Crystal Balls and The Stud: Before the Crazy Train

The Adventures of the Crazy Train typically follows the adventures of all five of us, and it’s usually confined to the borders of the Lone Star State. But, as today is New Year’s Eve, I felt like shaking things up. In honor of the Ball Drop in Times Square tonight, I’m sharing a story from the annals of Crazy Train History. From before there was a Crazy Train. From when there were just two newlyweds on their first adventure.

Yep. I’m going to tell you a little ditty about our honeymoon! I know, right? Y’all are SO LUCKY!

Actually, it’s not about our ENTIRE honeymoon because, well, y’all just don’t have THAT much free time. And honestly, I don’t think we are quite that interesting. It’s about one day of our honeymoon. A beautiful spring day in May 2002 that in no way, shape, or form, resembles today at all. But, I digress.

No, it’s not a sexy story about a secluded romantic island beach with the two of us surrounded by scantily-clad natives fanning us with palm fronds and feeding us exotic fruit between trysts of naked frolicking in the frothy surf of our own private beach. No. Anyone who knows us knows that nothing about that is even remotely believable. No. This is a story about how we took a romantic two-week rainbow Trafalgar bus tour around the UK with 30 strangers, visiting a different city almost every day.

I think this was the first—and the last—time we ever took a tour where we couldn’t call the shots. We went where they told us and when they told us, BUT, we did this for three reasons: Tennents Velvet, Kilkenny, and Guinness. The good stuff from the Mother Ship. The creamy, frothy, deliciousness from the British Isles in unlimited quantities was the driving force behind our decision to hop aboard the Rainbow Bus and follow the Trafalgar itinerary. No drinking and driving on the wrong side of the road for us! We would drink and ride!

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2015/01/img_9194.jpgAbout halfway through our trip, the Rainbow Bus pulled into the Irish city of Tully in County Kildare for a visit to the Comhlacht Groi Naisiunta na hElreann Teo. Or, in English, The Irish National Stud. A horse farm. A big horse farm. If you want to get down to brass tacks, it’s kind of an equine-whorehouse where rich people with really expensive pedigreed horses take them in order to impregnate them by other really expensive pedigreed horses so they can make really expensive super-pedigreed baby uberhorses for racing or status— or just so they can have extra super mega expensive horses.

We knew “The Stud,” as it’s called, was on the itinerary for the morning, but it was the afternoon we were looking forward to. See, I like horses as much as the next girl, but touring a horse farm and hearing about horse breeding is only fun for so long. Tales of “Tommy the Teaser” were stimulating, of course, but it was the afternoon in Waterford that we were excited about.

Yep, Waterford. As in Waterford Crystal. We wanted to see the Waterford Factory and watch the artisans create the sparkly masterpieces. And to SHOP in the FACTORY STORE! Ahhhhh….. Nothing gets me all giddy like Waterford Crystal at factory prices. Especially on a weak Euro day. And with free international shipping on purchases over €200? WOO-HOO! I can spend €200 on Waterford in my sleep—especially back in the days of two incomes and no kids.

So, I’m sure you’re wondering what this has to do with New Years Eve. Well, if you’ve ever paid attention to anything besides the musical acts and mindless banter by the commentators (most of whom I have NO CLUE who they are anymore) you would know that Waterford Crystal has EVERYTHING to do with the Ball Drop. The giant ball in Times Square is covered with 2,688 hand-made lead crystal triangles, imported from Waterford, Ireland. Each year, some are changed out with ones with updated designs.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2015/01/img_9193.jpgAt the Factory, there’s a replica of the Ball, and it’s on display where you can see it up close. It’s amazing. After seeing it, I would LOVE to see the real thing in New York. But up close. I hate crowds, so Times Square on New Year’s Eve is probably the last place on the planet I ever want to be.

Back in 2002, they weren’t selling souvenir crystal triangles. But, over the years, I’ve seen that Waterford has started offering them. I may have to start a collection. Maybe the Crazy Train Christmas Tree could eventually look like the Times Square Ball. If The Hub started buying them on our anniversary, they’d start piling up quickly since he counts our anniversaries in dog years. (Theoretically, that’s SEVEN Waterford Crystal triangles a year!) Anniversaries in dog years? That’s another story for another day.

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The Time we Took Our 9-Year Old Daughter to a Bar. On a School Night.

Yep. You read that right. We took our daughter to a bar on a school night. But we had a really, really good reason. And no, it wasn’t because we couldn’t find a babysitter.

You see, one of the best things about Texas is that we’ve got some amazing musical legends right here in our backyard. The Crazy Train is based just spitting distance from the Live Music Capital of the World, so we’ve got plenty of concert opportunities.

In 2012, The Hub and I crossed Willie Nelson off our bucket list, but our eclectic little GirlChild was furious to have been left out. You see, Mags isn’t like most girls her age. We’ve not been tortured (yet) with whatever tween chipmunk helium techno bubblegum earworm death sentence that some parents suffer through. She’s got a heterogeneous musical palette that is admirable for a 10 year old girl. Her playlist has everything from Neil Diamond to Taylor Swift.

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(The afternoon before the show.)

So when Willie and Family brought the legendary bus back through our neck of the woods in 2013, we had to go. The 80 year old Redheaded Stranger might not have too many touring years left, so we decided to carpe diem and spring for tickets. Seeing Willie at Floore’s in Helotes had always been on my Bucket List, but the folks in Luckenbach say Gruene is best. Unlike Floore’s, Gruene Hall’s stage is elevated, and it’s a lot bigger, so you’re not packed in like sweaty sardines.

Willie 9If you’ve never seen a show at Gruene Hall, you should. The historic dance hall was built in 1878, and is known as “the oldest continually run dance hall in Texas.” Not much has changed in the last 135+ years. It’s something like 6,000 square feet of wooden dance floor history with the kind of bar that only serves ice cold longnecks. I think if you ordered something pink with an umbrella, they’d be forced to call the Texas Rangers on you. The fact that it’s un-airconditioned is really irrelevant. The design keeps it fairly comfortable year round.

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Tickets went on sale about a month out, so I made sure to be online and ready to pony up with my plastic at the instant tickets went live. In under a minute, I was $312 poorer, but I knew I’d have one excited little girl on my hands.

On the day of the show, we prepared as best as we could.

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Brothers at Grandma’s: Check!

Comfy jeans and boots: Check!

Cooper’s brisket in the belly: Check!

In line at 5pm sharp: Check!

While we were in line, we schooled Mags on the concept of General Admission Seating. There’d be a lot of standing around and waiting, but if she played her cards right, it’d be worth it. We told her that once the gate opened and they took her ticket, she’d need to high-tail it to the stage—front and center—and park it there. Don’t wait for mom. Don’t wait for Dad. Park it front and center and DO NOT MOVE.

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When the doors opened, she flew to the stage and anchored herself right behind a lady in a wheelchair. BRILLIANT move, Grasshopper. She watched, wide-eyed, as Willie’s road crew prepped the stage. When they set Trigger up directly in front of her, she realized that she had the best spot in Gruene Hall.

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About an hour passed before Paula, Willie’s daughter, took the stage. Paula Nelson is a joy to watch. She seems to really enjoy singing both solo and with her brothers and her dad. She has a great voice, and she’s just plain fun to watch. But after a few songs, Mags was tired of waiting for the REAL reason she was there.

But when Paula finished and she saw those braids for the first time UP CLOSE and IN PERSON, she knew that the wait was worth it. She sang. She jumped up and down. She danced. She took pictures. And when Willie threw his bandanas at the end of the show, she freaking caught one. SHE CAUGHT WILLIE’S BANDANA. He threw 2 of them, and she caught one!!! (How do I NOT have a picture of this?!?!?!)

I am SO not kidding. Holy crap. My daughter, age nine, had the most amazing first concert experience ever. She got to see a living legend at an historic venue. She got to stand front and center, and she came away with the ULTIMATE souvenir.

Since thWillie Notee show was on a Sunday night, we chose to crash at a nearby hotel and head back on Monday morning. Knowing that I am not a good enough liar to pull the “she was sick” card, and I am trying to teach her honesty and integrity, I told her it was OK to go ahead and tell her teachers the truth as to why she had missed school on Monday. And I sent a note. With a picture.

A couple weeks later, I saw her teacher and the principal at school. When the principal saw me, she just laughed, telling me that in ALL her years in education, she had NEVER seen such an awesome absence excuse letter. We laughed about it and I shared the story. Only in Texas is taking your 9-year old to a bar on a Sunday night to see a Willie Nelson concert an acceptable excuse from 4th grade!

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Unfortunately, I am afraid I have completely ruined the entire concert-going experience for her for the rest of her life, but I am so happy to have given her this awesome memory. Now she has her sights set on meeting him, but I don’t think it’s going to be as easy as she seems to think it’ll be. But then again, she’s a pretty lucky girl! She just might find a way to make it happen.

(In case you can’t read the note, it says: Dear Mrs 4th Grade Teacher: Please excuse Mags from school on Monday… She had a ticket to the sold out Willie Nelson concert in Gruene on Sunday night and she had to stand in the front row and catch one of Willie’s bandanas! I am sure you understand this once in a lifetime opportunity was too good to pass up. Thank you! Mrs CrazyTrain)

And yes. All these photos are mine. Please be cool and don’t copy ’em.

Balneotherapy–Texas Style; Taking the Waters in Marlin, Texas

Whenever I get a superlative case of the vapors, and miasma brings along coryza, the grippe, and quinsy, or I need relief from my lumbago, lethargy, the ills of overconsumption, or female hysteria, I just need to take the waters. Since Texas is lousy with sulphuric-rich mineral waters, you’d think easing nervous tension and dyspepsia with some old-fashioned balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water would be a piece of cake, but no dice. There ain’t a single mineral spa in the Lone Star State where a girl can relax for a few days of massages, hot mineral baths, drinking stinky water, and socializing.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1430.jpgMost people speeding up and down I35 pass the Marlin exit with little more than a glance. I mean, really? A landlocked town in Central Texas named for a big saltwater fish? Hmmm…. Sounds, well, fishy.

Marlin is one of those dots on the map you’ve probably never heard of, but who’s history will surprise you. It wasn’t named for a fish, but for John Marlin, an early pioneer and Texas patriot who settled nearby in the 1830s. Marlin was incorporated in 1867 and became the Falls County Seat, guaranteeing its initial growth. Then the railroad came and people followed. By 1892, there were 2,500 residents.

But that was nothin’. It was around then that a surprising discovery put Marlin on the map, making it one of the top tourist destinations in the state.

No. I’m not kidding.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1422.jpgIn 1892 while digging for an artesian well, a hot, sulphur rich mineral spring was discovered. Rumor has it that 174° water shot 75 feet into the air. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, mineral spas were all the rage, so a medical/resort town sprung up (pun intended). Before “germ theory,” antibiotics, and sulfa drugs, doctors thought “taking the waters” was a cure-all for whatever ailed you. All that stuff I said earlier would’ve been cured by taking the waters. Miasma (that “something funky” in the air that caused sickness) like coryza (a cold), the grippe (influenza), and quinsy (tonsillitis). The waters also cured lumbago (low back pain), lethargy (exhaustion), the ills of overconsumption (hangover), female hysteria (PMS), nervous tension (stress), and dyspepsia (tummy-ache), arthritic, and most skin diseases. Remarkably, some physicians claimed it could cure liver disease, mental disorders, and cancer via osmosis during balneotherapy (soaking in the stinky water) and by drinking it.

Hotels and sanitariums went up everywhere. A hospital, various clinics, a “crippled” children’s clinic, and a pavilion with public fountains and a foot bath were built. Tens of thousands of people flocked to Marlin to take the waters ever year. Some say as many as 100,000 visitors a year came to Marlin to take the waters. The Cincinnati Reds held their spring training in Marlin in 1907, and from 1908-1918, the New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) called Marlin home. Legendary Baseball Hall of Fame player and manager John McGraw batted left, threw right, and swore by the healing waters in Marlin. Did I mention that the Giants won the Pennant in 1911, 1912, and 1913? See? Magic water!

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1438.jpgWhen the stock market crashed in 1929, a grand, nine story hotel on Coleman Street was only half completed. The Crash had little effect on Marlin. In May of 1930, the 110-room hotel, which featured a ballroom that could hold 300 guests and an underground tunnel to the Marlin Sanitarium Bath House, became the eighth hotel opened by Conrad Hilton. Yeah. That Hilton.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1401.jpgThough Marlin held on longer than most mineral spa towns, science and circumstance finally caught up with them. Fires in some of the hotels and spas forced their closure, and advancements in medicine made rebuilding them seem inappropriate. The extravagant claims made by charlatans (eg. sulphur baths as a cure for cancer) annihilated their credibility. Some clinics held on through the 1960s because they incorporated hydrotherapy into a physical therapy tool. But eventually, the stink water craze went bust.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1394.jpgSadly, the town of Marlin is a ghost of what she once was. Marlin is by no means a ghost town, but time hasn’t been kind to this former resort town that once hosted hundreds of thousands of health-seekers. Various murals boast snapshots of the once-vital spa town. Virtually nothing was open on the Saturday of our visit. Keith’s Hardware is one of Marlin’s oldest continuously operating businesses– housed in an awesome 114 year old building. Keith’s employs some awesome people who graciously showed us the massive pulley and lift system that was used to hoist buggies, wagons, farm implements, stoves, and furniture up to the third floor over a century ago. The ghost sign on the building’s west side still stands testament to the history contained within.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1395.jpgThe only place to take the waters in Marlin these days is at the Fountain Pavilion adjacent to the chamber of commerce. All that remains is a small marble fountain and an empty foot bath.

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/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1392.jpgAnd yes. The water is warm. And yes. The water stinks. I can’t vouch for how it tastes because the kids were too chicken to taste it, and, well… there’s three of them and only one of me. Plus, I heard that drinking the sulphur water makes you poop, and, well, we were over an hour from home…. so… better them than me.

Kinda sucks that there hasn’t been a rich entrepreneur looking to invest in an historic little town. The crunchy granola alternative health market just might line up for some 19th century nostalgia and turn of the century medical cure-alls. Too bad. I’ve got a girls weekend on my calendar in January, and a weekend of sulphur rich balneotherapy, promenading, and repetitive quaffing of foul-tasting water might be just what the doctor ordered.

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****nb: the pictures that look like I took them, are mine. The ones that don’t look like I took them–the ones from a hundred years ago– I did NOT take. The Marlin pics are from the Marlin City website, and the baseball pictures are from the New York Giants websites photo archives pages (1911-1913).****

Huntsville, Texas and the Greatest Christmas Gift in the History of EVER

We love to browse in vintage/antique shops and local boutiques in the small towns we visit. They’re usually filled with things we haven’t seen before and aren’t likely to see again. It’s fun to talk to shop owners who are usually pretty engaging characters.

On our infamous trip to Phelps, we ended up in Hunstville. We couldn’t do much outside exploring because a huge downpour began once we arrived in town.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1350-0.jpgFor some people, junking/antiquing is boring. But for us, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. The kids enjoy talking to shop owners about shop items (or, as in Goliad, the owners thrilled them with local ghost stories). My kids are “Antique Shop Trained,” meaning they don’t touch (many) things, they don’t run, and, when they follow the rules (which they always do) they can explore on their own. Some owners (like one in Buda) who force us to constantly hold CJ’s hand do not have the opportunity to sell to us because we leave. A child struggling for independence is more likely to cause damage than one who’s learned to respect others and behave accordingly. So, each time we enter a shop, I say loudly, “you know the rules!” and they respond, “yes, Mom!” I then briefly, and conversationally, tell whoever has greeted us our rules, and we’re usually given a wide berth.

There are some shops we fall in love with, and in which we can explore all day. They’ve seen so many cool things. And one bonus of shops, unlike museums, is that we can pick things up, show them to the kids, and buy them if we want. It’s fun for them, and sometimes, if the mood, price, item, and phase of the moon are in alignment, something cool follows us home.

Occasionally, we find something that conjures a memory, and we love sharing those stories. On this trip to Huntsville, I found one such item. This would turn out to be my best gift purchase ever. This NEEDED to be wrapped up with a bow and put under the Christmas Tree for my brother.

You wanna hear the story, huh? Yeah, I thought so.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1340.jpgBack in 1977, McDonald’s was a BIG deal. HUGE. And no one loved it more than my brother, Jimmy. He loved McD’s so much that once when my mom was pumping gas, he slipped out of the station wagon and toddled across a busy 4-lane road, headed for the Golden Arches. He even he had a birthday party in their party room.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1323-0.jpgThis was pre-Happy Meal (1979) and McD’s were geniuses at marketing. So, when they offered 10” melamine dinner plates featuring McDonaldland scenes, YES we bought them, and YES we used them. ALL THE TIME. And, as many kids in their terrible 2s and 3s, Jimmy went through a phase where he’d ONLY eat off of his McDonald’s plate. Since we always ate at home back then, our dishwasher ran daily, and Jimmy’s favorite plate was always clean.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1337-1.jpgWell, almost always.

One fateful night in 1978, Jimmy’s plate was not clean, and Mom had set the table with the Franciscan Ware flower pattern dishes my parents had chosen when they married in 1970. They were a sturdy, off-white stoneware with a green stripe, and flowers in the middle. They were pretty, and when I saw a set last year, I almost bought it. But I only wanted a few pieces and I didn’t have room… and, wait, I’m getting off topic here…

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So Mom set the table with these dishes. Jimmy looked at his plate and firmly stated that he wanted HIS plate. Mom said it was dirty and he could use it tomorrow. Like a rational 3year old, Jimmy then flung the flower plate across the table, and it hurdled though the kitchen, smashed, and broke. Mom was mad, Jimmy was surprised, Dad must not have been home yet because I KNOW I’d have remembered his reaction.

Days later, Mom and Jimmy were in the kitchen when she saw something on the floor and went to pick it up. Anger flashed across her face as she sternly held it up. “Do you know what this is?” she barked, hoping he would feel some remorse. “A twiangle?” he answered, sweetly, sending my mom into reluctant giggles.

This story has become one of those family legends that gets told whenever we think of it because it’s funny. We laugh because it was cute that he didn’t see the shard of broken plate as a reminder of his tantrum—it was a triangle. The exchange made Mom laugh then, and it makes her laugh now. It’s now legend, and one of those things we collectively remember and laugh about together.

In 2007, Mag was about three, and one night when the whole family was at my folks’ house for dinner, Mom served Mag’s dinner on Jimmy’s McDonald’s plate. After several moves, Mom had come across the plate in a box and thought that letting Maggie use it would be fun. Jim cracked up, recalling his history with the infamous plate, and we retold the story for the millionth time.

After dinner, as Mag brought the infamous dish to the kitchen, she dropped it. The brittle, 30 year old melamine plate broke in half. Jim was devastated. The plate he’d loved so dearly, the plate that had faded into our collective memory and then miraculously resurfaced, was now gone. Traumatically gone. Mom didn’t think Jim would take it so hard, but he did. And as grown ups do, he got over it and moved on, eventually forgetting about the plate that had made such a brief reappearance into his life.

It was on this trip to Huntsville when I saw it on a table in an antique shop. A 37-year old melamine plate with Ronald McDonald frolicking in the leaves with Grimace. It’s not the first thing one imagines when thinking of vintage dishware, but, oh well…. In 1977, I this plate was purchased over a Mc Donald’s counter for about $1. In 2014, I was going to give an antiques dealer exponentially more than that, but it’d be worth every penny to see my brother’s face on Christmas.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1351.jpgWhen we got home, I tucked the plate away, and on Christmas Eve, I made sure it was all wrapped up so I could see Jimmy’s face reaction when he opened it. I couldn’t wait. I suck at keeping secrets, so keeping this under my hat for six months was torture. It was SO worth it. The Crazy Train had never heard the story (since we didn’t want to rub salt in Uncle Jimmy’s wounds after the tragic event), so we laughingly retold the story for the first time in years. And Jimmy carefully wrapped up his plate and stored it where it could not be broken right away.

I only wish I had thought to find a Fransiscan Ware Floral Pattern plate for my mom. I searched eBay after everyone left, but serendipitous encounters with objects are more my style. Someday I’ll run across a single plate somewhere, and when I do, the epic family story will come full circle.

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Top Ten 2014 Crazy Train Destinations I Haven’t Blogged About… Yet.

We’ve been backroads road-tripping since before the kids– I only just started blogging about it. There are countless places I haven’t written about yet. With all the end-of-year lists emerging, I wanted to share my Top 10 Texas Destinations of 2014 that I haven’t blogged about yet. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

These are in no particular order since they’re so different, so I’ll just list ’em as I think of ’em!

10. Bandera
We went to Bandera for the National Day of the American Cowboy. We had a great day and wanted to spend the night, but learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes advance hotel reservations are necessary, or else you find yourself at Buckees at 3am for coffee.

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9. Shiner
One of these days, we’ll make it to Shiner on a weekday when the brewery is open. Until then, the “Antiques Art & Beer” place is my favorite spot. Especially the ladies room.

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8. Cuero
We had no idea there was a Pharmacy Museum in Cuero (heck, we’d never even heard of Cuero either). From the outside, it looked cool. The lady in the liquor store across the street said it’d been in the works for ever, but still hadn’t opened. Once it is, we’re there!

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7. Mason
For Mag’s birthday, we went on a topaz dig on a private ranch in Mason. It was pretty awesome. Then we explored the downtown square, although everything was closed for the day (weekends are tough for roadtripping to small towns). We’d like to go back and do the whole thing again…. minus the crack.

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6. Hallettsville
We’d heard that Hallettsville is a great little town, but we’ve never been on a day when everything was open. We’ve been through on a Sunday, and we went back for their Kolache Festival where William took the title of Kolache Eating Champion, 10 & Under Division. THAT was a day to remember!

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5. London
Raina and I had High Tea in downtown London. Yes, I’ll blog about it. Not sure if we’ll be headed back, but at least we can tell everyone that we went to London and had tea.

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4. Gonzales and Goliad
Who knew that the “Come and Take It” cannon was still around and that you could actually see it? Both Gonzales and Goliad had a lot of interesting historical spots, and they’re pretty close together. I’m really looking forward to blogging about both places.

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3. Huntsville
I’ve always thought of Huntsville as the prison town. But it was fantastically beautiful. With Sam Houston State University, countless cool historic sites, and all the cool antique dealers on the square, we are definitely planning a return trip.

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2. Walnut Springs
Out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Meridian and Glen Rose is a little ghost town called Walnut Springs. A short trip into a junk shop turned into one of the most memorable Crazy Train afternoons yet. Definitely looking forward to a return trip. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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1. Phelps
Is there a more PERFECT spot for a family photo than in front of a city limits sign for a town bearing your last name? I know, right?!?!? But, to quote the poet Robert Burns, “But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be in vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” In other words, no city limits sign, no ghost town, no family photo…. nothing but a dot on the map. Literally.

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I could go on and on and on. But, why give y’all preview snippets when there are full stories to be told? Here’s to a fantastic upcoming year filled with more fun and adventure with the Crazy Train!

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Happy, Texas

When the Crazy Train sees a speck on the map called “Happy,” it’s pretty much a given that we’re going to make it a point to stop there.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1302.jpgLegend has it that around 1890, a team of parched cowboys found a stream in the area and named it “Happy Draw” because they were, well, happy to have found some water in this otherwise arid land. A post office and stagecoach exchange station set up shop by the draw, but when the town of Happy was laid out in 1906, they decided to move it two miles to the west to be closer to the new Santa Fe Railroad extension.

Unfortunately, the natives were restless in the back seats of the Crazy Train. Once again, the all-you-can-eat “free” hotel breakfast a few short hours earlier was not enough to sustain them for more than 120 minutes. (I’m starting to think that when food is included in the price of anything, it doesn’t matter how much the kids eat, they’re still hungry six minutes after we leave, thus requiring me to either buy them a snack or listen to them slowly, and loudly, die of starvation in the back seat.)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1295.jpgWe drove down (literally) every single street in the town of Happy in search of food. We crossed our fingers and toes, praying for a diamond-in-the-rough mom and pop diner or a gas station with an ample selection of edible garbage. But, alas, Happy made us categorically unhappy in the victual department. So we bid a fond farewell to The Town Without a Frown (or, The Town Without A Dairy Queen) and hit the open roads, in search of sustenance and adventure.

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A Short Story about Wichita Falls’ First Skyscraper: Everything’s Bigger in Texas…. Welllllllll….. Almost.

In researching Rt66, I came across a little stop that wasn’t on the Mother Road, but had a funny story nonetheless. I read it and had a chuckle, and then went on my way, thinking it wasn’t in the cards for this trip. This is usually the kind of thing we’ll drive WAY out of our way to see, but by the time we were headed in that direction, I’d forgotten all about it.

So as we wandered the deserted streets of Wichita Falls on Thanksgiving Day hoping to luck into an open mom and pop restaurant, I was only thinking about turkey. But when I saw a familiar silhouette peeking out over a dumpster near the train depot, I squealed like a little girl and navigated the hubs towards it, briefly forgetting about food.

Mark: “What is that?”
Me: “It’s a SKYSCRAPER!”
Mark: “What? No it’s not.”
Me: “Yes it is! It’s the world’s littlest skyscraper!”

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Here’s the skinny:

Once upon a time, Wichita Falls was a bonafide boom town with something like 20,000 hopefuls streaming in to seek their fortune in oil. This sudden tsunami of people, jobs, industry, and money happened a little too quickly for the small town, so infrastructure was lagging. Oil companies and brokerage houses had hastily pitched tents for temporary office space and brokers were frantically doing business deals worth thousands of dollars on street corners. This frenzy created the ideal setting for one of the most fascinating con jobs in American history.

In 1906, Wichita Falls and Oklahoma City Railway Company director August Newby built a one story office building near the train depot. The Newby Building, as it was called, was never at full occupancy until the discovery of black gold nearby. Then, the modest office building swelled with seven tenants.

Enter JD McMahon, a fast-talking East Coast businessman, engineer, and oilman. McMahon was one of the Newby Building tenants, and he had an idea. He drew up plans for a high rise unlike anything Wichita Falls had ever seen. The late-neoclassical style “skyscraper” annex to the Newby Building would overlook the oil fields, and help usher the sleepy town on the plains into the future. He quickly set about selling $200,000 (that’s about $3 million to us) in stock to eager investors looking to get rich quickly. The investors, many of whom were city officials, blindly handed over their money, their eyes too clouded with dollar signs to pay much attention to the details.

Once McMahon had the cash, his crew began to build. By the time the investors realized what had hit them, it was too late. The “skyscraper” was nearly complete. In a stroke of evil genius, McMahon had clearly drawn his high-rise plans in inches rather than feet, rendering the perceived 40-story skyscraper to a mere 40 feet tall– not much larger than an elevator shaft.

The angry investors dragged McMahon into court, demanding that the film flam man be punished and their money returned. But the judge ruled against them, teaching them an expensive lesson: read the fine print. Other than building the annex on property that he didn’t own, without the owner’s permission, McMahan had done nothing illegal. He had built the building EXACTLY according to the blueprints– the blueprints NONE of the investors had bothered to look at. So good ‘ol JD headed off into the annals of history with his millions, never to be heard from again.

Embarrassed by their gullibility (ie: the proposed building site was only 10′ x 16.75’) or that the double tick marks next to all the measurements on the blueprints (rather than the single tick marks) indicated inches, the investors had no choice but to accept defeat. The contracted elevator company even backed out, either out of pity for the investors or because an elevator wouldn’t actually fit in the building. Until an internal staircase could be added, an external ladder had to be used to access the upper floors. Since office space was still in high demand, oil companies squeezed desks into the 118 square feet (per floor).

When the Depression hit and the boom ended, the silly little skyscraper at the corner of Seventh and LaSalle was boarded up and forgotten. In 1986, the City of Wichita Falls deeded the building to the Wichita County Heritage Society, and they attempted to preserve it. But, shortly thereafter, the little skyscraper was abandoned again. There were plans to have it demolished, but the architectural firm of Bundy, Young, Sims & Potter was hired to stabilize the dilapidated structure. The partners fell in love with it and partnered with Martin Groves Electric to buy it. They spent a bunch of money restoring it. They admit it probably wasn’t the smartest financial investment, but they found the little skyscraper’s true value was in its unique place in local history.

Plus, it’s a great conversation piece and draws a steady stream of curious tourists… like the Crazy Train! I told the kids the story, and, wide eyed, my daughter asked how so many people could be so gullible. I told her that this building is a great lesson: always read the fine print before signing anything or investing your money.

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