October 15, 2016 – Sun, 85 degrees
Miles Today: 39
Miles to Date: 18,000
States to Date: 45
Nothing wilts an experience quicker than expectations. For months I’ve looked forward to returning to Levelland. Over the past week I’ve spent more time trying to connect with people related to my time here than in any other place on my trip. Howard Maddera, my mentor at South Plains Community Action, died in 2003; neither his predecessor nor his two daughters responded to my overtures. Emmer Lee Whitfield, who taught me about poverty and dignity, was killed in a car wreck in 1996; her daughter did not respond either. Ray Bradley, my Jaycee buddy, moved to Waco; his younger brother Hugh runs the family insurance agency. Duane Beachem, the dynamic young pastor of our church, cannot be found.
I woke to a grey sky, blank as my agenda. The haze burned off by ten. I pedaled out to revisit this geography of my past since I could not find any of the people that made it memorable.
Levelland hasn’t changed all that much, but it sure is different. In 1978, 12,000 residents were split in thirds: Black, White, and Latino. North of the tracks was the Black neighborhood. Despite paving all the dirt streets and renaming one Martin Luther King Blvd., the north side is a shadow of its former self. Industry, commercial, and garden apartments have replaced the shacks I used to visit. Emmer Lee Whitfield’s house is gone.
I crossed the tracks and to the White part of town; now it’s Hispanic. The grid of numbered and lettered streets looked vaguely familiar, but nothing triggered specific memory. The SPCAA offices are the same, though they look smaller. Furr’s grocery has become a funeral home. The storefronts on the courthouse square are occupied by third-rate enterprises. A new supermarket and McDonald’s are out on 385; there’s a Super Wal-Mart just beyond city limits. The cluster of stucco apartments at Ninth and Avenue I where I lived among migrant workers has been demolished. The concrete slabs and sewer pipes are still there, the only testament to morning I woke up clutching the toilet after my first tequila encounter.
Enough of the pity party, I needed to talk to people. Mario, who runs the carnacerita around the corner from my old place, gave me a bag of cookies and lifted my spirits. I chatted with local college students, evangelicals, and went to Tienda’s for a burrito. Petra, the weekend waitress, also works at SPCAA. We shared common connections. Still, I left feeling only partly nourished. I wanted more from my homecoming.
I headed east to Lubbock; the day turned summery. The east side of town has gotten fancy: $800,000 houses where white folks can hide in mansions with four zones of air conditioning.
My Lubbock host asked me to arrive by five. Grant and his friend Shane explained we were going shooting. We loaded guns and ammo in Grant’s SUV and headed to their friend Lance’s ranch west of town. The trio use a VW microbus as staging area for target practice in a field of winter wheat. They shot hundreds of rounds at dangling targets, clay pigeons, and old records tossed in the air. I shot a pistol and a rifle. On my third round I hit a clay pigeon and retired in victory.
After sunset we retired to an old motorhome someone gave Lance to drink beer and vape. Toward eleven we drove back to Lubbock and stayed up a few more hours drinking Grant’s excellent home brews. A night of driving and shooting and drinking and carrying on like Willy and Waylon and the boys. Just like we used to do in Levelland, where I shot a gun for my first and only time in 1978. My hunger to recall that life, albeit with a different cast of characters, was fully satisfied.
I would love to talk to you about your account of my Mother. There are many corrections to your stories. The story you wrote which was offensive naming my mother as a Welfare Queen which she was not. We were poor as most people were in Levelland in the 70’s. Your selection of wording you used in parts of your story didn’t justify the dignity the integrity in which my mother lived her life that seem to be impossible from a non educated person as my mother. She was knowledgeable and knowledge is power and that’s what you did not see in the eyes and what you should have seen it. Today 1/30/2018 my mother left this world by the hands of a drunk man David Joe Blauvelt from Colorado City Texas.
My mother’s home is still there and family members living there. I respect your journey to West Texas but I will take the time to tell you about my mother so you can truly see justice of the honor in which my mother lived her life of giving. Continue to be blessed and a blessing.
Ms. Whitfield –
I am sorry for your mother’s untimely and cruel death, and am glad you told me of this anniversary date, so that I too can make special commemoration of her on this day.
Emmer Lee Whitfield has been a guiding spirit and inspiration throughout my life. I have told stories of my connection with her, in voice and in print, for forty years. I was disappointed not to be able to find family members when I visited Levelland, and am glad to know that your family house is still there even though I could not locate it; the town had changed so much in 40 years.
You may choose to interpret my stories of your mother as you like; they are ripe with terms from that era which, taken out of context, can paint me as insensitive, or worse. However, I will continue to share the broader story; a woman of remarkable courage and insight who helped me understand not only how we humans survive; how we thrive.
When you and I last communicated me, I phoned your contact number and left a message but received no response. If you would like to talk in person, please let me know.
My thoughts are with you and your family on this day of remembrance.