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West Texas Wonder Years

I didn’t realize how uneventful my life had been until the summer day that we moved to Abilene.

I hope, dear reader, that you can recall a sparkling moment of life when everything and everyone seemed to shine in an especially wonderful light.

My wonder years were during fifth and sixth grades when I lived in a tiny, nondescript rent house in Abilene, circa 1957. That house was our 20th or 21st home since I started keeping track of the places we lived. Dad traveled with the oil companies, and Mom and I followed.

I kept to myself during those years, being the new kid at school and an only child at home. My experiences were pretty much limited to what I could do by myself. I got involved in baseball cards, comic books and toy soldiers.

I did all right with the moves, but I didn’t realize how uneventful my life had been until the summer day that we moved to Abilene.

Before I had even gotten out of the car at 926 Albany Street, neighborhood children surrounded me. They ogled my stuff being unloaded onto the sidewalk, especially my three 4-foot stacks of comic books. Kids began asking my name, asking if I wanted to trade comics, asking if I had this or that and so on. I was an instant celebrity. When I brought out the big shoeboxes of baseball cards, my status was cemented as the most famous new kid of all time.

Incredibly, there were kids my age in nearly every house in that neighborhood. It was great. Soon, kids were coming over to see me every minute of the day. Ronnie wanted to play model cars. Eugene wanted to start up Monopoly. George wanted me to spend the night. The triplets wanted to trade comics. Charley wanted to take bikes to the creek and so on.

You may want to jump in here and ask, “OK, but what’s so sparklingly special? Lots of us had nice neighbors.” That’s a fair question.

But hang on. There’s more.

Because we had no air conditioning, we slept with windows wide open. Every morning just before dawn, a great, cavernous, roaring rumble enveloped our neighborhood. Real African lions were roaring and roaring.

It just so happened that the Abilene Zoo was in Fair Park, about a half-mile away. The lions would prowl their outdoor den waiting for the first meal of the day. By some trick of hill, valley and winding avenues, the deep growls carried to our house. Being slowly awakened by the faraway sound of the king of beasts, I tried to fathom the dark and distant roars signaling danger, flight and wildness. It’s no wonder the roar of the lions has stayed with me all these 50 years. To me, the lions were saying, “I’m here. I’m fearless. Bring on your demons. I will endure.”

“OK,” you may say, “that was special, even wonderful. But does that make a little hayseed West Texas town some sort of Camelot for kids?”

Well, there was a pretty good football team that played three blocks away in Fair Park. The stadium was close enough to hear the marching band play. Abilene High School didn’t just have a good football team. AHS had the best team in Texas. AHS had the best team anywhere. In 1999 the Dallas Morning News decided that the AHS War Eagles of the late 1950s were the high school football “Team of the Century.” The best team anywhere played right down the street from 926 Albany, between us and the lions.

My dad and I and some of my new friends would walk over to watch them clobber somebody. It got boring. During their four-year winning streak, they beat people by a total of 1,850 to 338, for a game average score of AHS 36, opponents 7. They used Coach Chuck Moser’s “mud defense” that the pros picked up and turned into the “safety blitz.”   

Not impressed yet? Not wondrous enough? Well, how about this: Besides the pre-dawn roar of the lions and the best high school football team the world has ever known, there happened to be some rather fleet-footed individuals a mere 15 minutes away at Abilene Christian College, which was just past the high school, which was just past the lions.

These guys, coached by Oliver Jackson, were the talk of the whole world. They were Olympic champions. The ACC Wildcats sported track stars Bobby Morrow (often called the greatest sprinter of all time and winner of three gold medals and the first since Jesse Owens to do so), Bill Woodhouse (two-time national sprint champion) and Earl Young (Olympic gold medal winner). The Dallas Morning News designated the team “Sports Dynasty of the Century.”  

I would go down to the track and stand right next to them. Their golden silk uniforms would ripple in the summer breeze when they took off. They could run like the wind. I had heard that expression before, but suddenly, I knew what it meant.

Next came the great mice infestation of the late ’50s, which we kids thought was as cool as a science fiction movie. The mice were everywhere. You got to where you would hold your pop bottle up to the light to make sure there was not a mouse in it. We kids would bike along behind the little DDT trucks that sprayed down the alleys playing blizzard in the white smoke. I never felt a thing, but the stuff was murder on mice.

Things were never boring on Albany Street with the lions, the War Eagles, the Wildcats and those pesky little mice. I could tell you about the time that I met Jerry Lewis at a pre-TV muscular dystrophy tribute, but you probably wouldn’t believe me. It was one sweltering summer night in the Hardin-Simmons University gym, and he literally broke down and cried so hard that he couldn’t finish the show.

Then there was newcomer Bobby Darin at the brand new West Texas State Fair joking with us kids surrounding his little wood stage that “Mack the Knife” was supposed to be the “flip side” of his new record, and he had no idea that it would be a hit.

Just one more wonderful moment … almost: Elvis came to Fair Park auditorium, right next to the lions, just a half mile from me, but I missed it. Oh, well, a kid can’t have everything.

Jack Greaves is a high school writing and reading teacher in Fort Worth. He and his wife have a small hobby farm near Decatur and are members of Wise Electric Cooperative.