Letter from Texas, July 18, 2016

Watt house

Patricia Garner/Last Best News

The old Watt family home in Kerens, Texas. The air conditioning units are a recent addition.

In North Texas the temperatures are a degree or two cooler—Sunday topped out at 97—and the humidity is a couple of percentage points lower. Still, an hour’s walk through the Prairie Point Cemetery left us drenched in sweat, exhausted and almost queasy.

Sunday’s drive took us from Georgetown to Tyler, which meant we passed through the part of Texas where my mother grew up and where we often spent holidays and a few weeks in the summer. The huisache is gone here, the scrub brush replaced by hardwoods and the occasional pine or cedar.

Roadside watermelon stands are less common, too, as are rundown barbecue joints. But taquerias now seem to have spread across every corner of Texas—when I was growing up, it was hard to find good Mexican food north of San Antonio—and no town seems too small to have a couple of doughnut shops, their shelves filled with fritters and kolaches. Where are Montana’s doughnut shops?

We passed through towns with names that resonate in my childhood: Corsicana, Athens, Trinidad, Powell, Kerens. In Bazette, a community so small that it is unmarred not only by doughnut shops but also by stores of any kind, we stopped at the cemetery, where my ancestors have been buried for close to 150 years. My parents and grandparents lie there, along with my uncles James and Donley and assorted relatives with familiar-sounding names who remain unknown to me.

James R. Watt

Patricia Garner/Last Best News

James R. Watt has held this ground since 1884.

There also lies the family patriarch, or at least the patriarch of the Texas branch of the family: James R. Watt, who was born in Devonshire, England, in 1820 and died in Bazette in 1884. I was disturbed that I could no longer read the inscription on his gravestone, but my wife found a piece of flint that she used to scrape away enough of the moss that we could make it out: “His life was a devotion to moral principle and to divine truth.”

The inscription has been honored perhaps less often in the observance than in the breach, but it’s fair to say that generations of Watts have tried to raise their children to observe similar devotion.

In Kerens we stopped for a minute to see the house where my grandparents lived after abandoning Bazette. It’s a fine old two-story house with two chimneys, a front porch that runs the width of the house, an enormous enclosed back porch and a second-floor balcony. I don’t know how many owners it has been through since my grandparents died, but they have taken good care of it. If anything, it looks better now than it did when we spent summers exploring its intricacies.

Kerens itself, a town of fewer than 2,000 people, does not seem to have fared so well. The two blocks of brick streets that marked its downtown are now lined with almost uniformly empty buildings, except for the post office, City Hall and a couple of others. The cleaners where my brother and I would sell old coat hangers for 2 cents apiece is long gone.

We saw that Hilliard’s drug store, a downtown anchor for generations, had moved to a mini-mall on the west end. The football stadium that had stood near my grandparents’ house for as long as I can remember has been torn down, except for the scoreboard, which now stands alone in a hayfield.

We didn’t take time to explore, but a new stadium presumably has been built somewhere, and a new water tower now dominates the skyline. Perhaps downtown hasn’t so much died as relocated, but the Kerens we knew, where a 12-year-old could act out gridiron heroics; explore attics, storehouses and chicken hutches; and roam downtown unsupervised from one end to the other, all in a single blazing afternoon, is gone.

That America will never be great again.

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