Highway 55

Many of my readers likely have heard of Route 66.  It was a major US highway built long before freeways began to change the landscapes of our country.  Route 66 went through several states, and could take the family on a trip from Chicago to Los Angeles.  When my sister and I were kids in the ’50’s, our parents would take a trip every couple of years from our home in the Texas hill country, to LA to visit our mother’s mother and her Mexican American husband, but the 66 route was far north of our shortest route.  The old highways, both the major and minor, have of course been “improved” over the decades, usually taking routes around rural towns.

Not so for Highway 55 that goes slap-dab through the middle of my boyhood home town, Camp Wood, Texas.  The highway is the main street, as with the majority of very rural towns even today.  Although the photograph in this post is fairly recent, frankly the view hasn’t changed a great deal; however, my memory from boyhood days was that it was a little neater, the paint wasn’t as faded, and there were more distinct signs and establishments.  The photo is taken from the south end of “main street”, and one is not able to see much detail, but take my word, the main street is maybe a mile long, with the “downtown” portion just a couple of blocks, the rest being a mixture of little businesses, the city park and mostly small, weathered houses.

The town proper has a fairly brief history, coming into existence in 1920, the year our father was born in the family homestead several miles south, as the northern terminus of a railroad built from Uvalde, some 50 miles south.  For a while we lived on a ranch just south of town, and the old rail had gone through there, and I would delight finding iron rail spikes. The town and the railroad were built for the sole purpose of harvesting the abundant cedar in the Nueces Canyon.  The cedar was used for fence posts and staves.  Today the large cedar brakes have been wiped out by “cedar choppers” and burning and chaining off the thick cedar stands to allow grass to grow more openly, for livestock like the sheep and goats our family raised for three generations, and today, to provide less cover for deer to hide in, as deer hunting is the main income for land owners.

As a little boy our family lived right in Camp Wood for about three years, and then lived nearby on ranches our father leased.  At different times we lived in two houses, in bad shape then, but at least one is still standing 70 years later, which amazes me.  When we lived there we had “out houses”…..outdoor toilets, although at 3-4 years old I don’t recall having used these.  (I do remember using one on a ranch we lived at……the thought of spiders beneath the seat was something I still remember.)  Enough of that aside.

Our daddy’s parents had one of the nicer homes in the town, a nice white house with a nice front lawn with decorative white ducks, and Grandma’s beautiful flower gardens that she would water before daylight, getting ahead of the Texas heat.  Their street is the right turn just in front of the service station (see below).  They owned literally a city block, east/west, north/south, and Prince, their black Collie, loved chasing cars driving by, staying in the yard, but close enough to the cars and trucks to make it big fun for him. Their place was sort of a show piece at that time.  I remember so many good times visiting with them, going to the church around the corner, and Christmas with the uncles, aunts and their kids.  And not to forget the candy drawer in Grandma’s kitchen! I swear there is nothing like living in a small town…..if it was in the ’50’s.

In the photo one can see what used to be a service (gas) station on the right.  Daddy knew the owner well, and we would always stop there for gas, get a flat fixed, and catch up on the gossip.  Daddy was a product of the town, and grew up there himself with two brothers, until leaving for college, then soon off to WWII.  He was a home town hero when he returned, highly decorated, having flown 70 missions as a B-25 bomber pilot, giving it to the Nazi rail bridges in Italy.

Grandpa, daddy’s father, came to the area from Louisiana in 1906, a cowboy, long before the town was built.  He actually got treed by javelinas where the city park was built.

Although the town’s history is anchored in Texas history, including using the same water supply as did a Spanish mission just north of town, it probably was still in its peak socially, although the days of cedar were long gone, when I was a boy.  There was a barber shop, where I remember the barber being pretty rough on me, trying to get me to hold my head still, sitting on a kid board to raise me up, and my father laughing at my antics.  There was a hotel on the corner where another highway dead ends into 55.  I always wondered what it was like inside, as I never ever went in.  It was a stone throw from the picture show (movie theater to most of “yall”).  That theater was owned by one guy forever, and was the center of activity on weekend nights.  When I was a little tike during the Korean war, before the movie “L.J.”, the owner/operator, would always show war films, since no one had television then, and my parents would “catch up” on the war.  No doubt it brought back tough memories to our father, who had only been back from Europe for 5 years.  The war reel would always have a Stars and Stripes segment, with the waving flag, and the National Anthem would play. I would stand in the aisle, at attention, and salute the flag as my parents had taught me.  I was a cute boy, and likely got a lot of attention for that.

When I was in my late teens, the picture show would be a destination after Sunday evening church.  L.J. showed Spanish language movies for the area’s Mexican American population on Sundays.  My girlfriend and I would leave church (where we would sit in the front pew, she with her shoes off, getting dirty looks from the old preacher) to go buy tamales at L.J.’s, and sit on the front concrete porch of the show, munching these spicy treats.  During the summer evenings occasionally a friend of mine who played guitar and sang some Buddy Holly tunes, and myself and some other kids, would play and sing and I would play along on my bongo drums.

I was so cute as a small boy that I also was selected as a “mascot,” along with a girl my age, to march with the high school football team “pep squad.”  Or maybe I was selected because we lived across the street from the school, and I would roam the school ground at age three.  The school played six-man football back then, had no band, but did have a pep squad with a bass drum and majorettes with short skirts and batons. The school colors were gold and blue, and myself and the girl had uniforms with gold shirts and blue pants, and white boots, and batons of course.  I laugh looking at the photo of the squad with us two mascots marching down main street,  but it brings back such good feelings. I only went to school in Camp Wood for a few months, later graduating from the larger town of Uvalde, but spent lots of “teen time” prowling the Nueces Canyon, Camp Wood and other towns in the area; we made the rounds when 18 years old.

The town had a real grocery store when I was a boy.  I would ride with Grandpa the long two or three blocks to the store to pick up milk and eggs.  Grandpa was a cowboy, and he always dressed in pressed khaki pants, cowboy boots and a nice white shirt, and of course, cowboy hat.  He was, a real cowboy, not a “drugstore cowboy.”  He did not like to walk in town, as he always rode a horse or rode in a car.  Walking was done only for wrestling with a steer.  I remember there was a fella known as “Hollywood Bob.”  He always dressed pretty fancy, more like the attire we would see in the cowboy and Indian movies.  He stood out.  I suspect he never rode a horse either. I do remember he was tall, not sure how tall, but as a small boy I remember looking up at his face and he seemed like a giant. Frankly he likely was no taller than I am at 6′-2″, so it’s all about perspective.

A favorite summer spot for us boys was the town drugstore.  It was the typical small town one, with a counter, stools and serving Cherry Cokes and ice cream banana splits.  When we had a extra buck that was a stop for sure!

Then there were the events at the VFW hall.  I remember a dance, a carnival, a cake walk.  I remember too everyone from miles around lining up to get their sugar cube with polio vaccine, the Salk vaccine that saved so many from the wrath of the disease.  One of our cousins had polio, and although she survived, was crippled for life.

Did I mention yet that Charles Lindbergh landed a plane right in town on 55.  You can look it up, but that was probably the coolest thing ever for the town in 1924.  This happened just 3 years or so before he flew the Atlantic.

One thing of the town of yesteryear, was that it was more or less divided along “racial” lines, as the Mexican Americans families all lived in one are on the west side, close to the Catholic church.  As you would guess, on their side of town the streets were not paved, and not well maintained.  I thought is strange even as a child, why my grandparents Southern Baptist church had a “mission” in the “Mexican” part of town, as if it were miles and miles away, when it was like less than a mile.  But that goes to show the racism of those times, when Latinos were treated almost as badly as black folk in that part of Texas.  Years later when I was in college, I dated a Latina girl for a while, and even then in 1965, we got severe looks from people that knew me in the area.  I later married a black girl, “so take that!” you stuck in the mud racists.

So, the town today is not the town of my memories, but in many ways it is better, socially speaking.  It is mostly folks who moved there over the last decades, escaping the big cities, rather than us original natives, many of whom like myself, left for better pastures.

I recommend you visit it, and the Nueces River and other sites in the area.  Just watch for the 18-wheelers and motorcycles!