by Erik Calonius
Rising above Archer City is a wildcat, all fangs and fur and a snarly attitude, emblazoned on the water tower in the middle of town. “That’s the one thing that’s bound this town together over the years,” one Archer City resident remarks. “That wildcat.”
The wildcat was looking over the town in the late 1940s, when dusty, depression-era Buick and Chevy sedans still lined Center and Main, and the sidewalks were full of recently returned soldiers. It was there in the 1950s when the economy started growing and the whole town turned out for the rodeo parades—the floats, the prancing horses, the “Wildcat” football stars from Archer City High, the crowd lining the sidewalks for five solid blocks.
By the early 1960s the town was getting even bigger than before and the wildcat saw it all: Two grocery stores, two department stores, three hardware stores, seven gas stations, three oil rig supply stores. On Saturday nights the parent would pull into Main Street and go to the stores. The kids would romp on the courthouse green. The teens would cruise Main, pulling into Troy’s Drive-In for a chocolate shake or Curtis’s service station for gas and a Coke.
They could see the movies at the Royal Theater on Center Street, snuggling in the back seats. But for an even better picture show, some of them climbed the water tower and gazed down across town, just as the wildcat had done for all those years.
The wildcat was watching in 1965 when the Royal Theater caught fire and the roof caved in; and in 1970, when a rag-tag group of movie-makers arrived and turned the town into a stage for The Last Picture Show. It was there in the 1970s and early 1980s when Archer County’s oil fields were eclipsed by Middle Eastern oil, and the stores began to fold. Troy’s Drive-In disappeared. So did Curtis’s gas, Jewel’s Café, Heard’s Department store, and a whole string of mom and pops. When the Archer County Hospital closed, that was a hard one: several generations of locals were born there, and many died there as well. Everything was moving to Wichita Falls, 20 miles away.
Fortunately, when the economy had dwindled to the point where most of the big stores had become empty shells, a hermit crab named McMurtry scurried over, filling them with a few hundred thousand books.
But McMurtry alone couldn’t save the town. By the beginning of the new millennium the economic damage had been done. Locals survived on veteran’s benefits, or social security, or a few savings. Others worked out of town and drove home at night. Center and Main Street was quiet on Saturday night—not much to do but visit the VFW or the Dairy Queen. Only one sound grew louder as the night deepened and became star-choked: the metallic clicking of the traffic light at the intersection of Center and Main, off and on, off and on.
The sand runs through the hourglass in Archer City. You can stand in the center of town at night and feel it tug at your feet. To strangers, barreling through town on the way to somewhere else, it’s just about finished. A few more grains, they think, and Archer City’s done.
It is into this flow that the students come. They arrive at the Spur Hotel—which opened in the foreboding year of 1929—to find that though a room key awaits, no manager or staff appear. The floors creak. Indians stare down from paintings. Animal heads on the walls offer no comfort. Even when the students assemble on the front veranda and squint into the sun, there’s nothing at all promising in what they see: A few shuttered stores. An abandoned gas station. A limestone courthouse that looks way too big for this empty town.
What’s interesting is that most of them have just come from the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, which is as much an approving nod to success in the writing biz as it is a celebration of writing itself: The big-time literary agent, with her sunglasses perched in her hair like a tiara; the author who has starred in her own movie, smiling in the Mayborn magazine in her hilltop L.A. home; the writer who’s written so many books he can’t remember the titles anymore.
Now the students are two hours north of the Mayborn, experiencing an abrupt transition from glamour to grit. They set down their backpacks and suitcases uneasily. A few have been known to panic; they pick up their things and go home.
But for those who stay, a lesson awaits, for beneath the apparent emptiness of Archer City, stories abound. This is what Larry McMurtry demonstrated years ago, in “The Last Picture Show” and more recently, in his reflective “Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen.” What better place than Archer City to prove that stories can be found anywhere, even among the wind-swept, blazing hot streets trailing out from Center and Main?
The next day the students scatter across town, notebooks in hand. They are the storytellers of this town now–but part of the story as well. The continuum continues, the story unfolds—and the wildcat looks down.
Erik Calonius began his career as a printer and typesetter in Boston before venturing into journalism. He graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and began shooting pictures for the EPA’s Project Documerica. He subsequently founded the photojournalism department at the University of Central Florida, and later became the Managing Editor of Memphis Magazine.
Calonius joined The Wall Street Journal in 1981 as a reporter in Atlanta, and later became a writer in the London Bureau and an editor in New York. He became Miami Bureau Chief for Newsweek magazine (where he was nominated for the Overseas Press Award), and then a writer for Fortune Magazine (where he was nominated for the National Magazine Award). Since then he has collaborated on more than 20 books, and authored a narrative history about the last American slaveship. Both the ship and the book are called The Wanderer.
“One of my greatest pleasures is in attending The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference in July—and then trekking out to Archer City with George and his grad students to teach storytelling in that wonderful Texas town.”