Everything is bigger in Texas. That hyperbolic statement describes the mindset of Texans more than the physical aspects of the state. However, the drive through west Texas may be the longest and least scenic drive in the world. If Texas truly has the “biggest” of something, then this must be it. The knowledge that the trip was quickly coming to an end may have also hindered the enjoyment of the route.
I drove as Kristi alternated between reading and sleeping. There was not much along the road to talk about as we passed towns that seemed more like dots on the landscape. The flatness of the land creates the ability to see for miles and distorts the perception of distance. But, no matter how far someone can see, there is simply nothing to look for.
Eventually, we arrived at Odessa and Midland, two cities that have grown side-by-side to become one of the major population centers of the area. This sparked Kristi’s attention, and she began to talk about how she knew these places from somewhere. I explained that Odessa is the home of Permian High School, the inspiration for Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger. I knew Kristi watched the television show at times but may not have realized that the book was about a real high school. She was not convinced that the show was the bit of trivia in the back of her mind. Then, we suddenly came upon it. As we entered Midland the signed read, “Welcome to Midland, Texas! Home of President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush.”
To understand what happened next you must realize that Kristi and I come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. We agree on a lot of aspects, but at the core she looks at things more liberally and I look at them more conservatively. On top of that, I like to push her sometimes. This meant that while no scenery was on the horizon, a heated debate was. Kristi began by talking about everything from Bush’s smirk to his ridiculous policies and continued with her opinion that he was the worst president ever. I agree that he was not terrific but could not let her continue. I replied that I can name a bunch of presidents worse than him and can name a couple in my lifetime. Next, I came with the opinion that having a bad president does not mean the next one will be any better. That has been proven in history time and again. Then, I really stoked the flames. I stated that history will view President Bush in a better light than we do. It happens all of the time. As passions cool and contemporaries fade away, historians observe events more objectively. At least, we are supposed to do that. Several presidents, including Harry S. Truman and Gerald Ford, have been viewed more favorably as time passes. Without making a long story longer, this conversation kept us entertained until we found lodging.
We stopped for the night in Big Spring as a storm brewed in the distance. I stood outside to watch for a while, as I have always been fascinated by storms, and listened to the thunder. Unlike Tennessee, when you see a storm moving in it will take hours to arrive. As I stood in the parking lot and felt the wind, I began to think about the next day’s destination. It was not a historic site, but a place that I needed to go for personal reasons – Ballinger, Texas (population 4,085).
Traveling southeast, we paralleled the border of Tom Green County. Green was a Confederate officer who was killed during the Civil War. Why is this interesting? Tom Green was the son of Nathan Green, a founder of Cumberland University whose home stands on West Main Street. Passing through Edith, Robert Lee, Bronte and Maverick, we finally arrived in Ballinger.
Ballinger was the hometown of my uncle, Johnny Keel. He talked about growing up in the town and told stories about the adventures of his family and friends. I wanted to go through the town to bring images to his words. Ballinger is past its prime, but we could tell that it would have been a great place to grow up. We passed landmarks that Johnny had mentioned several times, but I was looking for the place he mentioned most, Keel Drug Store.
Johnny worked at his father’s store when he was not playing golf at the local country club. His father, Gene Keel, was an interesting and entertaining man who gave medicine to families that could not pay. He probably did this because of his own childhood. During the Great Depression, Mr. Keel grew up at the Masonic Home Orphanage in Fort Worth. He played quarterback on a team chronicled in Jim Dent’s book, Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football. He then went to Rice University where he led the Owls to a 13-0 victory over the University of Texas and obtained a degree in pharmacy.
Johnny’s story is just as inspirational. After graduating from the University of Texas, he opened a chain of health clubs in Austin. Then, he met my aunt and moved to Lebanon. Johnny passed away on November 25, 2010 after a decade-long battle with colon cancer. Throughout the ordeal, he inspired everyone with his fight and his positive attitude. I attempted to call Johnny from the drug store but could not get a signal. As we drove toward San Angelo, I finally connected, and we talked about the town I had just toured. When Johnny passed away, I knew that driving to Ballinger was the most worthwhile part of the trip.
After lunching in San Angelo, Kristi and I headed to Dallas/Fort Worth with plans to stop by Dealey Plaza and visit the museum dedicated to John F. Kennedy’s assassination. However, we hit the cities at rush hour and decided that getting out of the mess was more important. Finally making it through, Kristi and I continued eastward toward Arkansas.