"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" - True Tale That Inspired The Movie

The Texarkana Post Office/Courthouse. The left half  is in
Texas while the right is in Arkansas.
Texarkana is a nice, small city. With half of the town in the state of Texas and the other half in Arkansas, the road that divides the two halves is named State Line. Shoppers on one side of the street are in Arkansas and just a few feet away on the other side of the yellow line in the middle of the road the stores are in Texas. The Post Office/Courthouse Building sits astride the state line - Texas offices on one side of the building, Arkansas offices on the other. There are plenty of outdoor activities to enjoy as well as several popular parks where families go for a picnic lunch or to play Little League baseball or simply to enjoy a lazy summer day in the shade of the many trees.

But one of those popular parks, Spring Lake Park, has a sordid history. Many of the old timers still refuse to go into the park after dark. You see, back in the mid-1940's, it was the favorite hunting grounds of a serial killer. The murders shocked and terrorized the quiet, close-knit town. Doors and windows in homes that previously were never locked, were locked and checked several times after darkness fell. Men began carrying guns; women stopped walking alone when running errands and children were forbidden to play outside. As more innocent people turned up brutally killed and the murders went unsolved, neighbors and friends of many years began to suspect and turn on each other. In the mid-1970's, a horror movie, The Town That Dreaded Sundown was made about the crimes. The true horror is that the story was based on fact.

The entrance to Spring Lake Park
On the night of February 22, 1946, 24-year-old Jimmy Hollis and his 19-year-old girlfriend, Mary Jean Larey, went on a date, a date that started off as any number of dates taken by any normal young couple, but this particular date would end very differently. After dinner and a movie, Mary Jean accompanied Jimmy in his car to a dark, secluded spot in the park for a romantic interlude. Jimmy glanced at his watch and noted the time as 11:45. He had promised his father to have the car home by midnight, but the moon was full, Mary Jean was lovely, her sweet perfume filled the air and when he leaned in for a kiss, she didn't resist. Facing the wrath of his father's anger later was no match for the lure of Mary Jean now. Soon, only the sounds of heavy breathing could be heard in the car and the young couple were not aware of anything other than their passion.

When Mary Jean opened her eyes to look into Jimmy's, she saw a dark shape beside the car. When she gasped and pulled away, Jimmy looked up and saw the figure of a man. Expecting to see the uniform of a policeman, he began to roll down the window and was startled to see not a policeman, but a man dressed in dark clothing with a hood over his head. In a muffled voice, the man said, "Get out of the car now!" and tapped on the partially opened window with a .32 caliber pistol he held in his hand.

Fearing the man would shoot through the window if they didn't do as he demanded, they both exited out of the driver's side door. They offered to give him their money and the keys to the car, but the hooded man hit Jimmy in the head twice with the butt of the gun knocking him out. He then turned his attention to Mary Jean. In desperation, she ran, but the man quickly caught her and threw her to the ground. After slapping her several times, he began to rip off her clothes and while still holding the gun, began roughly fondling her. After several minutes but what seemed like hours and frightened beyond words, Mary Jean had resigned herself to her fate when she saw the dirty canvas that covered her attacker's head light up. The man groaned and shouted several coarse cuss words. At first confused, Mary Jean then realized it was a car coming down the road and its headlights had illuminated the scene. The hooded man stood up and after hitting her in the face with his fists several times, ran off into the darkness.

The approaching car, occupied by a kindly farmer and his wife who were coming home from a late movie, stopped to see what was going on. They managed to get Jimmy into the back seat and rushed the injured couple to the nearest hospital. Physically, Mary Jean only had bruises and scratches, but Jimmy's injuries from being hit in the head with the butt of the gun were more serious. Although he suffered from two skull fractures so severe that he had to spend days in the hospital, both he and Mary Jean lived to tell their story. At the time, they were not aware of how lucky they actually were.

When the police failed to find and arrest the attacker, the crime was written off by the residents as an anomaly, a sad byproduct of having a railroad going through town. The perpetrator must have been a transient and he had no doubt hopped a railway car and was long gone. No need to fear.

Trees in the area where 2 bodies were found in a car
On March 24th, just one month later, a visitor to the park noticed a 1941 Oldsmobile parked partially hidden about 100 yards from the road in a grove of trees. Thinking it might be a stolen vehicle and he should investigate, the driver approached the car. He saw what he thought at first was a man asleep behind the wheel, but when he got close, he saw a body covered in blood. He ran, jumped in his car and made it to a store nearby where he called the police.

After rushing to the scene, police found not one, but two bodies in the car. The man sitting in the driver's seat was identified as being 29-year-old Richard Griffin who had recently received his discharge as a Navy SeaBee. Laying in the back seat was his girlfriend, Polly Ann More. Both had been shot in the head with a .32 pistol. Polly had been roughly sexually assaulted. Evidence indicated Richard had been shot outside of the car and Polly had been tied to a nearby tree with rope. Police theorized the attacker had incapacitated Richard and then tied Polly to the tree. He had made her watch as he beat and then fatally shot her boyfriend. For some reason, he drug Richard's body back to the car and placed it in the driver's seat. He then proceeded to assault Polly while she was still tied up. She eventually was killed and drug to the car where her body was placed in the back seat. Once again, the police were unable to find any clue that would lead them to a suspect. He seemed to have vanished into thin air.

The town now knew there was a sadistic killer among them. Papers across the state picked up on the news and began calling the case the "Texarkana Moonlight Murders. With the public clamoring for an arrest, the local police called in the vaunted Texas Rangers for help. Three weeks later on April 14th, with the Rangers in town performing their investigation, the killer struck again.

15-year-old Betty Booker was an exceptionally gifted saxophone player. To help with her family's income, she sometimes played in a band which performed at proms and other social events. The band was asked to play for a dance one night at the local VFW and since she was a straight-A student, it would be for good pay, and he had come to trust the band's adult leader, her father gave his permission for her to join her band-mates and then attend a slumber party at a friend's house. After the performance was over at about 1:00AM, a friend and former classmate of Betty, Paul Martin, offered to drive her to her friend's house for the slumber party and drop her off. Paul was a clean-cut, innocent-looking young man who had not partaken of any alcoholic beverages so the band leader said it was OK. After packing her sax in its case, the two said their goodbye's. It was the last time they would be seen alive.

Road going into the park where Paul's car was found
Several hours later, parents at the slumber party became worried that Betty had not yet arrived so they called her parents to see if maybe she had decided to go home instead. Soon, the police were notified that Betty was missing and a search was quickly begun. Paul's car was found abandoned on the side of the road just inside the entrance of Spring Lake Park, nowhere near where the slumber party took place. Paul's body was finally found over a mile away and Betty's was found almost 2 miles from the car. Both were riddled with bullets from a .32 cal revolver and Betty had been sexually assaulted. It was a mystery as to why Paul's car was found so far from the slumber party destination. The pair had not be linked romantically and both had reputations for being good kids so there was no reason for them to be at the park. Betty's saxophone was missing and police put out notices in the papers and to pawn shops to be on the lookout for it. The instrument, still in its case, was found 2 months later rotting in the muck around a small pond inside the park several hundred yards away from where the car was found. It had obviously been thrown there the night of the murders as it was half-submerged and rusted. Why it was taken and why it was thrown there so far away from the car and the bodies is unknown. The leader of the band Betty had played in felt so guilty that he had let her go with Paul rather than drive her himself that he disbanded the popular group. The Rhythmaires never played again.

The pond where Betty's saxophone was found is now
clean and maintained
After testing, it was determined all of the bullets from each of the murders was from the same gun. Once again, the perpetrator had disappeared and neither the police nor the Rangers found anything which would lead to the identity of the killer. The papers began calling him "The Phantom."

Texarkana became a town under siege. Gun shops sold out of shotguns and ammunition; hardware stores completely sold out of locks and latches. Homeowners began constructing burglar devices that would drop nails and tacks on the floor. Shotguns were rigged to fire with strings attached to doorknobs and triggers. Business' closed at sunset when the streets and sidewalks emptied. Groups of vigilantes, men armed with shotguns, patrolled all over town. Unfamiliar cars driving through town were stopped and the passengers made to identify themselves and give a good reason for being there. Older teenagers staged traps in the park - a boy and girl would park along a dark secluded roadway and pretend to make out while a pack of armed boys would be hidden in the trees waiting for The Phantom to make an appearance. The police had their hands full trying to disperse and send the armed groups home before some innocent person was shot. It was all to no avail - The Phantom seemed to be able to sniff out any traps and stayed away.

As to capturing The Phantom, the police were clueless and the Rangers embarrassed. In desperation, the FBI was called in. Over 300 people were detained and questioned - people caught roaming around in the dark, people considered "odd" by their neighbors, hermits, loners, and every person in town who had any kind of criminal record. Soon, the FBI was just as perplexed as the other lawmen. Newspapers around the country picked up the story and Texarkana came into public awareness for the wrong reason.

On May 3rd, with groups of armed men roaming around, police on high alert, the Texas Rangers and the FBI still in town in force, The Phantom struck again.

Virgil and Katy Starks owned a farm 12 miles outside of Texarkana. About 9:00PM, Virgil retired to his easy chair in the living room, turned on the radio and began to read the newspaper. Katy finished cleaning the kitchen, went upstairs, changed into her nightgown and lay on the bed reading the Post magazine she had recently purchased. As Katy began to relax, she was startled by what sounded like two gunshots and breaking glass downstairs. She jumped out of bed, put on her slippers and rushed down to her husband's side. She saw glass blown into the room from a shattered window pane and then she saw her husband slumped over and covered with blood from two gunshots to the head. She immediately thought, "Phantom!" and rushed across the room to the phone to call the police. Her shaking finger managed to dial 0 on the rotary phone, but as a female voice answered, "Operator, how may I help you?" she felt a tremendous blow to her right jaw and the phone flew from her hand. The blast of a gun shot registered in her brain and she instinctively turned toward the sound only to feel another bullet smash through her left jaw. As if in slow motion, she fell to the floor and saw her shattered teeth flying through the air above her. When she hit the wooden floor, she swallowed a mouthful of blood.

Incredibly, Katy remain conscious and fighting through the pain and shock, began crawling toward the kitchen away from the window where the shots were coming from. Bleeding profusely, she made it to the kitchen only to discover to her horror that the shooter, failing to gain entry through the locked front door, had ran around to the kitchen door in the back and was trying to get in. It too was locked and she could hear the monster on the other side cursing in frustration as he kicked and slammed his body into the door trying to break in. Struggling to not pass out, Katy found a determination borne of desperation to not be another of The Phantom's victims. She made it to her feet and ran to the front door. As she unlocked it and ran out, she heard the kitchen door finally give way. As she stumbled across the porch and into the front yard, she heard more curses as The Phantom found her to be gone.

She made it into the dark before the intruder saw her and made it to a neighbor's house down the road. After banging on the door, she passed out. Finding her on the porch in her bloody nightgown, the neighbors called police and then rushed her to the hospital. Katy was immediately taken into surgery and spent several weeks in the hospital in critical condition, but, physically anyway, she eventually recovered. She had terrible scars, but the physical scars were nothing compared to the emotional scars she suffered for the rest of her life.
Back at the Starks home, authorities entered to discover no one alive. Virgil's body was found laying on the floor in a pool of blood. Muddy footprints were found going from the smashed back door, through the kitchen, into the living room where the killer evidently had dabbed his palms in Virgil's blood, then up the stairs into the bedroom and back down again through the front door. The walls had been smeared with bloody hand prints. The monster had obviously been hunting for the whereabouts of Katy. Bloodhounds were brought in and they followed the scent out the front door, across the yard and into the woods where Katy had fled. They then doubled back for about 200 yards and disappeared where he evidently had gotten into his car and drove away.

The authorities were ecstatic because this time they had hand prints and shoe prints, plenty of them. However, in spite of the evidence and all of their efforts, The Phantom's identity remained unknown. There was no record of his prints to match, his shoe prints were non-remarkable, there were no witnesses and again the perpetrator seemed to have vanished into thin air without a trace.

As suddenly as the killings started, they stopped. Nobody was ever arrested. Nobody ever confessed. Nobody knows who The Phantom was, why he did what he did, why he stopped, if he fled Texarkana or if he stayed in town as a neighbor and friend to unsuspecting residents. The case is still open today and unsolved.

Famous Ginkgo Tree of Tyler

Tyler, Texas, known by most people primarily for its roses and azaleas, also is home to a famous and rather rare tree. The Ginkgo biloba is a type of tree that was around almost 200 million years ago when dinosaurs roamed the earth and then basically went extinct in the last ice age when the glaciers wiped them out everywhere except China. Buddhist priests brought the trees to Japan and began planting them around their temples. Over time, the Japanese began considering the trees to be sacred. The tree in Tyler, known as The Hubbard Ginkgo, is a living fossil, the only species left of the Ginkgoacae family which itself is not closely related to any living family or group in the plant kingdom.

 A former Texas governor and ambassador to Japan, Richard Hubbard, brought two Ginkgo trees back from Japan as saplings in 1889. He planted one of them on the lawn of the governor's mansion in Austin and gave the other to his friend, Colonel John Brown of Tyler who planted it on his property. 

In 1939, the Brown property was purchased by the city of Tyler as the location for the new city hall. On what is now the southeastern lawn, the 128-year-old tree is over 80 feet tall and in good health in spite of getting hit by lightning in the 1960's.  

The Hubbard Ginkgo on the lawn of the Tyler City Hall
Anyone can visit the tree, gaze on its magnificence and sit in its shade, but the vast majority of people are unaware of the history, drive right by and never give it a second thought. Maybe that's best for its continued good health. Just another obscure historical relic found along Texas highways.

In Japan, the nuts are considered a delicacy and served at
weddings, banquets and social gatherings. The leaves
are prized for their reputedly medicinal properties.

Old Larissa and The Killough Massacre

Old Larissa is an abandoned town-site in Cherokee County in northeast Texas. On Christmas Eve, 1837, the Killough, Wood and Williams families arrived from Alabama and settled on the site. Unfortunately, the very next year, their settlement would go down in history as the place of the largest single Indian depredation in East Texas.

The year before the three families came, the site of Old Larissa and thousands of acres around it were promised to the local Cherokee Indians by Sam Houston in a treaty. The land was promised to them forever in exchange for peace in East Texas. A few months later however, the Republic of Texas Senate refused to ratify the treaty and put the land up for white settlement. When the Killough-led settlers came in, built homes and began clearing the land to grow crops, the Cherokee, who considered a man's spoken words to be a bond, considered them to be trespassing on their land and stealing food from them by killing the game animals they hunted. The settlers knew none of the history of the land they believed they had legally purchased.

For a few months, the Indians tolerated the intrusion, but more settlers began moving in, clearing the forests, planting crops and killing game. By August, 1838, there were 30 people living in the settlement they called Larissa. The corn was ready to be harvested, but the settlers received word the Indians were becoming increasingly disgruntled and were getting ready to go on the war path against them. They managed to let the Indians know they were willing to leave. In return, they were promised safe passage, which they received, and they retreated to Jefferson, a large town that was much safer. In late September however, hearing of no Indian attacks and not wanting to lose the corn they had planted, they decided to return to their homes. It was a grave mistake.

On the afternoon of October 5, a large band of Cherokee, Caddos, and Coushattas attacked the settlement. A number of men, including Isaac Killough, Sr., were caught in the corn field without their guns and were quickly killed. Homes were then attacked. The remaining men and older boys were killed and some of the younger children and several of the wives were kidnapped and taken with the Indians when they left. Surprisingly, twelve people, including Urcey, Killough Sr.'s wife, escaped the massacre by hiding in a barn and in the surrounding woods. In all, eighteen of the settlers were either killed or abducted, the largest number of white fatalities in an Indian raid in East Texas history.

Stone obelisk placed at the site of the massacre
The survivors eventually made their way on foot to Lacy's Fort, forty miles to the south on the Old San Antonio Road. When word of the massacre began to spread, a militia set out to find the perpetrators and rescue any surviving whites. After reaching Fort Houston near the site of present day Palestine, they heard the Indians were camped at an old Kickapoo village near Frankston. Riding at night, the militia found the Indian encampment and attacked the next day. The surprise attack was successful and eleven Indians were killed before the rest made their escape. No white captives were rescued or seen. It was later rumored that the group of Indians the militia attacked were not responsible for the Killough massacre, but it little mattered as it was thought revenge had been in order.

It was not until 1846, when the Indians in the area were subdued and removed that any further settlement was attempted. Over the next few years, the settlement of Larissa grew into a thriving community with a number of business's, churches and even a college. When the Civil War came, Larissa began to decline as the local men and the male students left to fight. After the war, Reconstruction hit the town hard as it did everywhere in the south and the college was forced to close. In 1872, the railroad bypassed the town by eight miles and more people moved away. A meningitis epidemic then hit and a number of the remaining residents died. The death blow for the town hit in 1882 when another railroad bypassed the town by three miles and a new community was founded along the rails. Most of the few remaining residents moved to the new town of Mount Selman.

The stone obelisk surrounded by the victim's graves
Today there is very little remaining to even suggest there was once a prominent, thriving community at the site. A Texas historical marker was placed where the college stood and a stone obelisk was erected at the site of the massacre by the Work Projects Administration in the late 1930's. The peaceful site is at the end of a remote, rarely used dead-end country road barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass each other. You won't find it by accident. The only sounds to be heard are the birds in the trees and maybe a small animal rooting around in the underbrush. The obelisk is surrounded by the graves of the victims marked by mounds of rocks and crumbling markers barely legible. A few scattered modest homes and barns of small farms are found in the area, but none have any connection to the possibilities or the horror that once was there.

The Fort Worth Cemetery and Buried Gold

Greenwood Cemetery entrance
In the late 1840's, Charles Turner, a Mexican War veteran and former Texas Ranger, established a large farm on land that eventually became today's Fort Worth, Texas. After building a home for his family, he expanded into the retail business and opened one of the first general stores in the growing community. His store gained fame when hundreds of people from all around the area came by over a few days in December,1860 after Cynthia Ann Parker, who had been kidnapped almost 25 years earlier in the Fort Parker massacre, was recaptured from the Comanche Indians and brought there by Texas Rangers while returning her to her family. She still wore her Indian clothes and sat quietly holding her infant daughter, Prairie Flower,  as people lined up to stare at her.

Talk of secession filled the air in early 1861. At his store, which had become a community meeting place, the slave-owning Turner expressed his desire that Texas not leave the Union. He said he could see no good that would come of it and gave his opinion that if war came, the south, with no manufacturing base, would lose and economic disaster would inevitably follow.

The Turner Oak

Later that year, when the state voted to secede and join the Confederacy however, Turner confirmed his allegiance to Texas and even paid to raise a company of Confederate soldiers. When war was declared, the Confederate government ordered its citizens to exchange their gold for paper currency. Before exchanging his gold though, Turner, along with his most trusted slave, "Uncle Ben," took a large cooking pot filled with gold coins and buried it under a live oak tree on his farm.

As the war continued, people suffered. Men were killed in battle, people went hungry and nobody was immune from the suffering. Some of Turner's family passed away and were buried near the oak tree which hid the pot of gold. Soon, people from the area began being buried on the same piece of land and a cemetery began taking form. The population of Fort Worth dropped to only 175 residents by the time war mercifully came to an end.

Marker at the base of the Turner Oak
The hard Reconstruction years followed and the citizens of Fort worth felt the pain like everyone else in the south. The economy was devastated when their Confederate money became worthless. People were left with next to nothing. And that's when Charles Turner came to the rescue of Fort Worth. He retrieved that pot of gold coins hidden beneath the live oak and used the money to pay for food, construction of new buildings, and the needed infrastructure of a city. Today, Fort Worth is prosperous and the 16th largest city in the United States with a population of almost 900,000, but who knows what would have happened if it were not for Charles Turner and his hidden pot of gold.

Near the Turner Oak is the grave of Luse Wallenberg,
marked by a female figure atop a pot of gold coins which
commemorates the story
The live oak tree which once was the caretaker of Fort Worth's future, is still alive and well. Known as The Turner Oak, it has been officially named a Living Witness tree and is listed as a certified Historic Tree of Texas. It is located about 200 yards inside the main gate of what became today's Greenwood Cemetery on White Settlement Road in Fort Worth.

Close-up of the Luse Wallenberg
grave statue


A Mother's Love Never Dies

South of Kilgore, Texas on Highway 259 is a small country cemetery named Pirtle. In the middle of the sacred grounds, hidden among ornate gravestones pointing to the sky, is the grave of a small boy that is no longer marked. When it was fresh, his daddy, a hardworking but poor farmer, couldn't afford a formal marker so he carved his son's name and the year he died into a sandstone rock and placed it there. Over the years though, it has been lost or stolen or maybe the carving weathered away and a well-meaning groundskeeper thought it was just a rock and removed it. 

In life, that little boy was terrified of the dark and the monsters he believed came out when light went to sleep. It’s normal for children to be afraid of the dark and what might be lurking within it, but this little boy, for reasons known only in his innocent mind, was deathly afraid of it. Whenever he found himself in darkness, he would scream in fright and curl up on the ground in a shaking, quivering ball. He even had trouble trying to take a nap in the daytime because when he closed his eyes, the light dimmed.

It had been a difficult pregnancy and mother and baby had both barely survived the birth. He would be her only child as she could never have another. From the time his mother figured out why he would cry every night, she tried to calm him and keep the darkness away. Every night she would sit beside him on his bed with an oil lantern glowing on the table. She would whisper her forever love for him and kiss his forehead. She told him stories of brave knights who slew dragons for kings and queens who lived in far off castles and would softly sing lullabies until he finally drifted into sleep. Only then did she tip-toe to her own bed, leaving the lantern burning low. She would get up often during the night to check on the lantern, because if it burned out, he would wake up crying in terror.

The boy never got over his fear of the dark even as he got older. His few friends from the neighboring farms made fun of him and his father, despite love for his family, grew angry at the boy and resented his wife for her indulgence. Like all little boys, he desperately wanted his father to be proud of him so he tried hard to control his fears, but no matter how hard he tried, he could never suppress them.

One day shortly after he turned six, he “took The Fever” as they said back then and became very sick. For several weeks, his mother stayed at his bedside day and night, cooling his hot little body with a rag dipped in cool water she fetched from the well. Nothing more could be done though and she became ever more frantic as she helplessly watched her young son slowly get worse. In the middle of a dark moonless night, despite all of her efforts and prayers, the boy gave up the fight. With his eyes open and looking at his loving mother, he passed away. 

The next day, neighbors came to take the child’s body for burial, but the mother hugged the corpse to her chest crying, “You can’t take him! He’s afraid of the dark! He's so afraid of the dark!” Eventually, the doctor was summoned and he gave the woman laudanum so she would fall asleep and the dead child could be taken from her for burial.

After the burial in Pirtle Cemetery, the mother visited his grave every evening as the sun set and stayed there the whole night. Newcomers to the area would often ask about the flickering light they would see in the cemetery after dark. Was the cemetery haunted by spirits? No, they would be told, it's only a mother who was crazy with grief. The residents would sadly shake their heads and explain she thought she was comforting her dead son. She kept a lantern lit all night as she sat next to her little boy's grave, telling him she would never stop loving him, softly singing lullabies and telling tales of kings and queens and brave knights in shining armor who rode white horses and slayed dragons. She wouldn't leave until the morning sun rose above the horizon and filled the day with light.

The story goes that the poor mother died not a year later of grief. Her husband buried her beside their son, but it seems she sometimes pays a visit to her little boy at night. Many people have reported seeing a lantern light flickering in the darkness in the middle of the cemetery. The old-timers are sure it's that forlorn mother still comforting her son from beyond the grave. Proof a mother’s love never ends.

When Japan Bombed Texas

In the early spring of 1945, Japan bombed the state of Texas. Well, they tried and actually came close to succeeding. There were no causalities and the whole thing might never have been known if it had not been reported by a group of teenagers from the little town of Desdemona.

On the afternoon of March 23, C.M. Guthery, fourteen, was riding the bus home from Desdemona Junior High when he noticed what looked like a large basketball descending from the sky. When he got off the bus at his stop on the next block, he started following the "basketball" as it continued to fall. As it floated closer to the ground, young Guthery had to begin jogging to keep up with it. A little over a mile later, it landed in a vacant field near some houses.

A group of kids from the neighborhood soon joined Guthery in examining what they could tell was a large balloon. The fabric was very brittle and a faded red rising sun symbol could be seen near the top. It was gray in color and smelled bad, kind of like creosote, so a few of the children wouldn't touch it, but others did. They began pulling it apart and carried away some ropes and pieces of the fabric.

Japanese balloon bomb in the
air (file photo)
Guthery walked back home and told his parents what he had found as did several of the other young teenagers. Government authorities were called by the parents. Early the next morning, military men showed up in town to visit the site where the remains of the balloon remained. They then began canvassing houses and gathered up the missing pieces taken as souvenirs. 

While the officials were busy in Desdemona, Ivan Miller, a cowboy on the Barney Davis Ranch in the nearby town of Woodson, was working a fence line when he discovered a large, collapsed balloon. This balloon also had a large rising sun painted near the top as well as several smaller rising suns around the bottom. Before the military men finished their work in Desdemona, residents in Woodson trekked out to the 2nd landing site and carried off pieces of the balloon as souvenirs. The officials had to repeat their process again, securing the site and then going around town collecting all the missing pieces.

In both cases, the civilians who found the balloons and took away pieces of them had no idea they had found anything other than a couple of big balloons. It wasn't until later they discovered how lucky they were.

On May 5, 1945, just six weeks later, a group of picnickers in southern Oregon were not so lucky. That morning, Archie Mitchell, the reverend for the Christian Alliance Church, drove to the mountains near Bly with his pregnant wife and five young parishioners from his church. About 1/2 mile from the picnic area on Gearhart Mountain, he dropped off his wife and the kids, all between the ages of 13 - 15, so they could have an adventure hiking the trail for the rest of the way.

(Historical document)
After arriving at the picnic site, Reverend Mitchell was unloading the food from the car when he heard his wife calling to him a short way into the surrounding woods. They said they had found something that looked like a large balloon and wanted him to come take a look at it. He had heard on the news warnings regarding Japanese balloons landing in the area so as he began jogging toward the group he shouted for them to get away from it. Unfortunately, his warning came several seconds too late. He had only ran a couple of feet when he heard a large explosion and debris began raining down. Evidently, one of the children had tugged on a rope hanging from the balloon and the bomb exploded. When the Reverend recovered his senses and made his way to the site of the explosion, he found his wife and all five of the children dead. The Oregon picnickers were the only Americans killed by enemy action inside the continental United States during World War II.

Between November, 1944 and April, 1945 Japan launched nine thousand balloons which they hoped would be transported to mainland America by the atmospheric winds. Attached to each balloon was a 33-pound antipersonnel explosive and two incendiary munitions. Their goal was to create a series of forest fires and to kill civilians in order to create havoc, divert personnel, dampen American morale and disrupt the war effort. Approximately 1,000 actually reached America, Canada and Mexico, but most proved to be carrying dud bombs or, like the two found in Desdemona and Woodson, the explosive cargo had fallen harmlessly into the ocean before making landfall. It may never be known for sure, however, how many actually caused damage as the military placed a blackout ban on any news of the balloon bombs in order to deprive Japan from tracking their success.

Confirmed landings and explosion sites
Amazingly, a number of these balloon bombs continued to be found for years after the war. Several were found in Hawaii and some made it as far east on the mainland as Omaha, Grand Rapids, Chicago and Detroit. One, with its explosives still attached, was found partially buried outside Edmonton, Alberta in 1953. In 1955, another one was found in Alaska. One was found and had to be destroyed in northern Mexico in 1964. In 1978, a badly deteriorated balloon without its munitions was found in a remote forest area in Oregon. The latest one found was discovered by two forestry workers in 2014 in the Monashee Mountains of British Columbia. The balloon material had disintegrated but metal pieces of the apparatus was visible and the bomb it had carried was partially buried in the dirt. It had been laying undiscovered in that spot for 70 years. Considered too dangerous to remove, the military placed C-4 on the ground around it and blew it, they reported, "to smithereens."

Even today, over 70 years later, not many know about Japan's balloon bomb attack, but World War II effected every home, town and person in America, even a few young, very lucky teenagers living far from any battlefield in a small country town like Desdemona, Texas.

The Grand, Grand Canyon

It was early morning in Flagstaff, Arizona and I was sitting on an old, weather beaten picnic table in front of the Howard Johnson motel on Route 66 waiting on a guy from Enterprise to pick me up to take possession of a rental car. The next leg of our vacation would be via car to the Grand Canyon. It was already hot and traffic on the road in front of me was very light so I was just sitting there working my brain the way bored guys do, in other words, not thinking anything at all, when a car pulled to the curb and stopped. I looked over and saw it was driven by a stunningly beautiful young lady. The driver's window was down and she was looking right at me. She smiled, casually flipped her blond hair behind her ear and said, "Hi, there." Confused, I looked over my shoulder to see if there was someone behind me. There wasn't. When I looked back at her, she laughed and started to drive away. I really wasn't sure what to think, but guessed it was just some good looking young woman who saw some poor, old guy sitting by himself and decided to have some fun at his expense. I didn't mind. But then she pulled into the hotel parking lot and drove up, stopping right beside me and gave me a big smile. "Hey, how are you doing?" she asked. Oh, now I get it - she's a fallen dove looking to make some money the old fashioned way. She laughed again and said, "Are you Ken? Cause if you're not, I'm going to be really embarrassed. I'm Denise, with Enterprise. I'm here to give you a ride to the office."

The Momma-woman and Youngest-daughter
at the park entrance
At the Enterprise office Denise gave me a choice of three vehicles - I chose the Nissan Rogue with only 3,000 miles on it. After going back to the Howard Johnson to pick up the Momma-woman and Youngest-daughter, we started on the 80 mile drive to the Grand Canyon. Getting on the interstate, shortcomings of the car became immediately apparent. Merging into interstate traffic was an adventure as pressing the accelerator didn't do much except make the little 4-cylander engine wind-up and scream in protest. When you go up a modest hill and have to keep you foot down almost to the floor and an 18-wheeler truck still passes you, the car is woefully underpowered. The most annoying thing though was the constant floating from side to side. The car would not stay going straight. It would float to the left and with just the slightest little touch of the steering wheel, it would then float to the right. Constant attention was required to keep it within the lane. The good part though was the great gas mileage. We put a good number of miles on that thing and only filled up once and topped off the tank when we returned it. Maybe the issues were because it was a rental, had not been treated kindly by other renters and needed adjustments, but with just 3,000 miles on her, I'll just say the experience ensured a Nissan Rogue is not in our future.

After several little side trips and a stop to eat, we made it to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. The entry fee per car is $30, but I showed my National Park Senior Pass and the friendly park ranger smiled, handed us maps and info booklets and wished us a good visit. I bought my senior pass four years ago for $10 and consider the purchase to be one of the wisest and best I've ever made. We love visiting the national parks and it has saved us hundreds of dollars in entrance fees and other discounts over the years.

This young elk was outside our room
every morning eating breakfast
We had reservations inside the park at Yavapai Lodge, but we arrived at 2:00 and signs indicated no check-ins before 3:00. We looked around in the gift shop for a few minutes and the Momma-woman bought a summer Cowboy hat. She didn't think I would like it, but she was wrong - I think she looks sexy in it! I went back to the reservation desk to ask where we could buy stamps and after she gave directions to the post office, she asked if we were checking in. I said yes and even though it was just 2:20, she said our room had just been released by the service staff and we could check in now. Great!

Yavapai Lodge East consists of six individual 2-story buildings and Yavapai West is ten 1-story buildings in a totally separate location. We got a room in one of the East buildings as it had air conditioning whereas the West rooms do not. I'm sure having no A/C is fine in the fall/spring/winter, but it was summer and we were grateful for it. Nice room, not fancy, but clean and comfortable. There is no Wi-Fi in any of the rooms (it is available at the Lodge) and the satellite TV kept cutting in and out, but we didn't stay in the room much except to sleep so that wasn't a big deal. The room had a big picture window looking out into the forest and I spent a good bit of time looking out of that window watching squirrels scamper about playing and elk grazing as I waited for my two girls to finish showers and get ready for the day. It was a really nice way to start the day.

Our visit to Grand Canyon was thoroughly enjoyable. It had been 20 years since the Momma-woman and I had been and it was Youngest-daughter's first time. The biggest change we noted, other than the free buses which you can now take to anywhere in the park, was the crowds. According to our memory, there seemed to be at least twice or 3 times as many visitors and there were many, many more foreign tourists - especially European, Japanese, Chinese and people from India. With a few exceptions, the vast majority of folks were friendly and courteous. The most inconsiderate we encountered during our 3 days there were three youngish Americans.

Youngest-daughter admiring the view

We had made special effort to be at Hopi Point to see the sunset. It is in an area where you have to take the red route "Hermit's Rest" shuttle as auto's are not allowed. We arrived early enough to get a good viewing spot and were patiently waiting as the sun was edging down toward the horizon when one of the world's most beat up, ugliest, dirtiest diesel pickup trucks came into the empty parking area spewing diesel smoke and fumes. It was covered in bumper stickers and hand-made signs declaring "Save the Trees," "No Fracking," "Clean Air" and "Water is life!" I especially liked the "Clean Air" one as we had to wait for the air to clear of diesel exhaust before it could be read. The bed was filled with camping items, a generator, and a number of other mystery items which had tarps over them, all dirty. It had been outfitted with a handmade, iron balcony sort of thing over the bed. I have no idea how they got there since autos were supposedly not allowed. Three people got out, two guys and a woman. There had been a pretty large crowd at the viewing point, but until these people arrived, everyone had been real subdued, talking almost in whispers while watching an awesome sunset. A sight like that in that setting just naturally makes one look on in quiet awe at nature's beauty and power and have thoughts of how small you really are. Just before the colors turned to gold and bright red and orange, the older guy (he reminded me of Wavy Gravy from way back in the days of flowers, peace and love) climbed up on the top of their truck and started shouting at the top of his lungs, "My name is Johnny!" "My name is Johnny!" "My name is Johnny!" "Water is life!" "Agua es vida!" Gee, thanks a lot, Johnny. Way to break the mood.

Now that he had everyone looking at him, he brought out a drum and began loudly chanting, Indian-style, and banging that drum like he is a Native-American shaman or something. After a few minutes of this, the younger guy brought a guitar out, climbed up and joined him in chanting. The woman walked around shouting, "Water is life!" "Water is life!" This went on until the sun had set and it was dark.

Long lines formed to wait for the bus. We were in line for almost an hour because there were only two buses running and only about 20 people could get on each time. The line snaked beside Johnny's truck and I glanced in as I slowly passed. It was just as filthy inside as out and it obviously had been serving as living quarters for them for a long time. The woman was telling everyone that passed, "Water is life!" I was upset that they had basically ruined everyone's enjoyment of a beautiful sunset, a beautiful moment. As she looked at me and said for the hundredth time, "Water is life" I wanted to say water is also for bathing, you should try it sometime, but it had been a long day, I was really tired and I doubted she would get it so I walked on without a word.

Inconsiderate, self-centered Johnny
We left the next morning and other than Johnny and company's inconsiderate chanting and proclamations, we had a wonderful time. I would definitely recommend staying in one of the "inside the park" accommodations. They are all close to a shuttle stop and the buses run every few minutes. Cost for a room is around $200 - $250 per night and worth it. We had a car so we drove the routes some of the time, but even though we never had much trouble finding a parking spot at an overlook or other site, we found it easy and convenient to take a shuttle. We spent three full days in the park and that was enough to see everything along the southern rim. If you plan on taking a hike or two, you will need to plan more time. I hiked several trails here years ago and recommend you do too. (It was on one of those hikes that I first encountered Ponderosa pine trees - their bark smells like vanilla!) Unfortunately, hiking at the 7,000+ foot elevation and in the heat was not possible this time and I regret it. Oh well, it was still most enjoyable and the visit gets 2 thumbs up from all of us!

Feeling small at Grand Canyon
This big fella was on the side of the road and didn't
mind his picture being taken at all

This picture of Youngest-daughter perfectly sums up
our trip to the Grand Canyon - awesome!

The Great Plane, Train, Car and Bus Adventure - (Part 3)

The Southwest Chief (stock photo)
The Southwest Chief, the Amtrak train which would be carrying us from Kansas City, Missouri to Flagstaff, Arizona arrived only 5 minutes late at 10:40PM and we departed at 10:55PM, about ten minutes late. Since we would be on board for over 24 hours, we had reserved a sleeper room. It cost an extra $510 (with senior discount), but you get private quarters, fairly comfortable beds, three toilet rooms shared only by six sleeper rooms, a shared shower room and free meals. Oh, and 2 bottles of water - can't forget that freebie! Unfortunately, a sleeper only has room for two people and there were three of us. Youngest-daughter has a food allergy and picky tastes so, according to the menu I previewed, the "free" meals would have gone largely uneaten by her. I decided to not spend the extra $600 on a room for one person for just 1 day/night so I reserved the sleeper car in mine and the Momma-woman's name and just got a coach seat in Youngest-daughter's name. 

The tickets have your name on them, but I had noticed that not once did an agent look at the names so I let the girls board for the sleeper car with Youngest-daughter using my ticket and I used hers for the coach seat. I would spend another long, mostly sleepless night in a single seat while they slept in the bunks, but I wanted them to be comfortable. At meal time, I would use my sleeper ticket to get my meal free and Youngest-daughter could get what she wanted from the snack car or the food we brought for her. Very happy to report this worked exactly as planned! All three of us spent most of the next day together in the sleeper - it was a bit crowded with two of us laying beside each other in the bottom bunk, but doable. I strongly recommend if you will be traveling for 24 or more hours, by all means, pay the extra for the sleeper car! It is definitely worth it. Trust me on this.

Shortly after we left the station, I became aware of a nuisance problem. There was a rhythmic clunk, clunk, clunk accompanied by a very irritating little jerk as we rolled along. Other folks noticed it too and we all began looking around at each other with questioning looks on faces. We started talking amongst ourselves and finally concluded one of the wheels must have a flat spot on it. A lady sitting behind us said she had been traveling Amtrak for years and she has noticed in the last couple that maintenance has been severely lacking and service has really gone downhill. She thinks it's because Amtrak has been cutting expenses to the bone by not replacing workers who leave and delaying all maintenance not absolutely required. She thinks that's also why there have been a number of Amtrak derailments in the last couple of years. We sure had issues on our trip and since this was our first, I had no previous experience to compare or not take her word for it.

We had not left until almost 11:00PM so the car's lights had been dimmed and most of the occupants soon covered up in their blankets (the cars were always refreshingly coldish, especially at night) and tried to get some shuteye. There was a sliver of a moon, but not near enough light to see anything but shadows darker than the night as we sped along. We came to Lawrence and then Topeka, stopping for just a couple of minutes in both. Next came Newton where we slowed, but didn't stop. By then it was dark-thirty and the town had long since closed up for the night - just a few street lights and security lamps shining. As far as I could tell, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. Before we came to Dodge City, the soft, haunting sound of the horn in the dark and the gentle swaying lulled me to asleep in spite of that infernal clunk, clunk, clunk. I missed Garden City and crossing the state line into Colorado.

We stopped in Lamar, Colorado at 7:00AM, which woke me up. I had managed to sleep a goodly part of 4 hours and needed to walk around to get the kinks and folds out of my poor old abused body. I made my way to a working toilet room and then to the snack car for a cup of morning coffee to sip as I watched the world go by through the big windows. Now this was what I was expecting when we decided to travel by train!

At 7:45, I made my way to the sleeper car to wake up the Momma-woman and retrieve my ticket from Youngest-daughter so we could eat breakfast at our 8:00 reservation time. When the announcement came over the speaker system, we made our way to the dining car and were promptly escorted to a table for four where we were seated across from another couple. All of the white-cloth-covered tables seat 4 and if there are not 4 in your party, they seat another couple with you. This was one of the things I wasn't sure about at first, but turned out to be most enjoyable.

Our breakfast companions were a really interesting couple in their mid to late 50's. As we sat down, we shook hands and introduced ourselves. We learned the man lives in California and the woman lives outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico on a remote, mountain-top ranch. They never did say whether they are married or what, but they don't live together. They do, however, visit each other several times a year plus they travel together several times each year and they've been doing it this way "for years." Whatever works for you is good and this arrangement obviously works for them. Since Momma-woman and I both like Santa Fe, we discussed that and when they found out we're from Texas, they said they have plans to go to Big Bend National Park next year. That's one of my all-time favorite places and we've been numerous times so we gave travel advice and answered their questions. The meal, the usual breakfast of eggs, bacon, sausage, hash browns, toast, juice and coffee, was about the same quality as a good IHOP or Denny's, and the conversation with friendly people was interesting and very enjoyable. All too soon, they were rushing us out as they needed the table for the next scheduled group of people.

3 human sardines crammed in the
lower bunk
We went back to the sleeper and I tried to get Youngest-daughter to go to the seat I had tried to sleep in the night before so I could actually lay down and take a nap and digest breakfast. Somehow all three of us ended up sardined together in the lower bunk. This lasted for about 3 minutes of laughing and saying, "Go away!" "No, I want to stay here!" "Get off me!" "But I'm cute and I'm your daughter! You would kick your poor daughter out?" "Yes, go! Come back when you're rich and can support us in the manner to which we would like to become accustomed!" I finally decided I would crawl into the upper bunk for my well-deserved rest. Youngest-daughter didn't think I could get up there because to her, I'm, you know, old and decrepit. Much to her surprise, this decrepit, old man made it up there lickety-split. OK, maybe not lickety-split, but I did wiggle my way up there after only a few grunts and groans of effort. Then they decided both of them would go to the coach seats. Great. After all of that and NOW you girls decide to leave me in peace. You people are not funny.

I crawled back out of that top bunk because there's no window up there like there is in the lower and I wanted to see what I was missing. I took a Colorado picture, I believe it was around La Junta, but I'm not sure. Amtrak doesn't announce where you are so it's hard to figure out until you arrive in a town and see the name on a sign. If you like knowing where you are between towns, I suggest you bring a portable GPS. When I woke up a short time later as we were coming into Trinidad, the scenery had changed to forested. For the rest of the trip, the scenery would be wonderful and very enjoyable to watch. However, we were only about halfway to our destination and the scenery and our meal-time companions would prove to be the only enjoyable part.

Trinidad, Colorado
Watching the scenery was really pleasant so I decided to make my way to the lounge car to watch from its big windows. Coming into the car, I found my way blocked by a large group of Mennonites. I admit I don't know much about this particular group of religious people except I think they are a tight community group, family oriented, and against violence. What I now know about them for sure is they are not adverse to taking over a train car that is supposed to be for everyone to enjoy. There were dozens of them taking up every seat and standing in the aisle. They had board games spread out on all of the tables with people standing looking on and totally blocking the aisle. Women were sitting and standing everywhere sewing and embroidering. OK, so I wouldn't be sitting in the lounge car, but I needed to get through to reach the car where my wife and daughter were. I could see several people on the opposite end of the car trying to get through also. When seeing that somebody needed to pass by them in the aisle, instead of moving to the side a little, they would ignore you, pretend they didn't see you and refuse to move. After saying excuse me a couple of times with no response, I gently put my hand on one guy's shoulder, gave a very slight push and said excuse me again. Most people would say sorry or something like that and move over, but not these people. It was like they had no idea you were there. I finally gave the guy a firmer push and he looked at me like I was disturbing him, but he did move over enough that I could get by. I had to do this 4 or 5 times to get by everyone. I thought there might be a fight brewing because one of the guys coming through on the opposite side began pushing harder than I was, but nothing came of it except we all finally got to the other side.

Church along the tracks outside Trinidad
When it came time for lunch, the Momma-woman and I had to navigate our way back through the lounge car. I guess some of the Mennonites had gone to the snack car for lunch as there wasn't as many of them, but they had left their board games and sewing set up on every table and jackets and shoes on every chair with a number of the adults sitting guard. Someone said that didn't surprise them because Mennonites as a group think they are better than anyone else. I don't know about that, but I know their actions sure were not appreciated by other travelers.

Lunch was again enjoyable. The food was tasty and we were seated with a young married couple from Germany visiting America for the first time. They had been to New York City and Chicago and were now traveling across country by train to see the Grand Canyon and then on to Los Angeles. They said they had been very pleasantly surprised by how friendly and helpful all Americans are. We gave them some travel tips, invited them to come to Texas the next time and found out about their little town and living in Germany. We left looking forward to supper to see who we would meet.

Old mine
We negotiated the Mennonite gauntlet through the lounge car, collected Youngest-daughter and all three of us went back to our sleeper for a short siesta. The rest of the afternoon went fine with a little reading, a little internet browsing, and a lot of scenery watching through our window. During that time, three announcements were made - the first informed us that several of the toilets were broken and wouldn't be fixed until we stopped in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This prompted a rush by us to the sleeper car toilets, but all of them worked. The 2nd announcement informed everyone that for safety purposes, shoes must be worn when walking around the train and that the lounge car was intended for all passengers and seats could not be taken up with personal items in order to reserve them for extended periods of time. Anyone not adhering to the rules were subject to being removed from the train at the next stop. (We heard later there had been many complaints about the Mennonites who had homesteaded the lounge car.) The last announcement came as we left Albuquerque letting us know the toilets had been fixed.

Supper was once again good and we had a nice chat with an older couple who were headed to Los Angeles. They were friendly enough, but seemed to be more food focused so there wasn't as much talking this time. Certainly not unenjoyable, but not as memorable as our previous meal companions. Afterwards, I let the girls head back to the sleeper and I went to the coach seat for what was supposed to be just a couple more hours until we reached our departure at Flagstaff, Arizona. As I passed through the lounge car, I noticed the Mennonites all had their shoes on and they only took up about half of the car.

We were somewhere between Gallup, New Mexico and Winslow, Arizona when the train slowed down, pulled onto a side track and stopped. After a few minutes of everyone wondering what the heck was going on, an announcement came that we had to wait for a train coming from the other way to pass and that it should be just a few minutes delay. We waited. And waited. And waited.

Watching the scenery go by on this leg
of the trip never got old
Almost two hours later, still sitting in the same spot, a "lady" sitting three rows ahead of me, in a loud voice, said, "I could have walked there by now!" Everyone chuckled. That was the wrong thing to do as it only encouraged her. In a louder voice, she really began complaining and, much to everyone's shock, began peppering her complaints with a few choice adult language words. Then she proceeded to complain about how parents can't discipline children today because of the G*d government and kids are growing up to be f*king wimps. I couldn't believe nobody was saying anything to her. I don't claim to be anywhere near a saint and am not fervently religious, but there were a few children in our car and a number of older folks and there was no need for them to be exposed to such vitriol so I got up, walked to her seat, asked her to please watch her language and went back to my seat. She was quiet for a couple of minutes, but started up again saying the G*d government had no business telling people what they could and couldn't do and "they can kiss my ass." About then the conductor came up the aisle from behind us, walked straight to that woman and told her if she didn't stop using foul language she would be removed from the train. And that was the last word we heard from her.

New Mexico
After almost three hours of not going anywhere, a train finally came past us and we proceeded on our way. We stopped in Winslow for 30 minutes and knowing Flagstaff would be the next stop, I went to join my wife and daughter in the sleeper car. After pulling out, the train seemed to be going very slow, but there was no announcement as to why. We had been told our attendant would come by about 30 minutes before our stop to ensure we were packed and ready to depart, but she never showed. By now it was 1:00AM. 6 sleeper car passengers other than us were getting off in Flagstaff so we all kind of took care of ourselves, looking at the little paper tags above the doors to make sure all Flagstaff people were up. The 9 of us gathered by the door as the train pulled into the station and waited for our attendant or someone to open the door for us to get off. The train stopped, but nobody came to open the door. We saw other people getting off and walking by so we started trying to figure out how to open the door ourselves. About that time, our attendant arrived. One side of her hair was pushed flat and her clothes were rather disheveled so it was obvious she had been sleeping. So much for the "porter to attend to your needs" advertisement. She opened the door (there's a metal bar at the top to pull over) and let us off.

I don't know if it is like this at all stations, but there were 5 or 6 cabs available and waiting. Our little group had gotten off later than the others due to our sleeping attendant, but we managed to grab the last-but-one. After the cabbie and I stowed our luggage in the car's trunk and the girls had seated themselves in the back seat, I stood for a few seconds watching the train pull out as it headed on down the dark tracks, fading into the distance.

The cabbie was nice and as he drove us to the Howard Johnson hotel, he informed us the reason we had been almost 4 hours behind schedule was because some poor drunk woman had wandered onto the tracks and had been hit and killed by the train that had passed us going the other way. The police had closed the tracks until they completed their investigation. I wondered if that rude and crude woman would feel bad about her statements if she knew about the dead woman being the cause of our delay, but I figured, no, probably not. It was a very short ride, the cabbie didn't try to cheat us by taking a long, winding route and it was the middle of the night so I gave him a twenty for the $8 fare.

Sunset picture taken by Youngest-daughter Katie
We checked into the Howard Johnson and got a downstairs room. It was older and there were a few minor things that needed attention, but it was clean, everything worked, the A/C quickly got the room nice and chilly for sleeping and the two queen beds were comfortable. Not the height of luxury, but it was reasonable in price and we would be leaving about 8:00 the next morning so it served our purpose just fine. I was the last one in bed and as I drifted off to sleep, my last thought was that my fantasy of train travel would never be the same.