Smelling Huntsville

Lad Moore

© Copyright 2002 by Lad Moore 

Some people say you can smell Death Row. The green sweat of fear and the sizzling chemicals dripping from the supply hoses create a tepid, pungent air. My friend told me that our cell would be just up the corridor from the gas chamber--and the dampness of our flesh would be the only nourishment for the scorpions that thrived in the total blackness.

 Reuniting with my mother after a lifelong separation was an experience we walked away from with conflicting verdicts. She would say it might have worked out in time, but my tangled insides said otherwise. Her third husband Phil held dominion over a household with three bedrooms of kids, but only one kid was his own. It had been a noble experiment, but it failed. Phil threw in the towel, and I became odd man out.

 I missed the Lower Rio Grande Valley as soon as I got on the Texas Eagle and left the palms for the pines back in East Texas. The tastes of nearby Mexico lingered with me like tar on one’s heel from a newly patched street.

Shortly after I rode out of town on the rail, My mother divorced and moved to Alaska. Despite how my time with Phil had been full of ups and downs, we had parted friends and I maintained contact with him. Phil left his stationmaster job in Raymondville and took a post near McAllen, closer to the border. He owned several rental homes there, and always had a vacant one available if I wanted to visit Mexico. I always felt welcome.

 I made it back there a few times when I could get a friend to go. Most guys I knew didn’t have much experience with Mexico—except for the Mexican restaurant in nearby Longview. I baited my friends with promises of high times across the border. After all, draft beer only cost sixteen cents a mug and the Mexican girls were even cheaper—if you promised them US citizenship and sealed the deal with a plastic Cracker Jack wedding ring.

 We always hitchhiked--usually a two-day journey. In 1959, hitchhiking was still safe and the only thing a driver wanted from you was conversation or help staying awake. I was good at getting rides because experience taught me that making eye contact with the driver helped get them to stop. Once I got the ride, I didn’t disappoint them about conversation. I filled the miles with stories about my life and made sure I listened with interest to the stories told to me. I never had a mishap hitchhiking--until that one time.

 My friend Dave and I hitchhiked to Mexico one summer and spent a week wrecking ourselves in the saloons. We wanted to stay longer but needed to get back and earn at least a little money to have anything at all to show for summer vacation.

 We left after saying thanks and farewell to Phil, who got up early just to cook us a big breakfast. About 80 miles from the border, near the town of Falfurias, Dave and I were languishing in the late morning heat along a particularly forlorn part of US 281. We had been stranded about two hours between rides.

 The best entertainment for those boring times between rides was to break bottles against signs or play a little game of vehicle tug-of-war. The contest was simple. Each of us chose their favorite make and model of car, and awarded one point anytime the chosen car passed in either direction. The winner of the contest won the "shotgun" seat in the next ride. "Shotgun" was that cherished spot closest to the window. The guy who ended up in the middle always handled most of the conversation with the driver, and the shotgun rider could actually snooze a bit.

 The tug-of-war score was all even when a slick ‘55 Chevy roared down on us and hit the brakes. The driver rolled down the window and asked how far we were going. Dave and I were both trying to explain at once—

 "Marshall…you know, over by Shreveport--Caddo Lake—ever heard of Longview?"

 The driver didn’t seem to recognize any of those places, but swung the door open and made room for us. He was a young guy--mid twenties I guessed. He drove fast and said very little, constantly adjusting the rear-view mirror and drumming his fingers on the top of the steering wheel. He said he was taking the car to Tyler for a friend, then hopping a bus back home to Harlingen.

 Did he say Tyler? Odd, I thought, since Tyler is right in the middle of the Longview-Marshall area. Humm--strange he didn't ’know that. Oh well, I thought, no big deal. The fact that this one ride would get us almost home overrode my fear. I sank back into the seat and began thinking about the times we enjoyed in Mexico, the dearly departed senoritas, and the wine and song. I fell asleep as the miles clicked off.

 Something woke me. It was dark but I saw lighted signs advertising Austin. We turned off the main highway and the driver explained that he needed to take a quick detour and see a friend. He said it wouldn’t take long. A cloak of uneasiness set in and Dave and I exchanged worried glances when our faces were illuminated briefly from the passing streetlights. The driver snaked through a maze of darkened streets and countless turns through sleeping neighborhoods. Abruptly he stopped, turned off the engine, and tossed me the keys. I stared at them like they were a tangled nest of spiders.

 "Hey guys," he said. "Take this car to wherever you want to go. The guy who owns it is my sister’s ex husband. I don't owe the ass-hole no favors".

 With those parting words, the guy bolted into the darkness amidst the alarms of awakened dogs. Dave and I were stunned. Our mouths dropped open like hungry baby birds. If the scene had been a comic strip portrait, there would have been giant question-mark balloons over both our heads.

 Dave and I whispered through our options, afraid the dogs might wake their owners. The car still held a half tank of gas. We knew we had to drive it at least back to the highway, and we weren’t sure where we were. The car had a standard transmission, so Dave said I had to drive. What a convenient time for Dave to reveal his mechanical limitations. I thought--isn’t the prison term longer if you actually drive a stolen car versus just ride in one? Could this be a scheme of Dave’s—his claim of being standard-transmission-challenged?

 We spent an hour finding our way back to the highway. Every approaching car--every parked car--was an armed trooper. I broke out in sweat like when Miss Brotze handed back term papers. My legs quivered like a three-bladed buzz fan on the car’s foot pedals, and my palms were permanently welded to the steering wheel. To add to my stress, Dave was being dramatic--painting a descriptive jail scene for me--complete with the court’s most severe and dreaded sentence--99 years in the electric chair.

 Once on the highway, we continued driving for several hours in darkness. When the gas gauge showed less than one-eighth tank, we pulled off on a side road and stopped. Using the smelly underwear from Dave’s travel bag, I wiped the car down. I cleaned everything--the steering wheel, door handles, and whatever we might have left fingerprints on. I knew the procedure from watching episodes of Dragnet, but was surprised the criminal talent came to me so naturally.

 Dave offered no help, bemoaning how when his grandfather Buster found out, the consequences would be more severe than the mound of log chain awaiting us at the state prison at Huntsville. He went on and on--proclaiming how the hanging judge would issue his fatal decree in a humid and musty nineteenth-century courtroom—with our grandmothers crying and pleading for mercy. He continued—describing Huntsville’s ten-foot high solid steel doors.

 He said, "I heard that when those doors shut, they clank together like a struck anvil, and it takes a court order and a cutting torch for them to even slide slices of bread inside."

 Dave finally shut up, only because he needed his remaining breath for our dash to freedom. When we reached the highway we turned and headed back toward Austin, so the abandoned car would be in front of us, not behind. That idea was mine, so as to fool the Texas Rangers whom by now were likely in charge of the crime.

 After a quarter mile or so, we stopped running and resumed our northbound direction. I saw the same trick in a Hopalong Cassidy movie. The gang threw the sheriff off the trail when they "doubled-back."

 For once, a ride picked us up immediately. As we passed the side road where we left the Chevy, my face felt flush, and hot—like someone had poured warm concrete over it. Could they get fingerprints off of seat covers? Did my friend "Moaning Dave" leave some clue behind? I quickly patted my hip--yes my wallet was there. Did Dave have his little travel bag? Yes, still there, in the back seat. I closed my eyes and they felt hot, just like my face. My hands itched. I nervously crossed and uncrossed my arms. Dave just sat there in a coma in the back seat, as white as the centerline on the long road back. He was quiet for the first time that I could recall. The driver didn’t get much conversation from either of us that day, but seemed content to have the company. That ride got us within fifty miles, and a man in a log truck got us the rest of the way home.

 When I think about the ending scenes in the movie Deliverance, I recall the characters’ last remarks to each other after the skeptical sheriff released them to go home. The line went something like, "We ain’t never gonna do this again. Actually, I don’t think I’m going to see you for a while…"

 Those were my exact feelings after the ordeal, and I think Dave must have felt the same. For a couple of months, we didn’t get together. We never spoke about it again, and not one other person ever heard the tale from either of us. Just like in Deliverance, recurring nightmares did all the talking until the statute of limitations ran out.

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