatic in their design and affordable for the returning servicemen, like my father.
My desk was situated right up beside a window and I noticed an elderly man sitting on a porch across the street. He was dressed in khaki pants with suspenders and a white long sleeve shirt with a bow tie. It struck me that he was pretty dressed up to just be rocking on his porch. As I was staring at this old guy, he looked straight at me and waved. Pretty good eyesight for an old guy I thought, and I waved back. I showed him the huge history book to let him know what I was doing….he got up and walked into his house. The old man walked back out with a book in his hand and waived it up above his head so a I could see it. I instantly got what he was doing, he was showing me that we were reading together. Mrs. Campbell looked up from grading papers and we exchanged a smile. She motioned for my attention to go back to the Freddie Prinze article, so I obliged.
The next day I took my seat in class and again finished early. It was about 9:45 in the morning and there was the old guy again walking out his front door with his book in his hand. I waived at him and he back at me….this continued for the next two months. He would sit on his porch and read with me…always a friendly wave hello…and another for goodbye, as the bell sounded and I got up to go to my next class.
Being thirteen, I never really thought about him being lonely…perhaps stopping by after school to introduce myself or chat. Our relationship just consisted of about 30 minutes a day, reading together…with a couple of friendly waves, and that is the way it would remain.
One of the sections in the class was on famous Texas war heroes. Audie Murphy, the Medal of Honor winner and the most decorated soldier in WWII was from Texas. We studied his courageous life and that of other Texans that had valiantly served abroad. Students in the class gave presentations of family members that were Texans and had served in previous wars. Mrs. Campbell was looking for exciting, action filled stories that would help us kids tie local people to the global story that was WWII. Our stories were pretty sedate as it turned out. My father being a mess Sergeant was one of the more captivating stories…so much for local color.
I got to where I was looking forward to seeing the old man on the porch everyday. I would wave my book frantically so he could see me and he would wave whatever book he was reading back at me. One day Mrs. Campbell witnessed the exchange and I thought for sure she would put a clamp on it. After class I told her I was sorry, but the old man on the porch was reading with me. To my surprise she said it was a nice thing and told me not to worry about it. She said he probably looked forward to the exchange, that I was his friend.
How powerful is that I thought, you could make a friend by doing something as small as waving a couple of times a day….waving a 5 pound book of all things. The reading partnership continued for another month until one day in January.
Mrs. Campbell had finished her lecture and I was working on a short pop quiz. I looked out the window and noticed the old man’s neighbor at his front door. He was banging on it and I continued to watch as he opened the door and went inside the old man’s house. I finished the 10 questions on the pop quiz as the ambulance arrived and parked in between the school and the old man’s house. All the kids in the class raced to the row of windows and now had their noses pressed against the glass, attracted by the lights and siren.
Mrs. Campbell ordered all the kids back to their seats and patted me on the shoulder as she walked back to her own. I held up the huge history book to shield my face and continued to observe the old man’s porch. As the bell for the next class sounded I watched as the paramedics pushed the gurney down the sidewalk and into the ambulance. The sheet was pulled up over the old man’s body. I lifted my book and waived it, as tears rolled down my cheeks.
I watched the obituaries in the local paper for the next couple of days before I found what I was looking for…I found my reading partner. His name was Harry and he was a combat veteran from WWII. The story said that he had served heroically and had flown on numerous combat missions. My reading partner was a war hero.
My class had been looking for a local hero, our own Audie Murphy…and he had been less than 50 yards away from my window all along. A brave Texan whose world had been the entire Pacific Theater 34 years earlier, had that same world reduced to one small porch and a rocking chair. I can’t say if the old man was lonely, or un-loved…I am not trying to write a maudlin story. I do regret however never walking over after school and saying hello. I missed out on a chance to hear some amazing, first-hand stories and to learn more than I ever could in that 5 pound book. I missed a chance to meet a Texan named Harry.